In my novel, Dreaming Alejandro, the main character starts as a pornographer, recording her lucid dreams to make customized pornographic movies for clients. The reason I started the novel with the main character, Cassidy Brewster, in such a morally ambiguous industry was that I wanted to reflect how technology is driven forward. Technological advancements do not happen in a vacuum. There are two main forces that drive technological innovation. The first is war, the ancient need for us humans to destroy other humans that we perceive to be outside our group. For example, the Internet started as a way for the governments of the world to keep in contact during a nuclear holocaust. The second force is pornography—in my mind, the lesser of the two evils. Pornography turned the Internet from a basic communication tool to an essential utility. Roughly one-third of all Internet traffic is porn. Every year it drives Internet service providers to open greater spans of bandwidth.
Part One - The Image
Arguably the first example of erotic art is the Venus of Willendorf. It is a carved statue of a female figure with exaggerated hips and breasts. It was created somewhere in the Paleolithic era and found in Austria. Its exact purpose is in question by archaeologists. While it seems it probably was made by a man, it is entirely possible that it was created by a woman. The Venus’s exaggerated body type might reflect the point of view of a female artist looking down at her own body.
The ancient Greeks left behind many writings of their sexual encounters, including mass orgies. The first nude sculptures were of male youths, because—let’s face it—these were the focus of the male gaze at the time. The male torsos had idealized proportions based on mathematical ratios. The earliest example of this is the Kroisos Kouros, a nude male figure standing up straight in a stiff pose with one foot in front of the other. It was carved in circa 530 BC. During this period, the Greeks preferred their depictions of their goddesses to be clothed until the Aphrodite of Knidos, the first recorded nude female figure in ancient Greece. Its bodily proportions were also based on mathematical ratios, but its pose is a more naturalistic depiction of a woman walking.
The nude human figure seemed to disappear from works of art after the fall of the Roman Empire, but started to appear again in the late middle ages. These were mostly limited to depictions of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The men were tall and slight, most likely because the painter’s apprentices were the models. The woman had small breasts, high hips, and a bulging stomach. This continued until the Renaissance, until Donatello’s second rendering of David, carved about four decades before Michelangelo made his rendition of the hero. Donatello’s David is slight, like the Greek and Roman male forms that came before it, but has a very naturalistic pose with one arm resting against his hip and one leg bent as if striding in triumph over the slain Goliath. This David rushed in a new era of nude art. While the paintings and statues that were made were done by those with master-level skills, they were made for erotic purposes. Prints also became popular during this time. Since they had no need for permanent display, the medium lent itself to eroticism.
On the other side of the world in Asia, erotic art was having a renaissance of its own. In China, erotic art [NSFW] dates back to the 13th century and peeked in the latter part of the Ming Dynasty around 1644. These paintings often depicted couples in various stages of explicit copulation. Also in the 13th century in Japan, erotic woodblock prints, called shunga, gained popularity. These shunga woodblock prints continued to be produced even after a ban on erotic books in 1722 enacted by the Tokugawa shogun. The ban did little to stamp out the existence of shunga, evidenced by the production of shunga’s most famous example, The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife. It continued to be an art form well into the 19th century and only ended due to the invention of photography.
What we know as pornography came into being in the Victorian age in England. This change of thinking had nothing to do with erotic art, but instead had everything to do with religion. An anti-Catholic pamphlet called The Confessional Unmasked: Shewing the Depravity of the Romish Priesthood, the Iniquity of the Confessional, and the Questions Put to Females in Confession—a gripping title if there ever was one—was put on trial. This trial created the Hicklin Test. This test became the origin of all obscenity laws. It applied to anything that had the “tendency… to depraved and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences, and into whose hands, a publication of the sort may fall.” As you can see, this definition had a very wide-spanning domain with fuzzy borders. Erotic art fell underneath this umbrella, and despite the obscene label, flourished in Victorian England.
Part Two - Printing
Erotic literature has taken many forms over the years. The oldest love poem ever recorded is called “Bridegroom, Spend the Night in Our House Till Dawn” or “A Love Song of Shu-Suen (Shu-Suen B)”. The poem is written from the point of view of a female speaker to a Sumerian king, the Shu-Suen of the title. It was discovered on a terracotta tablet called Istanbul 2461, believed to have been made in 2037-2029 BC. The ancient Sumerian it was written in seems to be from that time as well.
Throughout these early times, erotic literature took many forms like poetry, details of sexual fantasies, sex manuals, and true-life memoirs. It wasn’t seen as a problem before the printing press due to limited literacy. Even after the invention of the printing press, circa 1440, erotic literature was passed around in manuscript form. However, once the lower classes got access to the mass-produced books, the powers above began to censor them.
The printing press gave rise to a resurgence in the ancient texts. The ancient Greeks and Romans saw gods as sexual beings. This sort of sexualized storytelling spread with the expanse of literacy. The ancient texts were seen as new and novel to the members of the working-class who had learned to read.
