What Happened to the Transsexual Rights Movement? More on Percentages and Prevalence

In my previous post, we took a look at the claim that trans people “have always been here” in the numbers at which they’re now emerging, and found it wanting.

Now, I’d like to turn our attention to the fact that the trans rights movement has clearly undergone significant changes in the last two decades.

Twenty years ago, trans people were not making the claim that they had “always been” their preferred sex. They knew biological sex existed, and the idea of a non-transitioned, non-passing trans person entering into opposite-sex spaces was absurd.

Today, things are very different. Online trans activists are brash and bold with their claims that biological sex doesn’t exist and neither should sex-based protections. They also seem to share a belief unique to transgender people that they must be recognized as their preferred sex in order to exist at all.

When women notice that this change has been swift and merciless toward women’s rights, we’re told to be silent and trust in the beneficence of the trans movement as a whole, in spite of any bad actors. One of the most common ways to chide women for anti-transgender opinions is to say that surely, there are only a few bad apples, and that most transgender people are “just trying to live their lives.”

So why does it seem like so many trans people on the internet aren’t “trying to live their lives” at all, and are instead spending hours a day disparaging feminists? What’s happened here? How did the transsexual rights movement become the transgender movement?


I’ve sometimes heard people say “sure, there are bad trans activists out there who say awful things, but that doesn’t mean you should consider the whole lot tarnished.”


What if I told you that today, over 90% — and possibly as many as 99% — of adult transitioners do not fall into the definition of a transsexual, and are instead sexual fetishists?

Oh, now I’ve said something awful? Something shocking?

I’d better have some evidence to back that up. How dare I imply that not only some, but a supermajority, of adult transitioners are engaging in this performance for primarily sexual reasons? How dare I make it about sexual perversion, don’t I realize I sound like a Victorian prude?!



The evidence for this comes from prevalence estimates. The research I did on the prevalence of transsexuality revealed, if you recall, that no one before 2002 pinned an estimate of transsexuality 1:2,500 or so, and usually much lower. This changed only when an MTF researcher simply decided to insert fudge factors until the trans population appeared far larger than it’s ever been found to be.

Prevalence estimates exist for a number of psychological conditions.

One of those conditions is transvestitic fetishism, or attaching sexual pleasure and arousal to crossing gender norms in clothing.

The existence of transvestitic fetishism is well-known in history, all the way back to the Roman emperors (a commenter here five years ago once tried to claim Heliogabalus for the trans side, for example).

In recent decades, psychologists have tried to establish an estimate on the prevalence of transvestitic fetishism using in-depth interviews with large numbers of participants.

According to them, about 2-3 percent of men, and around 1 in 200 women, experience transvestitic fetishism. Stonewall UK now includes “crossdresser” as a full transgender identity. It’s not surprising, given its higher prevalence than transsexuality, that Stonewall would wish to do this — in fact, by including fetishistic transvestites to swell the ranks, Stonewall could achieve the huge jump in trans numbers observed in recent years.

Lynn Conway (who fudge factored the incidence of transsexualism) says that conservative estimates of crossdressing fetishism puts it at a prevalence of 2-5% of men, and notes that about 1 in 20 to 1 in 50 of these men will eventually go on to complete a full transition.


This blog is no stranger to discussing Bayesian statistics, in which probabilities are not independent of one another but must be regarded in relation to known information. We’re going to look through that lens again, today.



If three percent of men are sexually aroused by crossdressing, and only 1 in 2500 meet the qualifications for classic transsexuality, then only 1.3 percent of the overall MTF “transgender” population is actually transsexual, and 98.7 percent are fetishists.

People noticing that even many FTMs in today’s rapidly exploding FTM population seem motivated by fetishizing gay men in visual novels, anime, or other media are right to notice: if .4 percent of women are sexually aroused by crossdressing, and only about 1 in 10,000 women is transsexual (prevalence figures from last post), only 2.5% of self-identified FTMs are genuinely transsexual.

These figures, of course, assume that all fetishistic crossdressers / transvestites are holding themselves out as transgender. What if 80 percent of transvestitic fetishists were quite content to occasionally crossdress at home, with no trans identification needed, and only 20 percent considered their activities to fall under the trans umbrella?

Even then, only 6.5 percent of MTFs, 10 percent of FTMs, would be transsexual, with the rest being fetishists.

