Degeneration and Sexual Anarchy

  • Jeannette King


This fear, voiced in Punch in 1895, sums up a growing anxiety felt by many Victorians towards the end of the century that the boundaries between the sexes were no longer as clear as they had been, and should be. Typical fin-de-siècle anxieties about social breakdown tended to focus on that ‘sexual anarchy’ which Elaine Showalter conveys so vividly in her book of that name. Specifically, they focus on woman, in spite of a dawning awareness that even masculinity might be problematic. To the Darwinian mathematician Karl Pearson, for instance, women constituted one of the ‘two great problems of modern social life’ (the other being labour).2 Modern women, he argued, threatened the institutions of marriage and the family by rejecting the domestic sphere and invading the male public sphere. Many such women, moreover, challenged what had been ‘scientifically’ established as woman’s nature by denying the need for either a mate or maternity, while others breached the norm of ‘passionlessness’ by laying claim to their sexuality. The response of the ‘experts’ is summed up by Flavia Alaya: ‘the social and personal happiness of the future now seemed to rest on the accentuation, rather than the obliteration, of sex differences’ (p. 279).


Sexual Object Sexual Feeling Dawn Chorus Utopian Vision Gender Body 
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Copyright information

© Jeannette King 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jeannette King
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of EnglishUniversity of AberdeenUK

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