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10 Moments In The History Of Pornography

by Joe Duncan
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Pornography is defined as the depiction of erotic or sexually charged material through various mediums such as images, books, video, and so forth. The concept of pornography itself is a highly subjective thing. What one person or culture considers sexualized or erotic, another person or culture may not see as such in any way whatsoever.[1]

Throughout the ages, pornography or erotica has taken many forms for many different people and has been expressed through radically different mediums. From tiny fertility goddesses with enlarged breasts to the quick flashes of images one might see on an advertisement for a porn website while browsing, the idea has always been the same: to conjure up thoughts and feelings that dwell deep within us and resonate with our base instinct to seek mates and procreate. Pornography strikes us down to our innermost human parts, the parts of us that want to survive and carry on our genes, and it solicits a response whether we like it or not. Here are ten moments in the history of pornography.

10 Prehistoric Pornography

Photo credit: Zarateman

It all had to start somewhere . . . and while it may not have started with the Venus of Willendorf, the roughly 28,000-year-old sculpture of a nude woman is one of the most well-known early erotic depictions.[2] This phenomenal piece of prehistoric porn is only 11.1 centimeters (4.4 inches) tall and is a figure of a woman that may have been used for fertility rites or possibly as an erotic form of entertainment for the people of the day. We don’t have much in the way of works of art from this time period and before, though human art is known to be up to 700,000 years old.

It is believed that fertility rites and possibly even massive orgies and sex festivals took place during the time when the Venus of Willendorf and similar statues were created. Some of these statues are believed to have been broken by prehistoric people during orgiastic sex festivals as a way to celebrate sex and in hopes that they may bring about fertility. From here, pornography was born, and people would see to it that the idea of porn would take many different forms, as vast as the human imagination itself.

9 Kangjiashimenji Petroglyphs

While they have been touted by many clickbait articles as “the world’s first pornography,” the Kangjiashimenji Petroglyphs definitely aren’t, but they’re still an extremely fascinating and curious bit of art. These ancient depictions date back to at least 4,000 years ago and are extremely impressive. They were discovered in the 1980s in Northern China.

At first, the image above (only part of the petroglyphs) resembles something out of a Picasso painting or drawing. But on a second glance at the ten figures presented, one notices that one figure is seemingly out of place. It’s a different shape from the rest, and it’s completely turned sideways—this one figure is the male, the other nine are females, and the male is lying down. An even closer inspection reveals that the male has an erection, signifying that he’s waiting for the nine women to entertain him. Yes, not much has changed in the way of the male imagination in 4,000 years, it’s safe to say.[3]

Beyond their sheer age, just glancing at the Kangjiashimenji Petroglyphs, which feature additional pornographic images other than the one above, is a sight to behold. With their unusual and mysterious vibe, we get to peer into the raw and unadulterated imagination of a bygone culture. This is definitely one of the milestones we have left in the history of porn.

8 Greek Pottery

Photo credit: Rafe87

Beyond their amazing conceptions and abstractions about the natural world, being so endowed with philosophy, poetry, art, and other humanities as they were, the ancient Greeks were world-famous for their pottery. Their master craftspeople constructed beautiful works of art which depicted all sorts of scenes, from battles to sex.

Many of these pieces survive today, and quite a few depict racy scenes of outright pornography, with some showing patently Greek scenes, often with male anal penetration and sex orgies. The sheer amount of graphic and detailed sex scenes is absolutely astonishing. The Greeks sure loved their sex, and they weren’t afraid to show it in the porn they created.[4]

This practice would set the stage for later works of erotic art, Roman-style.

7 Pompeii

Photo credit: Splash News Australia

When it comes to the first quality depictions, the ones which were more graphic and less artistic or expressive, very little compares to Pompeii. Pompeii is the famed ancient Roman city which was annihilated by a nearby volcanic eruption in AD 79, and it was basically the Sodom of the Roman Empire, with brothels and pornography everywhere, all of which became encased in volcanic rock for us to find centuries later—and we’re still finding more porn at Pompeii.[5]

The scenes depicted on the walls of the bathhouses and other locations at Pompeii show women straddling men, all painted well enough that we can make out nipples and pubic hair, strands of hair on the head, the eyes, and other fine details in the work. And this is all after a volcano demolished most of the city. There are also quite a few penises carved into walls and streets.

One surviving work depicts a woman bent over and a man having intercourse with her from behind. The detail is worn on her face, but his is preserved and you’re able to see the olive branch wreath placed atop his head in the image.