We can take it a step further and use Conway’s lower bounded estimate: that 1 in 50 fetishistic crossdressers (2 percent) will eventually take the leap and transition to a full-time cross-sex presentation. Two percent of the 3 percent of males who engage in crossdressing fetishism yields a prevalence of .06%, or about 1 in 1667. But remember, the incidence of transsexuality is only 1 in 2500.

Even if only two percent of male crossdressing fetishists decide to transition, these fetishists will constitute over 60 percent of the overall transgender population, while transsexuals become a minority in their own movement.

Once you understand this aspect of the changing transgender movement, everything becomes clear. Crossdressing fetishism is correlated with sadomasochistic fantasies, pornography consumption, and other paraphilias (the 2-3 percent link above will illustrate this nicely).

Crossdressing fetishism is now the dominant thread of the transgender movement. It is an inherently misogynistic and narcissistic activity, in which female stereotypes manifested by the self are sexualized instead of actual living, breathing sex partners –

Fetishes are, by their very nature, obsessional. Whether we’re talking about zoophilia, pedophilia, crossdressing, or rape fantasies, it’s only when you try to separate a man from his fetish that you begin to see the narcissistic injury: they will cry about how they can’t help themselves. If that doesn’t work, they’ll grow enraged and threatening. They will aver with absolute certainty that the fetish is so fundamental to the core of their being that it makes them who they are.

Men go to great lengths to hide the level of depravity their fetishes and paraphilias reach, and to convince the people around them that they are harmless.

This is what we are observing in the trans movement at large, when they are described as men or as autogynephiles by feminists: the unbounded rage of the fetishist when told his fetish is unacceptable and will not be coddled by those around him.

Today’s average adult transgender person isn’t someone who felt strong cross-sex role urges from an early age, and who feels strong body dysmorphia focused on primary and secondary sex characteristics.

Instead, the average transgender person, due to the incorporation of fetishists into the movement, has become a fetishist focused on enabling that fetish by any means necessary.

Some do this by lying about physiological differences between men and women, like “Rachel” McKinnon. Others put on sex shows for chump change and refuse to hold jobs so they can devote more time to their fetish while their wives go to work, like “Zinnia Jones.” Others spend time every day devising creative, sexually sadistic punishments to inflict on the TERFs who have the audacity to tell them to stop wanking to the idea of themselves as the subjugated sex.

It has — can you feel it too, mothers of the internet? — the feeling of a teenage boy caught red-handed in front of internet porn and told to stop jerking off and clean his room. I see the same clear hot-faced embarrassment and shame over being caught, the same reaction of anger at any woman who says to stop wanking and start being productive.

Indeed, I suspect if we told all teenage boys that their most misogynistic and narcissistic fantasies were a core part of their identity, and that anyone telling them to knock it off wanted them literally dead, we’d see this kind of behavior from absolutely all corners.

It’s not that transvestism is uniquely awful, it’s that no other fetish is elevated into a protected identity category allowing men to carry out misogynistic deeds with impunity. That’s the devil’s bargain LGBT organizations made with fetishists in order to bolster their numbers — I doubt they’ll like what they’ve gotten themselves into, when they realize how much it will cost them.

No, there haven’t always been this many trans people. No, they’re not just coming out more because it’s more acceptable now. Here’s the evidence.

As gender clinic referrals in the UK and beyond continue to spike — with the average gender clinic patient now an autistic female in her teen years — many more people have begun to realize what this blog has been saying for over five years: that the transgender phenomenon is a culture-bound syndrome, promulgated by regressive social forces.

1,800 girls (and 700 boys) started down the path to sterility and shorter lifespans this year alone at a single clinic in the UK. If you ask trans activists, the reason for this is quite simple and easy to explain: as trans identities become less stigmatized and more understood, more people become willing to express their true transgender identity.

By way of comparison, these trans activists point to the clear increase in the out-of-closet gay, lesbian, and bisexual population, an increase that began roughly at the time when Gay Pride and acceptance became more mainstream.

It’s an explanation that has worked to get people to shut up who might have otherwise made a big fuss. It’s worked to silence government officials and ordinary people on social media, who don’t want to seem like they are on the “wrong side of history.”

Which calls to mind the question: what does history have to say about the prevalence of trans people, versus the prevalence of gay ones?

Fortunately for us, sex researchers in the 20th century explored this question at length, and performed in-depth interviews about sexual preferences and desires on tens of thousands of total subjects. Perhaps the most famous of these researchers was Dr. Alfred Kinsey.

