Erotica Readers & Writers Association
Home | Erotic Books | Authors Resources | Inside The Erotic Mind | Erotica Gallery
Adult Movies | Sex Toys | Erotic Music | Email Discussion List | Links

'09 Authors Insider Tips

Everything About Epublishing
by Angela James
Digital Publishing & Print
Common Myths of Epublishing
Ebook Formats and Devices

by Louisa Burton
Compelling Characters
Point of View, Part I
Point of View, Part II
Learning to Love Conflict
Story Structure
Keep ‘em Guessing
Keep it Simple
Keep Your Writing Real
The Importance of Pacing

Literary Streetwalker
by M. Christian
New World of Publishing
To Blog Or Not To Blog
Meeting & Making Friends
Thinking Beyond Sex
Selling Books
Walking the Line
e-book, e-publisher, e-fun
Still More E-book Fun

Shameless Self-Promotion
by Donna George Storey
Our Journey Begins
Pitches and Bios
Websites, Blogs & Readers
Publicists, Press Kits and...
Viva the Internet
Adventures in Cyberspace
Promoting In the Flesh
Make Your Own Movie
Bigger is Better
Looking Back, Planning Ahead

Two Girls Kissing
by Amie M. Evans
Questions to Ask Yourself...
Tough All Over

The Write Stuff
by Ashley Lister
Practice Makes Prefect
5 Books for Fiction Authors
Poetry In Motions
Six Serving Men
Ashley Lister is Anal
Stealing Ideas
Celebrating Poetry

2009 Smutters Lounge

Ashley Lister Submits
by Ashley Lister

Cooking Up A Storey
by Donna George Storey
A Year of Living Shamelessly
Adultery, Exhibitionism ...
John Updike Made Me Do It ...
Story Soup: Forbidden ...
Lessons from Amazon
Naked Lunches ...
Erotic Alchemy
Secrets of Seduction
Are You a “Real” Writer?
Don’t Fondle My Sentence

Cracking Foxy
with Robert Buckley
The Passionate Taphophile
Havens on Earth
A Knight Without Armor
Magic Carpet Rides
Getting Hammered
Keep It Quiet
Hang Around for a Spell

Get All Worked Up
with J.T. Benjamin
Worked Up About Why
Worked Up About Why, Part II
All Worked Up About Porn
The Catholic Church
Purity Movement
The National Crisis
The Future
About Homosexuality
Public Indiscretions

Pondering Porn
with Ann Regentin
Premature Ejaculation
Auctioning Off What?

Sex Is All Metaphors
by Jean Roberta
Who's Who Around the Table
Ritual Sex
Mixed Legacy
The Spectrum of Consent
Drawing the Line
Marriage without the Hype
The Distracting Smirk
Innocent Guns
Gardens of Earthly Delights

Provocative Interviews

Between the Lines
with Ashley Lister
Anneke Jacob
D L King
Kristina Lloyd
Lisabet Sarai
Mitzi Szereto
Portia Da Costa
Shanna Germain
Sommer Marsden
Susan DiPlacido

Guest Appearances

Marketing a Self-Published Novel
by Jeanne Ainslie

Licentious Gotham: Erotic Publishing
and Its Prosecution in Nineteenth-Century New York

by Donna Dennis

Book Review by Rob Hardy


The Book of Love

Nowadays you can get just about any sort of pornography you want with a few clicks of the mouse, and much of it is free.  Before that, New York City, especially Times Square, was known as the headquarters for porn movies, and when porn was available only in print media, New York’s Nassau Street in lower Manhattan (close to City Hall) was its hub.  Historical factors made it so around 1840.  Donna Dennis, a law professor, has taken the history from that beginning through the end of the century in Licentious Gotham: Erotic Publishing and Its Prosecution in Nineteenth Century New York (Harvard University Press).  As you’d expect from her background, there are plenty of legal case studies here, with descriptions of court arguments and eventual punishments or lack thereof.  There are amusing descriptions also, however, of the sort of poetry, prose, and pictures that were considered hot stuff in their day, as well as profiles of the publishers who were part of the incipient American pornography fascination.  Of course, the fascination continues, and although plenty of the porn mentioned here has more of a historic rather than prurient appeal, many of the legal issues still stand.

Dennis begins her history with the sad and funny story of John McDowell, who came to the big city in 1830 from theological seminary.  He was aghast at the sin he saw, and prepared a study to show that the city had 10,000 prostitutes (which would have been one in ten of the city’s female residents).  He railed against the books and pictures of naughtiness anyone could buy.  Many denounced his claims as exaggerated, and he himself was charged with indecency for bringing the subject up and describing it.  When he watched brothels and reported the names of patrons going in, he was condemned by a grand jury for being a public nuisance.  His monthly journal was condemned as obscene.  If people doubted how serious the problem was, he would pull out of his valise a book like Fanny Hill, which might have erased all doubt but might also have made viewers angry to have smut thrust into their faces.  He died in 1836, at only 38, broken and impoverished.  He became a symbol for the excess of evangelical reform, but the reformers who followed him had more effect; part of the lesson of Dennis’s book is that pornography proponents and opponents began a symbiotic relationship that has never let up.

