A while ago, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to ask Brian Watson a few questions. His area of research is the history of obscenity and porn and has written a book on the topic: Annals of Pornography: How porn became bad. Brian has also written several articles as well including one for Notches – (re)marks on the history of Sexuality.
HG: Thank you for agreeing to do this interview, as someone who is also interested in the history of sex/sexuality it is a pleasure to have this opportunity.
HG: For those who have not yet read the book can you please tell us a little about it?
BW: The ebook version of my book, Annals of Pornographie: How Porn Became Bad (Find at Amazon or Smashwords ) was written as a semi-pop history of sexuality and pornography, specifically focusing on how the genre of pornography developed and changed from the Renaissance to Hollywood. I focused both on the creators—Aretino, Rochester, Marquis De Sade—and on the suppressors—Society for the Reformation of Manners/Suppression of Vice—in order to give a comprehensive understanding of how the tensions between the two created the genre and format of pornography that we know today. I also tried to tie in recent work on the history of sexuality, privacy and other aspects to provide the most possible detail.
HG: In terms of laws and attitudes surrounding pornography what has changed? Or would you say that things not changed as much we would expect?
BW: Well, there are two ways of looking at this—the first is to say “is porn today worse than (insert time period here)”? And as I say in my introduction, as well as most of the interviews I’ve done, I don’t think that humans today are any more or less perverted than their ancestors–we’ve always been the animals that we are and have always expressed our sexuality in the varied ways that we do.
The second way of looking at this question is, essentially, what my book tries to do. In its earliest formats, pornography and obscenity was a type of erotic discourse that was used to critique social, religious, and political traditions, figures, and institutions. This is obvious from the tales of cavorting nuns and monks in Aretino and Boccaccio, but also in the aggressively political poems of John Wilmot, Lord Rochester. These were one thing when they were being passed around a largely elite upper-class and male readers, but a completely different thing when Gutenberg’s printing press arrived on the scene. When this was coupled with increasing middle- and lower-class literacy, and commodified book markets it created a type of work that supposedly had an ‘undesirable’ effect upon the general population. As the developing genre began to be increasingly pulled off from other types of social critique and targeted for its lasciviousness its, for a lack of a better word, graphicness began to increase and become increasingly genreified and fragmented, which is while there are pages and pages of different categories on modern ‘tube’ sites.
HG: How did you get involved in an area of history that is currently still very under researched?
BW: While I was working on my M.A. in History and Culture at Drew University, my advisor was Jonathan Rose, co-founder of SHARP (The Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing). He was really instrumental in pushing me towards something that was new, unique, and had not been done before. I have always been really interested in censorship—what causes some people to take so much offense that they deem it necessary to suppress and censor certain things, or where the idea of “protecting the children” comes from. Religious and political censorship have, of course, been done to death, there has been so much research and material in that realm. But when it comes to sex censorship, the field is still relatively new, dating to about 1993 with Lynn Hunt’s Invention of Pornography, or perhaps a bit earlier. When I started to find other research on the topic, research that combined my love of book history with the history of sexuality and censorship I knew I had found my home.
HG: Your book covers a very long period of time from Renaissance to Hollywood, how did you achieve such an undertaking?
BW: There are limits, of course, to how much I was actually able to cover, but Annals of Pornographie does not attempt to be a through or a comprehensive (hi)story on every obscene or pornographic item—instead it tries to just draw together all of the recent scholarship in the field, along with my own, into one text. The strategy I settled on was to focus on legal history as a method for identifying material, focusing on the books, poems and essays that ended up in the crossfire between content creators and the vice societies that sought to suppress them. This is not only because those (controversial) works that created a particular splash or resulted in legal proceedings created more records and therefore more sources and material to work from, although that is a consideration, but also because they demonstrate what sort of material that contemporaries found the most disturbing and therefore the most deserving of note or censorship.
HG: Has there been anything that you found during your research that has inspired you to do another book on this topic?
BW: The thing that has come to interest me the most over the course of my research is the “invention” of privacy, the moving of certain activities behind the bedroom door when in many previous cases or times they weren’t, or were more open. This is in many ways a microcosm of the history of porn censorship. My current research is on the history of privacy and the history of family life, the division between human/animal and public/private. This is where I will likely research for my PhD, building on the work I have done here.
HG: Has there been anything that truly surprised you during your research for your book?
BW: The one thing that surprised and intrigued me, and lead to my interest in further research was how much more public sex and sexuality used to be. From accounts of semi-public sex in alleyways in London to allusions to sexual activity in Cock and Hen bars in the eighteenth century, to the point made by one scholar that as entire families used to share the same bed or come from agricultural backgrounds, the children of earlier times would have been more aware of sex and reproduction then the children of today who get their sex education from pornography websites. One wonders how this distinction happened and what is gained, or, indeed, lost.
HG: What did you really enjoy about your research and making of your book?
