Mulling the definition of acceptable smut, science fiction writer Spider Robinson observed, “Erotica is pornography I am willing to publicly admit I like," or perhaps display on one’s bookshelf. The distinction between the sordid and the sublime in literature is a matter of authorial talent, upmarket packaging, and often, its date of publication.

Bolstered by the fig leaf of historical value, HarperCollins India recently launched a new series of Forbidden Classics that includes the raciest novels of yore in a culture squeamish about all things porno. We Indians may still have to hide that Playboy magazine, but can now proudly flaunt—with a dash of intellectual brio—the likes of Venus in India by Charles Devereaux, My Secret Life by “Walter", Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Sadopaideia (Anonymous), The Autobiography of a Flea by Stanislas de Rhodes, and more. Most are Victorian-era novels, with the exception of Emmanuelle (1959) and two 18th century titles, John Cleland’s Fanny Hill and the Marquis de Sade’s Justine. Each is available for one-handed reading at the reasonable price of Rs299 a pop.

Rebel: Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. AFP

Not all of it entails actual intercourse, as for example Sadopaideia, which seems to prefer punishment to penetration. And in some cases, the explicit material is rendered tame by language. Take, for example, this description of a rape scene in Justine: “Dubois took in hand a very monstrous object and led it to the peristyles of first one and then the other of Nature’s altars, and under her guidance the blows it delivered to me here and there were like those of a battering ram thundering at the gates of a besieged town in olden days."

But what may be more shocking are not the specific acts but the insistent sexualization of children. What was once pornographic now smacks of paedophilia. The Victorian-era Venus in India culminates with the hero, an English captain billeted in colonial India, seducing a 12-year-old virgin, who is happily no innocent thanks to her fondness for a usefully-shaped vegetable. In Sadopaideia, the hero introduces an 11-year-old to the delights of masochism with the skillful use of a cane. No mainstream publisher would accept either novel if they were submitted by a present-day author.

While the novels possess a quaint appeal, they are clearly written by and for men, and set in a world ruled by masculine desire. The only exception is Emmanuelle, co-written by Marayat Rollet-Andriane and her husband Louis Jacques, but its depiction of a voracious feminine appetite seems more male fantasy than an affirmation of female sexuality. “Pornography is about dominance. Erotica is about mutuality," declared American feminist Gloria Steinem, pinpointing the reason why some forms of pornographic writing will never hold erotic appeal for women. There’s nothing sexy about a novel where the man is always on top.

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