The History of Modern Pornography


The following paper analyzes the evolution of pornography from 1527 until 2009. It addresses the people, inventions, events and phenomena that have shaped pornography’s modern history. This paper has identified three meaningful trends. (1) The interpretation and acceptance of pornography has radically shifted over the last five hundred years. To assume that we are at the zenith of our pornographic tolerance would be presumptuous. (2) The increased quantity and quality of pornography is principally a derivation of new technologies; pornography is likely to become more pervasive as technology develops. (3) Censorship and opposition to pornography have had little effect in stemming the tide; the biological chemistry of sexual desire has outlived all censorship attempts and will continue to do so.


  1. Definition of Pornography
  2. The Sixteenth Century
  3. The Seventeenth Century
  4. The Eighteenth Century
  5. The Nineteenth Century
  6. The Twentieth Century
  7. The Twenty First Century
  8. Conclusions
  9. References

Definition of pornography

For the purposes of this paper, pornography is defined as any media with sexual activity or nudity that stimulates erotic as opposed to aesthetic feelings in a community. Such feelings are subjective and change with the passage of time.

The Sixteenth Century

Rome is the birthplace of modern pornography; the history begins amongst the print culture of the Italian Renaissance. In 1524, Marcantonio Raimondi published sixteen sexually explicit engravings that were designed by Giulio Romano and collectively titled the I Modi. The I Modi visually depicted figures from Greco-Roman mythology to Classical antiquity, enjoying the pleasures of copulation. In response to this scandal, Pope Clement VIII placed Raimondi in prison, where he remained for almost a year, until a consortium including Pietro Aretino (the founder of modern pornography) negotiated his release. (Lawner, 1988).

Pietro Aretino (1492-1556), the Italian author, polemicist and satirist, was a product of Renaissance humanism (Symonds, 1881). He wrote two pornographic masterpieces, the Sonetti lussuriosi (1527) and the Ragionamenti (1534-36) which were circulated amongst the aristocracy. The Sonetti lussuriosi or Aretino’s Postures as it came to be known, combined Aretino’s sexually explicit sonnets with the engravings of Romano from the I Modi. The Ragionamenti was an extension of Aretino’s Postures; it documented a dialogue between prostitutes and became the prototype for pornographic prose in the seventeenth century (Hunt, 1993). Aretino’s work was pornographic, voyeuristic, controversial, heretical, and politically incorrect. “Nowhere in European literature prior to Pietro Aretino … do we encounter the combination of explicit sexual detail and evident intention to arouse that became, three hundred years later, the hallmark of the pornographic” (Kendrick, 1996, p. 58).

The Seventeenth Century

Aretino’s Postures and the Ragionamenti continued to dominate European pornography throughout the seventeenth century; new works were either copies or loosely based imitations. A notable imitation of the Ragionamenti was the French L’Ecole des filles (1655). Anonymously written, the book is a dialogue between two prostitutes; the inexperienced but eager Fanchon and the accomplished Susanne (L'Ecole des filles, 2001). L’Ecole des filles marked the beginning of the French pornographic tradition.

The Eighteenth Century

The breakthrough work for eighteenth century pornography was Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (also known as Fanny Hill) by John Cleland. Initially published from 1748 to 1749, it was the first pornographic novel and the first work of English pornography to be written in prose (Foxon, 1965). Deemed obscene in 1750, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure would remain ‘underground’ for over two centuries until 1966 in the United States and 1970 in Britain (Kendrick, 1996). The plot summary is that a young orphan girl named Fanny Hill moves to London at the age of fifteen and falls into prostitution. She loses her virginity to a nobleman named Charles whereby they fall in love and Fanny becomes pregnant. At the height of their love, Charles is kidnapped away by his father, which leads Fanny back to prostitution and a diverse range of sexual exploits. In the end, Fanny inherits a small fortune from a rich benefactor, she stumbles upon Charles whereby all is forgiven, Charles proposes to Fanny and they marry (Cleland, 1985).

United States

Imported erotic novels made their way to the United States in 1780 where they were advertised for sale in New York and Massachusetts newspapers (Slade, 2001).

The French Revolution

The French Revolution marked a major turning point in the history of modern pornography; it marked the rise and fall of political pornography as a genre. French political pornography had increased steadily from 1774 to 1788, it then spiked at the outbreak of the Revolution in 1789. There were one hundred and twelve pornographic novels published in 1789, compared to forty in 1792 and fifteen in 1794 (Wagner, 1991). Prior to the Revolution, pornography had been the domain of the upper class. With the introduction of the pornographic pamphlet and the freeing of the presses in 1789, pornography was democratized. Pamphlets ranging from eight to sixty pages were much cheaper than novels and were marketed aggressively across France; to a broad and burgeoning readership. By 1792, antiroyalist engravings could be found in most Parisian shop windows; over half the displayed work was pornographic (Boyer, 1792). The pornography was an attack against the authority of the Church State. Nuns, monks, priests, aristocrats, and royalty were all ridiculed; depictions of impotency, venereal disease, and sexual debauchery were the norm (Wagner, 1988). Queen Marie Antoinette was the most popular target in terms of titles written and pamphlets sold. Titles ranging from Le Godmiché royal (The Royal Dildo) to L’Autrichienne en goguettes (The Brothel of the Queen), depicted the Queen engaging in complicated orgies with priests, men and women, her son, and even animals (Clark, 2008). Such pornography undermined the legitimacy of the ancien régime as both a social and political system. By accusing Marie Antoinette of incest, the revolutionaries portrayed the royal blood as poisoned and unnatural, by desacralizing the royal body, they paved the way to Marie Antoinette’s execution (Thomas, 1989). The pornography begged the question; if King Louis XVI could not control Marie Antoinette, “or even be sure he was the father of his children, including the heir to the throne, then what was his claim on his subjects’ obedience or the future of the dynasty’s claim to the throne itself?” (Hunt, 1993, p. 306).

