Sex in a Debtors’ Prison

I'm so in the mood for sex right now.
I’m so in the mood for sex right now.

Once upon a time (in 1748) a man named John Cleland sat in a lonely debtors’ prison in England. Day after dreary day he sat thinking of sex. He couldn’t help himself. Debtors’ prison was god-awfully dull.

We don’t know for sure if John ever pleasured himself, but according to Dr. William Acton anyone who did that sort of thing “cannot look anyone in the face, and becomes careless in dress and uncleanly in person. His intellect has become sluggish and enfeebled, and if his habits are persisted in, he may end in becoming a driveling idiot.” *

(I’m wondering here at the very sloppily dressed men I see these days)

Back to John. He hadn’t become quite the idiot yet, so he picked up pen and paper and wrote the first English prose erotic novel about a young virgin girl gone wild (through no real fault of her own). Poor Fanny is sent to live with a woman she believes to be rich. Turns out she’s pimping out girls. When the woman finds that Fanny is a virgin the hijinks begin. Despite everyone being against the book, it was passed around and sent overseas to puritanical America and passed round still more (mostly amongst young men behind barns and carriage houses).

It was also illustrated–rather poorly, but who cared? Not the young lads laughing behind the barn.

Illustration by Édouard-Henri Avril.
Illustration by Édouard-Henri Avril.

A sampling of John’s work:

“But what was yet more surprising, the owner of this natural curiosity, through the want of occasions in the strictness of his home-breeding, and the little time he had been in town not having afforded him one, was hitherto an absolute stranger, in practice at least, to the use of all that manhood he was so nobly stock’d with; and it now fell to my lot to stand his first trial of it, if I could resolve to run the risks of its disproportion to that tender part of me, which such an oversiz’d machine was very fit to lay in ruins.” Wikipedia

For the more erudite there was the other best-selling secret book: Aristotle’s Masterpiece. Since Aristotle wrote about animals having sex it was assumed he was an expert lover. The boys behind the carriage houses ate it up.

By the 1850’s the rules of sex were changing in America. It was assumed up until then that young people would have sex out of wedlock.  Not that premarital sex wasn’t frowned upon but it was tolerated and arrangements were made for the protection of children (not by any means were all the children protected).

Maybe it was the sight of so many bastards around sad and lonely without  their fathers that pushed society in the Victorian direction. The new moral code prescribed young men to WAIT. To CONTROL themselves. Yes, indeed. Boys in the North were expected to follow the new rules. The young Northern girls were to help them by being morally superior.

Southern young men were ridiculed for being virgins, especially in the small farming communities. And there was to be no help from the girls as they were seen as morally weaker and easily led by the dashing boys who read Fanny Hill and Aristotle behind the barn.

Of course, all boys were told (by other boys) that saving a good girl’s virtue was the right thing to do. Pleasuring oneself led to idiocy, so . . . there were the bad girls. In the North they were the immigrant ones. In the South, they were the slaves.

Back to the debtors’ prison and poor John only dreaming about all he could be getting up on the outside. John Celand was no idiot after all. He published Fanny Hill, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure and became a secret hero to boys through many printings and controversies.

I wonder if we aren’t set for a swing back even today. Will there be a sudden awakening to the many fatherless children of our times and its cost upon society (not to mention the sadness of being a child without a father)? Will sex and porn be sent back to the private places? Yes, there will always be books and laughter behind the barns, and there are only fairy tales about a virginal past, but maybe discretion would be nice for a change.

*Love, Sex and Marriage In The Civil War by Charles A. Mills

7 responses to “Sex in a Debtors’ Prison”

  1. Interesting. How quaint his description now reads.
    It would seem that the loudest voices today do not favour sex and porn being sent back to the private places. I have a hard time picturing that swing…


  2. I’d comment, but I feel like I’m too biased on this issue! Definitely interesting food for thought, as always! Love to see historical context on theses things.

    Sorry I haven’t been around much. My upcoming post will give you some hints as to why I’ve been so quiet.


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