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Circular icon with the letters "xxx"
"XXX" is often used to designate pornographic material.

Pornography (often shortened to porn) is the portrayal of sexual subject matter for the exclusive purpose of sexual arousal.[1] A distinction could be drawn between uncensored explicit or hardcore erotic art, and pornography.[2] Pornography may be presented in a variety of media, including magazines, animation, writing, film, video, and video games. The term does not include live exhibitions like sex shows and striptease. The primary subjects of present-day pornographic depictions are pornographic models, who pose for still photographs, and pornographic actors who engage in filmed sex acts.

Various groups within society have considered depictions of a sexual nature immoral, addictive, and noxious, labeling them pornographic, and attempting to have them suppressed under obscenity laws, censored or made illegal. Such grounds, and even the definition of pornography, have differed in various historical, cultural, and national contexts.[3] Social attitudes towards the discussion and presentation of sexuality have become more tolerant in Western countries, and legal definitions of obscenity have become more limited, beginning in 1969 with Blue Movie by Andy Warhol, the first adult erotic film depicting explicit sexual intercourse to receive wide theatrical release in the United States. It was followed by the Golden Age of Porn (1969–1984), in which the best quality pornographic films became part of mainstream culture.[4][5][6]

A growing industry for the production and consumption of pornography developed in the latter half of the 20th century. The introduction of home video and the Internet saw a boom in the worldwide porn industry that generates billions of dollars annually.[7] Commercialized pornography accounts for over US$2.5 billion in the United States alone,[8] including the production of various media and associated products and services. The porn industry is between $10–$12 billion in the U.S.[9] In 2006, the world pornography revenue was 97 billion dollars.[10] This industry employs thousands of performers along with support and production staff. It is also followed by dedicated industry publications and trade groups, award shows such as the AVN Awards, as well as the mainstream press, private organizations (watchdog groups), government agencies, and political organizations.[11] Videos involving non-consensual content and cybersex trafficking have been hosted on popular pornography sites in the 21st century.[12][13][14][15]


The word pornography was coined from the ancient Greek words πόρνη (pórnē "prostitute" and πορνεία porneía "prostitution"[16]), and γράφειν (gráphein "to write or to record", derived meaning "illustration", as in "graph"), and the suffix -ία (-ia, meaning "state of", "property of", or "place of"), thus meaning "a written description or illustration of prostitutes or prostitution". No date is known for the first use of the word in Greek; the earliest attested, most related word one could find in Greek, is πορνογράφος, pornográphos, i.e. "someone writing about harlots", in the Deipnosophists of Athenaeus.[17][18] The Modern Greek word pornographia (πορνογραφία) is a reborrowing of the French pornographie.[19]

"Pornographie" was in use in the French language during the 1800s. The word did not enter the English language as the familiar word until 1857[20] or as a French import in New Orleans in 1842.[21] The word was originally introduced by classical scholars as "a bookish, and therefore nonoffensive, term for writing about prostitutes",[22] but its meaning was quickly expanded to include all forms of "objectionable or obscene material in art and literature".[22] As early as 1864, Webster's Dictionary defined the word bluntly as "a licentious painting",[22] and the Oxford English Dictionary definition is from obscene painting (1842), description of obscene matters, obscene publication (1977 or earlier).[23] The more inclusive word erotica, sometimes used as a synonym for "pornography", is derived from the feminine form of the ancient Greek adjective ἐρωτικός (erōtikós), derived from ἔρως (érōs), which refers to lust and sexual love.[22]

Pornography is often abbreviated to porn or porno in informal language.


Erotic scene on the rim of an Attic red-figure kylix, c. 510 BC.

Depictions of a sexual nature have existed since prehistoric times, as seen in the Venus figurines and rock art.[24] A vast number of artifacts have been discovered from ancient Mesopotamia depicting explicit heterosexual sex.[25][26]

Glyptic art from the Sumerian Early Dynastic Period frequently shows scenes of frontal sex in the missionary position.[25] In Mesopotamian votive plaques from the early second millennium BC, the man is usually shown entering the woman from behind while she bends over, drinking beer through a straw.[25] Middle Assyrian lead votive figurines often represent the man standing and penetrating the woman as she rests on top of an altar.[25] Scholars have traditionally interpreted all these depictions as scenes of ritual sex,[25] but they are more likely to be associated with the cult of Inanna, the goddess of sex and prostitution.[25] Many sexually explicit images were found in the temple of Inanna at Assur,[25] which also contained models of male and female sexual organs.[25]

