A Brief History of Porn

Erotic art has existed throughout human history. (Even before the internet.)

Our society has notoriously never been able to define the precise edges of what we mean by pornography, inevitably falling back on the “I know it when I see it” definition. Inevitably, this means that when we say we’re talking about porn, we are talking about as many different things as there are people in the conversation. It may amaze you to learn that this has not resulted in the most productive discourse.

I’m going to roughly define porn, for purposes of this article, as any form of creative endeavor that deliberately causes sexual arousal. And it has been with us since the beginning. I should let you know now that most of the following links will be technically NSFW.

Take a look at the image at the top of this post. That well-rounded lady is the “Venus of Willendorf,” carved between 22,000 and 24,000 BCE. It is generally considered a fertility symbol, and some theorists have argued that it represents a goddess-worshipping, matriarchal prehistoric society. That is certainly one reading. Another is that it’s porn.

The woman in the statue is quite literally faceless. No eyes, nose, mouth, any of the things we use to mark out an individual identity. What she has got are some serious tits and ass, and a vulva carved in careful and loving detail. Fertility symbol she may be, but the road to fertility starts with stimulating sexual arousal, and that qualifies Ms. of Willendorf as porn. Before we had agriculture, before we had roads or metal or even the bare beginnings of serious civilization, we had porn.

Skipping ahead a bit, we come to approximately 200 BCE and the composition of the Kama Sutra, a manual on appropriate behavior regarding conduct, social roles, and marriage. It is divided into seven sections, the largest of which is mainly about fucking, including useful notes on spanking, biting, scratching, dozens of sexual positions, and the appropriate and inappropriate leaving of marks. We could, perhaps, draw a definition of porn that excludes it, but it would take some work.

While we’re around that BCE/CE transition, let’s look at the glory that was Rome. Or, to make things a little easier, the glory that was Pompeii, which is better-preserved. When archaeologists first started uncovering this town-sized time capsule of Roman culture, they initially assumed that any building that contained explicit erotic imagery must have been a brothel. They were forced to revise this theory when they could not figure out how an all-brothel economy would function. Indeed, gloriously smutty frescoes, sculptures, and household utensils were all over the place. Graffiti contained sexual boasts, insults, and pop-culture references: one wall scrawl mentioned a gladiator named Caladus who “made all the girls sigh,” because some things never change. Also, there actually were quite a few brothels to go with all this porn.

During what we call the Middle Ages, around the time Geoffrey Chaucer was composing the blindingly ribald Canterbury Tales, Indian architecture was producing some extraordinary erections. The temples at Khajuraho and Konark are just two notable examples of the prevalence of sacred erotic art at this point in the development of Hindu culture. One could argue that these images were meant to represent fertility, but they’re quite explicit about the acts being performed, and quite a few of them are … well, not easy to get pregnant from. Instead, they were a hot, sexy, and public celebration of the sexual side of life. Which means that today they’d be classified as porn.

Even in the most repressed, churchbound times, times we’re told were marked by strict morality and rectitude, we find 18th-century sex manuals, we find Japanese tentacle porn, and you wouldn’t believe what the Victorians were into behind closed doors. There is absolutely no period or moment of human history that is not absolutely dripping with erotic imagery.

Every art form, as it has emerged, has immediately turned toward sex. Sculpture, painting, engraving, photography, everything. When the novel began to emerge as an artform, moral scolds cautioned that young ladies who got into the novel-reading habit would ruin their morals via secret pollutions. (That meant wanking.) They were jerks, yes, but they were also right. I don’t know how you’d add up all the orgasms induced by Mr. Darcy over the years, but it’d be fun to try. To this day, smutty novels marketed to women are the single largest genre in publishing.

When I say everything was turned toward sex, I do mean everything: there was so much saucy flirtation going on between 19th-century telegraph operators that the authorities had to put a stop to it. Some of the earliest recordings of the brand-new genre of jazz and blues couldn’t get played on the radio even today. The moving picture camera had barely been invented when it was being pointed at strippers. Ten minutes after American ingenuity created the comic book, it created the pornographic comic book. I don’t think I need to be the ten thousandth person to recap the history of the internet, but short version: it’s porn.

Knowing all this makes it very difficult to understand modern criticisms of pornography. I hear about the rise of porn, the pornification of culture, the terrible damage caused by porn, and all I see is people throwing out almost all the data just to make their model fit. As far as I can tell, most of the criticisms leveled at pornography are using “pornography” as a term of art, a kind of shorthand meaning “the specific subgenre of pornography currently produced primarily in Los Angeles and marketed to heterosexual men via adult bookstores and certain specific websites.” And okay, if that were my complaint I’d want shorthand too, but to conflate that subgenre with the entire history-spanning enterprise of pornography, or even the rich variety presently being enjoyed, is grossly dishonest equivocation. The fact is, porn has always been with us, and if we are to talk honestly about it we must begin by admitting that. Or, to quote Cliff Pervocracy, “If ‘anti-porn’ is just handy shorthand for ‘anti-exploitative and sexist porn’ then I guess I’m anti-book, anti-movie, and anti-speech.”

