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Courtesy of Cosmopolitan Magazine


Mum Deodorant Ad "selling sex appeal"

Sexual Ecstasy in a Time of Oppression

* Note: the term "Feminism" is used to denote the equality of all femme genders, not just women.

Feminism in the 19th century is not equivalent to the type of feminism of today. It embodied the ideals that made up society, and what feminists were willing and, at the same time, not willing to fight for said more about the oppression of the female than anything. The priority of feminism was to maintain the virtue and respectability of women in society’s eyes. Sex was a preoccupation that held everyone’s attention, which is interesting seeing as how there was a great deal of effort to avoid any mention of sex in society. There were consequences for indulging and specific rules for transaction. Women were: sexually abused by their spouses, fell into prostitution as single mothers and risked pregnancy (and possibly death) if they satisfied their husband’s sexual needs. Religion was also constructed to make them more subservient to men. As a result of such influences, there were two reactions to sex: sexual repression and sexual exploitation.

Sex was a large cause of death amongst young women, who would find themselves pregnant and then die during, or after childbirth. However, women were still expected to satisfy their husbands needs and bear children. Although, this is an important overview of the life of the housewife, one of the main focuses of this article was a woman’s inability to enjoy sex for the fear of being called a prostitute and inevitably be “saved” by the feminist movement. Sex, in a marriage, was almost a chore. The urge to even orgasm was repressed; an ideal that was ultimately favored in a societal view of how a woman should behave. Women did have the right to say no, but men also had the right to have sex anytime he wanted, sometimes by force. This is what led to rape in many cases, which wasn’t all that uncommon in a 19th century marriage. The movement for feminism was not so much disapproving of rape and sexual misconduct (husbands seeking sex from prostitutes) as it was about ensuring that prostitution was eliminated as a whole. It was perceived that prostitutes were the problem and not the husbands who cheated. Society’s acceptance and sometimes advocator of marital affairs between men and prostitutes, also could not be blamed (as where the thoughts of the period.) Such narrow views on the matter of sexual intercourse made it hard for the true issues of womanhood, such as this, to be seen.

In defining what a prostitute was, we now move into sexual exploitation. As the era progressed, a new theory began to emerge, not from a feminist point of view that (in contrast to today might favor the sexual freedom of women) supported a more conservative perspective, but from the independent woman who said, “I don’t need to procreate, and I would rather just enjoy.” This is a seemingly rational thought to today’s female, but at the time it was seen as radical and perverse. Many viewed this to be prostitution because the very idea that a woman should enjoy sex, went against the laws of respectability. Thus, any woman who would deviate from the sexual norms was labeled as a prostitute. For feminists, it was more important to argue that a prostitute was seen as a “fallen woman” who had stumbled onto the wrong path than to tackle the problem of domestic abuse and rape with women who were following the order of conventional norms. Rape was on an entirely different scale, and weighed about the same as marital intercourse, because both acts were not supposed to be enjoyed.

In summation, this article is relating these examples of sexual oppression to the feminist opinion and what they fought for in the 19th century as opposed to what they would fight for now. Women were once perceived as either: submissive, domestic, housewives or rebellious, self-gratifying, delinquents. You were categorized as one or the other and those who didn’t want to be labeled in terms of their ability to choose, were trying to rid themselves of the stereotype. Interestingly enough, it was reported in a study taken during the 1800’s that 40% of women would feel an orgasm (and even that was considered too much), while 40% claimed to have not ever felt one (a sign of how devoted these women were to protecting there traditional values.) The other 20% felt one infrequently. Debois and Gordon then go on to say, surprisingly, that this wasn’t that different from today’s percentages. Even with all the progress we have made as women, do these results show that we are actually in the same position as all those years ago?


  1. Women condemned whose sexuality deviated from the “norms.” i.e. prostitutes. Rape not considered a topic of discussion. Norms of legal intercourse, as bad as rape. However prostitution, for the enjoyment of sexual interaction is worse. Had to not be enjoyed?

  2. Also, the argument in the 19th century, rape connotes the taking of something by anther through violence while prostitution, the willful giving of something for multiple men to possess (the implication is that the woman own her virtue and gives it wistfully away, while a married woman is not in possession of her virtue, but rather her husband and only her husband) Prositution separates a woman into another class of the promiscuous and dishonorable. “Definition prostitute: women who engaged in casual sex” However, these ideas change with time. Later on prositution was defined as “sexual innocents” who where young women taken advantaged of. No women could choose. Overall, some women could be saved from prositution, the overall goal, but at the same time prositutes were categorized as non repentant criminals in the eyes of society.

  3. African American women concerning this respectability of the time had an even more difficult time maintaining their reputation. They were at the mercy of white men.

  4. If you were a prostitute, you were forced into it in some way, you had no will of your own, and who would want to choose a life of complete sexual inhibitions and freedom? That was the rational of society during the 19th century.

  5. Women apart of the LGBTQ+ community would pass themselves off as men in order to take wives.

  6. There is also a contrast between the conventional woman of the household and the “loose woman” who enjoys sex for the pleasure it gives rather than the function given to it by society.



1. 19th century, sex danger and potential pleasure for women

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"Birth Control Babe Ad" circ. 1920s

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