Pompeii was a porn-lover’s paradise. With both legal prostitution and, sadly, sex slaves, it was basically a massive smut city of the ancient world for the well-to-do members of the Roman Empire to go play in.

6 The Moche

Photo credit: Lyndsayruell

Halfway across the world from ancient Greece in Peru, another culture was making sex pots that rivaled even the pornography of today: the Moche. The Moche people lived in South America, and while there is very little left in the way of Moche culture, they had an abundance of one thing that’s survived for centuries: their pottery.

The Moche civilization existed from AD 1 to AD 800, and they were absolutely, positively obsessed with anal sex. As one scholar noted toward the end of her study about the Moche and their sex pots, “Why all the anal sex?” The question remains unanswered.

Just how much anal sex are we talking about? The Moche left us thousands upon thousands of pots depicting sex scenes, but vaginal sex is actually so scarce that scholars who study the Moche didn’t even believe that such pottery existed for decades. A few pieces of pottery depicting vaginal sex have been found, but almost invariably, there is either anal or oral sex (mostly anal sex) depicted. There is also quite a bit of masturbation and even what we’d consider today to be bizarre scenes, like a man masturbating with an infant in his arms.[6]

5 Mesopotamia

Photo credit: The Israel Museum

It’s well-known that the ancient Mesopotamians, particularly the Babylonians, were not at all bashful when it came to sex—they did it when they wanted, where they wanted, and how they wanted, with men or women. The culture was extremely lax when it came to their notions of sexuality, so much so that Greek writer Herodotus leaves us with seemingly baffled works which tell of their sexually deviant ways, through the eyes of the ancient Greek historian. And, of course, they managed to leave behind some intact pieces of pornography.

One example is 4,000 years old, and while it doesn’t graphically show penetration, the piece is believed to show anal sex between a man and a woman, a popular form of birth control at the time for both married and unmarried couples.[7]

This terra-cotta plaque gives us a glimpse into the world of sex lives past and was possibly used much like we use pornographic movies and images today. It should be noted, however, that in the ancient world, especially in ancient Babylon, sex and religion were deeply intertwined, with temple prostitutes and religious sex rites and festivals, so it’s safe to say that sex was as much of a spiritual endeavor as it was a hedonistic one. People enjoyed sex, sure, but it was a way to communicate with the gods with all of your being, whereas today, it’s often viewed as little more than a pastime.

4 From Medieval To Modern

Photo credit: H. Biberstein

Contrary to popular belief, the medieval and early modern periods weren’t without pornography, and I’m not talking about a Shakespeare quote somehow being pornographic; I’m talking about descriptive literature and imagery which served the sole purpose of sexual gratification of the users. Throughout the Middle Ages, particularly in Germany and Portugal, the Church battled with the hypocrisy of monks, nuns, and other religious persons who claimed to be devout but consumed pornography on the side. In the Middle Ages, porn got very dark under strict Church rule, with a lot of it being injected with a strong objectification and even abuse of women; sadism was big in medieval times.

This set the stage for the massively popular 18th-century French work written by the Marquis de Sade, The 120 Days of Sodom. This work was the 50 Shades of Grey of its day, and de Sade was basically the Christian Grey of France. He delighted in abuse and domination, sadism through and through, as he actually lived out a ravenous sex addiction in real life.

Sodomy with men, sodomy with women, and choking and whipping sexual servants were not at all acceptable in the late 1700s in France, and de Sade’s life was characterized by constant accusations of sexual assault and harassment, as well as breaking much more rigid sexual laws than the ones we have today. He was ultimately put into an insane asylum until his death.[8]

The Marquis de Sade left us with The 120 Days of Sodom, which was actually written during his incarceration, and it follows four French libertines around as they engage in wild, free, and uninhibited sex, partaking in graphic orgies as well as sexual slavery, which offended even the most open-minded of the day. The 120 Days of Sodom is possibly the pinnacle of erotic literature, something that even writers today would have a difficult time matching, arguably because it’s so very real due to de Sade actually living many of the experiences.

