30,000 BC: a visual timeline of the history of porn (NSFW) Newer and increasingly scandalous avenues of self-stimulation are always discovered. But it all started in the age of the mammoth.

By definition, pornography is anything that depicts sexually charged imagery and ideas. Porn is designed to create sexual desire and arousal. It appeals to your innermost carnal needs which are a necessity for procreation. Yes, porn is about pleasure, but it’s also about a human’s motivation to survive and reproduce. That’s why you can’t always control your physical reaction when you see or are exposed to pornographic material. You also have no control over what type of pornography appeals to you most. What one culture views as sexually titillating, another may find offensive.

Who knew the world of porn was so complex? Here we’ll take a closer look at the many surprising forms porn has taken throughout human history, and explore how people have evolved the concept over centuries to increase sexual pleasure for themselves and their lovers. To start we’ll have to go well back in prehistory, to a time when Neanderthals and mammoths still roamed the planet.

The Venus of Willendorf

…Because the first known examples of porn in human history are the erotic sculptures known as Venus statues — dating from 11,000 to 35,000 years ago! Most of these have been unearthed in Europe, but they are distributed across Siberia and Eurasia generally.

Pictured is the small (4.4-inches) yet captivating Venus of Willendorf figure which dates from around 25,000 years ago. It has a voluptuous figure, and you can clearly see details of the female anatomy that a man might take an interest in.

The origin of Venus statues is so distant it will probably forever be obscured by the mists of time. Some historians believe the Venuses were used for fertility (hence the name we’ve given it) while others credit the statues as simply being erotic depictions designed for sexual stimulation. Pagan sex festivals and orgies likely took place during this time and statues such as the Venus of Willendorf might have been ritualistically destroyed or buried as a way to celebrate sexuality and/or increase fertility.

The Kangjiashimenji Petroglyphs

The Kangjiashimenji Petroglyphs claim to be the first form of visual pornography, but the Venus Willendorf clearly dispels this claim to fame. Even so, this erotic stone carving holds a special place in the history of porn. These depictions date back 4,000 years ago to Northern China but were first unearthed in the 80s.

At first glance, this picture looks like a basic form of abstract art. The image depicts 10 black figures standing together, their arms outspread in odd positions. A closer examination shows that these figures are actually pointing at one “person” at the left of the picture. This figure has an erect penis, suggesting it’s a man while the hourglass shape of the others indicates they are women. The idea is that these women are there to sexually satisfy and entertain the single male figure.

As with most art, these ideas and visions are open to interpretation and may hold special meaning or significance to the people of the time period.

Related: 10 things you can thank porn for

The Babylonians

The Babylonians were like ancient hippies, believing in free sex and free love. Historian Herodotus told stories of the Babylonians’ sexual promiscuity and uninhibited sex acts including sex in public and urinating on others for sexual pleasure. The Greeks viewed these behaviors with both curiosity and disgust (more on the Greeks in a minute). What they failed to acknowledge is that many of the Babylonian practices were considered highly religious. During these sex festivals, the people would communicate with their gods. In fact, the Babylonians used the temple prostitutes to satisfy various gods. At these festivals, nothing was off-limits.

It was also the Babylonians who first introduced the idea of anal sex in erotic art forms. A 4,000-year-old sculpture depicts a woman bent over in front of a man who’s holding her by the hair and hips, pulling her toward his genital area. This racy sculpture is the first image of anal sex in the history of pornography and is now housed in The Israel Museum. While the image doesn’t show anal penetration, historians believe it’s a clear depiction of anal intercourse, which was used at this time as a form of birth control. This was an advanced concept for the time since it would take many more centuries for other cultures to figure out pregnancy could only occur through vaginal intercourse.

Greek pottery

Over the course of history, erotic images have taken many forms from sculptures and paintings to stories and pottery. We have the Greeks to thank for some of the first depictions of homosexual anal sex and orgies. Other impressive and outlandish sex positions include hoisting sex partners up to the gods and sacrificing the others. Greek pottery was used to tell detailed stories including those of battles and sex. It’s interesting to note that the images created by ancient Greeks are what laid the foundation for future erotic material, including some of today’s most erotic images.

