Pornography in the Victorian Era

By Shlomoh Sherman
March 11, 1998

Last week, a friend gave me a gift. It is a book called THE OTHER VICTORIANS: A STUDY OF SEXUALITY AND PORNOGRAPHY IN MID-NINETEENTH-CENTURY ENGLAND by Steven Marcus. This will address one of the chapters in the book.

Chapter Two deals with one Henry Spencer Ashbee, a well to do book collector and lay literary commentator who wrote in the 1870s. One of the topics that fascinated him was sexual writings, and he compiled bibliographies of them which he annotated. Not only did he annotate them but he added his comments about the sexual acts described in them. Most of his comments are those familiar to us about Victorian attitudes; his attitudes are grounded in the popular wisdom of the day and are not based on empirical reality. that both masturbation and over-indulgence in marital sexual activity lead to all kinds of physical and mental illnesses; that nocturnal emissions can be controlled by will power; that pregnancy and child-bearing stifle sexual desire in both husband and wife and that is a desired state of affairs within marriage; that "normal" women do not need or want sex much; that women are particularly cruel and love to work out their cruelty by practicing sadism on men (what we would call dominatrix activity); and such. These did not surprise me.

What DID surprise me was what Ashbee has to say about the connection between pornography and anti-clericalism. Ashbee was an anticleric and an anti-Catholic in particular so his remarks were primarily directed against the Church of Rome Since I am not biased against Catholicism and since I believe that the virtues and vices of religions cut across ALL denominational lines, I substitute what he wrote about Catholicism and apply it to Judeo-Christian Biblical religion in general. It is not that I believe what he said is the ABSOLUTE COSMIC TRUTH; no but what he says about the connection between pornography and Biblical religon amazes me for PERSONAL reasons which I shall soon relate. He says that religion sooner or later become "alloyed with immoral doctrines, impure rites, or obscene practices". They are systems which are "false, prurient, and polluted". They are filled with "licentiousness". Note that this vocabulary is often attributed to pornography itself. Do people not say that porn is immoral, obscene, prurient, and licentious? So here the language associated with porn is used to describe religion. The author points out that Ashbee's obsession with the "sins of Rome" (read religion in general) is the counterpart and analogue of his interest in pornography, and that what he "experiences with direct sexual pleasure in pornography he experiences with the added pleasure of moral indignation in relation to" the church. Further, the church, "like everyone's parents, is at once ascetically denying us the gratification of our impulses and hypocritically wallowing in a wholly sexualized existence." Apparently Ashbee forgets about his own hypocrisy in making that statement because if he agrees that sexuality enfeebles people and makes them mental defectives, how can he argue against any church's curtailment of impulse gratification?

Nonetheless, here is what I find interesting about all this and why I write about it. You are no doubt familiar with my writings. I have written several stories that can be called erotic or pornographic and many of them also contain an element of religiosity, maybe more than just an element. Consider two of these stories: THE SAINTLY WOMAN and SINNERS OF HOLINESS. (Both of these can be found on my home page located at

Respectively, these stories deal with the themes of Religious Hypocrisy and Religious Victimization, and the object of each of these themes is a female in each story. When I first wrote these stories and showed them to my friend, Sam, he said that they were no more than an expression of my anger at Jewish Orthodoxy.

At that time, I had not yet realized the connection between porn and anticlericalism, even though I knew that the sexual activities of Medieval Satanists were enveloped in PARODIES of the Catholic rites. The phenomenon of Jewish SHABTAISM can be found expressed in other religions than Judaism; they are in fact found in any gnostic expression of Judeo-Christianity. I know that they have also appeared in Islam but I am not sufficiently familiar with Moslem history to speak about it. What are the major themes of gnosticism? Salvation can only come about via a "completeness" or oneness in the activities of mankind.

This is the starting axiom. The TALMUD tells us that salvation or redemption can only come about when humanity is COMPLETELY righteous or COMPLETELY sinfull. Since it is difficult for mankind to be completely righteous (Paul's Xtianity substitutes "impossible" for "difficult" but so what?) and it is far easier for man to be completely wicked, then why not bring about redemption via complete abandonment to sin; the more the better. Classical pornography (not our modern porn) uses that theme via its utter contempt for religious sexual morality and "modesty". Perhaps it is not so much (or only) anticlerical but USES religious sexual mores as a guide to express that which it wishes to promote. The more I consider porno (even our modern porn), the more I realize how anti-religious it is by its very nature. It is not merely passively against religion. If that were the case, then it could just be chalked up to naughtiness. NO, it is much more pernicious than that. There is an element of ACTIVE challenge and defiance towards Biblical religion. The same cannot be said about other religions such as Hinduism which uses pornographic themes within its theology. Pornography is also more in consonance with paganism (I wonder if Amy will comment on this), not in a bad sense but just as in what is.

Paganism has never, as far as I know, reacted "badly" to sexuality in general or hedonism in particular, nor should it have. There is more to say about sexuality as a religious theme, especially in the Book of Genesis, but that is an essay for another time.

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