‘Sex Scenes That Would Offend the Marquis de Sade’
: The Queer Significance of Obscenity in William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and John Waters’ ‘Trash Trilogy’, 1959 – 1985

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Accounts of US censorship in the twentieth century paint an era dominated by the proliferation of sexual imagery. Against this trajectory of broadening acceptance, however, queer- focused studies have pointed to the regulatory interest paid to different forms of sexual expression to illuminate what Whitney Strub describes as ‘a deeply entrenched aversion to homosexuality’ in US law. This thesis analyses the work and receptions of William S. Burroughs and John Waters to examine how forms of non-normative sexuality or queerness are made significant as obscene exceptions. Despite research in English literary studies unpicking the purportedly transgressive sexual politics of the ‘obscene’ modernist novel, queer authors deemed obscene have offered ways to reimagine sexual identity and desire. Besides this, Film and Pornography Studies have shown how obscenity law was used to censor non-normative sexual expression and police the cinema as a site of queer gathering. I build from this disciplinary intersection to theorise Burroughs and Waters as practitioners of a specifically queer form of obscenity that asks us to attend to the historical conditions of possibility that determine both what can be said and the legibility of different meanings.

Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and Waters’ ‘trash trilogy’ films – Pink Flamingos, 1972, Female Trouble, 1974, and Desperate Living, 1977 – have been positioned as obscene by courtrooms, censor boards, college campuses, critics, and the gay community. Examining the works through their encounters with censorship, I position these works as cultural objects that speak to the entanglement of obscenity and queerness in the US legal system and cultural imagination. I focus on the Boston trial of Naked Lunch alongside the recurring attempts to suppress Waters’ ‘trash trilogy’ by the Maryland State Board of Censors to illuminate the unresolved contradictions of mid-century obscenity law. Reading the works and their receptions as sites where the definition of obscenity has been repeatedly tested, this thesis analyses the work that the obscene has been made to do at different times by different groups with different access to power. I trace the cultural circulation of the works to illuminate how the obscene has been made to function in simultaneous and contradictory ways, as legal threshold for unconstitutional speech, transgressive signifier for counter-cultural value appropriations, and colloquial shorthand for material deemed either harmful, sexually arousing, or in poor taste. 
This thesis, then, investigates how the ‘confused and shifting concept’ of obscenity was applied to and appropriated as queerness in the USA post-1945. My analysis is structured along four defining facets of mid-century obscenity law. I use the first, ‘redeeming social significance’, in Chapter One to show how obscenity law structured the legibility of queer meaning in Burroughs and Waters’ works. The second, ‘artistic merit’, underpins my consideration of the recurring emphasis on formal failure in disparagements of Burroughs and Waters in Chapter Two. Chapter Three focuses on the ‘stirring of sexual interest’ to examine how viscerally feeling bodies are put to work in assertions of obscenity. And my final chapter analyses how Burroughs and Waters both evoked and exploited fears of deviant sexual interest through the legal concept of ‘prurient appeal to the average reader’. Comparing Burroughs and Waters’ articulations of sexual identity and desire by examining the historical conditions of the sayable that shape and re- shape the meanings of their works, I identify the possibility for a particular form of queer legibility that is, perhaps unexpectedly, staged and contested through the attribution of obscenity. 
Date of Award1 Aug 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorMark Turner (Supervisor) & Elena Gorfinkel (Supervisor)

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