Life

How We Did It

Two new books flesh out the history of smut, from Etsy-like handicrafts to the sexy swamp of Tumblr.

Gingham potholders with attached cloth penises and thatches of pubic hair.
Potholders, 1960s, collection of Lisa Sigel. Michael Riordan

Flipping through The People’s Porn: A History of Handmade Pornography in America, by Lisa Sigel, you will see some amazing things. Coins from the early 19th (!) century that were altered by some clever hand, so that the e in Cent has been turned into a u. (A lot more people, Sigel reminds us, used to know how to do metalwork.) A wooden Lincoln figurine from the 1880s, sporting an alarmingly red penis. (“Some folk artists,” Sigel writes, “saw eroticism in a historical figure of masculine authority.”) A mid-20th-century bar of soap carved into a figurine of a horse and a woman engaging in some zoophilia. (“The horse’s hooves come perilously close to her face,” Sigel points out, dryly capturing the fears the image may evoke in the viewer.)

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The contrast between these objects—ridiculous, funny, sexy, disturbing—and our idea of what old porn might have been like—sepia, staid—is Sigel’s point. “Handwritten pamphlets, hand-drawn images, and handmade carvings have moved into the realm of nostalgia, as if the technological distance blunts them as pornography,” Sigel points out. The People’s Porn tries to correct the record by presenting a range of objects that were “just as dirty, problematic, odd, real, and authentic as today’s amateur pornography.” Looking at a scrimshaw carving done by a sailor in the 19th century, you might compare it to a typical bit of amateur pornography you’d find online in 2021, and judge its mild depictions of a breasty woman as naïve or innocent. But, as Sigel points out, this perception is partly because we “rarely see the range of pornographic artifacts” that are out there.

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This book can be an odd duck, in its mix of sexy objects and serious intent. There are occasional moments of stiffness in the prose, because Sigel (a historian at DePaul University) is trying, in the academic way, to fill in holes in scholarship that has analyzed pornography created at other times, and so refers to the work of others and talks about how this book contributes to it. And there’s a fundamental stylistic risk anyone takes when writing a book that has, as its objects of art historical analysis, things like cheerful gingham potholders with attached cloth penises and thatches of pubic hair. It’s just inherently ridiculous to read careful words doing their best to describe the aesthetic qualities of such a specimen.

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But the sometimes-too-serious tone of the book has far more advantages than drawbacks. I appreciated the historian’s commitment to letting us know why the groups of objects she analyzes have survived to the present and explaining why the archive of handmade porn is so small. Two people to shake a fist at, in that respect: Anthony Comstock, the anti-vice activist and United States postal inspector of the 19th century, who made it his business to destroy not only every bit of porn sent through the mail but also everything that people who made that porn used to craft their wares. (Imagine what kind of an interesting history you could write if you had the business records of such pornographers?) Then, in the 1990s, the FBI destroyed its own trove of seized “obscene objects”—“films, magazines, pictures, and more”—the existence of which, in 2021, would have been a true boon to historians of sex.

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The shape of the mass of surviving artifacts is profoundly uneven, sculpted by decades of censorship. There are trickles of objects made by anonymous individual creators; the occasional astonishing personal collection, like outsider artist Henry Darger’s huge mass of drawings and paintings, which he never shared with anyone during his lifetime, and which thereby escaped destruction; and then, every once in a while, a trove like the one the Kinsey Institute assembled of pornography made by prisoners in the midcentury period, given a pass because the institute successfully argued to the government that this project was important to science.

The chapter on the prisoners’ homemade porn, because of the institute’s government-sanctioned ability to collect so much of it, is incredibly rich and interesting. “Separated from sex partners and kept from commercial fantasy material,” Sigel writes, “prisoners have tended to hand-make a great deal of erotic and pornographic art.” The prisoners’ drawings—sometimes made using art supplies the Kinsey Institute donated for the purpose—can be hilarious, as in one from 1961 that shows a hapless-looking penis with legs and arms sticking its head into a giant vagina. But they can also be disturbing, as in some comics that turn on the idea of imprisoning and raping women. “Handmade pornography plays with beauty and ugliness because people find sexual meaning in both,” Sigel points out.

The People’s Porn is about handmade objects, and so it stops at the point where the Polaroid and the camcorder began to transform homemade pornography. (The impact of these technologies is more well-covered in previous literature, which may also account for this stopping point.) There’s a brief discussion of the way the Polaroid’s lack of a negative made sexual self-documentation easier: no need to send in for development, no risk of duplication, immediate gratification. Still, Sigel writes, people have gotten in trouble for using those technologies to make amateur pornography, citing the case of a couple sentenced to a two-year prison term after their kids brought their nude photographs into school for show and tell. When private pornography goes public, she writes, there’s always a risk.

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A wonderful companion book to Sigel’s is journalist Ana Valens’ Tumblr Porn, the first in a series by Instar Books called “Remember the Internet.” Valens’ is a short, sharp book about a brief, heady period of time—the couple of years when Tumblr was a place where porn flourished, before the platform banned it in 2018. Sigel writes a history of individuals’ sexual desires by looking at the things they created—sometimes while influenced by mass culture, or pinched by legal constraints—that allow for a glimpse into what humans wanted, way back when. Valens’ account of a super-short-lived digital space where homemade porn once proliferated would be a fine contribution to a future historian of sex’s archive of examples.

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Valens tells a story of a flawed social world that arose out of particular legal and economic circumstances particular to the internet in the 2010s. That world, on balance, enriched her life. Tumblr, she writes, was the place where many millennials got an introduction to “sex work as work, and sex workers as people.” And she points out that Tumblr was once a place that “highly valued (and desired) its trans participants.” She describes spiraling down through posts’ tags, delighting in discovering new things: “Given that fetishes and kinks commonly exist within a family of interconnected interests,” she writes, “one kink’s tag could introduce users to another tag, dragging them into a rabbit hole of nested, intertwined fantasies.” But Tumblr was also a place where “there was no better way to get a rush than searching for conflicts,” as posts could be reblogged far and wide, spreading fights far beyond context, causing real damage to users who found themselves “called out.”

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The illustrations in Valens’ book—fan art depicting tentacle sex, BDSM, vampire pirates, and so much more—are well-chosen to convey the feeling of liberation that Tumblr, in its NSFW times, brought to many people. But they’re also a reminder of just how much of the kind of personally produced pornography Sigel prizes for its historical value now lies out there, on the internet. Decades hence, it’ll be interesting to see how a book like The People’s Porn: Volume 2: The Early Digital Age might turn out. Would such a history draw from too much material, or too little? Digital preservation, carried out now, will decide.

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