Through a series of questions asked of both men and women, Kinsey worked to uncover the sexual fetishes, inclinations, and hidden secrets. While some of Kinsey’s work has since been criticized, no one can doubt that he brought the prevalence of homosexuality to the world’s attention.

According to Kinsey’s estimates from 1948 and 1953, 1-3 percent of women, and 4 percent of men, were exclusively homosexual since the time of their adolescence until the time of their interview with sex researchers. Even larger numbers had been exclusively homosexual for a few years, and a still larger number had engaged in some homosexual activity.

Kinsey believed that the true prevalence of homosexuality in the human population was as high as 10%, a number that captured the public’s imagination all the way into the 21st century.

While other sex researchers obtained different (typically lower) numbers for the prevalence of homosexuality, any researcher conducting interviews calculated a prevalence of over 1 percent. It was a clear phenomenon: in any reasonable sample size, multiple people would be included who had engaged in homosexual contact, preferred same-sex sexual partners, or were exclusively homosexually attracted.

So when homosexual toleration became more common in late 20th century western society, starting in the most cosmopolitan and liberal cities, and later evolved to include homosexual marriage and the ability to have a fully “out” homosexual family, it was no surprise that more people came out of the closet as gay, lesbian, and bisexual.

As attitudes liberalized, it became clear that the gay population had been “hiding in plain sight,” visible to any researchers who examined the desires of the population, and only invisibilized by stigma and shame. Today, NIH surveys indicate that between 1 and 2 percent of the American population identifies as exclusively homosexual, with another .7% identifying as bisexual.

Since homophobia has not yet been eradicated (and is still extremely strong in some pockets of even western liberal democracies), it wouldn’t be surprising, given the interview-based estimates of sex researchers, if the homosexual population as much as doubled in a society with no anti-homosexual prejudice whatsoever.

Kinsey’s examination of the sexual psyche went far beyond same sex vs. opposite sex attraction. Kinsey and other researchers at his institute and beyond studied a range of sexual behaviors, including the phenomenon of crossdressing / transvestitism / transsexuality.*

Kinsey became interested in cross-sex identification and behavior toward the end of his life, spurred on by interviews with crossdressers. At the time, the Kinsey Institute interviewed what it believed to represent literally every individual, of both sexes, who had up to that time received sexual reassignment surgeries — a total of about 150 male-to-females and 2 female-to-males.

He also searched diligently for records of all known crossdressers, but of course, this wouldn’t reveal those who were wrestling privately with feelings of gender incongruity.

So we must look beyond Kinsey for estimates of trans people. This, unfortunately for trans activists, is where contemporary trans ideology is shown to be almost uniquely ahistorical in sex research.

Before the year 2000, researchers in many countries conducted studies into the prevalence of transsexuality in the population. These studies were remarkable in the similarity of their findings. Whether in the Netherlands, Singapore, the UK, or Germany, transsexuals occurred at a rate of around 1:2,500-1:20,000 people, and a male:female sex ratio of anywhere from 2:1 to 6:1 existed in the transsexual population.

Some researchers also observed (an observation that makes sense in light of American indigenous populations with “third genders” as well) that societies with more toleration of homosexuality and less sex role differentiation seemed to have lower prevalence rates of transsexuality.

Even today, outside of the West, the prevalence of “third gender” or transsexual populations often remains quite in line with what was observed by sex researchers in the 20th century. A recent census of the hijra population of India showed that 1 in 2,600 Indian nationals are included in the category.

However, trans activists continually insist that there is a far larger, “hidden” transgender population that simply cannot be observed by these surveys, that cannot be seen in sexual research institutes, and so on. Starting in the early 2000s, activists for trans causes began to promulgate the hypothesis that the “real number” of trans people was far higher than anyone had yet revealed.

For example, in the last link above, transgender campaigners in India claim the true prevalence of trans people in India is 6-7x higher than the census would reveal.

These “fudge factors” are prominent in nearly all estimates of trans prevalence that have been given media attention lately, and many of these estimates are based on an original study that had deep methodological flaws and enshrined the fudge-factor-fication of transgender population estimates for decades to come.

In 2002, Lynn Conway, a male who identified as female, sought to depict transgender identity as far more common than previous studies had considered. In the study, Conway creates a decade-by-decade table of SRS (sexual reassignment surgery) prevalence, starting in the 1960s, with a “rough estimate of SRS operations done by major SRS surgeons both here and abroad on U. S. citizens in recent decades, extrapolated to include those done by many secondary surgeons (each performing smaller numbers per year).”

