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Sex and Literature: Erotica in the 18th Century

by Beth Divine 2 Aug 2018

The 1700s saw massive changes: the church was losing its power, education was becoming more widespread across all classes and the Western world was carving up the Americas, Africa and everywhere else they could get a foothold. Adventurous spirits could dramatically change their prospects and social standing, and the previously stable powers that be were being threatened by youth and working class.

Writing and drawings about sex and sex acts began to proliferate. While still technically illegal, it was very much easier to produce ‘obscene’ works and remain anonymous while the pamphlets and books were distributed to eager buyers. By now there were many publishers and artists able to produce runs of their works, which had the effect of bringing the price of reading materials and art down to almost manageable levels for many people.

The novel suddenly caught on as a form of literature, rapidly outpacing non-fiction, poetry and plays as the go-to reading matter. Young women, in particular, seized on this new product, reading avidly and learning to want more from life than obedience and subjugation to men. On the other side of the gender divide, erotic etchings and drawings were highly prized in certain circles: the more exotic, the better. Japan, for example, produced a vast array of explicit erotic artworks that titillated sections of society.

The rise of an educated working class eschewed attempts by the church to cling to its declining power, and more people began to question the church’s enormous wealth given biblical teachings about poverty and modesty being more desirable than vast amounts of money. The church’s long held powers to dictate how and what people should think about fell away, and with education encouraging people to think critically instead of merely accepting what they were told, a brief period of joyful and unashamed sexual freedom began.

This was put paid to by the Victorian era, which began in 1837 and lasted almost all the way to the First World War.