Victorian Pornography, Censorship, the Nation-state, and the Ideal of Masculinity in Franco’s Spain


In this article I will focus on the interplay between sexuality, the nation-state, and print culture in Franco’s Spain, using the censorship of Steven Marcus’s The Other Victorians as an entry point. First, I will contextualize this particular case of censorship within the framework of the Francoist political regime in the sixties, its censorship laws, and the nationalist project that shaped them. Then, I will address the centrality of the official ideal of masculinity for the imagining of the nation in Franco’s Spain. Lastly, I will argue that this ideal informed the censor’s reading of the book.

Javier Fernández Galeano

A Ph.D. Candidate at Brown University, he earned a B.A. in History and another B.A. in Anthropology at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. As a Fulbright Scholar, he enrolled in the M.A. in Historical Studies at The New School. Now in the History department at Brown University, his research focuses on the history of sexuality in twentieth-century Argentina and Spain.

The Francoist Regime and its Censorship Laws

Since the late fifties, consumerism and the urban middle-class became an ever more central feature of Spanish socio-political life. This trend resulted in an evident disconnect between the authoritarian regime and the domain of mass-culture (Juliá Díaz, 134-213). In his response to this situation, Manuel Fraga, who was appointed Minister of Information and Tourism in 1962, initiated a process of “liberalization” epitomized in the “Press and Printing Law” of 1966. Along other legislative measures, the law alleviated in some way the control of the censorship organs over printing and journalism. It did not allow for a free press, but was nevertheless considered a liberalizing measure in comparison with the previous censorship law. The previous one had been enacted in 1938, during the Civil War, and was designed by Franco’s brother-in-law, the fascist politician Ramón Serrano Suñer. The 1938 law defined the role of  the journalist as the “apostle of the thinking and the faith of the nation that has recovered its destiny,”1 and made the press into an institution of political indoctrination under the absolute control of the State (Boletín Oficial del Estado, 550). The 1966 law, in its turn, established in theory the freedom of expression and the right to inform, although with very significant limitations:

Respect to truth and morality; compliance with the Law of the National Movement’s Principles and other Fundamental Laws; to the demands posed by national defense, the State’s security and the keeping of interior public order and exterior peace; respect is due to institutions and persons when criticizing political or administrative actions; the courts’ independence and the safeguard of intimacy, and family and personal honor. 2 (Boletín Oficial del Estado, 67)

Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities provides a fundamental theoretical framework to understand how Francoist censorship laws defined the relation between the nation and printing. Anderson argues that “nationalism has to be understood by aligning it, not with self-consciously held political ideologies, but with the large cultural systems that preceded it, out of which—as well as against which—it came into being […] the religious community and the dynastic realm” (12). We can interpret Francoism as an illustration of this argument, but I will also argue that through analysis of the Francoist legal system Anderson’s framework can be expanded to account for the relation between Francoism, the political concepts of the Enlightenment, and the notion of the “sacred.” Francoism was a nationalist political ideology defined in religious terms that, while officially maintaining the dynastic principle (Spain was officially a kingdom without a king), also embraced in its own way “a form of political sovereignty that the Enlightenment had refashioned in democratic terms,” as Federico Finchelstein argues with respect to Argentinean and Italian fascism (173). The notion of Spain as a religious community was central to the regime, as evidenced by the definition of the Spanish Civil War as a “crusade” and of journalists as the “apostles of the thinking and the faith of the nation that has recovered its destiny” (Boletín Oficial del Estado, 550). The “Law of the National Movement’s Principles” (Ley de Principios del Movimiento Nacional) established that Spain submitted to the “Law of God,” (Ley de Dios) according to the Catholic doctrine, which was “inseparable from the national consciousness.”3 Another principle was that the “national community” (note the similarity with Anderson’s terminology) was “founded on Man, the bearer of eternal values, and on the Family”4 (119). In line with this notion, ideas of popular sovereignty and representation inhereted by Francoism from the Enlightenment tradition were reformulated in a very particular way. The law established that the “representative character of the political order is the basic principle of our public institutions. The participation of the people […] will take place through the family, the city council, the trade union and other entities with organic representation.”5 Any other political organization would be declared illegal (119).

