Articulated figures made from leather, metal and wood, circa 1920–1930

Collection of Mark Rotenberg

Articulated figures made from leather (top and center) and metal and wood (bottom), circa 1920–1930

The Age of Sail meant long and lonely days for whalers and seamen, but it was not without its consolations. Out on the high seas, despite cramped and filthy conditions, rampant scurvy, omnipresent rats, and the threat of tar-and-feathering, a skilled sailor left to his own devices might have occasion to carve out a fine pornographic scrimshaw on sea ivory. One side of a carefully engraved walrus tusk might show a whaling ship in full sail, adorned by leaves, anchors, and cannons—the other, a naked lady sitting on the head of a sea monster.

In The People’s Porn, Lisa Z. Sigel, a professor of history at DePaul University in Chicago, is interested in a very particular kind of artifact: the homemade pornographic object. Antiques like scrimshaws “represent the consciousness of their makers and allow us to generate an idea of a past world,” she writes, hurling these tchotchkes into anthropological legitimacy. Sigel focuses on provenance, rarity, materiality, and the individual consciousness behind the handmade, and applies this way of looking to the gamut of amateur pornographic objets, from erotic gewgaws from the nineteenth century to works considered to be modern “folk” or outsider art, to various forms of erotica just up to the age of the camcorder.

Sigel has previously published three books in the discipline of sexuality studies, each with mildly naughty, confectionary titles: Governing Pleasures: Pornography and Social Change in England, 1815–1914 (2002); International Exposure: Perspectives on Modern European Pornography, 1800–2000 (2005), which she edited; and Making Modern Love: Sexual Narratives and Identities in Interwar Britain (2012). In The People’s Porn, she is committed to seeing cultural meaning in objects that scholars have largely ignored—regardless of whether they ought to be seen as simple masturbation material, items of psychosocial or political defiance, or possibly something more sinister, like incitements to commit sex crimes.

One reason pornographic artifacts have yet to achieve a legitimate status in science, art, and academia—apart from their marginalization from polite society—is that so much of their history is impossible to retrieve. Unless pornographic materials found their way into private collections, they were routinely destroyed to prevent prosecution, scandal, or embarrassment. (Politics aside, most masturbation aids are not viewed as having social or historical value but as sticky, disposable gross-outs of questionable provenance.)

Various moral codes have banished masturbation and erected stigma; the Victorians, for instance, officially turned such a piercing eye on the act of self-love that masturbation was seen as a serious and even potentially fatal threat to mental and physical health, a cause of insanity and syphilis alike. In the United States, obscenity trials in the nineteenth century—thanks to “anti-vice” activists like Anthony Comstock—caused innumerable pornographic objects and other sexually explicit material (including information about contraception) to be seized and burned.

Unveiling the surviving objects from the hypocritical shroud of prudery, Sigel argues, will help us understand our fellow man and woman. “These objects—in all their incoherent, libidinal, confusing strangeness—remain acts of individual testimony that can and should be entered into the historical record,” she writes. “They tell us about how people understood sexuality through what they could visualize.” They also, Sigel demonstrates, were a way for anti-establishment, antisocial attitudes to be articulated via explicit sexuality or deviance—a crudely drawn dingus being, in essence, a middle finger to the status quo.

Finding these materials was apparently a bit of a cat-herding project, but Sigel has located many fascinating examples, ranging from the adorably primitive (carvings of rectangular breasts made by loggers, for example) to the pronouncedly deviant, filthy, and hair-raising (mainly works from prisons). Most were taken from the collection of the Kinsey Institute (formerly the Institute for Sex Research), the nonprofit research institution that Alfred Kinsey, an erstwhile entomologist, founded at Indiana University in 1947, in part to collect and preserve such artifacts. Other curiosities, featured in black-and-white photographs throughout the book, came from private collections, art and ephemera dealers, archives, and museums. Some are part of the author’s own collection.

