Trials and tribulations of sex in print

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The Independent Culture

Lady Chatterley's Lover was first published in 1928 and almost immediately banned on account of the bravura shagging that outraged protective class distinctions. Penguin's 1960 re-issue became the first big prosecution made under the Obscene Publications Act (1959), legislation intended to protect Shakespeare's heirs from depravity. Never mind that Mr WS used language that was far more graphic, obscenity threatened national morals as certainly as Soviet missiles threatened national security.

The Lady Chatterley trial, revisited in a BBC4 drama tomorrow night, was Britain on the cusp - two years before The Beatles' first LP. Literary critic Martin Seymour-Smith found Lawrence quite excellent on the working-class background, with his colourful sociologic portraits of lusty yeomen grunting demotic, but "misguided in his attempt to purge certain four letter words of the obscenity they have acquired". Montaigne wanted to know "How is man so wronged by the genital act which is so natural, so necessary and so just, that he should not dare to speak of it but with shame ?" It is a baroque path we take negotiating concepts of obscenity. Lady Chatterley's Lover was eventually published in the year before the Pill went on sale.

Obscenity is a rather modern notion. Christian pilgrims in the middle ages would wear phallic hatpins and the almond-shaped mandorla often surrounding Florentine Virgins is an explicit reference to female genitalia. Pietro Aretino, who campaigned for clarity in language and was opposed to High Renaissance circumlocutions for sex such as "obelisk in the Coliseum", has a poem that begins "Stick your finger up my arse, old man". In 1795 there is the first reference to a secret room for "obscene" antiquities in the Herculaneum Museum. Exhibits included a figure of Pan in a zoophiliac relationship with a she-goat. By the 1840s, the British Museum was building up its secret collection of pornography.

In these innocent days before Freud provided in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), his insights into the sexual motivations underlying human behaviour, Queen Victoria said the only monument appropriate to her late husband's stature would be a monolith 500ft tall. Later, when a cast of Michelangelo's homoerotic David was presented to (what is now) the Victoria & Albert Museum, the authorities provided a detachable plaster fig leaf so that the Queen might not be depraved by the sight of a penis on her visits to South Kensington. You can still see it there today.

Concepts of obscenity and consequential depravity became more keen with industrialisation. In 1872 a London confectioner was jailed for selling sweets showing couples in lewd positions. In 1886 Richard von Krafft-Ebing (who coined the term "sadism") published his Psychopathia Sexualis. For a long time the work most stolen from public libraries, this study of perversion suggests a causal link between masturbation and criminality.

In 1922 The Hays Office was set up to police Hollywood. If filmed in a bedroom, a man and woman had to have one foot each on the floor. I vividly remember the day, in 1967, when gasping schoolfriends and I found The Times publishing a full-page pharmaceutical ad featuring a model with nipples. It seemed to promise a thrilling democracy of sex.

Which has come to pass. Any day of the week you can find firm, moist, pert things on free-to-air television that would have been expensive and rare and possibly even criminal in Soho walk-ups 50 years ago. But we still have our standards. A liberal paper, such as this one, is happy to let its contributors use the occasional F-word. But see what sub- editors do when you try to write the C-word.

'The Chatterley Affair' is on BBC4 tomorrow at 9pm, see ABC preview, page 31. BBC4 shows Ken Russell's adaptation of the novel tonight, 9pm.

FILTH OR LITERATURE?

LADY CHATTERLEY'S LOVER

BY D H LAWRENCE

Lady Chatterley with its graphic descriptions of sex between Lady C and the gamekeeper, Mellors, and previously banned words was a test case for the 1959 Obscene Publications Act. It stated that publishers could escape conviction if they could prove the literary merit of the work. In the opening address for the prosecution, Mervyn Griffith-Jones famously asked, "Is it a book that you would have lying around in your own house? Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?" The jury decided that it was, finding Penguin Books not guilty of publishing an obscene article. Within a year, the book sold more than 2 million copies. The verdict led to greater freedom to publish explicit material.

LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN

BY HUBERT SELBY JNR

In 1966 a private prosecution was brought against the book by Conservative MP Sir Cyril Black. The court delivered a guilty verdict against this tale of drug use, violence, gang rape and homosexuality. The public prosecutor then brought an action under the Obscene Publications Act. The publisher was found guilty. In 1968, an appeal by John Mortimer QC resulted in the ruling being reversed.

OZ

The Schoolkids edition of May 1970 featured a cartoon of Rupert the Bear superimposed on to an X-rated satirical cartoon. The editorial team of Felix Dennis, Richard Neville and Jim Anderson were accused of "conspiracy to corrupt public morals". In 1971, the so-called Oz Three were found guilty and sentenced to hard labour. Dennis is now a wealthy publisher and poet. "Oz" folded in 1973.

THE LOVE THAT DARES TO SPEAK ITS NAME

BY PROFESSOR JAMES KIRKUP

Published in "Gay News", edited by Denis Lemon, the poem discussed the love of a gay centurion for Jesus Christ as he died on the cross. A prosecution was brought by Mary Whitehouse of the National Viewers and Listeners Association, which called the poem "perverted". Lemon was represented by John Mortimer. A jury found Lemon guilty of blasphemous libel and gave him a nine-month suspended sentence. An appeal was launched in 1978, but the Law Lords upheld the convictions. "Gay News" closed in 1983. Lemon died in July 1994.

JENNY LIVES WITH ERIC AND MARTIN BY SUSANNE BOSCHE

It begins: "Jenny is a little girl. Martin is Jenny's dad and Eric is Martin's lover. They all live happily together." In 1983 the "Daily Mail" reported that a copy of the book was provided in a school library. The Conservative government introduced Section 28 to ban the "promotion" of homosexuality by local government. Section 28 was repealed in 2003.

LORD HORROR BY DAVID BRITTON

A novel and magazine series of which created the genre "Holocaust horror". The book was seized by police after review copies were sent out in 1989. It was found obscene by a Manchester magistrate in August 1991 and became the first novel since "Last Exit to Brooklyn" to be banned by an English court. The ban was lifted at the Appeal Courts in July 1992.

Katy Guest

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