BW: Probably the most enjoyable thing and one of the things that really kept me going was just how damn fascinating so many of these individual pornographers and censors are. So often, they occupy opposite ends of an extreme but it is entertaining in the extreme to see them interact. Plus, I cannot help but to admire some of the antics these individuals got themselves in or managed to pull off. For example, Edmund Curll, an early pornographer had his beer poisoned by someone we think of as so refined and admirable—the poet Alexander Pope. Or there’s the hilarious case of Henry Spencer Ashbee, a wealthy Victorian bibliophile who accumulated perhaps the two largest and most extensive archives on two topics—Don Quixote and pornography. He said the British Library could have them both upon his death, but if they wanted all the rare and priceless Quixote manuscripts they had to take the porn too. The British Library tried to wiggle out of this trap, but they were unable to, so now they have one of the greatest pornography collections in the world, much to their frustration, I’m sure
HG: Considering the potential obstacle to this research such as the need at certain periods to move erotic and pornographic material “underground” and how little there is left behind, how did you go about researching this topic and were there any other challenges that you faced during your research for this book?
BW: The aforementioned Henry Spencer Ashbee is a perfect example of the difficulties in doing this research. Ian Gibson records the dilemma of the Museum, on finding out the terms of the bequest. On the subject of the obscene books, the Museum stated that, “[we] have gone through the whole of them and have packed six boxes the duplicate copies. He asked the permission of the Trustees to destroy them.” Peter Mendes has speculated that, along with the duplicates, the Museum “destroyed the greater part of Ashbee’s collection of ‘poorly produced, illustrated pornographic fiction (particularly in English) of the nineteenth century,’ perhaps some hundred items.” Since no other copies of many of these books seem to have survived, they have now been lost to research forever.
Furthermore, a lot of this material still has the whiff of the scandalous around it. While doing research on this material in the British Library (and the French National Archives, and other institutions), I had to be within eyesight of an archivist or a librarian at all times, I could not leave this material at my desk if I got up to stretch or use the bathroom, and if I returned it to desk for temporary holding they would place it in a padlocked chest and lock it, just to be sure. On top of that, many of these works are uncatalogued, only available on special request, or otherwise neglected. In some cases I’ve found uncatalogued material within catalogued material. This is both disheartening, but also exciting because it means that there is still things out there to be discovered in the archive. A lot of times, it takes patience and willingness to work with the material that does survive, attaching it wi other happenings that we do have the records for in order to understand and recreate the storyline of how things happened and why. A fantastic recent example of this is the reexamination of the trial of Edmund Curll by Pat Rogers and Paul Baines that showed Curll wasn’t locked up just for sexual material, but for a long history of tension with the government.
HG: What was your favourite object/manuscript/letter/diary that you found during your research?
BW: One of the favorite objects I found was a hollow wooden dildo that had a detachable back with a pump—this was intended to be filled with warm milk or water to stimulate a male’s ejaculate, which was seen as essential for a woman’s pleasure and was an important feature in high-end dildos, and was discussed in a few erotic texts. The favorite text or diary that I found that I actually did not know about until this research was the diary of Boswell, which is absolutely essential for looking at the history of sexuality, especially paired with the 11 volume My Secret Life by “Walter”. Both of these texts are very useful for historians of sexuality.
HG: What advice would you give to a student interested in history of sex, sexuality, pornography, vice, obscenity?
BW: To not be afraid of crossing boundaries or of doing interdisciplinary work. Sex is often one of the first things lost to history, especially people’s sexual identity or sex lives, so it is important to be able to draw from sources such as literature, social sciences and other places. But, more importantly, is to do it consciously and carefully, and to think deeply about how and why you are using certain material, and to be aware of your own biases. With that said, now is a good time to be interested in this field, as it is undergoing some really interesting growth and a lot of new perspectives (queer theory, nonmonogamy perspectives, kink theory etc.) are coming into their own and providing valuable feedback on older texts and perspectives.
HG: Where do you think historians of sexuality, pornography, obscenity, vice should go in the next few years?
BW: In a lot of ways, we are very lucky that this is such a new field with a lot of room to work in and maneuver. I’m very excited about the work of several scholars in the field, such as Thomas Froh’s (University of Manchester) engagement with libertinism and libertine literature, the work of Bradford Mudge (CU Denver) with erotic works and the development of the novel, Amy S. Wyngaard (Syracuse) and her focus on Retif de La Bretonne and Marquis de Sade and the invention of ‘pornography,’ as well as the fantastic research being done by Lisa Z. Sigel (DePaul), Julie Peakman (Birkbek) and Sarah Toulalan (Exeter). There seems to be an increasing interest with how sexuality, pornography, and culture intersect with various identities and bodies and I’m very excited to see where things develop
HG: What do you plan to do next?
BW: Currently, I am undergoing an extensive academic re-write of Annals of Pornographie as an academic publisher has expressed interest in it, so that is taking up the majority of my time. In addition, I am working on co-hosting the AskHistorians Podcast as well as working on setting up my own podcast that will trace much of the history that the book did, and hopefully feature interviews and . I’ve been working on a number of articles as well—you can keep track of me @HistoryOfPorn.