Feb 052011

An Oxford academic says that an otherwise obscure 18th century collection of miscellaneous poems was in print for more than a century because it included a section of erotic verse.

The finding suggests that what we think of as high art and low art was being packaged, sold and read together in the 18th Century – and raises questions about whether the popularity of other bestselling books might have different explanations.

Dr van Hensbergen said: ‘I had just finished entering details of poems typical of miscellanies of the period- satires, imitations and amatory verse, when at the end of the second volume a new title page announced the start of ‘The Cabinet of Love’.

‘To my surprise, ‘The Cabinet’ turned out to be a collection of pornographic verse about dildos. The poems include ‘Dildoides’, a poem attributed to Samuel Butler about the public burning of French-imported dildos, ‘The Delights of Venus’, a poem in which a married woman gives her younger friend an explicit account of the joys of sex, and ‘The Discovery’, a poem about a man watching a woman in bed while hiding under a table.

Samuel Butler, you may recall, is no stranger to the kinky side of things. His mock epic poem Hudibras introduced the maxim “spare the rod and spoil the child” (not the Bible as is commonly believed), which is actually a reference to erotic flagellation.

This shows that in the 18th century pornography, as we would understand it today, was not a completely separate genre or category of media. A miscellaneous collections of poems might include sexual material. Something like this might have spread through word of mouth to the sexually curious.

This also brings up why I am so excited by the digitization of huge amounts of historical documents into searchable databases, which can open up new frontiers for historical research, particularly in the case of researching things other people haven’t already searched for. Overthinking It once did a semi-serious exploration of the history of Mr. T’s catchphrase “I pity the fool”, tracing it back to an obscure early 19th century book via Google Books. While this was in part a joke, it also showed the potential of new kinds of historical research.

Via io9

Jan 112011

Pandora Blake’s LJ has a list of cases of people prosecuted over the UK’s new “extreme pornography” law.

This suggests that our fears about the consequences of the extreme porn legislation are being borne out. It’s no longer about protecting the people involved in making the images, but about policing our fantasies. Never mind that no causal connection can be demonstrated between viewing pornography and sexual violent crime (in fact it’s arguable that access to pornography helps prevent violent crime by giving people with socially ‘unacceptable’ desires an outlet for their fantasies), nor that it is perfectly possible to create ethical images of violent acts using consenting actors. Under this way of thinking, even illustrations and cartoons are too dangerous. This isn’t about regulating the porn industry, it’s about personal taste masquerading as morality. The prosecution in this case explicitly uses the Victorian concept of the “decency of society” as an excuse for censorship.

Nov 192010

Julia… worked, as he had guessed, on the novel-writing machines in the Fiction Department [of the Ministry of Truth]. She enjoyed her work, which consisted chiefly in running and servicing a powerful but tricky electric motor. She was ‘not clever’, but was fond of using her hands and felt at home with machinery. She could describe the whole process of composing a novel, from the general directive issued by the Planning Committee down to the final touching-up by the Rewrite Squad. But she was not interested in the finished product. She ‘didn’t much care for reading’, she said. Books were just a commodity that had to be produced, like jam or bootlaces.


She had even (an infallible mark of good reputation) been picked out to work in Pornosec, the sub-section of the Fiction Department which turned out cheap pornography for distribution among the proles. It was nicknamed Muck House by the people who worked in it, she remarked. There she had remained for a year, helping to produce booklets in sealed packets with titles like Spanking Stories or One Night in a Girls’ School, to be bought furtively by proletarian youths who were under the impression that they were buying something illegal.

‘What are these books like?’ said Winston curiously.

‘Oh, ghastly rubbish. They’re boring, really. They only have six plots, but they swap them round a bit. Of course I was only on the kaleidoscopes [that composed the text]. I was never in the Rewrite Squad. I’m not literary, dear — not even enough for that.’

He learned with astonishment that all the workers in Pornosec, except the head of the department, were girls. The theory was that men, whose sex instincts were less controllable than those of women, were in greater danger of being corrupted by the filth they handled.

‘They don’t even like having married women there,’ she added. ‘Girls are always supposed to be so pure. Here’s one who isn’t, anyway.’

[George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Everyman’s Library edition, Page 136-137]

In Orwell’s dystopia, sex is strongly regulated.

For the Proles, the working class, sex seems to be completely uninhibited, or at least it is from Winston’s perspective. Likewise, Proles are given free reign to indulge in liquor and gambling, and pornography.

For the Outer Party, roughly the middle class, sex is extremely regulated and disregarded. The Party attempts to channel the libido into endless activity, hard work followed by play that is as organized, compulsory and endless as work. No individual attachments or contemplation. Sex itself is reduced to something akin to an unpleasant medical procedure, a “duty to the party,” as Winston’s sexually dysfunctional wife called it.

Whereas Julia is an apolitical hedonist, Winston rhapsodizes about the liberatory potential of his affair with her, describing the way she takes off her dress as “a single, splendid movement” that could bring down the corrupt society.

I saw a book on sexual history in Germany that showed an interesting poster from the early Nazi regime. One half of the poster showed a number of fair-haired nudes in natural settings (walking in meadows or wading in streams), while the other showed dark-haired (Jewish?) women, dressed like showgirls, in indoor, urban settings. The captions read something like, “Bad beauty vs. good beauty.” The problem wasn’t with porn, just right and wrong kinds of porn.

