Pornography is the explicit portrayal of sexual subject matter solely for the purpose of sexual arousal. It is thus distinguished from Erotic Film or Erotic Literature where it is generally portrayed at least in some sense for Rule of Drama and/or an intentional attempt to draw attention, shock, or offend, from Sex Comedy where it is portrayed for Rule of Funny and Vulgar Humor, and from scientific and medical documents which objectively present knowledge about the subject.
We're not going to define what it looks like here. The United States Supreme Court gave up trying, so who are we to try? Best we can say is that it generally involves either naked people or people dressed in certain ways with the sole intent of producing sexual desire, while engaging in sexual acts. Almost everyone, regardless of leanings, feels that porn is Explicit Content, and Not Safe For Work/Kids, etc.
Personal feelings about porn run the absolute gamut. Many people like it and many people do not. Some people who support it never use it, and some detractors wish they could stop using it. As with anything that arouses strong feelings and touches on the "animal" side of human nature, everyone reacts differently.
Detractors often cite religious, ethical and moral grounds. Supporters cite freedom of expression and the fact that sexual urges are natural. There have been good, solid arguments from both sides of the issue. This page is not here to answer that question or to sway anyone's judgement, only to educate on what pornography is.
Beside that, we really cannot answer that question. It's what is called a "political question," like Abortion, Gun Control/Gun Rights, what programming language or Computer Operating System is best, or paper vs. plastic for grocery bags, the subject can never be settled; all that happens is people argue one side or the other (or both), fully aware neither can convince the other, until the discussion gets interrupted by something else, like the need to eat, sleep, go to the bathroom or other real-world issues.
The whole point of this page is to discuss this topic in an informative, non-titillating fashionnote . If you're curious how to approach this subject here, please check out No Lewdness, No Prudishness for a guideline.
The shortened form "porn" has been expanded into general usage into anything that is a feast for the senses, and/or that gratuitously focuses on one thing the way porn focuses on sex, like Costume Porn or Gore Porn. These aren't pornography,note just an expression. By this logic, actual pornography would be called "sex porn".
A historyThere are lots of people who like to use pornography, but not so many interested in just the topic itself— sort of like how it's hard to get a history of food out of a person who simply likes to eat— you'll just hear about what they like and what they don't. It's hard to be openly, seriously, and legitimately curious about this topic in general and not be branded a pervert. Hopefully the following will illuminate you on the larger subject— without feeling creepy afterwards!
An Unwritten History
Pornography is absolutely nothing new to society— the word pornography comes from the Greek pornographos meaning "writing about prostitutes". Depictions of nudes and nudes having sex have been found from every era, and while the intentions of each individual artist (and the feelings of anyone who may have disliked such depictions) are lost to history it is safe to say pornographic depictions were as popular among the populace then as today. Wood carvings, vases, figurines, paintings, cave paintings, you name it— it's been used to portray sexual images. Not a single culture was immune to this, no matter how far separate from the rest of the world. This wasn't always about being bawdy, keep in mind— in many cultures fertility and number of children produced gave a person high status, so it's not too much of a stretch that there was a bit of worship of sexual imagery and images to match— if the imagery turned people on and got them making babies, good on it.
The history of pornography is a tough thing to nail down. Pornography today, as it has been through history, is a sensitive and private subject. People didn't usually talk about it or share it with others. It was usually hidden away, and when it was discovered by others it was either destroyed or secretly added to someone else's stash. Because many religions held, and polite society at least pretended to hold, a negative view about pornography few books or papers were written about the phenomenon, and collections had a way of disappearing before anyone could see or catalog them. A lot of it was probably hand drawn or painted and before long destroyed or painted over. Sometimes it was even the owner doing so out of guilt. Some examples of pornographic artwork from antiquity survive, but when they do they usually have historical/monetary value or artistic merit, and are not what the "everyman" used.
Imagine, if you will, a world where there are no photographs or videos. A world where paper itself is an expensive, rare commodity and mass printing is impossible. This was the world through most of human history. If you wanted to see people engaging in sex acts you actually had to see them in person. To be The Peeping Tom was often your only option. Orgies, though often thought of as wild, decadent parties may have served less for randomly hooking up with people and more as a way to get people in the mood to be with their partner in a world without pictures or video to help out. As pointed out before— having children was important and a symbol of status, and back then some people probably had just as much trouble getting into the mood as modern humans do. While peeping toms are creepy, and orgies go against modern religious feelings, these may have served as primitive pornography— but this really can only be speculated about with few records.
