Most critical accounts of the history of pornography note that the term is traceable to Nicolas-Edme Rétif de la Bretonne's Pornographe, which they dismiss in the same breath because of its nonpornographic status. Although Rétif wrote only one pornographic novel, L'Anti-Justine (1798), his contributions to the genre merit further analysis. This essay argues that Rétif played an important role in circumscribing the moral and legal limits of sexual representation in the eighteenth century and beyond. He did so not by producing blatantly obscene texts but by working to push the boundaries of decency and propriety while inviting censors and the public to hone their understanding of these concepts. In producing increasingly daring versions of Le paysan perverti (1775), Rétif repeatedly forced authorities to redraw the line between the passable and the prohibited. In this way he helped shape the category of the illicit at its borders, contributing more to the development of pornography than simply its name.

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