When I met the man I went on to marry, I was less than impressed with his bookshelves. However, I observed that he had a copy of Pride and Promiscuity: The Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen. At first I was mildly alarmed, but once I realised the book carried the imprimatur of the President of the Jane Austen Society, I relaxed.
I can’t claim any similar imprimatur but, Reader, I offer you these short pieces. They were written on request for Living in Love and Faith. The rationale was the ongoing lack of history in the book, despite having had a History Thematic Working Group, to which I belonged. I happen to believe that history is important, and that many of the themes of LLF were described in ways that implied that they only emerged in the 1960s or later; that was also true in the facilitated discussions called the ‘Shared Conversations’, in which I took part. I also think that a short, accessible historical example or two can be a good way of engaging people in a discussion. Well, I would say that, wouldn’t I, because I’m a historian.
I shall be writing a longer piece about history elsewhere and will link to that when it is published (update: it’s here). Meanwhile, though… I wrote these pieces but for various reasons, including ‘Comms’, they were not included.
I wrote this first one because it seemed to me that it would be useful to point out that ‘pornography’ isn’t a new phenomenon, but that some features of the modern form are particularly pernicious.
Pornography and history
Defining ‘pornography’ is very difficult, although today it often implies inequity between partners and the objectification of people. There is often no way of knowing whether images from the ancient world which today seem ‘pornographic’ were viewed in the same way at their own time. Sex manuals existed in ancient Greece, among them one attributed to a woman of the fourth century BCE, Philaenis, written ‘for those who wish to lead their life with knowledge gained scientifically’. It included advice on chat-up lines. But is a sex manual ‘pornography”? The Roman poet Ovid’s Art of Love ends by guaranteeing success at love-making to anyone who reads it; he was banished from Rome and the work banned from public libraries, but it survived and was printed in the fifteenth century.
In both pagan and Christian moralists, only one sexual position – frontal – was seen as ‘natural’, so texts describing anything else, among them the works of Philaenis and Ovid, were denounced as licentious. In 1527 appeared an edition of a book of engravings entitled I modi, in which the poet and satirist Pietro Aretino presented poems to illustrate sixteen images of various sexual positions, modelled by mythical couples from the ancient world such as Venus and Mars. Although the Roman Catholic church destroyed all copies of I Modi, ‘Aretino’s Positions’ became a byword for eroticism, mentioned in many publications from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. However, the message was often a political or satirical one, suggesting that the Italians were morally depraved and ‘we’ weren’t. The pattern of dressing up sexually explicit material by making it look ‘classical’ continued in an eighteenth-century publication from the art dealer Pierre-François Hugues d’Hancarville in which erotic scenes from Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars were illustrated; in one of them, the Roman emperor Tiberius is shown admiring a painting of a sexual scene from Greek myth.
What changed in the nineteenth century was partly the medium – photography made it possible for images to be shared beyond the literate elite – but also the people involved. A photograph of a real individual, who could be someone you know, is very different from using scenes from myth and history as vehicles for explicit imagery.
So there you have it: an attempt to condense this into the right number of words for a text box. I have written at more length on some of this in a piece I published in a collection of essays edited by Roy Porter and Mikuláš Teich, Sexual Knowledge, Sexual Science: The History of Attitudes to Sexuality.