Depictions of sexual intercourse were not part of the general repertory of ancient Egyptian formal art,[27] but rudimentary sketches of heterosexual intercourse have been found on pottery fragments and in graffiti.[27] The final two thirds of the Turin Erotic Papyrus (Papyrus 55001), an Egyptian papyrus scroll discovered at Deir el-Medina,[28][27] consist of a series of twelve vignettes showing men and women in various sexual positions.[28] The scroll was probably painted in the Ramesside period (1292–1075 BC)[28] and its high artistic quality indicates that it was produced for a wealthy audience.[28] No other similar scrolls have yet been discovered.[27]

Oil lamp artifact depicting the doggy style sexual position

Fanny Hill (1748) is considered "the first original English prose pornography, and the first pornography to use the form of the novel."[29] It is an erotic novel by John Cleland first published in England as Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure.[30][31] It is one of the most prosecuted and banned books in history.[32] The authors were charged with "corrupting the King's subjects."

When large-scale excavations of Pompeii were undertaken in the 1860s, much of the erotic art of the Romans came to light, shocking the Victorians who saw themselves as the intellectual heirs of the Roman Empire. They did not know what to do with the frank depictions of sexuality and endeavored to hide them away from everyone but upper-class scholars. The moveable objects were locked away in the Secret Museum in Naples and what could not be removed was covered and cordoned off as to not corrupt the sensibilities of women, children, and the working classes.[33]

After the modern invention of photography, photographic pornography was also born. The parisian demimonde included Napoleon III's minister, Charles de Morny, who was an early patron that displayed photos at large gatherings.[34]

The world's first law criminalizing pornography was the English Obscene Publications Act 1857 enacted at the urging of the Society for the Suppression of Vice.[35] The Act, which applied to the United Kingdom and Ireland, made the sale of obscene material a statutory offence, giving the courts power to seize and destroy offending material. The American equivalent was the Comstock Act of 1873[36][37] which made it illegal to send any "obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious" materials through the mail. The English Act did not apply to Scotland, where the common law continued to apply. However, neither the English nor the United States Act defined what constituted "obscene", leaving this for the courts to determine.

Before the English Act, the publication of obscene material was treated as a common law misdemeanour[38] and effectively prosecuting authors and publishers was difficult even in cases where the material was clearly intended as pornography. Although nineteenth-century legislation eventually outlawed the publication, retail, and trafficking of certain writings and images regarded as pornographic and would order the destruction of shop and warehouse stock meant for sale, the private possession of and viewing of (some forms of) pornography was not made an offence until the twentieth century.[39]

Historians have explored the role of pornography in social history and the history of morality.[40] The Victorian attitude that pornography was for a select few can be seen in the wording of the Hicklin test stemming from a court case in 1868 where it asks, "whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences." Although they were suppressed, depictions of erotic imagery were common throughout history.[41]

Pornographic film production commenced almost immediately after the invention of the motion picture in 1895. Two of the earliest pioneers were Eugène Pirou and Albert Kirchner. Kirchner directed the earliest surviving pornographic film for Pirou under the trade name "Léar". The 1896 film Le Coucher de la Mariée showed Louise Willy performing a striptease. Pirou's film inspired a genre of risqué French films showing women disrobing and other filmmakers realised profits could be made from such films.[42][43]

Marquee at Pilgrim Theatre on Washington Street showing Dr. Sex (1964)

Sexually explicit films opened producers and distributors to prosecution. Such films were produced illicitly by amateurs, starting in the 1920s, primarily in France and the United States. Processing the film was risky as was their distribution. Distribution was strictly private.[44][45] In 1969, Denmark became the first country to abolish censorship, thereby decriminalizing pornography, which led to an explosion in investment and of commercially produced pornography. However, it continued to be banned in other countries, and had to be smuggled in, where it was sold "under the counter" or (sometimes) shown in "members only" cinema clubs.[44] Nonetheless, and also in 1969, Blue Movie by Andy Warhol, was the first adult erotic film depicting explicit sexual intercourse to receive wide theatrical release in the United States.[4][5][6] The film was a seminal film in the Golden Age of Porn and, according to Warhol, a major influence in the making of Last Tango in Paris, an internationally controversial erotic drama film, starring Marlon Brando, and released a few years after Blue Movie was made.[5]

A selection of pornographic magazines confiscated by customs authorities in 1969.
Two porn actors preparing to shoot a scene for an adult film.