Anderson argues that nationalism came into being out of, and also against, previous cultural systems, and so did fascism come into being by reformulating the ideas of popular sovereignty of the Enlightenment. In the case of Francoism, popular sovereignty was sacralized and limited to men as heads of households and members of state-sponsored institutions. Anderson emphasizes the centrality of the concept of sovereignty in the rise of nationalism, and through the Spanish case we can appreciate how this concept was reformulated and appropriated by twentieth-century authoritarian regimes. Franco’s “imagined community” was a national movement under the Law of God whose sovereign will was expressed through male-dominated family units. This brings us to the construction of the nation through the censorship of books whose contents were related to gender and sexuality, and the reification of the male-dominated family as a central institution in the expression and representation of the nation’s sovereign will. In this light, we can better understand the 1966 censorship law’s declared goal of safeguarding “intimacy and family and personal honor”6 (67).

The Other Victorians

Steven Marcus’s The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England was first published in the United Kingdom and the United States in 1966. The author examines both official discourses on sexuality and, above all, the publications that most clearly challenged these discourses, such as the eleven-volume anonymous autobiography My Secret Life and other pornographic Victorian novels. On December 18, 1971, the Spanish publishing house Barral Editores presented a copy of the book to the Ministry of Information and Tourism, as a “voluntary consultation”7 to ascertain whether the regime would allow its publication. Barral Editores was founded in the seventies by the Catalonian poet Carlos Barral y Agesti, and its editorial line reflected the founder’s opposition to the regime. Hence, Barral Editores tried to publish a book such as The Other Victorians, whose content contested the Francoist official discourse regarding gender and sexuality. In fact, the book was intended to be part of a the collection “Brief Library of Answers,” which included the works of authors such as Gilles Deleuze, Ivan Illich, Pedro Laín Entralgo, George Steiner, and Max Horkheimer. These works were published a few years after Barral Editores submitted a copy of The Other Victorians to the Ministry of Information, which points to the fact that publishing houses did manage to print works of critical thinkers despite the censorship. They took advantage of the ambiguities of a dictatorship, which, at certain moments, tried to present itself as a regime that followed the path of liberalization and reform. This also explains why Barral Editores held faint hope to secure the censors’ approval of The Other Victorians, once they had singled out the passages that they found inappropriate.

On December 20, 1971, the “Chief of Readers” (Jefe de Negociado de Lectorado) of the Ministry of Information assigned the book to reader number 27. This reader, whom I will call “the censor” from now on, signed a report on the book on January 10, 1972, recommending its denial based on the following observations:

As objective as this book’s author claims to be in his judgment of sexual and pornographic literature of the Victorian period in England, the quantity of obscene quotations is such that there is no other option than to strike them out. If these novelists’ quotations are suppressed, the author’s comments on them would be in vacuum, apart from the fact that he advances along the same line. There are so many strikethoughs that it is better to reject the book as a whole. As an example, see pages: 59, 80, 91, 92, 93, 94, 96, 102, 104, 105, 110, 112, 114, 116, 117, 119, 121, 122, 123, 125, 126, 131, 133, 137, 141, 142, 143, 144…. NOT AUTHORIZABLE.8

The way in which the Ministry communicated this decision to Barral Editores illustrates the double code employed by the francoist apparatus to lend an appearance of liberalization—directed to an international audience—to what was in fact a repressive practice. The General Director of Popular Culture and Spectacles (Director General de Cultura Popular y Espectáculos) signed a letter to the publishing house that read: “Responding to your consultation on DEC-18-71 it is notified to you that it is not advisable to publish the work titled “LOS OTROS VICTORIANOS” The Other Victorians”—Steven Marcus. May God protect you for many years.”9 The book was not published, Barral Editores understood that the regime’s authorities had determined that it was not advisable, that they meant what the censor had written in the report and, therefore, there was no authorization.

