The Autobiography of a Flea

Lisa Sigel



My title comes from a nineteenth century work of pornography. The use of it for the title is a joke. I started with a joke that I expect no one to understand for the purpose of emphasizing the distance between my culture and yours. "The perception of that distance may serve as a starting point of an investigation, for anthropologists have found that the best points of entry in an attempt to penetrate an alien culture can be those where it seems to be the most opaque. When you realize that you are not getting something--a joke, a proverb, a ceremony-- that is particularly meaningful to the natives, you can see where to grasp a foreign system of meaning in order to unravel it." [2] My joke is about how the culture positions me. I am a graduate student, but sorry that's not the real joke. Even though fleas and other vermin are low in a hierarchy of value and graduate students are low in the academic hierarchy of value, correlating the two as equal doesn't make the title as funny as it can be. It can get funnier. In the real Autobiography of a Flea, the flea is not the deviant. The flea gets to communicate about the deviant. So here's the real joke: for the purpose of this essay, I am struggling to be the flea.

The (real) Autobiography of a Flea like many works of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries criticizes Catholicism, sexual hypocrisy, and ignorance. The work is narrated by a flea who latches onto a beautiful young girl named Bella. Bella gets seduced because of her own voluptuous nature by priests who prey on her ignorance. Once corrupted from the inside out, from the womb outward, Bella pulls her friend Julia in to be likewise corrupted. Corruption spreads like a disease. The work infuses vows of celibacy with vows of deviance, innocence with lechery, and in the process makes the bystander-- the flea and those reading from the flea's narration--into the voyeur who relishes at the same time that he condemns.

The Autobiography allows readers to see in two ways the process through which the deviant is created. First, the reader can follow the corruption of Bella, the young beauty, through seduction by priestcraft. Bella becomes deviant. However, another reading of the work illustrates how society creates the deviant. The deviant is not just the person who performs specific aberrant acts, the deviant is also the person through whom society communicates its beliefs. Society disciplines behavior into either normative or deviant categories through a number of performances that include punishment, torture, ridicule, shame, exclusion, and voyeurism. Voyeurism instructs through the disciplining of the deviant. The deviant is discussed, relished, pitied, reconstructed, and narrated from a position outside.

In the Autobiography, the flea focuses the imagination of the reader on carnal copulation. However, the flea, narrating from outside the activity can simultaneously enjoy and condemn, enliven and constrain, watch and exclude. The flea narrates the carnal indulgence within a moral framework which titillates through the process of separating the deviant action from the enjoyment of it. The flea states:

The superior also had now the opportunity of indulging his antiphysical states; and not even the recently deflowered and delicate Julia escaped the ordeal of his assault. She had to submit, and with indescribable and hideous emotions of pleasure, he showered his viscid semen into her bowel.

The cries of those who discharged, the hard breathing of those labouring in the sensual act, the shaking and groaning of the furniture, the half-uttered, half-suppressed conversation of the lookers on, all tended to magnify the libidinous monstrosity of the scene, and to deepen and render more revolting the details of this ecclesiastic pandemonium.

Oppressed with these ideas, and disgusted beyond measure, I fled. [3]

The reader can watch the flea watch the onlookers watch the ravishment of Julia. The magnification of the gaze through each refinement separates those who watch and then flee (flea?) from those who get left in the libidinous monstrosity, titillating, revolting, and disembowelled both by the action and the description of the action.

In the Autobiography, the reader through the flea's narration encounters the image of woman as easily seduced and disemboweled by the process of seduction.[4] Bella and Julia, through nature and action, become the site of manipulation. The priests, the onlookers, and the flea consume Bella and Julia. While Bella and Julia can act, ultimately their only action is submission. Both women, girls really, are deviant, but their deviance is accessible and it is their bodies that provide both titillation and moral lessons. Even as they submit to the bodies and the will of the priests, they submit to the prurience and moralism of the flea.

For the purpose of this essay try to consider me as the flea. As a historian, I look at how British and American pornography change over the course of the nineteenth century reflecting and contributing to changes in the social structure. As important as my analytical work on sexuality and its relation to the culture, though, is the fact that I'm female. My culture--multi-layered though it is because of my position as student and teacher, female and intellectual, poor and American-- is primarily one of marginality with a threat of deviance; marginal for I stand at the bottom of many of the hierarchies of power as one who is positioned rather than one who has position; deviant because I study the performance of deviance in the hierarchy of power.

When I put myself as the flea, I mean to read not only the performance of deviation in nineteenth century texts, but also the performance of deviation in the construction of Lisa Z. Sigel, studier of pornography. People assume that because I study pornography I am deviant and then discipline me in much the same ways that discipline occurs in the texts that I read. By putting myself as the flea, I am placing myself outside of the process to explore how discipline is performed in the texts and in my life. One of the first questions that people ask me is how the pornography makes me feel, or more to the point, does it turn me on? The leap from my study of sex to the study of me studying sex is automatic and reflexive. It positions me as both female and deviant--open to the voyeurism of others.

