In 1908, archaeologist Josef Szombathy discovered a small naked figurine in the mud outside Willendorf, Austria. The “Venus of Willendorf”—as the ancient figurine was called— had pendulous breasts, exposed vulva, and large buttocks. More Venus figurines were discovered throughout Europe, and their overt sexuality led to heated conflict among archaeologists: Were the Venuses pornographic art, or were they ancient fertility goddesses celebrating women? Those studying the Venuses were influenced by contemporary attitudes about sexual imagery, and many were disturbed by the figurine’s eroticism. As a result, the Venuses were kept out of beginning art books for nearly sixty years after their discovery, in spite of their historic and artistic importance. The sexual revolution in the 1960s and the feminist movement helped change attitudes about female sexuality, and eventually the Venuses were accepted by many—especially women—as symbols of Mother Earth.
Preoccupation with nudity and sex is by no means unique to ancient times, of course. Many contemporary magazines such as Playboy, for example, have enjoyed extended popularity and boast an international audience. Archaeologists centuries in the future might look upon their photographs of naked women much as modern archaeologists speculate about the Venuses, and ask whether they were meant to arouse, to celebrate sexuality, or to honor the fecundity of women.
It has always been difficult to define the difference between pornography, art, and erotica, and to measure the effects that any sexually explicit material has on society. As a result, pornography has long engendered both intense support and virulent opposition. Many people would be highly reluctant to place the Venus figurines and Playboy magazine in the same category, for example. The ancient artifacts are art, they might argue, while the “girlie” magazines clearly are not. Others might contend that photographs—even of naked women—are indeed art. Many commentators would assert that the purpose of Playboy images is clearly to arouse, while the purpose of the artifacts was more likely spiritual or celebratory.
“Pornography” has been a part of human experience since people first formed clay into human shapes. For centuries, the production of sexually explicit materials was rudimentary, as the ancient figurines illustrate. Eventually, with the invention of the printing press, however, sexually explicit material could be made and distributed more efficiently. In response, opponents applied an effective brake on its consumption. In the 1700s, the English editor Thomas Bowdler expurgated obscene passages from the works of Shakespeare. In the early 1900s, American social reformer Anthony Comstock convinced Congress to pass obscenity laws that allowed police to seize materials that discussed female sexuality and birth control.
By contrast, today magazines such as Playboy are routinely delivered to mailboxes across the United States. Playboy, first published in 1953, changed the way many people thought about nudity and sex. The magazine—because it featured naked women with girl-next-door looks, and included articles on politics and fashion—legitimated pornography. Men no longer hid their porn but purchased it openly.
Acceptance of Playboy and its ilk was not universal, however. When the women’s movement gained momentum in the 1970s, many feminists attacked Playboy and similar magazines as damaging to women. Although these magazines were protected speech under the First Amendment, many feminists questioned that protection. Considered “soft-core” because they limited their content to depictions of naked women, these magazines were labeled pornography, not obscenity. Obscenity—“hard-core” images featuring sexual intercourse, bestiality, violence, and pedophilia—was still illegal because it was considered by the courts to be speech that was harmful to society. But many feminists believed that Playboy also constituted harmful speech because all pornog- raphy denigrated women and therefore led to violence against them. However, U.S. courts have continued to uphold the distinction between pornography and obscenity.
Meanwhile, although print pornography was becoming more widely accepted, people still had to brave often-seedy X-rated movie houses if they wanted to see motion picture pornography. When home VCRs became widely available in the 1980s, however, people began to watch pornographic movies in the privacy of their own homes. So popular were such films that the pornography industry is credited with playing a large role in the rapid development of affordable VCRs.
In a similar manner, advances in computer technology in the 1990s radically changed how pornography was produced and consumed. Many of those involved in the pornography industry began to set up websites on the Internet that provided a variety of attractions, including photographs of people having sex, online catalogs of sex videos for sale, and—most recently—amateur video. Amateur videos are made by ordinary people who film themselves having sex, and then sell their “home movies” to sex sites.
Predictably, the proliferation of sexually explicit material on the Internet has led to renewed pressure to regulate pornography. The ease with which people—especially children— can now access sexually explicit material has intensified the debate about whether pornography should be illegal. Pro-sex feminists, adult sex industry workers, pornography consumers, and civil libertarians argue that censoring pornography would do more harm than good. Federal judge Sara Barker argues, for example, that “to deny free speech in order to engineer social change in the name of accomplishing a greater good for one sector of our society erodes the freedoms of all.”
Although those opposed to censorship agree on the dangers of such limits on freedom, people in this camp often heatedly disagree about pornography’s effects on society. Some contend that pornography helps people learn about their bodies and demystifies sex. As Kathleen Sullivan, Stanford University law professor puts it, “pornography is a charter of sexual revolution that is potentially liberating rather than confining to women.” Others maintain that it leads to violence against women, child molestation, and the breakdown of the family. Ironically, those who favor censorship often cite these same effects of pornography in arguing their case. Catharine MacKinnon, law professor at Harvard University, claims that “pornography is the perfect preparation— motivator and instructional manual in one—for sexual atrocities [against women].”
The purpose of this anthology is to examine conflicting contemporary views on pornography and explore how technology may shape the production and consumption of pornography in the future. Academics, journalists, and activists debate how society should respond to pornography in the following chapters: Is Pornography Harmful? Should Pornography Be Censored? How Should Internet Pornography Be Regulated? What Should Be the Feminist Stance on Pornography? The debate over the Venus figurines, the popularity of Playboy magazine, and the emergence of Internet sex sites all suggest that the human preoccupation with pornography will continue well into the future.