 

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About Noah Brand

Noah Brand is an Editor-at-Large at Good Men Project, and possibly also a cartoon character from the 1930s. His life, when it is written, will read better than it lived. He is usually found in Portland, Oregon, directly underneath a very nice hat.

Comments

  1. QuantumInc says:

    Naturally sexual art has been around just as long as sex and art have co-existed in the human mind, and considering that the sexual urge pre-dates any parts of the human consciousness capable of appreciating art, well…

    It has been said that you can learn the most about a culture by examining it’s erotic art over other types of art. While there has always been some kind of erotic art in every culture, (or at least every culture that left behind art which didn’t automatically get labelled a “fertility icon”) there were differences there. Different culture consider different things to be sexy. Though the modern internet is known for supporting variety a surprisingly large percentage of the porn on it follows a particular formula. In which case one has to ask what the more popular forms of erotic art (aka pornography and romance novels) have to say about us.

  2. wellokaythen says:

    Hmm. Any creative endeavor that deliberately causes sexual arousal.

    Porn is notoriously hard to define, but I think this may be too broad. Maybe that’s the point, that it’s impossible to make hard and fast (ha!) distinctions between the sexually explicit and the pornographic. Or, the point is that one person’s porn is another person’s erotica.

    I wonder at the “deliberately” part, too. I don’t know if Austen set out to make Darcy into an object of diddling, so maybe it’s not porn by that definition. Robert Crumb says he finds Bugs Bunny cartoons somewhat erotic, and I doubt those cartoons are deliberately crafted that way. I guess I’m wondering about the boundaries of this – what if the intent can be interpreted either way, or what if the image is used in a way that was not intended to be erotic? As a young lad, I found the bra ads in the newspaper to be quite enticing – is that newspaper porn?

    Also, I’m not sure that being sexually explicit necessarily means that it’s sexually arousing. (Maybe when I was 14….) Something that represents fertility would not necessarily be an image that stimulates arousal, though obviously they’re connected, just like nudity by itself is not necessarily sexual. So, some of the example here are well within most people’s definition of porn, but not all.

    I would add another great example: the printing press. Sure, Gutenberg and others were using it to churn out Bibles for everyone to read, but the presses were also producing lots of printed porn, sometimes with religious themes of their own. Protestant radicals printed woodcuts with the pope doing all sorts of salacious things, while Catholics fought back with broadsheets showing Luther defiling nuns. Good times. There’s no porn like Lutheran porn.

    Not only was there erotica before agriculture, writing, and metalworking, there’s even archaeological evidence of stone age sex toys like dildos. Maybe smooth stone is less forgiving than plastic, but it does make a good keepsake to hand down generation after generation….

    • Any creative endeavor that deliberately causes sexual arousal.
      yeah i noticed that too. i thought id let it pass, but as youve commented on it.
      the wording ive seen to describe porn is paraphrasing, ‘material whose primary aim is to cause sexual arousal in the intended audience’.

      i found this still a good romp of an article though

  3. Yvonne Robinson says:

    I think it is ridiculous for you to use the image of the Goddess and refer to it as an early example of pornography. That it does not show eyes or individual features is not relevant since you don’t seem to know WHY it is carved that way. You are taking an image carved in a different time and place and subjecting it to today’s standards. And I question the standards too. Many porn magazines show wonen’s and men’s faces … so what’s your point???

    • wellokaythen says:

      It’s not really conclusive that the Venus figurines are representations of any particular supernatural beings, much less an embodiment of “the Goddess.” The word “Goddess” suggests a form of gender monotheism that paleolithic humans probably did not follow, anyway. If the figurines do represent goddesses, might they be representing more than one goddess?

      It sounds like retroactive Judeo-Christianity to posit the worship of a single Goddess.

      Forager societies could be just as sophisticated as modern-day societies when it comes to gender constructs. The “Venus” figurines could represent feminine incarnations of beings that are pangendered or multiply gendered, like some of the beings in Hinduism. It’s probably anachronistic to call them “Venus” images in the first place.

    • I agree it is impossible to really know what ancient art meant to the people who created it, but I also think it is likely that in ancient cultures, there was no division as we know it between the spiritual, the erotic, and the act of procreation. The meaning of life was simply …. more life.

  4. wellokaythen says:

    So, that means there are some very famous Renaissance statues that are, essentially, child porn.

  5. No! Just no! Erotic art is erotic art. Pornography circa 2012 systematically objectifies men and women as far less than the sum of parts. It consists of a series of pale and passionless anti-sensual sexual circus tricks designed to flatter the camera angles. It would be offensive except that it bears almost no relationship to the experience and expression two people can enjoy when their motives are not strictly the money shot. Porn isn’t “bad” in my view. It lacks imagination and is devoid of grace and wonder—which is easy to find in erotic artwork. Art expands the spirit. Porn diminishes the spirit. Porn is a product designed for the drive though sexual self serve customer.

  6. Right – And art is sometimes something that is old and mass produced, much like these figurines. Rarity is not always a signifier of art.

    Black and white porn on 35mm film is art, no?

