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  • Fanny Hill and the Legibility of Consent
  • Aaron Hanlon

Scholars of pornography in the digital age have documented considerable erotic interest in images of women in pain.1 As controversial gender theorist Hugo Schwyzer observed more than a decade ago in a widely circulated essay for the feminist site Jezebel, images in mainstream heterosexual pornography place considerable pressure on women to "focus on performance rather than their own pleasure," "to prove the all-important capacity to endure pain."2 It is likewise difficult to read John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (hereafter Fanny Hill), widely credited as the first English work of prose pornography, without observing how central to Cleland's portrayal of erotic pleasure is the imperative that women demonstrate the capacity to endure pain.3 Fanny Hill's intense and repetitive interest in women's pain is crucial, I argue, for understanding how Cleland's novel figures consent.4 Because Fanny Hill largely dispenses with the emotional and psychological entanglements of sex, minimizing or eliding matters of intent and interiority, its pornographic images constitute the primary body of evidence for determining how Cleland's novel figures consent, specifically how it eroticizes the ambivalence or ambiguity of ostensibly consenting, yet violent and painful sex acts.

In the study of the eighteenth-century novel, the term consent invokes a number of distinct but interlocking concerns. The most familiar of these include the age at which one could obtain a marriage license without the consent of one's father; the age at which one could legally consent to sex, expressed variously as ten, twelve, and sixteen in early modern England; the pressuring of individuals into marriage by setting conditions on inheritance (or by other forms of leverage); and the more general conditions—apart from age—under which people engage in sex, or under which rape occurs, both within and outside of marriage.5 This essay focuses on the last of these issues of consent in Fanny Hill, though with acknowledgement that Cleland's decision to write a pornographic novel that culminates in marriage reflects how consent in one of these forms is never wholly separable from consent in the others. Particularly with the changes introduced with Lord Hardwicke's 1753 Marriage Act, which opponents believed [End Page 941] "wrongly privileged social and familial stability over individual freedom and desire," matters of individual will could easily become conflated with legal and familial obligations.6 Eve Tavor Bannet argues that the 1753 Marriage Act "demanded and accomplished a sexual revolution that materially changed women's lives, redefined the family, and almost alone created those modern categories the 'unmarried mother' and the 'fatherless child' as outlaws condemned to pay the social and economic price for intercourse not regulated by law and registered with the state."7 "Women's novels and tracts diverge according to whether they were written before or after the Marriage Act," writes Bannet; however, in the case of Fanny Hill, published before the act, matters of consent are already confounded by and inseparable from the facts of Fanny's working conditions.8

Attuned to the inseparability of multiple forms of consent in the eighteenth-century novel, Andrea Haslanger argues that Fanny Hill is an anti-Pamela novel because it "offers crucial commentary on Pamela and on the marriage plot in general" by testing "the ability of marriage to extend retroactive consent and excuse previous harm."9 Central to Haslanger's argument is that Fanny Hill is able to critique retroactive consent through marriage—as in Pamela—by taking that motif to its logical extremes, portraying degrees of sexual violence that can never register as harm, nor as violations of consent, because "the novel depicts speechlessness and senselessness as signs of pleasure's transports," and "demonstrates that neither a sign of bodily injury … nor a verbal report of it … can be taken as a true indication of injury."10 Thus, Fanny Hill "does not acknowledge the possibility that sexually incurred pain may not be a form of pleasure but may in fact be a genuine form of harm."11

My aim in this essay is not to contest Haslanger's reading of Fanny Hill as an anti-Pamela novel...


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