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

Part 4
The French Revolution and the Spread of Politically-Motivated Pornography

By Marianna Beck, Ph.D.

During the French Revolution, pornography acquired a wide, new audience — large numbers of working class people. By undermining the old regime, politically-motivated pornography helped bring about the revolution. By the way, the dildo the woman is holding is inscribed with the words: "The Rights of Man."
In the years leading up to the French Revolution, politically motivated pornography increased steadily, reaching a fevered pitch in both volume and vitriol after the presses were freed in 1789. The prime targets were the aristocracy and the clergy, and both groups were frequently depicted as impotent, disease-ridden and morally corrupt. Paradoxically, sexually oriented materials, which had once been the sole domain of the upper classes, now became the weapon used by the lower classes against the despised aristocrats.

No one connected with the aristocracy was immune to attack, including King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette. Some of the most vicious attacks were leveled at the Queen. Pamphlets questioning the paternity of her children, her wild orgies and presumed lesbian activities circulated for the first time to large numbers of the bourgeoisie and working class. These misogynistic attacks continued even after she was imprisoned, at which point materials were circulated accusing her of having an incestuous relationship with her young son.

The purpose for these vicious assaults was to undermine royal authority; if the king couldn’t control his wife or know for certain whether he was the father of his children, then how could he possibly demand obedience from his subjects? Another possible reason for the extreme viciousness may center on the underlying anxiety about the role of women and the issue of delineating clear gender boundaries. Degrading the queen had a kind of leveling, democratizing effect, particularly when she was depicted having sex with members of the lower classes. In other words, her body, especially when portrayed as a prostitute, made her ostensibly available to every man. These attacks continued until she was beheaded in 1793.

This particular caricature is a great example of the change of pornography’s role in terms of both political and religious subversion. It was distributed anonymously throughout the new republic and was intended as a double insult. This person featured was both a politician and member of the clergy.

The Marquis de Sade’s novels marked a major transition in the 1790s. After the French Revolution, pornography lost its political overtones and gradually began to be replaced by material that pushed more generalized social boundaries. Rather than targeting political figures, Sade attacked every aspect of conventional morality.

In many of his works, Sade focused primarily on the complete annihilation of the body in the pursuit of pleasure, and in doing so, he has been characterized as everything from a raving lunatic to the embodiment of the devil to a brilliant philosopher and prophet of disorder. Many of the themes in modern pornography were touched on in Sade’s novels.

Part 1: I modi
Part 2: The French Enlightenment Takes on Sex
Part 3: England Bites Back With Fanny Hill

Coming in March: How Sade’s warped vision became an embryonic form of 20th-century existentialism and nihilism.

For information on reprinting this series for classroom use, please contact us at [email protected], or phone 800-495-1988

This is yet another image from a pamphlet portraying the queen as a prostitute. Many of the attacks centered on her voracious sexual appetite. One thought for the viciousness centers on the general anxiety surrounding the role of women. Were they fellow revolutionaries, mothers or prostitutes — and where exactly, in this time of upheaval, were the gender boundaries?
When the presses were freed in France in 1789, political pornography became even more vicious — and much of the vitriol was aimed at Queen Marie Antoinette. One theory for going after the queen was of course to undermine the whole notion of royal authority." This one depicts Marie Antoinette and General Lafayette — the same LaFayette we all learned about in school who helped out during the American Revolution.