The Surprising, Bizarre And Controversial History Of Porn

When I was in elementary school, there was a secret that would always rumble through the computer lab: “If you go to whitehouse.com, you get porno!” This was particularly common when we had a unit in which we had to study a given president. There was always some kid–usually a boy–who tried to go to whitehouse.com and feign ignorance, but we all knew the truth. Whitehouse.gov was the site for the president, government, all that good stuff; whitehouse.com got you a face full of boobs and butts.

The point of this story is to emphasize that most humans are both curious and sexual. Even before half of us really knew what our sexual organs did, we’re curious about sex, bodies and sexy bodies. This isn’t some new phenomenon of a hyper sexualized culture. Nah, we’ve been invested in getting turned on by graphic images of sex for thousands of years. The last 100 years have been particularly fascinating and problematic when it comes to the great big world of porn. Whether you’re a fan of porn your you’re absolutely opposed to it, if you want to learn more get ready for one seriously porny history lesson.


Early Depictions Of Erotica

People have been depicting sex in whatever ways they could from the jump. The ancient Greeks fancied depicting orgies on ornate pottery and Ancient Egyptians were into painting explicit sexual acts. The erotic Japanese painted on woodblocks called Shunga that would make someone who has seen it all blush a bit. Even folks in the doomed city of Pompeii painted depictions of getting it on before they were covered in volcanic ash. That last bit scandalized people during the super prudish Victorian era when they were actually discovered. Seriously, pearl clutching of epic proportions.

Photo source: Wiki Commons

The First Mass Produced Porn

With the printing press brought a whole new way of presenting pornographic content to the world. Yep, people had a brand new way of getting their smut in the hands of every horny man and woman out there. But with this new power came new restrictions. In 1524 an Italian artist, Marcantonio Raimondi, published a book of 16 illustrated sexual positions. The Pope got wind of this debauchery and pretty much responded with a massive "aw hell naw" and ordered the copies of this book to be destroyed. The artist responsible was imprisoned but tried to release another copy before getting imprisoned a second time. Dude was bold, but these restrictions against what some societies deemed to be obscene didn't stop in the 1500s. During the French Revolution it was considered an act of political rebellion to publish salacious material, which led to a writer by the name of Marquis de Sade publishing a book called Juliette which told the story of a sexually free woman who--wait for it--had sex without feeling guilty about it or getting struck by lightening immediately after having an orgasm. Less explicit but equally controversial material was written by an English author by the name of John Cleland in 1748. His book, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (also known as Fanny Hill) was full of sexual euphemisms but caused such a stir that the dude was locked up for obscenity and the book was illegal to own in the USA until 1963 and the UK until 1970. Let it be known that by the '60s and '70s you could easily pick of a nudie magazine or watch a porno at an adult movie house but, okay, whatever.

Photo source: Ebay

19th Century Pornography And The Introduction Of Photography

The advent of photography was the ultimate game changer in the world of eroticism and, later, pornography. However, the early days of photo don't really do anyone any favors if they wanted to see some more action style shots. They'd be more in luck wig a drawing than a photo because, despite the realism, early methods were so crude that models had to be still for very long amounts of time due to exposure times that could last up to 15 minutes. That means that if you so much as shifted ever so slightly that photo would be blurrsville. So instead of depicting two people going at it, most early photos of the porny nature usually depicted a woman showing off her bits. These photos were super expensive too and became a privilege that only the upper class could indulge in. But as soon as technology advanced--shorter exposure times and the introduction of photo negatives that could be copied relatively easily--it became big business to sell nudie pics. This became big business in France, a country where, in the 1800s one had to have approval from the French government. Needless to say, people were all "screw that registration crap, I can make a mint from selling these babies" and nudie photos quickly became an underground operation.

Photo source: Pinterest

Porn And The Beginning Of Film

Of course, photography was the precursor to film. An trust, as soon as film became a thing, people used it for porno purposes. Of course, some of the early nudie films, like those of an Austrian dude named Johann Schwarzer (pictured) from the early 1900s, are incredibly tame by today's standards, but it's fascinating to see nevertheless.

Photo source: Pinterest/YouTube

Popularity Of Porn Magazines

Explicit magazines became a "thing" in the late 1800s, but it wasn't until the 20th century that the industry truly boomed. Magazines with explicit cartoons known as "Tijanuana Bibles" were bloomed in the 20s and during wartime, pin up girls were in vogue. Why were they called pin ups? Because their photos would literally be torn out of magazines and pinned up on a guy's wall. And we all know about Playboy magazine, right? First published in 1953 (with a nude Marilyn Monroe centrefold), Playboy quickly became a household name and sparked dozens of similar softcore porn magazines in its wake, like Penthouse and Hustler. What's fascinating is that despite Playboy's exploitation of women's bodies for profit, it was also seen as sexually and politically liberal depending on who you talked to. For example, in 1970 Jean Bell became the first black woman to grace the magazines cover and in 1971 a black model by the name of Darine Stern (pictured right) became the first black woman to grace the cover on her own. For non-white women to be seen as sexually desirable in a mainstream publication was still incredibly rare at the time. This doesn't make Playboy a great civil rights hope, but the move was still bold. It's also worth noting that if you take a look at some old issues of Playboy, you'll find plenty of pubic hair, something that is often seen as gross and untidy by today's ridiculous standards.

