[jahsonic.com] - [Next >>]

A history of pornography

"One person's erotica is another person's pornography."

Complimentary page: timeline of erotica/pornography

Sex, as we know, is a heat-seeking missile that forever seeks out the newest medium for its transmission. --(Gerard Van Der Leun, 1993)

[I can't define what is pornography.] "But I know it when I see it." --Potter Stewart, 1964

The fact that the terms pornographer, pornography and porn weren't attested from the 1850s onwards, makes this era a fault line in the history of pornography. Another defining moment was the discovery of the ruins of Pompeii and the subsequent hiding of the erotic art of the Antiquity in the 1740s. [Jul 2006]

Anonymous satirical caricature of the Cardinal Armand de Rohan-Soubise (1717-1757); this engraving is a good example of "pornography" as a tool for political subversion during France's ancien régime.

By medium: art - books - photography - fiction - film

Connoisseurs: Marianna Beck - Lynn Hunt - Walter Kendrick - Adam Matthew - Brian McNair - Morse Peckham - Peter Webb - Linda Williams - more on the academic study of porn ...

Essays: Pornographic Imagination (1967) - Susan Sontag

In other languages: pornografia (Spanish and Italian) - pornografie (German and Dutch) - pornographie (French) -

Related: adult - anti-pornography - arousal - censorship - Deep Throat - desire - early pornography - erotica - history of erotica - explicit - genitalia - exploitation - sex fantasy - sexual fetishism - hardcore - intercourse - lust - masturbation - nudity - obscene - outrage - paraphilia - perversion - politics - porno chic - prostitution - sex - sexploitation - sleaze - snuff film - softcore - X-rated

Plate from the
I Modi collection (1524)
Giulio Romano (drawing), Marcantonio Raimondi (engraving), generally held to be the first instance of pornography. [Jul 2006]

Linda Lovelace, Deep Throat (1972) - Gerard Damiano

In 1972, porn reached the mainstream in the form of porn chic.


Man has always been curious about sex. His curiosity has been satisfied by the sexual act in itself and later by the mediated representation of sexuality. The history of mediated sex goes hand in hand with the history of communications media.

For the purpose of this site, the history of mediated sex (erotica and pornography) starts in the early days of printing technology, more specifically with the poems of Pietro Aretino and the engravings that accompanied them. These were duely banned, making it one of the first documented cases of sex-oriented material that was prosecuted by the authorities.

It wasn't until the industrial revolution, with mass production of books and images thanks to the invention of wood pulp to produce paper cheaply and increased literacy, that pornography as a term was applied and began to be perceived as a social problem.

For a history of erotica/pornograhy see the timeline of erotica page.

The twentieth century begot new forms of pornography: film. [Sept 2005]


Pornography (from Greek pornographia — literally writing about or drawings of harlots) is the representation of the human body or human sexual behaviour with the goal of sexual arousal, similar to, but (according to some) distinct from, erotica. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pornography [Jun 2004]

Intention and merit

The difference between erotica and pornography is artistic merit and the author's intention.

Word origin of porn and pornography

pornography (n.)

Pornographer is the earliest form of the word, attested from 1850. Pornocracy (1860) is "the dominating influence of harlots," used specifically of the government of Rome during the first half of the 10th century by Theodora and her daughters. --http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=pornography [May 2005]

1857, "description of prostitutes," from Fr. pornographie, from Gk. pornographos "(one) writing of prostitutes," from porne "prostitute," originally "bought, purchased" (with an original notion, probably of "female slave sold for prostitution;" related to pernanai "to sell," from PIE root per- "to traffic in, to sell," cf. L. pretium "price") + graphein "to write."

Originally used of classical art and writing; application to modern examples began 1880s. Main modern meaning "salacious writing or pictures" represents a slight shift from the etymology, though classical depictions of prostitution usually had this quality.

porn (n.)
1962, abbreviation of pornography (q.v.). Porno (adj.) is attested from 1952. --http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=porn [May 2005]


Pornography may use any of a variety of media — written and spoken text, photos, drawings, moving images (including animation), and sound such as heavy breathing. Pornographic films combine moving images, spoken erotic text and/or other erotic sounds, while magazines often combine photos and written text. And novels and short stories provide written text, sometimes with illustrations. In addition to media, a live performance may be called pornographic.

In its original meaning, pornography was literally "writing about prostitutes", from the classical roots πορνη and γραφειν. It was, however, a made-up word coined in England about 1850 that had a spurious air of age and scholarship about it. There is no evidence that anyone at that time, or earlier, was writing about prostitutes per se except as they figured as characters in written erotica of that epoch. It quickly came to mean writing about anything sexual, especially in a base manner, when the creation, presentation, or consumption of the material was for sexual stimulation. The term now refers to sexually related material of all kinds, both written and graphical. The term "pornography" often has negative connotations of low artistic merit, as compared to the more esteemed erotica. Euphemisms such as adult film, adult video and adult bookstore are generally preferred within the industry producing these works (namely the adult industry). Pornography can also be contrasted with ribaldry, which uses sexual titillation in the service of comedy.

