From Pompeii to PornHub: A brief, fascinating history of smut

We take porn for granted now, but the first stag films took the world by storm at the turn of the 20th century

Published June 8, 2015 10:00PM (EDT)

Malcolm McDowell in "Caligula"
Malcolm McDowell in "Caligula"

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNetSociety’s relationship with sex isn’t exactly what you would call an open and healthy one. Sure, we like it, but we also like to keep our distance from it. We enjoy watching other people have sex, but sometimes we really don't want to see that. Porn has always allowed us a measure of control over when we see sex and when we don't.

Back in 2009, Montreal researcher Simon Louis Lajeunesse was forced to abandon his study into how pornography affects men because he was unable to locate a control group. That is to say, he couldn’t find a single guy in his 20s who hadn’t seen porn. So yes, porn is out there. Porn is popular. And it’s been that way for an awfully long time.

Venus of Willendorf is one of the earliest, man-made depictions of the naked body. The 4-inch statue, which was discovered in the banks of the Danube River in Austria, is said to date back over 25,000 years. The Greeks and Romans left behind countless depictions of heterosexual sex, homosexual sex, oral sex, orgies and more. And the Kama Sutra, a third-century text, still enjoys its status as a cultural cornerstone of sensual living. Translation of the title: “A treatise on pleasure.”

But perhaps the largest collection of antique erotica came out of the ancient city of Pompeii. Excavators found hundreds of sexually explicit images, sculptures and frescoes lining the walls of brothels, bathhouses and common households. One of the most famous items recovered was a sculpture of the god Pan having sexual intercourse with a goat. If the act of sex makes people squeamish, bestiality causes a full-on freakout. The piece, along with hundreds of other frescoes and sculptures was originally put on display in the National Archeological Museum of Naples. But after King Francis I of Naples stopped in for a visit, he ordered the explicit material placed in what would eventually be called the Secret Museum. The artifacts remained hidden away for over a century.

New technologies introduce new means of storytelling. And sex has always been a story worth sharing. As Playboy writer Damon Brown once wrote, “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 Gutenberg Press was established in 1440, porn quickly found a home in literature. In 1524, the first book of erotic engravings was published. And in 1749, John Cleland wrote the erotic novel Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, later as known as Fanny Hill. But getting the material out there wasn't easy. Cleland and his original publisher were arrested and jailed immediately after the book’s publication. The Boston Globe reports that a bishop denounced the book as “The lewdest thing I ever saw.” The novel covered themes like bisexuality, voyeurism, group sex and masochism. The book was deemed “obscene” and remained underground in the United States until 1966.

In 1839, the daguerreotype was introduced (an early version of the photograph). Sure enough, a few enterprising individuals quickly found a way for the technology to serve more pornographic purposes. A 2006 paper by professor Joseph Slade suggests the first pornographic daguerreotype surfaced in 1846. The image depicted “a rather solemn man gingerly inserting his penis into the vagina of an equally solemn middle-aged woman.” Eleven years after that, the word “pornography” was officially added to the English language. At the time, it was defined as “writing about prostitutes.”

Finally, film comes into play. Thomas Edison’s The Kiss was made commercially available in 1896. As the title suggests, the film portrayed cinema’s first kiss. It may sound a little vanilla these days, but it did create somewhat of a scandal back then. Then again, it didn’t take filmmakers very long to start producing dirtier material.

The early 1900s marked the era of the “stag film.” Such films were illegally shot, consumed and distributed, and were representative of America’s crude, albeit booming porn industry. Stag filmmakers frequently relied on disjointed narratives and vivid depictions of raw sexuality. Joseph Slade suggests the “cultivated amateurishness” of these films “asserted the authenticity of human sexuality.” The films, often smuggled in by traveling salesmen, were frequently viewed during bachelor parties, fraternity events and other exclusively male gatherings. Researchers at Kinsey Institute believe approximately 2,000 stag films were produced between 1915 and 1968.

In spite of the complications that came with producing and distributing pornographic content, the material remained popular. So much so that in 1951, the X-rating was formally introduced. Two years later, 27-year-old Hugh Hefner founded Playboy magazine.