Photo source: Playboy/Pinterest

Gay Representation In Porn

Hey, gay folks weren't left out of the booming porn industry, either. A magazine by the name of Physique Pictoral was published in 1951 and definitely catered to the male, gay demographic and often depicted photos of burl men in tiny bathing suits or James Dean rip offs on motorcycles. Models often wore sailor outfits and cowboy regalia, imagery that is still popular for some men in the gay community to this day.

Photo source: Physique Pictoral Pinterest

Porn Movies

Okay, the '70s was when things started getting...funky. And no, not just because powder blue suits were socially acceptable. In the '70s adult movie theaters were popping up all over the United States and other nations. Basically, you go to these places to get all horned up over some porno. I don't think any of us want to know what some people got up to in those places. Anyway, one of the most prolific pornos of that era were 1970's Mona the Virgin Nymph--the first sexually explicit film that received theatrical release--and 1972's Deep Throat--which was known as "porno chic" due to its high production quality. Of course, both of these films received the banhammer in some countries. It's also worth noting that while movies such as Deep Throat claimed to tell the story of a sexually free woman, the leading actress--Linda Lovelace--claims that she was coerced into many of her sexually explicit performances in the film by her husband who received some of her acting money. This story is just one of many that caught the attention of feminist anti-porn activists in the '70s and '80s.

Photo source: IMDB

Porn Battles

We can't talk about the anti-pornography movement without talking about radical feminist Andrea Dworkin. She, along with many other well known feminists like Adrienne Rich and Gloria Steinem--formed a group called women Against Pornography in 1979. But Dworkin took her anti-pornography crusade a step further and testified before the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography in 1986. Essentially, this was a big report on the effects of pornography and Dworkin asserted that pornographic content promotes rape and child sexual abuse. She suggested that the Justice Department take note of pornography's role in violent crimes, ban pornographic content in jails and provide civil damages for harm inflicted on women in the porn industry. Needless to say, her strong stance and heavy media presence did not make her many friends in the porn industry or even liberal circles. Still, her influence is still felt in anti-porn sentiments by feminists to this day. If you're an anti-porn feminist, you should absolutely check out Dworkin's work.

Photo source: Village Voice/Amazon

Porn Of the Internet Age

By the '90s and 00s, getting softcore porn from a magazine was so 50 years ago. Thus, the Internet age has changed the porn industry forever. You didn't even have to rely on catching boobies or dude's butts on late night HBO. Buying high production videos and DVDs have gone out of style and instead, folks are flocking to streaming services to get any kind of porn they want, often without spending a dime. And since everyone has a camera these days, a ton of porn is absolutely amateur because literally anyone can make it. A woman or man can get a webcam and film themselves doing anything that viewers want them and make a whole lot of money, but they haven't entirely replaced porn stars. I mean, there's a reason why tons of girls know who James Deen is.

No matter how it's changing, it is still a huge industry. In 2009 alone the US porn industry's revenue was $10-15 billion. While people are shelling out a ton of money for this stuff, controversy still lingers regarding whether or not people in pornographic videos are totally consenting. There is also a lot of chatter regarding the health of actors on porn sets, especially regarding the spread of STDs since condoms are such a porno faux pas. Needless to say, the porn industry is pretty much built on controversy.

Photo source: Pinterest

Feminist Porn

Feminist porn? Yeah, despite the fact that the mainstream porn industry is largely dependent on the sometimes violent sexual exploitation of women, feminists, including feminist members of the queer community, have decided to make sexually explicit content that doesn't demean women and other marginalized people. Since 2006 there has even been a Feminist Porn Award and the criteria is pretty fascinating:

1) Women and/or traditionally marginalized people were involved in the direction, production and/or conception of the work.

2) The work depicts genuine pleasure, agency and desire for all performers, especially women and traditionally marginalized people.

3) The work expands the boundaries of sexual representation on film, challenges stereotypes and presents a vision that sets the content apart from most mainstream pornography. This may include depicting a diversity of desires, types of people, bodies, sexual practices, and/or an anti-racist or anti-oppression framework throughout the production.

While this is still problematic for many feminists, it's a step in the right direction for people who enjoy porn without the degradation.

Photo source: Pinterest/ToTheTProductions

 

What were you most surprised by? What are your general feelings about modern day porn? Tell us in the comments!

You can follow the author, Ashley Reese, on Twitter or Instagram. Don’t worry, she doesn’t bite!

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  • taidertots

    is it weird that I knew exactly who that was (james deen) in one of those slides?

  • Skyla

    I usually really like basically all your articles, but this one was fantastic! I learned a lot, which is awesome! (:

  • Dina

    Amazing article, enjoyed it x