• Lewis Waring

A History of Porn - Chenoah Bueckert

My intention for this blog post is to give a brief introduction to the history of pornography “porn”, in particular, how it evolved and how society views porn today. This is a topic that I did not seek out nor intend to learn about, but one short introductory elective class at Robson Hall changed everything. After viewing episode 1 and 4 of Pornography: The Secret History of Civilization, I felt so enlightened. I am of the view that understanding how society’s values on various topics of sexual expression came to be will be of great assistance as I go forward in my career in criminal law. Much of my writing is from my recollection of these episodes and class discussion, and I do not give credit to myself for these concepts and ideas but rather to the producers of the films and my classmates.


When you think of the history of Italy, you might imagine visiting ancient Rome, exploring the Colosseum, discovering the Roman Forum, or maybe even taking a trip to Pompeii, a city that was destroyed, to see the various baths and structures that were uncovered from that era. What might not immediately come to mind is the people that lived in Pompeii at this time, the practices that they had, or the art they had on their walls. When you google the history of Pompeii, or go on a guided tour, it is unlikely that the first item on the agenda is going to educate you on the role that the excavation of Pompeii played in developing obscenity laws. Yet, this is one of the most fascinating moments of history in Italy I have learnt to date.


When Pompeii was being recovered, they exposed a variety of artwork on the walls of houses of the individuals who previously lived in the city. This artwork contained erotic depictions of sexuality and were viewed as beautiful displays. These pieces were not hidden but were rather public. Places such as the bathhouses were also known to encompass these masterpieces. To the people of Pompeii, there was nothing obscene about the art, the viewing, or its public nature. Fast forwarding to the time of the excavation, which led us into the Victorian Era, the workers discovering these materials were appalled. Upon these discoveries, they panicked and would either destroy portions of paintings on the wall that caused the upset or remove the artwork and lock it up in rooms where the public could not view them. This reaction seemingly came from the Judeo-Christian belief that sex was only acceptable for the purposes of procreation. They believed this form of sexual expression was anti-spiritual and were afraid these works would interfere with the lower class and disturb the economy as a whole.


Pornography did not always have its current meaning. The Greek term first appeared in the English medical dictionary. It was a neutral term and made reference with to the concept of prostitution. Within five years, it became a definition surrounding morals. The concept of pornography did not have anything to do with obscene imagery in the beginning. The actions of superiors in attempting to control these depictions, ensuring that viewing of such expression was private, is what created pornography. The concerns that encompassed the Victorian Era included that this erotica would disturb society or that people would become addicted and resort to a dangerous amount of masturbation.


A lot of this discovered art ended up in a secret museum in Naples and was placed under lock and key. Only those who had high social standing, including owning property and having plenty of money, could enter this secret museum and view the different pieces. The reasoning for this limitation was that those individuals had the knowledge, time, and leisure to analyze these depictions and the ability to rule over their instincts. Those making up the lower class were described as animals and too vulnerable to exposure to such sexual expression. Poor women, children, and the uneducated were seen as too ignorant to be able to intake the images on the walls.


Ultimately, when you try to suppress something or create a space, such as a secret museum, in order to keep material such as porn away from the people you do not want to have contact with it, you create problems. Suppression creates regulation, which causes the prohibition to be more public and typically results in the opposite of the desired effect. We saw our first regulation of pornography in 1857, with the Obscene Publications Act, which banned pornographic and other obscene materials. Since then, we have continued to redefine what the term obscene means and have continued to regulate pornography in some way, shape, or form.


Despite the regulation of pornography early on, there was still distribution of such materials, even in public places such as cinemas. We also had the “Golden Age of Pornography” in the 70’s, when many individuals risked criminalization and were also jailed for producing and distributing such sexually explicit content. Today we see the regulation of obscene and indecent materials regulated in the Criminal Code (“the Code”). Regulations are still in place because society disapproves of certain individuals who feel the desire to create, watch, and distribute erotica.


This brings us back to the age-old question of why we as a society are still so tense when it comes to the concept of pornography. I wonder if things would have been different had the reaction to the excavation of Pompeii been to celebrate the findings of the ancient Romans rather than immediately trying to suppress it. I think, amongst many things, it is important to understand that depictions of sexual expression used to be public and beautiful pieces of art. These historical discoveries, founded by the Judeo-Christians, resulted in what we know as the Victorian Era, which has had a huge impact on our culture today. While pornography may upset the average viewer in today’s society, an appreciation for the “how we got here” should be objectively taken into consideration when being governed by the state.


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