The History Of Porn And Erotic Art Art Around The World, From Peruvian Sex Pots To Modern-Day Sex Tapes (NSFW)

Erotic pictures have probably been part of human art for basically as long as we've been able to pick up a stick of charcoal. Basically every known society has had some kind of pornographic art — and has used it for everything from worship to wartime morale-boosting. But looking at erotic art through history is a tricky one: Should it only include things that were obviously meant to arouse, or can sexy art for other purposes — religion, instruction about marriage, or even — also qualify? 

It's seriously hard to separate sex from other problems; in fact, some scholars argue that erotica for its own sake only really emerged in Europe in the early 1800s. So this history might seem chaotic — but no matter what else is going on, everything in it is seriously sexy. 

Prehistoric Period: Wall Paintings And Lady Lumps

The earliest erotic art actually used its surroundings — for instance, a French cave uses a wall-bump as a phallus for an erotic drawing nearby. (People have been doing erotic graffiti on things for millennia.) Explicit stuff also exists: a cave painting by Aboriginal Australians from over 20,000 years ago found in 2008 seems to show a couple having sex

But scholars are divided as to whether you can actually look at famously big-breasted prehistoric figurines as pornographic; two Canadian anthropologists argue that we’re putting too much modern sexualised pressure on very, very old things. Either way, the depiction of sex has been around for eons. 

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Egyptian Erotica: Sex Positions on Papyrus

The most blatantly erotic art that’s survived from Ancient Egypt is the Turin Erotic Papyrus, which features a bunch of different sex positions and hurried annotations by pleased readers. But sex had a strong role in depictions of gods, too: the sun-god Ra masturbated two of his kids into the world, for instance. 

Some scholars suggest that sex was suggested in tomb carvings in code: there’s a carving showing Tutankhamun shooting arrows in front of his wife that some think is a subtle reference to sex

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Moche Peruvian Erotica: Ceramic Sex Pots

The sexiest of the South American ancient civilisations isn’t the Aztecs or the Inca: it’s the Mochica, who lived in Northern Peru from 100 to 800 AD. Their big contribution to the history of erotic art is their sexy pottery. Ceramic Moche pots depict everything from fellatio to having sex while breastfeeding, women masturbating skeletons, and gigantic vulvas. We’re not entirely sure why, but who cares when you can have a masturbating-skeleton pot, am I right?

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Ancient China: Yin And Yang

A 2014 Sotheby’s exhibition garnered big publicity for showing what it termed as the “lost” sexual art of ancient China — and the artwork on show was indeed pretty risqué. But truly ancient erotic art from China is lost; what we have dates from the Ming and Ch’ing dynasties, and is all about the balance of yin and yang. It ranges from beautiful paintings on scrolls with intricate backgrounds to elaborate ivory carvings — no expense spared. 

Image: Wikimedia Commons 

Ancient Greece & Rome: Amphorae All The Way

The Greeks and Romans were a bawdy lot, and definitely weren’t shy about depicting sex — but there’s argument about why they were doing it. Religion? Blessing the crops (the Greek fertility god, Priapus, had a comedically gigantic member)? Philosophical reflection? Whatever the reason, Roman and Greek sexual art is everywhere, from amphorae to the walls of buildings in Pompeii and reliefs on plates, and were used for satire, social comment, and to show off artistic skill, as well as just bein’ sexy. 

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Ancient India: Much More Than The Karma Sutra

The Karma Sutra is a classic of erotic art, but the tradition of erotic depictions in India is impressively vast. Largely this is because many interpretations of Hinduism, one of India’s main religions, enshrine sexuality as spiritual and necessary. Ancient India’s most famous erotic art might actually be its amazing statues — like the ones on the 10th and 11th century temples in Khajuraho, which show a mind-blowing variety of sexual positions. But its paintings, usually lavishly decorated miniatures, are also classics.  