A toy coffin with the inscription Not Dead Yet Darling, circa 1930

Collection of Mark Rotenberg

A toy coffin with the inscription ‘Not Dead Yet Darling,’ circa 1930

Sigel begins her investigation in the 1830s, with a chapter that examines the “robust vernacular tradition” of expressive handmade smut that existed in America until about the 1930s. Pornographic objects of this time are at their most endearing and least hardcore; Sigel displays a number of odd little handicrafts that somehow survived into the twenty-first century, painstaking examples of the lengths people went to for titillation, made from whatever media were available to merchant seamen and other men working in rough professions with no female curves to ogle. Wooden canes, for example, provided a canvas for an array of mildly naughty phallic musings. A scrimshaw notable for its rococo style features a woman squatting over a chamber pot, urinating while holding an erect penis. A number of men were apparently drawn to carving toy coffins in which the corpses have spring-loaded erections that pop up when the lid is moved (one includes the phrase, scrawled knowingly on the inside of the coffin lid, “Not Dead Yet Darling”; see illustration at right). A patriotic wooden statue of Abraham Lincoln boasts similar pop-up virtues; it also, according to Sigel, “demonstrates the artist’s investment in the masculine form.” Lettering on coins was laboriously altered from “One Cent” to “One Cunt,” suggesting a bold if undervalued new currency.


Sigel sees the vandalism of coins as a political, even anticapitalist act—regular folks finding ways to “recapture the idea of the individual making and remaking culture, rather than merely consuming it.” The creation of bawdy trinkets actually was brave and somewhat revolutionary for the Victorians who dabbled in it, because the authorities of the era were putting the clamps on the licentious attitudes of the Regency period (and establishing a fearful prudishness that would last well into the twentieth century). Victorians took far too seriously a text published in 1758 by the Swiss physician Samuel-Auguste Tissot, entitled Onanism: A Treatise on the Maladies Produced by Masturbation. (Tissot claimed that losing one ounce of semen was equivalent to the loss of forty ounces of blood.)

A Victorian-era diagnosis of “spermatorrhoea” might subject you to any number of draconian antimasturbation devices, such as the “jugum penis” or “pollutions ring”: a metal circle with spikes pointing inward to prevent unwanted tumescence and temptation toward “the solitary vice.” There were antimasturbation corsets and armor, and spiky cage-belts on offer, too, which prevented access to one’s own body and therefore one’s own ruination. At that time pornography would have been viewed as far more dangerous to society than a syringe full of cocaine, which was regarded as a technological triumph and a symbol of the moral virtues of the medical man.

Sigel briefly notes that written pornography in eighteenth-century Europe consisted of racy little pamphlets circulated hand-to-hand. Published along with revolutionary tracts and philosophical works, they were condemned under anti-sedition laws and considered “obscene and libelous materials made about the monarchy or State.” Many were merely obscene; some went off the deep end into such subjects as torture, humiliation, bestiality, rape, and sexualized murder.

By the turn of the twentieth century, Sigel writes, the pamphlets, having exploded in number, had become more like “early zines,” underground publications that allowed for individual free expression. One pamphlet of note, which Sigel believes was made between 1900 and 1910, presents itself as an illustrated instructional booklet for young ladies. Titled “A Pretty Girl’s Companion and Guide to Loves [sic] Sweetest Delights,” it begins with flowery calligraphy on the cover, and then quickly loses sight of its narrative posture. “It learns young virgins how to tickle their sweet, rosy, little cunts,” the booklet declares, then further devolves several pages in, becoming a rather horrifying how-to manual for men interested in manipulating young boys into anal sex. The “Pretty Girl’s Companion” gave rise, in this reader at least, to the Comstock-esque notion that not all pornographers should be legitimized as artists—and that the pamphleteer’s work is probably better confined to the back of the dustiest cabinet at the Kinsey Institute.

Sigel could never be accused of such knee-jerk prudery. Instead of addressing the criminal sexuality of the “Pretty Girl’s Companion,” she focuses on its inept artwork:

The illustrator drew the girl on her stomach with her rump in the air while the man reclines beside her. The man looks over her shoulder to consider her labia. The awkwardness of the pose is compounded by problems in scale.

