Sarah Toulalan. Imagining Sex: Pornography and Bodies in Seventeenth-Century England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. ix + 323 pp. $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-920914-9.
Reviewed by Jeremy Webster (Ohio University)
Published on H-Albion (April, 2009)
Commissioned by Brian S. Weiser
The Language of Sex in the Seventeenth Century
Sarah Toulalan’s Imagining Sex rewrites a variety of current scholarly assumptions concerning seventeenth-century pornography literature in England. These varied assumptions include: the beliefs that seventeenth-century “pornography” did not exist, that it contained little aesthetic value compared to “erotica” or “literature,” and that it did similar things as modern pornography.
In rejecting these assumptions, Toulalan argues that “seventeenth-century pornography has a history, so that its origins in classical and renaissance works can be traced, but it is also uniquely of its time” (p. 22). The first of these assumptions is laid to rest by the fact that Toulalan analyzes some 270 texts dating from around 1600 to the beginning of the eighteenth century. In contrast to the second assumption, Toulalan demonstrates that “the clever use of language, of metaphor, euphemism, double entendre, pun, and allusion, is an integral part of early modern pornographic representation” (p. 12). As she maintains, “There is a playfulness with regard to language that is both exuberant and mocking," which offered "the reader an intellectual as well as a physical, erotic enjoyment of the text” (p. 12). And finally, while Toulalan acknowledges that some representations of women in the texts she studies could be labeled “misogynist” and “show them as oppressed by a patriarchal culture that seeks to restrict them to a narrow, ‘private’ sphere of activity,” she concludes that “these are not the only representations, nor, necessarily the overwhelming impression of the body of material as a whole” (p. 22). In sum, Toulalan has produced a fine book that refuses to reduce its subject to simplistic terms, arguing instead that the literary texts it studies functioned in culturally complex ways that offered "entertainment and pleasure, both intellectual and erotic, to the reader in the myriad ways in which it imagines sex” (p. 36).
Imagining Sex is divided into an introduction, which situates Toulalan’s thesis in relation to current scholarship on early modern pornography, and seven chapters. Chapter 1 takes issue with the belief that the Restoration period saw the beginning of the production of an English pornographic “industry,” arguing instead that the late seventeenth century witnessed a continuation and growth of “an already existing tradition of writing and production of printed matter of a sexual nature” (p. 38). To demonstrate this point, Toulalan identifies who published sexually explicit materials and who most likely read these materials throughout the seventeenth century. Of particular note in this chapter is her assertion that female readership, while probably small, should not be ignored. Chapter 2 maintains that seventeenth-century representations of sex were “intimately entwined with ideas about reproduction and conception” (p. 64). As she contends, “sexual pleasure was understood as not complete pleasure if it did not have the possibility of conception” (p. 64). In this chapter, Toulalan analyzes the ways in which this linkage of pleasure and reproduction shaped pornographic depictions of same-sex erotic activities; of the male body and semen; and of issues of inheritance, property, and social stability. Chapter 3 examines flagellation narratives in seventeenth-century pornography to argue that flagellation was constructed in these texts “as a sexual practice that ... can be condoned for its efficacious effect in situations where the desired outcome--erection, ejaculation, orgasm, and conception--cannot ordinarily be achieved” (p. 130). In chapter 4, Toulalan analyzes representations of female homosexual acts. She contends that the “ambiguity of such scenes" gave "a space in the text for the reader, whether male or female, to take up a range of desiring positions and shifting gender identifications in relation to the text” (p. 133). This chapter briefly considers depictions of male homosexual acts but argues that such activities rarely appear in these texts. Chapter 5 explores pornography’s reliance on voyeurism as a plot point and as an essential component of pornographic readership. This chapter, arguably the most far-reaching in its conclusions, studies the effects of such voyeurism on issues of privacy in the seventeenth century. Toulalan concludes that “seventeenth-century pornographic literature ... both relies on and plays with the idea of a public/private split to develop a specific technique for writing the erotic,” a technique that often placed a female character in the role of voyeur (p. 193). As Toulalan writes, “Mediating the male gaze through the female figure suggests that we need to think differently about the idea of voyeurism and how it is gendered, and how it works in pornography, at this time” (p. 193). Chapter 6 analyzes the comic nature of seventeenth-century pornography and how humor functioned in these texts, and chapter 7 studies how the illustrations included in sexually explicit texts during this period “made use of visual metaphors and symbols that conveyed the sexual message with remarkable clarity in a similar way to the use of metaphor and simile within the text” (p. 233). The conclusion sums up Toulalan’s argument and delineates its implications for the study of pornography in the seventeenth century.
