While we often look to science fiction, fantasy and horror to push our social boundaries, there is a genre spoken of only in whispers that has them all beaten. These books have been at the frontier of literature since the beginning of their existence, doing things no one else dared to do. Not just in terms of depicting sex – though that in itself is a more noble pursuit than might be immediately apparent – but in terms of depicting social relationships and dealing with taboos that are sex-adjacent.
In many ways, the obscene literature of yore is the spiritual ancestor of the queer literature of today, so there’s little wonder that their subject matter so often intertwines. The case of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a novel by D. H. Lawrence depicting the sexual and romantic relationship between two people who, as far as polite society was concerned, should not have been in one. It’s highly likely, in fact, that it inspired E. M. Forster to write Maurice, the first ever gay romance.
Australians have a particular debt to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, as it was directly responsible for massive reforms to Australia’s censorship policies when it was smuggled into the country and made widely available illegally. You can look to sci-fi for depictions of governments gone mad that are meant to teach us something with varying degrees of subtlety, but you can look to smut for real-world social reform.
The argument over Lady Chatterley’s Lover was framed as one of language – it used the words ‘fuck’ and ‘cunt’ when those where unprintable, and was banned as pornography in the UK. However, this framing eventually came back to bite the censors when the issue finally went to trial, as late as 1960 (the book was written in 1928).
The crux of the issue, according to modern scholars, was the depiction of a truly intimate relationship – and a genuine meeting of the minds – between a member of the aristocracy and the working class. This would seem to hold up, considering pornography was by no means new to England at the time – there was a quiet but booming industry, and while it was often shut down, this tended to be for show when someone complained, as publications would spring up again almost immediately. In any case, smut was available to the upper classes at the time with almost no restraint.
The point here is that smut has, historically, fulfilled the role of forcing whole societies to question their views on censorship, personal autonomy, and what is taboo. We still have this argument today: Fifty Shades of Grey may not be a work of literary genius, but why should it have to be? Surely it has a right to exist regardless. And however you feel about it, it has made a serious dent in the social taboo of talking about sex in public, especially for women.
As Tom Lehrer said with a great deal of flair and far more social insight than many give him credit for, “We take a stand, and hand in hand, we fight for freedom of the press. In other words, smut!”
Originally published in CQ6: Smut.
Cecil Wilde | they/them
Cecil is very tired, always writing at least one book, and pretty convinced elves are basically tall cats.