To her, this absence of artistic technique is revealing: “The distortions in anatomy and perspective illustrate the writer’s ideas about sex.” The picture’s awkwardness communicates something about the antisocial tendencies of the creator within “a vernacular sexual tradition that envisioned a vibrant sexual world antagonistic to propriety and at war with all tenets of social control.”

Some might see these pamphlets as tinder for the bonfire; Sigel, ever the open-minded academic, sees importance and merit:

Whether callow or skilled, individuals gave care to storytelling…. In their insistence on individuality and the irreducibility of desires, handmade and homemade objects evinced a radical nonconformity.

Some readers may cringe, but Sigel never assumes a censorious or judgmental tone. The word “vernacular” appears frequently; it lets her emphasize that this handmade pornography was made by ordinary people rather than any calculated consumer enterprise—which for her seems to justify most of the grislier offerings. It becomes clear, early on in the book, that the biggest threat to sexual expression, for her, is capitalism.


Capitalism, however, provides its own opportunities for masturbation. I worked my way through college in the late 1980s by writing scripts for prerecorded 976-Dial-A-Porn lines. It was relatively tame work for the sex industry, but enough of an experience to make me sympathetic to Sigel’s essential argument: that people’s individual pornographic tastes can be meaningful and that the crafts that spring from them are of more intrinsic artistic and sociological value than whatever bulbous shape in latex is offered at your local “adult” store.

This no doubt reflects the limits of my own sexual imagination, but my experience of writing pornography was that it was a business, not a pleasure. While it did expand the boundaries of what I thought could be deemed sexual, it made all of these new territories of kinkiness seem somehow more distasteful than they might have been had I organically encountered them and not been writing about them for hours at night on a Selectric II in the San Francisco State University student union. In other words, my time as a pornographer had the paradoxical effect of making me more prudish than I had been before—at least partially because I hated writing stuff in which the dramatic climax is a literal climax. It wasn’t art.

There is a certain joy and a tight focus on personal taste involved in creating any artwork that isn’t made with the primary goal of remuneration. Pornography is an industry, or it’s an addiction, or it’s a dirty joke or a moral scourge—or, for some, real personal pleasure—but rarely does one see humble handiworks of erotic energy, made for personal enjoyment alone or for the pleasure of an intimate circle of the like-minded. It is relatively easy to identify with Sigel’s enthusiasm for works that have their own private libidinal charm—they are, at least, sincere and uncommercial.

In the twentieth century, a new frontier of sexuality opened up through an explosion of commercially published material: “raw matter,” Sigel writes, “for new sexual ideas.” Commercial pornography in the 1940s and 1950s became more mainstream with the advent of pulpy men’s magazines. Sigel quotes the historian and former Kinsey trustee Joanne Meyerowitz to explain that the sudden ubiquity of photographs of women’s bodies led men’s magazines to start experimenting with more BDSM and fetishistic imagery, for variety. It was answering a certain call: numerous amateur artists of the time saw magazine images of scantily clad pin-up girls as an opportunity to pull out the felt-tip markers and decorate them with gags, chains, and blindfolds.

Then, in the 1960s, there were Barbie, Ken, and GI Joe dolls to play with, which proved ideal for transformation, via hand-crafted genitalia, into photographic models for fantastic, flexible orgies. Sigel features a Norman Rockwell–like illustration of a young heterosexual couple sitting in a park that was somewhat expertly repainted into a risqué image of two naked young men casually showing each other their erections. Spreads from male physique magazines, ostensibly published to promote the sport of bodybuilding, were doodled upon beyond homoerotic suggestion and into gay explicitness. “This simulacra of sex,” Sigel writes, “let people shadow-box with an ecstasy that might otherwise elude them.” The works are examples of the insurmountable Will to Porn; if a certain variety cannot be found, there will be no halting its invention by an individual who longs to see it.

