Smut, nudies, dirty rags, porno — erotic imagery has been around for so long that even our names for it sound passé. But where did pornography come from, and how did it grow into the ubiquitous commercial behemoth that it is today?
People have been having sex since before they could be considered “people” as we understand the term, which means that other people have been watching that sex for just as long. Our prefrontal cortex — aka our reward system — activates when exposed to sexual imagery. While I’m not suggesting that mankind’s predecessors were voyeurs, it stands to reason that sexual response to visible sexuality is an inherited trait to ensure the survival of the species.
Like all things that humans crave, we found easier and easier ways of filling our needs. While there are prehistoric examples of many fertility figures, such as the Venus of Willendorf and other figurines with exaggerated sex characteristics, we cannot guarantee that these were used erotically. A possible exception dates to roughly 5200 BCE, when German hunter-gatherers sculpted a man and a woman having sex. These pieces were likely used to celebrate or ensure sexual fertility.
Some 2000 years later in the Mesopotamian Early Dynastic Period, erotic religious art was widespread. Cultures across the cradle of civilization depicted sexual acts in their art. Though art was still mainly used for religious purposes, it’s clear by this time that these images also served erotic purposes. Scores of erotic depictions dedicated to the patron of prostitution were found at the temple of the goddess Inanna at Assur dating to this time.
The trend of sacred eroticism continued through classical Grecian and Roman art, and sexual imagery can be seen in many extant works from that time. Greek and Roman citizens still did not consider these images explicit; the art from these places depicts their daily life. Interestingly, sexual depiction seems to have skipped the Ancient Egyptians. Although there are artefacts with sexual symbology, the people of Egypt skimped on the explicit phalli and vulva revered in other cultures.
India, Japan, China, Persia and other empires produced copious quantities of art celebrating the human sexual experience. These works depict love between men and women as well as same-sex love. One of the most famous examples is of course the Kama Sutra, dating to the first few centuries of the Common Era. The Tale of Genji, regarded as the world’s oldest novel, was written in Japan in the eleventh century and depicts carnal love affairs. Another example are Japanese “shunga” woodblock prints, which originated in the 13th century and remained popular (despite several attempts at banning them) until the advent of photography, around 600 years later.
Much like with woodblocks in Japan, the printing press revolutionized pornography in Europe. Previously, erotic images had been relegated to calligraphic margins — essentially doodles produced by monks who hand-copied books. Mass circulation changed the erotic world, and prints depicting explicit sex as well as stylized fertility symbols were easy to obtain. The sexual stories of classic gods were seen as “justifiable” under the Church’s rule, and even Michelangelo depicted sexual congress in progress. Until Raimondi published a series of engravings of sexual positions, I Modi, and was arrested by Pope Clement VII in 1524, there is very little record of the suppression of erotic materials.
From the invention of the printing press on, erotica marched ever forward, keeping pace with a society that continuously demanded more — and as society demanded more, authorities tried harder to squash it. Though there were many attempts to quell the surge of smut, erotica became engrained in European culture after the Enlightenment. The Pope created a list of banned books in 1557, a practice which continued until 1965.
Across England and France, pornographic texts served a dual purpose, often acting as political commentary as well as sexual fodder. A famous example is Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (later abridged and renamed The Adventures of Fanny Hill) written in 1748 by John Cleland. The text satirized the fashion and tastes of the time, but it was more scandalous for depicting the narrator having sexual intercourse and enjoying it. This book was illegal to own in the United States until 1963, and the United Kingdom until 1970. During this time, sexual art, books, and even furniture became a fashion statement amongst the societal elite. This political association may have been part of what led to the United Kingdom’s passage of The Obscene Publications Act of 1857.
Though we typically associate modern prudishness regarding sex with the Victorians (they even coined the term “pornography,”) even our stuffiest generation of ancestors had a rich history of sexual imagery. Early photography processes such as daguerreotyping allowed people to record erotic images directly for the first time. Posing for photos, however, was cumbersome and involved holding still for long exposure times, and because of this, pornographic portraits from the early Victorian era were often limited to one woman exposing her genitals.
As photography processes became more advanced, allowing for shorter exposures and easier replication, erotic photography exploded. Easily reproduced nude magazines, “French postcards” and other sexually explicit material was illegally bought and sold in places like Holywell Street, and a reliable postal service also led to a new trade — the porn dealer.
The Victorian Era also gave the world the first erotic moving images, with several films depicting women doing erotic dances. Fatima’s Coochie Coochie Dance, which featured suggestive images of a woman’s gyrating hips, was released in 1896 and was the first film to be censored. Exploration of the film medium continued, and with it so did pornography. By the 1910’s, dozens of erotic films had been produced all over the globe. Though they were at great risk for censorship, nothing could stop the growing demand for erotica.
Nude magazines, in particular, took off in popularity, under the guise of “naturist” guides published with titles like “Nude Living” or “Health and Efficiency.” These evolved into the leggy pinups of the 1940’s, which later became the torpedo-breasted icons of 1950’s Playboy. Magazines posed models in coy, flirtatious, but non-explicit spreads until Penthouse in the 1960’s, which featured eye contact, pubic hair, and full-frontal nudity. Later magazines would become more graphic with time, depicting intercourse, fetishism, and homosexual sex.
As illegal stag films and nudie magazines spread in popularity, the line between obscenity and the freedom of expression grew blurrier. Pornography was first legalized in Denmark in July 1969, soon followed by the Netherlands the same year and Sweden in 1971. In 1973, the landmark US Supreme Court ruling on Miller v California defined obscenity, and therefore carved out a legal place and guideline for the distribution of pornography in the United States.
Today’s prolifically varied trove of internet pornography is only the latest chapter in a story that has been in play since the dawn of time. As people come up with new means of creative expression, we will invariably also use those means for the expression of our sexuality. The two are eternally linked in the human experience.
The Economist (2008, December 12). “The Tale of Gengi” Playboy of the Eastern World. https://www.economist.com/books-and-arts/2008/12/18/playboy-of-the-eastern-world
Head, T. (2018, April 11). A Brief History of Pornography: From 5200 BCE to Today. https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-pornography-721217
Hess, P. (2017, December 18). This Is How the Brain Changes When You Watch Porn. https://www.inverse.com/article/31799-brain-on-porn-erotica-neuroscience
Sutherland, J. (2017, August 14). Fanny Hill: why would anyone ban the racy novel about ‘a woman of pleasure’?https://www.theguardian.com/books/shortcuts/2017/aug/14/fanny-hill-ban-university-racy-novel-woman-pleasure
Stuttgart, K. D. (2005, April 03). Archaeologist finds ‘oldest porn statue’. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2005/apr/04/arts.germany
Wikipedia (2018, September 11). Erotic photography. (2018, September 11). https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erotic_photography
Wikipedia (2018, August 19). History of erotic depictions. (2018, August 19). https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_erotic_depictions
Wikipedia (2018, May 28). Obscene Publications Acts. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Obscene_Publications_Acts
Wikipedia (2018, September 20). Shunga. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shunga