It seems axiomatic that repressive politics leads to repressive sexuality. After all, the Nazis burned the Magnus Hirschfeld archives and gassed homosexuals alongside Jews. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be. Orwell’s Oceania is not universally sexually repressive, but it appears that sexuality of the Outer Party (i.e. the middle class) is tightly repressed, so as not to interfere with work or encourage dissent, but encouraged the opposite way for the largely expendable Proles, as an opiate of the mostly non-productive masses.

The other side of this issue is violence in Oceania. There a lot of public violence, both the mass execution of internal and external enemies, and the display of propaganda films with graphic violence. There’s also a lot of “private violence,” in the Ministry of Love, with torture and executions. Note that there is a significant disconnect between the two realms of violence, that the public executions are purely for show while the real work of suppressing resistance is done in secret, its victims completely disappeared.

Foucault talked about how, over the past few centuries in the West, the process of correcting social deviance has been hidden away from public view in institutions like prisons, hospitals, asylums, etc. In Orwell’s book, the state’s real work of violence is done in private, while the public work of executions, confessions and so on are just for show. Yet, Winston seems to have an instinctive knowledge of the “technology” of the Thought Police and the Ministry of Love, their instruments and techniques. Presumably there are rumors floating around. The separation can’t be perfect.

So, is Julia busy turning out porn that draws on the imagery of eroticized power from their own society?

Jun 042010

Ah&Oh Studio created a line of perfume packages based on male writers, including George Orwell, LaClos (author of Dangerous Liaisons), Edgar Allen Poe and the Marquis de Sade.

We found inspiration in the great, dark literature and distinctive, strong characters. We tried to describe the dark sides of men’s nature with line of scents named after famous writers.

Interesting that all four writers, not just Sade, could be seen as factoring into the history of BDSM. LaClos wrote about seduction and power games, and Poe about obsession and imprisonment. Even Orwell’s vision of dystopia in 1984 became fodder for masochistic fantasy.

I wonder what Sacher-Masoch or Richardson would smell like? Perhaps a complementary line of women’s fragrances: Stowe, Radcliffe, Rachilde, Reage, Rice, Carey?

May 122010

Debra Hyde’s blog has a quick look at Iwan Bloch’s Sex life in England (1934), including scans of some of the art.

Iwan Bloch was a noted author and sexologist from pre-Nazi Germany. He was a contemporary of fellow sexologist, Magnus Hirschfeld, and Sigmund Freud considered his contributions on homosexuality key to looking at sexual orientation from a non-pathological stance. I suspect it gave some level of legitimacy to Falstaff Press in the eyes of government suppression, but not much, given the fervor of the law. Although he was responsible for discovering the presumed-lost manuscript of The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade and he was an early biographer of the notorious figure, so who knows.

I’d like to see this book and have a good insight into pre-WWII European sexual culture.

Aug 202009

Thomas, Donald. The Victorian Underworld John Murray, 1998. Link Pg. 103 mainly

BDSM seems to have existed as an elite subset of prostitution. Specialty brothels escaped attention. Flagellation was mentioned in Sir John Davies’ Epigrams from 1599, which I haven’t located. Ashbee listed the principal whipping brothels in 1877, located in the better residential neighborhoods.

Swinburne patronized one at 7 Circus Road, St. John’s Wood. “two golden-haired and rouge-cheeked ladies received, in luxuriously furnished rooms, gentlemen whom they consented to chastise for large sums of money.”

Other houses had women whipped by male clients or in front of paying audiences.

In one court case, a 15 year old girl claimed she was beaten, by men known as “Sealskin” or “the Count,” while tied to a step-ladder.

In My Secret Life, Walter describes meeting a girl who describes being flogged by a woman “for a lady’s delecation.” No man present, and the lady was masked.

Mar 232009

The UK newspaper The Daily Mail provides a window into the private life of 18th century English writer Dr Samuel Johnson, specifically his masochistic relationship with another man’s wife, named Hester:

A sunny weekday afternoon in a well-appointed house in Streatham, South London. A generous lunch has been served, and the dining room has echoed with laughter and conversation.

A distinguished male house guest is left alone with his younger and much more attractive hostess. He murmurs something. She flushes and assents. They retire to a private room and lock the door behind them.

She sits on a chair and slips off her shoes. He kneels before her and takes her foot on his lap. He fondles it in his big hands, then stoops to kiss it.

Soon, at his urging, she has bound him hand and foot with padlock and chains, and he – suffused with shame and delight – is submitting to be whipped.

In one 1773 letter – written in elaborately formal French so that, if intercepted by servants, it could not be understood – he begged her [Hester]: ‘I wish, my protector, that your authority will always be clear to me, and that you will keep me in that form of slavery which you know so well how to make blissful.’

But there are signs that Hester – initially compliant – was an increasingly reluctant dominatrix. ‘I will detain you no longer,’ she wrote in reply, ‘so farewell and be good; and do not quarrel with your Governess for not using the rod enough.’

Even so, power play was an integral part of their relationship. In 1779 Johnson told Hester: ‘A woman has such power between the ages of 25 and 45 that she may tye a man to a post and whip him if she will.’

Hester later wrote: ‘This he knew of himself was literally and strictly true I am sure.’

And in a diary entry about her relationship with Johnson – whom she called ‘my slave’ – Hester wrote: ‘The fetters and padlocks will tell posterity the truth.’

This is an instance of the use of Master-slave terminology in an erotic sense, decades before the Munby-Cullwick relationship, which may not have been quite as unique as I thought.

The book is Samuel Johnson: The Struggle by Jeffrey Meyers Link