Nov 052011

Peakman, Julie (ed.) Sexual Perversions, 1670-1890 Palgrave Macmillan, 2009 Gbooks

Julie Peakman starts off with an interesting question: whether you accept Foucault’s theory about power and discourse or not, how to we explain one person’s choice of sexual acts and object over all the other possibilities?

It is the question of why a person might decide on any particular act which fascinates the historian. Why did some of these activities diminish over time (bestiality diminished when rural activities shifted to urban living), or expand (auto asphyxiation has become more widespread today as the word passed around of its link to sexual stimulation) – this is what really broadens our understanding about sex.

Pg. 8

As I’ve said before, I think sexuality has undergone an evolution (a word that might have misleading connotations, as “evolution” is commonly misused to imply a teleology or direction to the evolutionary process). We just finished Hallowe’en, and I’m bemused about the display of skulls, cobwebs, severed limbs, etc, signs once associated with Gothic concerns of death, decay, dismemberment, in completely un-Gothic environs. I think at once point even the drawing of a skull would have been regarded as slightly spooky. Now they mean nothing. Such is the way of signs loosing their meaning.

For instance, Peakman mentions that female dominant in 18th century typically wore nose-gays (bouquets of flowers) and purple gloves. “The nose-gays and purple gloves here were seen as less of a fetishism [sic] than a signifier of female flagellants.” (pg.25) This is the first I’ve heard of this, and I wonder if those particular signifiers dropped out of use by the the 19th century. Perhaps this was a proto-hankie code or other subcultural sartorial code.

Peakman also says that pedophilia and incest was hinted at but not realized in 18th century porn, and only appeared directly in late 19th century porn. Even if the flagellation scenario included a child, the flagellator (usually female) was the focus of erotic attention.

Not only are the [incestuous] relationships in the later period much closer, but they are now between older men and younger women. The ‘gentler’ form of lesbianism was overtaken by men’s violent attacks on young girls thus opening up a new world of sadism. By the nineteenth century, a pornographic technique, evident as early as John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, had been honed to perfection — gradations of sexual perversity followed on from each other in a logical progression, ending with the most perverse. Thus we can detect in the pornographic mind, what was perceived as the most perverted form of sex as it would be at the end of the book. Furthermore… the scenes in nineteenth century pornography became increasingly littered with swear words which were used in a more cruel way; there was also a move from use of the word such as ‘fuck’ in bawdy terms, to its use as meaning polluted.

Pg 30-31

This jibes with other writings on the idea of incest being erotic only in the late 19th century, in response to the Victorian promotion of the nuclear family. Note also that if you’re going to create a book or film, market considerations demand rising, not falling, action and intensity.

Other authors have suggested that the violence and sadomasochism and “rawness” of porn increased over the 18th and 19th centuries, something I’m not entirely convinced of as it is a subjective judgment. Peakman points to the scenes of men drugging women unconscious (near death) and raping them, a gesture towards necrophilia (likely an interest stimulated by the new interest in human anatomy). In The Lascivious Hypocrite (1790), Valentine St. Geraud (yet another reference to the Girard/Cadiere affair) knocks Eugenie out with a sleeping draught and rapes her. “Thus we see a shift in the way these images were presented with the earlier loving scenes between couples, in which ‘surrenders’ were a common theme being increasingly overtaken by scenarios which highlighted violence, brutal rape and pain.” (Pg. 41)

Note: of course, Richardson’s Clarissa was ahead of the curve on this: when Lovelace’s seduction of Clarissa seems to be failing, he basically gives up, drugs her senseless and rapes her. (Sometimes I think Richardson worked out this entire sexual equation in 1748 and everybody else from the past 260 years is just doing variations on a theme.)

I’m particularly interested in one of this collection’s essays, “Religious Sexual Perversion in Nineteenth-Century Anti-Catholic Literature” by Diana Peschier. I’m working on an essay about the Maria Monk story for a Montreal-based magazine.

The idea that monks and priests, all unmarried, were the only men who were allowed to ‘hold intercourse’ with the unmarried women in convents had always excited the sexual imagination and provided prurient reading for the nineteenth-century Protestant male. This nineteenth-century genre of Convent Tales dealt with such subjects as seduced and debauched nuns, murdered infants, secret passages between monasteries and convents and old, ugly nuns torturing and murdering their younger sisters and frequently their unborn children. There is an obvious link between undertones of Victorian anti-Catholic literature and the Gothic novels of the previous century… [these] writers had provided the necessary language to act as a key to understanding the danger posed by the ever increasing power of the Roman Catholic church in England.

Pg. 204

What I’m looking for is the “missing link” of this historical process, the point or text in which anti-Catholic propaganda becomes fetishistic porn. The 1866 pamphlet The Circular of the Protestant Electoral Union spun out an allegedly true tale of a girl kidnapped, imprisoned and ritually murdered by priests. This is the same Protestant Electoral Union which ran afoul of the 1857 Obscene Publications Act in 1868 (See Walter Kendrick’s The Secret Museum Pg. 120-124). That suggests there was no one text that was the missing link, but a shift in the reading of texts.

The juxtaposition of sex and physical discipline is explicitly sexual sadomasochism and leads the readers into the real of sexual fantasy related to Marquis de Sade. Nineteenth-century anti-Catholic literature made ‘great play’ of the dubious pursuits of nuns and the ritualistic practices of Romanists in which the liaisons between nuns and priests were perceived as not only immoral but also perverted.

pg. 208

Convents, the confessional and Catholicism in general were seen as fundamentally perverse, a rejection of Victorian normality of female domesticity and submission to familial authority, as well as fostering “dirty talk”, children out of wedlock and female-on-female cruelty. As previously established, these stories drew on existing Gothic tropes and language to get their point across. You can also compare them to the Orientalist stream of sexual fantasy, in which the Muslim polygynist harem was seen as a breeding ground for human psychological/political dysfunction as well as greater sexual options.

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