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How Long Has Porn Existed, and How Is It Different Today?

Though it is old, Pompeii isn’t even the oldest example of sexual images carved out of stone or painted on walls.

Who “invented” porn? And when was porn first invented? And why does porn exist in the first place?

These are valid questions, and they require a little bit of a history lesson.

In the 1860’s, archeologists lead by Giuseppe Fiorelli excavated the ancient Roman city of Pompeii. Fiorelli created the technique of injecting plaster into voids of the volcanic ash where he noticed a decomposed body lay to preserve the positioning of the city’s citizens when Vesuvius erupted.

He also found a lot of sexually explicit paintings and pottery. And you might be thinking of those talking women on the Greek vases in Disney’s Hercules, but what they actually found was much more R-rated: explicit depictions of bestiality and orgies, among other findings like phallic decorations.

Related: Why Today’s Internet Porn is Unlike Anything the World Has Ever Seen

Though it is old, Pompeii isn’t even the oldest example of sexual images carved out of stone or painted on walls, but it does show that erotic images and pornography have been around for thousands of years.

But from Pompeii, fast forward almost 2,000 years, and something happened that changed the world forever and dramatically escalated graphic content: the internet.

The internet changed the game

Once porn hit the web in the 1990s, nothing but a few clicks stood between anyone with an internet connection and the most graphic material available.

For the first time in history, people could watch anything they wanted, whenever they wanted, from the comfort of their own home. Add to that the dawn of the smartphone a decade later, and boom—porn was more available, accessible, affordable, and anonymous than ever. Online porn was “big business” in a way the world had never seen.

Related: Does the Porn Industry Really Care About Empowering Women?

Considering how long humans have been thinking about sex (forever) and creating depictions of it (almost as long), and considering that we are a non-religious and non-legislative nonprofit that raises awareness on the negative impacts of porn (since 2009), we are often asked this question:

Why now? Why bother raising awareness on the harms of porn today when it’s always existed?

As if to imply that something capable of surviving centuries can’t be that harmful, and that porn is some kind of sturdy, time-honored pillar in society that should continue through the ages because it’s “always been there.”

This isn’t a very convincing argument for a lot of reasons, but let’s tackle the biggest two.

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The status quo

Accepting things the way they are doesn’t leave any room for change, and change can definitely be a needed, healthy thing.

Sometimes our society seems to take ten steps forward, ten steps back, but for the most part, people are trying to improve the lives of themselves and of those in their community, right? Throwing up our hands and saying, “Well, this is the way it’s always been,” doesn’t help us grow and improve as a society.

By that logic, we could say we should never have fought crime to lower the homicide rate because murder has been around forever.

Or perhaps it also means we shouldn’t protect against rape because that crime dates back beyond Ancient Babylonia and Assyria.

Related: How Porn Can Promote Sexual Violence

Maybe we never should have abolished slavery because that practice happened the moment humans invented agricultural economies and started to live together in large populations 11,000 years ago.

See how this “it’s been around forever” argument gets ridiculous real quick?

All of these issues used to be accepted somewhere, at some point by someone. But it took a mass of people to argue against the status quo and change things up. Of course, none of these issues are completely resolved, but we now know those things are damaging to society and unhealthy for the individual. And now, it’s generally understood things like murder, rape, and slavery are not acceptable.

The argument that porn is nothing new—that it’s been around forever and never caused any great harm—seems pretty naive when you think about how different today’s internet porn is from anything that existed before.

Porn is incomparably more accessible and more extreme than anything before seen, even a generation ago—a couple of ratty old centerfold magazines found in the park are nothing compared to the hardcore, high-definition videos that minors have access to today.Price, J., Patterson, R., Regnerus, M., & Walley, J. (2016). How much more XXX is generation X consuming? evidence of changing attitudes and behaviors related to pornography since 1973.53(1), 12-20. doi:10.1080/00224499.2014.1003773COPY 

With pornography, we’re still in the phase of society believing it’s healthy and normal, but it’s neither. And now it’s time to change things up.

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The old vs. the new

The second problem with saying porn has always existed is it assumes porn has stayed the same through the centuries, with the same impact on the viewer.

What harm is looking at porn when it’s been around for centuries? Well, simply put, consuming today’s latest hardcore videos is not the same as looking at caveman drawings from the dawn of time.

Now, we’re not saying that objectification has ever been healthy, however, it’s undeniable that times have certainly changed with the mediums it’s been presented in.

Related: How Porn Can Distort Consumers’ Understanding of Healthy Sex

Porn is easier to access than your high school Hotmail account, now. Gone are the days of sneaking off to buy a Playboy to peek at the pictures or as the old argument goes, “just read the articles.”

