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Sex, Drugs and No Birth Control: How accurate is Netflix drama Bridgerton?

Was the Regency era really as racy as the Netflix series Bridgerton makes it out to be?

Illustration of the Duke and Daphne from the Netflix show, Bridgerton
The Duke and Daphne, Elish Kathleen, 2021.

Bridgerton, dubbed Regency romance meets Gossip Girl, has sky-rocketed to popularity since its release on Christmas day. Being one of the only redeeming surprises of 2020, this risqué period drama is filled to the brim with glamour, sex and scandal. For those of you who have not managed to catch up on the early 19th-century drama, the cult series follows the notorious Bridgerton family on all their toils and troubles, from learning what a penis is to duelling in a field for family honour. For all intents and purposes, it certainly acts as a welcome break from the lockdown swamp.

Whilst watching the show, my inner girl’s school student was resurrected seeing chaos ensue if a woman brushed past a potential male suitor. However, soon this prudence is thrown to the wind with orgies, masturbation 101 and many other scenes that make for difficult viewing on the family TV. So, what makes us so hooked on watching sex in period dramas? Have we been underestimating how hot these racy Regency couples were this whole time? While I am no historian, my rummage into the past yielded a few interesting finds…

One thing Bridgerton certainly did base in fact is that sexual education was a complete mess. This so-called era of discovery still often favoured superstition over science, which led to some ridiculous misconceptions – Daphne Bridgerton was certainly not alone in her confusion. In Mike Rendell’s In Bed with Georgians, he summarises a few rogue beliefs: ‘pornography caused earthquakes; masturbation caused blindness’ and horribly, ‘having sex with a young virgin would cure venereal disease’. Sexual disease was rife in this era too and lack of medical know-how exposed a dark underbelly of what seems to be all orgasms and rainbows in Bridgerton. Treatment often involved using mercury, which had dire consequences. It was even believed that women needed to orgasm in order to get pregnant (definitely a rumour made up by fathers). Also, unfortunately for the Duke and Duchess, having sex on the stairs was rumoured to give your child a crooked back.

What may not come as much of a surprise is that the Georgian era is widely recognised as the ‘Sexual Revolution’. However, how you experienced it was largely based on your social status. In some ways, those downstairs seemed to have most of the fun with premarital (gasp) sex being most common amongst the poorer classes. Historian Bridget Hill concludes, ‘it was not just that pre-marital sex was […] tolerated: it was a widespread practice.’ What might be a shock to those who have watched Bridgerton is that 1/6 of all brides were pregnant from 1540 to 1835. Throughout the eighteenth century, 40% of pregnancies were pre-marital. Nonetheless, if you found yourself without a husband before that due date, you would be in trouble. With no hope of equal opportunity, these women were frequently shunned as ‘ruined women’ and would often have to turn to prostitution.

Credit: Bridgerton, Netflix.

So, yes – it really was controversial to be seen alone with a man in public and it would most certainly damage a woman’s chances of finding an eligible husband. Not only this, but women were silenced from even talking about sex – including to the people they were sleeping with! Sex drive was viewed as exclusively male and, as suggested by Barker-Benfield, women who expressed themselves sexually were viewed as ‘masculine’, hysterical, or both.

Whilst dirty talk was largely off the table, many Regency writers still made attempts to write about sex subtly. According to Robert Morrison, code words for sexual desire included ‘“swelling,” “swooning,” “panting,” “blooming,” “blushing,” “burning,” “throbbing,” and “heaving”’ – who needs porn with that level of raunch? Jane Austen made her books spill with sexual tension through the absence of sex itself – in fleeting stares and awkward encounters. The fact that sexual expression was so frowned upon might also be why racy period dramas have gained so much success in recent years. The good girl gone bad vibes of Daphne Bridgerton allow us to see a side to the era which is not so prim and proper.

Fascination with period drama did not begin with Bridgerton, and it certainly won’t stop there either. In an interview with the L.A. Times, Chris Dusen (the creator of Bridgerton) said: “I was obsessed with the 1995 BBC Pride & Prejudice. Obviously, Colin Firth coming out of that lake with the white shirt is seared in my mind”. I am certain Dusen is not alone. These shows give a rose-tinted glimpse into times gone by – but perhaps this is what people love about them. They offer viewers the chance to be transported into the past – bypassing many of the awful horrors in favour of glitz, glam, and scenes that wouldn’t be remiss in a porno.

Whatever the reason, the success of Bridgerton is undeniable, with the show recently being commissioned for a second series. So, if you haven’t seen what all the fuss is about, I would highly recommend – just make sure your parents have been evacuated first.

Further reading:

Barker-Benfield, B. (1972). The spermatic economy: A nineteenth-century view of sexuality. Feminist Studies1(1), pp.45-74.

Hill, Bridget. (2005). Women, work and sexual politics in eighteenth-century England. Routledge, 

Morrison, R (2019).The Regency Years: During Which Jane Austen Writes, Napoleon Fights, and Britain Becomes Modern. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2018. xv1342 pp.

Rendell, M. (2017). In Bed with the Georgians: Sex, Scandal and Satire in the 18th Century. Pen & Sword History.

Charlotte is a fan of all things period-drama. You can find her on Instagram @cmccol.7

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