Data from 2015 suggests an increase in pornography viewing over the past few decades, and this has been attributed to the growth of Internet pornography since widespread public access to the World Wide Web in the late 1990s.[46] Through the 2010s, many pornographic production companies and top pornographic websites[47] – such as Pornhub, RedTube and YouPorn – were acquired by MindGeek, which has been described as "a monopoly".[48]

The scholarly study of pornography, notably in cultural studies, is limited, perhaps due to the controversy about the topic in feminism. The first peer-reviewed academic journal about the study of pornography, Porn Studies, was published in 2014.[49]


Pornography is often distinguished from erotica, which consists of the portrayal of sexuality with high-art aspirations, focusing also on feelings and emotions, while pornography involves the depiction of acts in a sensational manner, with the entire focus on the physical act, so as to arouse quick intense reactions.[1][50][51] Pornography is generally classified as either softcore or hardcore. A pornographic work is characterized as hardcore if it has any hardcore content, no matter how small. Both forms of pornography generally contain nudity. Softcore pornography generally contains nudity or partial nudity in sexually suggestive situations, but without explicit sexual activity, sexual penetration or "extreme" fetishism,[52] while hardcore pornography may contain graphic sexual activity and visible penetration,[53] including unsimulated sex scenes.


Pornography encompasses a wide variety of genres. Pornography featuring heterosexual acts composes the bulk of pornography and is "centred and invisible", marking the industry as heteronormative. However, a substantial portion of pornography is not normative, featuring more nonconventional forms of scenarios and sexual activity such as "'fat' porn, amateur porn, disabled porn, porn produced by women, queer porn, BDSM, and body modification."[54]

Pornography can be classified according to the physical characteristics of the participants, fetish, sexual orientation, etc., as well as the types of sexual activity featured. Reality and voyeur pornography, animated videos, and legally prohibited acts also influence the classification of pornography. Pornography may fall into more than one genre. Some examples of pornography genres:



Revenues of the adult industry in the United States are difficult to determine. In 1970, a Federal study estimated that the total retail value of hardcore pornography in the United States was no more than $10 million.[55] In 1998, Forrester Research published a report on the online "adult content" industry estimating $750 million to $1 billion in annual revenue. Studies in 2001 put the total (including video, pay-per-view, Internet and magazines) between $2.6 billion and $3.9 billion.[8]

As of 2014, the porn industry was believed to bring in more than $13 billion on a yearly basis in the United States.[56] CNBC has estimated that pornography was a $13 billion industry in the US, with $3,075 being spent on porn every second and a new porn video being produced every 39 minutes.[57]

A significant amount of pornographic video is shot in the San Fernando Valley, which has been a pioneering region for producing adult films since the 1970s, and has since become home for various models, actors/actresses, production companies, and other assorted businesses involved in the production and distribution of pornography.

The pornography industry has been considered influential in deciding format wars in media, including being a factor in the VHS vs. Betamax format war (the videotape format war)[58][59] and in the Blu-ray vs. HD DVD format war (the high-def format war).[58][59][60]


Pornographers have taken advantage of each technological advance in the production and distribution of visual images. Pornography is considered a driving force in the development of technologies from the printing press, through photography (still and motion), to satellite TV, home video, other forms of video, and the Internet.[61]

With commercial availability of tiny cameras and wireless equipment, "voyeur" pornography established an audience.[62][63] Mobile cameras are used to capture pornographic photos or videos, and forwarded as MMS, a practice known as sexting.

Computer-generated images and manipulations

Digital manipulation requires the use of source photographs, but some pornography is produced without human actors at all. The idea of completely computer-generated pornography was conceived very early as one of the most obvious areas of application for computer graphics and 3D rendering. Further advances in technology have allowed increasingly photorealistic 3D figures to be used in interactive pornography.[64][65][66]

Until the late 1990s, digitally manipulated pornography could not be produced cost-effectively. In the early 2000s, it became a growing segment, as the modelling and animation software matured and the rendering capabilities of computers improved. As of 2004, computer-generated pornography depicting situations involving children and sex with fictional characters, such as Lara Croft, is already produced on a limited scale. The October 2004 issue of Playboy featured topless pictures of the title character from the BloodRayne video game.[67]

3D pornography

The first pornographic film shot in 3D was 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy, released on 14 April 2011 in Hong Kong.[68]

Production and distribution by region

A street stall in Hong Kong selling pornography.

The production and distribution of pornography are economic activities of some importance. The exact size of the economy of pornography and the influence that it has in political circles are matters of controversy.

