Medical Times: "Aberrations of the Sexual Instinct," February 9, 1867

From OutHistory
Jump to navigationJump to search

"occupations . . . incompatible with the duties of matrimony"

by Jonathan Ned Katz. Copyright (c) by Jonathan Ned Katz. All rights reserved.

In 1867, an anonymous essay in the London Medical Times and Gazette, no doubt by a doctor, presents a classic defense and summary of traditional attitudes toward women. The article constantly refers to life in the United States, and the article was probably read by and influenced American physicians. Although not referring explicitly to the passing women who are the subject of the present section, this essay is included as providing important background material for the understanding of the social pressures on such individuals. This article declares: "It is an aberration of the sexual instinct in any girl to aim at occupations which are incompatible with the duties of matrimony." This article well illustrates how any unconventional woman, whose behavior deviated from social norms, might have been condemned as a "sexual aberration."

The essay condemns as an aberration every form of "sensual gratification without any union of the sexes," that is, not directly related to procreation, including the sinful "voluntary mental indulgence" on "sexual ideas."

It emphasizes "the dangers of unchaste thought, even without unchaste act."

It specifically condemns "those dark crimes which as the law says, are not to be named by Christian men...[1]

The essay calls all forms of birth control a sexual aberration, specifically citing New England as an area in which the limiting of family size is in practice. It quotes from the book New America by Hepworth Dixon, an English author who traveled in the United States, that a "conspiracy" exists among "young, fashionable American women" not to have children-in order to retain their beauty and remain attractive to men.

This early family planning is said to be

greatly aided in America by that other sexual aberration, which seeks to put the sexes on an equality and identity so far as possible,

educating women beyond what is necessary to the "feminine" sphere of activity, making them overly lntellectual."[2]

The report points approvingly to the theological-political foundation of all those "commonplace" institutions associated with private property, which a male often takes for granted:

What a matter of course it seems for a man to speak of my wife, my children, my love, my bankers' book," my mutton, my wine, my profession or business," my last will! Such privileges, however, really rest on our religious and political systems."[3]

The essay then lists and denounces "a miscellaneous set of sexual aberrations" fostered by "every sexual and social heresy now rampant in America . . ." a reference to religious and utopian groups.

The Shakers are condemned for fostering celibacy (because they consider marriage and carnal relations sinful).

"Free lovers" are denounced for openly advocating sexual exchanges outside of marriage.

"Spiritualists," believing in “the perfect equality of the sexes on earth," are condemned for advocating "free love."

"Bible Communists" or "Perfectionists," who "have all things in common," are denounced for believing it "a duty to eat, drink, and love to their heart's content-wives and children to be common-as all other property."

The Perfectionists' marriage system is criticized for making every male and female the husband or wife of all others, with "no 'exclusive attachments.’” Young Perfectionists are allegedly supposed “to associate in love first with those older than themselves."

Finally, the Mormons are condemned for believing it a duty to enjoy life, for practicing polygamy, and for destroying women's power in the home, thus making them the slaves and toys of men. [4]

The article continues:

Having now gone the round of the grosser aberrations of the sexual instinct, let us come to Androgynism, or the intrusion of one sex into the other's province. The funniest example of the intrusion of men into woman's field is afforded by the Chinese in the United States, who in California and the West do the work of women by preference--wash clothes, nurse babies, and do housework; but there is some excuse, for women are scarce. There were 730,000 more men than women in the United States in 1860...[5]

Relating "Androgynism" and the growth of feminism, the author declares that woman is now becoming the "aggressor.”

She demands absolutely equal rights with man; his pantaloons (fem. pantalettes) and latch-key. She demands admission to all offices and dignities, and that she shall have the privilege of doing all that man does. Woman in America, says Hepworth Dixon, is thrown "into a thousand restless agitations about her rights and powers, into debating woman's place in creation, woman's mission in the family; into public hysteria, into table-rapping, into anti-wedlock societies, into theories about natural marriage, free-Jove, and artistic maternity; into anti-offspring resolution, into sectarian polygamy, into free trade of the affections, into community of wives." These moral phenomena have their starting-point in America, where they are ascribed by Dixon to the scarcity of women; consequently to their power and self-consciousness of importance....[6]

According to this report, the problems women are protesting arise partly from their "inevitable" biologic sex and physiological childbearing function. This admittedly requires "sacrifice of time, of health (at least temporarily), and comfort" and a mental focus on "nutritive Functions" rather than sensitivity and intellectuality.

