The missing element in the current debate about pornography can be put as a proposition derived from Claude Lévi-Strauss: sex is good for thinking. In La Pensée sauvage and other works, Lévi-Strauss argues that many peoples do not think in the manner of philosophers, by manipulating abstractions. Instead, they think with things—concrete things from everyday life, like housing arrangements and tattoos, or imaginary things from myth and folklore, like Brer Rabbit and his briar patch. Just as some materials are particularly good to work with, some things are especially good to think about (bonnes à penser). They can be arranged in patterns, which bring out unsuspected relationships and define unclear boundaries.

Sex, I submit, is one of them. As carnal knowledge works its way into cultural patterns, it supplies endless material for thought, especially when it appears in narratives—dirty jokes, male braggadocio, female gossip, bawdy songs, and erotic novels. In all these forms, sex is not simply a subject but also a tool used to pry the top off things and explore their inner works. It does for ordinary people what logic does for philosophers: it helps make sense of things. And it did so with greatest effect during the golden age of pornography, from 1650 to 1800, primarily in France.


Fortunately, this proposition can be tested, because for the last ten years French publishers have been reprinting whole shelf-loads of the most illegal and most erotic works from the Old Regime. They have capitalized on the freer attitudes toward sex among the public and the police, and they have drawn on an endless supply of copy in the famous “Enfer” (“Hell”) section of the Bibliothèque Nationale.

The librarians created “l’Enfer” sometime between 1836 and 1844 in order to cope with a contradiction. On the one hand, they needed to preserve the fullest possible record of the printed word; on the other, they wanted to prevent readers from being corrupted by bad books. The answer was to cull all the most offensive erotic works from the library’s various collections and shut them up in one spot, which was declared off limits to ordinary readers.

This policy belonged to the bowdlerization of the world that took place in the nineteenth century. As part of the general buttoning-up and locking-away, the librarians everywhere put certain kinds of books beyond the reach of readers and invented codes to classify them: the “Private Case” of the British Museum, the Delta callmark of the Library of Congress, the ***** of the New York Public Library, and the Bodleian’s Greek letter Φ, which when pronounced in Oxford English sounded like “Fie!”

The greatest collection of them all was generally believed to be in the Bibliothèque Nationale, because Paris—the naughty Paris of the Regency and the Rococo—passed as the capital of pornography. Downstairs in the Nationale’s cavernous Salle des Imprimés readers sometimes allowed their thoughts to wander upstairs, where, curiously, “Hell” was located. Instead of trudging through the sermons of Bourdaloue or the histories of Rollin, they imagined themselves climbing up two flights into a Baudelairean realm of luxe, calme, et volupté. “Hell” therefore became something more than a storage space defined by call numbers—the D2 series devised in 1702 and the extraordinary Y2, which goes back to 1750. “Hell” was heaven, an escape fantasy charged with poetic energy.

One of France’s greatest poets, Guillaume Apollinaire, visited it and catalogued its holdings in 1911: 930 works, one apparently more delicious than another. A more scholarly catalog produced by Pascal Pia in 1978 lists 1,730 titles, although many are modern reprints, the originals having disappeared from the stacks at various times since the seventeenth century. Evidently “Hell” contained a huge supply of forbidden fruit, but most of it remained beyond the reach of ordinary readers until 1980, when the Enfer was abolished and the publishers began to reprint its contents.

Now all this literature has fallen into the public domain. You can pick some up in any Parisian bookstore and sample vast amounts in the seven-volume selection from the Enfer published by Fayard: twenty-nine novels complete with scholarly introductions and illustrations. The Fayard series does not include many of the most important works, such as Margot la ravaudeuse, Les Lauriers ecclésiastiques, and La Chandelle d’Arras, which were best sellers in the clandestine book trade of the Old Regime. But some of them can be found in an excellent anthology published last year by Raymond Trousson, Romans libertins du XVIIIe siècle: a dozen novels and stories crammed into one volume of 1,300 pages. So now at last one can take a fairly complete tour of France’s literary Hell. What does it reveal about the history of pornography and pornography’s place in the history of thought?

The word, like the thing, is a matter of dispute. For some “pornography” should be restricted to its etymological root, meaning writing about prostitutes, as distinct from eroticism in general. For others, it involves descriptions of sexual activity that are meant to arouse the reader or beholder and that violate conventional morality. A postmodernist might argue that the thing did not come into existence until the word was coined—i.e., not until the first half of the nineteenth century (the earliest use of a related term seems to be in Restif de la Bretonne’s tract about public prostitution, Le Pornographe, of 1769). Only then, through measures like the creation of the Enfer, did the public discourse on sex define a category of erotica as peculiarly worthy of repression.


The difficulty with such definitions is that sexual practices and cultural taboos keep shifting. Indeed, it is their very shiftiness that made sex so good for thinking, because it served as a way to explore ambiguities and establish boundaries. No one in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries thought of banning books because of bawdiness that might be considered pornographic today Religion, not sex, determined the main boundary lines of illicitness. But it is impossible to separate sex from religion in the earliest works of modern pornography: Aretino’s Ragionamenti (1536), where the most lascivious scenes are set in a convent; L’Ecole des filles (1655) and L’Académie des dames (1680), which adapt Aretino’s themes to French anticlericalism; and Vénus dans le cloître (c. 1682), where free love promotes free thinking. At the high tide of pornography in the eighteenth century, best-selling works like Thérèse philosophe (1748) employed eroticism in the cause of Enlightenment. And on the eve of the Revolution, sex books such as Correspondance d’Eulalie (1784) served above all as vehicles of social criticism.

