Judith Roof. Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender. Editor: Fedwa Malti-Douglas. Volume 3. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007.
Pornography consists of literary texts, images, magazines, films, videos, audio tapes, erotic arts, theatrical events, Internet sites, and other forms of representation that depict sexual and/or salacious subjects without sufficiently redeeming artistic merit. The purpose of pornography is to excite its consumers sexually, but what may count as pornography at any given time or location is defined by the tastes, ideals, fears, and repressions of the local community. Although the ancient Greeks employed the term pornographos (pornos meaning prostitute and graphos meaning writing), referring to writing about the lives and acts of prostitutes, the term and its more modern concept do not appear in English usage until sometime between 1755 and 1857. As literary scholar Walter Kendrick points out, the term pornography was not new but, instead, arose from “the grave” (Kendrick 1987, p. 2), as the obscene frescoes and statuary from the Roman ruins of Pompeii were unearthed. Its reappearance represents the continual clash of religious values and repressions introduced by the Reformation in the sixteenth century, the censoring actions of governments, the introduction of new technologies such as photography and mass production and distribution, and a burgeoning class of consumers who desired and could afford such entertainment.
The term pornography refers generally to material depicting sexual activity intended to excite its consumers sexually, rendered in a way deemed obscene, unchaste, or lascivious. The degree of explicitness and the kinds of activities depicted in pornography change from time to time and from place to place. Pornography may depict nudity, especially images of women’s breasts, genitals, or various stages of suggestive striptease or partial nudity. Naked women and men are drawn or photographed in suggestive poses on everything from ancient Greek pottery to modern-day playing cards, magazines, and calendars. Pornography often depicts sexual activity between males and females, including coitus, anal intercourse, cunnilingus, fellatio, and sex involving multiple partners. It may also include images of erections and ejaculations (the latter called a money shot) from both males and females. There are depictions of sexual encounters between males and males, often engaged in anal intercourse but also in fellatio. Lesbian sexual behavior is a staple in many otherwise heterosexually oriented stories and films, including images of kissing, cunnilingus, and penetration with a dildo. Pornography includes accounts and images of sadomasochistic behaviors such as bondage, spanking, and flagellation. It may include images of sex with animals or acts involving excretion, such as golden showers or urinating on a partner, or the use of feces. Pornography may be aimed at fetishists—those with fixations on particular objects such as shoes or lingerie. It may involve children posed as sex objects or engaged in sexual acts with one another or adults. In short, pornography portrays anything that has been known to stimulate anyone sexually and is produced in almost any medium in which such subject matter can be portrayed, depicted, or described.
Different cultures have had different attitudes toward the kinds of obscene material now commonly classified as pornography, but notions of the pornographic and the obscene are always relative and involve sets of cultural values. Because the concept of pornography is linked to ideas of outlawed sexual excess, access to which is restricted, how cultures understand obscenity determines whether or not a concept of the pornographic—as that which is beyond permissible expression—even exists. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term obscene, often used in relation to pornography, derives from the Latin word meaning adverse or inauspicious and includes material that is “offensive to modesty or decency” and is “impure, indecent, lewd.” Although all pornography may be expected to be obscene, not all of what might be considered obscenity is pornography. Not all obscenity is outlawed nor viewed with as much fascination by those who would prefer to censor it. Some obscenity, even in the most repressive of cultures, is linked to high art or other forms of expression—novels, paintings, films—whose artistic values mitigate its presence. Obscene material that appears in these forms is not considered pornography, although the qualities that endow a work of literature or art with redeeming value change from culture to culture and through time. In the early twentieth century, for example, the United States banned James Joyce’s novel Ulysses (1922), which is no longer censored. The same is true of novels such as D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934).
