In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sexual Violence

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Domestic Violence and Marital Rape in Victorian Literature
  • Victorian Rape Studies after #MeToo
  • Stand-Alone Examples of Sexual Violence in Victorian Literature

Victorian Literature Sexual Violence
Doreen Thierauf
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0177


Sexual violence in the Victorian period is a subject notoriously difficult to study owing to wide gaps in the historic record, the virtual absence of its depiction in the period’s “polite” literature, and scholars’ own historically contingent conceptions of what acts would be perceived as harmful or noteworthy. This is further complicated by the fact that the threat of or actual incidents of sexual violence have been and continue to be mobilized for political ends, often to support or stymie collective efforts to advance women’s political and economic rights. Therefore, 19th-century representations of sexual violence as well as references to rape are always overdetermined: they tend to break representational taboos; challenge laws and customs; are embedded in Victorian notions of morality, gender, sexuality, and property ownership; and suggest a continuation of trends that reach into the present. Due to these representational and conceptual difficulties, this bibliography relies on an expansive definition of the term to include ostensibly nonsexual forms of violence, such as intimate partner violence or gender-based violence, that are adjacent to, and inform, acts of sexual violence. By necessity, the field has relied on interdisciplinary methods from its inception. Historical, feminist, legal, psychoanalytical, and literary modes of inquiry have guided early work since the 1970s, and cultural, postcolonial, and queer frameworks entered scholars’ purview during the 1990s. The late 2010s saw a flurry of scholarly activity in the wake of the #MeToo movement, with presentist and intersectional approaches now dominating. The vast majority of research on 19th-century literary representations of sexual or gender-based violence—including harassment, assault, domestic battery, and rape—has attended to cisgender men’s violations of cisgender women’s physical and psychological boundaries. Most often, the perpetrators and those they harm are white, heterosexual, middle-class, and married, which suggests not only whose suffering 19th-century authors deemed urgent, interesting, or safe enough to represent, but also whose violations have garnered scholarly interest over the past fifty years. As such, the field sorely lacks stand-alone works on sexual violence outside the white middle-class home, particularly in nonheterosexual, queer, and colonial contexts.

Primary Sources

Traditionally, historians and literary scholars have focused on the importance of sexual violence in Victorian marriage, a tack often determined by the availability of archival materials. Research tends to highlight a relatively narrow set of prominent primary sources that include Legal Framings, mostly pertaining to women’s status as defined by the law. Sexual violence was also discussed, if often obliquely, in Media Framings, both in overt Critiques of Marriage, pertaining to changing social values and deficiencies in the legal situation of marriage, published with increasing vehemence and frequency after 1850, and with respect to Social Reforms, particularly regarding child prostitution and the early feminist campaigns to repeal the Contagious Diseases Acts.

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