After 1789, pornography provided a whole arsenal of weapons for bashing aristocrats, clergymen, and the monarchy. But after turning political (e.g., Dom Bougre aux Etats-Généraux, an indictment of deputies in the Estates General), it became trivial (Les Quarante manières de foutre, a pseudo-sex manual that reads like a recipe book, most of it for fast food: “Take a thigh, add butter, cover, heat to simmering…”) True, the century ended with the Marquis de Sade, whom some have hailed as a prophet of the modern avant-grade. But the endless permutation of copulating bodies in the work of a more typical author, André-Robert Andréa de Nerciat, suggests a genre that had exhausted itself. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Baudelaire and Bataille made sex good for thinking in new ways; and the new era of mass literacy and mass production turned pornography into a phenomenon of mass consumption. 1

In short, pornography has a history. It grew within a body of literature whose contours kept changing but which maintained a certain coherence. The works in the Enfer constantly refer back to the same sources, especially Aretino and the ancient phallic cult of Priapus. They cite one another, sometimes by describing “gallant libraries” that are used as sexual props. They exploit the same devices, above all voyeurism (the reader is made to look over the shoulder of someone looking through a keyhole at a couple copulating in front of a mirror or under pictures of copulating couples on the wall). They use the same narrative strategies: first-person autobiographies by courtesans, dialogues between sexual veterans and innocent beginners, pseudo-sex manuals, and tours of convents and brothels (which are always presented as two versions of the same thing, a usage preserved in the slang expression abbaye for whore house). In many cases, they even give their characters the same names—Nana, Agnès, Suzon were favorites—and advertise their wares by means of the same false addresses on their title pages: “à Rome, de l’imprimerie du Saint Père,” “à Gratte-mon-con, chez Henri Branle-Motte,” “à Tribaldis, de l’imprimerie de Priape,” “à Cythère, au Temple de la Volupté,” “à Lèchecon, et se trouve dans les coulisses de tous les théâtres.”

Yet despite these conventions, which cast the reader in the role of a voyeur and oriented his expectations toward an erotic experience, early modern pornography did not stand out in the eyes of its contemporaries as a clear and distinct genre of literature. Instead, it belonged to a general category, known at the time as “philosophical.” Eighteenth-century publishers and booksellers used the term “philosophical books” to designate illegal merchandise, whether it was irreligious, seditious, or obscene. They did not bother about finer distinctions, because most forbidden books gave offense in several ways. Libre in the jargon of their trade sometimes meant lascivious, but it invoked the libertinism of the seventeenth century—that is, free thinking. By 1750, libertinism had become a matter of the body and the mind, of pornography and philosophy. Readers could recognize a sex book when they saw one, but they expected sex to serve as a vehicle for attacks on the church, the crown, and all sorts of social abuses.


Consider Thérèse philosophe, one of the two or three most important pornographic works of the eighteenth century. It begins with a fictitious version of a notorious scandal in which a Jesuit priest seduced a young woman who had come to him for spiritual guidance. In the novel, the Jesuit preaches a radical variety of Cartesianism. He expounds Descartes’s dichotomy between spirit and matter by instructing his pupil, Mlle. Eradice, to detach her soul from her body through spiritual exercises, such as lifting her skirts while he flagellates her buttocks and she concentrates on the Holy Ghost. If she concentrates hard enough, he assures her, she won’t feel any pain. Instead, her soul will abandon her body and soar to heaven on a wave of spiritual ecstasy.

After an adequate flogging, Eradice is ready for the ultimate spiritual exercise: sexual intercourse. The Jesuit explains that thanks to the use of a relic—a stiff remnant of the rope that Saint Francis wore around his habit—she will undergo a pure form of spiritual penetration. Then, as she prays from a nearly prostrate position, he mounts her from behind. The scene is described by Thérèse, the heroine and narrator of the novel, as she witnessed it from a hiding place:

“Oh, father!” cried Eradice. “Such pleasure is penetrating me! Oh, yes, I’m feeling celestial happiness; I sense that my mind is completely detached from matter. Further, father, further! Root out all that is impure in me. I see…the…an…gels. Push forward…push now…Ah!…Ah!…Good…Saint Francis! Don’t abandon me! I feel the cord…the cord…the cord…I can’t stand it any more…I’m dying!”

This episode provides Thérèse with more than a lesson in the dangers of priestcraft. It is the first step in her education. Having learned to throw off the authority of the church, she pursues the pleasure principle, which leads through physics, metaphysics, and ethics to a happy ending in the bed of a philosophic count. Strange as it may seem to a modern reader, the sex and the philosophy go hand in hand throughout the novel. The characters masturbate and copulate, then discuss ontology and morality, while restoring their forces for the next round of pleasure. This narrative strategy made perfect sense in 1748, because it showed how carnal knowledge could open the way to enlightenment—the radical enlightenment of La Mettrie, Helvétius, Diderot, and d’Holbach.

In the end, Thérèse becomes a philosophe of their stripe. She learns that everything can be reduced to matter in motion, that all knowledge derives from the senses, and that all behavior should be governed by a hedonistic calculus: maximize pleasure and minimize pain. But she is a female philosophe. The greatest pain she can imagine is childbirth, all the more so as her mother and her female mentor almost died in labor. Therefore, much as she enjoys sex and wants to make love with a count who is courting her, she decides that intercourse is not worth the risk. Given the character of eighteenth-century demography and obstetrics, her calculation makes perfect sense, and so does her answer: masturbation at first, and contraception by means of coitus interruptus in the end.

Because Thérèse is a poor commoner and her lover a count, she cannot expect to marry him. But she strikes a good bargain: a generous annuity of 2,000 livres a year and the run of his chateau. She even calls the tune in their lovemaking—and in an earlier episode repulses a rapist by seizing him by the throat. Instead of accepting her lot in life, Thérèse refuses the role of wife and mother and pursues her own happiness on her own terms—as a materialistic, atheistic, and liberated woman.

