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The Brief History of Porn: From Venus to Vivid

Last Updated: April 7, 2015

Luke Gilkerson

Luke Gilkerson has a BA in Philosophy and Religious Studies and an MA in Religion. He is the author of Coming Clean: Overcoming Lust Through Biblical Accountability and The Talk: 7 Lessons to Introduce Your Child to Biblical Sexuality. Luke and his wife Trisha blog at IntoxicatedOnLife.com

The history of art and technology is closely linked to the history of pornography. It seems that as long as mankind has had the ingenuity to be creative, to build, to engineer, he has used his creativity for pornographic ends. Ladies and Gentlemen . . . I give you a brief history of porn.

The History

1. Its has often been said that porn has been around since men drew on cave walls. This is actually true. The now famous Venus of Wilendorf is a statuette of an idealized naked woman estimated to be made some 25,000 years ago. Archaeologists have also found Ice Age cave paintings of various parts of human anatomy, though there is disagreement as to whether these depictions were meant to stimulate unwholesome sexual desires. Much of what is found on cave walls is actually prehistoric graffiti done by teenage males. Paleobiologist Dale Guthrie states, “In the graffiti, there is a lot of below-the-belt-art. The people in the art are predominantly women, and not a single one has any clothes on.”

2. Pornographic art was also associated with fertility cults from many cultures throughout the ages. In Canaan the goddess Asherah and her son and consort Baal were worshiped. In artwork Asherah is portrayed as a nude female with exaggerated breasts, at times pregnant. Her worshipers would attempt to influence her through a bit of “sympathetic sexual magic,” performing ritual sex so that she might be motivated to mimic them and thus bring about greater fertility and productivity in crops. This is a pattern seen in many fertility cults, whether it be the worship of Ishtar in Babylon, Isis in Hellenistic Egypt, Al-Uzza in Arabia, Cybele in Asia Minor, Anath in Syria, Diana in Ephesus, Aphrodite in Corinth, or Venus in Rome.

3. It was the invention of the Gutenberg Press in 1440 that made books, and thus pornographic works, cheaper to produce and easier to acquire. In 1524, a book of erotic engravings depicting lovemaking positions was published, which inspired a whole generation of erotic manuals and eventually novels.

4. When the daguerreotype (an early type of photograph) was perfected in 1839, it was quickly used to create nude displays of women in risqué poses. It was shortly after this that the word “pornography” entered the English language (1857), literally meaning the writing about or by prostitutes.

5. Movies come next. “The Kiss,” directed by Thomas Edison, was one of the first movies ever shown commercially to the public. This film, depicting a long kiss, caused a media uproar, but by the 1920s there was a growing pornographic movie business. Damon Brown, a regular writer for Playboy, SPIN, the New York Post, writes, “If we invent a machine, the first thing we are going to do—after making a profit—is use it to watch porn. When the projector was invented roughly a century ago, the first movies were not of damsels in distress tied to train tracks or Charlie Chaplin-style slapsticks; they were stilted porn shorts called stag films.” These graphic films were often shown in brothels. By the 1970s, as obscenity laws began to change in the US, there was the rise of the XXX movie theater and a new series of hardcore films.

6. Then in 1953 Playboy hit the stands. Until this time pornography was still culturally taboo, an underground industry, but with Playboy came the first example of pornography distributed through the main channels of American capitalism. This “lifestyle” magazine carved out the soft-core industry in America. In 1969 Penthouse came along and became the first real competitor to the Playboy market. Penthouse was willing to push the limits of what was acceptable (to the public and to the advertisers who made these magazines possible). Then the hardcore of Hustler hit the market.

7. The history of the VCR is directly linked to the history of pornography. In 1978, when fewer than 1% of American homes had VCRs, over 75% of VHS tapes sold were pornographic. It has been suggested that Sony’s Betamax lost to VHS, despite technological superiority, because Sony refused to allow the porn industry to use their format.

8. The Internet has been, by far, the biggest break in the porn industry. Pornography pioneered technologies such as streaming audio and video, flash, the pop-up window, high speed Internet connections, and security improvements for ala cart pay services. Moreover, the push of pornography into the mainstream of capitalism in the last 50 years has made pornography a multi-billion dollar industry. Pornography production and distribution is done by businesses that run like Fortune 500 companies. About 20 large U.S. companies are responsible for at least 70% of the hundreds of millions of pornography images online.

Why Porn and Technology?

Walter Kendrick is the author of the 1987 book The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture. Kendrick, also a professor of English at Fordham University, offers a well-thought reason for why pornographers and porn consumers have gravitated to new technologies and art forms:

“Pornography is always unsatisfied. It’s always a substitute for the contact between two bodies, so there’s a drive behind it that doesn’t exist in other genres. Pornographers have been the most inventive and resourceful users of whatever medium comes along because they and their audience have always wanted innovations. Pornographers are excluded from the mainstream channels, so they look around for something new, and the audience has a desire to try any innovation that gives them greater realism or immediacy.”