History of the Concept of the Pornographic
In the Middle East and Europe, ancient cultures understood sexuality as an integral part of life and social relations. The Hebrew Bible includes numerous accounts of passion, sexual liaisons, adultery, and other behavior, which might be deemed pornographic if such instances had not also often been occasions for moral lessons. Ancient Greek writing about prostitutes was not pornographic in the modern sense. The Greeks were fairly open about sexuality and nudity, seeing it as a form of social commerce. Greek culture, especially among the upper classes, often featured multiple sexual liaisons with courtesans (or high-class prostitutes) and male youths. Greek theater featured obscene material, not only Oedipus’s liaison with his mother, but also and especially in such comedies as Aristophanes’s Lysistrata (411 BCE), which depicted the very evident effects of a women’s sex strike on their warring husbands. Greek sculpture, pottery, and painting depicted nudes as well as overt sexual activity, even on such everyday items as children’s eating utensils.
The Greek attitude continued in ancient Rome until the time that Christianity, with its more ascetic attitude toward pleasure and the body, promoted sexual abstention as a virtue. However, the Romans, as did the Greeks, left marks of a more openly sexual culture on their cultural artifacts, including, crucially, the walls of homes in Pompeii, which, when unearthed in the eighteenth century, led most directly to the notion that pornography had risen from a grave.
The art excavated from Pompeii posed a problem for Enlightenment Europeans because, as Pompeii had a Roman and non-Christian attitude toward sexual pleasure, sexual behaviors were liberally and overtly represented in wall murals and on artifacts. Viewed by the Enlightenment European eye, these artifacts could neither be destroyed nor could they remain hidden, as knowledge needed to be disseminated. Valuable but indecent, the more salacious artifacts became a part of the secret museum of Pompeii, located in a locked room at the Museo Borbonico, a museum noted for its pornographic content and visited by discreet gentlemen. The word pornography first appears in English, according to Kendrick, in a translation of C. O. Müller’s 1850 handbook of the archaeology of art titled Handbuch der Archäologie der Kuns, referring to the antiquities of Pompeii. Contemporaneously French historian Paul Lacroix (1806-1884) wrote a six-volume history of world prostitution, producing another kind of pornography whose meaning reverted to the more ancient practice of writing about prostitution.
From its second embodiment pornography was a vexed topic in and of itself. It included public health topics such as prostitution, treated exhaustively and scientifically by Jean-Baptiste Parent-Duchâtelet (1790-1836) in a two-volume work on the lives, working conditions, and treatment of prostitutes in Paris. William Acton (1814-1875), an Englishman, published a treatise on prostitution in London in 1857, as did American William Sanger in History of Prostitution (1858). These were scholarly writings, but their fate, like the destiny of most educational materials having to do with sex, sexual behavior, birth control, prostitution, or even medical texts, had restricted readership. These kinds of serious texts, too, were insistently kept out of the hands of the young person, who in Victorian times was the model whose imagined sensitivities needed protection.
On the other hand, there was not only the secret museum of Pompeii and its descriptions, but also the salacious pleasure that might be derived even from reading dry scientific works about prostitutes. As Kendrick suggests, the term pornography “names an argument, not a thing,” (Kendrick 1987, p. 31). Pornography’s argument is not only an issue of access—of who should be permitted to see the obscene—but also touches upon the impact of representation—about how the representations of sexual topics affect their consumers. Imagined to be at stake were the souls and innocence of the young, whose morals and values would certainly have been affected, it was assumed, by seeing material that suggested sexual excitement. Even some educational materials designed specifically for young people were repressed, such as American Margaret Sanger’s (1183-1966) pamphlet, What Every Girl Should Know (1913), about birth control options.
