This is rather a curate’s egg of a book, so I’ll review it under several headings because, fine work though it is, when viewed from different perspectives it scores very differently.
First the use of facts. Moore doesn’t footnote anything. There are no references. Apart from one hilarious case where even he says that something is pretty implausible and quotes his source, there’s really no way of telling where he got some of his facts from. In some cases he is simply wrong. In other cases he allows a somewhat rose-tinted view of the distant past overtake reality. For example, he rightly excoriates the Victorian habit of men indulging in sexual debauch while freezing out their women (though he, strangely, seems to think this a uniquely Anglo-Saxon phenomenon) but holds the view that, say, Roman society was massively permissive. Which it wasn’t: Roman women of quality were just as tightly bound as Victorian; we hear so much about the ravers because they were exceptions and notorious. And the Greek society that he idolises (by which I think he means classical Athens) was immensely hypocritical, with men doing things with boys and prostitutes they would never dream of doing in the home, and would kill their wives (over whom they had power a Taleban leader might only wish for) if they found them doing it. The pernicious sexual schizophrenia of Western society, the split between the man’s world and the family world, was born in the Athens of Pericles.
Moving on, Moore takes the usual ahistorical view of Christianity and the later Rome Empire (his chronology seems to break down at this point as well), has a touchingly quaint faith in the notion that there was something called the ‘Dark Ages’ and generally makes it sound as if all were swingers before the puritans came along. And that pornography has become more and more dehumanised over time. Well, for one thing, this is a very Whiggish view of history, and for a second, one only has to look at, say, some of the precursors to Tijuana Bibles issued in France before and after the Revolution (in which poor Marie Antoinette figured somewhat overmuch) to see that crassly stupid crudity is not a phenomenon of modernity, it’s just that we usually only see the good stuff from the past, whereas now we see all of it because time has not yet winnowed out the chaff.
And finally, for this part, I was simply stunned at the massively Eurocentric view of history. What about the influence of Islamic culture? Is Anglo-Saxon Europe really the only place where the double-standard reigned? Oh yes and, even more finally, I do find Moore’s enthusiasm for the anything goes culture a little lacking in thought. As well as the effect of time, one of the reasons why past erotica tends to be interesting, while modern porn isn’t is simply that the constraints under which artists in the past worked forced them to be more indirect and to work to a higher quality than is now the case; pornographers were more inventive. To see this, look at this piece of mine and compare and contrast modern ‘glamour’ shots with past. No constraint is as bad for art as too much constraint.
So, why four stars. For a simple reason. Though it does flag at the end, this is a wonderfully well written polemic, and it really doesn’t matter if it wouldn’t hold water as an academic study. It is a rant, and hugely enjoyable as such, and that is all it is intended to be. And as such, it succeeds admirably.