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Lust and Legislation: A Story of Sexuality, Deviance, and Virtue Among the Victorians

Alaina Mills
Alaina Mills
Faculty Adviser(s)

The popular portrayal of nineteenth-century England highlights a culture revolving around self-denial and modesty. In actual fact, Victorian society was sexually expressive and there was considerable deviance from the cultural norms put forth by religious and civic leaders. Victorians sought out the most popular brothels, read erotic literature, and collected pornographic material. Moreover, this was a pivotal era for the emergence of non-heteronormative identities and sexualities, with iconic novels and pornography presenting both subtle and explicit depictions of same-sex relationships. Concerns about social correctness caused the emergence of new legislation to regulate prostitution, censor publications that were deemed obscene, and severely punish homosexual acts between men. This paper will explore anonymous memoirs such as My Secret Life and journals and publications containing erotic stories that impacted policy development in the nineteenth century relating to sexual activity. The legislation created during this era had continuing effects well into the twentieth century, indicating that Victorian sex practices influenced future perceptions of sexuality.    


Alaina Mills, often known around campus as “RA Lainey”, is a graduating senior from Charleston, South Carolina. Although she spent her four years at Salem studying History and Religion, her passion for student activities and residence life has led her to pursue her Master's in Higher Education. She will be attending George Washington University starting Fall 2022, concentrating in student affairs. Alaina plans to fuel her devotion to history by exploring the countless museums throughout Washington, D.C.