Curiously, the only materials to escape such crusading zeal were some older classics, such as Greek drama whose holistic appeal to life values excluded them from consideration. At its rebirth obscenity required censorship in order to be pornography. It was not sufficient that works represent merely the kinds of obscene materials that had always circulated in everything from Greek plays to Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio’s (1313-1375) stories and Geoffrey Chaucer’s (c. 1342-1400) poetry. Books became the objects of obscenity trials in England and the United States. In the United Kingdom, Lord Campbell sponsored the Obscene Publications Act in 1857, which was aimed at the importation or public display of obscene materials, defined as materials devised with an intention to corrupt without redemptive qualities. Most ancient classic or high art productions were not included in the act. Other works, such a the British re-publication of The Confessional Unmasked, a pamphlet from the early nineteenth century aimed at exposing rather spectacularly the imagined errors of the Catholic Church, became the notorious objects of obscenity trials. During the trial Lord Chief Justice Cockburn of the Court of Queen’s Bench not only found that the text had the “tendency to corrupt the minds and morals of those into whose hands it might come” (Kendrick 1987, p. 122), but also that having such tendency, the text must also have been intended to have such tendency. In a law that punished those who intended to produce corruption, finding intent in the presence of corruption extended the law to cover almost any work that contained any kind of salacious material.
The Cockburn decision and its underlying logic of assuming an intention to corrupt became the model, as Kendrick suggests, for antipornography legislation in the United Kingdom and the United States. Even France, typically more liberal than the English-speaking countries, tried Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857) for obscenity. In the United States, the Customs Act of 1842 outlawed the importation of obscene material and became the basis for the zealous Anthony Comstock’s (1844-1915) one-man campaign against pornography. Comstock had taken it upon himself as a private citizen to attack and confiscate the inventories of producers and distributors of unwholesome material, including that of prolific Irish-American publisher William Haines, the successful entrepreneur who had introduced pornography into the United States. Comstock’s energetic private prosecutions soon won him support in the form of New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, formed by the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). Under the auspices of the YMCA, Comstock continued to purge society of what he considered to be smut. Thinking the Customs Act fell short of what was necessary to suppress vice, Comstock lobbied energetically for a new federal statute, passed in 1873, which made it illegal to send pornography through the mail. Known as the Comstock Act the new law also earmarked funds for a special agent to enforce the law, a position given to Comstock and which he held until his death in 1915.
Comstock’s activities—and especially his disregard for other rights or laws—were not popular with everyone, although, as in Great Britain, public sentiment against pornography seemed to be the majority opinion. The early twentieth century saw both a continued attempt to preserve the kind censorship that made pornography the paradoxically fascinating subject it had become and a challenge to the range of expressions permitted to exist as artistic expression. As with Flaubert, whose Madame Bovary had undergone judicial review, the first installments of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1920) were banned. England tried Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness (1928) for obscenity, and the novel was successfully suppressed. The story of a sexual invert—or women who felt herself to be and acted as if she were a man—the novel was considered to debauch public morals by many people, including the judge who presided over the New York obscenity trial. In the United States, however, the finding of obscenity was overturned on appeal as the novel contained no overt descriptions of sexual activity; the novel, partly because of the notoriety of the various trials, sold more than 1 million copies.
In the 1930s Miller’s novels Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring (1936), and Tropic of Capricorn (1939) were all banned from the United States as obscene. Even as late as the 1950s, Grove Press had to fight to publish an unexpurgated version of Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Judicial opinion about materials considered obscene was also changing from the repression of almost anything that tended to corrupt public morals to an examination of the entire work, which, if deemed to have artistic merit, could overcome accusations of salaciousness based on a few episodes or even pretexts. When Théophile Gautier’s novel Mademoiselle de Maupin, about a woman who poses as a man and courts women, was tried for obscenity by a New York court in 1922, the court found that books should be considered as a whole instead of on the basis of a few episodes and that Mademoiselle de Maupin’s value as art indeed overcame its subject matter. Ideas about the suppression of literature finally turned to a less censorious practice with the American trial of the full version of Joyce’s Ulysses in 1932, the year that Random House published the novel. The novel was found not to be pornographic on the basis that, taken as a whole, it tended not to be obscene. It tended not, according to the Judge, to excite sexual feelings in its readers.
