Most sexual representations created throughout history had a specific purpose, whether it was to worship the gods, to adorn pottery, or later, to criticize the government or reli­gion. Very little erotic art seems to have been created simply for the purpose of arousing the viewer, as much of modern erotic art is. So most of history’s erotic art cannot be con­sidered “pornographic” in the modern sense (L. Hunt, 1993).

Pornography, which tends to portray sexuality for its own sake, did not emerge as a distinct, separate category until the middle of the 18th century. For most of history, sex­uality itself was so imbedded in religious, moral, and legal contexts that it was not thought of as a separate sphere of life (Kendrick, 1987). Explicit words and pictures (along with other forms of writing, such as political writings) were controlled in the name of religion or in the name of politics, not in the name of public decency (L. Hunt,

1993) . For example, obscenity was illegal among the Puritans (punishable originally by death and later by boring through the tongue with a hot iron) because it was an offense against God. That is why before the 19th century, hard-core sexual representations were extremely rare.

Another strong influence on the development of pornography was the development of the printing press and the mass availability of the printed word (sexually explicit books were printed within 50 years of the invention of movable type in the Western world). For most of history, written or printed work was available only to a small elite because only they could afford it and, more important, only they could read.

The most famous pornographic work of the 18th century was John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (better known as Fanny Hill), first published in 1748. Cleland made no pretenses of being political or philosophical, and his book contains neither humor nor satire; his work was aimed at sexually arousing the reader. Before Cleland, most sexually explicit books were about prostitutes because these women did “unspeakable” things (that could be described in graphic detail) and because they could end up arrested, diseased, and alone, thereby reinforcing society’s condemnation of their actions. In fact, the word pornography literally means “writing about harlots.”

Cases like Fanny Hill teach us that to really understand the meaning of “pornogra­phy,” we must understand the desire of the government and other groups to control it and suppress it. In other words, the story of pornography is not just about publishing erotic material but also about the struggle between those who try to create it and those who try to stop them. Both sides must be included in any discussion of pornography; without those who try to suppress it, pornography just becomes erotic art. In fact, the term erotica, often used to refer to sexual representations that are not pornographic, re­ally just means pornography that a particular person finds acceptable. One person’s pornography can be another person’s erotica. As we shall see in this chapter, the mod­ern arguments about pornography are some of the most divisive in the country, pitting feminists against feminists, allying some of the most radical feminist scholars with fun­damentalist preachers of the religious right, and pitting liberals against liberals and con­servatives against conservatives in arguments over the limits of free speech.

But sexually explicit representations are not the only sexual images in our society. Sexuality is present in almost all of our media, from the model sensuously sipping a bottle of beer to the offhand sexual innuendos that are a constant part of television sitcoms. In fact, the entertainment media seems to be almost obsessed by sexual im­agery; Michel Foucault, French philosopher and historian of sexuality, has called it a modern compulsion to speak incessantly about sex. Before we discuss the sexually ex­plicit representations of “pornography” with the heated arguments they often inspire, let us turn to the erotic images that present themselves to us in the popular media every day.