Today, porn sites receive more website traffic in the U.S. than Twitter, Instagram, Netflix, Pinterest, and LinkedIn combined.Semrush Blog. (2021). Top 100: The Most Visited websites in the US—2021 Top websites edition. Accessed on 24 May, 2021. Retrieved from https://www.semrush.com/blog/most-visited-websites/COPY  Pornhub, one of the leading porn sites in the world, claimed that in 2019 they had 42 billion visitors with 39 billion searches performed. That’s 115 million a day—almost 5 million an hour, and almost 80,000 a minute—and that’s just one site.

To put that in perspective, in the time it takes you to read this article, that one porn site will have recorded more than 200,000 visits, according to their own estimates.

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As for 2019 uploads to the site, PornHub estimates 12,500 gigabytes per minute—enough to fill the memories of every smart phone in the world.Pornhub Insights. (2019). The 2019 year in review. Retrieved from https://www.pornhub.com/insights/2019-year-in-reviewCOPY 

Together, the top five porn websites in the world account for more than 6 billion visits per month, nearly one a month for every person on Earth.Castleman, M. (2018). Surprising new data from the World’s most popular porn site. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/all-about-sex/201803/surprising-new-data-the-world-s-most-popular-porn-siteCOPY 

The Romans may have passed by erotic pottery or statues on their way to the bathhouse, but today’s porn consumers can watch the most extreme content for hours off of devices they carry with them everywhere.

Not only is porn more available and accessible than ancient times, it’s also more explicit, violent, and abusive. What was once considered hardcore a few decades ago is now primetime TV—all it takes is an HBO subscription to realize it. And it seems to be getting more extreme.

We can’t say with certainty how the sexually explicit material thousands of years ago affected the cultures it was embedded in, but the research we have today on modern pornography paints a grim picture of how it affects our society.

As the internet has grown, it has also allowed for more graphic and more extreme pornographic content. With so much porn available, pornographers compete for consumers’ attention by constantly pushing boundaries and exploiting taboos. According to studies analyzing the content of popular porn videos, it’s estimated that as few as 1 in 3 and as many as 9 in 10 scenes show acts of physical aggression or violence, while about half contain verbal aggression.Bridges, A. J., Wosnitzer, R., Scharrer, E., Sun, C., & Liberman, R. (2010). Aggression and sexual behavior in best-selling pornography videos: A content analysis update. Violence against women, 16(10), 1065–1085. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077801210382866COPY Fritz, N., Malic, V., Paul, B., & Zhou, Y. (2020). A Descriptive Analysis of the Types, Targets, and Relative Frequency of Aggression in Mainstream Pornography. Archives of sexual behavior, 49(8), 3041–3053. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-020-01773-0COPY 

Related: We Need to Talk About Our Culture’s Sexual Obsession with Barely-18-Year-Olds

These studies also found that women were the targets of aggression or violence about 97% of the time.Fritz, N., Malic, V., Paul, B., & Zhou, Y. (2020). A Descriptive Analysis of the Types, Targets, and Relative Frequency of Aggression in Mainstream Pornography. Archives of sexual behavior, 49(8), 3041–3053. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-020-01773-0COPY  And yet another study found that 1 out of every 8 porn titles shown to first-time visitors to porn sites described acts of sexual violence.Vera-Gray, F., McGlynn, C., Kureshi, I., & Butterby, K. (2021). Sexual violence as a sexual script in mainstream online pornography. The British Journal of Criminology, doi:10.1093/bjc/azab035COPY 

Violence in porn isn’t an exception, it embodies entire genres on porn sites.

Refuse to accept the way things are

Today, porn’s effects have permeated nearly every aspect of our lives. Technology has changed not only the content of porn, but also how, when, and at what age people begin consuming it.

Studies show that most young people are exposed to porn by age 13,British Board of Film Classification. (2020). Young people, pornography & age-verification. BBFC. Retrieved from https://www.bbfc.co.uk/about-classification/researchCOPY  and according to a nationally representative survey of U.S. teens, 84.4% of 14-18 year-old males and 57% of 14-18 year-old females have viewed pornography.Wright, P. J., Paul, B., & Herbenick, D. (2021). Preliminary insights from a U.S. probability sample on adolescents’ pornography exposure, media psychology, and sexual aggression. J.Health Commun., 1-8. doi:10.1080/10810730.2021.1887980COPY  That’s a lot of underage exposure to an industry that claims to be “adult” entertainment.

The idea of accepting porn just because it’s been around for a while is weak, at best, and nightmarishly misinforming at worse.

Related: 31,000 People Applied to Get Paid to Watch Porn—Here’s Why They’ll Regret It

The comparison between the old and new simply doesn’t match up. How so? Consider the stats we shared above. Phallic pottery in Pompeii and what’s available and consumed en masse today just can’t compare to each other.

Clearly, this is not the porn of yesteryear. So we’re not going to treat it as such.

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