Eros Unbound

February 14, 2007

Valentine’s Day seems an appropriate occasion to honor the late Gershon Legman, who is said to have coined the slogan “Make love, not war.” Odd to think that saying had a particular author, rather than being spontaneously generated by the countercultural Zeitgeist in the 1960s. But I've seen the line attributed to Legman a few times over the years; and the new Yale Book of Quotations (discussed in an earlier column) is even more specific, indicates that he first said it during a speech at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, sometime in November 1963.

Legman, who died in 1999 at the age of 81, was the rare instance of a scholar who had less of a career than a profound calling -- one that few academic institutions in his day could have accommodated. Legman was the consummate bibliographer and taxonomist of all things erotic: a tireless collector and analyst of all forms of discourse pertaining to human sexuality, including the orally transmitted literature known as folklore. He was an associate of Alfred Kinsey during the 1940s, but broke with him over questions of statistical methodology. If it hadn’t been that, it would have been something else; by all accounts, Legman was a rather prickly character.

But it is impossible to doubt his exacting standards of scholarship after reading The Horn Book: Studies in Erotic Folklore and Bibliography (University Books, 1964) -- a selection of Legman's papers reflecting years of exploration in the “restricted” collections of research libraries. (At the Library of Congress, for example, you will sometimes find a title listed as belonging to “the Delta Collection,” which was once available to a reader only after careful vetting by the authorities. The books themselves have long since been integrated into the rest of the library’s holdings, but not-yet-updated catalog listings still occasionally reveal that a volume formerly had that alluring status: forbidden yet protected.) Legman approached erotic literature and "blue" folklore with philological rigor, treating with care songs and books that only ever circulated on the sly.  

Some of Legman's work appeared from commercial publishers and reached a nonscholarly audience. He assembled two volumes of obscene limericks, organized thematically and in variorum. The title of another project, The Rationale of the Dirty Joke, only hints at its terrible sobriety and analytic earnestness. Sure, you can skim around in it for the jokes themselves. But Legman’s approach was strictly Freudian, his ear constantly turned to the frustration, anxiety, and confusion expressed in humor.

Not all of his work was quite that grim. Any scholar publishing a book called Oragentialism: Oral Techniques in Genital Excitation may be said to have contributed something to the sum total of human happiness. The first version, devoted exclusively to cunnilingus, appeared from a small publisher in the 1940s and can only have had very limited circulation. The commercial edition published in 1969 expanded its scope -- though Legman (who in some of his writings comes across, alas, as stridently hostile to the early gay rights movement) seemed very emphatic in insisting that his knowledge of fellatio was strictly as a recipient.

Defensiveness apart, what’s particularly striking about the book is the degree to which it really is a work of scholarship. You have to see his literature review (a critical evaluation of the available publications on the matter, whether popular, professional, or pornographic, in several languages) to believe it. Thanks to Legman’s efforts, it is possible to celebrate Valentine’s Day with a proper sense of tradition.

Legman was a pioneer of cultural studies, long before anyone thought to call it that. He served as editor for several issues of Neurotica, a great underground literary magazine published between 1948 and 1952. Most of its contributors were then unknown, outside very small circles; but they included Allen Ginsberg, Anatole Broyard, Leonard Bernstein, and an English professor from Canada named Marshall McLuhan.

As the title may suggest, Neurotica reflected the growing cultural influence of Freud. But it also went against the prevalent tendency to treat psychoanalysis as a tool for adjusting misfits to society. The journal treated American popular culture itself as profoundly deranged; and in developing this idea, Legman served as something like the house theorist.

In a series of essays adapted from his pamphlet Love and Death (1948), Legman cataloged the seemingly endless sadism and misogyny found in American movies, comic books, and pulp novels. (Although Love and Death is long out of print, a representative excerpt can be found in Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester's collection Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium, published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2004.)

Legman pointed out that huge profits were to be made from depicting murder, mutilation, and sordid mayhem. But any attempt at a frank depiction of erotic desire, let alone of sex itself, was forbidden. And this was no coincidence, he concluded. A taste for violence was being “installed as a substitute outlet for forbidden sexuality” by the culture industry.

Censorship and repression were warping the American psyche at its deepest levels, Legman argued. The human needs that ought to be met by a healthy sexual life came back, in distorted form, as mass-media sadism: "the sense of individuality, the desire for importance, attention, power; the pleasure in controlling objects, the impulse toward violent activity, the urge towards fulfillment to the farthest reaches of the individual’s biological possibilities.... All these are lacking in greater or lesser degree when sex is lacking, and they must be replaced in full.”

Replaced, that is, by the noir pleasures of the trashy pop culture available in the 1940s.

Here, alas, it proves difficult to accept Legman's argument in quite the terms framing it. His complaints about censorship and hypocrisy are easy to take for granted as justified. But the artifacts that filled him with contempt and rage -- Gone With the Wind, the novels of Raymond Chandler, comic books with titles like Authentic Police Cases or Rip Kirby: Mystery of the Mangler -- are more likely to fill us with nostalgia.

It's not that his theory about their perverse subtext now seems wrong. On the contrary, it often feels as if he's on to something. But while condemning the pulp fiction or movies of his day as symptomatic of a neurotic culture, Legman puts his finger right on what makes them fascinating now -- their nervous edge, the tug of war between raw lust and Puritan rage.

In any case, a certain conclusion follows from Legman’s argument -- one that we can test against contemporary experience.

Censorship of realistic depictions of sexuality will intensify the climate of erotic repression, thereby creating an audience prone to consuming pop-culture sadomasochism. If so, per Legman, then the easing or abolition of censorship ought to yield, over time, fewer images and stories centering on violence, humiliation, and so on.