Political pornography played a major role in the French Revolution and the demise of Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI. After the Reign of Terror and with the exception of Sade, pornography was removed from politics in the Western world. Pornography’s future lay not in politics but in the depiction of sexual pleasure for pleasure’s sake.

Marquis de Sade

Donatien-Alphonse-François, Comte de Sade (1740-1814) was a French nobleman and a controversial author. He is popularly referred to as the Marquis de Sade and it is from his name, that the term sadism originates (Arcand, 1993). Sade is the intellectual heir of violent pornography; his writings were extreme and an affront to conventional morality. His work incorporated many sadistic aspects from rape to torture and beyond. His most famous works include: The 120 Days of Sodom (1785) Justine (1791) and Juliette (1797). Beyond sadism, Sade’s work was philosophical, political, and opposed to religion. The republican police and later the Napoleonic police, spent more time tracking down copies of Justine and Juliette, than all other works of pornography combined. Every government, ancien regime, republican, and Napoleonic condemned Sade (Hunt, 1993).

The Nineteenth Century

Commercial pornography designed purely for titillation flourished in the nineteenth century. As printing costs continued to fall, pornographic material was progressively marketed to the consumer class. By 1837, there were over fifty pornographic shops on London’s Holywell Street and by 1871 New York was selling more than one hundred thousand pornographic books per year (Kendrick, 1996).

In Britain and the United States, prosecutions for obscene libel by private organizations were regularly successful. In Britain, prosecutions were led by the Organization for the Reformation of Manners and the Society for the Suppression of Vice. In the United States, prosecutions were led by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and the Ward Society in Boston (Meese, et al., 1986).


In 1839, Louis Daguerre sold the rights of the 'daguerreotype’ to the French government, who proceeded to immediately publish the technology, as a free gift to the world. (Gustavson & House, 2009). The daguerreotype was an early photographic process where a single image was directly exposed onto a metal plate. The earliest pornographic daguerreotype is an 1846 exposure housed at the Kinsey Institute; it depicts a middle-aged man inserting his phallus into a middle-aged woman’s vagina. By the 1850s, American photographers both professional and amateur, were producing three million daguerreotypes per year, this was despite the fact that daguerreotypes were extremely difficult to copy and could not be mass-produced (Slade, 2001). The collodion process superseded the daguerreotype in 1851 when the glass plate negative was developed. The collodion process provided the ability, to reproduce fine detail in multiple prints (Newhall, 1938). This was a watershed moment for photography, which, translated into a watershed moment for pornography. The ability to produce multiple copies of a photograph led to the industrialization of pornographic photographs. The result was profound; in 1848, there were thirteen photographic studios in Paris, by 1860, there were over four hundred. The Parisian output of nude photographs was prolific, in 1852, forty percent of the photographs registered for sale in Paris, were nudes (McCauley, 1994).

Motivated by lucrative profits, pornographers in Britain, the United States, and more commonly France, increased production. The increase in supply lowered the price of photographic pornography, which increased the quantity demanded. The distribution of pornography occurred at many points including train stations, bars, docks, fairs, barbershops, pushcarts, and theaters. Illicit photographs were commonly sold as: (1) single prints peddled on the street, sometimes in postcard format, or (2) sets of prints ranging from a nude woman, to couples or multiple couples posing and/or engaging in sexual acts. Sets of prints would usually be ordered via the mail utilizing the international postal service (Slade, 2001).

Halftone Printing

The next technological advance that pornography utilized was halftone printing. Halftone printing broke up the tone of the original image; it employed dots that varied in both spacing and size (Glaister, 1960). Frederick Eugene Ives of Philadelphia perfected the halftone printing process in 1885 and proceeded to patent it. The utilization of halftone printing spread rapidly after 1892 when Levy Company mass-produced the screens required for the printing process. Besides the unprecedented realism that halftone printing provided, it cut the cost of newspaper illustrations by ninety five percent (Smil, 2005). This technology revolutionized the publishing industry and hence the pornographic industry. Pornographic magazines were sold with high quality photographs (relative to the time) at an affordable price. Pornography’s vehicle to the masses, the men’s magazine had been born. One of the early magazines was an English title by the name of Photo Bits; it portrayed burlesque actresses in natural settings with explicit articles accompanying the photographs (Gabor, 1984).

