Libido: Naked Brunch: The Roots of Western Pornography
NAKED BRUNCH
The Roots of Western Pornography

Part 2
The French Enlightenment Takes on Sex
By Marianna Beck, Ph.D.


The growth of pornographic literature in 17th-century Europe can certainly be linked to the beginning of the Enlightenment, when basic attitudes about authority, religion, and science began to change. There was greater emphasis on the value of science -- hence interest in the mechanics of conception and contraception. Condoms, for instance, were available in London in the 1660s, along with Italian-made dildos. In some ways, the defining paradigm of porn literature in the Enlightenment was the propagation of sexual pleasure as a new religion.

Much libertine porn literature is set in churches and monasteries — one sure way to break moral, religious and sexual taboos all at the same time.
In these years France provided fertile soil for subversive literature. It became a primary function of libertine philosophy to attack the bastions of sexual repression, which were embodied, above all, by the moral teachings of the Catholic Church. Much libertine porn is set in churches and monasteries — one sure way to break moral, religious and sexual taboos all at the same time.

One striking aspect of 17th- and 18th-century "Euro-porn" is the preponderance of female characters. Two early French works, L’Ecole des Filles, published in about 1655, and L’Academie des Dames (1680), were written as female dialogues — a literary device that was to be repeated many times over the next century in works such as John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure and the Marquis de Sade’s Juliette.

Creating female narrators who were essentially the intellectual equals of men and as capable of, if not eager for, sexual pleasure, was certainly a transgression of expected female roles, and underscored pornography’s subversive function. A courtesan or prostitute could not only convey sexual information but also act as a kind of social barometer. While some courtesans wielded enormous power and influence, women in society were generally powerless. In large part, the character of the autonomous woman, sophisticated in the ways of the world, was a fictional creation because her powers generally weren’t reflected in social reality.

L’Ecole des Filles’ anarchistic message was the idealization of sex. While it by no means resembled the dark and more politically subversive works that made the Marquis de Sade notorious more than 100 years later, L’Ecole des Filles is considered by scholars the origin of pornography in France. The book was severely criticized for celebrating a libertine lifestyle of decadence and debauchery despite the fact that the dialogue between two young women, 16-year-old Fanny and Suzanne, her older, more experienced cousin, is more ribald than subversive. Largely, L’Ecole des Filles offended because it represented a gross undermining of the moral teachings of both parents and religion. Its language is explicit and the characters relate their sexual encounters with great enthusiasm.

The accused authors of the book, Michel Millot and Jean L’Ange, were given light jail sentences, suggesting that the true author might have been someone higher up and more politically connected. Several authors have been linked to L’Ecole des Filles, including Louis XIV’s mistress, Madame de Maintenon, and his finance minister, Nicholas Fouquet.

Given the climate of political repression during the reign of Louis XIV, L’Ecole des Filles symbolized the fusion between sexual explicitness and political dissidence. This connection between debauchery and tyranny is a theme that played out frequently in the 17th and 18th centuries, and it assumed a pivotal role in the years leading up to the French Revolution in 1789.

Creating female narrators who were essentially the intellectual equals of men and as capable of, if not eager for, sexual pleasure, was certainly a transgression of expected female roles, and underscored pornography’s subversive function
Given the strict moral codes imposed by the operative patriarchy -- women’s virtue and chastity had to be protected from the dangers of sex.

The spread of literacy in the 18th century triggered even greater concern over pornography’s supposed power to corrupt and undermine society. Traditionally, its consumers were the male ruling elite, but a burgeoning middle class whose moral attitudes weren’t as easily patrolled, was increasingly challenging the power of the ruling classes. Anxiety centered on the growing belief that while erotic literature might not necessarily corrupt educated men, it threatened the morals of women and servants. Mothers were viewed as the family guardians of morality and therefore in need of special protection from vulgar and salacious representations of sex. This middle-class fear of porn’s potentially deleterious effect on women was largely the same as earlier concerns of aristocrats, who feared the dissemination of incendiary material among the lower classes.

The belief in the power of pornography to deprave and corrupt (which remains the official motive for censorship even in the 20th century) continued to fuel fear of the perceived causal connection between sexual immorality and political subversion.

Part 1: I modi

Coming in January, England’s answer to all those naughty French novels -- Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure by John Cleland.

For information on reprinting this series for classroom use, please contact us at editor@libidomag.com, or phone 800-495-1988