Well, we know how that experiment turned out. Erotica is now always just a few clicks away (several offers are pouring into your e-mail account as you read this sentence). And yet one of the most popular television programs in the United States is a drama whose hero is good at torture .

They may have been on to something in the pages of Neurotica, all those decades ago, but things have gotten more complicated in the meantime.

As it happens, I’ve just been reading a manuscript called “Eros Unbound: Pornography and the Internet” by Blaise Cronin, a professor of information science at Indiana University at Bloomington, and former dean of its School of Information and Library Science. His paper will appear in The Internet and American Business: An Historical Investigation, a collection edited by William Aspray and Paul Ceruzzi scheduled for publication by MIT Press in April 2008.

Contacting Cronin to ask permission to quote from his work, I asked if he had any connection with the Kinsey Institute, also in Bloomington. He doesn’t, but says he is on friendly terms with some of the researchers there. Kinsey was committed to recording and tabulating sexual activity in all its forms. Cronin admits that he cannot begin to describe all the varieties of online pornography. Then again, he doesn’t really want to try.

“I focus predominantly on the legal sex industry,” he writes in his paper, “concentrating on the output of what, for want of a better term, might be called the respectable, or at least licit, part of the pornography business. I readily acknowledge the existence of, but do not dwell upon the seamier side, unceremoniously referred to by an anonymous industry insider as the world of ‘dogs, horses, 12-year old girls, all this crazed Third-World s—.’ ”

The notion of a “respectable” pornography industry would have seemed oxymoronic when Legman published Love and Death. It’s clearly much less so at a time when half the hotel chains in the United States offer X-rated films on pay-per-view. Everyone knows that there is a huge market for online depictions of sexual behavior. But what Cronin’s study makes clear is that nobody has a clue just how big an industry it really is. Any figure you might hear cited now is, for all practical purposes, a fiction.

The truth of this seems to have dawned on Cronin following the publication, several years ago, of “E-rogenous Zones: Positioning Pornography in the Digital Marketplace,” a paper he co-authored with Elizabeth Davenport. One of the tables in their paper “estimated global sales figures for the legal sex/pornography industry,” offering a figure of around $56 billion annually. That estimate squared with information gathered from a number of trade and media organizations. But much of the raw data had originally been provided by a specific enterprise -- something called the Private Media Group, Inc., which Cronin describes as “a Barcelona-based, publicly traded adult entertainment company.”

After the paper appeared in the journal Information Society in 2001, Cronin says, he was contacted “by Private’s investor relations department wondering if I could furnish the company with growth projections and other related information for the adult entertainment industry -- I, who had sourced some of my data from their Web site.” That estimate of $56 billion per year, based on research now almost a decade old, is routinely cited as if it were authoritative and up to date.

“Many of the numbers bandied about by journalists, pundits, industry insiders and market research organizations,” he writes, “are lazily recycled, as in the case of our aforementioned table, moving effortlessly from one story and from one reporting context to the next. What seem to be original data and primary sources may actually be secondary or tertiary in character.... Some of the startling revenue estimates and growth forecasts produced over the years by reputable market research firms ... have been viewed all too often with awe rather than healthy skepticism.”

Where Legman was, so to speak, an ideologue of sex, Blaise Cronin seems more scrupulously dispassionate. His manuscript runs to some 50 pages and undertakes a very thorough review of the literature concerning online pornography. (My wife, a reference librarian whose work focuses largely on developments in digital technology and e-commerce, regards Cronin’s paper as one of the best studies of the subject around.) He doesn't treat the dissemination of pornography as either emancipatory or a sign of decadence. It's just one of the facts of life, so to speak.

His paper does contain a surprise, though. It's a commonplace now that porn is assuming an increasingly ordinary role as cultural commodity -- one generating incalculable, but certainly enormous, streams of revenue for cable companies, Internet service providers, hotel chains, and so on. But the "mainstreaming" of porn is a process that works both ways. Large sectors of the once-marginal industry are morphing into something ever more resembling corporate America.

“The sleazy strip joints, tiny sex shops, dingy backstreet video stores and other such outlets may not yet have disappeared,” writes Cronin, “but along with the Web-driven mainstreaming of pornography has come -- almost inevitably, one has to say -- full-blown corporatization and cosmeticization.... The archetypal mom and pop business is being replaced by a raft of companies with business school-trained accountants, marketing managers and investment analysts at the helm, an acceleration of a trend that began at the tail-end of the twentieth century. As the pariah industry strives to smarten itself up, the language used by some of the leading companies has become indistinguishable from that of Silicon Valley or Martha Stewart. It is a normalizing discourse designed to resonate with the industry’s largely affluent, middle class customer base.”

As an example, he quotes what sounds like a formal mission statement at one porn provider’s website: “New Frontier Media, Inc. is a technology driven content distribution company specializing in adult entertainment. Our corporate culture is built on a foundation of quality, integrity and commitment and our work environment is an extension of this…The Company offers diversity of cultures and ethnic groups. Dress is casual and holiday and summer parties are normal course. We support team and community activities.”

That’s right, they have casual Fridays down at the porn factory. Also, it sounds like, a softball team.

I doubt very much that anybody in this brave new world remembers cranky old Gershon Legman, with his index cards full of bibliographical data on Renaissance handbooks on making the beast with two backs. (Nowadays, of course, two backs might be considered conservative.) Ample opportunity now exists to watch or read about sex. Candor seems not just possible but obligatory. But that does not necessarily translate into happiness -- into satisfaction of  "the urge towards towards fulfillment to the farthest reaches of the individual’s biological possibilities," as Legman put it.

That language is a little gray, but the meaning is more romantic than it sounds. What Legman is actually celebrating is the exchange taking place at the farthest reaches of a couple's biological possibilities: the moment when sex turns into erotic communion. And for that, broadband access is irrelevant. For that, you need to be really lucky.

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