The censor’s report is accompanied by the copy of the book that the publishing house submitted, with the passages that he considered more censurable underlined in red. From now on, I will focus on these passages (in particular, on the pages that he mentioned in this report as an illustration of the book’s obscene character) and on the logic upon which the censor’s decision to single them out is predicated. At some points, it may seem that the censor was merely underlining the obscene words that he found offensive according to his sense of decorum, and we cannot completely dismiss that as the only logic behind his censoring of the text. However, I will argue that his reading was actually informed by and reflects one of the main elements of the Francoist political ideology: the centrality of a proper masculinity (and correspondingly, but to a lesser extent, of a proper femininity) in the articulation of the nation’s values. As we have seen, the male-dominated family was defined by the Francoist legal apparatus as the linchpin of national sovereignty, and therefore a “failed” masculinity threatened not just the man’s domination of his household, but correspondingly the state and the nation themselves. This, I contend, was the logic that guided the censor’s underlining of the text; he singled out those passages in which the author of My Secret Life described practices that were contrary to the Francoist definition of a proper masculinity.

The Francoist Ideal of Masculinity

We can identify two main elements in the Francoist official definition of masculinity: reproductive sexual capacity (which implies sexual impulses), and self-control—the subjection of a man’s own sexual desires to more elevated aims, which is the basis of his authority over his family. Mary Vincent traces the origins of these ideas to the reformulation of nationalist projects in post-First World War Europe, especially by fascist ideologues. After the war, different political groups in Europe represented the nation in martial and virile terms. The new hegemonic masculinity, in turn, relied on martial qualities, such as “discipline, stoicism and tenacity.” True men were brave and strong, and acted pursuant to reason and will, not feelings or impulses. Self-control and strength were therefore the main characteristics of masculinity, defined in opposition to weakness and feminine attributes (“tenderness, intuition, sensitivity”). Men were expected to subdue their emotions, passions, and physical desires, transforming these impulses into masculine action (Vincent, 138). Heterosexuality, which implied both “sexual capacity,” sexual impulses, and the capacity to control them, was intrinsic to this hegemonic definition of masculinity. Indeed, a lack of self control identified those groups who were considered excluded from this form of masculinity, especially homosexuals and Jews. According to Vincent, in the case of Francoist Spain, Catholic and carlista political groups added to this post-First World War hegemonic model a traditional emphasis on paternalism, as these groups were particularly concerned with masculine authority within the household (147). Finally, reproductive sexuality was another fundamental element of the Francoist ideal of masculinity. Procreative sexuality was in line with divine will, but sexual relationships that just sought to derive pleasure from sex were in and of themselves condemnable. Therefore, every sexual behavior whose objective was not procreation was characterized as aberrant in the regime’s official discourse, including “naturally infertile sexual practices, such as masturbation and homosexuality” (Regueillet, 1030-31).

The Censor’s Reading and the Victorian “Failed” Masculinity

From now onwards, I will argue that the censor’s reading was informed by and reflects this Francoist ideal of masculinity. I will show how he singled out those passages in which the author of My Secret Life described practices that were contrary to this ideal. The censor many times underlined swearwords (mostly “cunt,” “prick,” and “fuck”), but what is interesting is that when he underlined longer passages—or the few cases in which he marked a full paragraph with a red line along the margin—those passages or paragraphs were clearly related to the portrayal of practices that the official discourse of the regime would associate with a “failed” masculinity.

On page 93, the author of My Secret Life narrates a “three-sided escapade with a street whore and a drunken sailor.” Later on, the author became aroused while thinking about this erotic scene, to the point of having sex with his wife, although he hated her. In this case, the author is writing about marital sex, but as the result of so strong and uncontrolled sexual drives that make the author forget other considerations. These uncontrolled sexual drives were precisely the antithesis of the official ideal of masculine behavior. Moreover, the author’s relationship with his wife was also contrary to this ideal; based on hatred and economic interest, and non-reproductive. He apparently never had a child by his wife, although he impregnated other women, the majority of whom procured abortions. The next quotation that the censor underlines, on page 96, deals with the author’s attempt to remain faithful to his second wife, having sex with her “with fury and repetition, […] until advised by my doctor that it was as bad for her as for me.” Why censor this passage? After all, the author is trying to mend his ways and become a faithful husband. However, apart from the fact the he is still using an obscene vocabulary, he failed in his attempt. In this story the “invincible” desire for having different sexual partners defeats the author’s will and, considering the centrality of the will’s victory over desire in the official discourse, this may have been more significant for the censor than the attempt itself.

