A man is riding a bike on a hill.
Search
Close this search box.
A watercolor illustration of a typewriter with a note on it.

Victorian Womanhood vs. the American Christian Church

by Kellyn Roth |
July 3, 2024

Note: this post discusses sexual topics, largely surrounding how the Christian church treats women when it comes to both sexual sins and sex in general. If that’s not your cup of tea, this post may not be for you.

In 2018, as a brave & bold 17-year-old, I wrote two posts: The Victorian Ideal vs. Modern Romantics and Modern Romantics vs. God’s Design for Wifehood.

They were controversial.

They were a little idealistic.

But … they weren’t wrong.

I don’t entirely agree with every take I published (not that they were necessarily incorrect but that I would have expanded upon them in different ways!), but in general, I’m impressed that I even was having those thoughts in 2018.

But as I was reading those again recently, I decided it was time to write a little more on the subject. Sort of.

Since then, I’ve done several more deep dives into Victorian (and Georgian and Edwardian …) womanhood, and as I’ve compared that to my growing knowledge of purity culture, along with slightly less extreme takes on womanhood and women’s sexuality in general that have come from the Christian church over the years.

And honestly? I’m irritated.

No, let me put it more succinctly: I’m disappointed.

Not surprised. Just disappointed.

And … sad.

I’m sad that Christian girls have grown up seeing sex as evil.

I’m sad that Christian girls have grown up seeing their feelings of sexual attraction as evil.

I’m sad that Christian girls have grown up with the wrong idea that good girls don’t enjoy sex (or at least, not as much as men), that it’s a duty or an obligation to their husband, or that men can’t control themselves whereas “good girls” have no problem with self-control.

I’m sad that all knowledge about sex and sexuality has been hidden from the girls who need that knowledge more than anyone, forcing some to be ignorant (which is not the same as pure!!) and some to seek out knowledge from worldly sources that corrupt their perspective.

I’m sad that some Christian girls have sinned … and then felt like irredeemable deviants because “good Christian girls don’t want that.”

And you know what? I don’t entirely blame purity culture or the American church. Despite that being a part of my title for this post, and a subject I will be discussing, this is fundamentally a sin issue.

Like everything, this is sin corrupting something beautiful and wonderful, a perfect gift of God, and making it something shameful. As the world embraces sexual sin and explicit portrayal of sexuality, making it something cheap and unholy, Christians make it something forbidden and disgusting. As much as sex is a private, holy, personal thing – too precious to be cheapened in smut and porn, to be lowered to the level of a crude joke – it is also too important to avoid the subject completely.

And as someone with no experience with purity culture, who still struggled with sexual sin, well, I have an interesting perspective on both. And because I love history, and because I deal with this subject in my Victorian family saga series …

Well, you’re getting the Victorian side of things, too.

Let’s get into it.

Passionless Marriage & the Victorian Woman

Christian women don’t enjoy sex? Or Christian women don’t desire sex as much as men? Or Christian women don’t enjoy sex as much as men? Or Christian women don’t experience lust? Or … [insert your dumb take here]?

Huh. That sounds super familiar …

Oh, yeah. It’s a VICTORIAN idea! (Glad we got that figured out.) (Seriously, though, none of our bad ideas are new.)

Good, glad we’ve got that sorted.

Now I just gotta say, what the heck?!

A little historical background:

There was an attitude in Victorian society, specifically amongst doctors (… male doctors) that good women didn’t enjoy sex. At all. Like, they just … they couldn’t.

Taken from Dr. George Napheys’s The Transmission of Life is this lovely quote:

In reference to passion in women, a vulgar opinion prevails that they are creatures of like passions with ourselves; that they experience desires as ardent, and often as ungovernable, as those which lead to so much evil in our sex. Vicious writers, brutal and ignorant men, and some shameless women combine to favor and extend this opinion. . . . Nothing is more utterly untrue. The best mothers, wives, and managers of households know little or nothing of the sexual pleasure. Love of home, children, and domestic duties are the only pleasures they feel.

I wonder if George was married.

… I mean, we know he wasn’t happily married, but …

Also, “The Transmission of Life: Counsels on the Nature and Hygiene of the Masculine Function” is available in part on Google Books. And it is … let’s just say I have a headcannon about Jordy McAllen owning a copy primarily because it’s utterly hilarious to him.