Engraved images often supplemented these texts. Respectable artists of the time used them to make a second line of income for themselves. They were often made at the behest of elite rich men. These images were a common vice among Catholic Church clerics who only stepped in to restrict the images when they became shared in print.
One of the most famous of these is called I Modi or “The Ways”. It was a collection of reproductions from Romano’s frescoes. These frescoes depicted 16 couples in different sex positions, drawn and printed by Rafael’s master engraver, Marcantonio Raimondi. Pope Clement VII ordered Raimondi to be imprisoned and all the copies of I Modi to be destroyed. It was because of this attempted censorship that the popularity of this collection exploded.
Erotic literature of all forms was plentiful in Enlightenment-era France. The libertine attitude was shown in The School of Venus. Originally printed in 1680, the sex manual became so famous, it was translated into English. Even the prudes of Victorian England had their erotic literature. The first monthly pornographic magazine called The Pearl ran for a year before it was shut down for obscenity.
Part Three - Photography
In 1839, Louis Daguerre presented his method of photography to the French Academy of sciences. He called it the daguerreotype. Its process used a plate of silvered plated copper that was polished, treated with fumes to make it light-sensitive, and then exposed in a camera. The resulting photographs had unparalleled detail and didn’t fade over time like other processes. It was immediately used for erotic purposes. The exposure took 10 to 15 minutes, so action could not be depicted. While earlier traditions of erotic art showed sex scenes, the models in daguerreotypes had to hold their pose. The content shifted to models — usually women — exposing the genitals. The expensive ones were colored by hand, while the cheaper versions were left in black and white. Reproduction was a limitation of these early daguerreotypes. The only way they could be reproduced was by taking a photo of the photo. Generational degradation kept their distribution limited.
The biggest innovation with erotic photography was the subjects were of actual living models. They were not entirely of the artist’s imagination like the drawing and painting of old. Their realism made them accessible. The working class leaped onto this new technology. Not only were the subjects of these photos working class, but the photographers were the same. They began to document all of the different shades of sexual experiences, both hetero and homosexual scenes. Less conservative sex sexual acts like oral and anal were depicted as well.
A mere two years after the Daguerre’s presentation, in 1841, William Fox Talbot, an English inventor and photographer, developed the calotype process. It was the first use of negatives. It made pornography mass-producible. Paris quickly imported and adopted the technology.
Early daguerreotypes were exceedingly expensive. In the 1850s. One photo would cost a week’s salary for the average France worker. At the time it would’ve been cheaper to hire a prostitute than to take a picture of her. As the technology spread, the price of these daguerreotypes lowered. In the 1860s, there were an estimated 400 stores in Paris that sold erotic daguerreotypes. On top of these, there was an army of women who sold them around train stations, hidden under their dresses.
The daguerreotypes made their way to England. The London street of Holywell became the center for pornographic materials in Victorian England. Holywell Street was a holdover from the Tudor era. It was dark and narrow, perfect for squeezing in a small store for selling these pornographic daguerreotypes. The erotic works sold here ranged from artistic to graphic. The early nudes were expensive, but cheaper alternatives for the working class were quickly provided.
The invention of the 35mm camera heralded in a new wave of pornography. Invented by Oscar Barnett of the Ernst lights company in 1913, it was nicknamed the candid camera. It was relatively compact and made erotic photography in semipublic places popular.
Porn became more conservative as the negative social consequences of modeling became more well-known. Bellocq, known for making naturalistic portraits of New Orleans prostitutes, often had his subjects wear masks. He also intentionally defaced his photos by scratching out the faces.
Pinups became popular during World War II. They were defined by a focus on bare legs, short skirts or swimsuits, and shapely figures. While the models of previous erotic photography were anonymous, these models were quite often named. Many film stars modeled for them, so they could be marketed as sex symbols. It was during this time that the Polaroid Instant Camera rose in popularity. The first commercially available instant camera was released in 1948. The photographers were free of development labs, affording a level of privacy never before seen. Often these amateur photographers would have camera clubs where they hired a model to pose nude for them for the day, so they could make their own pinups.
In the 1950s, pinups started to emerge from the previous conservative cocoon surrounding him, helped by the presence of instant cameras. The bearing of the model’s breasts was popularized by Playboy magazine. Like with the pinups that came before, these Playboy models used these photo spreads to become more widely known. The first issue featured Marilyn Monroe and launched the magazine into popularity.
Part Four - Movies
As soon as motion pictures were invented, the technology was quickly applied to erotic films. Labeled stag films, these short movies were black and white, up to 15 minutes long, and silent. The first examples of the genre showed representations of bodies in motion rather than narrative structures. The showings were usually in brothels or in mainly male-only events called smokers or stag parties.