A descendant of McDowell’s report on prostitutes was the 1839 Prostitution Exposed: or, A Moral Reform Directory, Laying Bare the Lives, Histories, Residences, Seductions &c of the Most Celebrated Courtezans and Ladies of Pleasure of the City of New York.  The anonymous author advised, “This will be an interesting work for those residing at a distance from the city, not only because it displays the amount of evil practiced therein, but if they ever visit our busy Gotham, it may be used as a guide to direct them how to shun the dangers.”  You could shun them, sure, but if you were otherwise compelled, the book was full of advice on locales, styles, and prices.  It may be that the guide was produced at the behest of some successful brothel madams, and if there were really any doubt about its intent, it was dedicated to “The Ladies Reform Association for the Suppression of Onanism.” 

Printing, selling, or possessing pornography was not a property crime, and the rudimentary police force of the time concentrated on recovering stolen property and receiving compensation for doing so.  Prosecutors helped redress economic loses and abate nuisances, but had little interest in protecting public decency.  This began to change with the coming of the “flash” weeklies like The Whip or The Weekly Rake.  The papers were aimed at sporting fellows of the city.  The Sunday Flash, for instance, offered an eighteen-part series on “The Lives of the Nymphs”, a euphemism for prostitutes.  Each installment profiled a particular prostitute.  The papers sometimes took the tone of reproaching the city for allowing such immorality, but at the same time willingly offered themselves as guides to the best and worst of available commercial sex.  The papers were marketed in public places and on Sundays, and they highlighted New York’s seamier side, all of which bothered the moral.  What really troubled those in power, though, was that the papers made much of their income by blackmail, offering to hold particular stories about public figures for a fee.  Some of these figures started filing suit, all for the good of the public.  Part of the defense the flash papers mustered was that New York law did not prohibit fornication or adultery, so it was senseless for the papers to be prosecuted because they might promote fornication or adultery, which were not crimes.  There were subsequent changes in morals regulation, which led to the rise of papers like the long-running National Police Gazette.  It took its sensational stories straight from police blotters and trial transcripts.  There was a new concentration on descriptions of violence, but descriptions of erotic crime seduced many readers, and the publisher could maintain he was just reporting the facts.

New York also became a center for the publishing of “fancy books”, relatively expensive, well-bound texts illustrated with engravings.  Some of the standards were Fanny Hill, The Lustful Turk, or The Cabinet of Venus Unlocked.  Dennis shows that the books did reflect a change in the understanding of female sexuality in acknowledging that it even existed.  The women in the books enjoyed sex and experienced lust at a time when it was the men who were supposed to be carrying on that way.  The men reading the books obviously enjoyed thinking about women with such attitudes.  In 1856 came the nation’s first sex magazine, Venus’s Miscellany.  One of its most popular features was its letters column, a forerunner of Letters to Penthouse or blog entries, wherein men and women would describe their sex lives and secret desires (no matter that most of the letters were written by magazine staff).  At a time when moralists were blaming Europe (especially France) for importation of smut, the letters in the Miscellany reflected that ordinary Americans were interested in the sex lives of ordinary Americans.  The magazine took advantage of distribution by mail, and Dennis describes the history of postal inspections for the purpose of rooting out naughty magazines as well as rubber sex toys and condoms. 

The 1873 Comstock Act made it illegal to send such things via the US mail.  With the book covering the nineteenth century, Dennis closes with the career of Anthony Comstock, who became extremely adept in getting pornography, sex education materials, and contraceptives banned and burned.  In fact, some of the publications Dennis refers to here are no longer available anywhere due to Comstock’s tenacity.  He was a mere clerk in a dry-goods store but took it upon himself to rid the city and the nation of obscenity.  The act that bears his name appointed him a commissar within the Post Office to snag pornography in the mail.  Comstock was so vigorous in his crusade that he alienated the YMCA that had hired him to investigate smut.  His work was initially wildly effective, and literally tons of erotic mailings were seized and burned.  He became less effective as he assumed controversial stances, like prosecuting women’s rights leader Victoria Woodhull for articles in her feminist journal, or writing decoy letters to lure pornographers to send out their wares.  His prosecution of producers of fancy books published with quality meant that neophytes got into the publishing business, churning out lighter, smaller, and more ephemeral photos, poems, and playing cards.  In addition to prosecuting those who sent out objective scientific articles about sex or contraception, Comstock prosecuted those who sold classics like Tom Jones or The Decameron, and he arrested the owner of an art gallery on Fifth Street for selling photographs of paintings from a Parisian Salon. 

