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Last Tuesday, in my intellectual history class (“The Modern Imaginary”), we discussed Therese Philosophe, a bawdy, “forbidden best-seller” of pre-revolutionary France. The novella is an erotic novel and philosophic treatise in which the titular character, a young woman named Therese, recounts her sexual and philosophic coming-of-age to her present lover, the unnamed Count. Not having previously read any one complete example of Enlightenment-era pornography, I had few pre-conceptions about the genre when I sat down to read Therese.

This is an anonymously-written work, published in 1740s, tentatively attributed to a marquis named Jean-Baptiste de Boyer and was a runaway best-seller, according to translator Robert Darnton. Yet even though the author is likely male, and his understanding of the pleasures of sexual activity is definitely phallo-centric, the novel presents us with a complex, possibly even (early) feminist, understanding of sexuality. The novel is told from the point of view of a woman who discovers that sexual fantasy and sexual activity (whether alone or with a partner) can be a “healthful” and deeply gratifying part of her life. Sexual activity is assumed to be pleasureable for both women and men, and there is little differentiation between how women and men experience that pleasure, at least physically. Women, as well as men, for example, are encouraged to masturbate. At the same time, the characters acknowledge the material vulnerability of women who engage in heterosexual activity: the fear of pregnancy and death in childbirth; potential loss of social standing which will threaten their ability to contract a financially stable marriage. Therese and her mentors negotiate with their sexual partners over what sexual activities are acceptable given these real-world constraints, and those conversations serve as both philosophical debates and integral to the erotic encounters themselves.

Some of the students in the class were skeptical that this text constituted “intellectual history,” and in addition there was a lot of resistance to reading the sexually-explicit passages as necessary or integral to the intellectual importance of the work. Their impulse was to argue that either the smut was a ploy to sell the philosophy, or the philosophy was an excuse to write the smut. Either way, they considered the sex was gratuitous to the historic or intellectual importance of the piece. I would actually argue the opposite. In Therese Philosophe, it’s not the sex or the philosophy that are the “real” reason for the novel’s existence — it’s the sex and the philosophy. Both are necessary to make the story work. More importantly, I would argue that it’s not just the philosophy that works better because of the sex, but the sex that works better because of the philosophy.

Reading this one example made me curious to sample more 18th-century erotica and see how gender and sexual negotiation are portrayed. Is Therese an exceptional voice? And is is possible to uncover why her story was so compelling to the readers who purchased it is such great numbers that it became a best-seller? I am also fascinated by the similarities, as well as the differences, I see between how human sexuality and sexual relations are portrayed in Therese and how they are written in modern-day erotica. Perhaps that project can be thesis number three or four . . . !

Cross-posted @ feministing community.