She was also a figment of a male imagination, because, like most pornography, Thérèse philosophe was written by a man—probably Jean-Baptiste de Boyer, Marquis d’Argens, possibly a certain D’Arles de Montigny, or perhaps even Diderot. Thérèse herself belongs to a long line of female narrators that stretches back to Aretino’s Nanna. They express men’s fantasies, not the long-lost voice of early modern feminism. As prostitutes, kept women, and nuns, they perpetuate the myth of the female voluptuary who accepts her subjection in order to give full rein to her lasciviousness. Nothing could be further from the horrors of prostitution than the fiction of the happy whore.

But the fictitious females represented a challenge to the subordination of women under the Old Regime. Above all, they challenged the authority of the church, which did more than any other institution to keep women in their place. The pornography is so shot through with anticlericalism that it often seems more a matter of religion than obscenity—it is more irreligious, in fact, than the impieties scattered through some standard works of the Enlightenment such as Montesquieu’s De l’Esprit des lois and Diderot’s Encyclopédie. Priests are always abusing the confessional to seduce their parishioners. Monks are always turning convents into harems. Country curates always abuse the peasantry, deflowering, cuckolding, and shipping their victims off to cities, where they become the prey of prelates. Bishops and abbots have their own pimps and houses of pleasure. Even so, they fail to protect themselves from venereal disease, which is consuming the upper clergy along with the upper nobility.

These themes can be put abstractly as a matter of corruption and exploitation, but the pornography makes them effective by embodying them in sex stories. The heroine of Vénus en rut, ou vie d’une célèbre libertine (1771?) cites Mme. de Pompadour’s famous remark about the Bishop of Condom (no less), who had contracted syphilis: “Why didn’t he stay in his diocese?” And then she reveals what she did with a bishop of her own when she got him between the sheets. In order to make him believe that he was a great lover, she called out as he humped away, “Ah! Monseigneur, what voluptuousness!” “Shut up!” he replied, “or I won’t be able to come.” After limping to an orgasm, he explained that any reference to his title, Monseigneur, was enough to spoil his erection for the rest of the evening. “A Monsieur would be too much.”

In Correspondance d’Eulalie a bishop buys a few nights with the kept woman of a marquis. Tipped off by a spy, the marquis surprises them in bed. But instead of flying into a rage, he presents the bishop with a bill for 15,000 livres, the sum he has spent on the woman for the last three months (and the equivalent of three hundred years’ wages for a skilled artisan), threatening to expose his conduct if he refuses to pay. The bishop coughs up the blackmail, but is made a laughing-stock in the Paris rumor mill and therefore is obliged to retreat to his see. Margot in Margot la ravaudeuse soaks a prelate for even more: 24,000 livres in two weeks, and sends him back to his parishioners with a case of venereal disease—his just reward, she claims, for having extorted the money from the common people in the first place.

True, one could find similar anecdotes in earlier anticlericalism, especially the bawdy variety of Boccacio, Rabelais, and Aretino. But those authors remained fundamentally Christian—Aretino nearly became a cardinal and wrote saints’ lives as well as pornography—while the pornographers of the eighteenth century used sex to express all the key ideas of the Enlightenment: nature, happiness, liberty, equality. Like Margot, the courtesan narrator of Vénus en rut exposes the artificiality of social distinctions by sleeping her way from the bottom of society to the top. She learns that all men are equal, once you get them in bed—or, rather, that they vary according to the gifts they have received from nature: “temperament” (but the lower classes always outdo the upper; three orgasms of a servant are worth more than eight of a count) and physique (but penises should not be rated according to their length; “seven to eight inches should amuse any woman of taste”). The conclusion is clear: “In the state of nature, all men are equal; that assuredly is the state of the courtesan.” As a proposition, the idea was common enough; but it came across with uncommon force, because it was embodied in narratives with a strong story line: that is how sex helped readers to think about equality in a deeply inegalitarian society.

The same line of thought applied to the relations between men and women. By stripping everyone of their social distinctions, pornography exposed similarities and differences in the sexuality of the sexes, at least as they were understood by male authors writing as female narrators. At their most basic, in Thérèse philosophe, for example, the differences came down to little or nothing, because all humans were “machines” composed of the same tiny particles of matter. Pleasure simply set the matter in motion, first as a stimulus of the sense organs, then as a sensation transmitted through the nervous system, and finally as an idea to be stored and combined in the brain.

The differences between men and women were also minimal in seventeenth-century pornography, which drew on Galen and Descartes to advance a physiological view of sex. In L’Ecole des filles, the vagina is an inverted penis, complete with “testicles” and “spermatic canals,” and women ejaculate the same “thick, white liquor” in the same way as men. Fecundation occurs by means of mutual orgasm, when the two liquors meet; so the woman’s pleasure is crucial to reproduction. She can also prevent conception by controlling “the combat of semen against semen” through movements of her thighs and buttocks. She should direct the action and mount the man when she pleases, both to maximize pleasure and to develop his “humility.” By bestriding her lover, the heroine of Histoire de Marguerite (1784) “ejaculated so amply that she drowned me with her delicious semen from my belly button to the middle of my thighs.”

Behind the mechanics and hydraulics of this sexology was a utopian notion of men and women copulating and ejaculating endlessly, in perfect synchrony. L’Ecole des filles even revived the ancient myth that men and women are divided halves of the same androgynous whole, which seeks forever to reunite. It dismissed the sexual doctrines of the Catholic Church as so much nonsense, invented by men in order to dominate women, despite the self-evident truths of the order of nature. A century and a half later, Eléonore, ou l’heureuse personne (1798) pursued the same theme in a fable about the hermaphrodite who switched sexes once a year, moving back and forth between monasteries and nunneries while experimenting with every conceivable sexual combination. In its wildest fantasies as well as its most scientific fictions, early modern pornography therefore made it possible to think about sexual equality in ways that challenged the basic values of the Old Regime.

