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History of Pornography

A Short Timeline


Pornography's consumers and pornography's would-be eradicators have something in common: both are reliably excited by unrealistic fantasies.

ca. 5200 BCE

German hunter-gatherers sculpt a statue of a man and woman having sexual intercourse.

AD 79

Mount Vesuvius erupts, burying the city of Pompeii under lava and ash. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the city was excavated—and the European colonial aristocracy, whose members had fashioned themselves the intellectual and political heirs to ancient Rome, were scandalized by the hundreds of sexually explicit frescoes and sculptures found in the ruins.

circa 950

Chandravarman begins construction of the first of 85 temples at Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh, India. The temples are known for the extremely intricate and often sexually explicit sculptures that cover their outer walls, leading Western scholars to later believe—erroneously—that Hinduism was or is a sexually uninhibited religious tradition.


Pope Paul IV first prepares the Roman Catholic Church's first index of banned books. Although most of the 550 titles were banned for theological reasons, some are clearly sexually explicit in character—and a few, such as Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron, are both sexually explicit and theologically challenging. The Vatican would continue to publish various versions of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (lit. "list of banned books") until it was eliminated by Pope Paul VI in December 1965, following the institutional reforms brought about by the Second Vatican Council.


John Cleland begins distributing a sexually explicit novel titled Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (later published as The Life and Adventures of Miss Fanny Hill). Confiscated by British authorities a year later, then promptly pirated and redistributed, the book would be banned in both Britain and the United States until the 1960s.


Robley Dunglison's Medical Lexicon: A Dictionary of Medical Science coins the English term "pornography," meaning "a description of prostitutes or of prostitution, as a matter of public hygiene." Within a decade, the word gained widespread use as a general term for sexually explicit material—possibly inspired by the French term pornographie, which had already taken on that meaning.


Édouard Manet's Olympia, a nude portrait in which Victorine Meurent portrays a prostitute, scandalizes the Paris Salon—not because of the nudity itself, but rather because of the earthy and unladylike frankness with which she presents it. The nudity of contemporaneous work was not considered pornographic because it was idealized and glamorized to the point of fiction—but the nudity in Olympia was simply that of a naked woman, not an idealized goddess.

"When our artists give us Venuses," Manet's contemporary Émile Zola explained, "they correct nature, they lie. Manet asked himself why he should lie. Why not tell the truth? He has introduced us to Olympia, a girl of our own times, whom we have met in the streets pulling a thin shawl of faded wool over her narrow shoulders."


Anthony Comstock founds the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, and begins his career as America's national censor in earnest.


In Eugéne Pirou's Coucher de la Mariée, the first known softcore erotic film, Louise Willy—who starred in eight burlesque comedies from 1896 to 1913—performs a striptease and bathes on camera.


L'Ecu d'Or ou la Bonne Auberge, the earliest surviving hardcore pornographic film, is distributed. Censors (and nervous owners) destroyed most other early examples of the genre, which were typically shown in brothels.


Denmark legalizes pornography, becoming the first country on Earth to formally do so.


In Miller v. California, the U.S. Supreme Court defines obscenity using a three-part test:
  1. the average person must find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest ;
  2. the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct or excretory functions specifically defined by applicable state law ; and
  3. the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.
This definition mandates that all obscene material must be pornographic—in United States v. Stevens (2010), the Supreme Court rejected a claim that animal torture videos can be classified as obscene—but under the Miller standard, most material traditionally classified as pornographic would not be considered obscene (though all mainstream pornography, by definition, would qualify as indecent).
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