Myth: Erotica is a 20th Century Invention

This time’s myth is a little unusual because we’re going to show you some art to make a point. Now, the myth is that erotica is new. That is, that it’s a 20th century invention. And that might seem odd to you, but in fact even if you haven’t thought this specifically, a lot of people, and maybe even yourself, without thinking it specifically, have thought this way – that somehow erotic things and what they depict, are somehow an invention of the 20th century. Now, I’m going to call it erotica and not pornography because pornography is a legal term, and you probably didn’t know this, but it comes from the Greek word for prostitute. Its original meaning, in fact, was a description of prostitutes and their trade. And so I’m going to call it erotica, because erotica means the depiction of sexuality and sexual things. And so I prefer that term.

The study of erotic art and imagery can provide a very unique perspective and insight into historical and, of course, cultural views of human sexuality. So not only is it stimulating and arousing, but it also is a way of seeing how our ancestors and how other cultures viewed sexual behavior, because they’re obviously depicting what was going on in their cultures at that time, just as we do with the erotica of our time. Now many Americans have a belief, whether it’s something that they actually say to themselves or that they’ve actually thought about specifically or not, that erotica or pornography is somehow an invention of our time. And despite this misconception, and another popular belief that any sexual behavior other than the heterosexual reproductive variety is somehow a unique product of Western civilization, even the most cursory examination of the archaeological record or the ethnographic record reveals art, artifacts, literature, ephemera (that means toys or objects that were made just to be used and thrown away) reflect the universal and timeless nature of human sexual behaviors. And in fact I can tell you that there are cave paintings done by cave men on cave walls that are of erotic behaviors. So even before what we like to call civilization, human beings were making depictions of sexual behavior.

Now erotic art illustrates that all contemporary sexual behaviors – ALL contemporary sexual behaviors – are neither new nor limited to the culture of post-Sexual Revolution America. Another modern American myth that these art objects debunk, is that erotic materials were produced for degenerates, the denizens of the lower social and educational classes, and the demimonde – that is, the gangsters and lower social people – and they were manufactured by hack artists without any interest in art and aesthetics. In fact, western European and Asian erotica in the past was produced at the particular request of emperors and kings, of popes and prelates, and if you’re a man out in the audience and if you have the opportunity to go to the Vatican – you can’t take a woman with you, because they won’t do it if you’ve got a woman companion – but go to one of the guides and ask them to show you the erotica in the Vatican. It is covered with erotica done by the world’s greatest artists. It’s in corners and up on the walls and on the ceilings, and if you don’t know where to look you don’t see it, but it’s all over the Vatican. And if you ask the guide and he’s in the mood, he will take you on an erotic tour of the Vatican. So not only was it made for emperors and kings, popes and prelates, but for the nobility and the aristocracy, for the great industrialists and financiers of the 19th and 20th centuries, and for the bourgeoisie as it got closer to the 20th century, to be displayed and shared with friends and business associates, with mistresses and concubines, and paramours, in the privacy of their studies and in their boudoirs and in their smoking rooms and of course, in bedchambers. And in most cases it was produced by great artists, famous artists – almost every famous artist has made erotica for their patrons – by master craftsmen and by fine artisans.

So, drawings and objects that predate the Christian era, I will show you. I will show you a wide range of sexual behaviors that will illustrate that there is nothing new that has been sexually invented in the 20th and 21st centuries. There is nothing new sexually in the world – it has all been done before. What is interesting is that whenever humans invent something new technologically, this I find very interesting, it appears that within just a few days (what seems like a few days anyway) it is being applied to enhance sexuality. So when photography was developed, it was very shortly thereafter that photographs of sexy women and sexual behavior were being taken by photographers. Later, when microdot technology was invented, something called the Stanhope was invented, which was a little tiny glass bead, in which they placed a microdot inside this little bead. And then what did they do with that bead? You could put it up to your eye and you could see in it sexy lady or a sexy scene. They took the bead and they placed it inside the bottom of glass beer steins. Then you could drink your beer, and at the end when you finished your beer, you could turn the beer stein over, put it to the light, look up, and you could see a sexy lady in it. That’s how they used microdots. Then, of course, moving pictures started at the end of the 19th century, and within a very short time, stag films were born. And of course we all know what happened with the internet. It didn’t take very long for the internet to also be a way of enjoying and producing erotica. So human beings use anything and everything they can to produce, to make, to share erotica. And so now let me share with you several millennia, that is, several thousand years, of erotic art.

We begin with the oldest example. A Neolithic stone fertility set of objects. They don’t look like much, but they’re between 5000 and 6000 years old, depicting male and female genitals made of stone. Just note here that the female is larger than the male, and that’s very true of very old things. The female is 2 by 3 inches with a slit on top, and the male is about ¾ of an inch by 2.5 inches. As time gets closer to the present, the male objects start to get bigger than the female ones, until in modern times in India the males are gigantic and the female parts tend to be a lot smaller.