Film Stock & Cinema

In 1889, Henry M. Reichenback devised a cellulose-based film; it was flexible, transparent, and receptive to the printing of photographic images. To create the film, he had built upon J.W. and I.S. Hyatt’s (1865) as well as Hannibal Goodwin’s (1888) previous inventions (Cook, 1996). On March 22, 1895, the Lumière Brothers projected their first black and white silent film to an audience in Paris using their new patent, the Cinématographe. Using the film technology devised by Reichenback and building upon Edison and Dickson’s Kinetoscope (1891), as well as Charles Émile Reynaud’s Théâtre Optique (1892), the Lumiere brothers launched a primitive and popular form of cinema (Nowell-Smith, 1997). It did not take long for stag films/blue movies (primitive pornographic films) to emerge. According to The Mirror (2007), a French film titled Le Coucher De La Marie (1896) was the first pornographic film; it displayed a couple having sex and a female striptease. Stag films were a major leap forward for modern pornography; audiences could voyeuristically watch real people engaging in real sex acts as if they were physically present at the scene.

Legal Response

In 1842, the United States Tariff Act was the first federal obscenity law to ban the importation of obscene contraband; it was amended in 1857 to ban erotic daguerreotypes.

In 1857, the English Obscene Publications Act (1857) was introduced by Lord Campbell; it criminalized the sale and the distribution of ‘obscene libel’. The Act fulfilled three main roles, (1) it permitted the issue of search warrants for obscene materials that were available for sale or distribution, (2) it provided for the seizure and destruction of such obscene materials; the proprietor was given an opportunity in court to state why such material should not be destroyed (3) it rendered the offender(s) liable to prosecution (Craig, 1963). Notably, the term ‘obscenity’ would not be defined until 1868 in Regina v. Hicklin.

In 1865, a postal obscenity law was adopted in the United States, which banned pornographic books, photographs, and images from the mail (Sarracino & Scott, 2008).

In 1868, Lord Chief Justice Cockburn proposed a definition for obscenity in Regina v. Hicklin, which came to be known as the ‘Hicklin test’. Cockburn said that the test of obscenity is “whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences, and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall” (Copp & Wendell, 1983, p. 24). The Hicklin test formed the basis of anti-obscenity legislation in both Britain and the United States for almost a century. It allowed judges to find a book obscene based on selected passages without considering its merits as a whole.

In 1873, the Comstock Act was passed in the United States. It was amended in 1876 to prohibit:

Every obscene, lewd or lascivious book, pamphlet, picture, paper, writing, print, or other publication of an indecent character, … and every article or thing intended or adapted for any indecent or immoral use, and every written or printed card, circular, book, pamphlet, advertisement or notice of any kind giving information, directly or indirectly, where, or how, or of whom, or by what means, any of the before mentioned matters, articles or things may be obtained or made, and every letter upon the envelope of which, or postal card upon which, indecent, lewd, obscene or lascivious delineations, epithets, terms or language may be written or printed, are hereby declared to be non-mailable matter, and shall not be conveyed in the mails, nor delivered from any post office, nor by any letter carriers (Comstock, 1967, p. 209).

Failure to comply with the act had a maximum penalty, of a $2000 fine or five years of hard labor for each offense.

Anthony Comstock

From 1873 to 1915, Anthony J. Comstock waged a war against pornography and all forms of obscenity in the United States. A fanatical and infamous crusader, he was America’s anti-obscenity czar for four decades. Despite the fact that Comstock was only a private citizen, he was the secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, a special agent of the Post Office Department, the prime enforcer of the Comstock Act (which he designed and submitted to Congress), deputy sheriff of New York City, and an honorary U.S. marshal on occasion (LaMay, 1997). He wholeheartedly believed that obscenity was the greatest corruptor of youth and ultimately society.

Driven by Victorian prudishness, religious convictions, and a fanatical zeal, Comstock would obsessively hunt down peddlers of obscenity. At one point in his career, he proudly boasted that fifteen people (obscenity peddlers) had committed suicide to evade his prosecution. Entrapment, bullying, docket-fixing, harassment, and persecution were all employed for the ‘greater good’. Comstock’s regular targets included: lewd writings and pictures, sex education, blasphemy, gambling, theatrical performances, family planning literature, feminist tracts and any other ‘offenses’ against public decency (Slade, 2000).

Comstock’s influence would wane at the turn of the century; Victorian values were receding and community standards were evolving. Despite this, Comstock refused to change with the times; the public started to see him as less of a reformer and more of prude (or worse). As his biographers, Broun and Leech (1927) put it, “To his youthful countrymen, he had become a great tradition, a joke, a scapegoat” (p. 244). His constant attacks on art and literature for so-called obscenity birthed the term ‘Comstockery’. Despite his fall from grace, Comstock’s record speaks for itself; by 1913, he had destroyed one hundred and sixty tons of obscene literature, and convicted more than three and a half thousand people for violating the Comstock Act. When he died in 1915, the obituary notice in the New York Times called Anthony Comstock both a hero and a benefactor (Broun & Leech, 1927). Without a doubt, he was one of the most, if not the most zealous and influential opponent of pornography, in modern history.