On balance, the strengths of this book far outweigh its weaknesses. There are at least two of the latter. On the level of the mundane, the book’s index is far too minimal to be useful, especially since none of the book’s references to primary sources is included in the index. There are also references to secondary works included in footnotes that are not present in the bibliography or index. This otherwise groundbreaking study would have been more useful to scholars and students if the index had been more thorough and the bibliography complete. On the level of content, Toulalan has almost no interest in the political dimensions of seventeenth-century pornography. This omission is perhaps most glaring in Toulalan’s unproblematized attribution of The Farce of Sodom to John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (additionally, neither of which--the play or the poet--appears in the index). Attributing this closet drama to Rochester without any discussion of the contested nature of this attribution is alone problematic, but to ignore the political nature of the work’s pornographic satire calls into question Toulalan’s reading of it: The Farce of Sodom simply cannot be read outside of or apart from its satire on Charles II and the libertinism of his court. To try to do so undermines her claims about the relationship between its depictions of dildoes, penises, incest, and male homosexual acts as well as the culture that produced and read this play.
Despite these problems, there is much to admire in this book. At the top of this list is its engagement with current scholarship in the field. Throughout the work, Toulalan offers useful correctives to much of the major scholarship on seventeenth-century sex, including works by James Grantham Turner, Julie Peakman, Emma Donoghue, Lillian Faderman, Ros Ballaster, and Roger Thompson. Chapter 2, for example, takes issue with Tim Hitchcock’s assertion that sexual practices at the beginning of the eighteenth century seemed to revolve around mutual masturbation, kissing, and fondling instead of penetrative sex before marriage. Toulalan maintains that late seventeenth-century pornographic texts do not support this argument and argues instead that these texts focus “on the male and female genitalia in close conjunction as the site of sexual pleasure” (p. 66). Her close reading of seventeenth-century texts leads her to conclude that they contained a “phallo-centrism” that Hitchcock identifies with the late eighteenth century (p. 66). Her corrective potentially rewrites our understanding of seventeenth-century notions of the male gaze and the male body’s relation to such key issues as patriarchal authority, privacy, gender norms, and sexual desire. Toulalan’s positions are further augmented by the fact that Imagining Sex is richly illustrated with reproductions of seventeenth-century engravings. Her presentation of both these texts and their illustrations is a major contribution to current scholarship.
. See, for example, James Grantham Turner, Libertines and Radicals in Early Modern London: Sexuality, Politics and Literary Culture, 1630-1685 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Julie Peakman, Mighty Lewd Books: The Development of Pornography in Eighteenth-Century England (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003); Emma Donoghue, Passions between Women: British Lesbian Culture, 1668-1801 (London: Scarlet Press, 1994); Lillian Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (New York: Morrow, 1981); Ros Ballaster, Seductive Forms: Women’s Amatory Fiction from 1684 to 1740 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992); and Roger Thompson, Unfit for Modest Ears: A Study in Pornographic, Obscene and Bawdy Works Written or Published in England in the Second Half of the Seventeenth Century (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1979).
. See Tim Hitchcock, “Redefining Sex in Eighteenth-Century England,” History Workshop Journal 41 (1996): 73-90.
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Jeremy Webster. Review of Toulalan, Sarah, Imagining Sex: Pornography and Bodies in Seventeenth-Century England.
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