Log in

Previous Entry | Next Entry

19th Century Hard Pore Corn

Just a couple of days ago I finished reading Steven Marcus' obscure 1974 book The Other Victorians: A study of sexuality and pornography in 19th century England. For the life of me, I don't remember who recommended it to me, but I'm glad I snapped up a copy. The book has its origin in the library of the Kinsey Institute. When they finally got around to cataloging all of the books that they'd bought or had donated to them over the years, they discovered that they had several shelves of 19th century British porn, dating from around 1825 to 1897 or so -- and no experts on 19th century England on their staff to make any sense out of what they had and put it in any context. So they raised some grant money and hired Steven Marcus, a guy who did his post-grad work on Dickens and who had written a book on Freud, to go through it all, categorize it, and determine for them if it was worth any further study. It was, and Marcus himself got the first book out of the subject, this book. Basically, he divided all of the material the Kinsey Institute had into five categories. In this book he analyzes their materials within each of the categories, places it in its proper historical context, and sketches out what future researchers could learn (and have since learned) from studying the material.

It's a good book, maybe even a great one. I'm left with two criticisms, but both of them feel like nitpicks. The first nitpick is that the book way over-depends on Freudian theories of sexuality to explain the hypothetical motives of the authors, customers, and fictional characters of all this porn. That's hard to pick on him for, though. For one thing, hire a Freud scholar, get Freudian analysis, d'uh. But even more basic than that, in 1974 when this book was being written, who wasn't a Freudian? The second nitpick is even more trivial, but it's one that complicates my review: I think he tells the book out of order. I would definitely switch the order of his categories around a little. And, in fact, I'm going to save the most fascinating couple of chapters of his book for tomorrow, the ones that make up his third category. The others are:

Medical textbooks and pseudo-scientific works of popular science. These were not written with prurient intent. In fact, as he documents, the intent was the exact opposite. These present perhaps the best example you'll ever find of what I've heard called the Victorian Compromise (if I understand the term correctly, and I may not -- I'm hardly an expert on that time in history, and I probably need to study it more). Darwinism and other scientific advances were leading to creeping secularism, at least in outlook, among medical and scientific experts of the day. But Victorian scientists and intellectuals set out to prove that this didn't mean that morality should be looser than it was under "superstitious" Christian rule. On the contrary, they argued that based on purely scientific grounds they could prove that the code of morality needed to be even more strict. Their argument was based on entirely bullcrap pseudo-scientific theories of human anatomy and medicine, ones that were already relatively easily disproven even in the 1870s. But the argument served the purposes of those making it so well that books reprinting the same mistakes and lies were still in print as late as the 1940s; I have in my library (well, out on loan) a collection of Eugenics pamphlets from that time that preserve every bogus pseudo-scientific superstition of the mid 1800s, called Safe Counsel.

Their "central scientific finding" was that they considered it medically proven that every orgasm a man has in his entire life places such extreme demands on his metabolism that it trims months, maybe years, off of his life each time. They also considered it scientifically proven that healthy human males have no sexual feelings of their own before age 14 or after age 16 or so, that any man who experiences any sexual desire any other time has something medically wrong with him. They also held that it was scientifically proven that healthy human women have no sexual desires of their own, but that it was possible for randy teenage boys (and sick men) to "infect" them with sexual desires. If not prevented, this could lead to them demanding so much sex after marriage that it would permanently wreck the health of both of them; why, if they had sex as often as once a week, it might trim 30 years or more off of their lives. No, they considered it to have been medically proven that the only "safer sex" was to only have sex when you were planning on having a child, and for both partners to undertake extreme measures to cure themselves of any residual sexual desire after the second child to live through infancy, for the sake of everybody's health.

The other aspect of the Victorian Compromise was that Victorian intellectuals, doctors, and politicians all knew that some large number of the public weren't living by this "scientific" moral code. The compromise they hammered out among themselves was that this imposed upon the government the contradictory need to institute some kind of harm reduction strategy, to contain the health effects of people's immorality, while trying to maintain the illusion that nobody else but you has ever wanted to do whatever perverted thing it is that you want to do. It was a tough tightrope act, and of course we all know that it eventually failed. Anyway, Marcus reviews these materials first because the authors of three of the other four categories he reviews were all intimately aware of these medical and "scientific" manuals, and their works exist as a kind of twisted reflection of or reaction to those books.

