The Fixation of Meaning: Pornography Then and Now

by Andrea Zuliani (he/they)

The sexual revolution of the eighteenth century has been one of the most famous events in history, as it involved the disruption of both the political and social characteristics of states. The analysis of this text will primarily focus on the use of queer pornography. It will focus on both the sexual revolution which took place throughout the French revolution and nowadays’ use of pornography. More specifically from the analysis of the eighteenth century’s queer pornographic propaganda, I will develop my thought of how its degrading fixed meaning is still persistent nowadays.

Within the revolution, one of the techniques that have been used the most in order to amplify its repercussions on society was the use of pornography. This has always been a central topic in literature and social movements throughout history, as Aretino’s work “Sonetti lussuriosi e dubbi amorosi”, belonging to the Renaissance in Italy,[1] can testify. The use of pornography, especially in the eighteenth century, was used as a tool to mobilize the public and to deteriorate the public image of public figures and of women.[2] More interestingly, queer pornography was the most used tool to degrade politicians’ images even more. This, in fact, was used especially against male parliamentarians, as can be seen in Figure 1.[3] This is not to say that pornography was not used on women, if looking at Marie Antoinette, she has been one of the most represented (therefore sexualised) figures throughout the French Revolution.[4] The pornography used on women was to merely sexualise them, and of course consequently to degrade their figure and interestingly the ones around them. In the case of Marie Antoinette, the representation of her being involved in sexual actions with other men surely ruined her public image, but it was more directed at her husband, the King of France.[5] In fact, her pornographic representations worked on the idea that if the king could not control a woman, he was not powerful enough to be the king of a nation.[6]

Depiction of male parliamentarian in a sexually compromising position. The drawing is titled "The wrongs done by M. Becker to France".
Figure 1, “The wrongs done by M. Becker to France”

However, in the case of men and the use of male queer pornography, what, in my opinion, was crucial was not the nudity itself but rather the fact that it was a homosexual interaction. This was surely connected and motivated by the strong role of Christianity. By looking at ‘Les Travaux d’Hercule’, published throughout the French revolution (and consequently also through the sexual revolution), the text says that “a male and vigorous constitution is necessary for those who wish to taste [pleasure] and healthy men are contrasted to defective and effeminate ones”.[7] I personally found this quote very touching as it proves that what was ‘weak’ and ‘wrong’ in the pornographic representation of men was the homosexual compound of it all, which was, as it is widely known, also connected to queer men’s feminine side (if there was any). More interestingly in the quote, the idea of being a feminine man is opposed to the idea of being a healthy man, thus, to create a fixed meaning connected to the idea of homosexuality as an illness or something that deteriorates humans not only morally but also physically.

The years of the sexual revolution are the ones in which we encounter for the first time an increase in the use of pamphlets thus of propaganda. The historian Dabhoiwala reported that within the span of one century the titles published by various editors went from 800 to 8,000 towards the end of the 18th century.[8] This clearly amplified the ‘effectiveness’ of pornography and of the different stereotypes that have been created through its use. Therefore, we encounter throughout the sexual revolution, from what remained in our hands throughout history, the start of the fixation of what being a homosexual meant. This vision is typical of Western societies as they established a gender binary vision of gender and sexuality. The role of propaganda in the sexual revolution was crucial in fixating this characteristic. The sociologist Stuart Hall reflects on the fixation of meaning that propaganda and media generate. In one of his conferences, it is very interesting how he makes us reflect on how not only the media, but every institution tries to fixate the meaning of every single thing.[9] This helps, to a certain extent, to have people under control, as we constantly throw them into boxes, although these ones constantly change. Therefore, what homosexual pornography enabled people to do was to degrade both the images of public figures and one of homosexual men.

While researching this topic I was very interested in how we can transfer this into modern society. Is there still a difference between the queer pornographic representation of women and men? Growing up, I have always heard how cis men are ‘obsessed’ with watching sexual interaction between women, it gives them pleasure and satisfies them. It becomes a fetish, which degrades the image of queer women. However, it is very rare to hear the same regarding male queer sexual representation from women or other men, there is not much of a fetishization, especially from the opposite gender. While encountering conversation of male pornography, this idea of effeminacy is still used as one of the main reasons men despise or make fun of gay men and their sexual interaction. Of course, this is not to say that queer and straight women are not objects of discrimination: the idea of femininity itself as a degrading tool used on men comes from a ‘womanly and effeminate’ representation of women, thus from their degradation.

Even nowadays, the use of pornography is used to change the image of someone, this is because, as Dabhoiwala underlines, it is seen as a technique, even during the sexual revolution, to control the “public opinion towards one’s own purposes”.[10] Interestingly, in the case of the French revolution, but even now, queer pornography and queer bodies are used to define one’s image and morals. It is interesting how the power of queer pornography and especially its role had been established already in the 18th century, and, although it changed throughout the centuries, this ‘degrading’ nature is still at times hyper-present today.


About the Author:

Andrea is a third-year History and Politics undergraduate student in the department of History at the University of Warwick. He is interested in queer history, more specifically at the relation between gender and sexuality. He is passionate about the importance of queerness in determining different social relations in both the past and nowadays society. As a part of queer/disrupt he mainly concentrates on providing admin support as well as helping with subtitling some of our work.


Bibliography:

[1] Pietro Aretino, Sonetti lussuriosi e dubbi amorosi, Second Edition, (Roma: Tascabili Economici Newton, 1993).

[2] Faramerz Dabhoiwala, The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution, First Edition, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 293.

[3] “The wrongs done by M. Becker to France”, Agnes Scott’s Enlightenment Salon, <https://ascenlightenmentsalon.omeka.net/items/show/62>, [Accessed February 20, 2021]. See Figure 1.

[4] Lynn A. Hunt, ‘Pornography and the French Revolution’, in The Invention of pornography: obscenity and the origins of modernity, 1500-1800, ed. by Lynn A. Hunt (New York: Zone Books, 1993), p. 302.

[5] Hunt, ‘Pornography and the French Revolution’, p. 306.

[6] Hunt, ‘Pornography and the French Revolution’, p. 306.

[7] Hunt, ‘Pornography and the French Revolution’, p. 308.

[8] Faramerz Dabhoiwala, The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution, First Edition, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 315.

[9] Patierno, M. Talreja, S. (Director). (1997). Stuart Hall: Representation & the Media [Video file]. Media Education Foundation. Retrieved November 2, 2021, from Kanopy.

[10] Dabhoiwala, The Origins of Sex, p. 329.


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