What Pornography Knows
Sex and Social Protest since the Eighteenth Century
Kathleen Lubey



Pornography Without Sex

IN THE 1749 BAWDY NOVEL The History of the Human Heart, a young Englishman tumbles into a London bagnio with his rambunctious friends. They are entertained by a troupe of female erotic performers who masturbate and ejaculate in spectacular unison:

Having resumed a proper Posture, with wanton Fingers they entered the mysterious Cave, and heaved, and thrust, and riggled, till they opened the teeming Springs, which shot their volatile Liquids into a Wine Glass, each held in the other Hand.——But here the Reader will hardly believe me . . . that what the Glasses received, was mingled with their Wine, and drank off without the least Shock to the Nature of any one present.1

A long footnote nearly runs this action off the page, and as I discuss in Chapter 2, it disputes, in inflated philosophical style, the common belief that feminine virtue is part of a natural social order.

This novel was reprinted many times. In 1757, the female ejaculation is deleted from the scene. It reappears in 1844. In 1885, it’s gone again and remains omitted in a 1967 anthologized excerpt. But it returns in a 1968 pulp edition. This detail’s disappearance and reappearance work as evidence of pornography’s uneven relationship to women’s bodies, particularly their autonomous and active genitalia. These dancers withhold their bodies from penetrative contact and yet dazzlingly display and arouse their genital parts. At some points in history, it appears, the minute details of women’s self-administered sexuality can be countenanced, even enjoyed by pornography’s readers. At others, their extreme autoeroticism is incompatible with the genre’s sexual representations. Toggling back and forth between exposure and occlusion, the spectacle of the performers’ genitalia is not consistent across time, and neither is pornography’s attitude toward women’s self-governance—the discursive footnote also comes and goes across editions. At times in pornography’s history, vaginal and clitoral anatomy is shown to be owned by women; at times it is accompanied by feminist commentary; and at times these elements are absent entirely. In this example from the original Human Heart, women’s ritualized ejaculation is situated narratively among episodes, discourse, and paratext that qualify, analyze, or delay the penetrative ambitions of men, the very content so often believed to be pornography’s raison d’être. My research disproves pornography’s alleged certainty that heteropenetration is common and pleasurable. Following the three-century timeline of Human Heart’s publication history, What Pornography Knows looks cumulatively at the contents of narrative pornography from the mid-eighteenth century forward. I argue that Human Heart’s complex hybridity—situating dissenting statements beside genital description—makes it uniquely capable of analyzing how genitals and sex acts accrue cultural meaning.

The passage above encapsulates what I mean by “pornography” throughout this study: accounts of genital activity that are embedded within narrative and that connect to a social world beyond the immediate action being described. These episodes are highly specific about genitals, considering, and not always confirming, their capacity to penetrate or be penetrated, their conduciveness to pleasure, and their tenuous attachment to the people in and on whose bodies they reside. I build this study on evidence from several eighteenth-century works virtually unknown to scholars, and use Human Heart as a framing case study, given its long publication life. I argue that it and its contemporaries contain a blueprint of pornography long forgotten in modern culture. Human Heart’s wayward structure makes it typical of eighteenth-century comic fiction but, it would seem, atypical of pornography. As a specialist in both fields, I’m attuned to the significance of its convergences between sex (pornography’s hallmark) and excursus (a habit of eighteenth-century fiction) and find that this one text, perpetually joining sex to discourse, can tell us much about how pornography works as a narrative form—how it wields content beyond (“without”) sex.

Human Heart and its contemporaries show genital sexuality to overlap with philosophy, ideology, and culture, and they exemplify pornography as a textual expression of this energetic, frenetic discursive inquiry. They represent what was once pornography’s meandering and associative form, a form adept at connecting sex to culture and admitting the infelicities, even violence, of those connections. Penetration sometimes happens, to be sure, but sometimes it does not; and when it does, it is not without questions, refusals, and qualifications. When these narratives do settle into genital detail, they regularly dispute that sexual union is pleasurable, interrupting sex scenes with feminist claims. Genital sexuality fuses with speculation, implying the insoluble bond between a culture’s capacity for justice and the ethics of its sexual practices. Such pornographies, representative and consistently present across my three-century chronology, call for a miscellaneous model of reading in which readers balance libidinal curiosity with ethical, social, and philosophical concerns. Not yet pigeonholed as pornography and usually cheaply printed, they invited a wide audience to witness that sex is a significant aspect of social experience.

Combining archival book history with theoretical inquiry, I propose that by reading sex scenes across time, we can grasp their opposition to social hierarchies. Pornography recognizes, I believe, the difference between a body’s genital parts and the person believed to be in possession of those parts. The genre remarks upon cultural conditions that designate certain kinds of genitals as receptive and that operationalize their penetration in social institutions like heterosexuality, marriage, and capitalism, and it often registers the injustice of these processes. I locate this pattern of genital criticism across a wide swath of eighteenth-century print (Chapter 1) and track its social concerns into pornographic works of prose fiction, which knit genital action into picaresque coming-of-age narratives (Chapter 2); then I show the long lives of these texts in re-publication across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, where they help us understand how pornography continues to circulate skepticism and protest against the way social hierarchies operationalize genital life (Chapters 3 and 4).