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Medieval Europe: Ecstatic Christianity

We often mistakenly think that medieval Europe, with its preoccupation with Christian morality, was completely lacking in sexy art. But the facts don’t lie: art of the medieval period was still pretty sexual, even encoding faith in erotic ways. Academics even argue about whether medieval nudes (like naked statues of Christ) were meant to be erotic. But the real sexual art of the period was to be found in Books Of Hours, illuminated manuscripts telling worshippers when to pray and how; some of their lavish illustrations of Bible stories and saints are pretty erotic stuff. 

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Medieval Persia: Painting It Miniature

Sexy depictions of anything from the Islamic tradition often get short shrift. Why? Scholars are reluctant about discussing erotic depictions as anything aside from metaphors for spirituality. This is a pity, because some of the art from the Savavid period in Persia (1503-1737) is particularly beautiful. It was likely a demonstration of the illuminator’s skill as well as sexy: most of the erotic pictures from this period are miniatures, some only a few inches high! 

Image: Wikimedia Commons

13th Century Japan: Shunga

One of the most famous erotic art traditions, Japanese shunga (which means “pictures of spring”) first flourished in the 13th century with the popularity of woodblocks, which made mass production easy and cheap. 

Shunga, until it was banned in the 1700s by the Japanese authorities, was characterized by several things: generally participants were fully-clothed, sex scenes were both explicit and very intimate or domestic, and they were portable, designed to be passed around to illustrate stories or teach technique. 

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Renaissance Italy: Engraving The Positions

Nude women were so commonly painted on furniture in Renaissance Italy that the fiery preacher Savonarola denounced them in his sermons and demanded that they be burnt (which, in 1496, many of them were). In more “official” artworks, which tended to be lush oil paintings, reclining female nudes were popular, usually characters from Greek myth  — but Renaissance Italy’s most famous contribution to the history of erotic art is I Modi, or The Positions, a series of incredibly detailed engravings done by the artist Raimondi in 1524. 

The Renaissance was more permissive than you might think: the Modi were only banned by the authorities when they became public, instead of being circulated privately like most pornography of the time.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The Baroque Period: Greek Myth As An Excuse

The Baroque period (1600-early 1700s) looked like a bad time for erotic art: the Catholic Church clamped down on pornography, declaring in 1563 that “all lasciviousness be avoided; in such wise that figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting to lust.” But artists who really wanted to make their figures “exciting to lust” found a way — by using figures from Greek and Roman myth and Christian stories. So painters like Rubens, who’s famous for his lascivious pictures of luscious ladies, could continue to titillate (but no explicit sex, obvs).

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The Rococo Period: Lightening Up

After Baroque, everybody lightened up a bit — literally. Erotic paintings proliferated in Rococo style, and were all about pastels and sweet sauciness, no Greek myths required. 

Rococo’s emphasis on the importance of drawing also meant that very precise anatomy was all the rage. The stuff we associate with Rococo pornography in the early 1700s is almost innocent in its domesticity — stuff like a man looking up a woman’s skirts as she swings, or a girl playing with a puppy (both by French artist Fragonard).

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Late 1700s: The Rise Of The Erotic Lithograph

Lithograph doesn’t sound like a particularly sexy word, but the process, invented in 1798, meant that pornographic engravings could be rapidly reproduced. The result? Highly erotic, cheap-to-produce illustrations for sexy novels like the sensational Fanny Hill that were emerging in English. These lithographs were luridly coloured and probably quite widely circulated in private.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

French Revolution: Erotic Art As Satire

The French knew how to make their erotica pointed and upsetting. The Marquis de Sade’s famous erotic novels from 1787 onwards, which were illustrated by Claude Bornet, are now primarily known for their serious BDSM themes, but at the time were understood as biting social satire as well as sexy fun. The erotic cartoons of the French Revolution from 1787-99 were often about Marie Antoinette’s voracious sexual appetite, and one depicted her husband Louis XVI riding a dildo. That’s basically as biting as pornography gets, no pun intended.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.  

Victorian Europe: Kink Everywhere

The Victorians might have a reputation for being repressed, but their urges found a way anyway. The Victorian age was actually the first golden age of erotic photography, or so-called French photographs — a boon for anybody who wanted something small, easily-hidden and cheap — and it also had a bunch of erotic magazines in English, like The Pearl. Much of the erotic art of the time was kept privately circulated to avoid shocking onlookers.

