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Sexual identities and gender cultures in the Victorian city

Sexual identities and gender cultures in the Victorian city

The rise of the great cities in the nineteenth century west presaged major challenges to the established social order, including its norms of gender and sexuality. The great and growing cities, with their constant influx of young, immigrant men and women, were an unprecedented demographic and cultural phenomenon. They were also regarded as the greatest social problem of their era. In the metropolises older models of propriety and respectability were seen to be weakened, and cities were held up as places of sexual danger to young men and young women alike. The discursive reaction to the cities, at least among the privileged classes in Britain and America, was anxiety and apprehension. Anonymity, unfamiliarity, confusion, commerciality - in short, urban modernity - was condemned, and particularly in sexual terms.

At the same time, there was the development among urban classes themselves of a preoccupation with social and sexual identities. Taking the notion of confusion of identity as a stimulus as much as a threat, male flaneurs or ramblers articulated a more positive view of the city, as a space of sexual opportunity. At a somewhat lower social level, through cross cutting class categories, the development of a sporting-male culture also promoted a sexualised vision of urban life. Here the world of the roving male is complemented by a worldly emphasis on the public presence of sexualised female identities such as the streetwalking prostitute. It can be argued that these examples of new male sexual identities both produce and are predicated on the new world of the great nineteenth-century cities and their new social spaces of commercialised leisure.

The project will examine some of these spaces and sexual identities, with an eye to understanding the development of masculinity in particular. Tracing the development of sexual visions of the city, and the sexualisation of its social spaces, allows us to understand something of nineteenth-century urban modernity. That these identities were masculine, however, and promoted within a masculine social order, alerts us to the fact that they are discursive as much as practical. These sexual identities were created in fantasy as much as in reality, and they partake of a certain misogynistic and pornographic vision of city life; they produce what has been called a 'pornotopia' or 'pornotropics' of urban modernity. For all their apparently more positive view of cities, Dr Howell is interested in the darker side of this appreciation, and concerned to read this discourse against itself, to explore its contradictions and the crisis of masculinity that it suggests.


  • P. Howell, 'Victorian sexuality and the moralisation of Cremorne Gardens' in J.P. Sharp, P. Routledge, C. Philo and R. Paddison (Eds) Entanglements of Power: Geographies of Domination/Resistance, pp.43-66 (Routledge, 2000).
  • P. Howell, 'Sex and the city of bachelors: popular masculinity and public space in nineteenth-century England and America', Ecumene 8 (1) 2001, pp. 20-50.