Do you see the start of the fudge factor? Conway takes the absolute best guess from the leading clinical practitioner of the number of total sex reassignment surgeries performed in the entire United States in all years of all decades up to 1973 — 2,500 — and extrapolates this number to 7,000 surgeries performed in the 1970s alone. Based on anecdotal evidence (like a leading SRS surgeon performing two surgeries per day!), Conway concludes that the numbers have been rising, and that by 2002, there must be 40,000 post-op male-to-female transsexuals living in the United States alone.

He assumes in this estimate that exactly zero of these surgery recipients since the 1960s have died, and so bases a new prevalence estimate of surgery recipients on a strict division between his imagined 40,000 post-op transsexuals and the 2002 population, and comes out with 1:2,500 as the ratio of post-op MTFs in America.

Then, Conway “estimates at least 3 to 5 times as many people suffer intense MtF transsexualism as those who have already undergone SRS.”

The fudge factor multiplies again. Recall that Conway was already (at least) doubling the number of actual SRS surgeries performed. Now, the number is multiplied again, by three to five times.

This kind of “fudge factor” is not the norm when estimating the prevalence of stigmatized sexual behavior. When Kinsey overestimated the homosexual population at 10 percent, he based this idea on the statistics at hand indicating that up to 10 percent of men had been exclusively homosexual for multiple years — he didn’t simply multiply his estimates to assume an arbitrary number of hidden homosexuals.

Yet the studies used in the early 2000s to estimate the prevalence of transgenderism all use these kinds of “estimates” from researchers, which are all but pulled out of a hat. By estimating hidden populations that cannot be proven, transgenderism was made into something so prevalent that it wasn’t surprising when teens began reporting record numbers of trans identities.

The most commonly-used estimates of the transgender population in the United States have come from the Williams Institute of UCLA. Their 2011 report that first documents a high transgender prevalence in the United States uses statistics gathered from … Lynn Conway’s 2002 study.

The fudge factor doesn’t end there. In 2016, the Williams Institute released another report, estimating the transgender population of the United States as .6 percent of the total population, based on research from the CDC.

There’s … just one problem. The CDC survey didn’t estimate the trans population as .6 percent. In fact, the 2016 behavioral study cited by the Williams Institute said that just .1 percent of Americans identified as female-to-male transgender, and .2 percent as male-to-female transgender — a total of .3 percent, or half of what the Williams Institute claimed the data had indicated. An additional .1 percent designated themselves gender non-conforming.

Once again, we see that same male:female ratio of 2:1, within the bounds of the ratios for trans estimates for over 50 years.

It’s this ratio that most clearly illustrates the social contagion aspects of the modern transgender condition. Not only has the prevalence of transgender symptoms soared, the ratio has completely reversed, with 3 young female patients seeking reassignment to a more masculine presentation for every 1 male patient seeking feminization.

Not one sex researcher in history — not one, and if you find one, comment here and I will append this immediately — found that more females wanted to change sex than males. Not in any country, not in any age group. Not until the social contagion phenomenon known as ROGD, or rapid-onset gender dysphoria, began.

Anyone pretending that this is simply a case of trans people “hiding in plain sight” until they were acknowledged and validated by the population at large is kidding themselves — or deliberately skewing data for their own agenda.

The data shows clearly that the trans population is smaller than the most common estimates given — and the Williams Institute should be ashamed for turning fudged or even faked data into the single most-cited source for estimates of the transgender population. And not one of these estimates, regardless of their “fudge factor,” indicates a prevalence of hidden female transsexuals that is far larger than the prevalence of male transsexuals.

The next time you see someone claiming that it’s “just like when gay people started coming out more,” and that anything but total acceptance of 17 girls with autistic traits coming out as transgender at a single school is transphobia, point them here.

This is not like the gay rights movement, which could easily point to research indicating a significant population percentage with latent or expressed homosexual desires. This is a movement with a vested interest in overestimating their prevalence in order to further an agenda which has changed significantly since the dawn of the 21st century.

For more on why that happened, and the history of the changes to this movement, keep watching this blog.


* — It probably seems insensitive to lump these three ideas together, but at the time, the borders between them were seen as quite porous, even by crossdressers, transvestites, and transsexuals. It’s these blurred borders that cause so much strife today over whether activists like Marsha Johnson were transgender or crossdressers.

