The Evolution of Pornography

The medium may change, but the needs of our species do not.

Posted Jul 02, 2020

Humans have experienced more technological advances over the past 30 years than in the rest of our history combined. And despite our endless (mostly generational) complaints about our increasingly technology-driven world and the occasional problems reflected within it, one can’t help but admire the visionary minds who created it. And like it or not, technology, especially digital technology, is the foundation upon which our modern world firmly rests.

Some say that the primary driver of new technologies is and has always been sex. Many people believe that streaming media, virtual reality, websites, live chats, and even apps were either heavily financed by or encouraged by the sex industry. This is probably at least partly true. After all, sex sells and it always has because nearly all of us want to have it. And one of the ways sex sells is through pornography. It doesn’t matter whether sex is crudely drawn on the walls of caves (our first porn) or brought to us via streaming media, our interest has been constant throughout history.

In recent years, however, we have experienced a sea change in the variety and accessibility of pornography—the impacts of which are, as yet, mostly unknown. What we do know is that sexual imagery has never been so anonymously and affordably accessed. It’s not like we haven’t used porn since the dawn of time. We have. But in the last few decades, digital technology has removed pretty much every barrier to the manufacture, dissemination, and viewing of it.

To further the conversation, let’s examine the evolution of pornography.

  • PornPrehistory to the 1860s: Early pornography was limited to cave art, artistic drawings, decorative pottery, and sculpture. Published pornography was invented in 1524 in Rome, when Marcantonio Raimondi published 16 sexually explicit engravings by Guilio Romano, collectively titled I Modi. Shortly thereafter, Pietro Aretino wrote his early pornographic works, Sonetti Iussuriosi (1527) and Ragionamenti (1534-36). Aretino utilized the printing press (invented in 1441) to help disseminate his work. For the most part, only the wealthy and educated were able to purchase and enjoy these printed pornographic works.
  • Porn1860s to 1977: Photography was invented in 1826 but was not commercially viable until the 1860s. That development, unsurprisingly, led to erotic photos. The advent of halftone printing, popularized in the 1890s, increased the quality of mass-reproduced images and greatly decreased the cost, eventually leading to the creation of pornographic magazines. Pornography was further revolutionized by the development of motion pictures. By the 1920s, “stag films” were commercially available for private viewing. And by the 1970s, feature-length pornographic films had supplanted the silent, single-reel stag films. Peepshow booths also evolved in the 1970s, generating millions of dollars in a constant stream of small change. That said, porn was still expensive, relatively hard to find, and embarrassing to access. (Woody Allen’s 1971 film, Bananas, contains an extremely funny scene depicting a man purchasing a porn magazine at a local newsstand.)
  • Porn1977 to 1991: Numerous publications printed advertisements for pornographic pictures and movies, and people began to have pornography shipped to their homes (or, more likely, a P.O. box rented with a fake name). An even bigger change occurred when VCRs (video cassette recorders) hit the market. Suddenly, people could purchase or rent pornographic videos and view them in the privacy of their own homes. Almost simultaneously, cable television arrived, presenting soft-core porn late at night.
  • Porn1991 to 2004: In this time period, home internet became a thing, and, with that, our ability to affordably and anonymously access pornography changed forever. Photos and videos catering to every imaginable sexual taste and fetish were readily available for anonymous viewing. This porn proliferation was so ubiquitous that it crossed over into pop culture. For example, in 2003, the Broadway smash-hit Avenue Q won three Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The show’s most memorable song was a conversation between Kate (a schoolteacher) and Trekkie (a fuchsia-haired monster) entitled "The Internet is for Porn." So even Broadway realized the internet’s “killer app” wasn’t email, it was porn.
  • Porn2004 to the present: Somewhere around 2004, the delivery model for online pornography morphed from pay-per-view porn sites to user-generated tube sites where the revenue came not from subscribers but from advertisers. At the same time, webcam technology improved enough that people could become porn stars themselves, stripping and masturbating for an online audience. Plus, faster internet speeds enabled the streaming of video pornography. Until this time, still imagery had ruled the roost, but suddenly video was king. More importantly, porn became almost universally accessible—affordably and anonymously accessed by any interested person.

Internet Rule #34: If It Exists, There’s Porn of It

In today’s world, porn can be found on websites, file-share services, social media, dating sites/apps, hookup sites/apps, and in countless other online venues. Even some video games offer digitized versions of sexual activity. If you have a favorite TV show or performer, you can assuredly find a pornographic version—usually photoshopped or animated, but occasionally the real thing. If you’ve got a kink or fetish, you can find that, too. Yes, even that super-weird thing you’ve never told anyone about because not another person on earth could possibly be turned on by it. In the digital universe, if you can think it, you can find it.

Without question, we are in the midst of a digital porn explosion. And no, I’m not exaggerating when I use the word explosion. In their 2012 book, A Billion Wicked Thoughts, researchers Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam write:

In 1991, the year the World Wide Web went online, there were fewer than 90 different adult magazines published in America, and you’d have been hard-pressed to find a newsstand that carried more than a dozen. Just six years later, in 1997, there were about 900 pornography sites on the Web. Today, the filtering software CYBERsitter blocks 2.5 million adult Web sites.

If that doesn’t qualify as an explosion, I don’t know what does. And Ogas and Gaddam performed their research all the way back in 2012—a couple of years before the proliferation of sexy selfies and videos that are now ubiquitous on tube sites, social media, hookup apps, and elsewhere. The amount and variety of porn that is available to any person who’s interested are now incalculable.

The short-term and long-term impact of this proliferation is, as yet, largely unknown. There is no question, however, that pornography does impact at least some of the people who use it. In future posts to this site and elsewhere, I will examine these effects as we currently understand them. In the interim, if you or someone you know is struggling with pornography, free resources are available at SexandRealtionshipHealing.com.