Sometimes a distinction is made between softcore pornography and hardcore pornography. The former generally refers to materials which feature nudity and some sexually suggestive scenes, while hardcore or X-rated pornography contains close-ups of genitalia and sexual activities. Within the industry itself, classification breaks down even further. The distinctions might be lost on most people, but the precarious legal defintion and differing standards at different outlets (pay cable channels like Cinemax versus the Playboy Channel versus domestic home video versus foreign markets) cause producers to shoot and edit different cuts of films and screen those cuts first for their legal teams. Primarily the internal rating decision is made by looking at exposure of an erect penis, inclusion and duration of close up shots of genitals and penetration, types of penetration, and presense or lack of an external ejaculation. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pornography#Introduction [Jul 2004]

Categorising pornography

See entry for Robin Turner, where I reprint an excerpt from his 1999 essay Debating Pornography: Categories and Metaphors, which deals with the semantic and linguistic aspects of defining pornography and erotica. [Jul 2006]

Pornography during the Victorian era

For the first time, pornography was produced in a volume capable of satisfying a mass readership.

Oddly, the industry was founded by a gang of political radicals who used sales of erotica to subsidise their campaigning and pamphleteering: when, in the 1840s, the widely-anticipated British revolution failed to materialise, these booksellers and printers found that their former sideline had become too profitable to relinquish. Lubricious stories such as Lady Pokingham, or, They All Do it (1881), and hardcore daguerreotypes, photographs and magic lantern slides, demonstrate the omnivorous nature of Victorian sexuality.

Don't imagine that this material comprised tame pictures of gartered ladies standing in front of cheese plants; any permutation or peccadillo you can conceive is represented in the work that has survived from the period. And it was produced in huge quantities: in 1874, the Pimlico studio of Henry Hayler, one of the most prominent producers of such material was loaded up with 130,248 obscene photographs and five thousand magic lantern slides - which gives some idea of the extent of its appeal. --Matthew Sweet, Sex, Drugs and Music Hall, 01-08-2001, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/society_culture/society/pleasure_03.shtml [Jun 2004]

Films about porn films

Boogie Nights (1997) - Inside Deep Throat ()

The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture (1987) - Walter Kendrick

  • The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture (1987) - Walter Kendrick [amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]
    Village Voice editor Kendrick (The Novel Machine) goes back to the erotic murals of ancient Pompeii and forward to the recent presidential commissions on pornography to demonstrate how public attitudes toward pornography and censorship have changed. PW noted that this is a "well-researched, nontitillating study of the phenomenon." -- Copyright 1988 Reed Business Information, Inc.

    Walter Kendrick traces the relatively recent concept of pornography - the word was not coined until the late 18th century - which became a public issue once the printing press gave ordinary people access to the erotica of the Greeks and Romans, the art and literature of the French enlightenment, and the poems of the Earl of Rochester and John Cleland's Fanny Hill. From the secret museums to the pornography trials of Madame Bovary and Lady Chatterly's Lover, to Mapplethorpe, cable TV, and the Internet, Kendrick explores how conceptions of pornography relate to issues of freedom of expression and censorship. --amazon.com

    Pornography - The Secret History of Civilisation (2000) - Chris Rodley, Dev Varma

    Pornography - The Secret History of Civilisation (2000) - Chris Rodley, Dev Varma [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

    Product Description
    Ten years in the making, PORNOGRAPHY: THE SECRET HISTORY OF CIVILISATION is a six-part series, which tells for the first time on British television the history of pornography. This landmark series charts the changes in sexual imagery prompted by the advent of new technologies over thousands of years: from ancient times to print, photography, film, video and the Internet. With unprecedented access to the modern porn industry, interviews with pornography experts and historians and an unparalleled collection of archival material, it is also the story of how these technological mediums influenced the development of pornography, who used it, how it was distributed and how it was censored.

    But the real story of pornography is also a secret history of civilization. Pornography puts aside the usual moral arguments that have clouded the issue for decades and takes an objective historical perspective. Pornography, far from being some smutty sideshow on the margins of society, has in fact played a vital and central role in civilization and our cultural evolution.

    Each program focuses on a different technology and how that new technology revolutionized pornography and made it available to new groups of people, however hard the authorities tried to control it.

    THE ROAD TO RUIN opens with the science of archaeology. Sexual imagery has been at the heart of culture all over the world, from the Cerne Abbas man to the painted walls of Pompeii, from the carvings of Bourges Cathedral to the obscene pamphlets of the French Revolution.

    THE SACRED AND PROFANE shows how printing was seen as something that turned hitherto acceptable sexual explicit expression into something far more dangerous. Indeed pornography was instrumental in fermenting the French Revolution, with shockingly explicit sexual satire directed at the monarchy. Photography was the greatest leap forward ever in the history of pornography. In the nineteenth century, to ask where pornographic photographs were sold is like asking where you can buy drugs today.

    THE MECHANICAL EYE examines the appeal of photographs, their development and their consumers, as well as the evolution of the porn magazine. This film also covers the birth of the mail order porn dealer; heralding arguments which have parallels today with debates on internet pornography.

    TWENTIETH CENTURY FOXY covers the rise of the porn film industry. But porn on film, and the porn cinema was an interstitial time. At the end of the 70s the new vehicle for porn was video.

    SEX LIVES ON VIDEOTAPE shows how the advent of video ended pornography's crossover dreams. Video re-made pornography in its own image, replacing the glamour and fantasy of the movies with a real documentary style. The most significant contribution of video was that it turned consumers into producers; the audience picked up cameras and started recording their sex lives on videotape!

    FUTURE SCHLOCK looks at the new era of digital manipulation and asks how digital technology has affected the pornography that we produce, and the way we consume it. We talk to people who say that the Internet has dealt the biggest blow yet to the establishment. Pornography in physical forms - books, magazines, and videos - could always be seized and destroyed, but on the Net, pornography has shed its physical form and gone digital. --via the publisher

    See also: secret history - history of pornography - documentary film

    your Amazon recommendations - Jahsonic - early adopter products

    Managed Hosting by NG Communications