A long section of the book, which seems as though it might have belonged to a completely separate manuscript, is devoted to Henry Darger, whose progression from lone hoarder to major outsider artist helped transform the economy and legitimacy of such marginal work. Darger’s art is a perfect subject for Sigel and rich territory for her broadminded analyses. Darger, who lived from 1892 to 1973, worked as a mild-mannered custodian in a Chicago hospital. He is famous today for his secret domestic life, in which he wrote stories of enormous length, some 30,000 pages long, and illustrated them using obsessively traced and refashioned children’s books and paper dolls. He was driven by his own ongoing epic: the lavishly recorded adventures of a group of prepubescent children called the Vivian Girls, who were engaged in an ongoing battle with Satan-worshiping grown men intent on enslaving them. Alongside idyllic scenes of Kewpie-like tots frolicking among enormous flowers in delicate skyscapes, there are numerous depictions of naked child torture, some of which Sigel describes with a discomfiting level of attention and detail.

When it comes to pornographic creation, Darger is again a bit of an outlier. It remains unclear whether these drawings of naked girls (some of whom have penises) were meant to arouse or were intended to portray war crimes. Numerous psychologists have written on Darger; for her part, Sigel focuses on his reading of the whipping scenes in Uncle Tom’s Cabin—which reportedly turned on many readers—and the sensational journalism written in his younger years concerning so-called white slavery. Darger’s “fixation on the idea that white girls were captured for slavery reflected a rhetoric that had permeated the mass media,” Sigel writes, “emphasizing race and making girls seem vulnerable to sexual slavery and abuse.”

Pornographic novels about children’s sexuality first arose in the late 1880s, starting with The Autobiography of a Flea, an anonymous erotic novel about a young girl, and followed by many others. Sigel cites Margot Hillel, a scholar of children’s literature, who suggests that children’s literature in the late nineteenth century created “a dual idea of childhood as at once innocent and seductive.” (The winking Shirley Temple is used as a prime example.) Darger, Sigel writes sympathetically, “merely extended the pre-existing erotic tension.” She appears to absolve Darger for his more questionable and disturbing artistic trespasses with the remark: “Darger saw sexuality through the language of violence.”

Sigel holds consumer culture responsible, praising the artist who remodels culture for making “a form of radical expression.” It seems she will forgive any artwork that goes against the grain of consumer culture, even that which depicts child sexual abuse and murder. For an oeuvre that flouts consumerism, Darger’s, almost fifty years after his death, does a marvelous job of being its own cottage industry. In 2014 a drawing of his sold at Christie’s for $745,076. One can practically hear the First Amendment creaking and groaning under the pages of this section of the book, like the hull of an old cargo ship. As for me, Darger does challenge one hoary chestnut: that you can tell the difference between art and pornography when you see it. Darger’s work is clearly, if unnervingly, both.

The sex lives and erotic expressions of incarcerated people remain a taboo; prisoners in this country broadly lack the right to masturbate. But if Sigel’s book shows anything, it is that men (and it is largely men) will invent their way to gratification. She devotes a significant section of her book to prison erotica—thanks, again, to Kinsey, who had the advantage of timing. During the 1940s and 1950s, Sigel writes,

concerns over sex crimes generated a broad interest in sex research and sex reform. Citizens, legislators, and prison officials all wanted to understand how to generate change in sexual culture.

This translated to prison officials cooperating with Kinsey, granting “access to inmates, privacy for interviews, confiscated materials, and documents about directives and policies of interest.” They even handed out crayons in order to advance research on the sexuality of the criminal mind.

The Kinsey collection from this era consists of materials that might otherwise have been seized and destroyed: erotic playing cards, wallet-sized photos of buxom starlets, traced versions of the comic strips Blondie and Dick Tracy. (Comics and cartoons have always been subject to pornographic alteration; to this day, the Simpsons lead an extraordinarily perverse and incestuous double-life on various greasy corners of the Internet.) Men in prison got creative in forging their handmade erotica, from carved peach pits (of, e.g., a monkey masturbating) to items made from trash and soap and metal. Some wrote kink, too, in novels and songs and somewhat threatening valentines to other inmates.

