Erotic literature  

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"Better were it that such literature [erotic literature] did not exist. I consider it pernicious and hurtful to the immature but at the same time I hold that, in certain circumstances, its study is necessary, if not beneficial." -- Catena Librorum Tacendorum

The Index Librorum Prohibitorum ("List of Prohibited Books") is a list of publications which the Catholic Church censored for being a danger to itself and the faith of its members.
The Index Librorum Prohibitorum ("List of Prohibited Books") is a list of publications which the Catholic Church censored for being a danger to itself and the faith of its members.
This page Erotic literature is part of the human sexuality seriesIllustration: Fashionable Contrasts (1792) by James Gillray.
This page Erotic literature is part of the human sexuality series
Illustration: Fashionable Contrasts (1792) by James Gillray.

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Erotic literature comprises fictional and factual stories and accounts which sexually arouse the reader, whether written with that intention or not. Such erotica takes the form of novels, short stories, poetry, true-life memoirs, and sex manuals. Erotic literature has often been subject to censorship and legal restraints on publication.


Erotic verse

erotic verse

Early periods

Many erotic poems have survived from Ancient Greece and Rome, the authors including the Greeks Straton of Sardis, Sappho of Lesbos (lyrics); and the Romans Automedon (The Professional and Demetrius the Fortunate), Philodemus (Charito), Marcus Argentarius, Catullus, Propertius, Tibullus, Ovid, Martial and Juvenal and the anonymous Priapeia Some later Latin authors also wrote erotic verse, e.g. Joannes Secundus. In the Renaissance period many poems were not written for publication and merely circulated in manuscript among a relatively limited readership. Such were the Sonnets of William Shakespeare who also wrote the erotic poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.

17th and 18th centuries

In the 17th century, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (1647–80) was notorious for obscene verses, many of which were published posthumously in compendiums of poetry by him and other Restoration rakes such as Sir Charles Sedley, Charles Sackville, 6th Earl of Dorset, and George Etherege. Though many of the poems attributed to Rochester were actually by other authors, his reputation as a libertine was such that his name was used as a selling point by publishers of collections of erotic verse for centuries after. One poem which definitely was by him was "A Ramble in St. James's Park" in which the protagonist's quest for healthy exercise in the park uncovers instead "Bugg'ries, Rapes and Incest" on ground polluted by debauchery from the time when "Ancient Pict began to Whore". This poem was being censored from collections of Rochester's poetry as late as 1953, though, in line with a general change in attitudes to sexuality, it was dramatised as a scene in the film The Libertine about his life based on an existing play.

English collections of erotic verse by various hands, include the Drollery collections of the 17th century; Pills to Purge Melancholy (1698–1720); the Roxburghe Ballads; Bishop Percy's Folio; The Musical Miscellany; National Ballad and Song: Merry Songs and Ballads Prior to the Year AD 1800 (1895-7) edited by J. S. Farmer; the three volume Poetica Erotica (1921) and its more obscene supplement the Immortalia (1927) both edited by T. R. Smith. French collections include Les Muses gaillardes (1606) Le Cabinet satyrique (1618) and La Parnasse des poetes satyriques (1622).

A famous collection of four erotic poems, was published in England in 1763, called An Essay on Woman. This included the title piece, an obscene parody of Alexander Pope's "An Essay on Man"; "Veni Creator: or, The Maid's Prayer", which is original; the "Universal Prayer", an obscene parody of Pope's poem of the same name, and "The Dying Lover to his Prick", which parodies "A Dying Christian to his Soul" by Pope. These poems have been attributed to John Wilkes and/or Thomas Potter and receive the distinction of being the only works of erotic literature ever read out loud, in their entirety in the House of Lords—before being declared obscene and blasphemous by that august body and the supposed author, Wilkes, declared an outlaw.

Robert Burns worked to collect and preserve Scottish folk songs, sometimes revising, expanding, and adapting them. One of the better known of these collections is The Merry Muses of Caledonia (the title is not by Burns), a collection of bawdy lyrics that were popular in the music halls of Scotland as late as the 20th century.

