The History of Pornography

Pornography's consumers and its opponents have something in common—they're both excited by unrealistic fantasies. The images and scenarios presented in pornography don't always find themselves in the real lives of most consumers, and opponents are fighting an uphill battle when it comes to getting rid of it. Pornography is quite literally centuries old, and it's had its place in many societies.

Ca. 5200 BCE

Neon signboard: XXX
CG-CREATiVE Getty Images

German hunter-gatherers sculpted a ​statue of a man and woman having sexual intercourse many thousands of years ago. Archeologists called its location the world's oldest porn site when they discovered it in 2005.

AD 79

Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, burying the city of Pompeii under lava and ash. The city was finally excavated centuries later, beginning in the 18th century. The European colonial aristocracy—whose members had fashioned themselves as the intellectual and political heirs to ancient Rome—were scandalized by the hundreds of sexually explicit frescoes and sculptures found in the Mount Vesuvius ruins.

Circa 950

Chandravarman began construction of the first of 85 temples at Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh, India in 950. The temples are known for the extremely intricate and often sexually explicit sculptures that cover their outer walls. The sculptures later led Western scholars to the erroneous conclusion that Hinduism was a sexually uninhibited religion.


Pope Paul IV prepared the Roman Catholic Church's first index of banned books in 1557. Although most of the list's 550 titles were banned for theological reasons, some were clearly sexually explicit in character. A few, such as Giovanni Boccaccio's, were both sexually explicit and theologically challenging. The Vatican would continue to publish various versions of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, its "list of banned books," until the practice was finally eliminated by Pope Paul VI in December 1965 following the institutional reforms brought about by the Second Vatican Council.


John Cleland began distributing a sexually explicit novel entitled Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure in 1748. The book was 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 U.S. until the 1960s.


Robley Dunglison's Medical Lexicon: A Dictionary of Medical Science coined the English term "pornography." Dunglison defined the word as "a description of prostitutes or of prostitution as a matter of public hygiene." The word gained widespread use as a general term for sexually explicit material within a decade. It was 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, scandalized the Paris Salon in 1865. The uproar was not because of the nudity itself but rather because of the earthy and unladylike frankness with which Meurent presented 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.
Manet's contemporary Émile Zola explained, "When our artists give us Venuses, 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 founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1873, beginning his career as America's national censor. The war against pornography in the U.S. was officially born.


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


L'Ecu d'Or ou la Bonne Auberge, the earliest surviving hardcore pornographic film, was first distributed in 1908. Censors and nervous owners destroyed most other early examples of the genre, which were typically shown in brothels.


Denmark legalized pornography in 1969, becoming the first country to formally do so. The government ruled that as of July 1 of that year, every law relating to pornography as distributed to adults was officially abolished. But the move was somewhat after the fact because Denmark authorities had been notably slow to enforce any of the existing laws to begin with.


The U.S. Supreme Court defined obscenity using a three-part test in its 1973 Miller v. California decision.

  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.
  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, the Supreme Court rejected a claim in 2010 that animal torture videos can be classified as obscene because most material traditionally classified as pornographic would not be considered obscene under the Miller standard. All mainstream pornography would qualify as indecent, however, by definition.

Pornography Is (Almost) as Old as Time

It seems safe to say that pornography isn't going anywhere, at least not at any point in our lifetimes. It's been around since before the time of Mount Vesuvius, and even the U.S. Supreme Court has been forced to define it and set a legal place for it.