Our next object is a Roman oil lamp from about the 1st century BC. It shows a ménage a trois with rear entry intercourse and fellatio. Erotic themes have been found on many common Roman household articles, indicating a very different view of sexuality in the ancient world. Large collections of these sexually explicit everyday objects can now be seen in the secret cabinet gallery at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, Italy. This exhibition displays many of the erotic objects excavated in mid-18th century from ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. And here we have one of the very explicit wall paintings from Herculaneum, of a young man and a young woman having intercourse, with the woman on top. You can see here that this demonstrates that sex was clearly an important element in everyday life because this was on the wall, not necessarily of a bedroom, but it could be a dining room or living room area, and you can see that it was displayed not merely without false modesty, but with candor and naturalness. Also, you can see that women were fully active and joyful participants in sexual activity. Perhaps these were the attitudes of the people because of the fact that in the ancient western world there was no concept of sex as being sinful. And here’s another one, again from the walls of Herculaneum or Pompeii.

Now we go to traditional cultures. This is a Peruvian Indian vessel, and it shows anal intercourse under a blanket. It’s a male and a female, and the wave design that you see around the bottom is a little bit like yin and yang, depicting male and female. This particular object is 2500 to 1500 years old. It has a moaning stirrup handle, which means that if you put water in it and you shake it, the vessel will give a kind of moaning sound.

Now we’re going to go around the world to China. And this thing that you see here is a – probably Neolithic, but certainly very old – stone phallic fertility object. And note the anatomical detail on the bottom and on the edge. The thing that you see sticking out of the testicles is an old shell that somehow got stuck in this carved figure somehow along the way. It’s also a symbol of Shiva, the god of destruction and creation. And he is one of the Indian trinity of important gods.

We’re now looking at a few pictures from an album of illustrations from an erotic novel from the 1600’s called the Ching Ping Mei. This particular copy of it was produced in China between 1750 and 1800, even though this novel itself was written in the 1600’s. It’s quite beautiful and quite explicit and it was supposedly written to catch a government official who, at the time, was a great collector of erotica but was not letting any one else – he was a hypocrite – as we know today we’ve had experience with – and he was stopping artists and writers from writing erotica so artists wrote a very, very erotic novel for his delectation. Now if he was who he thought he was, or who he was expressing himself to be, he would tear it up after the first few pages, but if not, he wouldn’t be able to resist and he would go ahead and read it to the last page. The author put a little bit of poison on the upper corner of each page and as it was written on the thinnest of rice paper, he would have to lick his fingers to turn the pages. And of course the following morning he was found sitting in his favorite chair absolutely dead, turned to the last page, because as he licked his fingers he got a little bit of poison on the edge of each page and he died as a result of all the poison he got. You can see here that this is actually a husband with two wives, but it is a ménage a trois, which is not an unusual kind of sexuality in those days. The first slide that you saw showed an older man with a younger woman, and of course that was believed to help you stay healthy and stay young. So both of these are very typical Chinese ideas.

The next couple of slides are from a scroll of ten pictures, and it’s actually one of my very favorite scrolls because it really is a marvelous example of the fantasy of a more sophisticated culture, that is the Chinese, about where the real joy of sex can be found, and that is only in very simple societies. And this is the myth of the sexual pleasure of “innocent savages” – it’s a late 18th or early 19th century Chinese scroll, and the Chinese artist who did this probably never actually saw Mongols, because the women’s dress and hairstyles are inaccurate. I want you to note also that the feet of the women are not bound, and that also tells us that they are not Chinese women because the Chinese women of the day all had bound feet, which was considered very erotic, and you can see here that her feet are definitely not bound. And you can see how much joy everybody is having – even the horses seem to be having a good time here. And again, the women are shown as they are in Chinese erotica, fully enjoying the activities as much as the men are. And again, of course, often the women are on top.

This is two erotic plates from the 19th century. The first shows sex in the garden and one of the great Chinese sayings of the period was that sex in the outdoors or in a garden was worth a thousand experiences in a bed because sex and nature were intertwined and sexuality was considered part of nature and therefore a very positive experience. The second, again, shows a different sensibility about privacy – a servant is helping the couple to have sexuality and also they are having sex in a sex chair, which was also very popular in China, and helped women with these little bound feet to be comfortable but also made sexuality more comfortable and helped in positioning the woman and the man.

This is a tile, probably made in the 19th century, but depicting a vision, perhaps from the Ching Ping Mei, perhaps from the 17th or 16th centuries, showing again rear-entry intercourse.

These are folk art images, and this is probably on a camel bone and we see fellatio. Again – nothing new under the sun. This is a woman giving a man fellatio, carved on a bone. A second bone sculpture shows us two women, lesbian – again, nothing new – cunnilingus.