  7. I really wan’t to agree with you, I hate the pornification argument too.

    However technology has improved, and we are now far more successful at distributing porn. So our society does have more porn than the past. I would argue that this is not a bad thing.

  8. One thing that always confuses me about men’s fascination with porn is — can’t you use your imagination? I can think of things that turn me on WAY more than any manufactured image. In fact, watching porn distracts me. My BF and I have tried watching porn together, and the whole time I’m thinking things like “hmm, that’s a weird position” or “is that what my parts look like closeup? Yikes!” or “Why are these people having sex? She doesn’t even look turned on!” or “that’s a big penis, ouch!” and then I just get bored with the whole thing. :-)

    I guess men (as a general rule) are just more visual. I don’t know. I wonder if this will change because younger women have access to porn now (via the Internet) so porn will shape their sexuality differently. When I was a horny teenager, I had nothing but my own thoughts.

    • Unfortunately, there are many many MANY men for whom there is no experience from which to draw imagination. I can’t fantasize or imagine sex acts that I’ve never done or enjoy real images because women don’t have any interest in me in the least. If I had a girlfriend with whom I had sex regular, I suspect that I’d be watching porn far more rarely than I am today.

      • Porn is like suicide, in that it is a short term solution to a long term problem. When will you not hunger and long for connection, passion and romance? Porn teaches about agression masquerading as passion, leads to disconnection with self and other and has no clue on romance. Porn leaves you ill prepared to engage in relationship. Women are interested in interesting people. All the cultural clap trap is BS. You don’t need to be rich, handsome or buff to attack a women. If that were actually TRUE we would not be a species with a world population of (at this moment) 6,973,738,433. In essence there are literally billions of women who could be interested in you. You don’t need billions. One would probably work for you. Many Women REALLY want to be with men, and some of them are looking for a man EXACTLY like you. Connect the dots. Be happy.

  9. Unfortunately I find, “Moe the Pro”‘s limited views on men’s sexuality is gaining. The porn industry is in big decline… per industry press releases. The reason why is however interesting, in that it has much to do with……ready? The advent of Socia Media. That’s right, all of these likes over cute cat pictures and twittering is all being gobbled up by Mr. Google’s engines – With your name attached. The porn industry admits that it benefitted much from the fact that, only 10 years ago, 99% of Internet traffic was anonymous, today that number has been turned upside down whereby only 1% remains anonymous. Is Moe the Pro happy, yes. Porn or for that matter sex, is now frowned upon. HIV non disclosure in now criminalized. Sex addicts most be treated. Sexual liberation movement you ask, let alone men’s sexual liberation is just too controversial. Huge work to be done here…Puritanism is creeping back…sex is dirty…oh my.

    • Moe The Pro says:

      Nope, buddy you missed my point entirely. I believe a world with more orgasms for all is a better world. I joyously celebrate my sensual side and have a colorful collection of good lovers who would if I asked testify on our behalf in that regard, if asked. Don’t have a puritan bone in my body. My only point is if a man expects/wants/needs a good relationship with a woman, porn is not the play to get your schooling.

  10. While I appreciate the loose HIS-story lesson, I think this article is a cop-out, a bypass.
    The fact that you can call ANYTHING art, does not absolve it of its moral implications or destructive tendencies, it’s psychological or sociological impact or responsibility. Same with“free speech.” Right? Because otherwise, why have the conversation? Are you asking us to accept that it’s all art, let it be – forget how it’s shaping people, relationships and society? Modern day pornography, which I think is what we’re talking about here, is having real life effects that need looked at and talked about in a real way. The proof is in the pudding…not in some philosophy or head tripping conceptualization, as appealing as that is. “Proving” that “porn” has always existed (subjective) does not speak to the porn pandemic we are faced with now – violence, easy access for minors and non-consumers, misogynistic, controlling, breakdown in relationships, etc. Video games are art too, yes? So when media literacy experts talk about the violence desensitizing young minds and creating trauma-like effects in the body, are we to just chalk it up to art? Come on, GMP is better than this. Let’s be critical thinkers and take our power back instead of letting it be brokered by big business and the multi-billion dollar media industry.

  11. I want to add that IF something has always existed (like patriarchy or prostitution, etc.), it doesn’t mean it’s a good thing or that it hasn’t done an incredibly destructive disservice to society as a whole or groups of people. Some form of slavery has always existed, but no one is using that as an argument for why modern day slavery is acceptable or normal or healthy. I think there is a really important distinction in context that needs to be made, instead of saying something always existed and ending it there.

    Also, regarding Kama Sutra, not sure who thinks it’s porn and who doesn’t, maybe depends on how it’s packaged and sold these days, but it its roots are in the practice of living a good life and it’s more a practical guide/manual on sensuality, marriage, love, etc. than just getting off. Of course our commercialized porn culture is trying to turn it into that, but it had a much more practical, spiritual and philosophical application than the porn we’re talking about today. Here’s a quote from Wikipedia, but you can do lots of research on it yourself. “Contrary to popular perception, especially in the western world, Kama Sutra is not just an exclusive sex manual; it presents itself as a guide to a virtuous and gracious living that discusses the nature of love, family life and other aspects pertaining to pleasure oriented faculties of human life.”

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