Adultery and the Double Standard

A tinted or early color photograph of a wedding party

Adultery and the Double Standard

There has always been a double standard when it comes to the battle of the sexes. Nowhere is this more evident in the Victorian age than when it comes to sexual intercourse itself.

Victorians didn’t openly talk about sex, but it governed their lives. Sexual attitudes dictated clothing and decorating styles. Attitudes also necessitated the formation of societal rules aimed at ensuring women remained pure and men discreet.

Double Standard

Two Victorian women in their underwear
Two Victorian women in their underwear

The double standard started early. Females were thought to be morally superior to males, and mothers were viewed as a saintly figure. Girls were born, predetermined by nature, to be generous as well as pure in both thought and feeling. Boys, on the other hand, were born animals and less morally inclined.

This double standard led to a variety of opinions and behaviors that today we find ridiculous, including:

  • Giving women suffrage would destroy their moral character.
  • Allowing girls to read certain books and newspapers would negatively influence their character.
  • Women of high breeding should not work because it was morally beneath them.
  • Women, even when married, did not enjoy sex and merely tolerated it for the sake of procreation.
  • Education was segregated. There were male and female subjects, as too much reading or education would make women ill.
  • Women were too delicate for athletics.

And while men could live happily as bachelors, unmarried women were ridiculed and faced a life of destitution.

Adultery

A tinted or early color photograph of a wedding party
A tinted or early color photograph of a wedding party

Women were expected to be virgins upon marriage; men were expected to be experienced. Women were expected to remain faithful to their spouses; men could cheat so long as they were discreet. A husband could divorce a wife for adultery, but a wife could not divorce a husband for the same reason.

For much of the Victorian era, women’s property and wealth become their husbands’ upon marriage.  In addition, women could be legally beaten and sexually abused, could be legally kidnapped if they tried to leave, and lost custody of their children in a divorce.

Some women were so poor they turned to prostitution to survive. A woman willingly engaging in sexual activity was deemed unnatural, and a popular euphemism at the time was to call prostitutes “fallen women.” Presumably they had fallen from the high moral standard God gave them.

Changing Attitudes

A sketch of a divorce proceedings. The wife is on the witness stand.
A wife on the witness stand during a Victorian divorce proceedings

Many of these societal rules and double standards were intended to protect society in a time when technology and science were replacing religion and superstition. People were protecting themselves from the scary, unfamiliar modern world.

By the end of the 19th century, attitudes relaxed and the “new woman” was born. The new woman was dedicated to women’s education, to suffrage, and to liberation from society’s sexual standards.

Without the new woman, women would not have broken into the workplace, attended university, won the right to vote or heeded their nations’ calls during World War I.

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Updated:  19 October 2020
Melina Druga
Most kids have an active imagination. My imagination has stayed strong into adulthood, and I’ve funneled that creativity into a successful writing career. I write history, both fiction and nonfiction, because although your school history classes may have been boring, the past is not. My goal is to bring the past to life in all its myriad of colors.
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