Pornography is today a massive social fact. The total turnover of what has become a planetary industry is estimated at 20 billion dollars, including one and two billion for French territory alone. In 2012, erotic and pornographic sites captured 25% of global Internet traffic. Sexual imagery is omnipresent in the public space of Western societies and is reaching other cultural areas despite strong resistance.
Those who believe that pornography is a specifically contemporary fact insist on the constitution of pornography as a genre separate from other genres of representation; on the massive nature of its distribution; on the representation of the sexual act for itself, independently of any religious, political or even artistic aim. They are not wrong, since indeed these various elements combine in a new way between, say, 1850 and the present day. But it seems good, to follow Amy Richlin and the authors who participated in the collection “Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome” – that these elements were already present in Greco-Latin antiquity.
Sex representations throughout history
The word ‘pornographer’ is used by the rhetorician and grammarian Athenaeus to 2nd century AD to describe artists who excel in the art of representing things of love. More specifically, “pornographers” are those who write (graphein) about prostitutes (pornai). From the start, text and image are associated since the “pornographers” of whom Athenaeus speaks are painters: Pausias, who represents his mistress Glykera, Aristide who paints Leontion, mistress of Epicurus Metrodorus’ favorite disciple, Nicophane, of whom we do not know who were his models. Were these women really “prostitutes”? The fact remains debated and hardly interests us. Most importantly, at least among the Romans – but also, most likely, among the Greeks – the notion of pornography is attested. So, it is normal that as long as the technique has improved, the interest on “pornography” has been increasing and taking new forms.
The major changes occur later in the late nineteenth century. Their first fruits, it is understood, appeared much earlier and we will begin by recalling them; but these beginnings are not tied together and above all do not acquire their full development until several decades after their emergence.
In this century, the process of secularization of European societies is accelerating and with it, the weight of religious reference is ever more lightened; a market for pornography is developing which pushes political or philosophical concerns to its margins. Pornography became strictly commercial and, like other branches of human activity, experienced industrial development. It benefited from major technological advances: the appearance of photography in the 1840s was a breakthrough, like the invention of the cinematograph at the end of the century. It is remarkable that pornography immediately seized on these innovations: among the first daguerreotypes were nudes and mating scenes.
— Fleshbot (@Fleshbot) November 13, 2015
A glance to the origins of pornographic cinema
The hero of “pornographic cinema” in its most “popular” form is called Pistelli, he is Catalan. Son of a family of traveling fairgrounds, he dreams of glory and fame. In 1898, he decided to go to Cuba and import the cinema there. He only has a camera and a projector to start creating his fortune. Slight problem, when he arrives in Havana, a Lyonnais, sent by the Lumière brothers, is already there. He’s even already shot a little movie with the local star. Pistelli’s dreams collapse… Well, not quite. A fellow Norman (apparently, there were a lot of French people walking around Cuba, and wait, you are not at the end of your surprises) offers him to be the associate of the owner of a brothel where prostitutes are all Norman.
In the neighborhood, competition is fierce. But Pistelli, who still has his camera, has an idea to boost the business. He then proposes to film the sassiest girls. The success is crazy and immediate. Pistelli has just shot the first erotic films in history. And, more surprisingly, his films were exported. All over the world. The King of Spain, in particular, ordered three from him. Pistelli becomes rich. And he still loves love cinema. With his money, he dreams of a real Italian cinema with a red curtain in the middle of Havana. It will be the Campo Amor, which opens on August 15, 1910. It took only twelve years for Pistelli to realize all his dreams. The whole of Havana flocked to Campo Amor, which still broadcasts gallant films, erotic films, whatever. In this story there is sex, there is money, only one thing is missing: death. What the assassination of Pistelli in 1914 will remedy definitively.
The failed attempts to censor cinematic sex representations
Faced with what they perceive to be a flood of immorality, opinion leaders at the end of the nineteenth century undertake veritable crusades against “pornography”. In 1895, the film Serpentine Dance caused a scandal… and a hit in the United States, by showing an artist performing belly dance on the screen; under the pressure of the leagues of virtue, the local censors succeed in imposing in 1907 a wide censorship in all this kind of representation. In France, it is Senator Berenger, “Father of Virtue”, who leads the fight, grouping the moral leagues in a “Federation of societies against pornography” which held its first national congress in March 1905 in Bordeaux.
Nevertheless, they cannot completely suppress the representation of the body and even of sex in the public space. At the same time, for societies of this time, freedom does not mean license and care must be taken that certain limits are not crossed. It would be best if the artists themselves, or those who claim to be such, make their own policy so that the government intervenes only in extreme cases. And that is exactly what is happening.
In the United States, for example, in 1920, the federal-state asked William Hays to develop a code of decency for American films; this code will serve as a reference for the profession, which will itself manage its supervised freedom. Self-censorship also operates in French cinema of the early XX century: a cinema “saucy and spicy nature” is imposed on himself the content and operating restrictions: heterosexuality there is appropriate but confined to inconsequential caresses.
The development of porn business meets the adhesion of a growing fringe of Western populations, young, educated, sensitive to the theses of “sexual liberation”, which has access to control over its procreation and claims the right to pleasure. The creation of contact journals in which desires and frustrations are expressed with less and less restraint (the journal Union was created in France in 1972) is one of the manifestations of this, the success of the works of Wilhelm Reich, especially the Sexual Revolution – republished in paperback by Christian Bourgois, who also publishes classics of eroticism – is another.