These lines may be blurring once more today, as the big tent of transgenderism has begun to include crossdressers and transvestites again, at least according to Stonewall UK.

Gender Identity Isn’t a Box. It’s a Yardstick.

One of the big questions I was still left with when I stopped blogging here for a few years was very simple:

What, exactly, is gender identity?

If you read mainstream trans sources, the answer gets a bit circular: “gender identity is one’s deeply-held internal sense of one’s own gender.”

That’s exactly the kind of definition that doesn’t get us any closer to what is actually meant by the term “gender identity” when it is enshrined into law or company handbooks. After all, the law (in a liberal Western democracy, anyway) is generally unconcerned with policing the deeply-held internal senses of citizens.

Besides, this seemingly quick-and-easy definition doesn’t hold up with what mainstream trans activism is actually demanding. When using a non-preferred pronoun or disallowing a trans person from opposite-sex spaces is legally actionable, “gender identity” requires government employees, trans people’s co-workers, and those in sex-segregated spaces alter their own deeply-held internal perceptions of someone’s sex in order to accommodate a trans individual’s deeply-held internal sense of their own gender.

There is more to gender identity.

Among radical feminists, gender identity is discussed differently. The far-and-away most common metaphor for gender identity in radical feminism is an enclosure, or box. Sometimes, more highly-charged language — cage, or prison — is used instead.

In this view, “gender identity” is essentially synonymous with “gender role.” While culturally-dependent, in the view of the radical feminist, gender exists to constrain the behaviors of the sexes in order to more deeply entrench patriarchal systems of power. In this view, a trans-identifying person is attempting to hop from one cage to another.

Transgender believers argue that this view of gender identity as a box makes little sense given the empirical reality of transgender people, many of whom exhibit characteristics that have more in common with the stereotypes intended for their biological sex than the stereotypes of their chosen gender identity.

What, says the transgender believer, of the trans programmer, born male, who identifies as female but still keeps practicing martial arts? Or the knitter and baker who now identifies as a male but was born female? Surely, these would be people whose original “box” would fit them more comfortably, and the “cage” they’ve hopped to would seem more confining, so why would they do it?

The box as a metaphor also makes less sense as a full explanation of gender identity in a western, liberal democracy where women’s written legal rights are near-identical to men’s. For the most part, men and women are allowed to engage in behaviors strongly associated with the other sex, to whatever degree is physically possible (cue the Monty Python “Loretta” gag). Women may be discouraged from entering STEM fields and banking, for instance, but they’re not legally disallowed. Wearing lipstick does not make males the target of police raids. Cage-hopping is not, strictly speaking, a requirement for someone hoping to engage in opposite-sex stereotyped behavior.

Indeed, in countries where legal rights for men and women are significantly different, transgender populations tend to be strongly oriented toward “fitting into a box,” making the radical feminist metaphor more salient. If you are in Iran and the only way to legally have sex with a man or wear a dress is to be in the “woman” category, then the notion of cage-hopping makes sense. In these places, the metaphor of the box or cage can come close to fully explaining the transgender phenomenon, and the vast majority of transgender people where this holds true strongly associate with culturally-typical opposite-sex roles.

To me, the competing definitions of the transgender believers and the radical feminists have seemed orthogonal, an example of two groups talking past one another while the uncommitted look on in confusion. I don’t think either is a full depiction of what “gender identity” is supposed to encapsulate, both connotatively in conversation with modern trans activists and denotatively in law.

A more illuminating object to metaphorically represent gender identity can be found in a yardstick.

In this view, men and women are measured according to two distinct sets of standards. A person who is meticulously groomed and uses a range of makeup products “measures up” very well according to the yardstick marked “woman,” but would be assigned low marks on the “man” yardstick. A person who dates women and wears trousers, never skirts/dresses, measures as bog-standard on the “man” yardstick, but would not achieve the same average measurement on the “woman” stick.

When examined this way, the distinction between “gender identity” and “gender roles” becomes more cleargender identity is the selection of one’s yardstick, while gender roles are the markings on the yardstick that you measure yourself against. With this idea in place, respecting another person’s gender identity means measuring them according to the yardstick they prefer.

In the law, “gender identity” then becomes measuring people according to their preferred yardstick. If women must wear skirts for their job, a male-bodied person may then wear a skirt as long as he has requested measurement on the “woman” yardstick. An insistence on measuring a person according to the yardstick corresponding to the stereotypes of their sex, rather than their identity, is perceived as invalidating and harassing.

