The British Museum’s Secret Porn Stash

Fragment of "Modi" from the British Museum

“I know it when I see it.”  — U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, famously trying to define obscenity in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964).

Governments have long struggled with identifying what material is so offensive to morals that publication and/or possession of it should be outlawed.  One of the earliest attempts in the English-speaking world dates back to 1787, when England’s King George III issued a Royal Proclamation “For the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue, and for Preventing and Punishing of Vice, Profaneness and Immorality.” 

The Proclamation proved ineffective, despite organizations such as the Society for the Suppression of Vice.  That organization was founded in 1802 to “check the spread of open vice and immorality, and… preserve the minds of the young from contamination…” 

It wasn’t until the Victorian era, however, that an increasingly prudish government really cracked down.  The Obscene Publications Act of 1857 sought to punish men such as William Dugdale.  Dugdale published guides such as Yokel’s Preceptor, which advertised gay cruising spots in the form of a warning to country folk about places they’d do best to avoid.

There’s always been a fine line, however, between immoral and educational.  The British Museum had been collecting items of erotica from other cultures for years.  These included the heavily censored fragments of the 16th century Italian “modi,” sixteen drawings illustrating various sexual positions.

After Dr. George Witt donated 434 “Symbols of the Early Worship of Mankind” in 1864, the museum officially established its “Secretum” (secret museum).  There gentlemen with the appropriate credentials could view erotic works not fit for viewing by the general public.

Not uncoincidentally, the word pornography — from Greek porne (prostitute) + graphein (write)  – entered the mainstream shortly afterward.   Dugdale, in the meantime, was languishing in the Clerkenwell House of Detention.  He died there in 1868 while serving a sentence of hard labor for violation of the Obscene Publications Act.

If this all sounds quaintly Victorian, consider that the Act is still valid law in Britain. While it’s no longer used to prosecute publishers of “dirty” literature (as it did– unsuccessfully — to Penguin Books when the unabridged version of Lady Chatterly’s Lover was finally published in 1960), it is still used to go after  online publishers of child pornography.

And all these about-faces have to make you wonder – do we really know obscenity when we see it?  The Victorians thought they did.

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