The next several examples are four examples of porcelain bride pieces. These are porcelain figures that used to be tucked into a young bride’s trousseau for sex education and also for the stimulation of the newlywed couple. This one in the peanut is very nice because it also has kind of a sense of humor. And again, showing the relationship of nature to sexuality. Another folk art idea – this is a wood carving, probably late 18th, early 19th century, of a ménage a trois, a man and two women, and again showing that there was even erotica for the lower classes or the poor, made by themselves for themselves.

And now we move to Japan – this is showing the inside of a man or a woman masturbating. Notice that there is actually the cervix, so they knew about that, and if you look closely you can see that the woman is having an orgasm and there is actually a kind of, at minimum, lubrication, and at maximum, ejaculation.

Back to China here – we now have more folk carvings. These are at most two inches, maybe a little bit less, and this is a woman in her bath and you can see that when you turn her over she is masturbating in the bath. They all have little holes in them so that you can hang them on a silk cord from your belt. And this is another little lady, probably in the bath, and when you turn it over you can see her genitalia, and you can see that it’s signed by the artist. This is a man in the process of self oral stimulation. You can see that he’s an older man, and when you turn him over, you can see, of course, the holes from which to hang him from your belt and also his testicles.

And now we go to Japan. Japanese erotica, before we go any further, has a couple of conventions – the first one I’ll tell you about will help you, as a non art-expert, to distinguish Japanese from Chinese erotica. The Japanese, distinguishing them from the Chinese, enhance the size of the genitalia of both men and women several times, so that the penis and vagina are much large than they would be on real people. And perhaps this is a way of bringing the focus of attention to this part of the body, kind of like in our erotic videos how we go in and sort of focus on that part of the body alone – it has the same effect. So you’ll see that the genitals are quite large. And these are pillow books, that both the Chinese and Japanese had – that couples had which they kept literally under their pillows, either scrolls or books, to give them – well, for stimulation, and also to give them information and advice about making love. These come from a book called Models for Loving Couples. This was done in 1811 by a very famous Japanese woodcut print artist named Hokusai, and it’s considered one of the greatest pieces of what’s called shunga art – that is this erotic art. And so you can see these are quite beautiful. This is an inside look at what’s going on, done by another artist called Kunisata, where you see that the man is ejaculating and you can see the ejaculate coming off the penis, you can see the woman in orgasm by her face, so that gives you a kind of inner view of what’s taking place. Back to Loving Couples – this is a rear-entry intercourse, also by Hokusai as part of Loving Couples. And also notice the beautiful fabric designs. Another thing that they concentrate on is the fabric designs, and they are always very interesting to look at. This is another Kunisata work, very beautiful, of a couple in foreplay. We definitely know it’s foreplay and not sometime during their loving activity because of the second convention in Japanese art. What you see in the foreground there, that white package, is actually special tissues that were made by the Japanese especially for lovemaking. Not only were they very soft and felt very good on the body, on the genitalia, but they were said to have a very special sound that was very pleasing when you crinkled them. And when they are crinkled, each one that is broken off from this pile and crinkled is representative of an orgasm. And we know that this couple has not yet had an orgasm so they’re at the beginning of their lovemaking. Also note that they are kissing, and Europeans have the idea that the Japanese and Chinese don’t kiss, but of course that’s not true. And here’s a second one by Kunisata, probably the second great master of these shunga art, and now if you look at the bottom, although on the left you see the rest of the tissues, you can see both in the foreground and in the background a number of tissues, so that this couple has obviously had multiple orgasms, and it is a rear entry intercourse. Here are two women who are having sex with a dildo, and you can also notice in the lower right hand corner that there are a bunch of tissues there, and I believe that box that she has her hand on in the right hand corner is also a box that keeps those tissues in it. So they’re obviously having very successful sex. And this is one of my favorite drawings, because it’s also from this wonderful Loving Couples by Hokusai, but I left it for the end of this grouping because the Japanese had a wonderful attitude about sexuality, and what you’re seeing here is a couple that is having fun with sex. The man’s erection has been dressed by the man and the woman in a little happy coat and a little hat. This next slide gives you a better look at it because I’ve highlighted it for you. And it’s kind of a novel idea for Americans that sex can be fun – it doesn’t have to be deadly serious or deadly passionate all the time. It can be just enjoyable and just there for having fun, an important part of sexuality. And he also has his hand in her vagina at the same time, so that they’re enjoying themselves, they’re both taking pleasure from this activity.