Although various books would continue to be put to the test, and the idea of protecting the public and particularly young people from the deleterious effects of knowing the details of sexual behavior, would continue in many other forms, pornography had succeeded in establishing itself as both a secret pleasure fostered in part by public condemnation (a public that enjoyed the voyeurism of its chastising court cases) and a shameful practice to be continually rooted out and suppressed. As government actions regarding sexually explicit material became more oppressive, the more sexually explicit material was produced. This paradoxical phenomenon occurred both during the repressive Victorian period in England, when many of the antipornography statutes were developed and prosecuted, and in the 1980s during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, when more fundamentalist religious discriminations became mainstream and began to try to exert a direct political force on public policy. The 1986 Meese Report, ordered by President Reagan, embodied the controversy over the actual effects of sexually explicit materials on consumers, presenting once more the idea that pornography is harmful, produces violent behaviors, and is linked to organized crime. However, instead of being imagined to damage the morals of the young, who had served as the protected sensibility in the nineteenth century, pornography was now deemed to harm women at the hands of male pornographers. This theory was promulgated in the work of some feminist critics such as Catherine MacKinnon but was also evident during obscenity trials related to some men’s magazines. Larry Flynt (b. 1942) the publisher of Hustler Magazine and outspoken advocate of First Amendment rights, was prosecuted for obscenity several times beginning in 1976 based on the explicitness of his magazine’s depictions of women’s genitalia, as well as his ownership of several strip clubs.
Obscene texts have existed ever since there have been texts, if obscenity is defined as the representation of sexual activity. Most texts, such as the Bible, that in some way portray a vision of life and human history, include sexual matters because they are an integral and important part of life and its dilemmas.
Ancient Greek literature reflects the culture’s pleasure in sexuality. As the originators of pornography focused on descriptions of prostitutes, the Greeks produced a large number of texts on the lives and habits of courtesans (professional women of pleasure). Greek dramatic comedies often consist of sexual humor, such as Aristophanes’s Lysistrata and The Frogs (405 BCE). Even such tragedies as Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex (427 BCE) and Euripides’s The Bacchae (c. 407 BCE) situate sexual excess at the center of their plots. More philosophical writings also include discourses on prostitution, homosexuality, and sexual pleasure, such as those presented in Atheneaus’ Deipnosophists (Dinner table philosophers) from the third and second centuries BCE. Other Greek works present homosexuality and pederasty as typical elements of Greek life, to be rued, at least according to Plato (c. 428-347 BCE), and enjoyed, according to Socrates (c. 470-399 BCE). The poet Sappho (who lived in the seventh century BCE) ostensibly addressed some of her love poetry to women.
The pre-Christian Romans continued the Greeks’ pleasure in sexuality, represented particularly in the poet Ovid’s work Ars Amatoria (The art of love) (2 BCE), a guide instructing men in the fine arts of seducing mistresses and keeping them happy, and instructing women about how to keep men happy sexually. Ovid’s work extols the mutuality of pleasure and offers advice about many modes of lovemaking—from genital intercourse to digital fondling. Ovid’s rather courteous approach to love-making contrasted with the more brutish and extreme pleasures of some of the Roman emperors, in particular, Tiberius (42 BCE-37 CE), Caligula (12-41 CE), and Nero (37-68 CE), who indulged in pornography, sadistic sexual practices, homosexuality, and incest. Tiberius decorated his palace at Capri with pornographic pictures and had available the books of Greek female pornographer Elephantis (dates unknown). Some of the spirit of this excess is captured by Roman poet Petronius in his work Satyricon (c. 61 CE), which describes everything from fellatio, flagellation, and sodomy to pederasty and pedophilia.
In India in the second century BCE, Vatsayana composed the treatise of sex and lovemaking known as the Kamasutra. Presenting a detailed exposition of sexual practices, behaviors, and techniques, the Kamasutra was widely available in India. During the same period other Asian cultures produced erotic paintings and statuettes, including phalli.
