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  • Reading Sex in the Eighteenth Century: Bodies and Gender in English Erotic Culture
  • Raymond Stephanson (bio)
Karen Harvey. Reading Sex in the Eighteenth Century: Bodies and Gender in English Erotic Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 261pp. US$75. ISBN 0-52182-235-1.

Karen Harvey's book is a welcome addition to the still-developing scholarship about sex and gender in eighteenth-century England, and her investigations into one kind of historical evidence—"erotica"—will certainly improve our ability to identify and read some important aspects of sexuality in this period. Carefully distinguished from pornography (masculine, explicit sex, masturbatory response) and amatory fiction (feminine, implied sex, sentimental romance), "erotica" is defined as "material about sexual pleasure which depicted sex, bodies and desire through illusions [End Page 222] of concealment and distance: bodies were represented through metaphor and suggestion and depictions of sexual activity were characterized by deferral and silence" (20). Using more than one hundred erotic texts and twenty-seven illustrations to isolate recurring themes and tropes, Harvey examines the male contexts of readership; the relationship of erotica to medical models of sex and reproduction; representations of female bodies and sexuality (fertility, moisture, breasts, menstruation, pregnancy); the presence and function of various kinds of male bodies (beauty, size, vigour, fertility, age, race, nationality); the use of space in contextualizing female sexuality (shady enclosures, threatened disclosure, softness); the use of movement in characterizing the function and meaning of male bodies (cartographic viewpoints, medical examination, geographical exploration, force, violence). The book ends with a discussion of the five senses, arousal, pleasure, modesty, and the gendering of desire as female. The texts she discusses are governed primarily by extended analogies (the female body as land, sex as botanical or geographical activity, genitalia as electrical eels or caverns or shrubs), and the most often cited are A Description of the Temple of Venus (1726), Wisdom Reveal'd (c. 1732), A New Description of Merryland (1741), A Voyage to Lethe (1741), A Spy on Mother Midnight (1748), and The Fruit-Shop (1765). The reader will find no significant discussion of libertinism or the erotic elements of the burgeoning pop-sexology trade, and familiar texts with arguably erotic materials, such as Love in Excess, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, or An Essay on Woman, are unimportant because, presumably, they do not fit her definition.

Despite the apparent narrowness of the sample, Harvey's book has ambitious aims, wanting to present "a close reading of erotica against the backdrop of the narrative of the emergence of a new discursive woman, changes in understandings of sexual desire, and the invention of modern, opposite sexes" (33). Her conclusions are persuasive but sometimes articulate arguments that are fairly well known to scholars: "erotica was a masculinist genre" (77); "female genitalia ... convey a sense of unknowability" (106); "Manhood did not equate with patriarchy" (127); "sex is a place for men to visit ... sex is externalized as a thoroughly feminine space" (173); "women's bodies were places where pleasure literally resided, but women lacked control over these spaces" (222); "the people with power in erotic culture were men, and one of the expressions of this was the way men were repeatedly distanced from sex and desire" (223). The last of these is particularly well argued and extremely important for anyone trying to understand what the book calls "the circulation of desire in the erotic economy of pleasure" (217). One of the difficulties for men was that masturbatory responses, and potential images of male sexual arousal, were often understood as effeminate threats to masculine self-control or to male heterosexuality. What the textual culture of erotica did was to make the [End Page 223] fictional female and her bodily responses the surrogate sites where male arousal and desire were safely located. In Harvey's words, "Showing male bodies in states of arousal risked appearing to relinquish this restraint and self-control. Thus, in erotica, the catalyst for male arousal was externalized, serving to exempt men from the responsibility for their own sexual desire, and safeguarding them from accusations of effeminacy" (217). Indeed, a strength of this book is her careful setting forth of the "imaginative or emotional mechanisms that...


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pp. 222-224
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