The Lady Garden

Tea and Strumpets

Porn Tuesday: The Good Old Days

Yes, I know. It isn’t Tuesday. We break for major earthquakes. Partly due a suspicion of earthquake-brain, I’m scaling back my original plan for this post and I’ll be providing links rather than going into great detail about information that’s on other sites. Hopefully, we’ll end up with a good primer, and ‘more’ for people who want it.

So. Today I want to take us back in time, to an age before pornography was invented. I don’t mean before there was sexually-explicit art, because that’s really not possible. I mean, before those works of art became problematic, before sex became something not ever to be talked about, even in private. So, about three hundred and fifty years.

And yes, I’m very conscious that I’m largely talking about a Classically-inspired British culture, its changes in mores and technological developments. As a Pakeha, that’s my dominant culture, and I wouldn’t feel it appropriate for me to talk about any other. If other people want to, that would be fabulous.

Also, there’ll be generalisations. Social change happens slowly, and no society is a cohesive whole. In any age, different people have believed completely different things. So those are things to bear in mind.

I’d also strongly recommend listening to or reading the transcript of, a brilliant ABC program on the history of pornography, which basically covers everything I’m going to in the next couple of columns.

One of the clearest illustrations of how attitudes to sex have changed is the Secret Museum. Artefacts uncovered during the excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum proved so problematic in their sexual imagery that they were locked away from the general public. Up until the 1960s, frescos at Pompeii could be viewed, for a fee, by men, but not by women. We’ll return to the idea that men can handle looking at sexual material but women can’t at a later date. Possibly even next week.

Basically, in Roman society, sexually-explicit art was seen as desirable. Low-grade taberna would have erotic friezes painted on the walls to make them seem classier. One house in Pompeii contained art on the walls and floors detailing sixteen different sex acts. This art wasn’t for private consumption or hidden from children, and nor was it stuff we would now excuse for its artistic merit.

 

They had brothels too – prostitutes were the only people, apart from free-born men, allowed to wear the toga virilis – and public personal ads. Our idea of the proper Roman matron stutters when confronted with inscriptions like this:

Maritimus licks your vulva for 4 As. He is ready to serve virgins as well.

This is not, obviously, to say Roman society didn’t have some well fucked-up ideas about sex, but we’re dealing with porn specifically, or I’d never finish this.

It wasn’t just the Romans, of course, or even just the Greeks and Romans, or even just the Classicists. Everyone was at it. Pompeii and Herculaneum just make particularly stark examples because of the way the ash has preserved the art, and the inarguably public nature of it.

A lot of ancient explicit art we often dismiss as sexual because it appears to be religious. It’s a fertility statue, right? And if you can have a 30′ solid gold penis in a victory parade (those Ptolemys, they knew how to party), it’s not really sexual, right? Right? There’s no reason art can’t be religious or political, and also erotic.

There’s a tendency, when we’re not thinking about it very hard, to assume that our history has been a constant drift towards increasing liberalism, but this simply isn’t true. The older state is “sex in the public square”, absolutely in front of the children. Censorship was imposed on that, and we’ve now come to a point where, instead of justifying why something should be banned or restricted, the debate is entirely focussed on justifying why things should be allowed to be seen.

Next week, we’ll look at how we got there: the Georgians invent “privacy”, and Wordsworth fucks shit up for everyone.

10 responses to “Porn Tuesday: The Good Old Days

  1. Hugh June 15, 2011 at 11:54 am

    This is all very interesting, but if you’re planning to mostly talk about sexual culture in British society (and your reference to the Georgian period implies you are) I would argue that the sexual mores and preconceptions of Germanic tribes are a more important starting point than those of Imperial Rome, which was of only secondary importance in shaping British culture. I realise that those Germanic tribes didn’t leave such an extensive artistic and literary legacy as the Romans – there’s no Teutonic Pompeii or Pliny the Elder, sadly – but we do know some things about their sex lives and sexual mores, and it’d be nice to have discussed that in this context.

    • tallulahspankhead June 15, 2011 at 1:18 pm

      It would be very nice to have it discussed in that context, Hugh. Why don’t you go and write it? As Emma said in the post, and is quite clearly written in the FAQ.

      In the meantime, you could refrain from condescendingly telling us what’s wrong with what we’re writing, and how we’re getting things wrong, according to you. I really hate the word mansplaining, but you’re skirting awfully close to it, and I am pretty sure this isn’t the first time you’ve been told that.

  2. Hugh June 15, 2011 at 6:52 pm

    Yeah, fair enough. By way of explanation (not excuse) the retrospective Romanification of British history is one of my pet peeves, but this wasn’t the place to indulge it.

    In the spirit of discussing what was actually said, not complaining about what wasn’t said, I think your statement that the shift towards discomfort with human sexuality began three hundred and fifty years ago is over-stating the case by about two hundred years, but if your next post is going to be about sexuality during the Georgian period it’s probably best to wait until then.

    • Emma June 15, 2011 at 9:29 pm

      Hugh, I explained in the post whiy I chose Rome as an example, and then I linked to lots of others. Nonetheless, when you look at the Victorian period, when English academia and art are self-consciously adopting Classical virtues and culture, the process of what they take and what they have to leave behind is kind of interesting.

      And note, I’m talking about societal attitudes to explicit material, not sex. There’s a lot of crossover, but that’s a different topic. Still fascinating, but different..

  3. Deborah June 15, 2011 at 7:54 pm

    “Well, that’s an eye-opener, and no mistake.”

    I knew, as in theoretically, that there were erotic friezes and murals in Pompeii, and presumably elsewhere in Rome, but not that they were so explicit. No wonder Sister Rose didn’t tell us about them in Latin class.

    • Emma June 15, 2011 at 9:31 pm

      It’s like when you find out the marble statues were originally brightly-painted, it just doesn’t gel with the picture you didn’t even really know you had in your head. I was more familiar with the Greek explicit pottery, but a wall gives you a much broader and more precise canvas than clay. Boy is there nothing new in porn.

  4. Isabel June 15, 2011 at 9:53 pm

    We had to copy the designs off Greek vases by hand in 7th Form classics. We probably didn’t get the very rudest ones but there were rather a lot of satyrs. Ithyphallic is one of my very favourite words-I-never-get-to-use-in-conversation.

  5. Jackie Clark June 16, 2011 at 7:53 am

    I had no idea about any of that, Emma. I knew the Indians were saucy, but I had no idea about the very dogged (good, eh?) Pompeiians. I am looking forward to hearing more!

  6. dimsie June 21, 2011 at 1:36 pm

    I would like to note, very belatedly, that outside the sex-worker building in Pompeii there is a tiny penis-symbol on the footpath, pointing passers-by to a place where they can have their needs met. So civilised!

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