Roman frescos

Italian is the language of love and Pompeii was the source of the first detailed and expressive pornographic images in art form. This ancient Roman city was destroyed in AD 79 by a nearby volcano but prior to that, it was rife with pornography, brothels, prostitution, and even sex slaves. Pompeii is where the Romans went to play.

After the volcanic eruption that destroyed this sexual oasis, many of these images were preserved in volcanic rock for centuries to come. Specifically, the scenes on the walls of the bathhouses in Pompeii depict women straddling men and a famous piece of art that shows a woman bent over, being penetrated from behind. The images are so detailed that you can clearly see the female’s pubic hair, nipples, and other fine details. Some imagery also includes penises, leveling the playing field.

Erotic literature

Illustration from Pierre Louÿs’s popular 1896 erotic novel Aphrodite: mœurs antiques.

From images to words. Erotic literature first entered the world of pornography in the Middle Ages, at the beginning of the Early Modern Period. Unlike these earlier forms of artwork which use often are left to interpretation, erotic literature with accompanying images was produced purely for sexual satisfaction.

Nuns, monks, and other religious devotees in Germany and Portugal also consumed pornographic text during the Middle Ages. Over time, similar to internet porn of today, erotic literature became increasingly sadistic. French writer Marquis de Sade wrote one of the first erotic forms of literature in the 18th century — The 120 Days of Sodom. Marquis’ erotic stories which contained graphic detail of sadism and depravity were more of a memoir than a fantasy since he admitted to acting out many of these fantasies. Other controversial topics first written by Marquis included homosexuality, sodomy, choking, and whipping sex partners. Marquis was eventually imprisoned for sexual harassment until his death.

Despite its dark and sinister origins, 120 Days of Sodom still remains one of the first and most influential forms of pornographic literature to date, paving the way for future works of art like 50 Shades of Gray and other forms of erotica, including audio porn.

Porn in film

Stills from Woman walking downstairs, late 19th century.

When most people think of porn, they think of websites like Pornhub. But long before the Internet, the Industrial Revolution, and the rise of the film industry, sparked the creation of what we now consider modern pornography. Nudity came before sex, with some of the first recorded films depicting naked actors doing ordinary things. In the 1880s, one picture series (later turned into film proper) showed a naked woman ascending and descending steps. In 1920, films starting showing sexual intercourse in detail including penetration and group sex. Most of these films were produced and viewed in private. Without filmmakers and actors willing to go where no man or woman had gone before, we wouldn’t have the porn we have today.

The sexual revolution of the 1960s would take the porn industry to new heights. By the 70s, pornographic films were much more commonplace. The 1980s are often considered pornography’s “Big Bang” period when the industry saw commercial growth worldwide and rapid expansion, which continues to this day. As more people become open to sexual exploration and experimentation, new forms are evolving with every passing decade.

And of course, internet porn

The porn industry is reaching the $100 billion mark — and fast! And it’s no longer only studios who are capitalizing on the world’s fascination with pornographic material. Every day people are filming and publishing their own amateur content and accepting “donations” via sites like OnlyFans.

Related: A brief history of early internet amateur porn

The ubiquity of porn on today’s internet has had an unfortunate side effect where the competition for eyeballs leads to a race to the bottom — to push the envelope of what is acceptable and normal and in turn boost revenue. As the modern porn industry continues to grow, it poses a unique set of problems including addiction, illegal behavior, and a false sense of instant gratification.

In addition, people who view pornography regularly often develop unrealistic ideas and expectations of what sex is and should look like. Porn videos and films remove the need for sexual imagination or creativity. Not only can this reliance on porn for emotional and physical release cause relationship problems but may also lead to health issues including erectile dysfunction (ED), depression, and anxiety. Regularly consuming today’s pornographic material poses unique risks that didn’t exist with the clay pottery and artwork of ancient times.

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So as you can see the world of pornography has blossomed from racy sculptures and wall drawings to graphic, in-your-face content. The jury is still out on whether this progression is good or bad, with all pornographic material subject to interpretation.

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