And now we’re looking at little Japanese ivory carvings. Some of them are called netsukes, and some of them are just for having around the house for pleasure. This couple is having intercourse sitting up, and these little toys are actually separate toys and they can be separated and sometimes can be put in different positions, and you can see here the couple as they are separated. A second one of these – that was a younger couple, and this is an older couple, and you’ll see this older couple in another position. Sex was not just for young people. This is a netsuke, and it’s a wonderful erect penis netsuke that has been turned not into just the penis but into a face. So in a sense the testicles are the cheeks, the head of the penis and the foreskin are the hair and the top of the head, and they’ve added little eyes and it has a quite nice expression. And the Japanese also do have some covert – that is, hidden – art where the outside of the box is innocent – it has a scene, of course, of the outdoors – and inside, both in the bottom of the box and the top of the box – this is porcelain – are erotic scenes. So this is kind of a surprise. And again, this could also be given to a bride, being that it’s a heart shaped box.

And now we’ll go to the Europeans. This is French – it’s an illustration from a book called Les Salles de Bain, and it’s lesbian cunnilingus. You can see the bath in the bottom there, and there’s a male voyeur watching the girls. And of course this is a favorite fantasy of men all around the world – he will intervene at some point and show them what “really good sex” is about – that’s the fantasy. The next slide is a watercolor, French, of a ménage a quatre – that is, four people having sex. Can you find all four of them? There are two males and two females. There is a double insertion going on with both anal and vaginal sex with one woman, there’s another woman getting oral sex from a man. This is a very beautiful slide – it’s a neoclassic painting, done in probably mid-19th century by Nicholas Octave Toussaint. The drawings for it are in the Louvre, but the painting is actually owned by the Kinsey Institute, who we thank for many of these pictures that I’m showing you – the rest of them come from my own private collection. This is a painting done in the same style as other very famous artists like David, and it’s an angelic painting of four lesbians, probably owned by a very rich, bourgeois man who would have it in his private study in his home. This is French, and these are watercolor paintings that are kind of jokes – very enjoyable jokes. The first one says “poor widow” and you can see that she is masturbating and looking at her lost husband. The second is a soldier and his girlfriend, or perhaps a prostitute out in the woods – it says “what a beautiful plume, what a beautiful cane” and of course it’s a double entendre, because what they’re talking about is his penis and perhaps maybe the plume refers to her pubic hair and her vagina.

Now this is more covert art from the West – there was a lot more covert art in the West because the West was much more uncomfortable with sexuality. This is called a lithophane – they were made in Berlin in the mid 1800’s, and it’s what’s called an intaglio picture in porcelain. It’s meant to be held up to the light, and all it is is white porcelain in different thicknesses – when you put light behind it, this is the picture that you see. And remember that I mentioned in my talk to you about how technology was used in different ways? Well just a few years after photography came into being, actresses who were also prostitutes, who were the women of men’s dreams, made what were called actress cards. They were also called cartes de visite or greeting cards, or what we would call greeting cards that had their pictures on them. And this is some of the very early ones and you can see on the right that there’s somebody who’s a little bit like a Playboy bunny. And these would be considered very risque in the 1870’s. Also it might be a good idea to look at the depiction of the female form, how different it is from today. They are much more rounded than we are today, but they have a very, very tiny waist, which was considered very erotic.

Bronzes were very popular with men in those days, and they would have them in their private studies and in their offices. And this is a European bronze, it’s from the 19th century, of lesbians in cunnilingus.

And now we go to India for our final couple of slides. This is Khajuraho, at a time between probably 850 AD to 1100 AD, when they made the wonderful statues there all over the temples. It was a culture in which orgasm was understood as the closest that an ordinary person could get to God – it was culture that believed that physical sexuality, the mind and the spirit had to all be equally balanced for people to be in good health and in spiritual health and also to be able to get to godliness. These sculptures are world famous examples of great art. This is a particular one that is probably representative of a tantric state – the male is on his head, the woman is seated upon him with the help of helpers, and of course in the process of having intercourse. He faces south, she faces north, and there is meaning to that that’s important both religiously as well as sexually.

And finally, to talk about sex as being fun, if you were a maharajah – and remember that the Indians invented chess and they invented parcheesi – when a maharajah played parcheesi, he played it with ivory parcheesi pieces, and when a maharajah was going to play parcheesi why should he not play it with some of his favorite objects? And these are the kinds of objects that were made for a maharajah and a maharani to play parcheesi in the evening, and primarily they would play them with things that were like penises and breasts. And so these, probably the maharajah played with breasts and the maharani played with penises. This is the kind of fun that Hindu Indian culture had until the British and the Muslims turned what was actually a very joyous act – like the Japanese, they had a great sense of humor – into a sinful act, which how the West and often the Arabic world sees sexuality.

So – what these slides and these pictures of art I hope have shown you is that there is nothing new under the sun or around the world when it comes to sexual behavior and that nothing new has been invented or was invented during the so-called Sexual Revolution – which I think was an evolution anyway – and at any time in human history when it comes to sex. When it comes to sexuality, wherever you are in the world, generally, we are all the same.

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