In some cases, the thought experiments came close to themes in modern feminism. In 1680, L’Académie des dames protested against the skewed social code that subjected women to “the inhumanity of men.” Although women had greater capacity for sexual pleasure, men were given greater freedom to indulge in it. Therefore, it argued, women should avenge themselves by pretending to honor society’s absurd conventions in public while giving full vent to their natural instincts in secret—in a word, by cuckolding their husbands. Tullie, the worldly-wise matron, warns Octavie, the naive bride-to-be, that in marriage, “Civil laws are contrary to those of nature.” But a wife can find justice by sexually doing unto her lover what her husband does unto her: “The former [the husband] commands me; I command the other. My husband has the enjoyment of my body, and I the body of my lover.”

In 1740, Histoire de Dom B…condemned “the captivity in which [the female] sex is kept.” The hero’s mother delivered a remarkable sermon on courtship and marriage, denouncing conventional morality as a way of subjecting women to men. And in 1784, Correspondance d’Eulalie played with a fanciful solution to the problem of male dominance: women could withdraw to self-sufficient lesbian communities in the country. It repeated the well-worn theme of women’s superior capacity for multiple orgasms, and celebrated their general superiority in verse:

Par des raisons, prouvons aux hommes
Combien au-dessus d’eux nous sommes
Et quel est leur triste destin.
Nargue du genre masculin.
Démontrons quel est leur caprice,
Leur trahison, leur injustice.
Chantons et répétons sans fin:
Honneur au sexe féminin.2


After reading through 150 years of early modern pornography, I found it difficult to resist the conclusion that some feminists have got it wrong. Instead of condemning all pornography outright, they could use some of it to advance their cause. Catharine MacKinnon may be correct in associating modern pornographers with the proposition that “having sex is antithetical to thinking.” But that claim flies in the face of arguments developed in “philosophical books” three centuries ago that sex is “an inexhaustible source of thought.”3 And Andrea Dworkin’s indictment of pornography rests on a breathlessly ahistorical view of culture.

In the intimate world of men and women, there is no mid-twentieth century distinct from any other century. There are only the old values, women there for the taking, the means of taking determined by the male. It is ancient and it is modern; it is feudal, capitalist, socialist; it is caveman and astronaut, agricultural and industrial, urban and rural. For men, the right to abuse women is elemental, the first principle…. In pornography, men express the tenets of their unchanging faith, what they must believe is true of women and of themselves to sustain themselves as they are….4

Instead of refusing historical reflection and restricting their arguments to culture-bound notions of gender, feminists could draw on the history of pornography to show how male dominance has been exerted and resisted over time. While asserting the right of women to defend themselves against men, early modern pornography frequently portrayed the male animal as a predator, who pawed every female within reach and felt no compunctions about rape. Dom B…masturbates while taking confession, then rapes his most succulent parishioner. His violence and her resistance is described in excruciating detail. But as soon as he penetrates her, she responds passionately and outdoes him in lasciviousness. By fighting him off she had really been trying to turn him on—that is, she had meant yes by saying no, another stock theme in the literature. When the heroine’s first lover in La Cauchoise catches her with another man, he avenges himself by arranging for her to be gang-raped by eight of his friends while he urges them on. The women in the prostitute narratives are frequently raped; and one of them, Mlle. Rosalie in Correspondance d’Eulalie, is found dangling from a noose in the Bois de Boulogne with her breasts cut off.

Some of these episodes seem to have been inspired by the sensationalist fiction of penny dreadfuls (canards, feuilles volantes, and chapbooks). One should not take them literally, just as one should not read Fanny Hill (La Fille de joie in the inadequate French translation) as a clinical account of female sexuality. But taken as literature, the pornography expressed the assumption that women were in constant danger of rape, especially when exposed to men of superior power and status. It favored violent metaphors. A bride’s virginity was a fortress to be stormed, the bed a battlefield, the deflowering a slaughter. L’Académie des dames describes the hymen as “a victim…which must be sacrificed or massacred and torn to pieces with plenty of bloodshed.” A groom instructs his bride to surrender “that part of your body that is no longer yours but mine”; and by entering her vagina he “takes possession of a thing that belongs to me.”

Male dominance could hardly be put more bluntly. True, the sex books often seem to condone as well as to condemn the brutal treatment of women. It would be silly to read a modern argument for women’s liberation into ancient texts designed primarily to arouse men. Yet the texts also advance ideas that undercut simplistic notions of phallocracy. After losing their virginity, the heroines of early modern pornography often gain a kind of independence—not legal or professional or social autonomy: that was virtually impossible under the conditions of the Old Regime; but self-reliance of an intellectual sort, because once they discover that sex is good for thinking, they learn to think for themselves. In L’Ecole des filles Fanchon remains silly and servile until she makes love. Then she awakens to a new power in herself:

Formerly I was only good for sewing and holding my tongue, but now I can do all sorts of things. When I speak with my mother, I now find reasons to support what I say; I hold forth as if I were another person, instead of fearing to open my mouth as I used to do. I am beginning to be clever and to stick my nose into things that were almost unknown to me before.

L’Académie des dames equates the opening of the vulva with the opening of the mind and describes the loss of virginity as the first step toward the acquisition of intellectual independence. For the next hundred years, pornographic writing continued to develop variations on this master theme.

In Vénus dans le cloître, Sister Dosithée, a religious fanatic, flagellates herself so violently that she ejaculates, bursting her hymen with a discharge released from deep within her womb. Then suddenly her mind clears, she recognizes the superstition at the core of Catholicism, and she converts to deism. In Histoire de Dom B…, Sister Monique frees herself of ignorance and opens her mind to the light of reason by means of masturbation. Dom B… himself first becomes aware of the rational order of nature by watching a couple copulate. And in Thérèse philosophe, voyeurism and masturbation clear a way through the claptrap of religion, making it possible for Thérèse to become a philosopher.