In the United States, the sex film industry is centered in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. In Europe, Budapest is regarded as the industry center.[69][70][71]

Piracy, the illegal copying and distribution of material, is of great concern to the porn industry,[72] the subject of litigation and formalized anti-piracy efforts.[73][74]

The majority of US men use porn.[75][76][77][78][79][excessive citations] According to The Huffington Post, 70% of men and 30% of women watch porn.[80]

According to a study from 2002, the majority of Norwegian population uses pornography.[81]

Study and analysis

Research concerning the effects of pornography is concerned with multiple outcomes.[82] Such research includes potential influences on rape, domestic violence, sexual dysfunction, difficulties with sexual relationships, and child sexual abuse.[83] While some literature reviews suggest that pornographic images and films can be addictive, insufficient evidence exists to draw conclusions.[84][85][86][87] While it has not been proven that either porn or masturbation addiction exist, porn or masturbation compulsion probably exist.[88][89] Several studies conclude the liberalization of porn in society may be associated with decreased rape and sexual violence rates, while others suggest no effect, or are inconclusive.[90][91][92][93][94][95][96][excessive citations]

Laws and regulations

World map of pornography (18+) laws
  Pornography legal
  Pornography legal, but under some restrictions
  Pornography illegal
  Data unavailable

The legal status of pornography varies widely from country to country.[97][98] Regulating hardcore pornography is more common than regulating softcore pornography.[99] Child pornography is illegal in almost all countries,[100][101] and some countries have restrictions on rape pornography or animal pornography.[101]

Disseminating pornography to a minor is generally illegal.[101] There are various attempts to restrict minors' access to pornography,[101][102] including protocols for pornographic magazines or stores.[101] One way this may be bypassed by minors is that many online sites only require the user to tell the website they are a certain age, and no other age verification is required.[102] The Child Online Protection Act would have restricted access by minors to any material on the Internet defined as harmful to them, but it did not take effect.[102]

Pornographic entertainment on display in a sex shop window, where there is usually a minimum age to go into pornographic stores

The adult film industry regulations in California require that all actors and actresses practice safe sex using condoms. It is rare to see condom use in pornography.[103] Since porn does better when actors are unprotected, many companies film in other states. Miami is a major area for amateur porn. Twitter plays a big part in an actor's success: because Twitter does not censor content, actors can post freely without having to self-censor, unlike on Instagram and on Facebook.[104]

In the United States, a person receiving unwanted commercial mail he or she deems pornographic (or otherwise offensive) may obtain a Prohibitory Order,[105] either against all mail from a particular sender, or against all sexually explicit mail, by applying to the United States Postal Service.

Some people, including pornography producer Larry Flynt and the writer Salman Rushdie,[106] have argued that pornography is vital to freedom and that a free and civilized society should be judged by its willingness to accept pornography.

The UK government has criminalized possession of what it terms "extreme pornography", following the highly publicized murder of Jane Longhurst.

Pornography can infringe into basic human rights of those involved, especially when sexual consent was not obtained. For example, revenge porn is a phenomenon where disgruntled sexual partners release images or video footage of intimate sexual activity, usually on the internet, without authorization from the other person.[107] Lawmakers have also raised concerns about "upskirt" photos taken of women without their consent. In many countries there has been a demand to make such activities specifically illegal carrying higher punishments than mere breach of privacy or image rights, or circulation of prurient material.[108][109] As a result, some jurisdictions have enacted specific laws against "revenge porn".[110]

What is not pornography

In the U.S., a July 2014 criminal case decision in Massachusetts, Commonwealth v. Rex, 469 Mass. 36 (2014),[111] made a legal determination of what was not to be considered "pornography" and in this particular case "child pornography".[112] It was determined that photographs of naked children that were from sources such as National Geographic magazine, a sociology textbook, and a nudist catalog were not considered pornography in Massachusetts even while in the possession of a convicted and (at the time) incarcerated sex offender.[112]

Drawing the line depends on time and place; Occidental mainstream culture got increasingly "pornified" (i.e. tainted by pornographic themes and mainstream films got to include unsimulated sexual acts).[113]

Copyright status

In the United States, some courts have applied US copyright protection to pornographic materials.[114][115]

Some courts have held that copyright protection effectively applies to works, whether they are obscene or not,[116] but not all courts have ruled the same way.[117] The copyright protection rights of pornography in the United States has again been challenged as late as February 2012.[114][118]

STI prevention and birth control methods

According to the cast of the Netflix documentary "Hot Girls Wanted", most of the actors and actresses get screened for STIs every two weeks. However, it is not required for them to be on birth control. One actress in the film states that after partaking in a "Cream Pie" shot which involves ejaculation in the vagina, she was then instructed to purchase Plan B (emergency contraception pill) to protect herself from pregnancy. These shots pay more, which is why women will take the risk of falling pregnant.[119]


A caricature on "the great epidemic of pornography", 19th-century French illustration

Views and opinions of pornography come in a variety of forms and from a diversity of demographics and societal groups. Opposition of the subject generally, though not exclusively,[120] comes from three main sources: law, feminism and religion.

