The History of Pornography

Pornography is visual or published material that depicts sexual activity or nude bodies, especially in sexualized situations. The dawn of the internet has resulted in pornography becoming widely available, but the origins of this genre date back centuries. Sexually graphic images and art not only existed in ancient times but in a wide variety of cultures as well.

Oldest Pornographic Statue (Circa 7200 BCE)

Neon signboard: XXX
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In 2005, German archeologist Harald Stäuble uncovered a sculpture of what he described as the "oldest representation ever of a pornographic scene." It originated in about 7200 BCE and appeared to depict two figurines, a man and woman, having sexual intercourse. The sculpture also stands out for clearly showing the male figurine's genitalia. The discovery of the statues challenged the idea that sex was a taboo subject for ancient societies.

Pompeii's Sexually Explicit Frescoes (AD 79)

Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, burying the city of Pompeii under lava and ash. The city was finally excavated centuries later, beginning in the 1700s. The European colonial aristocracy—whose members had fashioned themselves as the intellectual and political heirs to ancient Rome—were scandalized by the hundreds of sexually explicit frescoes and sculptures found in the Mount Vesuvius ruins.

Pornographic Art at Khajuraho (Circa 950 AD)

In the year 950, Chandravarman began construction of the first of 85 temples at Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh, India. The temples are known for the extremely intricate and often sexually explicit sculptures that cover their outer walls. The sculptures later led Western scholars to the erroneous conclusion that Hinduism was a sexually uninhibited religion.

The Catholic Church Bans Sexually Graphic Books (1557)

Pope Paul IV prepared the Roman Catholic Church's first index of banned books in 1557. Although most of the list's 550 titles were banned for theological reasons, some were prohibited because of their sexually explicit content. A few, such as Giovanni Boccaccio's, were both sexually explicit and theologically challenging. The Vatican would continue to publish various versions of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, its "list of banned books," until the practice was finally eliminated by Pope Paul VI in December 1965 following the institutional reforms brought about by the Second Vatican Council.

"Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure" (1748)

John Cleland began distributing a sexually explicit novel titled "Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure" in 1748. The book was later published as "The Life and Adventures of Miss Fanny Hill." Confiscated by British authorities a year later and promptly pirated and redistributed, the book would be banned in both Britain and the U.S. until the 1960s.

"Medical Lexicon: A Dictionary of Medical Science" (1857)

Robley Dunglison's "Medical Lexicon: A Dictionary of Medical Science" coined the English term "pornography." Dunglison defined the word as "a description of prostitutes or of prostitution as a matter of public hygiene." The word gained widespread use as a general term for sexually explicit material within a decade. It was possibly inspired by the French term pornographie, which had already taken on that meaning.

"Olympia" (1865)

Édouard Manet's "Olympia," a nude portrait in which Victorine Meurent portrays a prostitute, scandalized the Paris Salon in 1865. The uproar was not because of the nudity itself but rather because of the earthy and unladylike frankness with which Meurent presented it. The nudity of contemporaneous work was not considered pornographic because it was idealized and glamorized to the point of fiction, but the nudity in "Olympia" was simply that of a naked woman, not an idealized goddess.

Manet's contemporary Émile Zola explained, "When our artists give us Venuses, they correct nature, they lie. Manet asked himself why he should lie. Why not tell the truth? He has introduced us to Olympia, a girl of our own times, whom we have met in the streets pulling a thin shawl of faded wool over her narrow shoulders."

New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (1873)

Anthony Comstock founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1873. This marked his career as America's national censor. The establishment of the society kicked off the war against pornography in the U.S.

"Coucher de la Mariée" (1899)

Eugéne Pirou's "Coucher de la Mariée" was the first known softcore erotic film. The movie starred Louise Willy, who starred in eight burlesque comedies from 1896 to 1913. In "Coucher de la Mariée," which was initially screened in 1896 and released three years later, Willy performs a striptease and bathes.

"L'Ecu d'Or ou la Bonne Auberge" (1908)

"L'Ecu d'Or ou la Bonne Auberge," the earliest surviving hardcore pornographic film, was first distributed in 1908. Censors and nervous consumers destroyed most of the other early examples of the genre, which were typically shown in brothels.

Denmark Legalizes Pornography (1969)

In 1969, Denmark became the first country to legalize pornography. The government ruled that as of July 1 of that year, every law relating to pornography as distributed to adults was officially abolished. But the decision was made somewhat after the fact because Danish authorities had been notably lenient about enforcing any of the existing laws in the first place.

Miller v. California (1973)

The U.S. Supreme Court defined obscenity using a three-part test in its 1973 Miller v. California decision.

  1. The average person must find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest.
  2. The work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct or excretory functions specifically defined by applicable state law.
  3. The work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

This definition mandates that all obscene material must be pornographic. In United States v. Stevens (2010), the Supreme Court rejected the claim that animal torture videos could be classified as obscene because most material traditionally classified as pornographic would not be considered as such under the Miller standard. By definition, however, all mainstream pornography would qualify as indecent.

Pornography Is (Almost) as Old as Time

Pornography is a mainstay in society, having existed as early as the prehistoric era. Although the genre has a number of critics, from religious groups to some feminists, pornography has persisted. Even the U.S. Supreme Court has been forced to define what it is and carve out a place for it in the law. Pornography may be controversial, and some would argue offensive, but it is an ongoing facet of society.