On page 102, the first full paragraph is almost entirely underlined. This is a description of a scene of passionate sex (including an orgasm) with a woman to whom the author pays. Interestingly, it is the first underlined passage in which the author mentions the possibility that he has engendered a child. However, for the author this would have been a collateral, unintended consequence of a sexual act, motivated by pleasure and orgasm (also for the woman, along with money). This way of thinking about the act of conceiving “another living creature” was antithetical to the Francoist authorities’ view on it. Besides, the author reduces the meaning of life to a mere biological cycle and to the most basic hedonistic pleasures (“eat, drink, fuck, die, be buried, and rot”). This view also challenged the regime’s official discourse, according to which the meaning of life was derived from the role of family men and housewives in a sacred national movement.

In the next quotation on page 102, the author asks himself which was the two women’s main motivation to have sex with him, concluding that, apart from money, they wanted to do so. Women’s sexual drives, especially when deprived of any maternal instinct, were also indicative of a failed masculinity according to the regime’s ideology. As noted before, this ideology established that sex should be aimed at reproduction, and men were responsible for subjecting women to this aim. If, on the contrary, women had sex with pleasure as their only purpose, it would evince men’s incapacity to keep women in their assigned role (as was the case under the Republican government, according to the official discourse). In light of this idea, we can also understand the rational behind some other underlined passages. On page 104, the author describes his frequent visits to public houses. During one of these visits, he and one of his friends “asked the women to bet on which of us had the biggest prick, and the girls felt us outside quite openly […]” At another public house, “they turned a woman and a sailor out by force, who were too noisy and rather drunk. “Let’s go and fuck, Tom,” said the woman, who was most willing to leave than the man.” In this passage, women take the initiative to have sex or to touch the men’s genitals. This women’s “shameless” attitude would demonstrate, in the eyes of the regime, men’s failure to exert their authority over them. On page 122, the censor read a description of a sexual act during which the woman incited the author and made it very explicit her liking of sex and her preference for having sex with a male instead of masturbating. On the same page, the following underlined quotation describes this woman’s orgasm in an explicit and obscene language. All these descriptions of women actively engaged in voluptuous sex were intolerable for the censor.

From now on, I will to focus on those passages marked with a red line along the margin, to argue that the reason why they were singled out is that their content was deemed particularly unacceptable by the censor. These were passages that described attitudes or practices through which men relinquished their manhood (understood as a position of domination) by showing their vulnerability or lack of sexual capacity; or by surrendering to their sexual drives in the presence of women who thus gained a position of superiority over them. This was, I argue, the most intolerable option for a man according to the official discourse, and consequently in these cases the censor chose to single out whole paragraphs instead of underlying the swearwords.

The long quotation on page 117 is the first example of how the censor followed this logic. In this passage, the author writes about some episodes of impotence and how this affected him, particularly in one occasion, upon feeling very attracted to the woman. Even so, he finally had to renounce having sex with her and felt ashamed in front of her, while she reacted calmly, giving him a kiss and leaving. This scene could be read from the perspective of the Francoist ideal of manhood as a display of “failed masculinity.” As noted before, sexual drives and sexual capacity were integral to the that ideal that men had to be fertile and able to control their desires. In this passage, on the contrary, the author presents himself as insecure and unable to achieve an erection. Moreover, he describes his genitals (the symbols of masculinity par excellence) in a rather pejorative way, as “a sucked gooseberry, a mere bit of dwindling, flexible, skinny gristle.” He even notes that fear (of women’s excitement, of their reaction to his genitals’ size) and nervousness could be among the causes of this problem. Fear of women’s sexuality and of sexual inadecuacy, concern about the size of his genitals, and recognizing his impotency in front of a woman were all likely signs of a failed masculinity to the censor. Therefore, his singling out of this whole paragraph suggests that the censor was particularly concerned with upholding the ideal of masculinity,.