Erotica in literature has been around a long time— some people consider portions of The Bible (the Song of Solomon, specificallynote ) to be this. Some works often considered to be pornographic are actually meant to instruct more than to arouse, such as the Kama Sutra, the ancient Hindu work on sexual positions. More on this type of literature can be found on the Erotic Literature page. Many distinguish erotic fiction from pornography, but as with almost everything involving sexual subject matter, the differences can be subjective— for instance the "trashy" Romance Novel has been cited by some to be a kind of pornography itself due to gratuitous sex scenes and formulaic, distilled romance designed to arouse passions in the reader; but this is a hot topic as some dissenters feel pornography must include visual imagery, or that books that they like can't possibly be porn.
The 1700's and the 1800's
Many in the 18th century were of the opinion that the ancient Romans were a great society worth emulating— good values and ideas on democracy and leadership.note It was not unknown that Roman society held a different view of sexuality than those of the 18th century— some sexual artwork already existed from the era in museums, but this knowledge was generally limited to Academia. Then the lost city of Pompeii was rediscovered in 1748,note and people were excited to finally see an undisturbed example of this revered, enlightened time. As archaeologists excavated the completely pristine ruins they found hundreds of depictions of sex in both painting and sculpture, plus the ruins of brothels. Some sexual depictions were deemed too obscene for the general public and were locked away in a closet which men (not women) could see for a small fee. This "Secret Museum" operated on and off (depending on the leanings of the Naples Museum staff as time passed) through the 1960's.
In the United States in the 19th century, a postal inspector and politician by the name of Anthony Comstock was dedicated to the ideals of Victorian Morality, and so pushed hard to make it illegal to send any "obscene" materials through the mail, including all sexually-related devicesnote and information. Many of these "Comstock Laws" are still in effect today and emulated elsewhere, but the definition of the word "obscene" has changed with time.
1830-1990 Technology and Pornography combine
The Rule of First Adopters, that is: the first group of content providers to colonize a new medium once it becomes commercially viable will almost always be the producers of adult-oriented material, obviously applied strongly to pornography as technology marched on. The arrival of still photography, video, and digital distribution in the 19th and 20th centuries had a tremendous impact on pornography and its consumption. The development of photography in the 1830's was a huge leap forward, in that you could take one single nude photograph and then reproduce and sell it indefinitely. Pictures depicting nude women were illegalnote in many places (They were called "French Postcards" in the United States) but were sold quietly by street dealers, tobacco shops and other vendors.
Pornographic magazines first appeared in France in the beginning of the 20th century and spread. Magazines advertising a "nudist lifestyle" were published with the stated intention of celebrating the nudist lifestyle, but were flimsy excuses to sell pictures of young naked people. There was (and still exists) a large non-sexual family nudist movement at the time, and money was made through this loophole then as it is today. Even legitimate nudist organizations knew that money could be made off of this that— at least— went to the nudist cause.note Another common excuse, particularly for male imagery, was the "fitness magazine", featuring very-scantily-clad men (or even unclad men) and were particularly popular with gay men, at a time when openly catering to their tastes was impossible/illegal. Many people would use anything they could find that was like porn, such as National Geographic (The Trope Namer for National Geographic Nudity). In 1953 Hugh Hefner published the first issue of Playboy, which became wildly popular. Playboy was more acceptable among people because in addition to the pictures there were very good articles by famous, noteworthy personalities— thus breaking into the mainstream. It wasn't as "naughty" to admit you read Playboy because you could always say "I Read It for the Articles". In the 1960's inexpensive instant-film cameras like Polaroid became available, allowing people to create their own pornography without having to find a private photographer or developer.
The motion picture appeared in the late 1880's and pornography quickly followed. Theaters started showing a late-night pornographic movie— a much cheaper alternative to a strip show because the theater did not have to find, pay or deal with models and strippers and replace them when they got "old". Eventually theaters which played only adult films opened up— while people felt uncomfortable going to a theater to watch pornography with a group of strangers, many still did. In the 1970's pay-per-view came into being, where a scrambled channel— this was changed to a flat blue screen in the late 1980's— would be unscrambled upon calling your cable provider and agreeing for the charge to be on your bill— major sports events were publicly advertised, but pornography was the money makernote . In the 1980's Video Cassette Recorders made it possible to watch pornography in your own home, effectively driving the videocassette industry. If you didn't want to buy the videos, most "Mom and Pop" video stores had a back room where you could rent a movie or had a folder you could choose a video from. The video camera, as with the Polaroid Camera before it, allowed for the creation of personal pornographic films.
