Erotica in the Eighteenth Century

18th Century IllustrationBy Louisa Luigi

Erotica has held many forms throughout the ages: art, film, and literary works. It has flourished despite religious repression and censorship.

Early Erotica

Throughout the ages, erotic literature has chronicled our sexual attitudes and norms, affording historians and literary scholars a privileged view of human sexuality spanning cultures, generations and centuries. It has weathered criticism, censorship, and repression — and it has survived.

The roots of erotic literature can be traced back to ancient Greece and Rome; The Milesian Tale is the earliest evidence of erotic literature, influencing later works in antiquity: Song of Songs from the Old Testament, Kama Sutra and many others, which resurfaced later in the Renaissance Period.

Eroticism went underground during the early years of the Christian Church, but resurfaced during the Renaissance, which offered up Shakespeare’s erotic sonnets, The Rape of Lucrece and Venus and Adonis, which were never meant for publication, but were circulated in manuscript form in reader circles. This era forged a path for erotica to thrive in the coming centuries.

The Age of Enlightenment

The Age of Enlightenment, also referred to as the Age of Reason (1650-1800ca.) was a cultural movement of reform in society, based on classical ideas. Forward thinkers, such as John Locke and Isaac Newton, sought to advance the world at large, through reason and intellectual interchange. These ideologies led to a flowering of literary materials, and a worldwide desire to consume them.

Erotic writings found a new venue in the many coffee houses popping up all over Europe. Jenny Skipp, a Ph. D. candidate at the University of Leeds, conducted a three year study of erotic literature, states:

“They would be read in public – everywhere from London’s rough-and-ready alehouses to the city’s thriving coffee houses, which weren’t quite the focus of polite society in the way we sometimes think,” she explained. “Some texts even came as questions and answers and were clearly intended for groups of men to read together, with one asking the questions and the others answering them.”

Skipp goes on to explain that references to women were derogatory in much of the work:

“They are subordinates, courtesans, prostitutes, carriers of venereal disease and bearers of deformed children.” When men write this way, or read these texts, it gives them a context for asserting their authority over women.”

During this time, erotica was not romantic in nature, but described as “bawdy” and “humorous.” Research suggests that, due to the sexism of the texts, erotica in this period pushed women down the class structure until the Age of Reason relinquished its hold on society and the Victorian era re-introduced romanticism back into this genre.

Erotica Publishers and the Law

Much of Eighteenth century erotica went unpublished; it became clandestine and thrived underground due to common themes in erotica in the 1700’s. Taboo themes, such as: prostitution, orgies, homosexuality, sadomasochism, cross-dressing, incest, made these works untouchable for publishers, although – a few took the risk.

Fanny Hill, an erotic novel written by John Cleland, while in a London debtor’s prison, was published in 1748. His novel became one the most popular, prosecuted and banned books in history. It wasn’t until 1970, when obscenity laws were changed in Britain, that Mayflower Books published a paperback edition.

The French were also writing erotica during the Age of Enlightenment. French erotica leaned toward initiating girls into sex, in works such as, Thérèse Philosophe by Jean-Baptiste de Boyer, Marquis d’Argens and The Lifted Curtain or Laura’s Education, written by the French revolutionary politician, Comte de Mirabeau.

By the late 1700s such works as Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue and 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade introduced elements of sadomasochism into the genre, paving the way for Nineteenth century writers of erotica to introduce such punishments as spanking or “Sweet Pain.”

Euphemisms in Erotica

Many of the early works use the terms for anatomy that modern readers are familiar with, but most of the terminology took the form of metaphors, euphemisms and double entendre. It was also fueled by the politics of the day. Jenny Skipp writes:

“It is very different to today’s erotica. It is more humorous, more literary and more engaged with the wider issues of the life and politics of the times.” Its metaphors mirror the passions of the age: “At a time when military power was equated with virility, armed conquest is often used as a metaphor for sex – in phrases such as ‘unsheathing the weapon’, ‘storming the fort’ and ‘releasing the cannon’.”

Erotica has come a long way since the early days of naughty verses and bawdy ballads. The Eighteenth century laid the foundation for future erotica to evolve and become what it is today. It still reflects the signs of our time, but it is much less denigrating toward women and written to be more universally pleasing. And because our forefathers fought to preserve the right to free speech during the Age of Enlightenment, we can now legally buy, sell, read, write, and publish erotic literature.

Sources: “Sex in the 1700’s” Based on the research of Jenny Skipp (accessed 9/1/11) “Eighteenth-Century British Erotica” by Michael T. Davis; The Australian Journal of Politics and History, Vol. 50, 2004 (accessed 6/1/12) “Marquis de Sade ” (accessed 6/1/2012)


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