In Recent decades, a new history of sexuality has transformed our understanding of the transition from a Victorian to a modern sexual regime. Where older accounts of sexuality tended to trace the displacement of religious repression and hypocrisy by new secular models of enlightenment and liberation, more recent studies have rejected what Michel Foucault called the “repressive hypothesis” (10) in favour of an emphasis on the complex ways in which sexuality is produced discursively—that is, given its shape and its meaning through eminently cultural and historical processes. Central to the repressive hypothesis was the assumption that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, was especially and uniformly hostile to sexual pleasure.2 The process of secularization, then, could also be understood as a process of sexual liberation. It is now clear, however, that this narrative—of Victorian religious prudery succeeded by supposedly more enlightened secular understandings of sexuality—is itself a product of early modernist anti-Victorianism (Mason 8–20).
And yet, until relatively recently, the consensus among scholars has been that science, and not religion, is “the paradigmatic form of modern sexual knowledge” (Dixon 411). Through the 1980s and 1990s, much of the most innovative work on sexuality in modern Britain focused on the emergence of new scientific—medical, sexological, and psychoanalytic—constructions of sexuality and the complicated ways in which these scientific claims were resisted or renegotiated (411). As H.G. Cocks notes in a recent survey of historical work in the field of religion and sexuality, “Historians of sexuality have tended to recapitulate existing stories of modernity, one of which is the apparently increasing secularization of the world” (157). Because so much of what we know about sexuality in this period focuses on science rather than religion, much of what we think we know about the relationship between religion and sexuality is still informed implicitly by the “repressive hypothesis.”
After more than a generation of neglect, the study of religion has undergone something of a revival since the late 1990s, and secularization theory is, as David Nash argued in 2004, now “in stages of dissolution” (307). This is due in large part to the work of Callum Brown, whose The Death of Christian Britain (2001) played a crucial role in reopening the debate over secularization; there, Brown notes that contrary to the assumptions embedded in the secularization thesis, virtually all indicators of religious affiliation in Britain remained high and stable until the 1960s. While a number of recent studies, including Dominic Erdozain’s The Problem of Pleasure (2010) and S.J.D. Green’s The Passing of Protestant England (2011), [End Page 41] have challenged Brown’s account of secularization’s trajectory and timing, it is clear that studies of modern Britain—including studies of sexuality—can no longer assume the irrelevance of religion.
Brown himself does not jettison the idea of secularization, but merely postpones it (Williams 16). Nash, in contrast, argues that we need to abandon the teleological model of secularization altogether, noting that “it is perhaps profitable at this point to ask, rhetorically, how many other historians are forced (or force themselves) to write history in the knowledge that their subject is at the mercy of an unstoppable and certain historical process” (306). Nash’s argument is bolstered by broader moves to reconceptualize the place of religion in the modern world. As Hent de Vries and Lawrence Sullivan have recently reminded us, “The apparent triumph of Enlightenment secularization, manifest in the global spread of political and economic structures that pretended to relegate the sacred to a strictly circumscribed private sphere, seems to have foundered on an unexpected realization of its own parochialism” (ix).
Working in the shadow of secularization theory, both historians and literary scholars of the Victorian period have tended to interpret religious themes as though they were always really about something else. This tendency is similar to what Sharon Marcus has described in another context as reading “symptomatically,” in which the goal is to “show how the marginal and the invisible are central to narratives that apparently occlude them.” “Symptomatic reading,” Marcus argues, “proposes a surface/depth model of interpretation in which the true meaning of...