But things didn’t continue without incident. In 1957, Samuel Roth was convicted of mailing obscene material through his book-selling business in New York. The case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court. In a 6-3 decision, the Court ruled that “obscenity” is not protected speech, and that Congress could ban material that was “utterly without redeeming social importance.” The ruling put much of mainstream pornography at risk. Roth was jailed on obscenity charges on several occasions. One such instance involved the banned novel Fanny Hill.

In 1966 Lasse Braun hit the scene. Braun would eventually become one of the most celebrated names in porn. He began by making underground 8mm short silent sex films such as Golden Butterfly, Blow-Up ’70 andSex on the Motorway. By 1968, Braun (formally known as AGF) had several criminal cases against him as a publisher, producer and distributor of “obscene” material, or “material against the common morality.” (Denmark would become the first European country to legalize all forms of pornography in 1969.)

Some have cited Braun as the “original porn crusader,” and a leader in the fight to legalize adult material. His company, AB Beta Film, was the first to produce hardcore films in color. Braun is also the first European movie director to have been inducted into the AVN Hall of Fame by Adult Video News. (His son, Axel Braun, was the second.)

Braun’s business partner, Reuben Sturman, controlled things on the American front. To make the films more accessible Sturman started showing Braun’s work in his “peep show booths." The coin-operated machines projected the film in loops, in enclosed booths. When the money ran out, the film would stop. Should viewers crave more material, all they had to do was pop in another quarter. Sturman made sure to arm each booth with a box of tissues. They later became known as “pay and spray booths.” Between 1971 and 1974, Sturman placed 60,000 booths throughout the U.S. and Canada.

It was around this time that porn finally went commercial. The '70s are often referred to as the “Golden Age of Porn,” and this is in part thanks to a landmark decision by the United States Supreme Court. In the case of Miller vs. California, the Court decided to redefine its understanding of “obscenity.” The decision led to a dramatic drop-off in obscenity prosecutions throughout the nation.

During these years, Ron Jeremy, Nina Hartley, Peter North and other familiar faces joined the scene. In 1972, the first international porn flick, Behind the Green Door was released. That same year, Deep Throat hit theaters, starring Linda Lovelace as a sexually frustrated woman who learns her clitoris is located in the back of her throat.

But as popular as these mainstream films were, viewers lacked the ability to enjoy them in a solo sexual context. That changed with the arrival of video technology. In 1976, JVC launched VHC, a format that would make “video technology” a household name. The PornHub analytics team found that in 1978, fewer than 1% of American homes had VCRs, but “a whopping 75% of VHS tapes sold” were pornographic.

We make take it for granted now, but the ability to pause, fast-forward, rewind, and rewatch video changes the experience entirely. Fans of Internet pornography can relate. When it comes to the pursuit of pleasure, a tailored experience is often best. Home video allowed individuals to take it a step further and record their own sexual experiences (now we know why the phrase “home-made” sounds so dirty). This kind of entertainment would make it big in a few years time. The Kim Kardashian sex tape, released in 2007, would become the most-viewed video of all time, with more than 93 million views.

1991. The worldwide web hits, and the world of porn changes forever. The first porn site goes up in 1994. By 2012, Xvideos had become the largest porn site on the web with 4.4 billion page views per months. At the time, ExtremeTechreported that the site was three times the size of CNN or ESPN, and twice the size of Reddit, adding, “LiveJasmin isn’t much smaller. YouPorn, Tube8, and Pornhub — they’re all vast, vast sites that dwarf almost everything except the Googles and Facebooks of the Internet.” Today, Xvideos is the 43rd most popular website in the world.

Most adult entertainment companies have found a home on the web. But so have amateur sites, streaming sites, fetish sites and more. Now that interactive platforms are gaining steam, porn is entering yet another new phase, and it’s more accessible than ever.

Of course, porn has never existed without the push to eradicate it. Groups likeNoFap and Fight the New Drug argue that Internet pornography is starting to overload our brains and that addiction is inevitable. Anti-porn activist Robert Jensen, author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity makes articulate arguments that deserve our attention.

Not everyone agrees. Relationships with porn will differ. Some choose not to partake. Others do. But what we can all agree is on that sex sells. Especially that of non-procreative variety.

By Carrie Weisman

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