Before we move into the Twentieth Century, make sure to check our article on the history of sex toys and our guides on remote control vibrators, wand vibrators, bullet vibrators, rabbit vibrators and vibrating panties.

The Twentieth Century

Legal Milestones

1930, The New Tariff Act authorizes the courts to determine obscenity and removes this authority from the U.S. Post Office and U.S. customs department.

1952, Joseph Burstyn, Inc v Wilson; the U.S. Supreme Court decides that cinema is protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

1957, Roth v United States, the U.S. Supreme Court repudiated the Hicklin Test and ruled that material was obscene when it would be considered objectionable by an average person using community standards and, where the media has only prurient not artistic merit.

1969, Stanley v Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the conviction of a man accused of possessing pornographic films for his own private use.

1973, Miller v California, the U.S. Supreme Court constructed a test to determine whether a work was obscene. It had three parts: (1) whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards would judge that the work appealed primarily to prurient interests, (2) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law, and (3) whether the work lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. Using the ‘Miller Test’, a work is deemed obscene only if all three conditions are satisfied.

1982, New York v Ferber, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment did not prohibit states from banning the sale of material that depicts children engaging in sexual activity.

Men’s Magazines

One of the first magazines to display photographs of the female nude, was the French magazine Le Frisson at the turn of the century (Rodley, 2000). At that time, it was increasingly common for French magazines to publish nudes, under the guise of naturism. American magazines were less risqué; they displayed reproductions of erotic paintings with the occasional ‘live’ model. Such magazines included Nickell (1894-1905) and Metropolitan (1895-1911) (Slade, 2000).

The United States produced Tijuana Bibles in the 1920s, they were a cheap form of pornography that contained stapled pages of gamy photos, dirty stories, and/or erotic comics. They were printed on low-grade paper and inked off the same printers that made the labels for whisky bottles (Gertzman, 1999). Tijuana Bibles were especially popular during the Great Depression as a cheap form of entertainment.

In December of 1953, Hugh Hefner published the first edition of Playboy Magazine in the United States; a nude Marilyn Monroe was the first Playboy centerfold. Whilst publishing nudes was not original, Hefner’s achievement was to turn Playboy into the liberal voice of a masculinized middle class and to marshal advertisers behind his “Playboy Philosophy, a … justification of a postwar good life that, he said, included sex as recreation” (Slade, 2000, p. 60). Whilst Playboy was controversial, it never showed photographs of pubic hair or genitals in the early days. Hefner managed to keep the censors at bay by combining high quality journalism with relatively ‘respectable’ photography (Watts, 2009).

In 1965, Bob Guccione published the first edition of Penthouse magazine in the United Kingdom, the first American edition was launched in 1969. More risqué than Playboy, Penthouse photographs contained pubic hair. Penthouse was popular with persons who wanted more explicit photographs and written content than Playboy.

In 1974, Larry Flynt Jr. published Hustler magazine in the United States for the first time. Hustler went where no mass-market men’s magazine had gone before; it displayed the female genitalia, hardcore sex acts, various fetishes, and sex involving sex toys. Hustler magazine continually pushed social boundaries; it challenged societal taboos, held contempt for the existing obscenity laws, and stridently campaigned for the magazine’s right to free speech. (Russomanno, 2002).

Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler have been the most popular magazines in the history of pornography. Traditionally each brand has dominated a specific niche within the men’s magazine market; Playboy is known for its softcore content, Hustler is known for its hardcore material, and Penthouse occupies the space in-between. Men’s magazines were the primary vehicle for pornographic distribution from the early twentieth century to the 1970s. Their popularity declined alongside the advent of new technologies.

Stag Films

Stag films as an illegal pornographic medium were utilized from 1896 until the 1970s. In the 1970s, the feature length and legal X-rated pornographic film with its superior quality and famous porn stars, “supplanted the silent, one-reel, illegally made and exhibited stag” (Williams, 1989, p. 58).

The early stag films (1896-1911) were short (less than fifteen minutes long), crudely primitive, bawdy, amateur, anonymous, and of poor visual quality with simple disjointed narratives. The vast bulk of early stag films originated from Latin America, France, and Germany. They were illegally shot, distributed and consumed. The films depicted a wide range of sex acts ranging from: strippers baring their breasts to hardcore penetration, fellatio, cunnilingus, and masturbation (Zillman & Bryant, 1989). Early films included El sartario (Argentina, ca. 1907-1912); the film begins with three women bathing in a river, a man dressed as a devil then kidnaps one of the women, she performs fellatio on him, they then engage in simultaneous fellatio and cunnilingus, which is followed by sex in the missionary position. Am Abend (German, ca. 1910) begins with a woman masturbating alone in a room, a man then enters whereby they engage in sex; with the man on top as well as penetrating her vagina from behind. It includes additional masturbatory scenes and a large number of genital shots.

