It’s not often we get our jollies from a Harvard University Press title, but I couldn’t help but get a little…uh..excited…by today’s Washington Post review of Licentious Gotham, by Donna Dennis. Dennis, a professor at Rutgers School of Law, has devoted herself to writing the history of erotic publishing in 19th century America, one which “aims to reconstruct “the meaning of obscenity” and shows how bans on erotic novels and stories “promoted, as much as suppressed” the expression of sexuality in that era.
To which I say: “Ooh! Dirty books! Hooray!”
I’ve always been a big fan of classic erotica, particularly the Victorian kind. Fanny Hill? Flossie? The Lusty Turk? Yes, please! Anyone who thinks that the erotica revolution started with D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover is sorely mistaken (and anyway, Lady Chatterley seems sour and tame when compared with the exuberance of Victorian erotica). There was plenty of erotica floating around–some of it posing as literature, but most of it being sold purely as entertainment. And all that old-fashioned repression made for some extra-smutty smut, starting with the over-share-y vintage titles:
Many of these “standard works of the voluptuary” were imported from England or supposedly translated from scandalous French originals. Whatever their naughty contents, the language of their titles is certainly luscious: Consider “The Confessions of a Voluptuous Lady of High Rank. Disclosing Her Secret Longings and Private Amours before Marriage. Forming a Curious Picture of Fashionable Life and Refined Sensuality” or “The Cabinet of Venus Unlocked in a Series of Dialogues between Louisa Lovestone and Mariana Greedy, Two Cyprians! of the Most Accomplished Talent in the Science of Practical Love.”
Come on, now, who wouldn’t want to read those? That flagrantly woman-centric tone is a pretty good indicator that society wasn’t quite as buttoned-up as you’d think, at least, not in private:
Dennis points out that many of these works boldly highlight the existence of female sexuality: Women were actually depicted experiencing desire, even lust. This, she suggests, was a kind of progress, given an era when wives were generally expected to show no signs of passion and were usually advised — in the old British phrase — to simply lie back and think of England.
Not only was this erotica challenging long-held notions about women and sex, the way it was edited and distributed actually sounds surprisingly modern:
In 1856, George Akarman inaugurated the country’s first sex magazine, Venus’ Miscellany. It was sold by mail and thus discreetly available to anyone anywhere. Before long, the magazine’s popular letters column was encouraging ordinary women, as well as men, to describe their sex lives and fantasies. No doubt much of this material was made up by the editors. And yet the very existence of such a feature suggests that eroticism could move out of the brothel or the French chateau and actually become middle-class and downright American.
Penthouse Letters? Nancy Friday? Sounds like they weren’t exactly the pioneers we thought they were. And thank goodness for that; it makes me feel a lot better about the bad old days to know that even then, there was a subversive undercurrent of sex-positive naughtiness running through society, and it came complete with wank material.