Unlike the metaphor of the box, the yardstick can help us understand the “butch trans woman” who engages in many masculine-stereotyped behaviors, or the “soft trans boi” who inhabits a female body and consciously attempts to exhibit femininity while asking to be referred to by male pronouns.

In a capitalist culture that generates continuously-evolving countercultures and promotes self-discovery and uniqueness — a culture in which “basic” is an insult — the person who transitions even though their original “box” was a better fit is doing so in order to be measured as unusual on a new yardstick. If you’re a person who likes video games, does computer programming for a living, and watches a lot of pornography, your place on the “man” yardstick positions you as not terribly unusual, and not terribly desirable. But on the “woman” yardstick, measured from the perspective of their own male gaze (“why, I’d love to meet a woman who liked video games, porn, and programming!”), they become an unusual, desirable nerdy girl.*

The gender identity yardstick also helps to make sense of the range of non-binary gender identities: people identifying as “non-binary” and “genderqueer” want a new yardstick built just for people who want to be judged by different criteria. “Agender” people don’t think any yardstick fits them. “Bigender” and “genderfluid” people want to be judged according to the yardstick that currently best suits the way they’d like to be perceived.

Radical feminists have long wondered why transgender people and their allies seem to believe that the radical feminist position is “everyone should act according to sex stereotypes.” But using the metaphor of the yardstick, the nature of the communication breakdown is revealed: the fundamental tenet of mainstream transgender ideology is that human beings should feel free to pick whichever yardstick they prefer. If you take this view, it’s easy to see radical feminists as saying “no, you’re stuck with the yardstick we’ve been measuring you against since you were born. No hopping to another one. We’re always going to measure you according to the stereotyped standards we apply based on your genitals at the time when you’re born.”

Radical feminists are flummoxed by this view of their beliefs on the part of trans believers, because it presupposes the need for sex-based yardsticks in the first place — and even presupposes that the desire to be measured by one or the other is inherent to human beings, perhaps more inherent than their own organs of generation.

But the radical feminist position is not that people should get back to the yardstick where they belong. In radical feminism, the entire idea of gauging human personality differently according to sex is a symptom of sexism and patriarchy, not an inherent human desire.

The result of this position is that the radical feminist solution to the gender yardstick problem is not to make any yardstick available to anyone, free of charge.

It’s to throw the sticks on a bonfire.


*  – The persistent presence of narcissistic, sex stereotype-conforming heterosexuals in transgender circles becomes easy to understand as well. For the narcissist (as well as for Narcissus in the original myth), the ideal mate is simply a reflection of the self. By identifying with an opposite-sex “gender identity,” the narcissist is, in essence, making a demand for others to treat them as their own idealized mate.

Misogynist stereotyping in history, Part I: Those prudish Victorian women

Stereotypes of the “wrong” kind of woman to be are a powerful tool for enforcing expected social norms on female behavior.

If you’re talking to anyone on the left, the “wrong” kind of woman can be summed up as something looking a bit like this:

The Victorian woman, in the view of the modern left, represents everything a woman ought not to be.

Decorative and demure, she defers to her husband due to a lack of understanding of difficult or complex matters. She eats little, and maintains a snow-white complexion by staying indoors at all time. She stands staunchly against the suffragettes in her restrictive clothing, mocking the “bloomers” of her more forward-thinking peers.

The Victorian woman, in the popular imagination, is a creature of hysterical fits and feminine complaints. She is unable to discuss difficult realities even with her closest friends and confidants, because she has been kept so isolated from the world that even the mysteries of her own body are beyond her.

This lack of education, of course, results in the characteristic most despised in the Victorian woman stereotype: her famed prudishness.

Her restrictive corset acts, in our understanding of this woman, as a physical expression of a completely internalized, repressed sexuality (that yearned to breathe free). Her contorted spine mirrors what we believe to be a stunted form of development, free of expression of desire.

Indeed, the prudishness of the Victorian woman is even supposed to reflect on modern political struggles: she is invoked as a grim-faced, disapproving specter of the past, whose ignorance of anatomy (and unpredictable attacks of the vapors) necessitated separate toileting and changing facilities for men and women. In the view of the modern left, desegregating the sexes is merely rectifying the wrong committed in the name of these prim, fragile ladies of leisure.

That was her stereotype. This is an attempt to find something closer to her truth.

First (and I would think this would be self-evident, but you wouldn’t know it from the popular perception of “the Victorians”), the vast majority of women didn’t live that way.