The belief that pornography is deviant needs to be addressed. Pornography is understood to mean sexual materials which are meant to arouse. Regardless of the fact that humans are complex creatures who don't always respond to stimuli the way that they should; regardless of the fact that sexualized objects from a banana to underwear exist around us all the time without arousing us; regardless of the fact that arousal and masturbation, in and of themselves, are (sometimes) no longer considered deviant, the purposefully arousing nature of pornography defines it as deviant. If it's arousing, it is deviant.

That deviancy is implicit in pornography seems like a curious position to take. For me, pornography is an artifact which tells me a lot about the culture from which it came. A Grecian urn is a similar object. However, pornography in many ways is more telling a cultural artifact. It not only tells what existed in the culture, like clay, it also tells important components about the people who constructed it. Sexuality, like pottery, changes over time. Unlike pottery, though, sexuality is an important part of people's daily understanding of themselves. People consider themselves to be ultimately sexual creatures regardless of how they define their sexual orientation. Thinking about artifacts of sexuality should only be deviant if the sexual culture from which they came was deviant.

I think about nineteenth century sexual culture which need not be implicitly deviant. Then, as now, ideas about sexuality helped some peoples and revalued others. The ways in which different peoples were valued in sexual culture had implications in their daily lives; it affected how they were thought about, talked to, legislated, and treated. By looking at the development of sexual fantasies in Britain and in the United States over the course of the nineteenth century, I am trying to expose the complex interaction between fantasy and the realities of power. Over the nineteenth century, Britain became a, if not the, world power. Its economic strength allowed it to be the overt agent for change in much of the world-- from the opening of China through the conquest of India to the divvying up of Africa. Covertly, much else was also affected. The continuation of slavery in the American South owes something to the British desire for cotton for her mills, tobacco for her pipes, and indigo for her colors. The British economy and British beliefs affected if not ruled the world. However, fantasies of power also went into creating hegemony. Britain not only consumed and exported cotton, but also consumed and exported fantasies, fantasies in which a hierarchy by class, gender, and sexual access were recreated. The fantasies of sexual dominion underlay and laid the groundwork for Britain's practical dominion. The fantasies contributed to science, governance, class relations, language, politics, family... They created patterns of thought which real people negotiated in order to live their lives.

At the same time that Britain gained world power, the foundation was laid in the United States for its usurping the role. Similar hierarchies in thought began in the American consciousness. However, where the British hierarchies rested firmly upon the groundwork of class and family, the class and color of American beliefs contributed to its hierarchy of value and use. Consider the following passage from a nineteenth century American work named The Memoirs of Madge Bufford. In it John and Madge came across a naked black man who had copulated with a female dog, then fellated a male dog.

Frantic with lust, John tore open his breeches, seized me in his arms and, rushing with me to the grassy knoll on which the buggering black lay, threw up my clothes and, in an instant, was fucking me like mad.

The frightened black sprang to his feet, but our stroking match made him forget his fears and, standing over us, he watched our lustful enjoyment with shining eyes.

Weltering in our completed conjungo, John seized me, tore off all my clothes and, holding my panting thighs out invitingly to the black, cried: "There, you black buggerer! Isn't that nicer to fuck than a slut?" [a female dog] "What do you mean, Massa? You let me fuck that lovely white cunt?" "Come, show her your prick and ask her!" And the negro stood between my legs and I held in my hand one of nature's masterpieces... [5]

The black then fucked John's wife. The male dog fucked John's wife. John fucked the female dog. Because this was an American text, the reference system centered on the issue of race.

American society was based on the hierarchies of race and ethnicity throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The remnants of slavery even after the Civil War had created not only a labor structure and an economic structure, but also a social structure and system of meaning based on race. To preserve race relations based on subjugation, the country established legal and social controls to limit black access, agency, and ability. "However, sexuality is a central issue which must neither be ignored nor discounted" both before and after Emancipation. [6] Sexual domination remained a primary method of maintaining control. The issue of who could decide sexual access was a potent point that amplified the problematic relations between blacks and whites. Access to black females remained a white, male prerogative, and fears of a reciprocal desire by black males for white female flesh contributed to a variety of anti-black legal and extra-legal attacks.

However, the same system of meaning that upheld this social and legal structure offered opportunities for titillating explorations and transgressions. Madge Bufford offers clues to the power of both. In it, white was normative, black was deviant. White was lovely, black was slutty. White was civilized and married, black was animalistic. White was free, black was slave. Despite this opposition, there was a clear interplay between normative and deviant in the text. White was understood as related to black. What made black exciting to white was its deviant nature. John, the white, civilized, free man was overwhelmed at the sight of the black, slave, animalistic man. The white male gave his wife to the black and to the black's dog. Purity was gifted to deviance in fantasy. No real resolutions to the problems of race were needed to enjoy the privilege of thinking about the possibilities.