A few highlights from what I read include:

  1. Describing losing your virginity (as a woman) as “a great and violent change” that one must be in perfect physical and mental health for or the woman in question may have “diseases of the womb” along with a host of other issues. (Believe it or not, I have never been in great physical and mental health, and yet, my womb is remarkably un-diseased.)
  2. “[A]s a rule the first conjugal approaches are painful to the new wife, and therefore that she only submits and cannot enjoy them, this pain should not be excessively severe, nor should it last for a great time–not more than one or two weeks.” WEEKS?!?! Also, I talk about this a bit more later, but painful sex is common but not normal or good.
  3. George lets you know that if your wife can’t have sex, you should either separate from her or seek an annulment. Thanks, George.
  4. If your child is conceived while your husband is “slightly intoxicated” (not “if the woman is drinking during pregnancy” – this all rests on the man!), they will be disabled. No way around that.
  5. If a man is passionate with his wife, she won’t respect him.

I’m also skipping a few because I can’t confidently describe what he’s talking about in a non-explicit way, but … well, it’s all the myths you might have heard which are wildly untrue. Just … all of them. George is batting a 10/10 here.

You know what I do like, though? Referring to periods as a “monthly change.” That’s a very accurate description, George. Changes my whole outlook on life for a week.

Anyways, I couldn’t find the book I was looking for, so instead I’ll quote “The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the 1800s” which provides a little more illumination to this issue.

A rare survey of forty-five women who grew up in the second half of the century reveals the nature of female sexuality more accurately, however [than the previous statement that a woman couldn’t enjoy sex]. In it, about 70 percent of women acknowledged having sexual desire.

This goes on for some time, but basically … this was just the girlies admitting it. From the same book, on page 205, it’s noted that approximately one third of New England brides were already pregnant when they married in the early 1800s, even though it was actually illegal. This number decreased to 20 percent by 1830 and then 10 percent by the 1850s, but this is more likely because contraception and back-alley abortions were becoming more widespread. Though it’s also possible that various religious reforms contributed. It’s not like God doesn’t occasionally work in peoples’ hearts.

But still. Interesting, right?

So the idea that men are ungovernable monsters and women are pure is well-seated in popular culture. I also have a gloriously horrid little book called “A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Life,” written by Elspeth Marr (1871-1947) and edited by Christopher Rush, who is Elspeth’s great-great-nephew on his mother’s side.

In it, we get this lovely bit on adultery:

… since the man does not live who has not lusted after a woman, every man is a offender. The same is not true for you, whom nature has made so much more selective of men. There is nothing wrong with adultery if marriage is a torture chamber of a desert. All commandments were made to be broken.

Elspeth, I know I should shake my head, but you are the funniest thing … I don’t even care if these are genuine at this point.

This all ties back into my post on the Victorian Ideal here. To quote myself from years ago:

When we think about the Victorian era, specifically the morals and societal rules, we think of harshness. Rules too restraining to follow.

mostly agree. All the rules about courtship, dress, etc. — all the proper little restraints — were unnecessary, and, more importantly, not based in any sort of Biblical or Godly backing.

They were just that — rules. Rules to make it harder for us to be moralistic and Godly. (As if we needed any help with that!)

I see it this way: if we were cows, you could say God gave us a nice, safe corral full of lush grazing fields, a trickling brook to explore and drink from.

Basically, God gave us a beautiful world full of beautiful things.

However, God, the farmer, gave our care to a farm boy (whoever makes societal rules … so I guess society itself!), and the farmboy built a second fence which keeps us away from the brook and the lush pastures. The farm boy also gave us no grain at all when we know very well that grain is all right and even healthy in small doses.

That’s what Victorian society did. It took away all the brooks, the green pastures, and the grain.

They were so restraining that it was impossible to follow all the rules, let alone want to follow them. True morality, true purity, love, grace, and mercy were lost … and so came prudishness, that holier-than-thou attitude, pride, and so many other sins.

This is probably why the kids of the ‘20s rebelled so hard, and why today we’re still fighting to get further and further away from that “Victorian ideal.”

And to tie this back to our current discussion:

Throughout [Gene Stratton] Porter’s books, I’ve noticed a theme, and this theme is present in other books written during this era as well.

In these books, an idea is presented of the man adoring the woman, loving her unceasingly, loving her before she admits to loving him—or even before she seems to show anything beyond friendship and respect.

And later:

In Porter’s Freckles, The Angel expresses it best when she reveals her dismay at telling the title character she loves him first: “‘Do you mean,’ she demanded, ‘that you don’t remember that a brazen, forward girl told you, when you hadn’t asked her, that she … that she loved you?’”

In A Six-Cylinder Courtship by Edward Salisbury Field, the main character also pursues a girl with no expectation of her loving him more than “a little bit,” and the same is reflected in several other of Porter’s novels.

The idea is also presented in Jane Eyre, where the title character spends most of the movie proving the exact opposite statement—women are capable of passion, of love, even when they are not properly married.

