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Medical Publishers, Obscenity Law and the Business of Sexual Knowledge in Victorian Britain

Britain's production of books on all branches of medicine, including volumes that described sexual physiology, psychology, disease and dysfunction, expanded tremendously in the nineteenth century. Publishing such works, however, could be a risky business.

In a cultural context where detailed sexual descriptions were believed to damage readers' morals, medical works on sexual matters occupied a precarious position, somewhere between the licit and the illicit. Anxieties about their propriety rose dramatically during the first decades of the Victorian period, when anti-vice societies started to prosecute pornographers and unorthodox (called 'quack') medical practitioners for publishing and distributing 'obscene' works on sexual health and disease under the Vagrancy Act (1824) and the Obscene Publications Act (1857). Problematically, the content of these works could be virtually identical to necessarily explicit professional textbooks authored by respected practitioners – and there was no certain means of preventing the application of obscenity law to them.

Drawing on a wide range of historical documents, including publishers' and court records, medical books and periodicals, and ephemera, this project examines how some of the Victorian period's most respected medical publishers negotiated cultural anxieties about explicit medical writing, and worked with practitioners to set standards that defined what did and did not count as a legitimate medical publication. In doing so, it investigates the role of publishing practices, and debates about publishing, in the professionalisation of medicine.

This project is funded by the Wellcome Trust.

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Sarah Bull