For the American audience, issues of race and ethnicity had become tantalizing. The racial and ethnic hierarchies that functioned as the backbone of the American social system provided ways to order access and agency and created too many opportunities for exploration to be ignored. For the English, issues of age, blood relation, and social class came to dominate in a similar hierarchical pattern ordering all facets of life. The transgressing of these social boundaries showed similar patterns of playing with reconstituted meaning, even if different reference systems were explored.

In Sweet Seventeen, an English work of the same time period, the father beat his daughter when she turned down his advances. During the beating, he repeatedly called her a "hussy," refusing to stop until she willingly returned his kisses. "`Promise to kiss me of your own free will and I'll let you off!' said the cruel father, as he contemplated with lewd joy Fanny's reddened, fat thighs." [7] She willingly kissed him and returned his caresses and they had sex. "One fierce lunge and [her hymen] gave way, as Sandcross felt every inch of his huge fatherly organ nipped by the sore, excoriated lips of his daughter's virgin cleft." [8] Afterwards, he tucked her into bed as if she were "his tiny little baby girlie" and she admitted that she liked the beating. She returned to her former state of purity. "As her nervous system gradually reverted to its normal state of quietude, so the babyish look returned to her violet eyes, and her face was as full of innocence as heretofore." [9]

The scene used an opposition similar to that in The Memoirs of Madge Bufford. In Sweet Seventeen, the father stood opposite daughter. Mr. Sandcross was old, lewd, experienced, cruel, and huge. The daughter, Fanny, was young, pure, beautiful, innocent, and small. The interplay between purity and deviance occurred throughout the passage. Not only did Fanny stand opposite her father in character, but disparities were constantly reversed. Fanny became a hussy when she fought off his caresses. He beat her to get her to respond from her own free will. Once she had become lewd, she returned to her former innocence. The link between purity and deviance allowed them to be reversible but constantly at odds.

The system of references in both the English work, Sweet Seventeen, and the American work, Memoirs of Madge Bufford relied on constant opposition. They both played on unremovable tension within their cultures--the taboos of incest and miscegenation/bestiality. The works utilized the fears implicit in taboos to create excitement. They took the normal constraints of deviance and purity and turned them in on themselves, breaking their social function for the pleasure of enhancing sexual opportunity. By breaking taboos without really challenging them, these works titillated by sexualizing socially dangerous situations. Incest and miscegenation had become savory because they were fantasies, not actualities. The social hierarchies in both cultures had been functionally sustained throughout fairly turbulent periods of rapid transformation; the racial hierarchy continued after the Civil War and Emancipation in America much like the class hierarchy had withstood radical agitation in England. While both places had been transformed over the course of the nineteenth century, the elites for whom the pornography was intended, had managed to stay on top. Thus, thinking about sex between a wife and a black man or a wife and valet could be pleasurable because wives, black men, and valets were still functionally powerless.

Documenting these changes in consciousness remains just as important as documenting the practical applications of power. In both Britain and America, then and now, documentation is supposed to be a one way process. The strong communicate about the weak. Since the nineteenth century, most writers, publishers, photographers, distributors, readers and collectors of pornography have been middle and upper class men. Men have written, published, photographed, distributed, read and collected representations of women, the young, and the powerless. These catagories of people became the object of men's understandings of sexuality through the voyeuristic devices of pornography. However, the major social problem with pornography came from women and children and the powerless seeing representations of themselves as objects. From Anthony Comstock to Lord Campbell, legislators concern over the effects on women and the young fueled attempts to get rid of pornography, without allowing the community of those who "needed" protection to see it.

However, female scholars looking at sexuality invert the process. They look at how those with power position those who don't. Pornography, then, is not Grecian urn. Important power relations implicit in it get spelled out in a variety of ways which are still applicable. The nature of sexuality and pornography as an icon of that sexuality remains so potent that even the study of it-- rather than any actual deviant action--can be catching. I am just the person who couldn't look at the pornography in the nineteenth century and I am just the person who gets disciplined for doing so in the twentieth. I am deviant as a scholar, as a woman, as part of the poor, and as an (almost) young person. I get disciplined in just the ways that Bella in the Autobiography got disciplined-- through the process of voyeurism.

