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Obscenity Prosecution and its Consequences in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America

62 Pages Posted: 11 Oct 2005  

Donna I. Dennis

Rutgers Law School


This study of the rise of erotic publishing and obscenity prosecutions in antebellum America argues that obscenity law shaped markets for erotica, though often by stimulating rather than suppressing the proliferation of sexual texts. First, early obscenity prosecutions expanded markets by spurring innovative publishers to turn to mail-order erotica, which they viewed as immune from local regulation. Second, such prosecutions inspired publishers to develop new genres of erotic writing that cleverly manipulated legal taboos in an effort to attract readers. Indeed, in response to indictments that identified descriptions of female sexual knowledge and desire as particularly illicit, the nation's first sexually explicit periodical specialized in forbidden portrayals of women's sexual agency and erotic independence. Obscenity prohibitions also fueled the production of a distinct genre of racy sensation literature, which combined graphic violence and sexual allusiveness as a substitute for overt depictions of sex. Finally, obscenity cases generated valuable publicity that whetted public appetites for sexual writing, just as the erotic publishing trade was emerging on a significant scale.

Suggested Citation

Dennis, Donna I., Obscenity Prosecution and its Consequences in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America. Available at SSRN: or

Donna I. Dennis (Contact Author)

Rutgers Law School ( email )

United States

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