The Scarlet Letter is much the same in its exploration of morals, passion, and marriage, though of course Hester doesn’t get quite the ending Jane does.

And further:

You see, the ideal was simple—men would pursue and court the women.

He loved her until she was won over. Then she’d accept him. She was the one in power, really, though of course if he withdrew his affections, like poor Jane, the power was withdrawn, too. (Am I the only one who is driven mad even talking about this?)

After marriage, the woman might admit to a kind of passive love, inspired by him—a shallow reflection of his passion.

Her duty was to submit and respect. Love was never truly a woman’s duty except toward her children.

Is It Realistic, Though?

Now, there are so many problems with this ideal. For instance, a woman is going to love her husband! Yes, she will likely love him before they’re married—she might even love him before he loves her. (*all the Victorians gasp*)

Yes, a woman can love as deeply and passionately as a man. As Jane Eyre herself says, “I have as much soul as you—and full as much heart.” And never in the Bible does it intimate that women are to love less (or not at all).

I believe that’s because God wants us to be our loving, passionate selves—in all our relationships, from marriage to motherhood to friendship to daughter…hood.

Basically, to this idea that women aren’t passionate, aren’t capable of both healthy sexuality and sinful actions involving sex, is Grade A Nonsense.

And yet, we have …

Passionless Marriage & the Modern Christian Church

The Victorian ideal of passionless women has in some ways been applied to the modern Christian church.

It happens in a variety of ways.

Sometimes women are blamed for sexual sin whereas their male partner is let off the hook because “they should have had self control.” Women are even blamed for being raped because of what they wore or how they acted … because men are the ones with ungovernable passions, so therefore, it becomes the responsibility of the woman to protect them.

Not only is this blatantly unbiblical, but it’s harmful to women in so many ways!

Women are often told that sex hurts or will hurt at first or that they should expect men to be selfish lovers because “that’s how men are.”

Women are often told they MUST submit to unpleasant, painful, or unwilling sex because “men have needs,” resulting in marital rape or, on the less serious but still serious side, bitterness and resentment on both sides.**

In truth, like with every issue, there’s no counting the ways sin has perverted sex. Especially since it’s such an important aspect of marriage, and marriage is such a cornerstone of … a lot of peoples’ lives … There are a lot of ways things have gotten a bit messed up. So I won’t spend thousands more words harping on that.

Suffice to say, there’s nothing new under the sun. The Victorians did it … and so have we.

So what should be our response? Well, I’ll tell you one thing we shouldn’t do when it comes to sexual sin amongst Christians.

** Painful sex is common but not normal. Consider seeing a counselor and/or doctor if you’re struggling with this. A lot of women actually need pelvic floor therapy after childbirth, for instance, and never know it!
**I am not disregarding 1 Corinthians 7:5, however. That said, every couple needs to work out how their sexual relationship works for themselves, using biblical guidelines but also being sensitive to each other’s physical limitations, mental health, personal preferences, and so on. However, I won’t speak on that, as I don’t have personal experience with it and also, it’s yet another complex topic.

Helping Men with Sexual Sin … and Failing Women

As many of you know, I have struggles with sexual sin in the past, and it’s led to a lot of research during the repentance and healing process. And sometimes that research has been helpful …

But more often than not, it’s been discouraging.

For instance, let’s take the issue of pornography. I don’t want to get into a debate about this, but watching pornography is a sin … and even apart from that, it’s deeply damaging to the emotions, mind, and spirit. Good so far? Good.

Now, as someone who has struggled with that very real and very damaging sin, which has led to an abundance of other sins and trials, I have one important takeaway for this post: Christian leaders don’t believe that Christian women struggle with pornography or that, if they do, it’s as severe as what men do.

BUT THEY DO. AND IT IS.

I have a very vivid memory of reading posts on a very popular Christian blog that discussed pornography. I don’t remember the primary subject, but one line stands out to me. To paraphrase, it was something like, “Christian husbands who do this must work with their wife to overcome it. Christian women do not struggle with this, and there is probably a much deeper issue if a Christian wife confesses this sin to her husband.”

… okay, then. Women don’t sin that way, and if they do, they’re much more messed up. Got it.

*cue spiral*

But this all ties back into the primary issue here because Christian leaders are somehow assuming that Christian women just … don’t do this kind of sin? Or if they do, they’re just mentally ill or something?

Well, tie me to a chair and treat me for hysteria, because I look like Taylor Swift in this light.

Actually, it’s lowkey remarkable that I recovered at all given that messaging (it’s worth noting that this sort of thing, along with other factors, had me deeply depressed and suicidal, convinced I was literally incapable of being saved), which was reflected in the attitudes of so many Christian writers in fiction and nonfiction.

