In his first full-length book, Annals of Pornographie: How Porn Became Bad (2016), Brian Watson traces the long history of pornography in the West, reiterating throughout his work the need to place our modern understanding of porn in context. Porn became popularized through the printing press, which allowed cheaper reproductions of obscene texts, and Watson has made use of the modern day printing press for his own description of the obscene, self-publishing his research in e-book format. The book is an expansion of Watson’s masters’ thesis on the Society for the Suppression of Vice (Drew University, 2013), which attempted to regulate and exterminate “smut” in nineteenth-century England, one of the many organizations Watson discusses.
Watson argues the book is an “attempt to trace a history through the ‘underside’ of Western culture, its art, literature, philosophy, sexology, psychology and its changing laws. It is an attempt to explain the modern view—to explain exactly why, where, and how porn became ‘bad’”(9). He disputes the belief that pornography is a modern conception and instead that we must ‘begin at the beginning.’ His history begins with the 14th century Italian Renaissance and Giovanni Boccaccio’s 1353 work, The Decameron. While recognizing the text is not usually labeled pornography, Watson points to its underlying philosophy, humanism (where “living people deserve as much attention as the future world”), claiming that this philosophy would significantly impact the development of porn in the centuries to come (18).
The rest of the book follows a similar format and logic, with Watson examining the lives of those who contributed to a changing understanding of porn in Europe and the United States from the 14th to the 20th centuries. He chronicles the scandals of figures like the less well known Pietro Aretino, a sixteenth-century Italian author known both as “Divine Aretino” and the “Scourge of Princes” (32), and the more well known Martin Luther, who Watson claims followed Aretino’s textual model of critiquing the Church. The book is broken into chronological chapters centered around main ideas, from “1556-1644: To Reform and to Counter-Reform,” focusing on church reform through ecumenical councils, to “1800-1900: The Birth of Pornography,” examining the birth of the modern understanding of porn. Each chapter includes multiple case studies and time divisions of the chapters are based on relevant developments within the period. While the book spans the 14th to the 20th centuries, most of the text focuses on the 17th and 18th centuries, where Watson explores the numerous personalities contributing to the burgeoning field of obscene texts.
Edmund Curll, a “Printer and Publisher of several obscene Books and Pamphlets” (134) in eighteenth-century England and the Marquis De Sade, the “most infamous figure” (186) in the book and author of social criticism pornography in the eighteenth century, are two figures Watson discusses at length. Rather than merely recount the stories of these individuals, Watson uses their histories to point to changing social norms and societal values influencing the shifting conception of porn as “bad.” Watson discusses the emerging ideas of privacy and social critique, arguing that as sex became less public and critique more pointed, pornography was increasingly labeled “bad.” The Church and local European governments responded by forming councils, such as the Council of Trent, the sixteenth-century response to the Protestant Reformation, and organizations like the Society for the Suppression of Vice, active in England until the late nineteenth century, to control lewd texts. These groups, Watson argues, were not as concerned with the “sexy writing” of pornographic texts, but rather with the critiques aimed at the Church and government, a perceived attack on morality (125). In his last chapter on the 20th century, Watson briefly examines the shift from text-based porn to picture-based porn, documenting cases like the first ‘hardcore pornographic film:’ A L’Ecu d’Or ou la Bonne Auberge (At the Golden Crown or The Right Inn), a French film from 1908 (218). He argues that this form of porn has followed the same path as text, gaining popularity as film technology became cheaper and more widespread.
Although Watson articulates the big idea of his book up-front in the introduction – “The short answer to the question of ‘why porn became bad’ is that the printing press made the reproduction of ‘immoral’ texts and images remarkably cheap and easy”(12) – the body of the work holds the reader’s attention and convincingly argues that porn should be considered within its historical context. He adds nuance to his seemingly simple conclusion, layering the history of porn with changing social values and leadership styles.
The book is intended for a general audience; besides the more casual tone (including several rhetorical questions, and the not-so-occasional “um” and “er”), he elected to avoid footnotes and endnotes for readability (224). There are points where Watson’s enthusiastic, in-depth descriptions of historical actors and events seem overly lengthy, but he is largely able to achieve his goal of popular appeal. While the main point of the text is to historicize porn, a more in-depth discussion of modern porn’s connection and parallels to its historical roots would have been appreciated. A more detailed discussion of the international interplay between developments in the various European countries, and later the United States, would have also contributed to a more clear structure and historical grounding. Readers looking to learn more about this topic might read Isabel Tang’s Pornography: The Secret History of Civilization (1999). While an older text, the book also attempts to trace the longer history of porn in the West.
Watson’s aim to educate a general audience on the long history of porn is bolstered by his logical and extensive studies of historical figures and organizations. While books about pornography have generally focused on our modern understanding and treatment of the genre, Watson’s book provides a refreshing and entertaining history that holds broad appeal.
Katelyn Smith holds a masters from the University of Cambridge and an A.B. from Harvard University in History and Philosophy of Science, with a minor in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She researches second-wave feminism and has written about women’s health activism in the United States and United Kingdom in the 20th century.