Bedtime for the Bride or The Bridegroom’s Dilemma (Le Coucher de la Mariée) was first screened in Paris in 1896. It was a striptease showing a woman, actress Louise Willy, taking off many layers of clothing. The original was seven minutes long, but only the two minutes of the striptease survived. It had degraded in the French Film Archives until it was found in 1960. The woman is separated from her bridegroom by a folding screen. While the woman performs the striptease for the camera, the man keeps himself busy by reading a newspaper, fanning himself, and sneaking looks over the screen. While the surviving clip has no nudity, I’ve not been able to find out what the last four minutes contained, but it apparently is based on a risque pantomime that did not have nudity.
In that same year was Fatima’s Coochie-Coochie Dance. It is the first example of censorship in films. It shows Fatima Djemille (so named in the YouTube video), a famous belly dancer of the time, performing her dance. The film starts off on censored but halfway through switches to having the dancer’s chest and hips covered by two sets of fence-like bars. While it was easy to see why this was a target of censorship since belly dancing was considered an erotic art from an exotic country. The question why it started off uncensored remains. Perhaps it was a tech demo of sorts.
From 1910 to the early 1930s, the genre of stag films transformed from simple bodily depictions to representations of sex interlaced with humor and narrative plots. They often subverted stories and morals from folklore for the sake of satire and social commentary. Contrary to how daguerreotypes started off with more daring depictions and became conservative, films did the opposite. Their expensive nature required large audiences. As audiences developed a culture around these films, they also agreed on a common sense of privacy as well. Because of this, hard-core movies became popular at this time.
A Free Ride [VERY NSFW!], showed to audiences in 1915, tells a simple story of a car trip. The actors are anonymous due to the explicit nature of the film with urination, and shots of genitalia and explicit sex, called ‘meat’ shots at the time.
From the 1930s, professionals gave way to amateurs. Though motion picture technology developed during this period, stag films continued to be purposely retro. Even after the Jazz Singer (1927), the first commercially viable motion picture with sound, and Wizard of Oz (1939), the first commercially viable motion picture with color, stag films used old technology to tell their stories. Not only was the medium fetishized by audiences, stag filmmakers deliberately subverted realism through conscious ineptitude. The performers knocked over light stands, and film crew members intruded into the frame. This happened so often, it became a trope that defined the genre. This was done in order to assert stag film’s outlaw status. Due to heavy government restrictions, the films were often washed in bathtubs of homes and distributed by organized crime using a network of traveling salesmen.
The 1960s saw an easing of restrictions on pornographic movies. Adult movie theaters opened, and strip clubs began to show movies since doing so was cheaper than hiring dancers. The Golden Age of Porn was from 1969 to 1984. It was in this era that erotic films started to have wide releases. Andy Warhol’s Blue Movie (also known as F*ck), released in 1969, opened the industry’s eyes to the possibility of erotic movies becoming a legitimate art form. It was quickly followed by Bill Osca’s Mona, released in 1970.
The first pornographic film to see major box office success was Deep Throat, released in 1972. It was written and directed by Gerard Damiano, listed in the credits as “Jerry Gerard.” It stared Linda Lovelace, a pseudonym given to Linda Susan Boreman. Production was handled by Louis “Butchie” Peraino, listed in the credits as “Lou Perry.”
While the film did see mainstream success, filming was marred by the dark elements of the underground. On top of the $22,500 budget, an additional $25,000 was provided for the soundtrack by Peraino’s father, Anthony Peraino, a member of the Colombo crime family. After Deep Throat started seeing real success, Damiano was paid a lump sum of $25,000 and forced to give up his rights to the film. The movie was distributed by Mafia-connected associates of the Peraino family. Even worse, Boreman was assaulted and coerced by threats of violence into acting in the movie by her then-husband Chuck Traynor. Evidence of the beatings could be seen on Boreman’s bruised skin in the movie itself.
Although many of the adult films of the time saw mainstream success, the actors were still stigmatized. Acting in one still meant any acting gigs outside of the adult film industry were forever walled off. However, what these movies managed to do was create a public discussion about sexuality. These films were a common experience that many people could use as a launching off point for further discussion.
That all came to the end with the rise of videotape. Pornographic movies went back into the private realm. The narratives of the Golden Age of Porn degraded into simple excuses for the characters to have sex. Many had no narrative whatsoever, refecting their stag film origins. While many credit the proliferation of pornography on VHS to it winning the format war against Beta, the evidence shows this isn’t the case. Rather, the cheaper price of VHS and the vastly superior recording length of its tapes were the primary factors.
Today, though pornographic movies are still an intensely private experience, the dissemination of pornography in many people’s private lives is still having a great effect on culture. The shaving of body and pubic hair has led to the near-extinction of pubic lice. It could be argued high definition and point of view virtual reality movies have encouraged even more unrealistic standards for body fat. On the plus side, many female adult actors have chosen not to augment their bodies with plastic surgery since the telltale scars are more visible.
Your humble scribe,
Brock T.I. Penner