The Roots of Western Pornography
Regardless of the increased availability of works with a sexual theme both from French imports and a flourishing underground press, the Society for the Suppression of Vice kept up a steady fight and, over the course of 55 years managed a successful prosecution rate of 97 percent. In 1853 the English Parliament passed its first legislation on obscenity, which authorized customs to seize "indecent or obscene prints, paintings, books, cards, engravings or articles." It was regarded as the best way to stem the flow of Parisian etchings, books and the new daguerreotypes, but in reality only served to make everything more expensive.
The underground trade in pornography thrived in spite of the new restrictions, although smaller dealers and street traders who sold cheap prints, books and pamphlets were more vulnerable to the agents of the Society for the Suppression of Vice than booksellers who attempted to screen their clients more carefully. Nevertheless, publishers like William Dugdale, who produced huge amounts of material in the mid-19th century, served at least nine prison sentences for publishing obscene books and prints.
Since there were generally no named authors to pay -- besides the famed Anonymous or authors like "D. Cameron" (a playful twist on Boccaccios 14th-century collection of bawdy tales entitled The Decameron) -- publishers made a lot of their money re-printing old works like Sades. Books like Fanny Hill had a rebirth with dozens of re-prints, some of which were enlivened with new chapters or with words altered to make the characters sound more crude and contemporary.
By the early 1850s, a plethora of magazines had emerged, some of them focusing on what Lord Alfred Douglas would later describe as "the love that dare not speak its name" -- homosexuality. Part of this was encouraged by an almost reverential attitude toward Classical Greek art and architecture and by the view that male friendship was somehow a purer expression of love than that between men and women. The contradiction, of course, was that the conventional Victorian view saw homosexuality as completely unacceptable.
In 1868, one of the tightest gags ever imposed on English writers -- namely, the Hicklin rule -- was to have profound effects on both sides of the Atlantic for decades to come. It established that the test for obscenity was whether or not material could corrupt those whose minds were open to immoral influences. If the answer was yes, the material was suppressed. The rule was applied not only to literary works but to materials like sex education pamphlets.
The Hicklin rule, while a serious deterrent, simply made underground publishers more vigilant. Booksellers kept secretly printed texts and magazines stashed away for only a select and trusted clientele -- magazines with rather sophisticated titles like The English Womans Domestic Magazine, The Pearl, and The Exquisite -- one of the first to feature "pin-ups." Others sounded a bit more suggestive: The Boudoir, Glee, Pleasure, The Annals of Gallantry. In short, magazines attempted to cater to every possible taste.
The Pearl (published between 1879 and 1880) contained serialized novels, short stories, poems, songs, jokes, limericks, letters, and gossip with a heavy interest in flagellation, as well as homosexuality and bisexuality. At one point, the entire collection was sold in a 3-volume set for the sum of 25 pounds -- roughly the annual salary of the average worker of the time.
Aside from the well-worn theme of the reluctant virgin, references to flagellation were ubiquitous in English pornography. Judging from titles like The Curiosities of Flagellation, The Whippingham Papers, and The Romance of Chastisement, among dozens of other works, there was a clear and abiding fascination with it. The possible reasons for this consuming interest in the pleasure of whipping reflect the eroticization of a social reality. Corporal punishment had been an integral part of English culture for hundreds of years, and was more or less institutionalized in schools, the military and the penal system. The predominantly upper-class male audience interested in the flagellation genre would most likely have experienced it as children, where it was an ever-present component of boarding school life. One theory set forth regarding the Victorian fascination with flagellation literature centers on the notion of the buttocks replacing the genitals as the primary erotic zone. This becomes clearer when one analyzes this literature and noting that although it was designed to arouse, the genitals are almost never mentioned.
No study of late-Victorian erotica would be complete without mentioning My Secret Life, a 4,000-page, fact-crammed, first-hand portrait of Victorian sexuality written by "Walter" -- presumably an Englishman of some means. Experts disagree on whether or not Walter was, in reality, Sir Henry Spencer Ashbee, a well-known collector of erotic books who ultimately donated his enormous collection to the British Library.
Born somewhere between 1820 and 1825, Walters memoirs essentially span the Victorian era, ending when he is in his mid-60s. My Secret Life details Walters sexual exploits with over 1,200 women, recording dress, manners, social customs, and Victorian lifestyle. The book serves as an important document, in that it reveals more of Londons lowlife and the exploitation of women and girls, including the massive trade in child prostitution, than any book Charles Dickens might have written. It is an extraordinary example of the thriving sexual subculture that existed in spite of Victorian efforts to eradicate the existence of sex through collective amnesia.
Fin-de-siècle themes in both art and pornography played with a whole spectrum of ideas, including hermaphroditism, transvestism, bisexuality, and homosexual love. The sexually provocative drawings of Aubrey Beardsley, for instance, were filled with both hugely erect and sexually ambiguous figures, and Teleny, a novel published in 1893 and to which Oscar Wilde is thought to have contributed, is considered to be the first modern homosexual novel. While the 1890s produced some of the more interesting and sophisticated expressions of erotica, it was also the decade in which Oscar Wilde was sentenced to prison for being homosexual. At his arrest, Wilde was reported to have been carrying a copy of The Yellow Book, a controversial magazine that Aubrey Beardsley had helped found. As a consequence, Beardsley lost his job.
Toward the end of the 19th century, the production of pornography in England subsided dramatically and shifted again to France, where several London publishers were forced to relocate. In the early part of the century, as well as in the years following the First World War, France would become a publishing epicenter, nurturing writers of literary porn like Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin. It also became the arena for major censorship battles and home to Maurice Girodias Olympia Press, a publishing house devoted almost exclusively to the production of porn novels. In 1947, French publisher Jean-Jacques Pauvert dared to publish the works of the Marquis de Sade, and then proceeded to fight a protracted legal battle in which it was ruled in 1958 that four of Sades works -- 120 Days of Sodom, The New Justine, Juliette and Philosophy in the Boudoir -- would continue to be suppressed. A few years later, however, new publication freedoms made it possible for these works to appear in mass-market paperback editions. Similarly, it wasnt until the 1960s and the defeat of prosecutions against books like Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure -- a work written over 200 years before -- that the Western world would finally choose to recognize its erotic masterpieces.
As pornography has been shaped by historical forces, the battle over its existence has most often come down to issues of control: the right of the individual to read, view or produce it versus the right of society to control its consumption. In spite of this cultures heavy sex-negative mantle, wrought by its Judeo-Christian heritage, no Western society has yet been successful at purging sexual expression.
What the last few hundred years do seem to reveal is that suppression provides an effective, and often welcome springboard -- to more sexual expression. In fact, the more a government attempts to squeeze erotic expression out of people, the more new ways it finds to raise its priapic head.
Twentieth-century philosopher Herbert Marcuse recognized the potentially revolutionary aspects of pornography in political terms, applauding its subversive function in rigidly ruled societies. Those conforming to the status quo in a sexually repressed culture cannot tolerate pornography because, Marcuse explained: "The unsublimated, unrationalized release of sexual relations would mean the most emphatic release of pleasure as such and the total devaluation of work for works sake. The tension between the innate value of work and the freedom of pleasure could not be tolerated by the individual; the hopelessness and injustice of working conditions would strikingly penetrate the consciousness of individuals and render impossible their peaceable regimentation in the social system of the bourgeois world."
A concept that Aretino would have heartily endorsed.
Part 1: I modi
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