19th century

One of the 19th century's foremost poets--Algernon Charles Swinburne—devoted much of his considerable talent to erotic verse, producing, inter alia, twelve eclogues on flagellation titled The Flogging Block "by Rufus Rodworthy, annotated by Barebum Birchingly"; more was published anonymously in The Whippingham Papers (c. 1888). Another notorious anonymous 19th century poem on the same subject is The Rodiad, ascribed (seemingly falsely and in jest) to George Colman the Younger. John Camden Hotten even wrote a pornographic comic opera, Lady Bumtickler’s Revels, on the theme of flagellation in 1872.

Pierre Louÿs helped found a literary review, La Conque in 1891, where he proceeded to publish Astarte—an early collection of erotic verse already marked by his distinctive elegance and refinement of style. He followed up in 1894 with another erotic collection in 143 prose poems--Songs of Bilitis (Les Chansons de Bilitis), this time with strong lesbian themes.

20th century

Although D. H. Lawrence could be regarded as a writer of love poems, he usually dealt in the less romantic aspects of love such as sexual frustration or the sex act itself. Ezra Pound in his Literary Essays complained of Lawrence's interest in his own "disagreeable sensations" but praised him for his "low-life narrative." This is a reference to Lawrence's dialect poems akin to the Scots poems of Robert Burns, in which he reproduced the language and concerns of the people of Nottinghamshire from his youth. He called one collection of poems Pansies partly for the simple ephemeral nature of the verse but also a pun on the French word panser, to dress or bandage a wound. "The Noble Englishman" and "Don't Look at Me" were removed from the official edition of Pansies on the grounds of obscenity, which he felt wounded by.

From the age of 17, Gavin Ewart acquired a reputation for wit and accomplishment through such works as "Phallus in Wonderland" and "Poems and Songs", which appeared in 1939 and was his first collection. The intelligence and casually flamboyant virtuosity with which he framed his often humorous commentaries on human behaviour made his work invariably entertaining and interesting. The irreverent eroticism for which his poetry is noted resulted in W H Smith's banning of his "The Pleasures of the Flesh" (1966) from their shops.

Canadian poet John Glassco wrote Squire Hardman (1967), a long poem in heroic couplets, purporting to be a reprint of an 18th century poem by George Colman the Younger, on the theme of flagellation.

Erotic fiction

Erotic fiction is the name given to fiction that deals with sex or sexual themes, generally in a more literary or serious way than the fiction seen in pornographic magazines and sometimes including elements of satire or social criticism. Such works have frequently been banned by the government or religious authorities. It should be noted, however, that apparently non-fictional works dealing with sex or sexual themes may contain fictional elements; calling an erotic book 'a memoir' is a literary device that is common in this genre. For reasons similar to those that make pseudonyms both commonplace and often deviously set up, the boundary between fiction and non-fiction is often very diffuse.

History of western erotic fiction

Ancient times

ancient erotica

Classic erotica from the Ancient World includes the Song of Songs from the Old Testament and the Roman Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter (later made into a film by Fellini).

Sex manuals such as the Kama Sutra are some of the best known works of erotic literature. The Ananga Ranga is a lesser known one, aimed specifically at preventing the separation of a husband and wife.

Erotic fiction from the Roman period- more appropriately called ribaldry - includes the Satyricon of Petronius (later made into a film by Fellini. The output of literary eroticism during the Roman era featured more poetry than prose, see Latin profanity.

Middle Ages

medieval erotica

From the Medieval period we have the Decameron (1353) by the Italian , Giovanni Boccaccio (made into a film by Pasolini) which features tales of lechery by monks and the seduction of nuns from convents. This book was banned in many countries. Even five centuries after publication copies were seized and destroyed by the authorities in the USA and the UK. For instance between 1954 and 1958 eight orders for destruction of the book were made by English magistrates.


Renaissance erotica

From the fifteenth century another classic of Italian erotica is the Facetiae of Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini.

The sixteenth century was notable for the Heptameron of Marguerite de Navarre (1558), inspired by Boccaccio's Decameron.

17th century

17th century erotica

One striking aspect of pre-industrial European erotic literature is the preponderance of female characters. Two early 17th century French works, L'École des filles and L’Academie des Dames, were written as female dialogues — a literary device that was to be repeated many times over the next century in works such as John Cleland’s Fanny Hill and the Marquis de Sade’s Juliette.


18th century literature, 18th century erotica, libertine novel

An early pioneer of the publication of erotic works in England was Edmund Curll (1675-1747). The rise of the novel in 18th century England provided a new medium for erotica. One of the most famous in this new genre was Fanny Hill by John Cleland. This book set a new standard in literary smut and has often been adapted for the cinema in the 20th century.

The rise of the novel in 18th century England provided a new medium for erotica. One of the most famous in this new genre was Fanny Hill by John Cleland. This book set a new standard in literary smut and has often been adapted for the cinema in the 20th century.

French writers at this time also wrote erotica. A famous example is Thérèse Philosophe (1748) by Jean-Baptiste de Boyer, Marquis d'Argens which describes a girl's inititation into the secrets of both philosophy and sex. Another example is The Lifted Curtain or Laura's Education, about a young girl's sexual initiation by her father, written by the Comte de Mirabeau; also Les Liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons) by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, first published in 1782.

In the late 18th century the theme of sado-masochism was explored by the Marquis de Sade in such works as Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue and 120 Days of Sodom. The Marquis de Sade's work was very influential on later erotica and he (together with the later writer Sacher-Masoch) lent his name to the sexual acts which he describes in his fiction. Directories of prostitutes and their services have also historically served as a sexual education in print, such as Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies (1757-1795). The rise of the novel in 18th century England provided a new medium for erotica. One of the most famous in this new genre was Fanny Hill by John Cleland. This book has often been adapted for the cinema in the 20th century.

Rousseau coins "books to read with one single hand"

The expression "livre à lire d'une seule main" (English: books to read with one single hand) is coined by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It is often used to refer to erotic literature, or "stroke books".

"Though my taste had not preserved me from silly, unmeaning books, by good fortune I was a stranger to licentious or obscene ones; not that La Tribu (who was very accommodating) made any scruple of lending these ; on the contrary, to enhance their worth, she spoke of them with an air of mystery which produced an effect she had not foreseen, for both shame and disgust made me constantly refuse them. Chance so well seconded my bashful disposition, that I was past the age of thirty before I saw any of those dangerous compositions, to which a fine lady of fashion has no other objection than that they must be read with one hand.
List of works

19th century era

Victorian erotica, 19th century erotica, 19th century literature

In the Victorian period, the quality of erotic fiction was much below that of the previous century — it was written by 'hacks'. Some works, however, borrowed from established literary models, such as Dickens. It also featured a curious form of social stratification. Even in the throes of orgasm, the social distinctions between master and servant (including form of address) were scrupulously observed. Significant elements of sado-masochism were present in some examples, perhaps reflecting the influence of the English public school. These works were often anonymous, and undated, and include such titles as The Lustful Turk (1828); The Way of a Man with a Maid; A Weekend Visit, The Romance of Lust (1873) and The Autobiography of a Flea (1887).

Clandestine erotic periodicals of this period include The Pearl a collection of erotic tales, rhymes, songs and parodies published in London between 1879 to 1880.

In 1870 the erotic novella Venus in Furs by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, brought the attention of the world to phenomenon of masochism, named after the author.

Towards the end of the century, a more "cultured" form of erotica began to appear by such as the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne who pursued themes of paganism, lesbianism and sado-masochism in such works as Lesbia Brandon and in contributions to The Whippingham Papers edited by St George Stock, author of The Romance of Chastisement. This was associated with the Decadent movement, in particular, with Aubrey Beardsley and the Yellow Book. But it was also to be found in France, amongst such writers as Pierre Louys, author of Les chansons de Bilitis (1894) (a celebration of lesbianism and sexual awakening).

Other works


Twentieth century

20th century erotica

Twentieth century erotic fiction includes such classics of the genre as: Maudie by Anon; Sadopaideia (1907) by Anon; Trois Filles de Leur Mére (1926) by Pierre Louys; Story of the Eye (1928) by Georges Bataille; Tropic of Cancer (1934) by Henry Miller; The Story of O (1954) by Pauline Réage; Lolita (1955) and Ada, or Ardor (1969) by Vladimir Nabokov; Delta of Venus (1978) by Anaïs Nin and The Bicycle Rider (1985) by Guy Davenport.

Lolita and The Story of O were published by Olympia Press, a Paris-based publisher, launched in 1953 by Maurice Girodias as a rebadged version of the Obelisk Press he inherited from his father Jack Kahane. It published a mix of erotic fiction and avant-garde literary works.

From around the late 1970s, many sex manuals have been published and openly sold in the western world, notably The Joy of Sex. Sex manuals specifically written for sexual minorities are also now published.

Erotic memoirs and other accounts

erotic memoirs

Prostitution was the focus of much of the earliest erotic works. The very term "pornography" is derived from the Greek pornographos meaning "the writing of prostitutes", originally denoting descriptions of the lives and manners of prostitutes and their customers in Ancient Greece. According to Athenaeus in The Deipnosophists these constituted a considerable genre, with many lubricious treatises, stories and dramas on the subject.

Accounts of prostitution have continued as a major part of the genre of erotic literature.

In the eighteenth century directories of prostitutes and their services, such as Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies (1757–1795), provided both entertainment and instruction.

In the nineteenth century the sensational journalism of W.T. Stead's The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon (1885) about the procuring of underage girls into the brothels of Victorian London provided a stimulus for the erotic imagination. Stead's account was widely translated and the revelation of "padded rooms for the purpose of stifling the cries of the tortured victims of lust and brutality" and the symbolic figure of "The Minotaur of London" confirmed European observers worst imaginings about "Le Sadisme anglais" and inspired erotic writers to write of similar scenes set in London or involving sadistic English gentlemen. Such writers include D'Annunzio in Il Piacere, Paul-Jean Toulet in Monsieur de Paur (1898), Octave Mirbeau in Jardin des Supplices (1899) and Jean Lorrain in Monsieur de Phocas (1901).

A very recent work in this genre is The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl (2005) by Belle de Jour.

Erotic memoirs include Casanova's Histoire de ma vie, from the eighteenth century. Notable English works of this genre from the nineteenth century include The Ups and Downs of Life (1867) by Edward Sellon and My Secret Life by "Walter". Edward Sellon was a writer, translator and illustrator of erotic literature who wrote erotica for the pornographic publisher William Dugdale, including such works as The New Epicurean (1865). The true identity of "Walter" is very mysterious. Ian Gibson, in The Erotomaniac speculates that My Secret Life was really written by Henry Spencer Ashbee and therefore it is possible that "Walter" is a fiction. A famous German erotic work of this time, published in two parts in 1868 and 1875 entitled Pauline the Prima Donna purports to be the memoirs of the opera singer Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient. Various discrepencies with known facts of the singer's life however have led many to doubt the veracity of this book and the erotic adventures contained in the second volume, at least, appear to be very implausible. These include the authoress indulging in lesbian sadomasochism, group sex, sodomy, bestiality, scatology, necrophilia, prostitution and vampirism: all before she had reached the age of 27. Twentieth century contributions to the genre include Frank Harris's My Life and Loves (1922–27) and from the twenty-first we have One Hundred Strokes of the Brush Before Bed (2004) by Melissa P.

In the twenty-first century, memoirs of sexual abuse, known as Misery memoirs or Misery porn, have become very popular, though doubts have been cast on the motivation and veracity of some of the writers.

Sex manuals

Early sex manuals, as well as being instructive, are often, also, great works of literature. They include from the classical world, the lost works of Elephantis and Ovid's Ars Amatoria The Indian Kama Sutra is one of the world's best known works of this type. The Ananga Ranga a 12th century collection of Hindu erotic works, is a lesser known one. Also very famous, and often reprinted and translated, is The Perfumed Garden for the Soul's Recreation, a 16th century Arabic work by Sheikh Nefzaoui.

Legal status


Early legislation

To 1857

Erotic or pornographic works have often been prosecuted, censored and destroyed by the authorities on grounds of obscenity. Originally, in England, erotic or pornographic publications were the concern of the ecclesiastical courts. After the Reformation the jurisdiction of these courts declined in favour of the Crown which licensed every printed book. Prosecutions of books for their erotic content alone were rare and works which attacked the church or state gave much more concern to the authorities than erotica or 'obscene libel' as it was then known. For instance the Licensing Act of 1662 was aimed generally at "heretical, seditious, schismatical or offensive books of pamphlets" rather than just erotica per se. Even this Licensing Act was allowed to lapse in 1695 and no attempt made to renew it.

The first conviction for obscenity in England occurred in 1727, when Edmund Curll was fined for the publication of Venus in the Cloister or The Nun in her Smock under the common law offence of disturbing the King's peace. This set a legal precedent for other convictions. The publication of other books by Curll, however, considered seditious and blasphemous, such as The Memoirs of John Ker, apparently most offended the authorities. Prosecutions of erotica later in the eighteenth century were rare and were most often taken because of the admixture of seditious and blasphemous material with the porn. For instance, no proceedings were taken against the publishers of Cleland's notorious Fanny Hill (1763).

1857 - 1959

It was the Obscene Publications Act 1857 which made the sale of obscene material a statutory offence, for the first time, giving the courts power to seize and destroy offending material. The origins of the Act itself were in a trial for the sale of pornography presided over by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Campbell, at the same time as a debate in the House of Lords over a bill aiming to restrict the sale of poisons. Campbell was taken by the analogy between the two situations, famously referring to the London pornography trade as "a sale of poison more deadly than prussic acid, strychnine or arsenic" (Perhaps the earliest known appearance of this ever-popular analogy; compare "I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel," describing The Well of Loneliness in 1928), and proposed a bill to restrict the sale of pornography; giving statutory powers of destruction would allow for a much more effective degree of prosecution. The bill was controversial at the time, receiving strong opposition from both Houses of Parliament, and was passed on the assurance by the Lord Chief Justice that it was "... intended to apply exclusively to works written for the single purpose of corrupting the morals of youth and of a nature calculated to shock the common feelings of decency in any well-regulated mind." The House of Commons successfully amended it so as not to apply to Scotland, on the grounds that Scottish common law was sufficiently stringent.

The Act provided for the seizure and destruction of any material deemed to be obscene, and held for sale or distribution, following information being laid before a "court of summary jurisdiction" (Magistrates' court). The Act required that following evidence of a common-law offence being committed - for example, on the report of a plain-clothes policeman who had successfully purchased the material - the court could issue a warrant for the premises to be searched and the material seized. The proprietor then would be called upon to attend court and give reason why the material should not be destroyed. Critically, the Act did not define "obscene," leaving this to the will of the courts.

Whilst the Act itself did not change, the scope of the work affected by it did. In 1868 Sir Alexander Cockburn, Campbell's successor as Lord Chief Justice, held in an appeal that the test of obscenity was "...whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall." This was clearly a major change from Campbell's opinion only ten years before - the test now being the effect on someone open to corruption who obtained a copy, not whether the material was intended to corrupt or offend.

Cockburn's declaration remained in force for several decades, and most of the high profile seizures under the Act relied on this interpretation. Known as the Hicklin test no cognisance was taken of the literary merit of a book or on the extent of the offending text within the book in question. The widened scope of the original legislation led to the subsequent notorious targeting of now acknowledged classics of world literature by such authors as Zola, James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence plus medical textbooks by such as Havelock Ellis rather than the blatant erotica which was the original target of this law.

In contrast to England, where actions against obscene literature were the preserve of the magistrates, in America such actions were the responsibility of the Postal Inspection Service, embodied in the federal and state Comstock laws, named after the postal officer and anti-obscenity crusader Anthony Comstock who proved himself officious in the work of suppression both in his official capacity and through his New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. The first such law was the Comstock Act, (ch. 258 Template:USStat enacted March 3, 1873) which made it illegal to send any "obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious" materials through the mail. Twenty-four states passed similar prohibitions on materials distributed within the states.


Since the 1960s, censorship of books because of sexual reasons, has been largely abolished.

List of publications

Works of significant literary merit that can be classed as erotic literature include:

Romantic novels are sometimes marketed as erotica—or vice versa, as "mainstream" romance in recent years has begun to exhibit blatant (if poetic) descriptions of sex.

Artists books explore relations between the literary, poetic, comic, and artistic representations of sex.

See also

Milesian tale, sex in literature, erotic memoir


The first bibliographers of erotic literature were Jules Gay (1807 - 1887) in France with his Bibliographie des principaux ouvrages relatifs à l'amour, Hugo Hayn (1843-1923) in Germany, who published the series Bibliotheca Germanorum erotica from 1875 until his death in 1923, and Henry Spencer Ashbee (1834 – 1900) with his Index Librorum Prohibitorum in the United Kingdom.

The best late 20th century bibliograpies are A history of Erotic Literature (1982) by Patrick J. Kearney, which is non-exhaustive and Encyclopedia of Erotic Literature (2006).

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Erotic literature" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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