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Editorials

Wrong Reasons to do SM
by Midori

International Exposure
Perspectives on Modern European Pornography 1800-2000

by Lisa Z. Sigel


Book Review by Rob Hardy



There is nothing so obscure that it might not be the subject for serious academic exploration. This is a manifestation of the complexity of our world and the way humans deal with it; no matter how deep you go, there are still questions and mysteries. Some subjects are easier to study than others, but the academic who studies pornography is up against some particular problems. Lisa Z. Sigel should know. She is a professor of history who has previously written Governing Pleasures: Pornography and Social Change in England 1815 – 1914. In the introduction to the current book for which she is editor, International Exposure: Perspectives on Modern European Pornography 1800-2000 (Rutgers University Press), she notes particular problems in the study of the subject. It is often hard to find complete collections from which to draw primary material; research on cinematic pornography might simply be illegal in some places; it is hard to get grants to do such studies; and “few other historical sources can so quickly get scholars arrested at customs.” There are, however, intrepid academics who are slogging through for us, and International Exposure brings together ten of them with diverse subject matter. Sigel justifies the endeavor: pornography is a vigorous commercial activity, it provides information about types of sexual behavior by time and place, and it indicates cultural attitudes toward sexuality. Nonetheless, most of the chapters here indicate the need for further resources and study about how pornography is produced and used. If you find detailed and academic examinations of aspects of the subject interesting, you will find much here to enjoy. The themes are a grab bag, as befits an edited volume. Initial chapters have to do with Germany, England, and France in the nineteenth century; there are chapters on early twentieth century England and France as well as contemporary Britain; three on post-communist Russia, Ukraine, and Hungary; and finally a chapter on the borderless cyber-world.

Many of the chapters here have to do with the tangled question of what pornography is. The legal answer shifts according to time and place. In an examination of obscenity laws in the German states in the first half of the nineteenth century, it is disconcerting to find few German works on the wrong side of the law that we would consider anything close to pornographic now. There was a concern about French pornography being imported; the French had a tradition of philosophical and anti-clerical books with sexual themes. German authorities did not like the possibility that such books might upset the inner life of German readers or subversively promote republican government. Indeed, explicit sexual content seemed to cause far less worry than what was seen as the propaganda within the books. The German author who went by the pseudonym “Althing” for instance wrote The Beloved of Eleven Thousand Ladies (1804), which despite its title and sexual themes has no descriptions of physical intimacy. The book was considered obscene and subject to prosecution because of its social contents. It portrayed an unstable social world where women were seductresses and thieves unworthy of a man’s trust, and where even those who strive honestly for success were liable to fall in status.

One chapter traces how the image of the flogged slave was used by abolitionists, and since the image was sadder (or more arousing), the slave was generally a female. The traditional slave narrative, a very common form of literature in the nineteenth century, was full of violence and had allusions to sexuality that surpassed what was acceptable in novels of the time. Pornographers used the image of the flogged woman and emphasized the sexuality rather than the violence; the whip became the birch (nostalgically remembered by many who had gone to boys’ schools of the time), and the point of application the nude buttocks rather than the back. The image of the flogged slave did not last beyond 1920, but whipping fantasies are still frequent, as in the famous The Story of O, whose scenes of whips and chains might have come from a slave narrative. This sort of sexual play is very common; that it might be directly related to the slave trade is something I doubt many participants acknowledge.

Sigel’s own chapter is on pornography that depicted incest in Edwardian England, and gives a brief history of incest laws and the philosophy behind them. Church courts stopped regulating such offenses in the 1800s, and there was a lack of civil laws concerning them. It wasn’t until 1908 that incest became legally defined and prosecutable; the delay indicates surprisingly ambiguous feelings about the issue. Novels on the theme proved to be a charade about the family, with mothers restricting sexuality, daughters as both eager tempters and victims, and fathers as otherwise fully respectable gentlemen. The paternal perpetrator in the charade was freed from responsibility and any taint of violence. Sigel reminds us that during the same time, in another society, Freud was using incest as an explanation within psychoanalysis, but disavows a close link; Freud proposed that the desire was from the children toward the parents, and while pornography of the time featured such desires, it was being written by men for men, as a product of male desires.

In the chapter on the Hungarian pornographic film industry, we learn that stag films were first turned out as early as 1899; pornography has so often spurred communication technology that elsewhere Sigel says that “it has become a clichéd claim that pornography spearheaded the growth of Internet technologies.” Hungary was exporting stag films by 1910, but was displaced as a center for production by other countries. Budapest has recently risen as “the center of the porno world,” with filmmakers from around Europe coming to Hungary to make “Budaporn.” This is a result not only of the collapse of communism but also of the instant worldwide economy in such trade, and it fills an unemployment need. One observer wrote, “Pornography is an industry for Hungary, not a tragedy.” The industry has produced a star system like Hollywood used to have, taking advantage of the tendency of the viewer to have the attractions of a specific actress in mind. “For over a decade Hungarian performers have been renowned for beauty, sensuality, and a willingness to do anything on camera.” The boom in Hungarian porn parallels the interest in anal sex, which is (for whatever reason) a feature of the trade from Hungary; the “Hungarian” section in your local porn store may not all be from that country, but may just be a euphemism (why use euphemisms?) for films that show anal sex. There is a useful (and extensive) videography here of films by the director known as “Kovi”, whose standards for careful blocking and setups surpass that of most American directors.

The tone of each chapter is serious, with plenty of references and footnotes, but given the subject matter, there is wit on display; in discussing “shemale” porn, for instance, there is reported “a gradual striptease leading to a sudden and shocking unveiling of the phallus, as the beautiful ‘girl’ with feminine curves and soft skin is dramatically revealed to be genitally and often priapically male.” I have only mentioned here the chapters I found most interesting, but each of the ten throws its light on aspects of a large subject that no one can doubt stirs a deep human interest. There is little titillation here, much intellectualizing, and lots to think about.


International Exposure
Perspectives on Modern European Pornography 1800-2000

(Rutgers University Press; February 25, 2005; ISBN: 0813535190)
Available at: Amazon.com / Amazon UK / Amazon CA

_______
© 2006 Rob Hardy. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.



About the Reviewer
Rob Hardy is a psychiatrist who lives in Columbus, Mississippi, with his wife, two terriers, five cats, and goldfish.

He reviews nonfiction for The Times of Acadiana, but has been reviewing books as a hobby for years before that.
Email: Rob Hardy



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