Explore the history of sexuality.
A publication from 1887–the “Lancet medical journal”, estimated that there were over 80,000 prostitutes in London. This means that about 3% of the population! Yet according to the common morality of the Victorian era, prostitution was regarded with the same disgust as drunkenness, blasphemy, and other public disturbances. Surprisingly, it was not until the 19th century that prostitution was thought to be an incredibly sinful act (Laquer, 1989, pg 387).
There was certainly a double standard when it came to adultery in the Victorian era. While it was morally reprehensible for a woman to cheat on her husband, it was permissible for a man to have multiple partners. If a woman did have sexual relations or contact with a man, they were viewed as “ruined” or “fallen”. Victorian literature has an abundance of “fallen women” characters: women who suffer greatly for falling short of moral expectations. Books such as Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” tells a story of a noble, good-hearted protagonist who is raped and loses her virginity. The woman is then shunned by her community for losing her virginity before marriage. While some writers of the Victorian era were progressive and told stories of women who lived in a world of double-standards, other writers simply perpetuated this norm (Wikipedia, Victorian Women).
Though the “common practice” was indeed a double-standard, Christian teachings in this era dictated that neither spouse should, in fact, engage in adultery:
“While the Christians in the pre-Victorian era were content with restricting sex to marriage, Victorians were concerned with how best to harness sex and rechannel it to loftier ends. For Victorians a moral man abstained from sex outside of marriage and was highly selective and considerate in sexual expression within marriage. And a moral woman endured these sporadic ordeals and did nothing to encourage them. Pleasure was not an appropriate goal for either sex, but especially not so for a woman.” (Fundamentals of Human Sexuality, p. 483)
Laqueur T, (1989), “The social Evil, the Solitary Vice and Pouring Tea”.
Wikipedia: Women in the Victorian Era: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_the_Victorian_era