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

Part 6
How the Victorian Era Spawned Pornography's Golden Age

By Marianna Beck, Ph.D.

New moral standards began to evolve along with new ideals of domesticity. No longer was porn viewed with alarm for its social and political criticism, but for its potential harm in subverting established sexual differences and worst of all, corrupting the innocent and feeble-minded -- meaning, of course, women.

During the 19th century, the traffic in pornography grew at an enormous rate and shifted from France, where it had been dramatically shaped by Sade, to England, where it would become highly commercialized. Ironically, the morally severe Victorian Age yielded some of pornography’s most popular classics: The Romance of Lust, The Amatory Experiences of a Surgeon, and The Autobiography of a Flea, to name just a few titles. In a century characterized by its rigid moral codes and authoritarian controls, pornography evolved into a genre whose sole raison d’être was sexual arousal.

With the French Revolution having sent shock waves throughout Europe, there was greater policing of potentially subversive materials. One major outward sign of changing attitudes in England was the formation in 1802 of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. It sought to get rid of bordellos, as well as to eliminate what it considered obscene, particularly the traffic in salacious materials from Paris. Based on what had happened in France, there was also a lingering fear of political subversion. In 1819, for instance, the Society for the Suppression of Vice successfully prosecuted publisher Richard Carlile for publishing, of all things, Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason, in which he criticized Christianity and the morality of the Bible. (For this, the publisher spent two years in prison.) This proved to be one of many examples in which obscenity prosecution was used by government as a weapon to silence critics.

The theme of depicting women in a harem setting was extremely common in pornography because it suggested that women underneath it all -- and given half a chance -- were really sex crazed creatures.

Nineteenth-century social reformers were especially mindful of keeping incendiary literature suppressed -- and especially out of the hands of women. Stricter moral standards evolved and every effort was made to eradicate sexual materials. Greater emphasis was placed on the modesty of women who it was thought, were biologically inferior and hence more impressionable to carnal influences. No longer was porn solely viewed with alarm for its social and political criticism, but for its potential harm in subverting established sexual differences and worst of all, corrupting the innocent.

Just as there was a growing distinction made between chaste women and sinful ones, books began to be classified as either morally uplifting or degrading. An instructional example of the tenor of the times was Dr. Thomas Bowdler, a well-to-do middle-class physician, who in 1818 produced The Family Shakespeare. What he did was to "purify" Shakespeare’s plays by removing all the offending parts, so that "a man could read aloud to his daughters with complete confidence." The Family Shakespeare was a great success. Hence the term "bowdlerize," which means to cleanse a literary work of anything offensive.

While women were protected from anything that might cause a blush to rise in their cheeks, pornography for men in England began to flourish. An official statistic of the Society for the Suppression of Vice indicates that by 1834, there were 57 porn shops on one street in London alone.


One of the prominent characteristics of Victorian porn is its almost burlesque quality, and its skewering of family values and institutions at almost every turn. Much like Sade, who excelled at mocking morality, Victorian pornography sought to create moral anarchy whenever possible.

One popular novel in this period was The Lustful Turk by the prolific author, Anonymous. Although it’s considered a pre-Victorian novel with its narrative mode and prose style, its themes played out in much of the pornography that was to follow. The Lustful Turk is a good example of 19th-century pornography with Sadian overtones, particularly in its depiction of violent, aggressive sexuality. The plot of The Lustful Turk, as that of many other later works, was largely concerned with this sexuality of domination accompanied by elements of sadism: a reluctant virgin is raped and then herself becomes obsessed with sex. This particular fascination with deflowering virgins permeated much of 19th-Victorian pornography, and was an all-consuming passion in an enormous work called My Secret Life.

This recurring theme of the virgin who metamorphoses into a sexually driven character is especially revealing, given the widely held perception of women as sexually pure creatures who, according to Dr. William Acton, a leading physician of the day, were "happily not much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind." Acton further asserted that "love of home, children and domestic duties are the only passions they feel." Pornography’s function has often been to mirror the opposite of standardized social behavior, so it seems no surprise that in a society that did not accord women sexual feelings, female porn characters would be portrayed as aggressive and highly sexed.

It seems hardly a coincidence then that the golden age of repression gave birth to the golden age of stroke literature. One of pornography’s tenets has always been to lampoon, if not convey, society’s opposites.

One of the prominent characteristics of Victorian porn is its almost burlesque quality, and its skewering of family values and institutions at almost every turn. Much like Sade, who excelled at mocking morality, Victorian pornography sought to create moral anarchy whenever possible. In a society that publicly refused to accept homosexuality or any other activity outside the bounds of heterosexual sex, pornography was filled with every possible kind of sex. It seems hardly a coincidence that the golden age of repression gave birth to the golden age of stroke literature. One of pornography’s tenets has always been that its characterizations tend to lampoon, if not convey, society’s opposites. The powerless morph into the powerful. Pornography becomes a kind of Rorschach test reflecting not only political and social discontent, but central cultural taboos.

Part 1: I modi
Part 2: The French Enlightenment Takes on Sex
Part 3: England Bites Back With Fanny Hill
Part 4: The French Revolution and the Spread of Politically-Motivated Pornography
Part 5: The Marquis de Sade's Twisted Parody of Life

Coming in May: How greater repression and increased policing yielded a flourishing underground press.

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