So long as woman is the childbearer, she must be the weaker vessel, the stay-at home partner; the management of house-hold and children falls to her lot; but she has some compensation-she feels the comfort of a protector, and rejoices in her weakness. "I don't want equal rights; 1 like to be taken care of," was the sensible observation of a New York bride to Mr. Dixon.[7]

The author also admits that certain evils are heaped upon women "by the selfishness and cruelty of man." Mainly, it seems, this is manifested by the inferior education of women which makes them incapable of employment-even in "domestic service." The essay affirms the need for improving women's education,

and multiplying lucrative employment for them within the sphere of their own sex; but we think they make a mistake in undertaking duties which are better fulfilled by men. It is an aberration of the sexual instinct to any girl to aim at occupations which are incompatible with the duties of maternity, and an equal aberration to smother those maidenly instincts which should lead her not to intrude into the occupations which custom has associated with the male sex. There is no intrinsic sin in riding astride a horse, or in wearing boots and breeches, but there is harm in violating those decent rules by which the conduct of either sex is regulated. We say it in all kindness, that for a girl to present herself at a public Medical examination is as great an aberration of sexual instinct, as it would be if a young man were to leave the dissecting room and apprentice himself to Madame Elise or Mademoiselle Coutuiere. For, after all, women cannot get rid of their sex. What is their real glory, their very life-purpose? To be mothers...

American Bayard Taylor, in his novel Hannah Thurston, is said to emphasize the virtues of matrimony, motherhood, end female dependence on men, presenting

a singular picture of modern American life and manners, and makes one feel that all America is not poisoned by communism and women's rights.[8]

Finally, the author hopes to have "shown how indissolubly the relations of the sexes are connected with religious and public polity; and we may add that any attempt to disturb either is fraught with danger to the whole social fabric." In a most astonishing way this essay associates politics, religion, feminism, utopianism, private property, monogamy, the sexual division of labor, "masculinity" and "femininity," abortion, birth control, and homosexuality. This reactionary propaganda of 1867 paradoxically suggests a concept of sexual politics connected in modern America with advanced radical thought.


  1. "Aberrations of the Sexual Instinct," Medical Times and Gazette (London), voL 1 (Feb. 9, 1867). p. 142. There is a female transvestite episode in an American novel first published in 1867, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes's The Guardian Angel. According to Jeannette H. Foster, the heroine, Myrtle Hazzard resists the efforts of two puritanical aunts to break her spirit, and at age fifteen, mature in mind and body, cuts her hair short and puts on boy's clothes, setting out for India where she had spent a happy childhood. The story, says Foster, contains no hint of any particularly intense emotional intimacy between Myrtle Hazzard and another female. That Holmes was aware of passionate attachments between women is, however, indicated in The Guardian Angel by a secondary female character's extremely passionate "attachment to her mother (Sex Variant Women in Literature [N.Y.: Vantage. 1956]. p. 92-93). An episode-of 'female transvestism, also excluding any special intimacy with other females, is reported in a New York City newspaper in 1869: "Kate Fisher, Adventures of a Girl in Male Attire," New York World, Jan. 12, 1869, p- 4. I wish to thank Carole Turbin Miller for informing me of this document.
  2. "Aberrations," p. 143.
  3. "Aberrations," p. 144
  4. "Aberrations," p. 144.
  5. "Aberrations," p. 145.
  6. "Aberrations," p. 145-46.
  7. "Aberrations," p. 146. All the following quotations are from the same page.
  8. Ironically, there is evidence suggesting that Bayard Taylor was homosexual (see J. Z. Eglinton, pseud., Greek Love [N.Y.: Oliver Layton, 19641. p. 364-66).

• Go to Next Article

PROTECTED ENTRY: This entry by a named creator or site administrator can be changed only by that creator and site administrators, so they are responsible for its accuracy, coverage, evidence, and clarity. Please do use this entry's Comment section at the bottom of the page to suggest improvements. Thanks.