Sexuality changes throughout history

The Washburn Review

When one attends a dinner party, the instructions are to avoid two topics: politics and religion. Another topic remains controversial in popular culture – sexuality. Human sexuality has been hidden from view and splashed across headlines and cameras – from the supposed lack of sexual behavior during the Victorian era to the Hustler v. Falwell trial, and Showtime shows like the “Tudors” and “Secret Diary of a Call Girl.” Sex sells. However, it goes much deeper than that and has been renewed as a serious political issue as of late in light of California’s constitutional ban on homosexual marriage.

As for those Victorians, a culture from around the 1830s to 1900, according to Tom Prasch, professor in the history department, Victorian culture was very sexual, as opposed to asexual, as is usually portrayed. Indeed, pornography came shortly after the introduction of the camera and there was wide underground circulation of pornography. While homosexuality was kept underground for the most part, they still existed and had a role in the culture. As for heterosexual norms, men often had premarital sex, which was taboo for women of the era, particularly middle class women. Middle class men had more flexibility in terms of their sexuality, but middle class women were expected to remain chaste until marriage and not be aggressive in their sexual advances. For working class women, premarital sex was part of the average experience and there was a proliferation of prostitution during the Victorian era.

Women were not entirely without recourse if their husbands strayed, however, in 1870, the Divorced Women’s Property Act of 1870 was passed, which allowed women to maintain property following a divorce. In 1890, the New Women’s movement began, which culminated in the ratification of the nineteenth amendment in 1920, which extended the right to vote to women.

During the second wave of feminism, during the late 1960s and the early 1970s, a new field of philosophical study was born: the philosophy of love and sex.

“The women’s movement gives rise to thinking about traditional institutions that directly effect relationships and gender,” said Russ Jacobs, professor in the philosophy and religious studies department.

Jacobs teaches a course in the philosophy of love and sex, a self-selected course in the philosophy department. He said that most of his students are middle class or upper middle class and they discuss issues like homosexuality, pornography, prostitution, rape, marriage and adultery.

“I find a good deal more toleration and openness toward homosexuality, which is more than [there was] 15 or 20 years ago,” said Jacobs, who has taught the class for 16 years at Washburn.

Jacobs also said students are still intolerant toward adultery and, according to his students, what is permissible in marriage has not loosened up.

Jacobs said feminist thinking was central to many of the issues discussed in his class. The combination of feminist dialogue, philosophy lead to subjects like “queer theory,” which is a subset of gender studies that developed in the 1990s. Feminist scholarship has also led to changes in the study and discussion of pornography. Jacobs said that there was less talk of obscenity surrounding pornography and more of a discussion about the objectification of women.

According to Jacobs, one of the most surprising things about the students in his philosophy of love and sex class is the lack of reflection, especially because in the case of many of his students, their sex lives and their love lives are so intense.

“Some have done little thinking or reflection,” said Jacobs. “They don’t seem to have questioned it for themselves.”

Jacobs said that his students have “strong, but unreflective” opinions about love and sex.

“I have to raise some issues and questions that I would have thought a bright, 20-year-old would have thought of themselves,” said Jacobs.