The theme appears everywhere in early modern pornography. In fact, the literature of the Enfer uses a special verb to convey it: déniaiser, to lose one’s silliness by gaining carnal knowledge. At the other end of the process, the heroines in the sexual success stories become savantes—not the kind of femmes savantes satirized by Molière and not necessarily learned, but critical and intellectually independent. “I became savante,” declares the narrator of La Cauchoise after an account of her initiation in the mysteries of sex. She therefore rejects religion and refuses to accept “any authority other than nature itself.”

The narrator of Vénus en rut pursues the knowledge of nature even further by seducing a doctor and compelling him to give her lessons in physiology, complete with wax models of the inner workings of the sexual organs. The heroines of Margot la ravaudeuse and La Correspondance d’Eulalie set up salons and rule over the literary world. They do not all embrace the cause of the Enlightenment, but all of them pursue enlightened self-interest and fight their way to the top of the Old Regime by refusing to accept its prejudices and by exploiting its corruption.

In the end, therefore, sex turns out to be good for thinking not merely in order to resist the exploitation of women by men but to oppose exploitation in general. The pornography provides a general indictment of the Old Regime, its courtiers, manor lords, financiers, tax collectors, and judges, as well as its priests. Everyone who lives off the labor of the common people receives a drubbing at one point or another. Not that the sex books call for a revolution. Some of them, Lucette ou les progrès du libertinage, for example, even satirize free thinkers and philosophers. But by pursuing standard themes like a harlot’s progress and the corruption of country youth, they expose the web of wealth and influence that constituted le monde, France’s allpowerful elite. La Correspondance d’Eulalie can be read as a map of le monde and also as a chronique scandaleuse or underground journal. It provides a running commentary on plays and operas, exhibitions of paintings, ministerial intrigues, foreign affairs, and all sorts of current events along with the sex lives of the rich and powerful. The sex merely serves as a vehicle for social criticism, and the criticism runs in many directions, not merely along the Great Divide separating men and women.

By concentrating exclusively on the victimization of women, feminist critics of pornography fail to recognize the part it played in exposing other kinds of social abuses. But its history also confirms some of their central arguments, notably their claim that “pornography is masturbation material.”5 Not only did works like Thérèse philosophe take masturbation as a major theme, they also encouraged the reader to masturbate along with the characters in the stories. The Comte de Mirabeau put it at its crudest in the introduction to Ma conversion ou lè libertin de qualité (1783): “May the reading [of this book] make the whole universe beat off.”

Such remarks seem to assume a male audience, although they did not necessarily exclude women. In claiming to be written for the edification of girls, L’Ecole des filles and Lucette ou les progrès du libertinage were trying to tickle the imagination of men. But La Cauchoise included women servants in a more straightforward description of the reading public; and the narrator of Eléonore ou l’heureuse personne referred casually to “my women readers,” as if she expected to have some. Iconographic evidence such as Emmanuel de Ghendt’s notorious “Le Midi” shows women using books for stimulation while masturbating. And the texts themselves stressed female masturbation, often in connection with reading. The nuns in Vénus dans le cloître excite themselves by reading L’Académie des dames; the prostitutes in Correspondance d’Eulalie by reading Aretino; the female philosophers in Thérèse philosophe by reading Histoire de Dom B…; and the lesbians in Les Progrès du libertinage by reading Thérèse philosophe. “Gallant libraries” are often described in the novels. The references back and forth between texts are so thick and so shot through with autoeroticism that it can be sensed on every page, but it cannot be identified exclusively with men.


The issue is not whether pornography was meant to arouse sexual desire or meant to arouse only males, but rather whether it can be reduced to its function as masturbation material. In order to argue their case more effectively, the feminists could find some unexpected allies in the camp of literary theory. Above all, they could draw on the work of Jean Marie Goulemot, which represents the best in the current scholarship on pornography.

Goulemot argues that eighteenth-century pornography came closer than any other genre to realizing the aim of all literature before Mallarmé—namely, to create a “reality effect,” one so powerful that it seemed to obliterate the distinction between literature and life.6 In pornographic novels, unlike other kinds of narrative, the words printed on paper produced an unmediated, involuntary response in the body of the reader. The fiction worked physically, as if it could insinuate itself into flesh and blood, abolishing time and language and everything else that separated reading from reality. Goulemot’s argument fits perfectly with Catharine MacKinnon’s contention that “pornography is often more sexually compelling than the realities it presents, more sexually real than reality.”7 But the thesis has drawbacks.

It combines theories of reader-response and of genre to advance the notion of an ideal type, something that might be called “pure” pornography, because it operates exclusively on the reader’s libido. Any disruption (brouillage)—in the form of plot development, psychological complexity, philosophy, humor, sentiment, or social comment—will mitigate the effect and detract from the pornography’s pureness. Unfortunately for the theory, however, early modern pornography consisted mainly of brouillage—that is, of the very ingredients that created impurities. Its greatest successes, Histoire de Dom B…and Thérèse philosophe, went to the furthest extremes in steering the reader through narrative and philosophical complexities. And its founding father, Aretino, shifted from sex to social criticism in the course of his Ragionamenti.

True, Aretino was famous for the explicit description of copulating techniques in his Sonetti Iussuriosi. But it seems unlikely that the sonnets were widely read in France; and it is inaccurate to claim, as Goulemot does, that Aretino was “tirelessly translated and retranslated” into French under the Old Regime. Aside from some of his religious writings and one fragment of the Ragionamenti, the French did not publish a single translation of his work between 1660 and 1800.8 Instead, they printed and reprinted L’Arrétin moderne by Henri-Joseph Du Laurens (first edition, 1763; at least thirteen others before 1789), a scandal sheet that was three parts gossip to one part sex. The “modern Aretino” of eighteenth-century France actually had a lot in common with his Italian ancestor from the sixteenth century. But he was above all a libelliste—that is, a specialist in slandering eminent figures of the church and state. Libel, like irreligion, can hardly be distinguished from pornography in the “philosophical” works of the Old Regime. If pornography was a genre, it was such a mixed genre that it defies any attempt to isolate a pure variety. Its impurities provided the very elements that made its sex so good for thinking.

