Reading Sex in the Eighteenth Century: Bodies and Gender in English Erotic Culture

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Karen Harvey explores the construction of sexual difference and gender identity in eighteenth-century England. Using erotic texts and their illustrations, and rooting this evidence firmly in historical context, Harvey provides a thoroughgoing critique of the orthodoxy of work on sexual difference in the history of the body. She argues that eighteenth-century English erotic culture combined a distinctive mode of writing and reading in which the form of refinement was applied to the matter of sex. Erotic culture was male-centred and it was in this environment, Harvey argues, that men could enjoy both the bawdy, raucous, libidinous elements of the eighteenth century and the refined politeness for which the period is also renowned. This book makes a significant contribution to the history of masculinity and advocates an approach to change in gender history, one capable of capturing the processes of negotiation and contestation integral to cultural change.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"In this ambitious and wide-ranging survey, Harvey focuses on how 18th century Britons thought about bodies and sexbroad enough to embrace the interest of both beginners and specialists."

"Harvey has marshaled an impressive array of printed primary source materials in her history of erotic culture. Reading Sex is also an admirable interdisciplinary history, drawing upon a wide variety of secondary sources which range from anthropological research on menstruation to psychoanalytic accounts of male bodies. She places the erotic culture of England in the wider context of Europe, showing an awareness of the rich historiography already present for eighteenth-century French pornography in particular. The book is beautifully written, and Harvey does an excellent job of making complex theoretical concepts accessible to readers."
-Jennine Hurl-Eamon, Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, H-Albion

"Karen Harvey’s Reading Sex in the Eighteenth Century is an elegantly written, timely and useful addition to recent histories of pornography and erotica... The book contributes most significantly to histories of reading practices and masculinity and to debates over the nature of change from early modern understandings and representations of bodies to modern conceptualizations. Harvey’s work makes a valuable contribution to the field...."
-Social History

"As a book intended to introduce students and scholars to ways of reading erotic imagery in literature, Reading Sex in the Eighteenth Century has much to recommend it. Karen Harvey is a sophisticated scholar whose methods of analysis highlight the richness of her subject.... should be read by all scholars interested in sex, gender, and bodies."
-Journal of Social History

"In a carefully researched and wide-ranging study of erotic culture in eighteenth-century England, Karen Harvey reveals the link and the tensions between prurience and politeness"
-Elaine Chalus, Bath Spa University, Great Britain

"Karen Harvey has done a tremendous service to all of us working on the history of sexuality...she offers us an examination that is alive to nuance sensitive to contradiction. I think this is a great step forward in our understanding of the sexual culture of the eighteenth century, and I am certain it will be useful to scholars and students who grapple with the history of sexuality."
-George E. Haggerty, Ideas, Aesthetics and Inquiries

"Harvey offers a new understanding of the relationship between erotic culture and eighteenth-century concepts of politeness and masculinity[...]Incisive, persuasive, and refreshingly lucid, Reading Sex in the Eighteenth Century will be essential reading for anyone interested in erotica, masculinity, and women's history in the eighteenth century."
-Caroline Breashears, St. Lawrence University, The Scriblerian

"In this important book Karen Harvey demonstrates how an understanding of erotic culture challenges a number of grand narratives that social and cultural historians have posited for the eighteenth century...By suggesting so many new ways of thinking about this period, there is no doubt that Harvey's book will provoke much historical debate."
-Elizabeth Foyster, Clare College, University of Cambridge, American Historical Review

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Karen Harvey is a Lecturer in Cultural History at the University of Sheffield. She is the editor of The Kiss in History (2004).

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Table of Contents

List of illustrations; Acknowledgements; Introduction; 1. Contexts; 2. Sexual difference; 3. Female bodies; 4. Male bodies; 5. Space; 6. Movement; 7. Pleasure; Conclusion; Bibliography; Index.

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