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The Unbridled Joy of Victorian Porn

Your NSFW education in old-school smut.

by Rebecca Kamm
Oct 4 2017, 7:57pm

There are many ways you could describe the bulk of modern porn: "Goal-oriented." "Hairless." "They look extremely bored." But it wasn't always this way. In the Victorian era, when erotica first met photography and then the mass printing press, porn ("smut") was downright gleeful. Everyone pictured look happy as hell, the women were usually in control, and bodies were relatable—all soft fleshy tums, pubic hair and faces mid-laugh.

Dr Kate Lister is an authority on the history of sexual attitudes and the woman behind the website and Twitter account Whores of Yore. She sent us some of her favourite 1800s smut, largely produced in Paris, from where it was shipped to Britain very discreetly and sold under the counter. We asked Lister to talk us through it this golden age of rudeness, and why it all looks so fun.

VICE: Hey Kate, what do you see as the main differences between the porn produced today and older smut?
Dr Lister: There's a real sense in the Victorian-era images of experimentation, largely around what looks 'sexy.' In a lot of them they're experimenting with a different backgrounds... and somebody's put some taxidermy in the scene, for example. So there's a taxidermy dog, or a pig, or just someone's thinking, "Do I need a broom here?"

There's also a real sense that they're enjoying themselves. The Victorians had different sexual norms—some good, some bad, but one of the things they didn't portray in this material was this idea that you have to dominate the woman all the time. A woman's orgasm was incredibly important in Victorian times.

Wow, really?
Oh yeah. It's in all the literature. All of it. Women are cumming all over the place. There's "cream" a-plenty, and squirting. The Victorians knew an orgasm was very, very important to women. They also believed you had to have an orgasm to get pregnant. So there's a very heavy emphasis on the woman's pleasure—bearing in mind of course that this is husband-and-wife, baby-making sex.

Of course, in any age, there isn't one single sexual rule. So Victorian medical journals basically say orgasms are bad, because they deplete your energy. And some women were even institutionalised for masturbating too much. But if you read through Victorian erotic literature, everyone's having orgasms. They're orgasm-crazy. Whereas in 2017, it's about the man having an orgasm over the woman's face, or if the woman does have an orgasm, it's a very kind of violently induced; he looks like he's strumming a guitar in fast-forward motion.

So how did Victorian erotica go about portraying female pleasure?
There's oral sex, lots of oral sex, and threesomes and foursomes and group sex and dildos. There are lots of strap-ons and orgies... if you can think of it, they're doing it. And they're having a great time. Very often you get the woman in a more dominant position, so she's on top. Often she's smiling, or he's smiling. There's a real sense of cheeky fun. There's something incredibly human about them.


Their bodies look more natural as well.
Yeah, they're kind of wobbly and they're kind of furry, and the guy doesn't have a ten-inch penis and he might be a bit balding. But they look like they're having fun. It doesn't look like a hugely stylised shot—it looks like you've just walked in and caught somebody having sex.

In the archival imagery, do any themes stand out?
They seemed to like whipping each other. There's lots of weeing on stuff. Again, they're laughing as they're doing it. It's not that there weren't any issues with Victorian sexual attitudes and practices, there were, but if you look at the pornography as a whole, not only is it very funny to our modern eyes, it's also actually quite tender and intimate and warm. And occasionally you just get flashes in these pictures, that they actually care about each other.

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