What Pornography Knows
Sex and Social Protest since the Eighteenth Century
Kathleen Lubey


Contents and Abstracts
Introduction: Pornography Without Sex
chapter abstract

The Introduction establishes an approach to pornography that moves beyond well-worn debates between anti-pornography feminists and free speech advocates, defining the genre not solely by its depiction of sex but by its interweaving of sexual description with social discourse. Mapping out a prehistory to the hard-core pornography of the visual and digital ages, it explains how eighteenth-century social and literary conditions in Britain set the stage for candid discussions of genitals in fiction, discussions that disputed heteronormativity and that remained active in pornographic narrative into the twentieth century. Demonstrating the centrality of genitals across pornography, feminism, and queer theory, the Introduction argues that pornography, so long thought of as a simple or masturbatory genre, possesses critical faculties and socially just aims.

1 Genital Parts: Detachable Properties in the Eighteenth Century
chapter abstract

This chapter identifies as an origin point for the genre of pornography a distinct development in eighteenth-century Britain: its diffuse but explicit conversation across textual culture—fiction, philosophy, print satires, bawdy poetry, conduct literature—about the dispossession women experience of their bodies, and specifically their genitals, in practices of courtship, marriage, and sexual violence. Literature experiments with how to narrate the separation of women's genitals from their selves, sometimes envisioning traumatic or tragic outcomes, at other times liberating women from the constraints of sexual anatomy and binary gender. This pervasive genital discussion is a conscious cultural effort to understand, even to resist, social institutions that atomize and circulate women's bodies.

2 Feminist Speculations: Penetration and Protest in Pornographic Fiction
chapter abstract

Three little-known texts—The History of the Human Heart, The Progress of Nature, and The Child of Nature—exemplify the powerful feminist voice of eighteenth-century pornography. Overlooked by researchers, their strident statements against penetrative sex, patriarchy, and marriage often delay or displace sexual description, showing that pornography in this era made as much narrative space for sex as it did for feminist commentary, often weaving the two inextricably together. Like mainstream eighteenth-century novels, these works endow women with moral authority, but the morality here is of a feminist kind that seeks to distance women from the social systems that use, devalue, and dispose of their bodies. To be feminist in these works is to be pro-sex but anti-marriage.

3 The Victorian Eighteenth Century: Publishing an Erotics of Inequity
chapter abstract

Documenting the nineteenth-century re-publication of little-known eighteenth-century pornographic novels, this chapter argues that feminism continued to live at the core of British pornography. Victorian pornographers attempted to quiet this dissidence by meticulously editing their source texts, but rather than disappear, feminist questions about marriage, rape, and heterosexuality erupt amid sexual descriptions. Instead of generating a pornography of sexual decadence, as has been alleged by historians, Victorian culture expressed its indecision about heterosexuality and penetrative sex through pornography old and new, such as by exporting sexual violence to exotic settings in The Lustful Turk or staging marriage as a queer orgy in Letters from Laura and Eveline. Confused by its own practices of penetrative sex, British culture used pornography to test heterosexuality's capacity to create equitable social relations.

4 Uncoupling: Pornography and Feminism in the Countercultural Era
chapter abstract

The reprinting of eighteenth-century pornography continued in the era of sexual liberation, with The History of the Human Heart showing up as a pulp paperback in 1968. This chapter shows that the editors and publishers who reprinted antique pornography claimed alliance with the women's movement while expunging feminist objections to sexual injustice from their source texts. The misogyny behind these editing practices perhaps explains why second-wave feminism identified pornography as an enemy to women, its representations perceived as reenactments of rape. But pornography and feminism meet in their centering of genital experience and in their efforts to undermine oppressive regimes of gender. This chapter identifies the genital analysis shared by pornography and feminism—one that, had it been recognized during the second wave, might have led feminism not to anti-pornography censorship but to new concepts and definitions of sexual co-mingling.

Coda: A Mindful Pornography
chapter abstract

If we believe pornography possesses a critical consciousness, what might it tell us about labor in the digital age? This Coda entertains the notion that internet pornography comments on the labor practices of corporate cultures and gig economies. Brandishing the pleasure and entrepreneurship of sex workers, the use of digital pornography is a practice of mindfulness that allows laborers under late capitalism to dream of a different kind of work even as they keep working.