The earliest known American stag film was A Free Ride also known as A Grass Sandwich; circa 1915 (Inge, 1989). It begins with a man driving a car containing two female passengers through a rural setting. The car stops whereby the man exits the car to urinate, whilst the women spy on him fondling themselves. The women then urinate themselves and the man spies on them fondling himself. This is followed by the man having sex with one of the women; after some time the second woman joins in. The film is interspersed with title cards such as “Oh, Baby,” “Please give me a little” and “Oh, isn’t he wonderful!” (Guy, 1915)

Stag films were smuggled into towns by travelling salesmen for bachelor parties, military events, college fraternities and other exclusively male “smoker” events. It was also common to find them in brothels where they were employed for arousal purposes to generate business. After World War II, large numbers of people made their own stag films using 8mm film. Unlike regular cinema, stag films did not substantially evolve; they essentially remained the same for several decades. The reason for this is that stag films were an illegal ‘underground’ trade that were not exposed to mainstream culture. As such, there were no film critics to suggest changes or improvements. In the words of Linda Williams (1989), the general attitude was, “Let’s just feast our eyes and arrest our gaze on the hidden things that ordinary vision, and certainly ordinary filmic vision, cannot see: a penis, a breast, a vulva, looking right at us; who needs more?” (p. 71).

In addition to regular stag films, less explicit titles emerged in the late 1950s, they were referred to as “beaver” movies. Beaver movies displayed women stripping to display full frontal nudity. Beaver movies evolved into “split beaver” films, which involved the spreading of a woman’s legs and/or her vulva. Split beaver films evolved into “action beaver” movies, these movies often depicted softcore lesbian scenes. Some of these movies were legally screened at public cinemas in the 1960s (Radner & Luckett, 1999).

Lasse Braun

Unhappy with the poor quality of stag films and frustrated with the lack of color films, Lasse Braun decided to make his own movies. He made high quality, color, hardcore pornographic films, using Super 8mm and later 16mm film. From his base in Stockholm, Braun made eighty color titles or ‘loops’ from 1968 to 1977, with running times ranging from eight to fifteen minutes each. Braun’s titles included Sex on the Motorway, Casanova…and the Country Girls! The Vikings, Top Secret, Perversion, and Tropical. Shot in exotic locations, they ranged from historical dramas, to spy thrillers, island adventures, and various forms of reality pornography. Braun’s pioneering work set a new standard for the porn industry.

In 1971, Reuben Sturman; the American porn industry’s godfather, visited Stockholm to acquire Braun’s films for his new invention; the peepshow. The combination of Braun’s films with the private peepshow booth earned millions of dollars in a constant stream of small change. The peepshow booth would be the first medium to privately screen pornographic films to a mass market. (Rodley, 2000).


In 1969, the Danish Parliament legalized pornography. From 1970-74, over thirty percent of the feature films made in Denmark contained pornographic material (Sigel, 2005). Two Danish documentaries; Censorship in Denmark: A New Approach (1970) and Sexual Freedom in Denmark (1970) were screened publicly in the United States. Censorship in Denmark: A New Approach depicted a live lesbian sex act, the filming of a hardcore movie, as well as phallic and other forms of nudity. Since the educational content of these documentaries contained ‘redeeming social importance’, they managed to evade the censors. Such documentaries pushed the moral limits of American cinema (Copp & Wendell, 1983).

Deep Throat & the 1970s

A watershed film; Deep Throat (1972) made pornography more palatable to a broad section of the American public. Rather than simply showing explicit sex, the film had a plot, some music, and a broad range of tongue-in-cheek humor. First released at New York’s, New Mature World Theater in Times Square. It had been viewed by more than two hundred and fifty thousand people in that theater alone, before the censors shut it down in March, 1973. In a cultural evolution, it became chic to view pornography; celebrities like Charlton Heston, Johnny Carson, Jack Nicholson, and Sammy Davis Jr. started talking about Deep Throat. Deep Throat was the first pornographic film to enter the public consciousness in a positive light (Lehman, 2006). The film itself was funded by $25,000 of organized crime money, Gerard Damiano directed it and it starred Linda Lovelace as herself. The film’s synopsis, is that Linda cannot orgasm (despite numerous on-screen attempts) because her clitoris is buried deep in the back of her throat. She goes to see Dr Young (Harry Reems) where they jointly discover that if Linda ‘deep-throats’ a phallus, she will orgasm. Armed with this knowledge and employed as Dr Young’s new phallic ‘physiotherapist’, Linda begins her search for a husband. Her one stipulation is that her future spouse must have a large enough member to pleasure her clitoris. The film ends with Linda finding her man Wilber Wang (William Love), she deep-throats him, fireworks go off, bells ring and a rocket takes off to simulate Linda’s orgasm. Amongst the comedy, Damiano managed to show over ten hard core sex scenes to the American public including: fellatio, cunnilingus, vaginal and anal penetration, a threesome and several ‘money shots’ (Damiano, 1972).

