Sex. We see sex as one of the most normal things ever - as normal as a human needing water and food to survive. However, if we stop and think about sex, it is a strange concept. We as humans spend so much energy and time in our lives to find someone whose body looks only slightly different from us, rubbing our bodies together. There are countless risks involved in sexual activities, yet we subconsciously ignore them. You may get yourself or someone else pregnant. You have to spend a lot of time getting to know someone. And you may get physically or mentally hurt during sex. It is still one of the most pleasurable experiences out there. Hence, we have sex because it is pleasurable and natural.
It’s quite clear that sex has moved away from pure reproduction. It has become entertainment for many until they feel ready to conceive children. That is where porn comes in.
Pornography refers to visual depictions that are intended to sexually arouse the viewer, such as still photos, magazines, adult cable television channels or VHS movies.1
According to a research article from Sexuality Research and Social Policy, pornography use was highly prevalent - at a shocking >85% - in all age groups (<18 yo, 18-25, 26-40, 41-60, and >60).2 With pornography being such a prevalent consumption in our lives, it is important to understand how it has developed over time to what we see now.
One of the most significant challenges historians of pornography face is locating and accessing sufficient primary material since pornographic content is mainly circulated away from the public.3
Like it or not, most of us encounter pornography regularly - whether that is straight-up pornography or content that comprises sexual implications. Much may say that pornography is overexposed nowadays. Even though individuals consume pornography, its production lies outside the public view. Dirty literature, nude photography, and blue film production form the basis of their own industries, but ones rarely highlighted in business school casebooks, the tabloid press, or the pages of the WSJ.4
Since ancient civilizations, people have created explicit depictions of sex and nudity. Paleolithic cave paintings included nudes and human genitalia dating back to over 2.6 million years ago.5 Since then, pornography has been a heated moral question. For example, in 1964, the Supreme Court of the United States faced controversy over whether Louis Malle’s French film The Lovers violated the first amendment prohibition against obscene speech - leading to Justice Potter Stewart’s famous words, “I know it when I see it.” Nowadays, porn websites are ubiquitous - with 4% of websites, 13% of web searches, and 20% of mobile searches containing pornographic content.6
Many other factors also influence pornography, like religion. For example, with the rise of Christianity, cultural and religious outlooks on nudity and sexuality changed compared to prior eras. The New Testament emphasized proactive sex between husband and wife, thus establishing any other sexual expression as an evil violation of the bible. As sexually explicit novels and newly available pornographic moving images flourished during the Victorian era, so did claims that masturbating drove people ill, insane, or blind.7
However, these heated discussions did not stop the development of pornography. Erotic novels have been circulated since at least the mid-1600s in France; though the first full-length English-language pornographic novel, “Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure” wasn't published until 1748. Despite the reserved public attitudes toward sex pornographic novels held little back. The author of “Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure” covered porn categories, such as voyeurism, group sex and BDSM.8 As early as the mid-1600s, we can see the things people would do for sexual pleasure because if one were to be identified as an erotic novel author would surely mean a couple of years in prison.
The idea of porn for “porn’s sake” spread in the 1800s. People started creating pornographic content as they spotted a profitable outcome. Technology is definitely a big driver of innovation in pornographic production.
Pornography is defined by technology and tech advancement because its creation, transmission, and diffusion are so intimately connected to the development of communication technologies.9
G.N. Gordan, Author of Erotic Communications: Studies in Sex, Sin, and Censorship, noted “the avidity with which eroticism was devoured by the technologies of communication that might allow people to accomplish these ends is confirmed by one fact: each and every instrument of communication that has been divided to date by man has been almost immediately turned to the service of what the culture in which it was invented called pornography.”10
As such, the spread of pornography is inexorably linked to the development of technology. Printing press was used to print sexually explicit images and text. It was the first technology to allow mass production of books, pamphlets, and cards - bringing the product to the consumer instead of requiring the consumer to go to the product.
Then we fast-forward to the Daguerreotype, the primitive form of photography. It allowed for a larger audience and greater distribution of sophisticated replications of the female form, like Female Nude Reclining created by an anonymous French creator in 1856~1858.11
A picture is worth a thousand words. The woman in Female Nude Reclining is more realistic than any words can convey. Daguerreotypes produce black-and-white pictures, but people hand-coloured those photos to make them more realistic. It’s quite understandable why the invention of daguerreotypes led to the increase in pornography. People no longer had to limit themselves to sexual imaginations. They had access to other people’s sexual imaginations, which exposes them to new ideas and possibilities.
From there, society started moving towards images, which are more powerful and accessible than words, prints or photographs and expanded the potential audience. Videotapes brought full-motion pornography into the living room, like A Free Ride, which is the first American stag film released in 1915.12 Cable television depended on sexually explicit content (though not quite pornography) to distinguish itself from broadcast television and get American households to pay for television.13 Telephones created phone sex, and the internet gave way to porn websites.
Companies that have attempted to prevent their technologies from being used for sexual purposes have often failed. Interestingly, one reason behind the triumph of VHS video tapes over the Beta format is that Beta refused to let their tapes be used for pornography.
Outside of communication technologies, other technologies are intimately related to pornography and the industry. For example, online payment systems. In the mid-1990s, Richard Gordon founded Electronic Card Systems, which pioneered credit card transactions for a wide range of pornographic sites.14 The system not only allowed online transactions to be carried out easier but also allowed for private transactions, keeping pornography consumers hidden.
Another example is 3G, 4G, and now 5G mobile services.15 “Pocket porn is the new frontier” - who wants to take out a gigantic computer when you can just watch porn on your phone? Similar to how pornography helped established cable television in our society, pornography on mobile platforms will doubtlessly induce demand for high-speed data services.
Although there are indeed many moral disputes around pornography and the industry, it undoubtedly is an overshadowing product that has influence over countless other aspects of our society. It is hard to say if technology influences pornography or vice versa. However, I think communication technology is the new ontology for sexual technology.