A Brief History of Pornography

A Brief History of Pornography

When the word pornography is heard, what images creep into our minds? Has it always been this way – the ease of access to the internet? Nevertheless, to fully understand how a phenomenon arose, the roots of it are traced.

Meaning and Overview

Pornography is the intentional stimulation of sexual desire through the depiction of promiscuity in literature, art, sculptures, movies, and other forms of media. The boundary separating erotica (generally accepted) and pornography (illegal and denounced content) is mostly arbitrary and represents shifting social norms. The term “pornography,” which is taken from the Greek words “prostitute” and “to write,” initially referred to any literary or artistic work that portrayed the life of a prostitute. The history of pornography is practically hard to imagine because the term “pornography” itself is arbitrary.

Images viewed as romantic or religious in one civilization may be considered pornographic in another. Thus, 19th-century European visitors to India were horrified by what they perceived as pornographic depictions of sexual interaction and penetration in Hindu temples like those in Khajuraho; most contemporary observers would likely have a different reaction. Similarly, many modern Muslim countries categorize numerous films and television shows acceptable in Western societies as “pornography.” Pornography is largely from the beholder’s perspective, to borrow a cliché.

Ancient History

In many cultural institutions, explicit sexual behavior was frequently depicted in the framework of religion. For illustration, phallic iconography and representations of orgiastic situations were common in ancient Athens and Rome, albeit it is unclear whether they had the same social or psychological purposes as modern pornography. In some of the most well-known sexual books, such as the Roman poet Ovid’s Ars amatoria (Art of Love), a dissertation mostly on the art of enticement, subterfuge, and sensuous stimulation, a modern application appears more feasible. The Decameron, a collection of 100 tales by the Italian poet of the Middle Ages, Giovanni Boccaccio, contains some licentious material. The wickedness (and duplicity) of priests and other clergy members regarding sexual matters was a major motif in medieval pornography.

Japan had a very advanced civilization of graphic erotica, although many of these works cannot be called “pornographic” because they are so integrated into society. At least as early as the 17th century, there were elaborate representations of sexual activity—pictures ostensibly intended to teach sex instruction to medical practitioners, courtesans, and married couples. Makura-e (pillow drawings) was created to instruct and amuse married couples. The Tokugawa era (1603–1867) saw the peak of enthusiasm in very blatant erotica as custom color woodblock publishing techniques made it simple to produce and distribute sensual prints, known as shunga (literally, “pictures of spring”). By the 18th century, there was so much of this content that the government started issuing official decrees banning it, accompanied by some arrests and trials. However, Japanese erotica persisted; now, prints by masters like Suzuki Harunobu (c. 1725–1770) are famous worldwide.

Technological advances, especially the printing press, encouraged the production of pornographic works in Europe as well. These pieces were typically humorous and romantic and were designed to titillate in addition to stimulating. Many of these works reference earlier literary works when discussing the benefits and drawbacks of marital dishonesty and infidelity. The Heptameron by Margaret of Angoulême, published posthumously in 1558–1559, shares a device with the Decameron in that a group of characters narrates stories, some of which are racy.

Medieval World

The Enlightenment (18th century), when print had improved enough to enable the creation of both visual and textual resources to cater to consumers of all economic strata and sexual preferences, marks the beginning of the modern era of Western pornography. A small black market for these publications in England was the foundation for a parallel publication and bookselling industry. The widely circulated Fanny Hill, or, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1748–49) by John Cleland, is a classic from this period. Around this period, pornographic graphic art was made in large quantities in Paris and eventually emerged in the English-speaking world as “French postcards.”

Pornography developed as a potent tool for political and societal dissent in addition to its sexual component. It served as a platform for the investigation of radical concepts that were decried by both government and religion, such as sexual freedom for all genders, the use of contraception, and abortion. Pornography was frequently used to expose the wrongdoings of royals and other nobles, which hurt the reputation of Europe’s aristocracy. The Marquis de Sade was arguably the most significant writer of politically revolutionary pornography. His works, most notably Justine (1791), mixed orgiastic scenarios with in-depth philosophical discussions on the ills of ownership and conventional power structure.

By the time Queen Victoria assumed the monarchy in Great Britain in 1837, Holywell Street (also known as “Booksellers’ Row”) in London was home to more than 50 pornographic businesses. Despite—or possibly because of the stigmas on sexual subjects that were typical of the time, pornography thrived throughout the Victorian Era in Britain and the United States. The vast, nameless memoir My Secret Life (1890) combines a social history of the shady underbelly of a traditionalist society and a meticulous account of one English gentleman’s longtime search for sexual fulfillment. The Pearl (1879–1880), a significant month of the time, featured serialized books, short tales, filthy humor, poetry, and choruses with explicit sexual imagery. Such works offer a crucial correction to popular perceptions of Victorian conservatism.

The development of photography and then motion pictures in the 19th century was soon applied to the creation of pornography. Pornographic movies were publicly accessible as early as the 1920s, and their popularity skyrocketed in the 1960s. The advent of digital videodiscs (DVDs) in the 1990s and videocassettes in the 1980s made it possible to distribute pornographic movies widely. It further boosted their usage as they could be watched in secret.

Modern Discoveries

With the introduction of the Internet in the 1990s, pornographic photos and movies were made much more accessible. One of the fastest-growing lucrative industries on the Internet today is the pornographic one. The Internet not only offered a sizable market for commercial pornography that catered to a wide range of tastes but also inspired many amateurs to publish pictures of themselves, often challenging conventional ideas of attractiveness and sexual allure. Webcam use allowed people to publish live videos of themselves, frequently for a fee, further opening the market to amateurs. The internet also bolstered the prevalence of child pornography.


In the assumption that it debases and taints both juveniles and grownups and that it promotes the execution of sex crimes, pornography has often been denounced and legally outlawed. Occasionally, significant creative or even religious compositions were outlawed due to these presumptions that they were pornographic. These presumptions have been refuted in the light of legal and scientific evidence.

Nevertheless, many nations have laws against obscenity that allow for the production, dissemination, or ownership of pornographic items. A few generations earlier, portrayals of sexual activity would have been considered outrageously and criminally obscene. However, legal norms today vary greatly across Europe and North America. The prohibition of child pornography is the only taboo that is still largely upheld.

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