As computers became entertainment machines adult video games started to appear, and in an aversion to The Rule of First Adopters did not drive the new industry. Among the earliest games to make news was Custer's Revenge (1982, by Mistique), a third-party game for the Atari 2600. The game involved moving Custer across the screen to have sex with an Indian woman. Women's groups and Native Americans were particularly displeased with the implied rape and Custer's Revenge outsold Mistique's other adult titles due to the controversy. Atari took notice of this, but before it could act either way, Mistique and most other small gaming companies went out of business in The Great Video Game Crash of 1983. Most early pornographic games were hampered by the limits of technology at the time— graphics took up space. Some Interactive Fiction games such as Leather Goddesses of Phobos were pornographic in nature, despite being mostly or only text. Strip Poker simulators (in the west) and Strip Mahjong simulators (in the east) were popular because they only required four or five low-res graphics of a person in various states of undress programmed into an already-existing game. Eventually processing power caught up and better graphics were used, but by this time most major console makers didn't feel a need to create pornographic content games because their systems are profitable enough by themselves, and learned from Atari and Custer's Revenge to reserve the right to screen all titles for their systems. Acclaim released BMX XXX with fanfare in 2002, which featured bare breasts both digital and video— which led to retailers like Walmart refusing to stock the gamenote . Small gaming studios still produce sexual games, but the fact that these games continue to be controversial with the public, most major stores won't sell Adults Only Rating titles, plus the feeling that video games are primarily for kids and teenagers anyway has kept pornography out of mainstream video gaming.
1990 and onwards: The Information Age
No one knows when the first erotic image was transmitted over the Internet, but it certainly happened. Until the Internet came along, people had to leave their home to get pornography, or to order it through a mail order catalog, or call an operator to get the Pay-per-view. People always felt uncomfortable with the possibility of being seen going into a store which was known to sell it, receiving "plainly-wrapped packages"note made people still feel on the spot, and many were shy about calling their cable operator for porn. The Internet allowed people to not only get pornography in their own home but allowed for any personal fetish (both legal and unfortunately illegal) to be found. The word getting around that there was a tremendous amount of pornography on the Internet drove many to get online, greatly increasing computer and modem sales. Libraries had an unexpected issue— being champions of free access to information they had to deal with people who didn't have internet access at home yet using the library's computers to see if the rumors of "free porn" were true.note The rise also created a great demand for bigger and better storage devices— for most of the early 1990's as the Internet gained popularity the only places a person could stash their computer porn were on their hard drive (risking discovery) or on multiple 1.44 megabyte floppy diskettes. Pornography essentially drove the larger storage mediums being developed.
The progress of pornography on the Internet mirrors pornography's physical history— still pictures leading to video. In the early days with telephone connections small images made their way around. The slow connections would make images appear line-by-line. Videos became available but took a very long time to download a very short low-resolution clip. In the early 2000's broadband internet connections became the norm and videos and high resolution images started to spread.
The Internet was not without its own negative effect on the pornography industry. Much like how the Internet could get information into people's hands for free, killing magazine and newspaper sales, porn became free— affecting adult bookstore sales. Pornographic magazine subscriptions dropped slowly over a period of years— by 2015, after 62 years, Playboy stopped including nude pictures, concentrating instead on the articles people always claimed they got the magazine for.note Adult bookstores have since reduced their magazine and video departments, and concentrated more on equipment, lubrications, etc. Also, the Internet (unfortunately) made it much easier for bad folks to make & trade child pornography. As the nature of pornographic artwork in relation to live-action material is a highly controversial subject, it's important to note for clarification's sake that most first-world countries, including the United States, treat child porn art (be it drawn, rendered, a still image, animated, etc.) as equal to its live-action counterparts from a legal perspective at the federal level. Japan is notorious even among its own population for being one of the only exceptions to this standard, and its laws surrounding live-action child pornography are infamous for being far more lenient than other countries.
