Unambiguous depictions of the sexual act were already common among the Greeks of the archaic and early classical periods. The cult of Dionysus (the god of wine) inspired much erotic imagery. Cups and vases from around the 5th century BCE depict ithyphallic satyrs while bawdy songs accompanied the frenzied Dionysian festivals. Classical cups, medallions and vases which have no obvious cultic significance frequently portray heterosexual and homosexual combinations as well as acts of fellatio and bestiality. Satyrs and hermaphrodites are recurring participants in these revels. Greek art influenced that of the Etruscans who commonly painted erotic scenes in tombs. A typical example is a wall-painting from the Tomb of the Bull, Tarquinia, which shows a human-faced bull charging towards a copulating couple. The Romans also displayed a lively interest in the lascivious. The Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso (known as Ovid, 19 bce–18 ce) wrote a poem entitled Ars amatoria (the art of love), a treatise on the art of seduction and deceit. A more serious approach to the erotic is that evinced by the frescoes found in the Villa of Mysteries at Pompeii, from around the 1st century ce. These illustrate episodes from the Dionysiac rites such as a girl unveiling a symbolic phallus and semi-nude figures engaged in flagellation (although the significance of the acts is by no means clear).
In India, too, classical art readily embraced enticing images. The sculpted torso of a yakshi (a nature spirit concerned with fecundity) from the 1st century bce has sensuous curves and is more voluptuous than her Greek counterparts. By the 10th century ce temples had espoused the full repertoire of the erotic. The carved facade of the Kandarya-Mahadeva Temple in Khajuraho (10th–11th century ce) is a mass of entwined divinities and seductive females as is the 13th-century temple at Konarak. India also produced the ancient sex manual, the Kama Sutra, a text that considers the spiritual aspects of sexuality and explores the many sexual positions and techniques that enhance lovemaking. Indian miniature paintings produced at Indian courts from the end of the 16th to the mid-19th centuries provided illustrations for the Kama Sutra as well as for the ragas, the modes of Indian music, many of which celebrate the erotic adventures of the god, Krishna.
Such open displays of sexuality were anathema to Christianity, a religion that distrusts sensuous pleasures and celebrates the purity of the soul. When the medieval stonemasons carved lewd figures on the cornices of European cathedrals they were creating allegories on the wages of sin: voluptuous nude females are shown writhing in hell, tormented by demons. In the doorway of Bourges Cathedral in France, human heads are depicted on the stomachs and genitalia of the devils, signifying the triumph of base desires. Yet prayer books dating from the 13th century, commissioned by wealthy patrons, sometimes contained tiny, explicit images in the margins. In an Italian Book of Hours from the 15th century a penitent kisses the buttocks of a monk and the Bible moralisé, prepared for Charles V of France, has a picture of a naked couple making love, encouraged by a devil. The image is justified as a didactic device – drunkenness leads to lust – but the effect on the viewer may be more ambiguous. From the 14th century onwards, carnivals provided an outlet for sexual repressions and inspired many bawdy and satirical songs, often at the expense of the repressive clergy. In the mid-14th century the Italian writer, Giovanni Boccaccio, wrote the Decameron, a collection of one hundred stories, sometimes of a licentious nature, supposedly narrated by survivors of the Florentine plague of 1348.
The invention and proliferation of printing presses in the 15th and 16th centuries meant that works that had previously been restricted to a very select audience could now be enjoyed by the masses (although written literature still required literacy). This posed a problem for the Church who were worried at the effect of salacious images on the uneducated. For instance, in 1524 a duke commissioned the Roman artist, Giulio Romano, a pupil of Raphael, to paint a series of frescos for his Palazzo del Tè in Mantua. The images were often explicit, such as the ravishing of Olympia by Jove disguised as a dragon, but because the pictures depicted mythical events and were for the perusal of the rich, the Church raised no objections. Yet when Romano’s drawings were given to Marcantonio Raimondi and the latter printed sixteen sexual positions based on Romano’s paintings (which were in turn inspired by erotic designs from Roman tombs), and offered them for sale, he was imprisoned in Rome. In 1527, the Italian writer Pietro Aretino, wished to write erotic sonnets to accompany the engravings. Aretino’s writing was often political and he was forced to flee Rome when Pope Adrian VI was elected.
A direct censorship of literature came in 1559 when Pope Paul IV issued an index of forbidden books.
