Banned Books:
Literature Suppressed on Sexual Grounds


Changing social mores have moved many books formerly forbidden because of explicit sexual content out of locked cabinets and onto the open shelves in libraries and bookstores. Many such books have also entered high school and college classrooms to be read by students who little realize their notorious pasts.

A changed society has taken literary criticism out of the courts. In 1961, the United States Supreme Court pondered if D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover was lewd or literary. By 1969, the novel was required reading in college literature courses. The same is true of other works, such as James Joyce's Ulysses, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer and Voltaire's Candide, all once banned and considered indecent. When did the "obscene" and the "pornographic" become the "erotic" and the "classic?"

Dirty words alone are not enough to make a work erotic, although many books in the 19th and early 20th centuries were banned simply for that reason. Similarly, many books have been banned because they discussed or alluded to such familiar social phenomena as prostitution, unwed pregnancy and adultery, among them Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure and Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter. Neither can reasonably be termed an erotic or pornographic work, yet both books were banned for their sexual content.

In 1957, the U.S. Supreme Court changed its definition of obscenity to refer to works that had sexual content but no "redeeming social importance." This redefinition sent Americans in search of works both erotically interesting and socially redeeming, and thus legally sexually titillating. Anonymous Victorian novels, the underground pornography of their day, joined art books with lavish reproductions of Japanese and Indian erotic painting and sculpture and explicit psychological case studies of sexually "abnormal" behavior as the standard middle-class erotica of the early to mid-20th century. During that time, American courts tried obscenity cases and pondered the literary merits of Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, Lady Chatterley's Lover, Ulysses and Tropic of Capricorn.

By 1970, the barriers were down and the Report of the United States President's Commission on Obscenity noted that "Virtually every English language book thought to be obscene when published, and many similar books translated into English, have been reissued by secondary publishers. The entire stockpile of `classic erotic literature' (e.g., The Kama Sutra, Frank Harris, de Sade etc.) published over centuries has thus come onto the market."

As formerly banned works gained acceptance, many novels published in the last two decades have benefited and freely include sexual detail and gratuitous sex scenes. Society's view of sex has changed and many books that would once have been condemned as pornographic or obscene now become best-sellers. Even cheaply produced "adult" books that do not pretend to any purpose other than sexual arousal are now easily available to willing buyers through direct mail and retail stores. The legal line between pornography and erotica has disappeared, and the differences are now defined more according to aesthetic appeal than to content.

But, how is "erotic" different from "pornographic?" Nineteenth-century booksellers coined the term erotica to describe risque writing found in such classics as the poems of Catullus, the satires of Juvenal and love manuals such as the Kama Sutra, as well as that perennial favorite, Fanny Hill, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1748-49), the subject of the first U.S. obscenity trial in 1821. These early works bore no resemblance to the cheaply produced, and cheap-looking, books of the mid-20th century. The market catered to men of means who could well afford the lavishly illustrated deluxe editions that satisfied what was termed their "curious" tastes. Patrons paid handsomely for their pleasure.

The growth of mass demand for erotica required mass production, and cheaply produced pulp novels with lurid covers and plotless texts appeared in great number. These contrasted strongly in appearance with the lavishly illustrated and expensively produced gentlemen's erotica of the 19th century, but they were identical in purpose. Price was the primary distinguishing factor. The differences became so blurred that the 1970 Report of the United States President's Commission on Obscenity struggled and failed to define what was obscene and pornographic, and thus illegal.

The definitions were no clearer in 1986, when the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography (often called the Meese Commission) revealed that its findings were inconclusive regarding the dangers of pornography. Although the Commission recommended intensified enforcement against child pornography and material showing sexual violence, the Commission members hedged in their recommendations regarding all-text materials. The panel recommended "extraordinary caution" in regard to prosecuting those who distributed materials that contained no photographs, pictures or drawings. "The written word has had and continues to have a special place in this and any other civilization." Designating as among the "least harmful" types of pornography "books consisting of the printed text only," the Commission observed that such text might not always meet its criteria for pornography, that it be "sexually explicit and intended primarily for the purpose of sexual arousal."

The century and a half of obscenity trials regarding literature came to a halt, and the old argument was invalidated. Those who could read could indulge themselves in the provocative power of words that arouse, stimulate and titillate—they were consumers of "erotica." The less literate, more likely to view X-rated videos or picture magazines that arouse, stimulate and titillate, were indulging in "pornography." The appeal of the categories is the same, but their audiences differed as did the assumed consequences.

There are currently no books in print that systematically survey the content of and controversies surrounding specific erotic works. In general, related books currently in print have one of three purposes: (1) to discuss the nature of erotica in one culture or era, (2) to define or to argue the legal aspects of pornography or (3) to anthologize without critical comment (or to promote actively) current or past erotic writings.

Several thematically arranged books discuss erotica in various cultures (i.e., Indian, Chinese and Japanese) and various time periods such as the Victorian era. The intent of these texts is to examine the sociological implications or role of the literature in a particular time period rather than to provide information about specific books.

The goal of this volume of works censored on grounds of sexual content is neither to deride nor defend either the mainstream erotica or the pulp pornography that has been published over the centuries. Instead, it is to illuminate changing cultural attitudes toward the erotic, through a survey of the legal fate of classic and representative works in centuries past as well as in the 20th century.

Dawn B. Sova, Ph.D

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