A fair portion of this erotica, Sigel makes clear, was violent: images of women being chained up, raped, and occasionally murdered or dismembered. She details works of deviance that caused me, at least, to wonder if certain inmates weren’t coming up with the most perverse and psychologically unhinged images they could imagine to have a laugh at the Kinsey Institute’s expense: for example, a “poorly wrought” drawing of then president John F. Kennedy with “small and saggy breasts,” gripping an oversize and dripping erection, is decorated with careful calligraphy that reads, “Khrushchev doesn’t have everything is this old world as I got in my hand I have the light of life, say’s the big bright light John F. Kennedy.” (One can envision Kinsey’s paraphilia meter twirling its dials.)

The antisocial, anti-establishment aspects of these objects seem more pronounced—and perhaps more important to the prisoners—than the sex acts themselves. I will admit my surprise that Sigel neglects to include what is perhaps the most common piece of erotic art made in prisons: the “fifi bag,” or simulated vagina, devised from whatever soft materials and unguents may promise tactile veritas to the user. Perhaps these were too functional to be considered art, or too unsanitary to be kept as part of Kinsey’s collection.

For good or ill, Sigel’s book is funniest when she assumes the tone of an art critic:

Any number of these [prison] images placed the vaginal opening of women directly in the middle of the abdomen, showing that the artists worked from memory (and perhaps tactile memory rather than visual memory) rather than from models.

Also: “Glaring anatomical errors show how these men saw bodies and what they thought important.” The male form, in many artistic renderings, is an afterthought, or unfinished compared to the women. Some look ghostly, as if to allow the viewer to transplant himself into the scene—or perhaps they represent a type of psychological self-erasure, a disembodiment. About a set of 112 artifacts “remarkable for their lack of skill,” Sigel observes, “the will to express exceeded the artist’s skills of draftsmanship.” Perhaps this is Sigel’s way of criticizing the artistic content without discounting it.

A scrimshaw tooth showing a sailing ship, a woman and sea monster, 1879

Mystic Seaport Museum

A scrimshaw tooth showing a sailing ship (front) and a woman and sea monster (back), 1879

In postwar America, from the mid-1940s to the 1970s, much of the consumer universe seemed to cater to the erotic in everything from bullet bras to taillights. The baby boom, that wholesome domestic enterprise, brought on an “expansion in the number and type of erotic artifacts,” spurred by the expanding panoply of latent sexual tension in the commercial marketplace. Commercial pornography became exponentially more available, produced for ever-raunchier and more baroque tastes, and homemade erotica became more widespread, too, as women got into the game: “People knitted, sewed, and baked amateur obscenities,” Sigel writes, “ultimately creating a broad and politicized people’s pornography.”

Sigel also analyzes what is commonly called “trench art,” or “craft objects fashioned from the remnants of industrial warfare, including wood, bone, cloth, hair, and metal.” Sex, she explains, was used during wartime as a sentimental reason for men to fight; women were encouraged to keep themselves attractive and “keep the home-fires burning” so that Johnny could come home to “the girl next door.” Soldiers creating erotic art, however, had less constrictive ideas, and more immediate goals, than settling down and having children. Their trench craft might have been made during any decade: lurid doctor-and-nurse fantasies sketched on paper; small marionette-style boxes built with string and pipe-cleaners made to look like masturbating men and monkeys (a commercialized novelty version of which was named “Jerkie Boy”).

But it is the appearance of gay, trans, and female-made artwork that distinguishes this period; whether these groups were emboldened to make such artifacts by the relaxing of obscenity laws, or if these artifacts merely survived more easily, is unclear. Women’s erotic art, Sigel notes, was “built on women’s craft skills and lampooned the seriousness of sexuality.” The Kinsey collection includes a cookie:

Shaped like a phallus, the head of the penis has been decorated with red circular sprinkles and an embedded chocolate-chip tip, while brown sprinkles have been used for pubic hair to adorn the cookie’s testicles.

