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Abstract and Keywords

This essay offers a critical overview of recent and current debates on the cultural significance of erotic, obscene, and pornographic writing from the long eighteenth century. The period 1660-1800 saw a new emphasis on interiority and the individual, a restructuring of sexual and gender categories, and an increasing division between public and private. Narratives of sexual education and danger were a vehicle through which authors and readers could engage with these broad cultural changes; they also contributed to a view of sexuality as the inmost truth of the self. This essay’s first part addresses theoretical debates over the nature of pornography and its relation to such categories as the erotic and obscene, while the second offers a history of the making of a pornographic canon, overlapping with the canons of amatory fiction and the novel. It reads this history in light of censorial anxieties over the dangers of private reading, especially for women; the threat of foreign contamination of English culture; and the use of voyeurism to penetrate the boundary separating private from public.

Keywords: pornography, obscenity, sexuality, censorship, public/private divide, canon formation, amatory fiction, the novel, voyeurism, readers and reading practices

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