The same can be said about the next whole quotation that he marked with a red line along the margin, on page 126. This passage describes how a man fulfills his sexual fantasy of being subject to women’s will. The censor read a portrayal of a man on his knees; crying and whispering as a child, and being treated as such by women whom he paid to do so. He read how a man whose age and economic situation granted him a position of power, yet succumbed to his sexual drives and paid women to abuse him. He read how two other gentlemen became aroused while contemplating this scene; how the author even “frigged” the old man’s genitals; and how this man was “lifeless” after finally ejaculating. This was a flagrant violation of all the principles on which the Francoist ideal of masculinity relied. Instead of exercising the authoritarian role of father and husband, the old gentleman used his privileged social status to fulfill his masochist sexual fantasies, allowing women to dominate him as an erotic strategy. Besides, two other men experienced voyeuristic pleasure observing this; then one of them aroused another man, both of them inexcusable actions. Finally, the censor could have read the fact that the old man was “lifeless” after orgasm as a demonstration of how ceding to sexual drives leads to a loss of will and rationality. Indeed, the Spanish psychiatrist Linares Maza had argued in the forties that sadomasochism was a perversion of the sexual instinct much more likely to affect men than women (Medina Doménech, 48-49). Therefore, coming back to the censor’s reading, and taking into account that Spanish mental health specialists considered sadomasochism to be particularly threatening to men’s self-control, it made sense to read this quotation as a most challenging threat to the ideal of masculinity.

The next full quotation marked with a red line in the margin, on page 131, describes how a female servant mortified the author, accusing him of not being “man enough.” The censor also marked for the first time the whole paragraph in which Marcus commented and interpreted the scene. The author of My Secret Life is narrating how he panicked and had another episode of erectile dysfunction. To make things worse, in this case it was in front of a woman of a much lower social status, who was “far ahead of him,” urged him on, and finally made fun of him and accused him of not being “man enough.” He was overwhelmed by her genitals and for days felt ashamed of his sexual incapacity and “washed himself compulsively.” This scene was a clear transgression of both the Francoist ideal of masculinity and social hierarchies. This ideal was that of a self-controlled man who never panics; a man who cannot be afraid, ridiculed or overwhelmed, and who is more than able to have reproductive sex with a woman. This woman, for her part, would never take the initiative and make her sexual desires explicit in the way the female servant did in this episode. Furthermore, as Matilde Peinado Rodríguez and José Luis Anta Félez have both emphasized, these models dovetailed with the strict social hierarchies between the upper and the lower classes (strengthened under Franco’s regime) insofar as they were mostly based on the lifestyle of upper and upper-middle class households, in which the man’s income could be enough to sustain the family (35-46). Therefore, a scene in which an adolescent “gentleman” allowed a female servant to make fun of him because of his sexual incapacity was particularly intolerable according to these exemplars.

The last two paragraphs marked with a red line along the margin that I will address show what the censor seems to have interpreted as a failed masculinity by way of an excess. In these last two passages, the lack of self-control is evidenced in the author’s resorting to rape to fulfill his sexual desires. Anne-Gaelle Regueillet emphasizes that the predominant gender model in Francoist Spain paradoxically required that men demonstrate their virility by seducing women, but also that they act as the guarantors of these women’s honor (1031). Rape was the worst affront to female honor, and therefore men who were unable to control their excessive sexual impulses and resorted to rape were at the same time failing to perform their masculine duties. Finally, the paragraph marked with a red line in the margin on page 144 corresponds to Marcus’s description of a failed rape attempt of a lower-status woman that ended with the author’s ejaculation. This epitomizes many of the elements of his behavior that made his life so opposed to the Francoist ideal of masculinity: non-reproductive sexuality, unrestrained sexual drives, lack of self-control and of respect for women’s role and honor, and lack of the decorum that was particularly expected from upper-class men.

In this article, I have argued that the censor found these quotations of My Secret Life, or those interpretations of it by Steven Marcus, particularly striking inasmuch they evinced the “failed” masculinity of the Victorian gentleman who wrote this book. The centrality of masculinity for a regime that based its definition of sovereignty on the reproduction of male authority within the household likely played a fundamental role in the censorship of this book. That is not the same as arguing that the censor was consciously relying on official discourses on masculinity when underscoring particular passages of the book. My contention, on the contrary, is that even if this was not the case, he could have internalized the predominant sexual and gender normativity to the point of unconsciously marking those passages that clearly challenged the official discourse on politics and sexuality. In this way, the red lines in this book evidence how a political ideology that placed masculinity at the core of the nation, as an underpining sovereignty, shaped the daily operations of a state machinery to ensure that no publication would ever destabilize this model.

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Javier Fernández Galeano, « Victorian Pornography, Censorship, the Nation-state, and the Ideal of Masculinity in Franco’s Spain », Journal of Graduate Research, Volume 1.1, Columbia University | LAIC, Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures (online), published on October 6, 2015. Full URL for this article

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