February 2013 | Rebecca Rego Barry

Images of a Bawdy America

cover.pngAn enhanced ebook on early American erotica? Yes, it's difficult not to grin, and yet, one quickly realizes the seriousness with which its author has researched, written, and designed Such Were My Temptations: Bawdy Americans, 1760-1830 (iTunes, Amazon, $2.99).

The project began when Dorothee E. Kocks, PhD and former tenure-track professor, took time off from the scholarly world to pursue fiction. In researching her novel, The Glass Harmonica, at the American Antiquarian Society, Winterthur, the Lilly Library, and the Kinsey Institute, she discovered a concurrent non-fiction topic worth pursuing. The result, as she describes it, is "a picture book about America's first sexual revolution."

The interactive nature of the ebook--with streaming video, audio clips, and pop-up questions to answer via social media--is inviting. Let's be clear, though, the historic images can be shocking even to modern eyes, which is why Kocks recently adapted the ebook with modesty shields. I asked her a few questions about why she chose the subject and the possibility of controversy.

RRB: Has anyone called this a scholarly Fifty Shades of Grey? (I am half-joking, but the erotica genre, particularly in ebooks, is booming.)

DEK: I think we always discover interesting things about ourselves when we touch the edge of something illicit or naughty. Fifty Shades made it safe for any one and everyone to peek at another world. I would be thrilled if that new permission extends to Such Were My Temptations. Even though it's scholarly, the images are truly racy. I was scared to go there myself. The privacy afforded by a museum-in-your-palm - the "rich-media" ebook - gives us the perfect vehicle to go exploring, it seems to me.

RRB: You created this enhanced ebook as a companion to a novel you wrote. Tell me about the decision to write fiction after a PhD and tenure-track position in history at the University of Utah.

DK: A novel pushes me to empathize more widely than I did as a scholar alone. I have to feel what the first American sexual revolution was like, not just describe it. I have to get inside it. I love that challenge. The "Johnny Appleseed of porn" character in my novel required a lot of research - research that was way too fun to leave on the cutting-room floor. I gathered it all up in Such Were My Temptations.

As for the decision to leave a tenure-track position, it was a foolish midlife gamble - and I've never regretted it. I knew I wouldn't have time to do it all. Learning to write fiction took ten years of quiet apprenticeship. The impetus came from wanting more spiritual growth than I was developing as an academic.

RRB: Last week you released a version of the ebook with "modesty shields." What's the reason for that? Was there a backlash to the nature of some of the historic images?

DK: I'm anticipating backlash, but it hasn't happened yet. We're just getting the word out. We meant to release Such Were My Temptations in the fall, but Amazon's app store rejected it. The Amazon bookstore, a separate division, accepted the book recently. It's the exact same book with a hidden technical difference. The videos, such as reciting a bawdy poem of the time, would have played a little more smoothly with app vs ebook technology. Why did Amazon reject it at first? I don't know. I'm mystified. Maybe it was backlash. They said it was content, but the content guidelines (which prohibit porn) are identical in the app store and the bookstore. Now readers get to tell us what they think.

The modesty-shield edition is a humble .pdf that readers can request through the contact form on my website, BewareTheTimidLife.com. I wanted everyone to have an option to dip their toe into these waters.

RRB: This ebook seems like a wonderful learning tool for mature (18+) students to understand the history of erotica in book publishing, art, and the culture at large. Is that the market for it? If not, who?
DK: Yes I really hope students find it, and also life-long learners of any age. The founding generations of this country faced the same, really tough questions that we do - about love and sex and marriage. My novel, The Glass Harmonica, A Sensualist's Tale, asks: what if pleasure leads to virtue instead of to vice? When we open up to the world and experience it fully and without fear, do we become better people? The border between noble restraint and freedom is such a tricky one, and the characters in my fiction and the real people in the museum-ebook ply that boundary bravely ... and stupidly, and in all the very human ways.