There were no silk skirts sashaying from wallpapered room to room for the overwhelming majority of non-white women in the West (or anywhere else, for that matter). Even the huge majority of white women spent their lives working. Some worked in factories, while others worked at home, both on the incredible amount of labor required to maintain a household at that time, and with various types of piecework that gave them the “pin money” necessary to participate in commerce.

But let us say that we are speaking, in the stereotype, only of the middle- and upper-class women who were the expected consumers of millinery, yellow wallpaper, and the like.

What of these women?

Well, let us start by asking, what of these women:


See the horsehair buttons, the S-shaped corsets, the humorless faces, the frilly decorations surrounding a bake sale. Here, we have truly reached the apex of retiring Victorian femininity.

Except for one thing: they were selling sweets … as a fundraiser for women’s suffrage. The women fighting for women’s right to vote didn’t just wear unrestrictive dresses and bloomers. They did what many oppressed people from many civil rights struggles have done: they wore what they were expected to wear, in hopes of not having their concerns dismissed.

As for those campaigners for separate facilities for men and women, they weren’t arguing from a position of a previous utopia where women were allowed access to unisex facilities. Rather, they were arguing in favor of the basic inclusion of women in full public life: until these facilities existed, women simply did not leave the home for long enough to require restroom facilities, unless she had a carriage in which to relieve herself.

These facilities offered women an unprecedented ability to engage in public … which directly resulted in the ability of suffragists to organize the first women’s movement.

<p>Charlotte Perkins Gilman addressing members of the Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1916. <em>Photo by Getty </em></p>

The stuffy, straitlaced Victorian matron pictured above (center, in black lace) is Charlotte Perkins Gilman, visionary feminist writer. In addition to granting a unique first-person perspective on her psychological victimization by Victorian “hysteria cures” in her most famous work, The Yellow Wallpaper, she also wrote feminist utopian fiction that is still relevant today.

It is impossible to tell from a photograph of a buttoned-up Victorian woman whether she was in favor of suffrage or women’s rights.

And what of that famous repression?

It is impossible to understand Victorian women’s attitudes toward sex without a comprehension that in the Victorian era, sex was more dangerous than it had ever been, especially for the exact women most famed for their prudishness.

Childbirth was the leading cause of adult female death in the Victorian era, a situation that was significantly worse than in previous centuries.

Deprived of sun exposure in order to keep her skin pale (or, in the lower classes, due to the recent invention of factory work that trapped them indoors 12+ hours a day), the Victorian woman suffered from rickets more than women of previous or subsequent generations. Rickets impacted the bones most profoundly, creating pelvic outlets that were sometimes no wider than a silver dollar.

With bodies twisted by daily wear of restrictive garments, the Victorian woman faced pregnancies that were difficult to maintain. Social mores of the time dictated that visibly pregnant women were to be kept at home, in “confinement.” Deprived of exercise and outdoor activity during pregnancy, the worst was yet to come.

The photograph above depicts the aftermath of the most dangerous killer of Victorian women: “puerperal fever,” or childbed fever. Caused by a lack of obstetric hygiene (doctors routinely practiced on multiple pregnant women without handwashing, even after they had just handled a corpse), this fever claimed the lives of up to 1/3 of birthing women at leading obstetric hospitals in the late 19th century. Larger, more crowded hospitals caused this sickness to rise in incidence throughout the 19th century, and it would not be fully eradicated until the emergence of antibiotics.

Obstetric hemorrhage was another major concern, and most physicians of the time were inadequate to solve this common complication. While some midwives had remedies that helped a number of women, these remedies were typically dismissed in more professional medical contexts, which led to higher mortality rates in hospitals than at home.

The use of anesthetics during labor was pioneered on the ultimate Victorian woman, Queen Victoria herself. However, these anesthetics required more forceps deliveries, which represented a significant danger to both mother and child.

For women hoping to prevent or abort an unwanted pregnancy, the options were far from ideal. Cleaning fluids were advised as contraceptive douches, but the manufacturers had to cloak their advertisements in benign language to avoid trouble from the authorities.

Image result for 19th century abortion

Abortions, conducted secretly with caustic substances (typically said to “restore female regularity”) or foreign objects, resulted in hemorrhage, infection, and death at rates that gave birth a run for its money. What an irony, then, that the women accused of having so little knowledge of their own bodies and sexuality were so intimately familiar with sexually invasive methods of contraception and abortion — but no one ever thinks of the contradiction of the women who supposedly don’t know about vaginas and cervixes nevertheless managing to douche with Lysol, or insert a foreign object with which to open their own cervical os.

