International Exposure: Perspectives on Modern European Pornography, 1800-2000

By Lisa Z. Sigel | Go to book overview

The Rise of the Overly
Affectionate Family
INCESTUOUS PORNOGRAPHY AND DISPLACED DESIRE
AMONG THE EDWARDIAN MIDDLE CLASS

LISA Z. SIGEL

In 1908 Parliament passed a piece of legislation that would seem largely unproblematic. If anything, the passage of the Punishment of Incest Act for England and Wales was grossly overdue. Ecclesiastical courts abandoned the death penalty for incest with the Restoration and then only feebly enforced canon law for cases of incestuous marriage by demanding the guilty do public penance at Lent.1 When church courts ceased to regulate such behaviors in the nineteenth century, no legal jurisdiction existed for the prosecution of the offense. The lack of legislation did not go unnoticed; the issue of marrying "the deceased wife's sister" produced an over seventy-year debate on the definition of incest. The rather odd twist on the definition was joined by an emerging discussion over the more problematic issue over blood kin in the 1880s.2 Despite the long discussion over the meanings of incest, the British government did not reach a legal definition of incest or an adequate means to prosecute the offense until the twentieth century. What seems curious about the new law is not its passage but the inability to pass earlier acts and the ambivalence that the consideration of this bill produced. One would think, given the emphasis on morality, the restrictions of sexuality, and the idealization of the home in Victorian and Edwardian England, that the illegality of incest would be ensured. Yet earlier failures in 1899–1900, 1903, and 1907 to pass similar legislation and continued arguments in Parliament against the 1908 bill demonstrate a deep cultural ambivalence toward state regulation of familial sexuality. Even after the state finally acknowledged incest as a social problem, it chose not to pursue it. The early twentieth century became the moment to recognize incest, but that recognition was grudging, late, and fleeting.

Previous scholars such as Victor Bailey and Sheila Blackburn approached

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