Other selections are sillier still: a knitted penis-warmer (pink yarn for the testicles, white for the shaft, with a drawstring at the base to tighten), or—from the author’s own collection—pornographic aprons, which feature hidden soft-sculpture penises and a potholder that “opens to a nest of real pubic hair.”

Feminist craft artists like Rhett Delford Brown created pornographic tapestries with beadwork and appliqué of rabbits copulating. A soft sculpture of a labia by Elaine Bennet entitled Bitch Box is described as an object that “articulated a sexuality defined by irreverence.”

This glut of pornographic artwork underlined the hypocrisy and edge-play of the society that spawned it. There were rampant sadomasochistic overtones in comic books like Wonder Woman, and even more in smuttier, smaller offerings known as “Tijuana Bibles” (dirty little eight-page numbers, two by four inches in size, that featured comic book characters or caricatures of movie stars engaging in lewd acts), which stoked new fears of perverting the nation’s youth. These were part of a wide range of sexualized media that led to the congressional hearing that empowered Tennessee senator Estes Kefauver’s Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, in 1954, to explore “the link between pornography, comic books, sexual degeneracy, and juvenile delinquency.” Loads more fanfiction emerged from the bastardization of comic books, featuring B&D threesomes between Batman, Robin, and Catwoman, or gay trysts between Batman and the Green Arrow.

In 1957, in Roth v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that, while the First Amendment did not protect obscenity, it did protect materials and objects considered to possess “redeeming social importance.” The floodgates opened for a new porn onslaught. Objects produced in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s and 1970s “look less irreverent and more confrontational” than those that came before, Sigel writes. On the plus side, new types of erotic art emerged from more marginalized groups.

In queer and trans communities, typescripts and mimeographs produced a whole new underground culture. Pamphlets like “Robbie’s Petticoat Discipline,” which tells the story of a misbehaving teenage boy “forced” to wear female attire, were circulated on the down-low, and allowed the articulation of forbidden desires connected to baseball farm teams, naval bases, and the YMCA.

A group of African-American outsider artists came into view; Sigel cites Steve Ashby, Mose Tolliver, and Sam Doyle, who are now recognized champions of a Black vernacular art tradition. She mentions some of their works, including Moose Lady with a Gentleman Named Charles Bailey by Tolliver and Doyle’s Old Hag, which depicts a rather crude, armless woman smothering a gentleman by sitting on his face. These are joyfully ribald artifacts both pleasing to the eye, in an art-brut way, and slyly political.

From the 1970s on, aversion to consumer culture “became its own justification,” Sigel writes, and pornography’s “DIYers pitted themselves against consumerism by seeing self-definition, individualism and competence as promoting a kind of cultural democracy.” Here she stretches her point to its thinnest. To me it seems equally possible that people just wanted to make things and that they intended to get off on them.

Consumerism and new technologies, Sigel suggests, cheapened erotic art, most especially with the advent of the Polaroid camera, which was introduced in 1947 and became hugely popular in the 1970s. Before the instant camera, representing sex photographically had been difficult, since swingers and other enthusiasts had to rely on commercial film developing, which exposed them to potential blackmail or prosecution. The sudden availability of amateur porn in photo form made handmade objects look quaint and impotent by comparison. The introduction of the camcorder further blunted the impact of hand-drawn materials and pamphlets. As the book draws to a close, Sigel observes, somewhat sadly, that “the ways in which capitalism consumes authenticity speaks to [its] persuasiveness and adaptability.” In other words, marketability takes away all the fun.

Sigel’s great subject is the way consumerism eradicates the creative libido. Her book, for all its alarming examples, is convincing in its argument that homemade porn is a valuable anthropological indicator of sexuality that speaks to the era and place in which it was made. Her reader will certainly look at rude phalluses scraffitoed on subway seats with softer eyes. Behold, before me! A radical, unquenchable expression of the irrepressibly horny human spirit.