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


September 2022
312 pages.
from $28.00

Hardcover ISBN: 9781503611665
Paperback ISBN: 9781503633117
Ebook ISBN: 9781503633124

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Shortlisted for the 2023 Oscar Kenshur Book Prize, sponsored by Center for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Indiana University.

What Pornography Knows offers a new history of pornography based on forgotten bawdy fiction of the eighteenth century, its nineteenth-century republication, and its appearance in 1960s paperbacks. Through close textual study, Lubey shows how these texts were edited across time to become what we think pornography is—a genre focused primarily on sex. Originally, they were far more variable, joining speculative philosophy and feminist theory to sexual description. Lubey's readings show that pornography always had a social consciousness—that it knew, long before anti-pornography feminists said it, that women and nonbinary people are disadvantaged by a society that grants sexual privilege to men. Rather than glorify this inequity, Lubey argues, the genre's central task has historically been to expose its artifice and envision social reform. Centering women's bodies, pornography refuses to divert its focus from genital action, forcing readers to connect sex with its social outcomes. Lubey offers a surprising take on a deeply misunderstood cultural form: pornography transforms sexual description into feminist commentary, revealing the genre's deep knowledge of how social inequities are perpetuated as well as its plans for how to rectify them.

About the author

Kathleen Lubey is Professor of English at St. John's University. She is the author of Excitable Imaginations: Eroticism and Reading in Britain, 1660-1760 (2012).

"What if pornography built the body as we know it and can also help dismantle it? In What Pornography Knows, Kathleen Lubey tracks texts like a detective across centuries as they hide on secret library shelves, analyzes them with verve, and shows us, brilliantly, how pornography doesn't just celebrate endless sex but in fact constructed sex as we know it, and with more ambivalence than we'd realized. A masterful rethinking of the history of pornography."

—Whitney Strub, author of Perversion for Profit: The Politics of Pornography and the Rise of the New Right

"Kathleen Lubey's dazzling study makes available an astounding new history of pornographic narrative––or, rather, of pornographic dilation, since 'narrative' is among the categories of representation we will have to rethink in response to this landmark study, along with 'knowledge,' 'embodiment,' and 'sexuality.' This book will make a lasting impact in a number of scholarly fields––and it is sorely needed: a non-phobic, but characteristically skeptical, treatment of a pornography as a far more complex genre than hitherto perceived."

—Grace Lavery, author of Please Miss: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Penis

"With analysis that is nothing short of astonishing, Lubey offers a dramatic, eloquent cultural history of pornography with an ingenious throughline in a single much-transformed text. What Pornography Knows offers significant new information about literary fields from the eighteenth century to the present and makes available new insights about the social hierarchies in which they participated."

—Frances Ferguson, University of Chicago, author of Pornography, The Theory: What Utilitarianism Did To Action

"Lubey's greater argument, that pornography places sex in a discursive whirl that assesses how culture and sex refract each other, remains useful for porn studies and histories of erotic literature. This monograph will feel especially interesting to researchers working on porn's reception history and the intersection of eighteenth century book history with spheres of erotic production."

—Gabriel Ojeda-Sague, Critical Inquiry

"What Pornography Knows is a rare achievement in that it balances serious archival acumen and book history with theoretical sophistication and, in the end, a consequential presentism which left me thinking differently about a period and topic that I have long researched. It is as much a virtuoso literary history as it is a roadmap for the exciting directions that eighteenth-century scholarship can take."

—Jason S. Farr, Eighteenth-Century Fiction

"As a great entry into gender and sexuality studies, Lubey's unabashed theoretical monograph would be helpful for anyone looking to discuss pornography and gender correlations."

—Tiffany Sidders, The Journal of Popular Culture