Grasping Towards Pornotopia


It is no longer controversial to point out that erotica and pornography have played a crucial role in the history of the book, especially in histories of authorship, reading, and publishing. However, because of its marginal nature, pornography has always been incredibly difficult for academics to document, discover, and examine. It is simultaneously easy to understand (Justice Potter Stewart’s “I know it when I see it”) and impossible to define, despite being ever-present in histories of sexuality and morality. This panel proposes to fundamentally reexamine what we talk about when we talk about pornography in book history. In doing this, we engage with SHARP 2019’s central themes of “Indigeneity, Nationhood, and Migrations of the Book;” in the construction of the ‘national’ through gender, sexuality, and textuality; the materiality, manifestation, and migration of the pornographic; and the uses of print to the minoritized. We question the ‘who,’ ‘what,’ and ‘where’ of the “normal reader” of pornography and erotic literature between WWII and the Reagan Revolution. Additionally, we touch on the intersections between authors, readers, and publishers in order to reclaim a genre simultaneously loved and loathed. Jonathan Rose documents reader response and access by ‘everyday’ Americans to the government-created Braille edition of Playboy magazine—for despite stereotypes, not all Playboy readers were male, heterosexual, or even mainstream. Steven Ruszczycky’s examination of John Rechy’s City of Night (1963) and William Carney’s The Real Thing (1968) shows how the sexuality of presumed, but rarely named, “normal readers” was enriched through their encounter with sexually exciting books that were vetted, marketed, and received in the mainstream press as sociological tracts. Finally, Brian Watson explores the historiography of porn studies in order to question how midcentury popularizers of Victorian pornography Steven Marcus and Ronald Pearsall constructed the myth of pornotopia in the public consciousness.

Amherst College
book history history of sexuality Steven Marcus Kinsey Institute Presentations
Brian M. Watson
Archivist, Historian, Knowledge Organizer

I’m an archivist, a public historian, an author, a researcher, and a knowledge organizer.