Really, all I had on my side was a solid foundation in actual godly/Biblical sexual education from my parents and loving Christian friends who were willing to talk about sex with me. (Purity culture girlies … I’m sorry. Truly. You have my complete sympathy.)

Even Christian women are failing to discuss these real issues or are using shame as their primary tool, which just … doesn’t work. Those without experience frequently treat things like pornography and lust and sexual immorality as a male issue. Or just don’t “treat it” any which way.

And I find myself wondering … have we become a Christian church that, in reaction to pop culture’s “girl power,” which often comes with some man-hating tendencies, has no ability to be reasonably or even basically supportive toward women?

In some ways, because of the Christian church’s at times extreme reaction to the advent of Third Wave Feminism which has triggered a delegitimization of early feminism and the movements thereof, it’s become almost taboo to discuss primarily women’s issues … when in fact anyone reading the Bible knows that that’s exactly what women are kind of … asked to do?

The older women likewise, that they be reverent in behavior, not slanderers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things—that they admonish the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be blasphemed. (Titus 2:3-5)

I find it a little amusing, though I don’t object in any real way, how many young Christian women I know who seem to feel very led to talk primarily about men and issues primarily regarding men, to write about men, to focus on stories of brotherhood over sisterhood. And some of these conversations are needed, but sometimes I find myself asking … why? Why do you feel so led to discuss men’s issues … and, in some cases, look on women with disdain?

Is it because women are often now allowed to discuss anything real? Or is it because a lot of girls have only seen women treated as side characters? Because regardless of the cause, that is not how God treats women in the Bible, nor is it consistent with His nature.

In Romans 8:17 Paul says, “Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”

We are equal heirs!

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

That’s a subject to be discussed in more depth later, but I just want to say that I often feel like women are treated as second best, when that was never the intention. Different but equal, y’all. We’re not the same, but we are not less than.

Men are not the better sex. Men are just a different sex.

And this is a much more complex issue than can be discussed in a single blog post. It’s multi-faceted and every woman who leans this way is a little different.

Some are reacting to feminism and the oversaturation of unhealthy romance in media. Some probably feel uncomfortable in their own skins and want to focus on something a little safer. Some are probably even victims of violence, rape, or just plain ol’ misogyny … or perhaps have developed some misogynism themselves. On a lighter level, some are probably curious about men and how their brains work and use their fiction or their platforms to explore this.

And … some just have fathers and brothers and friends and fictional characters who they love and want to write about! Because there is a healthy version of everything. And acting like everything we do is a reaction to some deeply-seated issue is dumb. And we don’t do that here.

Let’s see if we can’t find a conclusion to this post.

I thought it would be fun to do a little follow-up to those 2018 posts, and this is where it led me.

And honestly? This is nothing new. I am just sharing my own take on a subject that’s been discussed a thousand times.

But because it’s fundamental, and because apparently this is a sticking point for so many people, I don’t mind being another voice. Especially since I know these kinds of discussion (online but also through fiction) would have benefited me so much when I was feeling discouraged.

For that reason, next week I’ll be sharing, “Do We Really Need More Portrayal of Sexual Subjects in Christian Romance?” … a post that I hope you all will enjoy.

Until then, hang tight, and keep the discussions respectful!

TTFN!

~Kell~

Are you interested in getting to know me & my books better? Join my email list!

What do you think of my thoughts?

4 Responses

  1. There’s also the problem of comparing women to used objects if they sexually sin – like a wilted rose or chewed up gum. That’s just as problematic because it degrades her and doesn’t acknowledge that she can be restored.

  2. So good, Kell!!! I have definitely felt that there’s sometimes a very subtle downgrading of women in conservative Christian culture (and not even just Christian culture), in protest of liberal feminism, which has obviously taken it way too far. And that idea has kind of subtly influenced me, every now and then, to not even WANT to feel girly and feminine and emotional, because it’s associated with weakness and just …lesser-ness? Idk lol *shrugs* I know it’s not true, but…I definitely want to see even more positivity built around Biblical femininity.

    I’m excited for the post you’ve planned for next week!

    1. Yes, I’ve definitely felt that, too! It seems like Christian culture has almost decided that anything “girly” is inappropriate/weak/lesser while also encouraging women to “embrace their femininity.” It’s a kind of sad catch-22 where you can’t really win. That said, I do acknowledge that not everyone behaves in this way … it’s just an attitude I’ve seen a lot of people express!

What do you think of my thoughts?

Follow my blog

Want to receive notifications of new posts? Let\'s make this happen!

Join 1,617 other subscribers