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The History of Pornography

November 5, 2012
The Mona Lisa (or La Joconde, La Gioconda).

She’s smiling because her unseen display of ankle is going to drive the guys crazy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Men don’t usually think about the history of pornography when they think about porn.  When a normal guy thinks of porn, he usually thinks of women who… aw, never mind. We know what guys think about when they think of porn.  But once the porn gets old (and it does), a guy like me starts to wonder things like “Where did the word ‘pornography’ come from?”

The word “pornography” has ancient Greek roots.  The root “porne” means “prostitute” and “graphy” means “to write about.”  Together, the roots form the word “pornographos” which meant “writing about prostitutes.”  I thought all the ancient Greeks wrote about were history and philosophy (and mythology and weird plays).

Knowing that “pornography” means “writing about prostitutes” puts things in context.  In all those old porn movies when the porn boss made a porn joke to his porn secretary about taking “dictation,” I thought it was a reference to the boss’s body part; he was actually making an inside joke about porn’s roots (based on the literacy of prostitutes), and I was too ignorant to understand it.

The word “pornography” didn’t even exist in the English language until around 1858.  The French (of course) had their version  “pornagraphie” (best said with an Inspector Clouseau accent) in the 1800s.  Leave it to the French to export their perversions to us (not that I’m complaining).

Nowadays “pornography” is often referred to as “porn” because guys who watch porn are too lazy (or too excited) to add the “ography.”  When guys say they are about to watch “porn,” they are unknowingly saying (but probably don’t care) that they are about to watch some prostitutes.


Maybe “pornography” really means “writing of prostitutes,” which would change the way many people view porn actresses.  If actresses wrote their own scripts, they would be thought of as literary figures rather than glorified prostitutes.  And maybe the scripts would be better.

Pornographers have mainstreamed porn by using the argument that it is covered under “freedom of expression.”  Prostitution, however, is not considered freedom of expression (since it’s illegal almost everywhere in the U.S.).  If “porn” means “prostitute,” and prostitution does not fall under “freedom of expression,” then pornography cannot be considered “artistic” or “freedom of expression.”

I’m really not that literal of a person.


When studying the history of pornography (no videos were used during research, so it was actually kind of boring), a lot of historians include ancient erotic art.  In my opinion, ancient erotic art is not the same thing as pornography.  Ancient erotic art may show a dangling body part or two members of the opposite gender really close together, but this ancient art doesn’t include any of the specific acts that make pornography what it is.

If you can look at ancient art and not feel a twinge of guilt, then it’s not pornography.

The first known erotic literature is from the 1700s.  I haven’t read any of it (or read about any of it), but I’m pretty sure what was erotic in the 18th century isn’t the same thing as what is erotic today.  I think in one “erotic” scene from the 18th century, a young lady smiles seductively as she displays her ankles, and a bunch of guys excuse themselves for a few minutes.

The first pornographic film was in the very late 1800s  when some guy talked a woman into posing nude in his film.  Even back then some guys could talk some women into anything.  This guy discovered that other guys would pay lots of money to see naked women on film (and an industry was born).

English: Matthew McConaughey at the March 2005...

Yeah, I’d watch him. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Maybe back in the 1800s, “pornography” was about the writing, but the writing today is almost irrelevant (for men).  Most guys would rather watch the moving images, and most women would rather read the words, unless Matthew McConaughey is shirtless in the video.

If somebody could convince Matthew McConaughey to do an actual porn flick, then a new industry would be born, porn that men and women could enjoy together.

Then we’d have to come up with a new word for it.  And I’d have to write about the history of a new kind of porn.


I also make videos while I write.  You can click here to see what I’m talking about!


From → Etymology

  1. I fear this post may disappoint thousands of people who would be googling the word “pornography”…

    • I didn’t consider that. Maybe I should have provided more than the imaginary bare ankle. But the word “history” is in the title, so they shouldn’t expect too much.

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