It would be interesting to determine with precision the nature of the relation which one guesses between the rise of pornographic mass culture and the militant activism of groups that associated sexual liberation and political revolution.
"The Serpentine Dance" by the Lumière Brothers – 1899.
This film is made in black and white and colored image by image. The dance is inspired by Loie Füller who was the first internationally famous dancer to perform solo and play with electric lighting, staging, and costumes. pic.twitter.com/Y81YKa7lMq
— CARAA (@CARAA_Center) January 17, 2019
The movie that changed everything
Released more than 40 years ago, “L’empire des sens” (In the realm of the senses, 1976) is to be classified in the category of absolute masterpieces, the genre of film whose images, crazy poetry, and scale mark a whole generation. Nagisa Oshima’s twentieth feature film, “L’empire des sens” is set in the 1930s and takes place in a middle-class district of Tokyo. Kichizo, owner of an opulent inn, and Sada, one of his servants and former prostitute, will live an autistic and self-destructive love story, a passion pushing the limits of love and sexual intercourse. , confining them both to the sacred and to a raw triviality which is not unlike the writings of Sade and Bataille.
Known for its sublime and disturbing ending, “L’empire des sens” is also a great film about female desire. This film is the perfect opportunity to return to the course of an underground film, born from the meeting between a French producer fascinated by eroticism and a Japanese director in rebellion. Based on true facts occurred in 1936, when a young Japanese woman was found wandering the streets, the inert sex of her lover in her hand. Arrested, she admits to having killed his partner by erotic asphyxiation because the latter asked her to.
During the trial, she tries to explain to her judges her mad love in every sense of the word and manages to completely turn public opinion. Sentenced to only 6 years in prison, she will be pardoned after 5. Icon of absolute love, Sada has often been presented as a victim of men. Oshima will reverse this idea and make Sada the symbol of a strong and assertive feminine desire, also taking the opposite view of Pink Eiga, a style of porn very popular at the time in Japan which marries, like indeed the quasi- totality of pornographic films, a male point of view.
At the time, Japanese cinema lived under the yoke of censorship, a sort of Japanese Hays Code establishing a list of very precise rules on the question of the representation of sex in cinema. With “L’empire des sens” violating them all, the reels of film were sent directly to France to be developed. Shooting in the greatest secrecy in Kyoto, the film crew saw themselves as a group of misfits sharing far-left political ideas and Oshima’s rebellious spirit. Nevertheless, we are talking about a tense and trying shoot. To limit the pain, Oshima only works with a small team on the sex scenes. Beginning by turning off all the lights and not turning them back on until the actors ask him to, he often only does one take
Success among the specialized critics, the film is also a public success since it garners more than 1.7 million admissions and is placed in the twenty biggest successes of the year. Meanwhile in Japan, the government will only broadcast a cut version with blurred areas. Worse, Oshima was sued for obscenity, his house was raided but he was finally released in 1982. If the sequel to the film, “L’empire de la passion” (1978), is less successful, “L’Empire des sens” has gone down in posterity as a work pushing back the limits of the representation of love and sex in cinema, a fusion of bodies which banishes reason for passion, a scathing attack on desire with unaltered power.
[FILM DU JOUR] : L'Empire de la Passion (1978) de Nagisa Ōshima
Originellement pensé comme une trilogie, qui sait à quoi aurait pu ressembler le dernier volet ? Pour certains, Tabou (1999) en serait un substitut à travers la question de l'homosexualité. pic.twitter.com/La2zIi7yb9
— The Film Society (@TheFilm_Society) February 28, 2020
A question that will remain open for the artists
We lack the space to do more than sketch the evolution of the most contemporary pornography, but we can try it. If pornography – integrated into the much vaster set of sexual imagery – has indeed not ceased to “proliferate” to the point of becoming commonplace, its main characteristics are far removed from the rediscovered harmony depicted by Catherine Millet. The sexual revolution has not happened, or not the one predicted by its most politicized activists.
This development was facilitated by the appearance of new media, video, which took over from cinema at the start of the 1980s, and digital technology, which developed in the following decade. The pornographic experience takes place in a private, even solitary setting, even if at the same time forms of conviviality have blossomed around the exhibition of the intimate.
The other effect of the rise of these new media has been to strengthen the hold of the visual on the field of signs, where a certain code has been imposed on the sexual act and its representation: reduction of sexuality. in the genitals (shaved), fragmentation of bodies by the use of the close-up, imposed figures of oral sex and sodomy, an amalgamation of sex and violence…
The question of the influence of these codes on other areas of representation (contemporary art, classic cinema), on the amorous imagination and on behavior has been asked with insistence in recent years.
We will not interfere in this complex debate, except to note the astonishing absence of memory that characterizes certain positions. As if, for example, the problem of incitement through representation dates to the digital video era.
If pornography has its roots in history, porn – and today in particular web-porn – is only around twenty years old and already stands out clearly from its grandmother, pornography. Because today porn is a cinematographic genre. Films provoke emotions (joy, horror, sadness, and compassion), and porn causes excitement, which is also its primary function.