Abstinence, of course, is a full pregnancy preventative, but no woman in the world could claim in Victorian times that she had been “maritally raped.” The concept did not yet exist, and men’s legal rights to a woman’s body and sexuality in the context of the marital relationship were nearly boundless.

In fact, the husband’s rights extended to complete ownership and custody of all children born from the relationship. If he chose to separate from his wife, he had every right to take the children and leave her financially ruined. Of course, he could also simply leave the children with her and vanish, with no child support enforcement, which typically led women to turn to prostitution or factory work to make ends meet.

This is the context of Victorian female sexuality. From conception to postpartum, and even beyond, the Victorian woman’s life is positively ruled by sexuality and its results. Sex was the most dangerous activity engaged in by Victorian women, and it showed in the attitudes of women of that time.

These were the real fears of Victorian women. Childbirth-related mortality touched everyone, from every class. Before they birthed, every woman had known women who hadn’t made it through the process. Terror kept pregnant Victorian women awake at night, writing letters to relatives they worried they would never see again as they faced their “travail” of childbirth.

But all this is largely ignored today. The Victorian woman is a target of mockery and derision for her unwillingness to act playful and coquettish about sexuality — for refusing, in other words, to act like sex was no big deal, although even a single act of intercourse could foreseeably lead to her death.

We have much evidence that Victorian women were concerned about sex: with how to stop men from wanting it so frequently, with how to avoid it in their own personal lives, and with minimizing the negative impacts of male sexuality on female lives. Many first-wave feminists opposed legal abortion because they saw it as giving males free rein to have sex with their wives, even when they did not want children — without the right to refuse sex in marriage, abortion gave husbands the right to endanger their wives’ lives and health as frequently as they liked, without fear of personal repercussions.

What there is much less evidence for, is the notion that women of Victorian times were particularly repressed, which is to say, the fanciful notion that there was a boiling undercurrent of red-hot sexuality simply waiting to bubble up under the surface of each tight-laced corset, rendering women psychologically confused and making them ill with somatoform disorders.

Our notion of the secretly-sultry Victorian comes from male writers like D.H. Lawrence, whose Lady Chatterley became an oft-censored symbol of Victorian hypocrisy and passion. It was men writing the florid tales of female desire, in an era when women (who had recently begun to enter institutions of higher education at higher rates than ever before in history) wrote female characters whose motivations were not primarily sexual. Even relatively sexually-charged Victorian content written by women, like the work of Mary MacLane, speaks to a focus on romance and companionship over raw sexual intimacy.

Why the discrepancy? Perhaps because men in Europe and the United States had, for centuries, claimed (without much evidence) that women were the sexually rapacious sex, that women’s sexuality was constantly highly charged, and that women constantly engaged in acts of “luring” men into immorality. Classic authors like Chaucer, Dante, and Shakespeare engaged with this idea in some of the works of classical literature that would have been consumed by any male writer of Victorian times.

The notion that women might not want sex all the time was a very radical one, and a very feminist one, for the 19th and early 20th centuries. The lack of marital rape laws in previous centuries, and the punishment of rape victims instead of rapists, was a direct result of believing that women were always — always — in a state of sexual desire. Women who acted like they did not want sex were thought to be engaged in a bit of play-acting to preserve a socially-acceptable veneer of modesty.

This idea was carried through into masculine literature of the Victorian era. When women started simply saying “no” more often — “no” to getting married, “no” to letting men cast all the votes, “no” to bearing children in an era where the odds of survival were no better than Russian roulette — male writers simply refused to accept that they meant it.

By way of explanation, they concocted Lady Chatterley, and all the other stereotypes of Victorian female eroticism that threatened to burst through whalebone and silk. They created a woman whose “no” was simply a social nicety, whose secret desires overrode her stated ones.

The stereotyping of the Victorian woman, then, is patriarchy whistling the same jaunty tune as ever: Women’s fears are unfounded “prudery,” and women’s “no” is a result of deeply-hidden secret desire — which carries a mysterious, erotic charge.

It’s time to stop looking at the Victorian woman from the gaze of the men who confined her, raped her, shamed her, kept her a non-voter and an invalid imprisoned in her home. They deserve much better from feminists than to be used as an example of “prudes,” rather than one of the first generations of women to feel strong enough to say “no.”