In the end, then, literary theory fails to account for the defining characteristics of early modern pornography. Jean Marie Goulemot comes close to acknowledging this failure in the conclusion of his book, where he toys with the fantasy of a “golden age of reading.” He locates it in eighteenth-century France, a time when readers could plunge into texts like adolescents, free of the inhibitions produced by training in literary criticism. Thanks to their passionate primitivism, he fancies, they may have used pornography as a way of abandoning themselves to the call of the wild. Indeed, some librarians are said to havefound spermatic traces, possibly from the eighteenth century, on the leaves of the eighteenth-century sex books. Could a modern researcher follow in the steps of those long-forgotten readers and, by divesting himself of enough sophistication, respond in the same way? The proof of his success would be, to put it bluntly (but Goulemot steers his argument around all such coarseness), an orgasm. In that case, the books from “Hell” could function as time machines, propelling their readers into sensations that burned out two centuries ago; and pornography could provide historians with an experience that has hitherto eluded them: direct access to passions in the past.


This fantasy should not be taken too seriously, but it illustrates a serious impediment to understanding the history of pornography: the illusion of immunity from anachronism. No matter how erotic a text may be, it can hardly affect readers today in the same way that it affected them centuries earlier; for reading now takes place in a mental world that differs fundamentally in its assumptions, values, and cultural codes from the world of the Old Regime. Instead of searching through early modern pornography for parallels to modern varieties of male dominance, one could therefore take the opposite tack and read it for what it says about mentalities that no longer exist. Take one step into an obscene novel from seventeenth- or eighteenth-century France, and you enter an unfamiliar landscape. Read through several shelves, and you find yourself on an ethnographic journey through a vast museum of foreign folkways. In this way, too, sex is good for thinking—not just for primitives from the Old Regime but for anyone who wants to understand them.

Consider the question of beauty. Like natives in many developing countries, the characters in early modern pornography fancied fat, fat in general and fat in particular places—on arms, for example, and in the small of the back. Back fat produced dimples at the chute de reins, a sensuous spot just above the buttocks immortalized by Boucher in paintings of his famous model, Mademoiselle O’Murphy. It was Eradice’s “admirable chute de reins” that made her so irresistible to her Jesuit confessor in Thérèse philosophe and Lucette’s arms that made her fortune as a courtesan in Les progrès du libertinage: “Her chubby arms make Cupid smile; one longs to fix one’s mouth to them and to be squeezed in their soft bondage.” Women used their arms more than their legs as means of seduction. “No doubt Monsieur likes to see the movement of a naked arm,” Mme. C…says to arouse her lover in Thérèse philosophe. But legs mattered, too, especially on men, because men’s breeches left their calves exposed, and spindly calves disgusted women. Thus Margot’s populist scorn for the leg of one of her clients in Margot la ravaudeuse: “He had the leg of a man of breeding—that is to say, skinny and meatless.” Men were also repelled by “hideous thinness.” They found breasts and buttocks alluring, but only if abundantly upholstered: the more meat, the better, although they preferred Boucher-like fleshiness (embonpoint) to Rubenesque obesity. The heroine of Vénus en rut put the ideal succinctly when she described herself as “a little ball of fat.”

Of course, one must allow for literary conventions in the descriptions of beautiful women. So it is not surprising that the narrator of Vénus en rut presents herself to the reader as having “the freshness of a new rose.” But she immediately goes on to praise her teeth. Teeth stand out everywhere in the descriptions, probably because of the prevalence of rotting jaws and stinking breath in early modern society. In Le Rut ou la pudeur éteinte (1676), Dorimène has skin like a lily, a mouth like a rose, and:

Her teeth were white, so equal and perfectly aligned that this part of her alone would have sufficed to inspire love in a soul less sensitive than his [Celadon’s].

What do they do, these two sensitive souls, when they get past the self-presentation and the foreplay? They organize an orgy with two other couples in a prison, where the hero, Celadon, holds court after being locked up by a nasty attorney. In order to hump more effectively, one of the gallants props his feet against a cup-board. But he thrusts so hard that he knocks it over onto one of the ladies, Hiante, who is copulating on the floor—and having some difficulty because her lover, Le Rocher, cannot sustain an erection, and she is enormously pregnant. The blow causes her to have a still birth on the spot. The ladies then withdraw, and the cavaliers give themselves over to a poetry contest.

Le Rocher wins the contest by improvising all sorts of verse, including a sonnet on the poor performance of his penis. It went limp, he explains in perfect Petrarchian style, because after penetrating Hiante it found Death waiting for it at the far end of her womb. While the poets woo their muse, the guard dog of the prison eats the body of the baby, all except its head, and promptly dies of indigestion. The poets realize what has happened when they spot the prison cat playing with the head as if it were a ball. “This spectacle gave them great pleasure,” the narrator observes. It stimulates their appetites and also their creativity; so they sit down to a hearty meal and produce epitaphs for the dog, improvising rhymes around the theme of birth and death. Then they send a lackey to nail the baby’s head on the front door of the attorney’s house.

When the attorney looks out his window the next morning, he sees a crowd gathered in front of his door. Assuming they are a lynch mob, he confesses all the crimes he has committed at the expense of the local peasants. But then he notices the head and realizes that the crowd is a collection of bumpkins venting its “joy” at the sight of something strange. So he retracts his confession and explains that the head came from a monkey that his brother killed in the forest—a creature that had been unaccountably swinging through the trees outside Alençon. The bumpkins then disperse, delighted at having seen, for free, the kind of curiosity that would have cost them a penny at a village fair.