In Europe, Roman excess contrasted with the ascetic philosophy of early Christianity, which, instead of indulging freely in sexual pleasure, saw sexuality as a fleshly evil that should be repressed. In its focus on chastity the church, as with later censors, had a tendency to enjoy a kind of reverse pleasure in the contemplation of sex as that which one should not enjoy. However, some texts that contained sexual scenarios—often involving philandering priests, from the period between the fall of Rome in the fifth century and the burgeoning of the Renaissance in Italy in the fourteenth century—survived. Surviving also from the later centuries of the Middles Ages were ribald and satirical tales of Renard the Fox, whose exploits often included adultery. From the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, troubadours and Goliardic poets from France and Germany wrote and sang love poetry whose double entendres often betrayed the air of desperate purity maintained by a poet who pined for the lady he loves who stays forever out of reach.
At the end of this period, Boccaccio composed The Decameron, published in 1371. A collection of ten days’ worth of traditional tales and invented stories told to pass time by a group of nobles fleeing the plague, the stories of The Decameron contained everything from adultery to fornicating priests and were told often in unveiled detail. The Decameron was joined by other collections of bawdy tales of illicit love, including the poetry of Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales, especially in “The Miller’s Tale”; The Heptameron by sixteenth-century French writer Margaret of Navarre; the satirical and finely obscene narratives of François Rabelais in Pantagruel (1532) and Gargantua (1534); and, in the Middle East, the tales collected in the eighth and ninth centuries in Persia circulated as One Thousand and One Nights.
Writers were less squeamish about sexual matters during the Renaissance than they would become after the Reformation. William Shakespeare’s plays often included lewd puns and commentaries on explicit sexual practices, which were frequently given to lower-class characters, such as the servants in Romeo and Juliet (1597). English drama continued its interest in seamy sexual situations during the Restoration with plays such as William Wycherley’s The Country Wife (1675). In eighteenth century France, the Marquis de Sade, imprisoned for sexual crimes, wrote a series of erotic novels that presented a philosophy of sex and contained numerous accounts of sadistic and licentious behaviors; most of these novels were suppressed until the twentieth century.
The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw an explosion in the production of print pornography, including John Cleland’s novel Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1749) more commonly known as Fanny Hill. The novel details every form of sexual encounter, from flagellation to attempted rape, multiple forms of intercourse, and homosexuality. Fanny Hill ends with the redemption of its initially naive heroine in marriage with her first seducer. Fanny Hill was the first book prosecuted for obscenity in the United States in 1819-1820.
As public culture in the nineteenth century grew more aware of and repressive toward erotic literature, more was produced—often of less interest or literary quality. Pornographic literature took the form of instruction books, confessions, autobiographies, letters, and adventure novels involving gentlemen, young girls, boys, courtesans, school masters, priests and clerics, and rich old men. These characters engaged in everything from intercourse and group sex to sadomasochism, homosexuality, and voyeurism. Literacy increased, and printing technologies made erotic literature more widely available in the form of books and magazines. Pornography became for some a gentleman’s hobby, especially those who collected erotic literature. Famous among these was Henry Spencer Ashbee (1834-1900), whose three-volume bibliography of erotica was published from 1877-1885. The United States had no producer of pornography until the 1840s when Haines entered the empty field.
As reformers such as Comstock tried to clean up the literary marketplace—in the process of doing so, helping to produce the modern conception of pornography—the market and tolerance for material containing obscenities gradually grew, resulting in the eventual acceptance in the twentieth century of the obscene as an integral part of artistry. This tolerance produced a less repressive market for literary material in Europe and North America. Print classics, such as Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place (1956) and Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls (1966) engaged women readers in the consumption of novelistic obscenities, whereas erotica, or literature about sex, became more widely available, including texts as varied as Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus (published in 1969 but written earlier) and Terry Southern’s Candy (1964). Pulp fiction novels (cheap paperbacks aimed at mass-market sales) depicted the melodramatic existences of gay males and lesbians, with occasional erotic scenes, whereas romance novels piqued the libidos of housewives.
Attempts to study and control pornographic material in the United States continued, most notably during the Reagan administration in the 1980s. Pressure from those who earnestly believe that people should not be permitted to excite themselves sexually through any kind of representation continues in the early twenty-first century, although the threshold for social acceptance of risqué materials has lowered.