In an interesting turn of events, the Internet has actually saved a lot of pornography's history. Many old pornographic films have no clear copyright holder (or no one wants to admit ownership), thus making them essentially Public Domain. There are whole websites where one can watch the now digitally recorded pornography of yesteryear. The Internet has also brought pornography out of the private world and into the public eye. There used to be clear barriers keeping people from it— having to go to stores and purchase it from a cashier or get a catalog and have it mailed to your home address— but now it is in the reach of everyone— a development that, as pointed out above, many find good and many find bad. While many don't seem to have a problem with it, some books about pornography addiction point out that for some people having open, available porn on the Internet 24-hours-a-day is like an alcoholic having a desk in their house with a full glass of beer sitting on it, available at all times.
Only time will tell what effect this new era of easily-available pornography will bring.
The continuing advance of technology and the spread of smart phones and 3D headsets has also made virtual reality pornography a real thing in the 2010s, bringing the trope Kiss Me, I'm Virtual to life. Interestingly, it also cut down somewhat on piracy given the file size of such content requiring consumers to actively invest again. Again, no one knows just how immersive pornography could ultimately become in the future, and the medium is still in its infancy.
The Private, Hidden Nature
For years pornography was stashed away, and the size of a collection was not only limited by income, but by space and availability. Most people hide their porn— exactly what turns a person on is a very personal, subjective issue and sexuality and masturbation are not often a topic for polite chitchat even among best friends. Even many spouses with permission to "look around" try to keep it at Elephant in the Living Room level with their spouse, depending on the relationship. French Postcards were stashed in books. Magazines stashed under mattresses. Videos in the back of the closet. Many adults remember coming across their parents' collection as a child— supporter of pornography or not, it's the sort of thing people remember. Time and technology have changed this "hidden stash" aspect, however— digital pornography has both increased the scope and content of a collection and reduced the physical size by the same amount— you can now amass a collection of pornography fitting your tastes that would rival any of your ancestors' stashes in a single night, on a tiny USB thumb drive— for free. In the Internet age, a physical "stash" is usually a person's sex equipmentnote — things that cannot be stored or used digitally.
"Softcore" vs. "Hardcore"The definitions are fuzzy for a myriad of reasons, because what is "too much" often depends on personal taste and preference. Loosely, softcore has a fairly finite well-tread range. Hardcore is used for everything else and then also beyond.
Softcore generally features at least an Excuse Plot and has no visible onscreen penetration (and if it does, it's only simulated), and it generally stays at vanilla sex or the lighter end of pornography. This sort was usually played late night on pay movie channels— Cinemax was nicknamed "Skinemax" due to this. Sex on pay cable shows like Game of Thrones may look real, but is simulated.
Keep in mind a particularly attractive performer can usually pick and choose their roles in the entertainment industry, so to fall to porn as an actor usually happens when a person is very desperate for a job— and the porn industry is always hiring.note Actors of both genders in softcore movies tend to be more attractive because these films carry less "baggage" that an actor may have to deal with if they make it big later. For an example, before he became a star, Sylvester Stallone found himself homeless and sleeping in a bus station, so he did a softcore film The Party at Kitty and Stud's (1970) for $200.note
Hardcore, on the other hand, generally has at most an Excuse Plot (or none at all) and refers to graphic depictions of unsimulated penetration— whenever you can actually see the sexual contact occurring.note When used to describe porn in a medium that, by definition, can't involve real humans having real sex (such as animation or literature), use of the term "hardcore" instead refers to graphic descriptions of extreme fetishes, and/or acts that would be deadly, injurious, or criminal in Real Life. (For example, a romance novel or Slash Fic featuring vanilla sex is generally not considered "hardcore," even if the sex is floridly described and focused on— one featuring graphically described/drawn rape or bodily waste fetishes would be considered hardcore, and generally would be seen as requiring a trigger warning as well.)
Lower-budget hardcore films tend to have actors who are near the Uncanny Valley because skills not necessarily associated with beauty become far more helpful— attractive people don't exactly line up to be Covered in Gunge, it's usually "the first person who agrees to do it". To do multiple scenes of hardcore pornography in one day (as is often expected with the cheap production values and quick turnaround), requires a lot of staminanote for all performers involved and for men the rather rare ability to ejaculate a large amount on demand more than once a day.
Further research on your own
- For a decent non-titillating book about the subject of pornography, check out The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture by Walter Kendrick. It was published in 1997, so it does not cover the Internet era much, but it is a very good resource.
- Wikipedia has articles on much of the above but may have Not Safe for Work images, specifically:
*Knock-knock* "Troper?! Are you in there reading about pornography on TV Tropes? It'll make you go blind and ruin your life, you know!"