Libido: Reviews: Pornography in America
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Pornography in America: A Reference Handbook

By Jay Gertzman

When U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said in the 1960s that he knows pornography when he sees it, he came as close as anyone has in making a definitive legal statement about it. One of Mae West’s reasons for making love every day was that she was convinced that male semen kept her complexion clear. The process of vulcanizing rubber allowed for improved condoms, as well as fetish clothing. The first raid on a porno film was in 1915. In the 1980s, lesbians fought feminist critics of pornography over the issue of S/M, which they defended as allowing them to create unique, empowering self-images. Many of the best analyses of pornography have been written by women who reject the anti-porn position.

These disparate facts are samples of those Joseph Slade offers. Each is presented in a rich context, for this is no mere inventory of useful information. They represent the variety of subjects which a study of pornography encompasses: legal judgements, scientific and pseudoscientific beliefs, gender issues, and literary, philosophical, and sociological theory. Anyone who has read about the subject -- see Jack Hafferkamp’s essays on American censorship on this website -- knows how interdisciplinary it is, which is one reason so much has been written about it. Interested people also experience, therefore, the problem of needing to understand some legal, psychological, sociological, media-centered or historical ramification in order to think clearly about their own area of expertise. A useful reference work would be invaluable, but who could complete such a herculean task? Dr. Slade, professor of telecommunications at Ohio University and specialist in erotic films, has done it brilliantly -- it will not have to be done again. His book is a coherent and detailed overview of a most complex subject.

The introductory chapter discusses the mainstreaming and commodification of sexual images, offers good definitions of pornography, erotica and the obscene. (Only later, in relation to FCC regulations, artwork involving religious themes, and trash TV, does he discuss indecency, a broader category of the subversive than is obscenity). Slade points out that it is not pornography but the obscene that is censored. The point at which sexual explicitness seems subversive of conventional morality is decisive. That point varies from time to time, of course, and from place to place. When it is reached, for example when an artist draws a nude African American woman with five wounds in crucifix position, beliefs which people think are based on the incontrovertible truth are aroused, as are feelings of anger. Slade discusses pornography as folklore at this point, so that the reader may see the kaleidoscope of feelings and viewpoints that are essential to representations which aim to arouse sexually. Then he turns to their involvement with manners, politics, technology, feminism, censorship, and the law. His introduction ends with informative and lucid sections on criminal exploitation of porn, and academic research on it.

His next chapter is a historical survey, divided into the various ways sexual desire is communicated: speech, books, newspapers, and magazines, visual art, performance, film, photography, and electronic media. But first he discusses speech itself, and its early recorders: lexicographers and folklorists who had to publish their work in private because it would have been banned as obscene. An early student and publicizer of their work was Gershon Legman, whose own massive study of dirty jokes is a classic. (A few chapters of Legman's autobiography, Peregrine Penis, as yet unpublished except for a very small sample, appeared in Libido in 1989). In the section on erotic newspapers and magazines, we learn that America's very first newspaper was banned for a lurid (that is, pornographic) story considered to be an attack on the French king (and therefore obscene). Always, Slade begins at the very beginning, which is impressive in itself and doubly so when the reader considers the many variations on what Americans believed and still believe about the reality of sex and its power.

Confidential, Captain Billy's Whiz Bang, Al Goldstein's Screw -- a result of the style of the "underground newspapers" of the radical '60s -- Ed Sanders' Fuck You, and Andy Warhol's InterView all have their place. The section on erotic literature maps the contours in a way which shows the progression from the antebellum novels set oh-so-appropriately in Philadelphia and Boston, through the Civil War porn for the trenches to the "sunlight and shadows" genre of the sins of the Gilded Age cities, and on to the place of the inventors of the Graham Cracker and Corn Flakes in the development of the sex manual. His coverage of the twentieth century also shows the place of a wide range of writers and poets in sexual exploration, folklore, censorship, and iconoclastic statements about gender. The discussion of erotic art is equally provocative and eye opening. In later sections, this adjective is especially apt. A few examples are the importance of public sexual performance, the way French postcards became incorporated in teaching tools and early books for table display, how bodybuilding drawings were subversive art not merely advertisements, the "porn chic" of Times Square movies, and the revolutionary nature of Internet porn.

Also provided are a detailed chronology beginning in 500 A.D. and ending in 1999, biographical sketches, and a section on Documents and Statistics. For me personally, and I think for anyone curious about pornography, these chapters are invaluable, as is the bibliography. No one can command a familiarity with the entire range of this subject, and studies of any aspect of it refer to material readers do not know about. Why was the melodrama The Black Crook banned? What was the most significant pornographic novel, when was it banned, and who wrote it? When did Ralph Ginzburg's troubles begin and how did they end? What does one need to know about David F. Friedman, Irving Klaw, or Edward Donnerstein. Which court decisions regarding the First Amendment are essential? For anyone interested in pornography, and for their high school and college-age children (who one hopes study human sexuality, American history, and the Constitution), Pornography in America is a bargain.

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Contemporary World Issues Series, by Joseph W. Slade (ABC-CLIO: Santa Barbara, CA: 2001. 349 pages, $45