Vernacular Pornography

December 22, 2020   •   By Houman Barekat

The People’s Porn

Lisa Z. Sigel

FOUNDED IN 1947 by sexologist Alfred Kinsey, the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University is dedicated to researching human sexual behavior. It houses a diverse collection of artifacts dating back 200 years, including coins, carvings, scrimshaws, magazines, and pamphlets. Lisa Sigel, a professor of history at DePaul University in Chicago, had a rummage through this archive and turned up, among other things, the following: a figurine of a coffin, in which the corpse’s erect penis pops up to greet you when you lift the lid off; a peach pit carving of a monkey who “thumbs his nose with one hand and masturbates with another”; a number of altered liberty pennies from the early 19th century, in which the “E” in “CENT’” has been reworked into a “U” so that the coin reads “ONE CUNT”; another penny in which the figure of Lady Liberty, seated on a rock while holding the torch of liberty, has been altered to show her masturbating a man shitting on a pot; a depiction of Jesus Christ on his knees fellating a Roman soldier; some cartoon fan fiction portraying Batman, Robin, and Catwoman in a ménage à trois; and a line drawing of “a giraffe […] licking a bunny’s butt” while “the bunny fucks a pig called Riccio; the pig fellates another pig, McDermott; McDermott licks a woman […][;] and the woman fellates the giraffe.”


Sigel, whose previous books include Making Modern Love: Sexual Narratives and Identities in Interwar Britain (2012) and Governing Pleasures: Pornography and Social Change in England, 1815–1914 (2002), refers to these items collectively as “handmade or homemade pornography.” This not strictly accurate: the Oxford English Dictionary defines pornography as “printed or visual material containing the explicit description or exhibition of sexual subjects or activity […] intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic feelings.” That last bit — “intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic feelings” — precludes all manner of racy knickknacks and lewd graffiti. Many of the curios examined by Sigel in her new book, The People’s Porn: A History of Handmade Pornography in America, were primarily intended to amuse or shock rather than to arouse, and thus cannot really be called “porn.” But it’s a neat shorthand that makes for a pleasingly alliterative title signaling the book’s central thesis: that the sexual folk art of yesterday constituted an organic and implicitly democratic repository of human creativity — “a robust, noisy vernacular tradition” that arose “from the ‘making classes’ rather than the ‘buying classes.’”


For Sigel, the ribald humor of these old objects connotes a playful and positive idea of what sex can be. “In articulating sex through a wink and a leer,” she writes, “homemade and handmade objects portrayed a sexuality both unsentimental and knowing”; “folk objects spoke of the sexuality in everyday life. They illustrated a spry and surprising sexuality in which sexual gestures stood right behind propriety and where erections popped up in staid places.” She contrasts this vision of “a sexuality defined by irreverence” with the soulless cynicism of commodified sexuality, which is inextricably bound up with exploitation and violence.


The question of agency — of who is making the art, and to what end — is central: Sigel contends that “remade objects, though not revolutionary, still constituted a form of radical expression.” In her reckoning, hierarchies of taste and technique are secondary to the raw truthfulness of the untutored and naïve. It is in this spirit that Sigel devotes a whole chapter to the outsider artist Henry Darger, many of whose works are held at the Kinsey. Darger’s unsettling drawings depict naked girls endowed with male genitals, hanging around with fully dressed adults. Sigel explains that Darger “represented a world of desires that aroused and disgusted him and one whose logic eluded him”; his “works demonstrate the heady and obsessive power of ephemera.”


Perhaps unsurprisingly for a book of this nature, the accompanying photographs are just as compelling as the text itself, if not more so. There are 97 of them, and they are frequently hilarious. As for the writing, it’s a mixed bag. Some of Sigel’s insights are more useful than others: her observation that the desire to re-form “CENT” into “CUNT” “suggests the profound desire to see the word [cunt] written and expressed in public” is almost audacious in its pointlessness; elsewhere we learn that “prison letters and prison art exhibit a certain veracity,” and “coins gesture to a culture of circulation.” As with the obligatory reference to “lived experience” — which crops up more than once — this tepid theorizing is par for the course in academic sociology; it functions as a sort of padding, and one has to learn to put up with it.


Sigel is nonetheless a companionable guide, offsetting the academese with occasional flashes of wit and bawdy remarks. Casting her eye over a penis-wielding Santa Claus made out of plywood and dowels, she quips that “the size of Santa’s erection shows that he is jolly for a reason.” Of the aforementioned altered coins, she puns: “Other national currencies were similarly debased.” Surveying a retouched photograph from a 1950s men’s magazine, in which the cover star has been relieved of his bathing suit and supplied with a big hard-on, Sigel observes that his “glance into the distance seems to invite the reader to join him.” She describes obscene images with droll matter-of-factness: “Sprays of liquid that emanate from the insertion point make the process seem onerous, though the squiggly public hairs give the scrotum a relaxed air.”


There is something a little reductive about Sigel’s portrayal of folk art as the embodiment of a timeless, authentic demos, pitted against the inherent elitism of institutionalized art. It’s a romantic and superficially progressive position, but it contains within it the seeds of a dangerous philistinism. Sigel’s reading of sexual mores is likewise somewhat rigid in its binary oppositions, and would have benefited from some dialectical nuance. It’s not always easy to distinguish between authentic fun and commerce in a world where almost everything is mediated by capitalist commodification: where exactly does “real” sexuality end and its bastardized iteration begin? We can say with certainty that an unimaginably vast trove of homemade amateur porn is being produced right this minute, on smartphones around the world; although much of it takes its cues from commercial pornography, it will in time form its own vernacular tradition. Pity the Lisa Sigels of the future, who will have to wade through the stuff. It will take forever.


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Houman Barekat is a literary critic based in London. Founding editor of Review 31, he is co-editor (with Robert Barry and David Winters) of The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online (O/R Books, 2017).