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The History of Porn

 


It seems so obvious: If we invent a machine, the first thing we are going to do–after making a profit–is use it to watch porn.

 DamonBrown, Author of Playboy’s Greatest Covers


Pornography is so pervasive today, it’s hard to imagine it having a history. Porn can be thought of as sex taken out of our imaginations and represented in video, picture, or ancient cave painting, depending on preference. So, as long there has been sex, sin, and someone with a modicum of skill with a camera or a paleolithic chisel, it seems reasonable to assume that people have been making porn.

The results of a (cautious!) Google search seem to bear this out: the oldest depiction of female genitalia is a rock carving 37,000 years old. Ancient cultures such as the Egyptians and the Romans also produced many more obviously sexually explicit scenes, mostly in the form of carving, painting, or papyri. Porn, it seems, has been around for a long time.

People have always made naked pictures, so what’s the big deal now? Why are Christians so worked up about something that has been around forever? And why don’t we focus on more pressing issues? Well, this reasoning misses the huge difference between today’s porn and the porn of yesteryear. We’ve come a long way indeed from the porn of the ancients – from papyrus and crude stone carvings to hundreds of thousands of hours of explicit, uncompromising, and often grotesque and violent video.

One study estimated that 88 per cent of scenes in porn films contain acts of physical aggression, and 49 per cent of scenes contain verbal aggression. By far the most common genre of porn is so-called “gonzo porn”, which eschews any attempt at story and focuses on delivering more and more bizarre, demeaning, and body-punishing sex (always at the woman’s expense).

Then there’s the money. Porn is an enormous industry, and its growth shows no signs of stopping. Even with a whole stable of the most skilled papyrus pornographers, it’s hard to imagine ancient porn becoming an industry worth an estimated $97 billion globally.

Finally, there’s the sheer amount of porn that is being made and watched. Covenant Eyes estimates that, as of this writing, there have been more than 420,000,000 Internet searches for porn since the beginning of 2015, and that number is constantly increasing. Fully 69 per cent of all pay-per-view content on the internet is porn, and nine out of 10 users only access free porn! No matter how industrious the carvers and papyrus painters of the old days, there is simply no way they could produce enough pornographic material to completely saturate the culture the way porn has today. It’s simply impossible. Sex has always played an important role in human art and thought, but today’s porn is abusive, pervasive and invasive in a completely unprecedented way.

So how did we get here?

It seems that it started, surprisingly, in the infamously repressed context of 18th and 19th century England. In an era famous for being scandalized at the sight of women’s bare ankles, the pornographic novel flourished. The first and most famous of these is John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, published in 1748. Full of extremely graphic sex scenes, it scandalized the public, was quickly banned, and was obviously a huge success. By 1837, when Queen Victoria took the throne, there was a bustling pornographic book industry, with upwards of 50 smut shops on Bookseller’s Row in London.

Once photography and videography were invented, pornographers were among the first to get in on the new technology: the first pornographic film was made by the Frenchmen Eugène Pirou and Albert Kirchner in 1896. However, despite growing in popularity, pornography continued to be widely viewed as something disgusting and sinful, and was enjoyed only in secret. Adding to this was the fact that publishing or distributing pornography was illegal in most countries.

For it to even begin to reach the cultural acceptance it enjoys today, pornography had to wait until the 1950s and the advent of the mainstream porn magazine, especially Playboy.

The magazine was first released in December 1953 and was an immediate success. By 1959, Playboy had a circulation of over one million subscribers. It sold an image to the readers of themselves as “Playboys” — men who were rich, sophisticated, and most importantly, not tied down by any one woman.

This idea was a direct rebellion against the Leave It To Beaver, three-kids-two-cars-and-a-house-in-the-suburbs, family-centric culture of the 1950s, and it was led by men who felt that their prospects for a fulfilling life were being curtailed by women, especially their wives.

Instead of being tied down and restricted, the ideal Playboy was the ultimate consumer. He had the best of everything: scotch, watches, cars, clothes, and of course, women. Hugh Hefner himself, the founder of Playboy, said that “Playboy is a combination of sex…and status.”

It’s important to note that, even at this early juncture, the rise of pornography was inextricably linked to an idea of women which viewed them as a burden to be cast off, or at best, nothing more than another product to be consumed.

Hard on the heels of Playboy came Penthouse and Hustler, two magazines that both competed with and capitalized on Playboy’s success. These magazines, especially Hustler, pushed the limits of what could be shown in a mainstream magazine. The story of how Playboy, Penthouse, and Hustler competed to outsell and out-sleaze the other is a long one, and there isn’t enough space to tell it here, but the long and short of it is that, as Gail Dines says in Pornland, “by the time the Internet was introduced into homes, the culture had been well-groomed to accept pornography as a part of everyday life rather than as an industry that produces a system of images that debase and dehumanize women and men.”

In the nascent days of the web, porn was (unsurprisingly) one of the first things to be shared, and as the web has grown, porn has grown right alongside it. Recently, one of the internet’s biggest porn sites even put up an ad in Times Square.

The story of porn’s explosive growth ought not to come as a surprise: we are a sinful people and will continue to seek new ways to satisfy our selfishness. Nonetheless, it is amazing to see how far porn has come since the days of the papyrus pornographers, or even of Fanny Hill.

We now live in a culture where, far from being scandalous, porn is seen by many as simply a normal part of life, or at worst, a slightly distasteful distraction. Porn stars are becoming mainstream celebrities, and movies like 50 Shades of Grey are bringing violent and exploitative porn-sex right onto the big screen.

How should we respond to this? We should be striving to show the world that there is a different, better way to approach sex — a way that is not selfish and temporary, but rooted and grounded in love. A way that does not seek simply to take pleasure and gratify itself, but that instead seeks to give love. In the end, we should seek a way that does not dehumanize and exploit, but that is instead a reflection of the beautiful and self-giving character of God.

This is the first in a four-part series on pornography.

Part Two: This is Your Brain on Porn

Part Three: Pornified Relationships

Part Four: The Porn-Addicted Church

 

 

Photo by (Flickr CC): Surian Soosay

 

Kona