Think that our jaded modern psyches and the internet are responsible for the explosion in extreme (‘Gonzo’) porn? If so, prepare to reconsider as I take you on a masturbatory jolly back through time, ‘cos manky Victorian grot here we cum…
Pornography and erotica may be considered amongst the earliest forms of known art, with examples from prehistory including cave-paintings depicting men fucking cattle and horses. It wasn’t until around 1839 and the advent of photography, however, that things got proper filthy. The Victorians enjoyed a wide range of porno delights, regularly getting their rocks off to both your ‘run-of-the-mill’ erotica (widely available on the London streets and popularly featuring hot lesbian action) as well as such wholesome fayre as double penetration, bisexual orgies, fisting, rimming and even bestiality and kiddie porn.
Lovely! Putting this into a historical perspective, the age of consent prior to 1885 was just 13 years old (being raised to 16 from then on) and some people also believed that sex with a child would cure venereal disease, a function for which virgins were especially prized (being bought and sold for between £5 and £25). The Victorians also enjoyed their whoring; prostitution was not yet a crime and thus your average 19th-century city commonly held around one prostitute per twelve adult males. London alone would have employed approx. 55,000 ladies of the night, earning it the nickname “the whoreshop of the world”. Speciality fetishes were also provided for, with one Mary Jeffries thoughtfully equipping a room of her (1870s) high class brothel as an S&M dungeon.
Our modern definition of pornography only came into being during the Victorian era (the word previously being defined as “a description of prostitutes or of prostitution, as a matter of public hygiene”). Webster’s Dictionary of 1864 listed it as “licentious painting employed to decorate the walls of rooms sacred to bacchanalian orgies, examples of which exist in Pompeii”; a meaning that has gradually evolved into today’s usage to describe a whole spectrum of explicit imagery. The advent of photography (c.1839) and the later invention of both the calotype (1841) and motion picture (1895) processes quickly helped to open up a market for “artists studies” through to full on hardcore fucking. One Eugène Pirou is credited with directing the earliest surviving porno flick, ‘Le Coucher de la Marie’ in 1896, a short film showing a Mlle. Louise Willy(!) disrobing. While a few specific Victorian sex acts were controlled by laws, looking at images depicting them was legal in most countries until the introduction of 1857’s Obscene Publications Act, the first law in England or elsewhere to criminalise pornography.