The nineteenth-century marked a high point in pornography and prudery in Western culture. Both phenomena were influenced in large measure by dramatic advances in literacy and by a changing view of the nature of sexuality, particularly regarding women. Previously written for an aristocratic audience whose behavior was often deemed decadent, pornography in the nineteenth-century was increasingly aimed at the burgeoning market of middle- and lower-class male readers. At the same time, it was believed that females' delicate sensibilities would be offended by even the mildest sexual content in literature or art. As a result, many religious and civic authorities considered it imperative that society severely restrict and even prosecute the production of pornographic material.
The word pornography, taken from the Greek language, originally referred strictly to writing about prostitutes; the term acquired its broader, more modern meaning in the early nineteenth century, first in France and somewhat later in England. In the previous three centuries, lewd material had primarily been written for the private entertainment of a male aristocratic audience. By the late eighteenth century, obscenity and pornography, particularly in the form of cartoons, song sheets, and pamphlets, tended to be political in nature, publicly ridiculing the aristocracy, the clergy, and even the royal family by representing members of these groups in a variety of compromising positions. Prosecution of the purveyors of such texts was based on charges of blasphemy or sedition. In England, the 1820s marked a turning point, however, in that such material was increasingly being attacked and suppressed as obscene rather than seditious. During this time former political radicals in the publishing business, such as George Cannon and the Dugdale brothers, were abandoning the use of pornography in the service of political satire and producing it instead for its own sake. In addition to original material, new editions of eighteenth-century works—such as John Cleland's Fanny Hill: or, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1749) and John Wilkes's obscene parody An Essay on Woman (c. 1763)—were published as well.
The increased demand for pornography during the early years of the nineteenth century has been attributed to a variety of causes. Iain McCalman reports that increasing levels of literacy, changes in family life, and the growing emphasis on the individual were all significant factors in producing an enthusiastic market for pornography. Greater demand was accompanied by greater efforts to suppress material deemed obscene, which drove the trade in pornography underground and made it even more profitable. David Loth claims that “it is no accident that among the English-speaking peoples the Golden Age of Prudery and the Golden Age of Pornography coincided.” According to Loth, the nineteenth century saw a revival of the Puritan belief that “the virtuous never should indulge in the pleasures of the flesh.” Many believed that this principle was especially true for women, who were considered highly sensitive to the slightest hint of sexual content in written material. H. E. Haworth recounts the efforts of nineteenth-century critic Francis Jeffrey to protect “the entire female half of the population” from literature he believed to be indecent. In America, obscenity statutes were passed in the early part of the nineteenth century; indeed, in 1821 Fanny Hill, published more than seventy years earlier, was the subject of the first prosecution for lewdness in Boston. In England, Dr. Thomas Bowdler gave his name to the process whereby literature was expunged of all objectionable material. Even the works of Shakespeare were “bowdlerized” because they were considered far too racy for family reading. In 1818 Bowdler published an enormously successful ten-volume work entitled The Family Shakespeare which, according to Loth, “could be read aloud to a man's daughters with complete confidence.” By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, censorship had reached a point where the word leg was deemed too obscene to be mentioned in front of ladies, even in reference to tables, pianos, or chickens.
Not surprisingly, many of the most notorious works of pornography were published anonymously, including perhaps the most well-known nineteenth-century erotic memoir, My Secret Life (c. 1890). As the definition of pornography became broader—eventually including any material that offended prevailing moral sensibilities—the work of mainstream literary figures came under scrutiny as well. Barbara Milech suggests that the nineteenth century witnessed a “struggle to define the boundary between licit and illicit representation, between literature and pornography.” Shelley's Queen Mab (1813) and Byron's Don Juan (1819-24) were among the many literary classics considered pornographic. Algernon Charles Swinburne's Poems and Ballads (1866), deemed both lewd and anti-Christian, was assailed so viciously in the press that Swinburne was very nearly subjected to criminal prosecution. Allison Pease contends that the poet's promising literary career was completely derailed by the controversy: “Swinburne went from being hailed as the next great poet of England to being vilified as ‘the libidinous laureate of a pack of satyrs.’” Swinburne had refused to tone down the work in advance of publication despite the urging of his friends; earlier in the century, John Keats had been forced by his publisher to remove several offensive lines from “The Eve of St. Agnes,” prompting Haworth to contend that “the Romantics were as concerned as the Victorians about ‘indecency’ and ‘indelicacy,’ not to mention pornography and obscenity.” Ruth Mayer argues that Emily Dickinson also practiced a form of self-censorship in her poetry, writing about passion in the conditional mood, since “passion and ecstasy are problematic issues for a woman writer to approach in nineteenth-century America.”
Both bourgeois literature and pornography are, according to Milech, “obsessed with the heterosexual couple” and both “represent male erotic desire primarily to men.” But aside from heterosexual erotica, there was also a great deal of material devoted to various practices condemned by nineteenth-century moralists as perversions: fetishism, homosexuality, incest, transvestism, and sado-masochism. The latter practice takes its name from the writings—and possibly personal practices—of two European noblemen: the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) of France and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1835-1895), born in Austria of mixed Spanish, German, and Russian descent. Numerous pornographic texts in England were devoted to the most popular form of sado-masochism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, flagellation—often called “the English vice.” H. Montgomery Hyde reports that Fanny Hill contains a flagellation scene that was apparently “the first detailed description of the practice to appear in print in England,” as well as a homosexual scene that was excised from most nineteenth-century editions. Hyde also discusses a well-known homosexual poem, Don Leon (1886), attributed to Byron and containing “an unblushing defence of sodomy.” Incest was the subject of an 1874 novel, published anonymously, titled Letters from a Friend in Paris; the work is considered by critics to be monotonously pornographic without the slightest hint of literary merit.
Pornographic representations returned to the realm of the political in connection with such nineteenth-century reform movements as the antivivisection effort and, most especially, abolitionism. Illustrations of naked female slaves being beaten were an important part of the anti-slavery rhetoric in both England and America. Mary A. Favret explains that the speeches before the House of Commons on the slave trade bill produced “a dynamic of erotic pain and pleasure among the members of the House.” Further, she contends that such images constituted the only sexually explicit material considered appropriate for viewing by women, who were thus given “an opportunity to participate vicariously in sexual excesses otherwise denied to proper gentlewomen.”