The Victorian era (1837–1901) delivered explosive progress in technology and agriculture, transcendent changes in art and literature, and profound growth in rational and progressive thought. Important foundations of modern utilitarianism, feminism, socialism, and democracy were laid in Victorian England. And Charles Darwin’s great works on evolution forever changed human understanding of what it means to be alive. Nonetheless it is not a time that is known for an equally freethinking and liberated attitude to sex.
Today, Queen Vic and the time of her reign evoke stultifying prudishness. Biology has been lugging Victorian baggage for the last 150 years, only recently entering its own sexual revolution. While Darwin’s books transformed scientific thinking about reproduction, the stuffiness with which his fellow gentlemen naturalists thought about sex lingers today, distorting the ways in which people understand love, sex and reproduction.The euphemistic view that sex is a necessary act that happens for the ‘perpetuation of the species’ prevails in scientific papers and nature documentaries alike. Elsewhere, we wallow in the sanitised view that sex is a happy and co-operative event, best discussed discreetly, seen in soft-focus and not too close up.
But for most animals, mating involves one part co-operation and several parts exploitation. ………[This article was written for the new website of my publisher, NewSouth Books. The full text of the article can be found here].