Behind the Green Door (1972) was released after Deep Throat to adult theaters across America. It starred the all-American girl Marilyn Chambers, who would go on to become the most famous porn star of the 1970s. Chambers had previously been the wholesome face of Proctor & Gamble’s detergent Ivory Snow (Pasi, 1994). The plot involves Gloria (Marilyn Chambers) who is kidnapped and taken to an audience filled sex theater. Multiple women pleasure her before the African-American Johnny Keys enters and they have sex. After a psychedelic money shot, Gloria is carried away through the green door by the narrator, who proceeds to have sex with her (Mitchell & Mitchell, 1972). Chambers went on to star in Resurrection of Eve (1973), Inside Marilyn Chambers (1975), and Insatiable (1980) amongst many other pornographic films.

Other notable films of the 1970s include The Devil in Miss Jones (USA, 1973), Sensations (Holland, 1975), The Opening of Misty Beethoven (USA, 1976), Tell Them Johnny Wadd Is Here (USA, 1976) and Debbie Does Dallas (USA, 1978). From 1973 to 1974, Americans shot approximately one hundred pornographic films, Hollywood in comparison, shot four hundred feature films per year (Slade, 2000). Ultimately, the privately viewed videotape would supersede pornographic cinema.

The Video Cassette Recorder (VCR)

According to John Heidenry (1997), the invention of the videocassette recorder (VCR) was “the most significant event in adult-film history and, along with Deep Throat, the impetus for a revolution in hard-core pornography” (pp. 212-213). The first mass-market VCRs were Sony Corporation’s Beta (1975) and JVC’s Video Home System (VHS; 1976). Sony Corporation refused to license its Beta technology to pornographers whereas JVC took the opposite stance. In part, this action made VHS the most popular VCR format; the market wanted to view pornography from the privacy of the home and hence Sony Corporation paid the price for not factoring this in (Van Scoy, 2000).

The VCR allowed people to purchase pornography via discreet means (mail order, adult stores, and distant stores) and view it in the privacy of their own home. Anonymity would create large profits for pornographers; by the late 1970s pornographic videotape sales comprised approximately half of all American prerecorded tape sales. As the technology became more widespread in the mid eighties, pornographic videotapes accounted for a substantial 10-25% of all prerecorded tape sales, 25000 of the 60000 American video retail outlets stocked pornography and it accounted for 28% of their revenue (Coopersmith, 2000). The growth in demand for pornographic videos spawned porn stars such as Ron Jeremy, John Holmes, Christy Canyon, and Ginger Lynn amongst many others. The VHS would remain the dominant technology until the founding of the Digital Versatile Disc (DVD) in 1995.


Prior to the release of Snuff (1976), there was an unsubstantiated rumor in New York City, that police were confiscating snuff films from South America. These snuff films purportedly depicted the senseless murders of innocent women after they had sex with anonymous men. Snuff was opportunistically released into this emotive environment and marketed as an authentic pornographic snuff film, with a real murder (Williams, 1989).

Snuff was segmented into two distinct parts; the first part screened the re-cut horror movie The Slaughter (Argentina, 1971). After The Slaughter ends, the viewer is led to believe that she is watching some behind the scenes footage of the film crew from The Slaughter. In this footage, the director propositions the ‘script girl’ for sex whereby they copulate. When she realizes she is being filmed, the script girl tries to pull away but the director stops her. He proceeds to gruesomely hack her to death with a knife before holding her bodily organs above his head in an act of sadistic triumph. The screen then goes black, a voice says, “Shit, we ran out of film,” another voice asks, "Did you get it all?” followed by “Yeah, we got it. Let’s get out of here.” The film then abruptly ends and there are no credits (Findlay, Findlay, Fredriksson, & Nuchtern, 1976). The marketing of the film, “A film that could only be made in South America – where Life is CHEAP!” led viewers to believe that the murder of the script girl was real, which was a hoax. In the words of one feminist writer:

Snuff … marked the turning point in our consciousness about the meaning behind the countless movies and magazines devoted to the naked female body. Snuff forced us to stop turning the other way each time we passed an X-rated movie house. It compelled us to take a long, hard look at the pornography industry. The graphic bloodletting in Snuff finally made the misogyny of pornography a major feminist concern (LaBelle, as cited by Lederer, 1980, p. 274).

Despite the fact that Snuff was a hoax and did not “belong to the pornographic genre” (Williams, 1989, p. 190), it was the spark that set the anti-pornography movement ablaze.

The Anti-Pornography Movement

In the wake of Snuff, many feminists joined protest groups such as Women against Pornography, Women against Violence in Pornography and Media, Women against Violence against Women, Angry Women, and Campaign against Pornography. Protest marches were regularly conducted, legal action was taken whenever possible, and feminists opposed to pornography were mobilized en masse. The anti-pornography feminists were led by the radicals Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon for the better part of fifteen years, from 1978 to 1993 (Sarracino & Scott, 2008). MacKinnon was a University of Michigan law professor and Dworkin was an author. They regarded pornography as “… a form of forced sex…an institution of gender inequality … pornography, with the rape and prostitution in which it participates, institutionalizes the sexuality of male supremacy” (MacKinnon, 1984, p. 325). In a surprising move to some, the feminist movement joined forces with the American Religious Right to combat pornography.

