The Victorian Era of the Twenty-first Century: A Risky Business

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This article was originally published through PsychCentral. Click here read the original article.

One thing we have never been short on in the history of the United States is powerful language constructing the right kind of sex. As a Utah-based sex therapist, I find myself frequently responding to my conservative clients as they grow in awareness of the impact of this phenomenon, “Yep; we are still recovering from the Victorian Era.” Session after session I am struck by how much the language around sexuality today is eerily similar to that from well over 100 years ago. 

 It’s fascinating (and troubling) to see how a particular collection of words can create the most powerful messaging. Voices from government, medicine, media, religion, public education, pop culture and more, continue to construct what sociologist Janice Irvine describes in her landmark book Disorders of Desire[i] as “the categories, concepts and languages that tell us how to be sexual; that delineate what is good, bad, evil or acceptable sexuality.”

Our Historical Amnesia
It may surprise some to learn that the language around treating what was perceived to be deviant during the Victorian Era, ushered in what became the medicalization of sexuality and welcomed the field of sexual science. And it makes sense when you think about the context of that time! Haunted by disease and illness, 19th century doctor’s targeted solo sex, “too much” sex and same-sex relations, unilaterally categorizing these “conditions” then as sexual deviance. Soon medical providers and the culture at large believed deviant pleasure caused ailments like seizures, loss of intelligence, weakness, exhaustion, insanity, paralysis, coma and, even, death.

Adults and children began to receive life-altering treatment ranging from institutionalization, metal underwear, physical restraints and even genital mutilation to young girls and women, in an effort to rid the person of becoming consumed by such “unnatural” use of their quickly deteriorating fragile nerves. As well intended as treatment providers were, these types of treatment were horrific, not to mention incorrect, and lasted well into the 20th century.

Two Sides, Same Coin

Just as during the 19th century, influential voices in the United States continue to use specific language in describing what they believe sexuality should be and anything outside is reflexively a cause for concern. Today, there are two treatment models that talk about sexuality with language eerily similar to days long gone by.

The first is Reparative Therapy. This treatment model proclaims the ability to assist those who want to change their sexual orientation. Even though homosexuality as a mental illness or biological deficiency has been thoroughly debunked for more than 40 years and the destructive impact of change efforts are well documented, some medical and mental health providers have continued in what can only be classified as pseudoscience by today’s professional standards.

Secondly, the Sex Addiction treatment approach uses language describing certain sexual desires and behaviors as inherently unhealthy, similar to those in the 19th century when people were told their desires would lead to disastrous outcomes without medical treatment. Sex Addiction advertising warns of changes to the brain, providing a terrifying modern day layer of icing on an already angst-ridden cake. Rather than identify and treat the distressing concern as one aspect of a person’s life, clients in treatment for Sex Addiction are asked to embrace the identity of an addict, as they adhere to language so powerful, they become the illness described to them.

It Is Not Necessary

So here we are today – the dominant language of our culture perseveres in proclaiming those with certain sexual patterns as “sick.” Thankfully, we no longer have strong language suggesting that a misuse of sexual pleasure can lead to conditions like seizures, insanity or paralysis; however, as with Sex Addiction treatment, we do still have language identifying certain sexual behaviors or desires as inherently destructive and dangerous, leading to the slippery slope of biological degeneration and categorizing the person as ill until treated.

If we are honest about our history in this department, this approach should make us very uncomfortable.

Outside of our absolutely disturbing history of misdiagnosis, the most difficult part for me is – it simply is not necessary. I have yet to encounter a client experiencing considerable distress related to sexuality (yes, it happens) where there weren’t more effective and affirming treatment approaches in comparison to Reparative Therapy or Sex Addiction language.

Countless times, the distress was directly related to language and meanings attached to sexuality from the culture or their upbringing. The distress mixed with the belief that they had deviated from what is “normal” lead to common experiences such as, significant internal conflict between sexual desire and values system, conflicts over desire discrepancies in a relationship or difficulty communicating erotic desires with a partner.

In other cases, we know now that sexual patterns can often be a symptom of an underlying mental health concern such as anxiety, depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder, all of which can include an impact on their brain, yet are not marketed as an addiction, thankfully.

Often, sexual desires or behaviors that are categorized as pathological or troubling are more appropriately qualified as coping mechanisms, even if conflicting with values, of common everyday human experiences, such as, desire for connection, excitement, loneliness, stress, anxiety, sadness and desire for pleasure.

It’s Not What You Said – It’s How You Said It

I wish I were cool enough to be the first person to notice the profound impact of language on a culture. I’m not. A major hat tip is owed to historian Michel Foucault who identified the importance ofdiscourse[ii] in describing the unbelievable impact language has on our perceptions of sexuality – simply by the way it is talked about.

The way we talk about sexuality matters. When we say that non-predatory sexual behaviors are a disease or a disorder, we give the person a “sickness” which, since the 19th century, has resulted in countless people having their entire personhood reduced to one specific sexual behavior or desire.

In an interview back in 1997, Foucault warned against the arrogance of using one’s sexual desire as a way to conceptualize who they are in comparison to the perceived norm of any given day. He remarked, “Tell me what your desire is and I will tell you who you are, whether you are normal or not. . .”[iii] Perhaps it is time for us all to refuse to be so arrogant.


[i] Irvine, J. (2000). Disorders of desire. Berkeley: University of California.

[ii] Foucault, M. (1978/1990). The history of sexuality: Volume I, an introduction. (R. Hurley, Trans.). New York: Vintage Books.

[iii] Foucault interview: Lochrie, K. (1997). Desiring Foucault. Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies. 27(1), pp. 3-16.

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