On Saturday, the 9th of May, 1857, in a reportedly unseasonably cold and wet summer, two men dressed in their Sunday best appeared before the Chief Justice of the Queen’s Bench, one of the highest courts in England at the time. The accused were William Dugdale, a publisher, and his associate, Jonathan Strange. They had been charged with reprinting and publishing a work of erotic fiction known as The Lustful Turk. This was the ninth time in thirty years that Dugdale found himself in front of a court for publishing “obscene” texts. The Society for the Suppression of Vice (SSV), an anti-pornography group, brought each of these prosecutions. To them, this trial marked yet another struggle between religion and illicit sexuality in Victorian England. Yet the trial also yielded results that reformers had hardly expected or intended: the 1857 Obscene Publications Act, a state-sponsored mechanism of obscenity enforcement that regulated anything with the slightest whiff of scandal. The SSV’s conceptions of obscenity and pornography never included works of art or literature, science or scholarship. But under the scrutiny of the British legal system, no work was safe from being deemed obscene. What started as a conflict between religion and sexuality quickly spiraled out of those domains with widespread implications in Britain and the United States.
Middle-class reformers and members of the Church of England founded the Society for the Suppression of Vice (SSV) in 1802 in order to “check the impropriety of a luxurious and dissipated age.” In contrast to previous reforming societies that had used church courts and evangelical preaching, the SSV, according to its Brief Abstract of Proceedings from 1802, elected to use the secular police and courts as their primary weapons to “trace corruption to its source… disclose its covert recesses… drag offenders into light… [and to] risque [sic] [their] personal safety against those whose trade is rapine, and whose profession is hatred and hostility” and, most importantly, to “discharge the expenses necessary to support their prosecution.” For more than fifty years since its founding, the SSV had repeatedly lobbied the government for more stringent laws and increased prosecution against peddlers of obscenity and smut that had taken up residence on Holywell Street on the Strand in London. Indeed, in 1817 the Society’s secretary, George Pritchard, lobbied the House of Commons to enact a harsher law. The current libel laws, he said, were “by no means adequate to the suppression of such offenses; for if an itinerant dealer is detected in the very act of dealing obscene prints … he cannot be apprehended without a warrant, which cannot be obtained until after a bill of indictment is presented and found against him … a thing almost impossible.” He further testified that many smut dealers simply had their friends or family run their shops while they served brief stints in jail. William Dugdale employed exactly this strategy to the consternation of the SSV, and he continued to nettle and belittle them in and out of jail. This time, however, the SSV were determined to use Dugdale as their prime example to call for stronger obscenity laws.
The case came before the Chief Justice, John Campbell, who was heavily influenced by the nineteenth-century evangelical and Anglican revival, and had written in another trial that human morality was dependent on divine revelation. During the course of Dugdale’s trial, the Society managed to persuade the judge of the great danger presented by obscene literature by insisting that the texts were unmentionable and should be unpublishable. Curious, Campbell examined The Lustful Turk and the other books that Dugdale was accused of publishing. Disgusted that such lewd content was not only available but easily purchasable because of its low price, Campbell sentenced Dugdale to one year in prison, the maximum punishment.
Two days later Campbell interrupted the House of Lords to ask “whether the Government intended to introduce any measure to prevent the indiscriminate sale of poisons?” Not receiving any sort of reply, Lord Campbell said that “he had learned with horror and alarm that a sale of poison more deadly than prussic acid, strychnine [sic], or arsenic… was openly going on.” Furthermore, he continued, “it was not alone indecent books of a high price, which was a sort of check, that were sold, but periodical papers of the most licentious and disgusting description were coming out week by week, and sold to any person who asked for them, and in any numbers.”
This issue, more than any other, took up the rest of the Baron’s summer. Six weeks later he introduced the Obscene Publications Act into the House of Lords and Commons. Despite modern stereotypes of stiff-collared and prudish Victorians, the Act encountered vigorous resistance in both houses, and looked certain to fail. None of the Lords wished to empower the police to regulate literature or art. “The magistrates before whom [the material came] would take a different view of what were obscene or indecent publications from the noble and learned Lord [Campbell],” argued Lord Cranworth in opposition. The law only succeeded after the SSV’s vigorous letter-writing campaign and after Campbell promised that the law would apply “exclusively to the works written for the single purpose of corrupting the morals of youth and of a nature calculated to shock the common feelings of decency in any well-regulated mind.” Any book that made any pretensions of being literature, he claimed, had nothing to fear from the law.
In less than a decade, Campbell’s intentions would be corrupted. In the 1868 case, Regina v. Hicklin, Henry Scott, a virulent anti-Catholic and strong Protestant supporter of groups such as the Society for the Suppression of Vice, was arrested and accused of publishing obscene literature when he reprinted and distributed a seventeenth-century pamphlet titled The Confessional Unmasked: shewing the depravity of the Romish priesthood, the iniquity of the Confessional, and the questions put to females in confession, which played on Reformation-era fears over too-intimate relationships between priests and women. Originally, Scott was found not guilty because his intentions were to insult Catholics, not corrupt children. But Justice Cockburn of the Queen’s Court reversed this judgment on appeal, arguing that any work that could “deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences, and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall… [anything that] suggest to the minds of the young of either sex, or even to persons of more advanced years, thoughts of a most impure and libidinous character” was prosecutable obscenity.
This judgment became known as the “Hicklin Test,” and it widened the definition of obscenity from works written “for the sole purpose of corrupting the morals of youth” to works that “deprave and corrupt” and those that “may fall” into the hands of anyone with an ability to read them. In other words, authorial intent was moot and not only youth but the entire British public needed protection from prurience. Furthermore, the Hicklin obscenity test had implications beyond the United Kingdom. In the United States, Anthony Comstock used the Hicklin test to regulate obscene literature and information about contraceptives. Not only did the British government’s Home Office use the Obscene Publications Act and the Hicklin test to force the destruction of the first study of homosexuality by Havelock Ellis, they applied it to the literary works of D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, and many others. Struggles over obscenity are not simply localized battles over the production and consumption of sexualized images or language in private and public. They reveal the ways in which religious ideas and social movements, erotic marketplaces, and the very meaning of obscenity, shifted on both sides of the Atlantic and reshaped the role of the state in governing the erotic activities of its citizenry.
Brian Watson is a historian of pornography and obscenity, and is especially interested in the interactions of private and public sexuality. He is the author of a popular history of pornography and sexuality from the Renaissance to Hollywood, entitled Annals of Pornographie: How Porn Became Bad. Brian teaches at New England College, and tweets from @HistoryOfPorn. He is a graduate of Drew University’s Caspersen School.
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