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Heteronormativity and Fanny Hill

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2069 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Heteronormativity and Fanny Hill

 According to the Oxford English Dictionary, heteronormativity is defined as, “…the privileging of biologically determined gender roles and heterosexuality”. John Cleland takes pleasure in making sure that the sexual encounters that occur with Fanny Hill only matter when she is involved with the opposite sex. The standards for female sexuality in the eighteenth-century were less than progressive and were often targeted towards being unnatural (Perry, 211). Since Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure was written by a man who, when it came to all things political was, “cold, benumbing, and soporific”, it is safe to assume that female autonomy outside of his novel was not a concern of his (Nichols). John Cleland obsesses over heteronormative contexts and experiences, favoring the ideology of female pleasure only being achieved through heterosexual sex.

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 In the eighteenth-century, with substantial evidence from writers like Eliza Haywood and John Wilmont, literature that involved sexual promiscuity was prevalent. Along with its occurrence was the emphasis on heterosexuality. John Cleland’s narrative on Fanny Hill depicts as the poster of the heterosexual woman as he entirely erases Phoebe, Fanny’s first sexual partner out of her story. Fanny’s initial sexual encounter with Phoebe is only described in the nature that Phoebe takes on a role that is pseudo-masculine. Professor Catherine Craft-Fairchild in her text Sexual and Textual Indeterminacy says, “Phoebe, …, is partially masculinized” (417). One sees that when you analyze the language Cleland uses on page 68, “‘…Oh! That I were a man for your sake—!’ with the like broken expressions, interrupted by kisses as fierce and salacious as ever I received from the other sex (Fair-Child, 417). Cleland uses words like “salacious” to describe Phoebe’s actions because her actions can be seen as masculine. Cleland wants to make sure that while he is establishing this same-sex encounter, that their relationship resembles a distinct characteristic of heteronormativity; with Phoebe as the dominate subject.

 Although, as this will be Fanny’s first sexual encounter, this would not count as her loss of virginity. In the context of a world absorbed by heteronormativity, virginity for women is defined as having been penetrated. “Before the twentieth century, virginity loss was probably understood as resulting from vaginal intercourse, but not from partnered sexual activities such as manual stimulation” (Carpenter, et al. 1995, 2001). Cleland stresses the fact that while Fanny is having a sexual experience, her innocence is still attached because she is not truly engaged in sex that matters. Fanny and Phoebe’s encounter does not count in terms of loss of virginity because Fanny needs a man to do that. Cleland attempts to highlight this innocence in Fanny by his use of language, “For my part, I was transported, confused, and out of myself: Feelings so new were too much for me…” (Cleland, 68). Fanny’s innocence is attached to her virginity and while Phoebe’s role in this scene is dominant, she is still a woman and therefore Fanny would need to have a heterosexual interaction to lose her innocence.

 Charles is the man that Fanny loses her virginity to and it is at this time where Cleland beats the dead horse of heteronormativity. Throughout the scene, one can see where Fanny’s language explains why heterosexual sex should be preferred, “Oh insupportable delight! Oh superhumane rapture! What pain could stand before a pleasure so transporting? (Cleland, 103). She calls her experience with him “superhumane” and description she never used with Phoebe. Cleland says that Fanny kisses him in the type of way that is validate by “true love” (103). These smalls instances establish a philosophy among not just Cleland but of the mindset of his time. Thomas Alan Holmes in his article Sexual Positions and Sexual Politics he explains the reason for this obsession among Cleland, “The reason for this preference becomes clearer when one recognizes that in the context of the Memoirs, the male-over-female sexual position physically embodies the ideal of a patriarchal culture” (125). While the twenty-first century has its fair share of patriarchal difficulties, life for women in the eighteenth-century (especially when it came to sex) was like prison.

When it came to Phoebe, because she was a woman, Cleland did not write Fanny to completely submit to her because that did not fall in line within the heteronormative conventions of the time. The loss of her heteronormative virginhood goes in line with women submitting to the patriarchy. In Fanny Hill in Bombay: The Making and Unmaking of John Cleland, Hal Gladfelder says, “The novel, of course, has been both celebrated and attacked for conjuring a “pornotopia” of willing feminine confinement and endless sexual availability, the commodification of female sexuality taken to a fantastic extreme” (Gladfelder, 32). John Cleland’s obsession with making sure readers of Memoirs understand the importance of heterosexuality goes hand-in-hand with his ideas of the patriarchy. One can see the way he describes the sexual acts in the novel as his own way of declaring his own patriarchal and sexual domination over women.

It begins to lean towards the philosophy that John Cleland is writing Memoirs with the lens of a man, with a specific agenda behind his writing. Gary Gautier talks about the narrative voice that John Cleland uses in Memoirs and it seems compliment the argument of Cleland obsessing over heteronormativity. Gautier says, “John Cleland’s chosen narrative voice in Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, that of Fanny Hill, obviously invites the charge that he is constructing a female subjectivity which suits a male agenda” (Gautier). His chosen voice for Fanny does not seem to be from the perspective of someone who embodies an actual female voice. The first time she has sex with Charles is a painful affair for her but there are times in the scene where it can be interpreted that her pain becomes secondary in favor for his pleasure. One can possibly see that in this description, “He looks, he feels, and satisfies himself then driving forward with fury…he improves his advantage …forcibly deepens his penetration; but put me to such intolerable pain…” (Cleland, 102).