3 The Rise Of The Porn Film

Photo credit: Johann Schwarzer

While the previous items on the list are patently pornographic and designed to arouse and even cause their viewers to pleasure themselves, they aren’t quite what we think of as pornography today, through our own cultural lens. The rise of modern pornography would come along with the Industrial Revolution and the advent of film. Some of the very first things ever recorded on film that we have today are naked people doing ordinary things. One example from the 1880s shows a nude woman walking up and down steps and turning around to walk the other way with a sort of sexy strut.[9] In the 1920s, many pornographic films showing outright penetration, threesomes, and orgies would be produced for the first time. People had cameras, people had bodies, people had sex, and it was only a matter of time before these concepts were put together to invent the pornographic film.

While it wasn’t generally fashionable, and porn was very much done in secret, it was definitely done, and it was these brave souls who would pave the way for future pornographic filmmakers to come, especially those in the 1970s.

2 The Big Bang

Photo credit: YouTube/permateen

From here, porn would largely lie dormant for several decades, partially because of events like World War II which occupied everyone’s thoughts and minds, and porn largely became the soft-core sights of USO shows and the like. But the pendulum would eventually yet again swing, and in the 1960s, the sexual revolution began. By the time the 1970s rolled around, porn was ready to make its appearance as a staple commodity that was here to stay—the 1970s and 1980s were pornography’s Big Bang, where it would enjoy a rapid expansion and commercial growth worldwide, a growth which has only continued to magnify and outdo itself year after year, decade after decade.

Color film had become the norm, Ron Jeremy was young, Debbie Does Dallas was brand-new, and something new would come about on the scene that also signified dramatic shifts in attitudes in the world: the advent of homosexual pornographic films. Homosexuality had been missing from porn for a very long time. Christianity had done a great job marginalizing it since the decline of the Roman Empire, and now it was finally once again just starting becoming acceptable to be gay. Some have called the 1971 film Boys in the Sand, starring Casey Donovan, the single most monumental point in the history of gay rights. This was the very first full-feature homosexual film, and from here, pornography was only beginning to blossom.[10]

1 Digital Decadence

From the advent of the pornographic film would come many, many porn names and features, names such as John Holmes, Nina Hartley, and many, many more. Soon, porn would begin to influence reality, as throughout the 1980s and 1990s, traditionally unorthodox sexual practices would slowly start to be mixed in with the regular, everyday sex practices in porn movies to add appeal to them—and to boost sales, of course. It quickly became a race of who could feature the “biggest” star or the most extreme sex acts, and pornographers found themselves in an arms race whereby they attempted to outdo one another with the most novel video. Anal sex and double penetration soon became the main course instead of the unusual dessert they originally started as, and sex became more extreme on video.

With the advent of digital video and the Internet, the world of porn changed dramatically. It became easier and cheaper to make for the average person, and more and more people were capable of both viewing it and creating it. Internet chat rooms were the first fertile breeding grounds for photo exchange, and though video was yet to make it big, an occasional clip or an animated gif would make its way into someone’s hands. This was before the big video boom of the mid-2000s. Soon, sites like Pornhub and YouPorn would dominate the Internet, being two of the biggest sites in the world today. Attracting millions of viewers per day, these sites have become pornographic giants, and the industry has become gargantuan. But with this growth would come tremendous social costs.

People soon began having problems, and a generation raised with instant gratification and immediate porn at their fingertips began to notice discrepancies between what they saw on video (and many thought they were promised) and what transpired in real life. Porn combined with technology removed the imaginative elements found in the mediums of old, and soon, the digital decadence was just too easy, too passive, and too real—and some users began to experience extreme sexual, physical, and emotional side effects. Porn addicts have problems with erectile dysfunction, as the reality of actual sex doesn’t match up with the porn that’s so freely available online.[11] People started to see an increase in anxiety, depression, and other illnesses that related to pornography, as well.

Modern science has shown with fMRI scans that the brain reacts differently when people watch pornography frequently, indicating that their brains have been essentially trained to function differently than normal. So, if porn has been around since likely the dawn of human civilization, why is it now becoming an addiction and a problem? The answer lies in the medium, not the eroticism itself. The difference between pornography as featured on websites versus the clay pots of the Moche is in the availability, the speed, and rapidity with which it can be consumed, as well as the lack of imagination required to consume it. Porn is starting to become a potentially dangerous product because unlike the pornography of old, porn is now actually a sexual activity devoid of imagination—like television is to a good novel, porn in video form requires minimal use of the reasoning portions of the brain and the imagination. It leaves little up to fantasy and promises a reality that it ultimately doesn’t ever deliver.

I still like to write about the strange, dark, and unusual.

fact checked by Jamie Frater