This long chain of texts is linked concretely to Human Heart, but its discursivity also emanates outward, illuminating the multiple conversations conducted within pornography more broadly. It is this textual ecosystem I invoke through the term “pornography.” Rather than attempt an excavation of extant pornographic works—a task that would fly in the face of my sense that pornography is a dispersal of conversations rather than a fixed genre with a definable archive—I have devised a method of focused selection, following the long life of Human Heart and the texts with which it was bound, selected, and published in order to highlight its textual complexity and the significance of editorial changes over time. The advantage of this selective method is the focus it affords on patterns of narrative and abridgement across works’ publication history, a methodology of close reading not available to studies of pornography with more of a bird’s-eye view.2 My sources contain within themselves a torrent of evidence and self-conscious performance, rewarding close reading and differing from archival projects that contend with absences and gaps. Studying the archive of slavery, for example, requires what Saidiya Hartman calls “critical fabulation” to create history out of elisions and silences.3 By contrast, my selection of texts abundant with commentary reveals the genre’s capacity to relentlessly discuss and prove sexuality’s imbrication with social and public life.

Pornography’s particular capacity for social insight derives from its insistent foregrounding of genital action. Refusing to occlude genitals, it argues their interactions have social relevance—that the desire for genital access is shaped by a social order and that genitals, subject to social evaluation, confer meaning on the people wearing them. This genital centering, and especially its unsimulated forms in the visual and digital ages, has had a polarizing effect, prompting many feminists to fault it for subjugating women, even as practitioners of pornography declaim its enfranchising potential.4 I attempt a history of the genre that highlights its political consciousness without taking a pro- or anti-pornography stance. In so doing, I join critics like Frances Ferguson, Jennifer Nash, and Linda Williams, who argue the genre can analyze (respectively) relationality, racial identity, and gender. They converge in the view that pornography articulates social relations beyond the normative and oppressive. (I refer readers to their excellent explanations of anti-pornography feminism’s limitations.5) I take for granted, as these critics and creators of early pornographic narrative did, that sex thoroughly intersects with social relations, that no account of culture is entire without an acknowledgement of where and how sex happens, and that genital description is a laboratory for studying hierarchies.

Eighteenth-century pornography built in cues that heightened readers’ consciousness of what we might call sexual politics—of establishing relationality to another person through penetrative sex that, in the case of both heterosexuality and male homosexuality in the eighteenth century, often entailed hierarchy.6 Beginning with pornographies that contain social criticism allows me to conjecture that all pornography might contain skeptical attitudes toward the very relations it dramatizes, even, as I suggest in Chapter 4 and the Coda, its modern visual forms that feature real people. If pornography contains this awareness, which I believe it does, the job of the critic needn’t be limited to rehearsing what the genre already knew about itself—that sex acts are embroiled with power relations. Instead, I revivify pornography’s statements against the hierarchical violence that plays out in sex acts (seductions, rapes, orgies) and cultural institutions (marriage, courtship, family) as well as its speculative reformulations of social structures. Without disregarding the labor of sex workers who appear in modern forms and without assuming they are in every case harmed, I illuminate pornography’s three-century capacity to generate resistant social commentary across media shifts, and particularly to clarify how cultures imagine, revise, and normalize their attitudes toward gender through pornography. This analysis aligns with Williams’s in Hard Core, which finds in pornographic film cultural anxieties about gender, capital, and consumption. Where she turned to film “to ask just what the genre is and why it has been so popular,” I turn to pornography’s prose-fiction past, tracing how the discourse embedded in and tied to sex acts dissents from the status quo of heterosexuality and heteronormativity, and how we can see that dissent change and condense over time.7 By focusing on the insights that arise from penetrative action, I take up Williams’s provocation that porn-studies scholars confront what they often overlook, “the mainstream heterosexual hard core,” that most unredeemable of pornographies.8 I offer an early history of hard core that highlights penetrative action not as sensationalism but as social contact.

Accounts of pornography that begin in the eighteenth century tend to trace backward to the strict sexual sequencing of the best-known eighteenth-century pornographers, John Cleland and the Marquis de Sade. Contrary to how Fanny Hill has long signified—as “the begetter of the twentieth-century genre,” writes Randolph Trumbach, in its tightly sequenced, phallocentric scenes—other eighteenth-century pornographies can be read as both hard core in their genital description and multiple in the topics they engage.9 Featuring speculation as a primary content around sexual description, the texts that gather around Human Heart’s publication history bring into focus an alternate pornographic lineage. To a much higher degree and in a much less organized manner, my examples embed sexuality within a wide array of proximate legal, domestic, and social settings and imagine reform of the inequities they produce, in contrast to the enclosed, doctrinaire libertine spaces of French works. The backward projection of pornography’s unceasing imperative to arousal is anachronism, a misreading that has caused scholars to overvalue the genre’s sexual content and to submerge the ideas joined to sex acts. This retrospective formation causes Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure to look like it has only “a certain blinkered relation to the larger social world,” whereas reading this novel alongside its picaresque contemporaries illuminates its worldly engagement.10 If we approach the genre “without” the imperative to ejaculate, we see that it entertains social possibilities that are shut down by heterosexual mandate.

