Book Review: Annals of Pornographie

BookReviewLogoReview by Katelyn Smith

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.  

29232094Watson 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).   Continue reading “Book Review: Annals of Pornographie”

Book Review: Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns

BookReviewLogoReview by Sarah Parker

Is sex good to think with?

Valerie Traub poses this question to her reader at the opening of Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016) and goes on to show how thinking with sex rather than talking about sex may offer clues that help us to interpret literary works of the early modern period. Though Thinking Sex uses literary works as source texts, Traub’s approach is primarily a historical one. She also describes the thorny relationship between historicist approaches to sexuality studies and the discourses of queer theory in an attempt to find points of reconciliation between these two equally valuable academic disciplines. Sex as an object of study is decidedly elusive; it is characterized by “opacity, absence, gaps, blockages, and resistances” (3). Rather than trying to get around this problem in order to pose a decisive reading about what early moderns did, Traub’s work embraces the sites of unknowability that characterize sex, both in the archive and in the present. This is what she means by thinking with sex.

26722986First and foremost, Traub makes it quite clear that she wants to do “something other than identity history” (11), a project that is in keeping with her previous book, The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, 2002). As in that work, Thinking Sex locates sexual acts as indicative of erotic desires rather than retroactively fitting those acts into modern identity categories. That said, Traub launches a smart and incisive political critique of historians who would describe academic research into the history of queer sexuality as mere projection. Inspired by Dominick LaCapra’s argument that a theoretical approach to history must look at the way history has been studied in addition to the historical objects of study themselves, Traub opens the main of her book with an overview of Alan Bray’s path breaking work on early modern homoerotic friendship. Arguing against scholars who have accused Bray’s work (and that of other historians of sexuality) of projecting the identity politics of the present onto the past, Traub counters that “it is not just that leveling a charge of projection in this way is inaccurate and offensive: more important, it circumvents, and thereby obscures, questions tacitly raised by Bray’s scholarship but not resolved in it: namely, the relations between emotional and bodily intimacy, and what we make of them” (47). In other words, this early scholarship brought much needed attention to the difficulty (or even the impossibility) of identifying what sexual acts accompanied the traces of “emotional and bodily intimacy” that are evident in the literary and historical texts available for our analysis. Continue reading “Book Review: Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns”

Book Review: Christians Under Covers

BookReviewLogo“God and sex seem to occupy distinct and separate spaces within our communities and our psyches,” sociologist Kelsy Burke observes in her introduction to Christians Under Covers: Evangelicals and Sexual Pleasure on the Internet (University of California Press, 2016). In contemporary American discourse, “religious pleasures and sexual pleasures are often pitted against each other in den debates over contentious social issues like homosexuality, premarital sex, and pornography” (2). Yet what Burke found, in her ethnographic study of Internet-based discussions about faith and sexuality, was that for conservative evangelical Christians, religious commitment and sexual pleasure are deeply intertwined. As Burke evocatively puts it:

Users [of Christian sexuality websites] portray their marital beds as crowded. Their choices appear to be (or at least attempt to be) influenced by God, who celebrates sexual pleasure for married Christians; Satan, who thwarts sexual pleasure for married Christians; and the websites themselves …monitor[ing] these desires and behaviors through feedback, providing credibility for some acts while condemning others (3).

27065701For this dissertation turned monograph, Burke identified sixteen blogs, eighteen online stores, and two message boards created for the purpose of putting human sexuality into Christian context. During the early 2010s she was an observer-participant in these spaces, “lurking” (with permission of website administrators) in online discussions as well as designing an online survey that reached 768 respondents and conducting 44 one-to-one interviews. Participants in the study were overwhelmingly white, (heterosexually) married evangelical Protestants.

Based on the data she collected, Burke makes two interrelated arguments about conservative evangelical heterosexuality at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

Continue reading “Book Review: Christians Under Covers”