The Other Victorians  

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"What is pornotopia? [...] The isolated castle on an inaccessible mountain top, the secluded country estate set in the middle of a large park and surrounded by insurmountable walls, the mysterious town house in London or Paris, the carefully furnished and elaborately equipped set of apartments to be found in any city at all, the deserted cove at the seaside, or the solitary cottage atop the cliffs, the inside of a brothel rented for a day, a week, or a month, or the inside of hotel room rented for the night — these are all the same place and are identically located." (Marcus, 1966: 271.)

"However strange it may sound, I think the possibility must be considered that something in the nature of the sexual instinct itself is unfavourable to the achievement of absolute gratification ... The erotic instincts are hard to mould; training of them achieves now too much, now too little. What culture tries to make out of them seems attainable only at the cost of a sensible loss of pleasure; the persistence of the impulses that are not enrolled in adult sexual activity makes itself felt in an absence of satisfaction.

So perhaps we must make up our minds to the idea that altogether it is not possible for the claims of the sexual instinct to be reconciled with the demands of culture....This very incapacity in the sexual instinct to yield full satisfaction as soon as it submits to the first demands of culture becomes the source, however, of the grandest cultural achievements, which are brought to birth by ever greater sublimation of the components of the sexual instinct. For what motive would induce man to put his sexual energy to other uses if by any disposal of it he could obtain fully satisfying pleasure? He would never let go of this pleasure and would make no further progress." -- "The Most Prevalent Form of Degradation in Erotic Life", Sigmund Freud, epigraph

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Other Victorians, A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth Century England (1964) is a social history book by American scholar Steven Marcus. Its subject matter is obscenity and pornography in 19th century England juxtaposed to Victorian morality. It was researched with the cooperation of the Kinsey Institute, analyzed works such as The Lustful Turk and The Romance of Lust and coined the term pornotopia.



The book's central characters, the "other" Victorians, are the British medical doctor William Acton, the anonymous author of the erotic memoirs My Secret Life and the bibliomaniac Henry Spencer Ashbee.

The study is psychological in nature — relying much on the work of Sigmund Freud, and Marcus invents a word to describe the sexual activities in pornographic literature, “pornotopia”. Marcus describes “pornotopia” as being like a place where “all men … are always and infinitely potent; all women fecundate with lust and flow inexhaustibly with sap or juice or both. Everyone is always ready for everything” (p. 276). Given the libidos of the characters, the comment is apt. Because of the often unrealistic description of sexual activities and positions in The Romance of Lust, Marcus uses the word vector to describe the mechanical sex acts. He also speaks of emotional deprivation in conjunction with the work, because the characters do not interact with one another as real, thinking, and feeling persons would do.


Using a psychoanalytic lexicon developed by Sigmund Freud, The Other Victorians draws on archival materials from the Kinsey Institute to analyze sexual subcultures in nineteenth-century Britain. Marcus culls the official views of Victorian society from physician William Acton, whose writings anxiously deny the existence of childhood sexuality even as they make elaborate recommendations to suppress it. (Acton’s later writings about prostitution reveal a more humanizing approach designed to alleviate stigma and reintegrate women into other professions.) Marcus also documents the widespread legal and medical panic over masturbation, which was strongly correlated with mental alienation and insanity. Semen was regarded as a finite commodity whose depletion through onanism or wet dreams, known as “spermatorrhoea,” was believed to lead to enervation, disease, and eventually death. (Marcus contrasts these official views with the clandestine circulation of pornography, records of which were meticulously preserved by Henry Spencer Ashbee’s elaborately annotated indices.)

The Other Victorians also provided the first extensive study of the anonymous eleven-volume pornographic memoir My Secret Life, which Marcus took to be an authentic sexual biography inflected with fantasy. Marcus draws out revealing episodes of Walter’s sexual life, including the rape of his wife, coerced sex from domestic servants and starving laborers, the insertion of shilling pieces into vaginas to gauge their capacity, and persistent fears of genital inadequacy, castration, and impotence. Through readings of works of obscene literature, including The Lustful Turk and The Victim of Lust, Marcus concludes that the organizing purpose of pornographic fantasy is to reassure the man of the presence and persistence of his genitals. Marcus concludes that pornography is distinct from literature in its singular goal of arousal, its repetitions without fulfillment, and its effort to move beyond language and reality. Marcus’s most famous conceptual contribution is his coinage of the term pornotopia to describe a utopian fantasy of abundance where “all men . . . are always and infinitely potent; all women fecundate with lust and flow inexhaustibly with sap or juice or both. Everyone is always ready for everything.”

The initial reception of The Other Victorians was mixed. Diane Darrow found fault with Marcus’s assumption that My Secret Life was an authentic biography, and in the same vein William Shaefer noted that Marcus “treats the book as if it were a verified case history, and thus his sober Freudian analysis at times becomes almost ludicrous.” Mike Spilka cautioned that Marcus’s conclusions are drawn from a very small sampling of texts, which leads him overestimate the anxiety around depletion of the seminal economy. Robert Philmus similarly expressed regret at Marcus’s “disinclination to assimilate a wider range of literary evidence and historical particulars." In a lengthy review essay, historian Brian Harrison charged that Marcus’s unitary ideal of “pornotopia” was based on too few texts; that he omitted a bibliography and references to My Secret Life; that his “research is not sufficiently extensive to bear the weight of his relatively ambitious conclusions”; and that his analysis contains “moralising passages which might well have been uttered by a nineteenth-century clergyman.”

Marcus’s work set off a flurry of scholarship in nineteenth-century cultural studies, producing book-length works on sexuality, prostitution, masturbation, flagellation, sodomy, and masochism. Andrew H. Miller, surveying the critical terrain of sexuality studies a half-century later, described The Other Victorians as “the single most influential account of sexuality in Victorian Britain before the work of Foucault. Michel Foucault developed the most comprehensive challenge to the "repressive hypothesis" that pervades Marcus's account of Victorian sexuality, signaling his challenge to Marcus by entitling Part 1 of his study The History of Sexuality, "We 'Other' Victorians." Marcus had earlier characterized Foucault's scholarship as "impenetrable" on account of "the author’s arrogance, carelessness, and imprecision.”

More recently, Thomas Joudrey has challenged Marcus's pornotopian account of Victorian erotica, explaining, "Far from envisaging a world of endless potency and pleasure, Victorian pornography grapples with the terrifying prospects of bodily decay, suffering, and mortality, placing potency on a razor's edge." Joudrey cites examples of "impotence, syphilitic outbreaks, torn foreskins, severed rods, soiled cocks, and slack vaginas" to illustrate a pervasive pattern of failure and conflict fundamentally at odds with "utopian fantasies of purity and immortality."



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