Cleland’s emphasis on the purity of heterosexuality can be seen in the way Cleland seems to write about the Fanny sees male genitalia. Fanny, in different parts of the texts, refers to the male penis as a machine, “Her sturdy stallion had now unbutton’d, and produced naked, stiff, and erect, that wonderful machine…” (Cleland, 83). In the footnote of the Broadview edition of Memoirs, it references La Mettrie in Appendix C3; when referring to machine Cleland is, “figuring as part of a more general stress on the responsive and mechanical function of the body during sex” (Cleland, 83). With this footnote in mind, as well as the numerous times Cleland has Fanny refer to a penis as such, one cannot help but think that this is how Cleland thinks a man should respond to a woman.

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Machines are typically known for doing specific tasks or an intended action. If a specific machine that is being used to make one thing but either makes something else or stops working all together, then there a serious problem. If a man is not sexually attracted to a woman or vice versa, in Cleland’s view, that is not normal. He calls the male genitalia machines because they were designed for one thing; pleasuring women and women can only receive true pleasure from that genitalia. Professor Leo Braudy states that, “Cleland does recognize that sexual indulgence invites a loss of self-consciousness and self-control. The body itself, defined in the sexual moment only by its physiological makeup, responds mechanically, like a mere machine” (Braudy, 30). Braudy’s understanding of this philosophy goes along with deep, intricate analysis but one can simply read Memoirs and understand that he has a certain belief on the physiological aspects of sex. Taking in account for Braudy’s statements and Cleland’s theme of heteronormativity, one comes to the realization that Cleland believes heterosexuality to be a mechanical aspect of humans.

The denouncing of anything besides heterosexuality in Memoirs would create a world within the text in which only heterosexuality exists. The other occurrences in the novel like Phoebe’s scene or when Fanny witnesses two men having sex, would be considered glitches in Cleland’s heteronormative world. Braudy also speaks about the notion of what bad sexuality is and that it is clinical, devoid of life and emotion (Braudy, 23). Fanny’s experiences with “good” sexuality (heterosexuality) are full of pleasure, pain, and she expresses herself willingly. While her scene with Phoebe, she was confused and unsure. The way she described her experiences with other men in comparison with Phoebe were lackluster. 

Contemporarily, we have not strayed far from a heteronormative society and the way Cleland describes female pleasure, and its sole obtainability through heterosexual sex is likewise with today’s sexual culture. John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure exemplifies what it means to be not only a woman in eighteenth-century society but also a man. Heterosexual sex was and still is considered the purest and only sexual activity that stems from human nature. Along with a few men and women of his time, John Cleland, through his language and depiction of Fanny Hill, believed that the sexual mechanics humans possessed where created for the purpose of the opposite sex and that one could only achieve pleasure that way.

Work Cited

  • Braudy, Leo. “Fanny Hill and Materialism.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 4 (1970): 21-40.
  • Cleland, John, Richard Terry, and Helen Williams. Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. Broaview Press, Ontario, Canada, 2018.
  • Craft-Fairchild, Catherine. “Sexual and Textual Indeterminacy: Eighteenth-Century English Representations of Sapphism.” Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 15, no. 3, 2006, pp. 408-431,527. ProQuest, http://ezproxy.emich.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/222683287?accountid=10650.
  • Gautier, Gary. “Fanny’s Fantasies: Class, Gender and the Unreliable Narrator in Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure.” Literature Resource Center, 1994, www.style.niu.edu/index.html.
  • Gladfelder, Hal. Fanny Hill in Bombay : The Making and Unmaking of John Cleland, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/emich/detail.action?docID=3318583.
  • “heteronormativity, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, December 2018, www.oed.com/view/Entry/275595. Accessed 11 December 2018.
  • Holmes, Thomas A. “Sexual Positions and Sexual Politics: John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure.” South Atlantic Review, vol. 74, no. 1, 2009, pp. 124
  • Lanser, Susan S: Of Closed Doors and Open Hatches: Heteronormative Plots in Eighteenth-Century (Women’s) Studies Eighteenth Century (53:3) Fall 2012, 273-290,391.
  • ichols, John. “Obiturary of Cleland in the Gentlemen’s Magazine”. 59. February 1789, 180
  • Perry, Ruth. “Colonizing the Breast: Sexuality and Maternity in Eighteenth-Century England.” Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 2, no. 2, 1991, pp. 204-234
  • “The Ambiguity of ‘Having Sex’: The Subjective Experience of Virginity Loss in the United States.” The Journal of Sex Research 38.2 (2001): 127–139. Web


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