As a woman who studies sexuality, I find myself understood as part of my work. My intellectual work gets positioned where it doesn't belong--on my body. The idea that women are so finely tuned sexual creature that the contagion of sexuality must be kept from them or they will be polluted remains central to our understanding of gender. As a woman I find myself continuously positioned as Bella or against Bella. I can either be deviant or I can be against deviance. I cannot just think about the process or the performance of deviance. The process by which I have been disciplined is voyeurism overlaid with threat, intimidation, and shame. Here are two examples of the process: When I was in London for a number of months doing my research I met an interesting man. I went out for coffee with him and told me he didn't want to get involved (with me) because he had a girlfriend in California. We agreed to that. We talked, went to a movie, and drank coffee. He propositioned me and I said "No." And I said "No". And I said "No." He told me that he only wanted to sleep with me because of my research. He thought I would be adventurous in bed. I had to say "no" a number of times because at some level, perhaps on the surface, perhaps unconsciously, he couldn't believe that I was unaccessible as a sexual partner. As a woman who studied sexuality, I was sexually accessible and sexually voracious. He made that clear when he referred to my research. By referring to my research, he also meant to insult me. The sum of my worth as a sexual partner came from my "adventurousness" predicated upon my intellectual leanings. I had teased him as a woman because of my studies and he could retaliate by denigrating my worth with an "only." As a woman I did not deserve attention, my value "only" came from my deviant sexuality.

Normative discipline works as the flip side of deviant discipline. Women are to be protected from sexuality, or scorning that, women become sexualized and accessible. Consider this: Customs, by pre-arrangement, met me when I came home. Both Customs and I wanted to make sure that I didn't bring home any illegal materials. The Customs agent, who was generally very nice, said "What does your mother think? Isn't she ashamed of what you're doing?"

Customs, in searching for child pornography and/or bestiality which are illegal in this country, has a right to decide boundaries of normative and deviant sexual representation. Behind the practice of search, seizure, and arrest is the theory that children should not be sexual objects for adults. Representations that picture sexualized children 1) encourage adults to sexualize children and 2) provide lasting testimony to the children's shame which adults can continue to take pleasure in. The belief that the state should protect the weak is implicit in its stance towards child pornography. However, bestiality is usually just seen as wrong. When it gets considered at all, it is generally seen as degrading towards the humans involved and not the animals. Instead of protecting animals, restrictions against bestiality protect humans from the contagion of deviant sexuality by discouraging thinking about such acts and from advertising the degradation in such acts.

In the cases of bestiality and child pornography, humans-- children and adults-- need to be protected by the state from the thought of deviancy. Voyeuristic moralism cannot be strong enough to overcome titillation or excitement. The state can only stop them in tandem, by stopping the trade in articles. However, in my experience with Customs, it was neither bestiality nor child pornography which constituted deviance. The agent hadn't seen my research materials at all and couldn't know if were deviant according to the legal definition of restricted materials. The problem was that I had pornography, that I looked at pornography, and that I thought about pornography. I broke a boundary situated in gender through which normative behavior gets defined. I thought about bad things. To demonstrate that he re-positioned me as a child by referring to my mother to place me under the protective umbrella of family and state. I was re-positioned in the materials, as one who needs protection, rather than out of them as one who studies them.

These two stories demonstrate the disciplining of women in our sexual culture. The perception of available object stands against the perception of protected object. One needs no protection and is understood as unprotected even against her own goals, agenda, and desires-- she is rampant and accessible. The other also has no protection but needs it. She should be protected by the family and the state. She refuses to be normatively disciplined and needs to return to maternal home, or perhaps the womb. Regardless, the two positions which work in tandem reduce women's place as thinking creatures. They look at women as the flea looks at Bella in the Autobiography.

As a woman who thinks about sex, I must like sex. I become the Bella in body by exploration of the image of Bella or the imaginary Bella. I can only identify with Bella through internalizing her into myself. The understanding of Bella can only happen on my back. OR. As a woman, I can only be outraged by sexuality. If I am not, I need to go back to re-learn the process of outrage or internalize the association and learn shame. I should be ashamed in front of my mother or feel like I've led a man on by studying porn. I can only be the woman in the texts or the one who throws stones at the woman in the texts.

As a woman, regardless of my place as a scholar, I've been taught that I am object of voyeurism, that sexual lessons and moral lessons get written upon my body. People thinking of my research, unselfconsciously, slip into questioning me. The assumption that I am open to questions is implicit. They can learn about my feelings and my sexuality by standing outside and enjoying the deviant and normative discipline being played upon me. They can enjoy and condemn, often in the same sentence, without having to think about the implications of their actions.

Ultimately, if I have a sexual nature, my only action can be submission where I am waiting to be seduced. The process carefully positions a relationship between deviance, sexuality, and gender. Women submit. I can be protected from deviance, but I can't think about the processes from which I might need protection. I can be sexualized, but I cannot choose my own path in sexuality. Both positions re-institute women's position as objects for those higher up the hierarchy of power. Unfortunately, regardless of what's said, I am not one. I am not an object. I am not a child. I am not a woman-waiting-to-be-taken.

So if you're wondering if pornography turns me on, here's my answer. I am not the object of study, so it's none of your business.