Image: Wikimedia Commons  

Early 1900s: The First Erotic Films

The early 20th century was a haven for erotic art, from the Impressionists’ realistic nudes to Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt’s sexy paintings — but the tide was really starting to turn in popular pornography towards photographs and films. Vaguely erotic films had begun in the early 1890s, and the very first hardcore film’s title contested, but the two contenders come from 1907 and 1908, and both were French and silent.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Second World War To 1950s: Hollywood Pin-Ups

The real stars of erotic art in the 1940s and 50s were the pin-ups. The sexual identity of an entire generation was shaped by a famous picture of Rita Hayworth kneeling on a bed in a negligee, and later by Marilyn Monroe nude in a calendar shoot. The late ’50s was also a boom time for ”sexploitation” or “nudie cutie” films, often involving a lot of nudity and cheerfully declared to be “educational” to avoid censorship.

Image: LIFE Magazine.

1960s: Playboy And New Obscenity Laws

After the Supreme Court declared the Swedish erotic film “I Am Curious” not to be obscene in 1969, the door was officially open to pornographic film going big in the United States. It was also the decade that Playboy Magazine, founded in 1953, really started to flourish. It popularized the work of pin-up artist Alberto Vargas, whose work was seriously full-frontal, and its nude centerfolds, while they look almost innocent today, were ground-breaking. 

Image: Playboy 

1970s: Deep Throat And Adult Movie Theatres

Deep Throat, the 1972 pornographic film starring Linda Lovelace, was a revolution in the making. While the film was critically panned, it’s now credited as one of the first to involve an actual plot, and was the birth of the pornographic actress as a famous personality. The ’70s was also the age of the adult theaters: laws relaxed and adult movieplexes opened across the USA. The original Debbie Does Dallas also premiered in 1978, one of the very first pornographic film franchises.  

Image: Vivid Entertainment.

1980s: Straight-To-VHS And Celeb Sex Tapes

The 1980s brought a big tech revolution for erotica: the invention of the VHS and the production of pornographic films just for home viewing. Theaters were out, staying home with your TV was in. The invention of the camcorder also meant that making your own was a viable option; this was the beginning of the age of celeb sex tapes. Both Jayne Kennedy and Rob Lowe had the dubious honor of seeing their private escapades circulated (Lowe’s dalliance was with a 16-year-old, too).

Image: Virgin Media.

1990s: DVDs, Adult Stars, And Jeff Koons

The 1990s saw the explosion of the pornographic film industry: hardcore films started being produced by upscale production companies, and Lars Von Trier began making high-concept erotic films that were nominated for respectable awards. It also saw the rise of pornography on the Internet and the rise of adult film stars like Jenna Jameson, who made huge amounts of film and entered mainstream culture. 

And the most notable erotic artist of the decade? Jeff Koons, who collaborated with his adult film star wife on a series called “Made In Heaven” that looked — you guessed it — like a XXX movie. 

Image: Getty.

2000s: HD Video And Non-Traditional Stars

The erotic films of the 2000s were absurd affairs — Pirates XXX, released in 2005, was the highest-budget pornographic film ever made, complete with special effects — but the real story was the rise of HD video. The ideal actress was also shifting, with movements away from big-busted blondes to more “alternative” actresses like Sasha Grey and Stoya — but the ideal pornographic body remained slim, with no body hair.

Image: Digital Playground.

Today: 50 Shades Of Diversity

Today, erotic film is shifting its focus to the mainstream: the 50 Shades Of Grey film series is aiming to blur the line between hardcore and multiplex. 

Meanwhile, one of the most popular erotic performer is Lebanese-America Mia Khalifa, and the most famous erotic art is produced by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, who’s made gigantic figures of Japanese manga figures wielding lassos of their own sperm (“My Lonesome Cowboy”). Erotic art is becoming multinational;. Only time will tell where will it take us next.

Image: Phaidon.