From the time of the ancient Greeks, images of sexual activity have been inscribed on walls, pottery, and other everyday items. Nude studies in sculpture and painting are common. The walls of Pompeii included many sexually explicit murals, whose exhibition in the eighteenth century was limited initially only to discerning gentlemen. Erect phalli dotted some landscapes, and genitalia protectively adorned architecture. Some of these images evoked gods of fecundity; others celebrated daily life in societies where sexuality was more open.
After the Renaissance more openly erotic art gradually became a part of the fine art tradition. As printing technologies became more sophisticated and cheaper, artists began producing caricatures, lithographs, and etchings with overtly pornographic topics. George Cruikshank illustrated Fanny Hill, whereas Thomas Rowlandson produced illustrative pornographic plates to accompany such books as Pretty Little Games for Young Ladies and Gentlemen (1845). By the end of the nineteenth century Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898) was producing stylized erotic drawings for magazines and books.
With the invention of photography in 1839, a new medium for the mass production of garishly realistic pornography became available. From the 1850s on pornographers, usually in home studios, produced series of photographic images depicting female nudes in a dazzling array of postures; sadomasochistic practices; various positions of sexual intercourse; male nudes; fellatio; lesbian sex; and naked children, sometimes engaged in sexual play with adults. One such pornographer was Henry Hayler, a London photographer whose studio was raided in 1874 by police. Although Hayler escaped prosecution by fleeing to New York, police confiscated 120,248 obscene photographs.
Despite antipornography legislation such as the Comstock Act, pornographic images continued to be produced and distributed in the form of calendars; pinup pictures, often movie stills; watch fobs; playing cards; and finally, movies and video. Most visual pornography was aimed at heterosexual males and consisted of females seductively clothed or, later, posed in the nude in suggestive positions. Some more explicit images depicted scenes of overt sexual activity, including bestiality. There was also a market in explicit gay male images.
In the 1930s mainstream magazines such as Esquire (founded in 1933) began including pinup pictures, and by 1953 Hugh Hefner, who began his career working for Esquire, founded Playboy. The first issue included a nude photo spread of actress Marilyn Monroe. Other pornographic magazines followed, including Penthouse and the more graphically explicit Hustler (founded 1974). Along with these magazines came an entire industry of pornography, including strip clubs sponsored by magazines, such as the Playboy Clubs, or owned by the magazine publishers, such as Larry Flynt of Hustler. Magazines spun off movies, videos, and cable television channels. Porn stores emerged along interstate highways catering to truckers and other travelers. These industries became more mainstream and acceptable throughout the twentieth century. Their heyday was truncated, however, by the onset of the AIDS epidemic and consequent demands that pornography responsibly depict safe sex. In part the spread of video pornography was enabled by the ways such materials were kept away from minors in stores (paradoxically, restricting pornography produces it); in part its spread was possible because sexually explicit material was increasingly more available in mainstream films, books, and—eventually—television.
Pornographic Film Industry
The first erotic film images came from the serious work of English photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), who took a series of still photographs of nude women carrying out everyday acts in the period from 1884 to 1887. The subjects’ nudity permitted the viewer to see how the body moved. Erotic cinema is as old as the film industry itself. Thomas Edison (1847-1931), who began to produce short films in the late 1890s, made some provocative entries, such as What Happened in the Tunnel and Aunt Sallie’s Wonderful Bustle. Early film pioneer Georges Méliés (1861-1938) produced an 1897 film called After the Ball-The Tub depicting a naked young woman in a bathtub attended by her maid. In 1896 a short film screened in Ottawa, Canada, showed the first on-screen kiss, and some viewers called the police. In the early twentieth century, the nickelodeon, a type of theater invented by Edison, showed very short films, including What the Butler Saw and How Bridget Served the Salad Undressed.