What makes this episode so strange for the modern reader is not its violence—we have more than enough of that in pornography today—but its humor. It is clearly meant to be funny. While stringing one horror after another, the text describes the incidents as “comic,” “funny,” and “buffoonish.” If we have absorbed an adequate supply of picaresque novels we might recognize some themes. If we have mastered enough Shakespeare and Cervantes, we might begin to get our bearings. But none of us today can laugh at those jokes. Our inability to get them should tip us off to the difficulty of “getting” a culture that was fundamentally different from ours, although it might have some specious familiarity if it appeared under the heading “Renaissance” or “Baroque” in a textbook of Western civilization.

Early modern pornography grew out of a culture that seems unthinkable today, just as the car crashes and shoot-outs of our television will look baffling to researchers three centuries from now. In the seventeenth century, works like Le Rut ou la pudeur éteinte belonged to a Rabelaisian world, which combined the rough and tumble of the street with the sophistication of the court. In the eighteenth century, the street culture continued to leave its mark on bawdy books, but it changed in character. It became concentrated in the boulevards that had replaced the medieval walls of Paris, providing a setting for a new kind of popular theater and a new kind of prostitute: the grisette who graduated from clothes shops along the rue Saint-Honoré to fancy apartments behind the boulevards in the rue de Cléry and the rue Tiquetonne.

All of the prostitute narratives after 1750 take their readers on tours of this territory, describing the food in the bistros, the furniture in the bordels, the music in the dance halls, the gestures in the pantomimes, and the farces in the theaters. La Correspondance d’Eulalie reads in places like a guide book, complete with footnotes for the edification of ignorant provincials. At one point, Mlle Julie, a highclass courtesan, amuses herself by picking up a man from the lowlife in Nicolet’s vaudeville theater. She lets him think “that I was one of those girls who is willing to accept a supper in a good boulevard bistro as the price of their favors.” So she sends him off to order a meal chez Bancelin and then disappears. A footnote explains that Bancelin’s is the most famous tavern on the boulevard and that to spice up a meal one can order bawdy songs from joueuses de veille (girl street-singers who accompany themselves on a hurdy-gurdy), who also provide sexual services. At another point, Julie goes dining on the boulevard and orders an evening’s worth of off-color ballads, which she then transcribes into the text; so the prostitute’s memoirs briefly turn into an anthology of street music.

This is the milieu that would later evolve into the Balzacian world of Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, the bohemian world of La Bohème, and the poetic world of Les Enfants du Paradis. But in the eighteenth century it remained far removed from sentiments that still resonate today. Suzon in the Mémoires de Suzon becomes a dancer in a boulevard cabaret. One night on her way home, she comes across two soldiers, who carry her off to a field on the road to Montmartre and rape her. It is quite an ordinary occurrence, except for the fact that one soldier has such a monstrous penis that he cannot get inside her. On their way back, they spot a grindstone in a wheelbarrow left outside a tavern by an itinerant knife sharpener, and Suzon suggests a solution to the soldier’s problem. She climbs on the wheelbarrow and urinates on the grindstone to reduce the friction while he grinds his penis down to a usable size. This “funny scene,” as Suzon calls it, amuses the crowd of two hundred onlookers, but it doesn’t look funny to the modern reader. Nor do Suzon’s other experiences on the boulevards: gymnastic group sex with some Spanish acrobats and “comic” copulating backstage with the Harlequin and Pierrot of a pantomime.

Equally unfunny are the deflowerings that bring comic relief to the sexual tension throughout the literature. The whores often joke about how they use astringents to fake virginity and thereby dupe their clients into paying supplements. One of them, Mlle Felmé in Correspondance d’Eulalie, retires to the provinces under a false name, marries a magistrate, and describes her burlesque wedding night with professional expertise: the tiny packet of blood slipped up her vagina, the vinegar treatment, the hiding under the covers, the insistence on blowing out the candles, the faked resistance, the faked frigidity, and the groom’s triumphal cry the morning after, when he finds the fake blood on the bedclothes: “Ah! my wife was a virgin! How happy I am!”

One can see the joke, but one cannot really get it—any more than one can laugh at cuckolding and transmission of venereal disease, two other in-exhaustible subjects of hilarity in the sex books. To see deeper into the humor it is crucial to know more about the serious scenarios for wedding nights, and they, too, are available in the pornography. The best of many examples comes in L’Académie des dames. It takes place in the house of the bride’s parents. Her mother undresses her in front of the groom, puts her to bed naked, and joins the rest of the family in the next room, locking the door behind her. After stripping, the groom turns back the covers and checks the bride’s virginity by sticking his finger up her vagina. She freezes, then resists as he fondles and kisses; so he forces open her thighs and mounts her. While he batters his way into her, she screams in pain and terror, much to the satisfaction of her family listening next door.

A preliminary orgasm slows the groom down before he can penetrate her. But his second “attack” strikes deeper, and the third breaks through the hymen so that the “fortress” is taken. The groom demands that the vagina, “all broken and torn,” acknowledge his penis “as its sovereign.” Then he attacks again, making the bed groan and the bride scream so loudly that when at last the room falls silent her mother reenters it. She presents the groom with some perfumed wine and acknowledges him formally as her son: “My son, she says, how valiantly you fought! You are a hero! The screams of my daughter bear irrevocable witness to her defeat. I congratulate you on your victory.”

Another wedding night later in the book follows the same scenario, which is described with the same profusion of military metaphors. When the mother arrives with the drink, she says, “Brave soldier…I now recognize you as my son and my son-in-law.” And still later, a third groom deflowers his bride according to the identical ritual, but this time it is parodied. She is a simple peasant girl, he a servant of an aristocratic lady, who uses him as a stud. In order to exert her power and enjoy a practical joke, the lady indoctrinates the girl with the wrong information about how to behave. So instead of freezing, the bride grabs the groom’s penis, moves her buttocks wildly, and lifts her legs in the air. She gives off all the wrong signals, as if she were a prostitute rather than a virgin: that is the joke, but it is funny only to those who share the cultural code.