In the 1980’s and early 1990’s under President Reagan and President Bush, the American federal government co-erced by the Religious Right, went after pornography. Leaders such as Jerry Falwell and James Dobson amongst others led the conservative campaign. In 1985, Reagan instructed his attorney general William Smith who was succeeded by Edwin Meese, to conduct a commission on pornography (later referred to as the Meese Report). The Meese Report was a flawed document that was biased and heavily influenced by conservative ideology. It failed to prove a causal link between pornography and drug use, prostitution or violence. Despite this, Commissioner James Dobson echoed Robin Morgan’s slogan in the Final Report, “Pornography is the theory; rape is the practice” (Meese, et al., 1986, p. 78). Meese acted on the report’s main recommendation by forming a new task force in 1987; the National Obscenity Enforcement Unit (NOEU), which was later renamed the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section (CEOS). The NOEU was staffed with anti-pornography activists and charged with prosecuting the pornography industry. From 1987 until 1992, pornographers were targeted by the American government. First, ‘Operation Postporn’ targeted mail-order distributors, then ‘Operation Woodworm’ targeted distributors and producers. The combined operations bankrupted seven of the largest adult video distributors as well as several adult companies.

With the backing of conservatives, Mackinnon and Dworkin “sought to change the legal definition of pornography from an obscenity standard, which appealed to the public morality, to that of the subordination of women” (Cornell, 2000, p. 4). They did this by defining pornography as the “graphic sexually explicit materials that subordinate women through pictures or words” (MacKinnon, 1993, p. 22). From 1983 until 1992, they worked with officials in Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Boston, and Los Angeles to pass anti-pornography civil rights ordinances. Their legal attempts gathered immense public attention but were ultimately unsuccessful.

Most feminists would reject the principles of Dworkin and MacKinnon in the mid 1990s. Feminism generally shifted from an anti-pornography stance, to a pro-sex, anti-censorship position. (Strossen, 1995; Cornell, 2000; Sarracino & Scott, 2008).

Cable Television

In the 1980s, pornography was available at hotels and motels with in-room pay-per-view. In the 1990s pornography was available from a person’s residence if desired with the Playboy Channel, Vivid, and the Spice Channel amongst others (Sarracino & Scott, 2008). American pay-per-view revenues rose from $54 million in 1992 to $367 million in 1999.

Video Camera Recorder (Camcorder)

Do-It-Yourself (DIY) pornography or amateur pornography sizably emerged in the late 1980s when camcorder prices fell. By 1991, DIY pornography accounted for 30% of adult video rentals and sales in the United States. $15 for an amateur film proved popular compared to $25 for a commercial film (Coopersmith, 2000).

Computers & the Internet

From the Apple II (1977) and IBM Personal Computer (1981) to laptop computers, CD-ROMs, webcams and mobile phones. From ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network; 1969) to bulletin board systems (1978), the Usenet (1980) and the World Wide Web (1991). The introduction and development of computers and the Internet, has progressively increased the accessibility of pornography on an unprecedented scale (Campbell-Kelly & Aspray, 1996).

The Usenet (1980) allowed messages and files to be exchanged via computers using the UNIX-to-UNIX copy protocol (UUCP). It grew to incorporate thousands of discussion groups (newsgroups) with millions of users. Un-moderated and alternative newsgroups could be created anonymously by anyone. The Usenet newsgroup, which included,,, and amongst others, had an estimated global readership of 3.3 million people per month by October 1993. This accounted for 8 percent of the total Usenet readership (Reid, 1993).

In 1986, Mike Saenz created Virtual Valerie; a bestselling adult computer disk. It was an interactive computer program that allowed the user to repeatedly insert a dildo into Valerie’s vagina.

Adult CD-ROMs emerged in the early 1990s; they enhanced the interactive experience that Virtual Valerie had begun. Titles included Penthouse Virtual Photo Shoot, Virtual Vixens and The Interactive Adventures of Seymour Butts.

Tim Berners-Lee and his colleagues at CERN commenced development of the World Wide Web in 1989 which debuted in 1991. A text based Web browser was released in January 1992, Mosaic graphical browser software was released in 1993, and Netscape Navigator was released in 1994. In particular, Netscape Navigator made the Internet more user-friendly to the public. The growth in Internet usage was astounding, in 1981, less than 300 computers were linked to the Internet, by 1989 there were 90 000, by 1993, there were over one million and by 1998, there was over 36.7 million computers linked to the Internet. Web sites experienced similar growth with fifty web sites operating in 1993, 1.3 million in 1998 and over fifty million by the year 2000 (Jenkins, 2003).

The Triple A-Engine; anonymity, affordability and accessibility (Cooper, 1998) drove the exponential growth in Internet pornography usage. Additionally, “[p]ersonal inhibition levels, social controls, and the lack of willing partners and sexual scenes that may limit sexual activity in everyday contexts are obsolete in cyberspace” (Leiblum & Doring, 1998, p. 29). Users had unrestricted and instantaneous access to an immense amount of pornographic: photos, videos, films, games, cybersex, webcams, and texts from a wide variety of niches. Pornography was completely democratized; amateurs produced their own pornography for distribution (generally for free), whilst commercial operators sold their wares for a fee (Doring, 2009).