Catalogs of porn collectors. In particular, while acknowledging other attempts to catalog porn, Marcus is most impressed by and spends most of his analytical efforts on the works of the pseudonymous world-famous Victorian pornography collector "Pisanus Fraxi," aka Henry Spencer Ashbee. Ashbee's immense 3-volume work particularly interested Marcus because Ashbee, in addition to being the most prolific porn collector we know of from that time period, was also relatively fastidious in his reviews: he flatly refused to state an opinion on any piece of porn that he'd merely heard of, that he himself had not read. In fact, it isn't until the later volumes that he even decided to reprint lists of titles from other people's catalogs and collections; Pisanus' real obsession was with providing other collectors with reliable ways to predict, in advance, when they saw a book in a catalog or a bookstore, what particular kind of porn they were going to find in it and whether or not it was any good. To that end, he reprinted at least one excerpt of the "juicy bits" from everything he cataloged, footnoted heavily with pseudo-scientific or pseudo-intellectual commentary in three languages. Ironically, by the time he got started on the third volume, enterprising pornography printers and sellers were already plagiarizing the excerpts in his original book to produce, yes, more porn.

A random selection of generic Victorian sex porn. Marcus reviews four of these books in some detail, and summarizes the rest of the collection as not significantly different from those four: the same stock characters, the same stock locations, the same two or three thin skeins of plot, and similar if not identical sex scenes. The interesting point that Marcus makes about this is that, since it can be shown that most pornography collectors and purchasers that we know of from that period also made a point of owning and reading the "scientific" sex texts of their day, the porn exists not as a description of real sex as any Victorian might experience it (despite the reassurance in the first sentence of every single one of these books and stories that the events that follow "actually happened"), but as a childish fantasy, or ecstatic fantasy, of what sex would be like without the constraints of moral law, human psychology, or the limitations of human anatomy, let alone the need to occasionally take a break from sex to eat, sleep, or earn a living. In fact, the overwhelming majority of it reads as if the authors had never actually had sex in their lives, never even so much as seen the opposite gender naked, like cartoon pseudo-porn produced by pre-pubescents. And tracking the publishing industry for porn in the 19th century, both through Pisanus' and others catalogs and from researching the provenance of the porn collection at the Kinsey library, Marcus concludes that the vast majority of it was written by people whose sum total knowledge of sex came from reading and plagiarizing porn written by other people who had never sex before, either. Which leaves:

Spanking fetish porn. Which, of course, you were expecting before you even finished the first paragraph, right, because we are after all talking about the Victorian English, whose upper class and upper middle class men are still universally notorious for their nearly universal spanking fetish. Marcus analyzes the text, and concludes two things: that it is as bafflingly asexual as it is possible to be and still be sold by pornographers, and that it is as gay as a tree full of parrots. That is to say, first of all he observes that in none of the samples from that time period that he was able to find does anybody actually touch anybody anywhere, person to person, nor are anybody's genitals touched at all. Genitals are scarcely ever mentioned, and the few works that make a passing reference to genitalia mock them relentlessly as, at most, a source of embarrassment over urinary incontinence or malformity. And that secondly, without exception the fantasy is about little boys, or girls who are secretly boys, or girls who are entirely boyish, being beaten by extraordinarily mannish women or by women who are secretly men. That is to say, that the universal spanking fetish, so far as he could tell from studying the examples available to him in part or entirety, is about adult men spanking little boys, but where in order to keep their sanity everybody involved agrees to pretend that at least the adult, and usually both participants, are actually female.

That's four of Marcus' five categories. The missing one is his third, which consists of one and only one published work that is so important that he squeezes two chapters of analysis of it in between category two and four, instead of saving it for the end of the book where I would argue it belongs. Because the order of progression would have made more sense to me if first he had talked about medical texts, then what we know of the broader field of pornography from the catalogs of the porn publishers and porn collectors, then the two main categories of porn in those catalogs, heterosexual sex fantasy and gay male BDSM. Then would have been the perfect time to bring up the single most important, notorious, infamous, controversial, blasphemous, and medically and scientifically and historically important piece of porn from the entire 19th century, which is completely unlike everything else in the pornographers' collections. More about that tomorrow.



( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 26th, 2007 07:42 am (UTC)
I have a fairly good guess as to what that is, but I don't want to spoil the other readers. Can't wait to see if I'm right, though. :)

So far for 2007 we've got politics and sex covered so far on your blog. I'm waiting for more Cthulhu and religion, or perhaps religious Cthulhu.
Jan. 26th, 2007 07:51 am (UTC)
If you do know enough to get it right, then you are obviously one of the people I need to ask to recommend to me a couple of more books on Victorian censorship policies and the Victorian Compromise, subjects that I suspect I need to know a lot better than I do before I resume work in earnest on my book on Forbidden Lore.
Jan. 26th, 2007 03:30 pm (UTC)
I've got a guess too, but I suppose we'll find out tomorrow.
Jan. 26th, 2007 12:01 pm (UTC)
I like the "in three languages" thing. I was just reading a 19th-century translation of a collection of mid-to-late Anglo-Saxon medical texts, and the translation is usually from Old English into modern English except in the case of sections relating to the genitals, where it's generally from Old English into Latin or Greek. I assume this is because ladies and the lower orders shouldn't be made aware that their ancestors had reproductive organs, since there's nothing remotely prurient about them.
Jan. 27th, 2007 05:35 am (UTC)
Exactly. Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis had large portions written in Latin to make sure that only qualified people would read it, and some editions were prefaced that it was only to be sold to legal or medical professionals. Despite that, it sold extremely well to lay readers.
Jan. 27th, 2007 07:08 am (UTC)
It's more a pseudo-scholarship thing; part of proving to your readers that you were a true intellectual, and worth listening to, was "proving" that you were also following the latest research from the Continent, by proving that you were fluent in French and German. Marcus says that for all that Ashbee was trying to sound intellectual, his actual analytical writing in the catalogs comes across, even by Victorian pseudo-scientific standards, as total drivel. But hey, tri-lingual drivel - tres chic.
Jan. 26th, 2007 03:39 pm (UTC)
I have a guess for the last... but I'm probably wrong.

I observe that Victorian pornographers had a lot in common with slash writers today...
Jan. 26th, 2007 04:09 pm (UTC)
I think you could make a better comparison with yaoi, which is "gay male porn" written by heterosexual women based on their fantasy of what they like to imagine that gay male sex should be like.
Jan. 26th, 2007 06:19 pm (UTC)
Trust me. The majority of slash fanfiction is also "'gay male porn' written by heterosexual women based on their fantasy of what they like to imaging that gay male sex should be like."

But then, you can probably also argue that most lesbian porn is directed and choreographed by heterosexual men based on what they imagine lesbian sex should be like. Hell, porn in general is based on fantasy, not reality.
Jan. 26th, 2007 09:32 pm (UTC)
Looking forward to the followup, and to see how it squares with what I've read by Foucault on the history of sexuality.

Don't know if you've read the first volume yourself. It's predictably dense, and I think uncessessarily so, but there are some interesting ideas, most provocatively his refutation that there was a mythic golden age of openness and a mythic dark age of repression during Victorian England. His thesis is that, rather than insist on a hush about sex, culture was aiming to re-channel it in such a way as to make it widely discursive, and hence, controllable by scientists, priests, and/or the government.

The medical texts are mentioned, and some religious ones. In particular was one widely-cited confessional work Foucault seemed to feel was very important, as it was referenced by clergy and science alike, and I wonder if that's to be touched on in the remaining category.
Jan. 27th, 2007 05:44 am (UTC)
Marcus is a good starting point in discussion of Victorian sexuality, but a lot of people have written since, basically refuting all of his theories. I think he badly misreads flagellation pornography. Ian Gibson's The English Vice is a much more thorough discussion of flagellation, though still pretty flawed.
Jan. 27th, 2007 07:05 am (UTC)
Which parts of his theories, and what should I read for more up-to-date information? And don't send me to primary source material just now, please, I don't have the patience. Secondary source material will do just fine.
Jan. 28th, 2007 01:57 am (UTC)
There's Ian Gibson's The English Vice and his biography of Henry Spencer Ashebee, The Erotomaniac. I'd also recommend Patricia Anderson's When Passion Reigned, Valerie Steele's The Corset, Michael Mason's The making of Victorian sexual attitudes and The making of Victorian sexuality, and David Kunzle's Fashion and Fetishism.

Marcus' book misses the vast amount of flagellation and fetishism material that was published in respectable bourgeois magazines like Ladies Home Companion. I also remember his assertion that flagellation porn is some kind of last-ditch defense against homosexulity, instead of taking sadomasochistic fantasy on its own terms.

The more I looked into Victorian sexuality, the more it seemed as alien as the sexuality of ancient Greece. These were people who would freak out at the idea of female mine workers wearing pants under their skirts, but would read novels of 12-year-old girls marrying middle-aged men as wholesome entertainment. Child flagellation wasn't just in porn, but in children's books too.
Jan. 27th, 2007 06:17 am (UTC)
I think you just talked your way onto a panel at Conflation. We have one planned called "Centuries of Porn".
Jan. 27th, 2007 07:04 am (UTC)
Yeah, I'll sit on that one if you want. I'd more than half considered offering one, anyway, and was thinking of offering it roughly around that time.
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )