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Obscenity and the Publication of Sexual Science in Britain, 1810-1914

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Thesis type
(Thesis) Ph.D.
Date created
This dissertation examines the fringe publication of medical and scientific works about sex in the long nineteenth century. It argues that these works fell into a moral, legal, and commercial ‘grey zone’ in this period between the categories of the legitimate and the obscene, and that battles over these works’ publication fostered a concomitant development of sexual science and pornography. Medical and scientific publishing were unruly fields in nineteenth-century Britain, open to many different players, including fringe publishers interested in exploiting medical and scientific eroticism. This dissertation establishes for the first time how the obscenity trade, a precursor to the modern pornography industry, comprised an important route of sexual-scientific dissemination in the period. Nineteenth-century publishers of obscenity exploited the ‘grey zone’ into which medical and scientific works about sex fell to market them as erotica, bringing them into circulation alongside explicit fiction in both the popular and elite literary spheres. Such fringe publishing activity motivated rising cultural movements to situate the legitimacy of explicit representations in relation to their contexts of publication and circulation, a paradigm that this dissertation argues had a far greater impact on both literary and scientific production than previously recognized. Examining a range of social-scientific studies, translations of Eastern works, and anonymous obscene literature, it shows how new discourses and reading practices, evolving around culturally imagined links between publication context and obscenity, encouraged cross influences between emerging social-scientific disciplines and the developing genre of pornography. The first sustained study of overlaps between scientific and obscene print cultures, this thesis provides a compelling new material and discursive history which contextualizes surprising historical intersections of science and pornography that challenge current understandings of the culture of scientific knowledge during a period associated with the medicalization of sex, and makes the case for bringing publishing history and historical methods of interpretation to bear on the historiography of nineteenth-century sexual culture.
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Scholarly level
Supervisor or Senior Supervisor
Thesis advisor: Colligan, Colette
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