What The Fascinating History Of Porn Reveals About Human Sexuality

Photographed by Natalia Mantini.
Before I became a journalist whose beat was the adult entertainment industry, I was just like thousands, probably millions, of other Americans. We almost all watch porn for free online, but we try not to think about it because we’re remorseful, and because we don’t really understand what we’re seeing. But no matter whether we regret our decisions or not, we keep going back to it. After all — really — how could we not watch porn? It’s everywhere.
While the statistics on Internet porn vary wildly from source to source and remain unreliable due to a paucity of serious research on the subject, estimates range from four to nearly thirty percent of the Internet currently being devoted to pornographic content. Somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty-five percent of Internet searches are for porn, and popular porn tube site Pornhub reported 23 billion visits in 2016. That’s billion with a B. In other words, given our ever-increasing dependence upon the Web and the still-evolving prevalence of technology in our daily routines, ignoring the siren song of free porn is becoming more difficult all the time.
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Although our access to pornography has exploded in the new millennium, there’s no use in taking an alarmist approach about it or wallowing in guilt over our prurient tendencies. Porn, after all, has always been available. And I do mean always. Ever since we became Homo sapiens, and arguably even before, we’ve been into pornographic depictions of naked people doing sexy stuff. Some of the earliest artwork known to have been produced by human hands are the small carvings of voluptuous and luridly detailed female figures called “Venus figurines,” which date back as far as the Aurignacian period some thirty-five thousand years ago. Ancient cave paintings the world over (from China’s Kangjiashimenji Petroglyphs to England’s Creswell Crags) depict sexual content ranging from stylized genitals to bisexual, bestial orgies. According to Shira Tarrant, author of The Pornography Industry, “The Turin Erotic Papyrus was an ancient scroll painted during Egypt’s Ramesside period (1292–1075 BCE), two-thirds of which includes explicit depictions of sexual acts.”
Erotic artwork and inscriptions were so rampant in pre-volcano Pompeii that modern archeologists restricted access to large portions of the preserved city until quite recently, fearing an adverse reaction to the amatory murals. When researchers from Oxford deciphered a gigantic collection of two-thousand-year-old papyrus from a garbage dump in Egypt, they found themselves reading copies of a wildly popular book of erotica — the Fifty Shades of Grey of Alexandria. The Moche people of what is now Peru were painting scenes of anal sex on their pottery in the first centuries A.D. Temples in India from the tenth century sport graphically-carved orgies. Japanese wood-block prints in the shunga style depicted explicit sexual liaisons from the thirteenth century on. In the fifteenth century, no sooner had the printing press concluded its Bible-printing duties than it got to work on porn. In 1749, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (commonly known as Fanny Hill) caused a sensation in England and throughout Europe, and the book was first banned and collected by smut-hungry noblemen, with the debauched writings of the Marquis de Sade only a few decades away.
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It hardly needs to be said that photography’s invention in the early 1840s was nearly immediately put to dirty use — some historians consider pornographic photos of prostitutes and dancers called “French cards” major contributors to the explosive popularity of the new medium. (Despite the popularity of these nudie pics, however, the term “pornography” wasn’t coined until 1857 in the U.K., and didn’t come into common use in America until the late nineteenth century. So while we might call the Venus figurines pornographic, they wouldn’t have been considered so by their makers.)
The first porn films were produced in the mid-1890s, more or less simultaneously with the advent of the moving picture. The earliest known surviving explicitly pornographic film, À L’Écu d’Or ou la Bonne Auberge, dates from 1908, and though that may sound quaint to us today, it’s worth noting that these films were not much tamer than what we’re used to. The filming techniques may have been less sophisticated, but Ye Olde Pornographers were into some kinky shit. The oldest surviving American porno flick, A Free Ride, for instance, features a raunchy al fresco threesome that’s spurred by two women getting excited by watching a man urinate. Water sports, anyone?

The first porn films were produced in the mid-1890s…[and they] were not much tamer than what we’re used to.

“Stag films,” as they came to be called, were men’s club institutions, presented by their producers for small groups of men at Elks lodges, bachelor parties, brothels, and the like, well into the twentieth century. The 1960s saw an increase in legalized hardcore porn from Europe in magazines and on 8mm film, which was often looped and played in adult bookstores’ popular peep-show booths. American filmmakers soon followed suit, giving rise to a budding porn industry on this side of the pond. As the decades wore on and the Supreme Court passed down a number of rulings that more closely pinpointed the definition of prosecutable obscenity, full-scale adult theaters began to pop up, and big-budget, full-length feature films showing explicit sex were played on the silver screen. The “porno chic” films of the 1970s, like Deep Throat (1972), The Devil in Miss Jones (1973), and The Opening of Misty Beethoven (1976), saw pornography emerging as big business, often bankrolled by organized crime.
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When the Supreme Court’s 1973 Miller v. California ruling made the definition of obscenity reliant upon local “community standards,” the Golden Age of Porn was curtailed, but the advent of home video was not far behind. Porn workers continued doing business with lower budgets and less refined technology, skulking around without explicit legal protection. But by the release of the Reagan-backed Meese Commission’s report on pornography in 1986, many Americans were investing in home viewing systems to consume their sexy films in private, and the market expanded accordingly.
Since the establishment of an explicitly legal and wildly profitable industry in California in the late eighties, our voracious appetites for smut haven’t let up. The nineties witnessed a proliferation in the medium, with hundreds of independent companies springing up in the San Fernando Valley. And, with the advent of the Internet, pornographic websites were some of first to make money from selling products online — a move that revolutionized the way consumers shop…and masturbate.
It’s been argued that porn — or at least our never-ending desire for it — is one of the major forces, if not the primary driving force, behind almost every major technological advancement in our species’ history, and I tend to believe the hype. HD video was popularized by the porn industry just as much as by IMAX films. Virtual reality tech was adopted by pornographers long before mainstream producers took it on. Text messaging may never have become the go-to short-form communication of the new millennium if photos and videos had not been thrown into the mix, enabling “sexting.” Virtually every media-sharing platform and app must grapple with the masses’ wont to use it for sending, receiving, or watching sexy media. And, as far as anyone can tell, the cycle will continue for as long as we keep inventing things.
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In short, we love our porn. We have always loved it. As of 2016, CNN reported that between fifty and ninety-nine percent of American men, and thirty to eighty-six percent of American women, consume pornography. Yet, especially in America where our repression breeds obsession, we are ashamed of our proclivities. We keep porn carefully contained behind our locked bedroom doors, except for those few times a month, a week, or a day when we take it out to play before slamming the door shut again, leaving our shameful partner untended to do what it will in the dark. And, like many things that exist in the dark, it scares us to imagine seeing it in the glaring light of day.
Excerpted from the book Watching Porn: And Other Confessions of an Adult Entertainment Journalist, by Lynsey G. Copyright © 2017 by Lynsey G. Published on June 6, 2017 by The Overlook Press. Reprinted by permission.
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