In the 18th century there was an explosion of openly pornographic material. Many tracts were written by philosophers of the Enlightenment who used erotic material to interest the proletariat in their ideas. Demanding freedom, they protested against the strictures imposed by the Church and State. In 1761 the German-born, French philosopher, Paul Heinrich Dietrich Holbach, wrote Le Christianisme dévoilé (Christianity unveiled), a vehemently anti-religious work, and other philosophers were not averse to ridiculing priests by propagating images of them with raised cassocks. French pornographic pamphlets ridiculed the ruling class, attacking the virility of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette’s alleged promiscuity. Read aloud, by street hawkers, to a gathered crowd, they helped prepare the proletariat for the Revolution of 1789. One French writer who supported the Revolution (although he denounced the brutality of the revolutionaries) was the Marquis de Sade. He was appointed secretary of the Revolutionary Section of Les Piques in 1792 but was later condemned to the guillotine and only narrowly escaped death. His work, much of which was written in prison, has had a profound influence on contemporary pornography although the philosophy underlying it has been largely neglected.
One British erotic work of the 18th century is Fanny Hill, or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, a social satire written in 1749 by John Cleland. It was the social dimension that led to a United States Supreme Court ruling concerning the book in 1966. The court decided that a work was only to be considered pornographic if it had no redeeming social value.
The first British prosecution for a publication that was considered “indecent” came in 1727 but it was not until 1857 that the Obscene Publications Act (also known as Lord Campbell’s Act after the chancellor who introduced it) came into being. In the United States, the Comstock Law of 1873 made it a criminal offence to send or receive “lewd” or “lascivious” publications through the postal service. Since that time, there has been considerable debate over what constitutes an “obscene publication”. In 1857 the French novelist, Gustave Flaubert, was acquitted of a charge of offences against public morals for his book Madame Bovary. His lawyer argued that, far from encouraging adultery, the novel warns of the dangers (the heroine falls into debt and commits suicide when her creditors threaten to tell her husband) of extra-marital liaisons. Many other works of great literary merit have encountered difficulties because of their explicit contents. James Joyce’s Ulysses faced difficulty with publication and in 1960 the British publishers, Penguin Books, were put on trial for publishing D. H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Lover. The trial of Penguin was an important test of the revised Obscene Publications Act of 1959 which stated that prosecution should not take place if the publication was “in the interests of science, literature, arts or learning”, or of literary, artistic, scientific or other merits (Obscene Publications Act. Britannica CD2000). According to these criteria, the book was exonerated.
The debate over what constitutes pornography continues along with a massive increase in the number of visual representations of sex in the form of photographs, films and videos. Explicit photographs of homosexual sadomasochism by Robert Mapplethorpe are exhibited as art but viewed by some as pornography: in 1995 the incensed Republican Senator for North Carolina, Jesse Helms, destroyed a copy of a Mapplethorpe exhibition catalogue on the floor of the Senate. In 1977 the Obscene Publications Act was extended to include the distribution of pornographic films; more recently, concern has been raised over the control of the Internet which provides a fast, efficient and anonymous means of distributing illicit material.
Because pornography is generally produced for a male audience, some feminists have argued that it degrades the female, turning her into a mere object of male desire. It is true that female sexuality is largely ignored (even depictions of lesbians are designed to excite the male) although a Japanese print by Hokusai, The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife (1820) in which an octopus entwines a supine girl, attempts to capture the female experience. Feminists have also worried that the proliferation of pornographic images might encourage sexual assaults upon women. Two influential works on this theme, written in the 1980s, are Andrea Dworkin’s Pornography: Men Possessing Women and Susan Griffin’s Pornography and Silence. Susan Griffin argues that pornography (as opposed to erotic images) offers men control over women’s bodies without a need for intimacy, silencing the portrayed image and denying emotional involvement. Pornography, she asserts, “shocks us away from feeling” (Griffin. 1981, p. 83). Nonetheless, other feminists, such as Ann Ferguson, have argued that there is no direct link between exposure to pornography and an increased incidence of rape or violence against women and that any consexual activity that brings pleasure is desirable (Ferguson, p. 107) and Susan Sontag, criticised by Griffin for never writing about her own experience, defends literary pornography. In her essay “The Pornographic Imagination”, Sontag defends texts like Bataille’s The Story of the Eye on the grounds that the transgression, which is not just thematic but also literary and linguistic, opposes the dominant realism so dear to totalitarian principles (Sontag, p. 104, 116–117). The sexual excess, fantasy, transgression and obscenity reveal the foundation of our vital energies; in this way sexuality can explore and transcend the boundaries of good and evil, love and sanity.
Many debates on pornography focus on the relationship between pornography and power. Susan Sontag, in her essay, was responding to George Steiner’s “Night Words”. Steiner thinks that pornography is intrinsically linked to totalitarianism. Both, he maintains, “set up power relations which dehumanise the individual, violate privacy, and create a concentration camp mentality” (Steiner, p. 95). While the power relations may suggest totalitarianism, there is no doubt that pornography, as a marketable commodity, thrives in a capitalist economy. As Stephen Heath comments, “there is a capitalism of the sexual and we live under it … a multi-million pound industry which spreads sexuality like butter on all its products” (Heath, p. 149). Whether a means of liberation or of repression, or merely a product to be traded in the market place, pornography is likely to remain controversial for some time to come.