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"What is pornotopia? [...] The isolated castle on an inaccessible mountain top, the secluded country estate set in the middle of a large park and surrounded by insurmountable walls, the mysterious town house in London or Paris, the carefully furnished and elaborately equipped set of apartments to be found in any city at all, the deserted cove at the seaside, or the solitary cottage atop the cliffs, the inside of a brothel rented for a day, a week, or a month, or the inside of hotel room rented for the night — these are all the same place and are identically located." (Marcus, 1964: 271.)

"A remote and isolated retreat, as if silence, distance, and stillness were libertinage's potent vehicles."--The 120 Days of Sodom (1785|1904) by Marquis de Sade

Ruins of the Château de Lacoste of Marquis de Sade
Ruins of the Château de Lacoste of Marquis de Sade

Related e



Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Pornotopia is a term coined by the critic Steven Marcus to describe a theoretical fantasy world in which everyone is ready and willing to indulge in all kinds of sexual activity. Steven Marcus introduced the concept in his book The Other Victorians (1964) to describe the setting in Victorian pornography, specifically commenting on the work The Romance of Lust (see inset left).

The term can most readily applied to the work of Marquis de Sade, of whom Henry Spencer Ashbee says that it takes place in "unfrequented forests, in imaginary châteaux, in unknown convents, or in impossible caverns." (cited in Forbidden Books of the Victorians)

The term is now in general use and has been used as the title of many pornographic books, articles, websites, comics and videos, as well as being a hedonistic ideal.



Pornotopia is characterized by its freedom from the normal social restraints of place and time - as Marcus put it, "It is always summertime in pornotopia". External reality is either split off entirely, or its problems dissolved under a tide of sex.

Narrative flow will hang on a tenuous line - a picaresque adventure allowing for multiple encounters, or perhaps a Sadean multiplication of all possible combinations of persons/orifices.

Beginnings will be sketchy, but, as Marcus argues, "it is an end, a conclusion of any kind, that pornography most resists": one reason Susan Sontag singled out the novel The Image as transcending its genre, was precisely its finely structured conclusion, retrospectively illuminating all that had gone before.


Characters in Pornotopia are typically ithyphallic, ever ready for sex, and with an almost omnipotent capacity for renewal and further action.

They are also largely invulnerable. Thus in the Story of O, just as the chains never rust in her fairytale-style château, so too the inhabitants are never damaged by their ordeals, and never lose an iota of their allure in a triumph of the imaginary over the reality principle.


Historian Brian Harrison criticized Marcus's concept of pornotopia for being based exclusively on a small number of mid-Victorian texts drawn solely from Britain, from which Marcus drew far-reaching conceptual conclusions about the comprehensive genre of pornography. More recently, Thomas Joudrey, drawing on the same archive that Marcus had examined at the Kinsey Institute, challenged the concept of pornotopia by calling attention to the pervasive presence of bodily decay, suffering, and death in Victorian pornographic novels, manifested in such phenomena as impotence, castration, torn foreskins, slack vaginas, incontinence, and syphilitic outbreaks. Joudrey further challenged the concept of pornotopia by drawing attention to extensive political commentary in pornographic magazines such as The Pearl, including references to the Reform Bills and Contagious Diseases Acts, in addition to many controversial public figures, including Annie Besant, Charles Spurgeon, Wilfrid Lawson, Newman Hall, Edmund Burke, William Gladstone, and Robert Peel.

See also

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