Katelyn Dykstra Dykerman

What is it about a woman enjoying herself that is so threatening? It is not an idle question. Female pleasure, and female sexuality, seem to be cause for confusion, as well as a particular kind of hand-wringing, censor-inducing, violence-spurring anxiety. A few months ago, Evan Rachel Wood took to twitter to protest the censoring of her depiction of female orgasm (she receives oral sex from Shia LaBeouf) in Charlie Countryman. This strange romantic action movie follows Charlie Countryman (LaBeouf) as he falls for enchanting Gabi (Wood), who has existing ties to her mob boss ex. (You can see Wood’s comments here). Wood claims that the cut scene is vital to the story, to the development of her character, and yet the censors (these abstract beings who seem to love violence, but detest expressions of sexual enjoyment) forced the filmmakers to remove the scene. Wood’s indignation got me thinking back to the novel that incited perhaps the most famous rage regarding the subject of women enjoying sex, John Cleland’s 1748 novel Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure.

Despite marking a significant development in English prose fiction, Cleland’s novel was “repeatedly seized by authorities, expurgated and denounced by its own author,” as well as being banned in America until 1963, and in England until 1970 (Sabor, vii). What interests me in particular is the name Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, which was changed by the author shortly after he was imprisoned for “the publication of an obscene work” (Sabor, x). Cleland attempted to call an “expurgated” version of the novel, Memoirs of Fanny Hill before it took on the now popular title Fanny Hill (a title that stuck and is still in use for those who continue to shy away from the “racier” title) (Sabor x). Cleland’s desire to curb the anger of the censors by removing “woman of pleasure” from the title points quite clearly to the content that caused anxiety: fear of women enjoying sex (or at least a public acknowledgement that women enjoy sex).

In the novel, female pleasure abounds. Fanny is whipped by her lover gently, who then,

[R]ush’d, as it were, on that part, whose lips, and round-about, had felt his cruelty, and by way of reparation, glews his own to them: then he open’d, shut, squeez’d them, puck’d softly the overgrowing moss, and all this in a style of wild passionate rapture, and enthusiasm, that express’d excess of pleasure […] (150)

After this she is punished by her lover, upon her “posteriors” (150). Fanny takes the pain “sportingly,” reporting that she did not enjoy the experience until later when “the smart of the lashes was now converted into such prickly heat, such fiery tinglings, as made me sigh […]” (151). Instead of condemning her pleasure, the novel revels in her “fiery tingling” and the giving of pleasure to Fanny by her male customers. Furthermore, Fanny is given the “reward” of marriage, which is Celeland’s way of refusing the shaming of female pleasure and prostitution (Graham 582). Indeed, as Rosemary Graham states,

[D]espite its absurdities, Fanny Hill revels in female pleasure. It depicts a heroine with a large sexual appetite who engages in masturbation, lesbianism, voyeurism, exhibitionism, and flagellation, and who emerges un-scathed: rich, married (with children), and happy. (Graham, 578)

Fanny is not a fallen women. Instead, she is celebrated. Having Fanny marry, and marry “well,” was a surprising move by Cleland, and one which may have contributed to the novel’s popularity and long life despite censorship.

Illustration by Édouard-Henri Avril. One of a series done for Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. (Wikimedia Commons)

It is unclear if the censorship of Memoirs was specifically due to its representation of female pleasure, or if the open discussion of sex acts between unmarried couples was more offensive. However, we do know that the Bishop of London called it an “open insult upon Religion and good manners, and a reproach to the Honour of the Government and the Law of the Country,” and blamed it for “two London earthquakes of February and March 1750” (Sabor, x). It is clear from Cleland’s original change of the title of Memoirs that the mention of female sexual enjoyment, and certainly the explicit discussion and support of it, crossed the limit of social, religious, and legal acceptability. Cleland’s change of title calls attention to the social unease female pleasure caused, and continues to cause if Wood’s rant is any indication. Both of these acts of censorship ask us to consider what about female pleasure is so threatening, and thus what its subversive potential might be.

Further Reading:

Cleland, John. Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1985.

Graham, Rosemary. “The Prostitute in the Garden: Walt Witman, Fanny Hill, and the Fantasy of  the Female.” ELH 64.2 (1997): 569-597.

Sabor, Peter. “Introduction.” John Cleland. Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1985.


Katelyn Dykstra DykermanKatelyn Dykstra Dykerman is a Duff Roblin PhD student at the University of Manitoba. Her research areas include intersex, bioethics, surgical ethics, and queer identity studies, within the vast scope of Canadian literature. In her other life she is a mother and want-to-be gardener. She tweets from @katelynjane.



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  1. Thanks Katelyn, I found this really interesting. I was wondering if you could say something about the treatment of fellatio in Memoirs as compared with the treatment of cunnilingus?

    On an unrelated note, I enjoyed the fact that the publication was blamed for two earthquakes. Put me in mind of the ‘gay marriage caused the floods’ claim from the UKIP councillor, demonstrating, as ever, that some things never change!

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