When you think of the Victoria era, roughly 1837 to 1901, what comes to mind? The hierarchy of class rules everyone’s thinking. A husband was the unquestioned head of the household. Corseted wives tended homes and children. It was common for married couples to sleep in separate bedrooms. Sex was for procreation only. The Victorians were notoriously prudish about sex: they famously believed that masturbation caused degenerative health problems and death. If masturbation was that dangerous, the human race would have died out long ago! While many advances in science and social reform occurred during the Victorian age, there is one event that still has a decided impact today: the invention of the concept of pornography.
When the Victorians unearthed the beautifully preserved city of Pompeii under the ash of Vesuvius, which erupted 17 centuries earlier, they found an untouched record of Roman life. To the horror of the Victorians who revered the Romans, the residents of Pompeii had sexually explicit images on display everywhere! Remember that during the Victorian era, it was considered erotic to see a woman’s ankle, so the Victorians assumed that the Romans were using these images for arousal and masturbation. The reality is that Roman culture encouraged the display of erotic imagery; it was considered a demonstration of taste and humor. The Romans did not have a word for privacy; Roman life was quite public and a person’s sex life was an appropriate topic for conversation. The Romans were quite superstitious; the typical Roman response to images of sex was to laugh, thus protecting everyone from the evil eye. Prudish excavators defaced some of the erotic images and the rest were locked away in The Secret Museum in nearby Naples and deemed appropriate for only men of a certain class. The Victorians believed that if women, children, and the working classes saw these images, they would masturbate to a point that they would degenerate and die. In this clash of cultures begins the idea of erotic imagery as having a power that it does not - to create a disturbance in someone to the point that they become addicted to masturbation. This thread of Victorian sensibilities remains in our culture today. But the problem is with the person viewing the imagery, not with the erotic imagery itself. There are no laws against sexual arousal, so Victorian society chose to regulate the source of the potential arousal. By regulating erotic imagery, Victorian society created the concept of pornography.
In a medical dictionary dated 1857, the term pornography referred to the social problem of prostitution, but just a few years later, the definition of pornography changed to mean sexually explicit images intended to arouse. What followed was Parliamentary legislation to restrict access to sexually explicit images. The Victorian concept of pornography perpetuates the idea that the problem is in the image rather than the viewer. Acknowledging the origins of pornography might help American society re-frame it as another art form rather than the root of all evil.
For more information, see the documentary Pornography: The Secret History of Civilization, KOCH Vision, Channel Four Television Corporation, 2006 based on the book, The Secret History of Civilization by Isabel Tang