As a free, landowning male in ancient Athens, or as an anxious, indebted college student, chances are that you own a large amount of stuff kept hidden in an obscurely-named folder on your personal computer or in stacks underneath your mattress. Back in the day, a vase used for storing wine served at dinner parties could function in the same manner a modern day pin-up poster would. The vases were often engraved with two-dimensional figures engaged in a titillating orgy scene, illustrating sexual fantasies and gender roles. Back then, no one was bashful about these erotic displays; they were often set out in the open for guests to admire, discuss and maybe even act out during dinner.
For the ancient Greeks, what we might consider to be porn today had a much different connotation. Depictions of erotic content, men and women engaging in heterosexual or homosexual acts, could be found in many different aspects of Greek culture. Emerging from the Dark Ages with the Enlightenment period, erotic art transformed from revolutionary fodder to a genre unto itself. The cultural revolutions of the 20th century threatened to close the gap between pornographic and non-pornographic media as more people began taking interest in the commercial value of the pornographic industry. While this intention may have been thwarted by a conservative reaction in America, presently, the extent and availability of “explicit content” on the internet suggests that pornographic material may once again make its way into the mainstream.
“Both in your pussy and your
behind, my cock will make me happy, and you happy and blissful.”
- Pietro Aretino, in Sonneti Lussuriosi, the first text deemed pornographic
The ancient Greeks, while they may be separated from us by thousands of years of cultural norms, were not freaks. The topic of sex was still a potentially shameful issue, and though we don’t share certain moral boundaries with the originators of Western Civilization, we can trace them to the roots of modern theatre, visual art and literature. The little we know about the Greeks informs us that their views of sex in the public sphere were certainly more relaxed. Fondling scenes between men, homosexual rape by gods and nude motifs can be found on containers used by Greek men and women.
In Greek dramas and comedies, particularly the plays of Aristophanes, suspenseful and humorous parts dealt with women and sexual expression. In one play, “The Acharnians,” Aristophanes directs:
“Two young girls, nude and wearing piglet masks, are brought onto the stage in a wheelbarrow by their father, who designates them as 'little
piggies' he’s bringing to the market to sell. The buyer fingers 'the goods' as he and the father negotiate their cost and exchange food jokes containing vivid, sexual double entendres.”
Use of erotic art in ancient Greece served to restate and reinforce sexual roles, asserting a patriarchal social structure. An icon of a mute female whose pleasure is disregarded within erotic imagery repeats itself in many pieces, thereby strengthening the idea of a rigid patriarchy as the social norm. Because erotic images played into male dominance, they became popular as entertainment in a society ruled by men. Because males approved of the erotic images that glorified their dominance, interacting with the images came into the public view, and the entertainment value was accepted.
This type of cultural acceptance continued throughout the Roman era, but disappeared with the rise of Christianity. An emphasis on scenes of the heavenly replaced an urge to represent sexuality. This departure is also largely due to the collapse of communication networks following the break-up of the Roman Empire, making it difficult to disseminate erotica.
Erotic imagery was reborn, like much of Western thought, through the invention of the printing press. Making prints from engravings became key to transmitting erotic material, made popular by the Italian, Marcantonio Raimondi. Twice the Church imprisoned him for publishing his book containing images of
16 different sexual positions. Not quite the equivalent of a swimsuit calendar, the printed materials were subversive and kept under wraps.
These sex scenes and the notion of “pornography” would not have reached such a wide audience without the help of Italian author and playwright, Pietro Aretino. In coupling his erotic sonnets with Raimondi’s images, the modern idea of pornography was born. Because Aretino’s work contained references critical of the priests and ruling class, cracking down on this “obscenity” was a way of maintaining political control, not just moral integrity.
Pornography continued to evolve within literature. Publications of lurid conversations between prostitutes were ripe for public pleasure and contributed to the growth of a sex industry in Europe. Condoms, dildos and other “sex aids” began appearing in Europe in the late 1600s, creating an industry and thus legitimacy in the burgeoning
“Beautiful woman of the world find the books bothersome because, as she says, one can only read them with one hand!”
- Jean Jacques Rousseau,
speaking of the growth of
French erotic literature
Enlightenment philosophy began to be associated with porn, and the French libertines were quick to embrace this counter-culture symbol. Their insistence on living ethically while indulging in everyday pleasures rounded out their humanist philosophy. Porn from this era is regarded as being an exceptionally “bookish” pursuit, based on great ancient texts. The next time you want a rousing good tale, pick up anything by Ovid or even the Bible’s Song of Songs.
As technology and industry progressed to give women a separate identity from the home, the content of erotic depictions shifted. A woman’s voice and narratives detailing her pleasure became an
exclusive element of a diversifying porn market. With the French Revolution and the following upheavals of the late 1800s, images of political leaders spread ideas of revolt through equating people, as well as political parties, to genitals and sex acts. The fervor of the French Revolution was aided by pornographic propaganda, which served to mock the establishment while equating the philosophy of the pornographer with the freedom promised by
A Change in Media
With the invention of photography and motion pictures, coupled with relative peace among industrialized nations, pornography grew in popularity and began to be enjoyed for the sake of itself. The success of film was certainly accelerated by the masses of people that clamored to make money from selling realistic, nude images of women and men engaging in sex acts. As opposed to the easy-going Mediterranean days, these materials were considered contraband by some countries in post-Victorian Europe. Conservative periods, reacting to rapid changes in technology, often fined, imprisoned and stigmatized those unfortunate enough to be labeled as a “masturbator.” While “modernist” art may not have emphasized the beauty of the human form, radical experimentation, flowering in the 60s and 70s, ushered in a period of sexual tolerance and controversy.
It should be noted that there is a connection here between the success of a new technology and its “porn-quotient,” that is how money can be made from using the medium for erotic intents. The ability for studios, as well as amateur movie-makers, to record cheaply on VHS prompted its success in the 1980s over its competitor, Sony Betamax. It was this change in medium that allowed for pornography to be associated less with the scary downtown smut-house and more with the quiet suburban home. Coffee-table-top magazines like Playboy and Hustler added a tactile dimension to “representations” of women through the playful use of “turn-ons” and “turn-offs,” as well as a wealth of flirty information. (I say representations because this was a significant departure from what real women look like.) As media became more interactive, porn’s content became more interactive, pushing long-standing boundaries of physical separation from art.
A Modern Look
Contemporary pornography is only beginning to suggest how today’s media is affecting us. The sheer variety of porn today (see 4chan’s infamous Rule 34: “If it exists, there is porn of it”) indicates that our society has become as fragmented as it is tolerant. Twitter and MySpace webcam girls, as well as the growing popularity of
user-generated porn sites, bring X-rated content in close proximity with the mainstream.
In one sense, our generation is returning to a time similar to the Greeks, where our contact with erotic media is as mundane as some guy with an orgy scene on his wine jug. We are also entering unfamiliar territory. In an age when media becomes an extension of our nervous system, it is easy for 0s and 1s to replace what is a healthy, special human interaction. The invention of life-like sex dolls, coupled with the possibilities of nano-technology, could create a reality similar to Woody Allen’s 1973 movie “Sleeper,” where sex was replaced by the use of “Orgasmatrons.”
Whatever the medium, content deemed “pornographic” by today’s standards has always been present. Men and women persistently seek a way to project their thoughts and feelings about what sex is and what it could be into a physical format. As technology has allowed man to become more distant from his fellow woman, the potential for human beings to be removed from the sexual equation is real. To understand how our media is affecting us, we must seek shelter in reality, for some good-old-fashioned “outside lovin’.”