This auspicious beginning for unregulated cinematic erotica ended in 1915 when the Supreme Court of the United States held that films were a business endeavor and not entitled to First Amendment protection. This finding led the film industry to adopt the Hays Code, a set of self-regulatory guidelines, in 1930. The Hays Code prohibited excessive kissing, fondling, complete nudity, licentiousness, or anything that was contrary to the moral standards of the time. The code was a response, in part, to the popularity of stag films—short films depicting overt sexual activity usually between young women and convenient passersby. These films were promoted by itinerant entrepreneurs called stag masters.
Except for the underground stag cinema, the Hays Code effectively eliminated sex and nudity from American mainstream cinema, even though plots and circumstances were often sexually suggestive. Joan Crawford played a high-class call girl in The Women (1938); however, the film contained no sex scenes. Adultery was the pretext of other mainstream offerings, such as Indiscreet (1958), in which Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant carry on an adulterous love affair. Screen beauties such as Betty Grable were sought-after pinup girls, their photographs adorning soldiers’ barracks during World War II.
After Hefner began Playboy in 1953, photographers became more adept at imaging seductive female nudity. The skills of photographers such as Russ Meyers and Bunny Yeager crossed over to filmmaking, producing nudie cutie films such as The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959). The 1950s hosted a fairly modest pornographic film industry, which featured nudie films made of people frolicking in nudist camps. The convention that governed these films and made them barely legal was a prohibition on any images of pubic hair or pickles and beaver—male and female genitals. These and other more illegal loops, or short films of sex acts, played at burlesque theaters and other illicit venues. Burlesque theaters were the precursors of modern-day strip clubs in which women in various stages of undress would dance and remove clothing for patrons, though in theory full nudity was prohibited.
By the late 1960 and early 1970s the pornographic film industry was booming, aided by the demise of the Hays Code and adoption of a rating system that identified film content by a series of letters. An X rating, indicating appropriateness for mature audiences, quickly became a code for pornography. Pornography was divided into two categories: hard core for graphically explicit sexual scenes, and soft core that showed very little male frontal nudity, no erections, and only simulated sex scenes. The pornographic film industry had its greatest success in the late 1960s and 1970s, producing the famous Deep Throat, starring Linda Lovelace, and Behind the Green Door, starring Marilyn Chambers, both released in 1972. Porn films included, from 1968, full frontal nudity and pubic hair. Films depicted oral and anal penetration, fellatio and cunnilingus, various forms of bondage and discipline, group sex, bestiality, masturbation, and the famous money shot footage of male ejaculation. Ruben Sturman invented the peep show booth that provided a means for the private screening of pornographic films in adult theaters and adult bookstores. In 1973 the Supreme Court ruled, in Miller v. California, that each state could develop its own definition of obscenity. As a result pornographic films such as The Devil in Miss Jones (1973) became financially successful, and a profitable gay male pornography industry was born.
The pornographic film industry was gradually altered by the invention of video formats and the availability in the 1980s of consumer camcorders. Although changes in format made production of film pornography cheaper and easier (even if of lower quality), the industry struggled against crackdowns by the Meese Commission, public disapproval spurred by the AIDS crisis, and confiscation of all films made by porn star Traci Lords, who made the films when an underage actress. Cheaper video equipment enabled a greater number of amateur filmmakers to begin production of pornography. The availability of home video players began to cut into the business of burlesque theaters—the major outlets for the production of the film pornography industry. Competition with amateurs lowered the already bare-bones standards of porn films, though it also enabled pornography to infiltrate to a larger number of consumers. Pornography finally became a choice among cable television offerings, and mainstream films became increasingly more explicit, showing full frontal nudity and explicit sexual scenes (still shot tastefully).
In the early twenty-first century, pornography is widely available in both video and DVD formats. Vendors sell on the Internet, which also hosts X-rated sex sites with pictures, videos, and live Webcam performances. Attempts to control children’s access to Internet porn sites have been stymied by successful constitutional challenges to federal legislation. However, authorities have had success in suppressing web sites offering pornography involving children and have apprehended and prosecuted predators who seek child sex partners online.