In 1994, Playboy launched its website, in 1995, Penthouse launched theirs; respectively they received 620,000 and 802,000 daily visits in 1995. That same year saw the introduction of video conference technology, which immediately led to live striptease shows and mutual masturbation on the Internet. In 1996, Internet pornography revenues were estimated to range from $50 million to $150 million. By 1997 Video Fantasy; a provider of video conference peep shows had 20000 subscribers. Also in 1997, Internet Entertainment Group claimed 50000 sub-scribers, Porn City averaged two million daily hits, Playboy averaged five million daily hits and all up, there were over 10000 pornographic websites in operation. By 1998, internet pornography revenues were estimated at $750 million to $1 billion with 84% of the revenue being generated in the United States (Coopersmith, 2000). The research firm Datamonitor reported that over half of all personal spending on the Internet was related to sexual activity. Leone & Beilsmith (1999) estimated that 31% of the total online population had visited a pornographic web site by 1999.

Jenna Jameson & Pamela Anderson

In the 1990s, pornography was dominated by one porn star who became the face of the porn industry; Jenna Jameson. Jameson appeared in over 100 films throughout her career (1993-2008) including Up and Cummers 11 (1994), Flashpoint (1998), Virtual Sex with Jenna Jameson (1999) and Brianna Loves Jenna (2001). The most famous porn star in the world, she was dubbed the ‘Queen of Porn’.

The best selling adult video of the twentieth century would belong to Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee. Their infamous sex-tape (1998) sold over two million copies (Rodley, 2000).

By 1999, over 10 000 hardcore pornography titles were produced in the United States per annum (Ferguson & Hartley, 2009).

The Twenty First Century

In 1985, the entire pornography industry generated $75 million in revenue (Sun, Bridges, Wosnitzer, Scharrer, & Lieberman, 2008). By 2009, this figure had grown to $4.9 billion in revenue per annum. The Internet including mobile phone usage accounts for $2.48 billion, adult video sales and rentals account for $1.24 billion, pornographic magazines account for $740 million (this figure has continually declined since the late 70s), and pay-per-view and cable programming account for $440 million per annum. The Internet is now the most popular medium for accessing pornography. There are over 2 million adult web sites with more “than a million people across the globe…now photographing themselves during various sexual activities, uploading these photos onto personal and commercial websites, and inviting the entire computerized world to enjoy them” (Lehman, 2006, p. 254). The $2.48 billion in Internet pornography revenue understates the medium’s usage. Over 95% of pornography consumed on the Internet is sourced from free amateur sites, free adult tube sites, and/ or free file sharing protocols such as BitTorrent.

Commercial sites face a challenge generating revenue in the face of free alternative products; they have to distinguish themselves from the relatively homogenous product that is pornography. They do this by using new technologies such as high definition video (HD video), securing popular stars to exclusive contracts, producing a higher quality product, letting subscribers keep all the material they download and attempting to create a brand.

Generation XXX

Pornography is now the most popular Internet destination for American men aged eighteen to thirty four. It is 50 percent more popular than music sites or eBay and four times more popular than travel services such as hotel and airline reservations (Lehman, 2006).

In 2002, a convenience sample of students from Canada (average age of 20), 24% of female and 72% of male participants stated that they had used online pornography within the last 12 months (Boies, 2002).

In 2004, an Elle/MSNBC survey (15,000 people) found that 66% of women and more than 50% of men claimed that the ‘pornosphere’ had boosted their sex lives (Weaver, 2004).

In 2006, a representative study in Norway reported that 96% of men and 73% of women had viewed pornographic magazines in the last year, and that 96% of men and 76% of women had viewed pornographic films in the preceding 12 months (Traeen, Nilsen, & Stigum, 2006).

In 2008, a study of American Midwestern college students (50% women, 50% men), found that 67% of men and 49% of women; agree that the viewing of pornography is acceptable. From this sample, 87% of men and 31% of women reported using pornography (Carroll, Padilla-Walker, Nelson, Olson, Barry, & Madsen, 2008).


This paper has identified three meaningful trends. (1) The public interpretation and acceptance of pornography has radically shifted over the last five hundred years. To assume that we are at the zenith of our pornographic tolerance would be presumptuous. (2) The increased quantity and quality of pornography is principally a derivation of new technologies; pornography is likely to become more pervasive as technology develops. (3) Censorship and opposition to pornography have had little effect in stemming the tide; the biological chemistry of sexual desire has outlived all censorship attempts and will continue to do so.

There were several limitations to this study. (1) Compressing such a large space of time and history, made it necessary to overlook numerous in-depth details. (2) This paper is based upon a compilation of English-language literature that originates predominantly from the United States and Europe. (3) This paper analyzes the history of modern pornography from a Western tradition; this is because pornography in its current form is primarily a Western construct.