Reaching this insight requires that we examine pornographic texts with a certain wide-eyed receptiveness, such that we might under-read the content we assume is ubiquitous (penetration, heteronormativity, misogyny) and over-read the content we assume is absent (queerness, feminism, social perceptiveness). Sharon Marcus argues that such an approach reveals queer histories, alternate “social formations [that] swim into focus” when scholars “abandon the preconception of strict divisions” that seem to govern modern sexuality and gender.11 Approaching eighteenth-century pornography with this attitude, I’ve discovered social criticism voiced by and around women in patterns that correspond to Susan Lanser’s powerful argument that literature “evaded or exploited heteronormative economies” and promised “certain kinds of change” by foregrounding women’s attachments to one another.12 Pornography protests binaries, divisions, and hierarchies, circulating skeptical, anti-heteronormative discourse that we only can perceive if we entertain the possibility that pornography does not endorse the actions it displays. I take pornography at its word, dispensing with what we often assume it will do—arouse, degrade, harm—and listen to what it says about, through, and around genital action. The genre’s critical consciousness persists, I argue, through the distilled pornographic fictions of Victorian England; the countercultural era and its cheap pulp fiction; and the digital media of our own time.


1. The History of the Human Heart, or the Adventures of a Young Gentleman (London, 1749), 128–129.

2. These textual changes count as the “living characteristics” of pornography that, David Squires argues, become visible in library archives—though as my Preface suggests, those archives must be conceived as incomplete in order to discover pornography’s expansiveness. See Squires, “Pornography in the Library,” in Porn Archives, eds. Tim Dean, Steven Ruszczycky, and Davis Squires (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), 91. Examples of the more quantitative approach to pornography’s history I mention here include Lisa Sigel, Governing Pleasures: Pornography and Social Change in England, 1815–1914 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002); Julie Peakman, Mighty Lewd Books: The Development of Pornography in Eighteenth-Century England (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003); Peter Wagner, Eros Revived: Erotica of the Enlightenment in England and America (London: Secker and Warburg, 1988).

3. Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 26, no. 2 (2008): 1–14, at 11.

4. To name only a few examples of feminist discussions of pornography’s harm: its psychological impact is imagined by Alice Walker in “Porn,” in You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1981); it is famously defined as harmful action rather than speech by Catharine MacKinnon in Only Words (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993); its shaping of culture and politics is lamented by Bernadette Barton in The Pornification of America: How Raunch Culture Is Ruining Our Society (New York: NYU Press, 2021); and its distortion of young people’s apprehension of sex, “as something men do to rather than with women,” was the topic of Peggy Orenstein’s recent op-ed piece, “If You Ignore Porn, You Aren’t Teaching Sex Ed,” New York Times (14 June 2021). Among those who argue pornography can empower women, see Stormy Daniels, Full Disclosure (New York: St. Martin’s, 2018); Mireille Miller-Young, “This Is What Porn Can Be Like! A Conversation with Shine Louise Houston,” in Porn Archives, eds. Tim Dean, Steven Ruszczycky, and David Squires (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014); Candida Royalle, “Porn in the USA,” Social Text 37 (1993): 23–32; and Linda Williams, “A Provoking Agent: The Pornography and Performance Art of Annie Sprinkle,” Social Text 37 (1993): 117–133.

5. I discuss these in more detail in Chapter 4. Frances Ferguson, Pornography, the Theory: What Utilitarianism Did to Action (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 34–55; Jennifer Nash, The Black Body in Ecstasy: Reading Race, Reading Pornography (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), 9–21; and Linda Williams, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 16–30.

6. Randolph Trumbach argues a distinction between active and passive roles in sodomy endured in the early eighteenth century. See “The Transformation of Sodomy from the Renaissance to the Modern World and Its General Consequences,” Signs 37, no. 4 (2012): 832–848.

7. Williams, Hard Core, 5.

8. Linda Williams, “Pornography, Porno, Porn: Thoughts on a Weedy Field,” Porn Studies 1 (2014): 24–40, at 29.

9. Randolph Trumbach, “Erotic Fantasy and Male Libertinism in Enlightenment England,” in The Invention of Pornography: Obscenity and the Origins of Modernity, ed. Lynn Hunt (New York: Zone, 1996), 259.

10. Scott Juengel, “Doing Things with Fanny Hill,” ELH 76 (2009): 419–446, at 434.

11. Sharon Marcus, Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 13.

12. Susan Lanser, The Sexuality of History: Modernity and the Sapphic, 1565–1830 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 7, 10.