Comstock didn’t succeed in stopping pornography (and for all his industriousness, he wound up being a laughingstock of prudery).  Dennis’s volume shows pointedly why such efforts will never be successful.  The simple enjoyment people get from viewing or reading about other people having sex makes it too big a commercial pull.  (Indeed, the current governor of New York has proposed taxing downloads of pornography from the internet; he did not suggest trying to eliminate it.)  Faced with a simple supply and demand economy, the product got through, no matter what.  The pornographers adapted with new styles, techniques, and delivery systems, and the moralists proposed new solutions and prosecutions that made them feel they were making a more moral city.  It is easy to see that the dance has never stopped.

Rob Hardy
August 2009

Licentious Gotham: Erotic Publishing and Its Prosecution in Nineteenth-Century New York
(Harvard University Press; March 2009; ISBN-10: 0674032837)
Available at: Amazon | Barnes & Noble

© 2009 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.
WebBio: Rob Hardy

  E-mail this page

Search ERWA Website:

Copyright 1996 and on, Erotica Readers Association, Inc.
All Rights Reserved World Wide. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or
medium without express written permission is prohibited.

'09 Movie Reviews

Blame It On Savanna
Review by Byrdman

Cry Wolf
Review by Spooky

Review by Spooky

Heaven or Hell
Review by Oranje

House of Wicked
Review by Diesel

The Office: An XXX Parody
Review by Spooky

This Ain't The Partridge Family
Review by Spooky

'09 Book Reviews


A Slip of the Lip (ebook)
Review by Jean Roberta

Best Women's Erotica '09
Review by Lisabet Sarai

Bottoms Up
Review by Ashley Lister

Enchanted Again
Review by Victoria Blisse

Review by Kathleen Bradean

Girls on Top
Review by Ashley Lister

In Sleeping Beauty’s Bed
Review by Ashley Lister

Libidacoria (Poetry)
Review by Ashley Lister

Licks & Promises
Review by Ashley Lister

Like a Thorn (ebook)
Review by Lisabet Sarai

The Mile High Club
Review by Ashley Lister

Nexus Confessions: Vol 5
Review by Victoria Blisse

Nexus Confessions 6
Review by Victoria Blisse

Oysters & Chocolate
Review by Kristina Wright

Playing with Fire
Review by Ashley Lister

Sexy Little Numbers Vol 1
Review by Ashley Lister

Up for Grabs
Review by Lisabet Sarai


A 21st Century Courtesan
Review by Donna G. Storey

The Ages of Lulu
Review by Lisabet Sarai

Amanda’s Young Men
Review by Kristina Wright

As She's Told
Review by Ashley Lister

Bedding Down
Review by Victoria Blisse

Review by Ashley Lister

Brushes & Painted Dolls
Review by Lisabet Sarai

Cassandras Chateau
Review by Ashley Lister

The Edge of Impropriety
Review by Kristina Wright

Review by Kathleen Bradean

Free Pass
Review by Ashley Lister

The Gift of Shame
Review by Victoria Blisse

Kiss It Better
Review by Ashley Lister

The Melinoe Project
Review by Lisabet Sarai

Mortal Engines & The ...
Review by Ashley Lister

The New Rakes
Review by Ashley Lister

Ninety Days of Genevieve
Review by Victoria Blisse

Obsession: An Erotic Tale
Review by Kristina Wright

Sarah's Education
Review by Ashley Lister

Seduce Me
Review by Lisabet Sarai

Lesbian Erotica

Lesbian Cowboys
Review by Kathleen Bradean

Night's Kiss
Review by Jean Roberta

Where the Girls Are
Review by Jean Roberta

Gay Erotica

Animal Attraction 2
Review by Kathleen Bradean

Boys in Heat
Review by Vincent Diamond

Review by Lisabet Sarai

The Low Road
Review by Jean Roberta

Personal Demons
Review by Jean Roberta

Ready to Serve
Review by Vincent Diamond

The Secret Tunnel
Review by Kathleen Bradean

Review by Kathleen Bradean

Review by Vincent Diamond


Best Sex Writing '09
Review by Kristina Wright

The Big Penis Book
Review by Rob Hardy

Erotic Encounters
Review by Rob Hardy

The Forbidden Apple
Review by Rob Hardy

Hollywood’s Censor
Review by Rob Hardy

Lady in Red
Review by Rob Hardy

Licentious Gotham: Erotic...
Review by Rob Hardy

Live Nude Elf
Review by Rob Hardy

Live Nude Girl
Review by Rob Hardy

The Other Side of Desire
Review by Rob Hardy

Scripts 4 Play
Review by Ashley Lister