Sex has long been a societal taboo, despite — or perhaps in spite of — sex being a fundamental facet of our nature. Our cultural attitudes have ebbed and flowed with shifting social norms, but sex remains a controversial subject that’s certain to arouse a reaction of some sort. Today, we live in an era of greater sexual tolerance, not simply in terms of acceptance on the spectrum of sexuality, but in our daily exposure. But, in our not-so distant past, discussion of sex was impolite — if not outright forbidden — and for the genuinely curious learning about the scandalous act was a difficult affair.
Prior to the digital age, the primary sources of knowledge were “sex books.” A vague and encompassing term, it refers to any literature focused on the titular subject. Perhaps the most famous sex book is the Kama Sutra; it is often regarded as "the sex guide" in the West. The idea (most have) is that the Kama Sutra is an early pictorial of various sex positions. Of course, this is an oversimplification. Indra Sinha, who has written an English translation of the text, deconstructs some of the common misconceptions about the world-famous work that tend to shape our perception of the ancient Indian text.
The most common, is that the Kama Sutra is a sex manual. “Kama” is the Sanskrit word for pleasure. To this end, the book examines philosophies on pleasure, beyond the simply physical. According to Sinha: "The perfume of a rose, the taste of a well-cooked dish, the touch of silk on the skin, music, the voice of a great singer, the joy of a spring morning, all these are experiences of Kama. Kama Sutra could properly be translated as 'Aphorisms on Pleasure.’" Furthermore, while the sex bits retain our attention, it is only a fraction of the Kama Sutra. Composed of seven books, only one details the intimacies of the body; within that one book, only one chapter deals with intercourse.
Some also incorrectly believe that the Kama Sutra is a sacred text. While it may be considered sacred in terms of historical endurance, it is not in-and-of-itself religious or holy. If anything, the Kama Sutra’s focus on life’s pleasures leans it toward the decadent (such as the seduction of the wives of friends). While viewing the Kama Sutra as a sex book is reductionist, its influence on the sexual imagination perseveres, since it remains short-hand for an encyclopedic array of mid-coital variations.
An exhibit at NYC’s Museum of Sex, entitled Hardcore: A Century & A Half of Obscene Imagery, gives an overview of the modern history of sex books. The introductory panel reads as follows: “In spite of repeated attempts to censor, sequester, or sanitize this sexual past, the hardcore artifacts left from previous generations prove our ancestors were not as asexual as an expurgated version of history would like us to believe.”
By the 18th century, the novel became the dominant medium of entertainment in Europe, popular among the aristocracy and the (literate) poor. As literature began to explore all aspects of life, public and private, inevitably certain writers turned toward sex. While societal mores considered these types of writings to be perverse, they nonetheless explored an intimate element of the human condition that had been unspoken of in polite society. Accompanying ideas from the age of enlightenment, young libertine writers sought to overturn the traditions of the past, be it political or the ecclesiastic order.
The new world was intended to be one in which reason reigned, while exalting the individual good above the collective whole. Thus, the conventions and rituals of societal habit were deliberately attacked. "Breaking taboos on incest, same-sex desire, and cross-class contact, they sanctioned any sex act with any partner, so long as it sensually satisfied the individual,” writes Kathleen Lubey, an associate professor at St. John’s University. With literacy growing, more individuals had access to pornographic novels, which, beyond literary aspirations, also took on the role of sexual stimulants. Or, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau referred to them, “those books which one reads with only one hand.”
Perhaps the most famous of these “one-handed" books was Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1794) by John Cleland (1709— 1789), or as it became colloquially known, "Fanny Hill.” Written by a British man serving time in a debtors-prison, the story recounts the life of Frances "Fanny" Hill, a woman who grew up a poor country girl that eventually becomes a rich man’s wife. Several portions of the book contain explicit acts, in vivid detail [and some versions of the novel even contain illustrations]. Fanny describes lesbian and anal sex, sadomasochism and role-reversal, among other varieties of intercourse. Not surprisingly, this caused a bit of a commotion in polite society.
Initially, erotic material could only be imported. Thus, New York became the epicenter of the growing industry. The city’s role helped commercialize the seed of visual sex and shops were established in Lower Manhattan that peddled lewd material, such as "Fanny Hill." By the 1840’s, imports of European sex books were being banned by legislation, thereby spurring their illegal production at home. As a matter of fact, the book was the subject of the United States' first recorded obscenity case in 1821; a Massachusetts court outlawed the book on the basis of its supposed perversions, though copies still made their way around the black market, which was thriving.
The Flash Press provided exploits of city-life mixed with sexual imagery and information on the vice districts. Bowery, in particular, developed a reputation as home of debauchery. Brothel guides were sold, and the transient merchant class was directed to where pleasure could be found. However, despite the reputation, this sex industry also took sexual well-being into consideration. From the exhibit’s Selling Sex panel: “New York’s popular health movement intersected with the city’s erotic industry, navigating the line between sex education and sex entertainment. Dealers sold sexual health manuals, condoms, abortifacients, and sex books.”
A Pretty Girl’s Companion, a popular sex book in the 19th century was a homemade pamphlet that acted as an educational and instructive sex guide. Text and illustrations provide details, some of which are rather hardcore even by today’s standards. [Such as how to shape candle wax into a dildo and descriptions of bestiality.] The guide details venereal diseases, and what to look for in terms of symptoms, but not all of the information was accurate.
A similar sex book was The Horn Book —A Girl's Guide to the Knowledge of Good and Evil (1899), which provided an elaborate sex guide. According to Hardcore, it was advertised as “one of the most shocking books ever printed… a mass of filth; dirt pure and simple." And thus, these blurred lines between the informative and the erotic beg the question of where porn ends and sex-ed begins.
During the early 19th century, small erotic comic strip style booklets, known as "Tijuana Bibles," became widely popular. Evidence that they were produced in Mexico is slim, it is far more likely that the name was applied to give it some foreign appeal for sale purposes. These booklets were intended to be humorous, portraying taboos of the time in a lighter light. They frequently featured limericks, sing-song styled rhythms, word-play and alliteration. Many also contained references to current events, such as the Great Depression.
As the manufacture and distribution of these tiny booklets was illegal as well as expensive, their production was often associated with the mob. Some of the most famous and remaining Tijuana Bibles are on display at the Hardcore exhibit, including: “Mae West Gets F***ed,” “Al Capone in the Interview,” and “Donald Duck has a Universal Desire.” [Which includes rather accurate facsimile depictions of the character. It goes without saying, but these were not condoned by Disney.]
Our understanding of sexuality as a society continues to grow and with new technologies come new explorations. As we aim toward a more progressive view — promoting a sex-positive stance, rather than suppressing sexuality — the taboo persists and questions of obscenity continue to circle depictions of sex.