To be sure, L’Académie des dames is a sex book, not the field notes of an ethnographer. It provides a literary version of an ideal wedding night as imagined in the seventeenth century, not a reliable account of how people actually behaved in bed. But that ideal still served as a foil for jokes a hundred years later. Even if it did not correspond closely to actual behavior, it defined a certain mentality—that is, a world we have (fortunately) lost, lost so completely that we must consult pornography in order to catch a glimpse of it.

As a final example of the strangeness of this literature, consider Histoire de Dom B…, the greatest and most outrageous of all the books in “Hell.” This time, exceptionally, the narrator is a man, the monk Dom B…(the B…stands for bugger, but his name is actually Saturnin). As an oversexed adolescent peering through a hole in his bedroom wall, Saturnin spots his mother copulating with a monk. He wants to do the same with his sister, Suzon. (It turns out later that none of them is a blood relative, but the text plays with every variety of the incest taboo.) In order to excite Suzon, he leads her to his peephole; and while she observes the next round of copulation, he slides to the floor and looks up her skirt. Then he slips his hand up her leg, higher and higher, following the rhythm of her thighs, which tighten and loosen in response to the humping in the next room. At last he pushes into her vagina: “I’ve got you, Suzon; I’ve got you!”.

While Suzon remains glued to the peephole, Saturnin masturbates her and pulls off her clothes. She spreads her legs, and he tries to take her from behind. But the position is impossible, so he spins her around and pulls her to the bed. He penetrates, she pushes, and just as they begin to heave with abandon the bed collapses under them. Their mother rushes in, furious; but when she spots Saturnin’s erection, she changes her tune and drags him to the bed in the other room, while the monk takes Saturnin’s place with Suzon. Thus, after violating his sister’s virginity, Saturnin cuckolds his father and concludes with a defiant address to the reader:

Here is plenty of food for thought for readers whose glacial temperament has never felt the furies of love! Go ahead, Messieurs, think away, give full vent to your moralizing! I abandon the field to you, and want to say just one thing: if you had a hard-on as unbearable as mine, who would you fuck? The devil himself.

Today’s reader might reply: Very well, here we have some eighteenth-century hard-core; what makes it so surprising? The rest of the novel continues in the same manner, at a breathless pace, piling social criticism on anticlericalism as one orgy leads to another. Each episode tops the previous one, until all inhibition seems to be destroyed. The sexual escalation sweeps everything before it, and in the end it deposits the hero in a particularly crapulous whorehouse. There, after years of separation, he meets Suzon again. Having been seduced and dumped in the road by a priest, she has survived a near-fatal miscarriage, a term in a pestilential poor-house, and a horrific career as a hooker. Now she is in the terminal stage of a vicious case of syphilis.

Yet Saturnin loves her. He has always loved her, with a visceral passion that has never loosened its grip on his soul. So he wants to make love with her once more. She refuses, knowing that she would kill him with her disease. But he insists, and they unite their bodies for the last time, all through the night, deep in the dark of a decrepit brothel. Not a foul word in the text. Not a hint of lasciviousness.

Suddenly the police burst in. They seize upon Suzon. Saturnin fells one of them with a blow from an andiron, but the others drag him down the stairs, knocking him unconscious. Suzon disappears into one prison, where she immediately dies of her disease. Saturnin wakes up in another, feverish from the onset of syphilis. He passes out again. Again he regains consciousness, this time awakened by a pain between his legs. He reaches down with his hand, and discovers he has been castrated. From deep within his bowels, a sound forms, rises through his throat, and breaks out as a scream, beating at the ceiling: Saturnin has ceased to be a man; he has nothing more to live for.

The surgery saves him, although he wants to die, having learned of Suzon’s death. He does not know where to turn or what to do with his new freedom. So he takes to the road, abandoning himself to Providence. He comes upon a Carthusian monastery, and suddenly has a vision of a life to be lived outside the agony of passion. After hearing his story, the superior takes him in; and Saturnin becomes Dom B…, gatekeeper to the Carthusians:

I am waiting here for death, without fearing or desiring it. After it releases me from the world of the living, they will carve in golden letters on my tomb: Hicsitus est Dom Bougre, fututus, futuit. [Here lies Dom Bugger, fucked, he fucked.]

It is an astounding story, one that deserves a place beside Manon Lescaut and La Nouvelle Héloïse. In it, eroticism is swallowed up in asceticism, pornography in religiosity. Of course, the burlesque epitaph leaves everything unsettled. The note of passion at the end could be one more trick of priestcraft; the moralizing could be specious. But the unsettling character of the story is part of its point. Sex may lead to love, love to salvation, and salvation to closure in a narrative of escalating surprises. Or everything could be a joke. The novel is so rich that it permits many readings. But if it is a joke, it cannot be grasped by anyone who has never had a brush with Augustinian piety, especially the kind known as Jansenism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Seen in this light, the entire story leads to a spectacular non sequitur: the monastery, instead of being a brothel, turns out to be a genuine refuge from the torments of the flesh; and Saturnin, after working through every conceivable kind of sexual sin, finds his true vocation as a monk. Is he saved, or is he, as his epitaph says, merely fucked? Whether a send-up of religion or a confirmation of it, his story illustrates the precariousness of the struggle to find some solid meaning in life in the mid-eighteenth century, when Jansenism and the Enlightenment threatened to cancel each other out, and also today; for one cannot close a pornographic masterpiece like L’Histoire de Dom B…without thinking that sex is good for thought.

This Issue

December 22, 1994