Ribaldry is humorous entertainment that ranges from bordering on indelicacy to vulgar. It is a third, and somewhat neglected, genre of sexual entertainment. It is often confused with pornography and erotica. It is also referred to as "bawdiness", "gaminess" or "bawdry".
Unlike either pornography or erotica, which play sexual intercourse or sexual fetishes "straight", ribaldry aims at humor. Sexual situations and titillation are presented in ribald material more for the purpose of poking fun at the foibles and weaknesses that manifest themselves in human sexuality, rather than to present sexual stimulation either excitingly or artistically. Also, ribaldry may use sex as a metaphor to illustrate some non-sexual concern, in which case ribaldry may verge on the territory of satire.
Like any humour, ribaldry may be read as conventional or subversive. Ribaldry typically depends on a shared background of sexual conventions and values, and its comedy generally depends on seeing those conventions broken. Depending on their attitude, viewers can perceive this either as poking fun on the poor souls who suffer the consequences of breaking the taboos, or as flouting the taboos themselves.
The ritual taboo-breaking that is a usual counterpart of ribaldry underlies its controversial nature and explains why ribaldry is frequently a subject of censorship. Ribaldry, whose usual aim is not "merely" to be sexually stimulating, often does address larger concerns than mere sexual appetite. However, being presented in the form of comedy, these larger concerns seem to censors to be un-serious. Moreover, the presence of satirical content in ribaldry tends to arouse the wrath of authorities, who may overlook more explicit sexual entertainments in order to prosecute comedians whom they perceive as attacking conventions they wish to maintain.
Ribaldry has likely been around for the whole history of the human race, and is present to some degree in every culture. Works like Aristophanes' Lysistrata, the Menaechmi by Plautus, the Cena Trimalchionis by Petronius, and the Metamorphoses or The Golden Ass of Apuleius are ribald classics from ancient Europe. Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Miller's Tale" from his Canterbury Tales is a classic medieval example. François Rabelais showed himself to be a master of ribaldry (technically called grotesque body) in his Gargantua. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne and The Lady's Dressing Room by Jonathan Swift. Mark Twain's long-suppressed 1601 certainly falls in this category.
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