Feminist views

Many feminists, including Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, argue that all pornography is demeaning to women or that it contributes to violence against women, both in its production and in its consumption. The production of pornography, they argue, entails the physical, psychological, or economic coercion of the women who perform in it, and where they argue that the abuse and exploitation of women is rampant; in its consumption, they charge that pornography eroticizes the domination, humiliation and coercion of women, and reinforces sexual and cultural attitudes that are complicit in rape and sexual harassment.[121][122][123]

Sexual exclusionary feminists charge that pornography presents a severely distorted image of sexual relations, and reinforces sex myths; that it always shows women as readily available and desiring to engage in sex at any time, with any man, on men's terms, always responding positively to any advances men make.[124] They argue that because pornography often shows women enjoying and desiring to be violently attacked by men, saying "no" when they actually want sex, fighting back but then ending up enjoying the act – this can affect the public understanding of legal issues such as consent to sexual relations.[125]

Feminists "ranging from Betty Friedan and Kate Millett to Karen DeCrow, Wendy Kaminer and Jamaica Kincaid" supported the right to consume pornography.[126]

In contrast to these objections, other feminist scholars argue that the lesbian feminist movement in the 1980s was good for women in the porn industry.[127] As more women entered the developmental side of the industry, this allowed women to gear porn more towards women because they knew what women wanted, both for actresses and the audience.[127] This is believed to be a good thing because for such a long time, the porn industry has been directed by men for men.[127] This also sparked the arrival of making lesbian porn for lesbians instead of men.[127]

Furthermore, many feminists argue that the advent of VCR, home video, and affordable consumer video cameras allowed for the possibility of feminist pornography.[128] Consumer video made it possible for the distribution and consumption of video pornography to locate women as legitimate consumers of pornography. Tristan Taormino says that feminist porn is "all about creating a fair working environment and empowering everyone involved."[129] Feminist porn directors are interested in challenging representations of men and women, as well as providing sexually-empowering imagery that features many kinds of bodies.[130]

In a 1995 essay for The New Yorker, writer Susan Faludi argued that porn was one of the few industries where women enjoy a power advantage in the workplace. "'Actresses have the power,' Alec Metro, one of the men in line, ruefully noted of the X-rated industry. A former firefighter who claimed to have lost a bid for a job to affirmative action, Metro was already divining that porn might not be the ideal career choice for escaping the forces of what he called 'reverse discrimination.' Female performers can often dictate which male actors they will and will not work with. 'They make more money than us.' Porn – at least, porn produced for a heterosexual audience – is one of the few contemporary occupations where the pay gap operates in women's favor; the average actress makes fifty to a hundred per cent more money than her male counterpart. But then she is the object of desire; he is merely her appendage, the object of the object."[131]

Harry Brod offered a Marxist feminist view: "I would argue that sex seems overrated because men look to sex for fulfillment of nonsexual emotional needs, a quest doomed to failure. Part of the reason for this failure is the priority of quantity over quality of sex which comes with sexuality's commodification."[132]

Religious views

Religious organizations have been important in bringing about political action against pornography.[133] In the United States, religious beliefs affect the formation of political beliefs that concern pornography.[134]

According to Christianity Today, "[...] Protestant men today who attend church regularly are basically the only men in America still resisting the cultural norm of regularized pornography use."[75]

Women in the industry

The 2012 study "Why Become a Pornography Actress?"[135] analyzed female pornographic film actresses and their reasons for choosing the occupation, finding that the primary reasons were money (53%), sex (27%), and attention (16%).[136] Respondents also stated the aspects of their work which they disliked. These included industry-associated people, e.g., co-workers, directors, producers, and agents, whose "attitudes, behaviors, and poor hygiene [were] difficult to handle within their work environment" or who were unscrupulous and unprofessional (39%); STD risk (29%); and exploitation within the industry (20%).[137]

See also


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Further reading


Review of Strossen's book: Blumen, Jonathan (November 1995). "Nadine Strossen: pornography must be tolerated". The Ethical Spectacle. 1 (11).
Also as: Williams, Linda (1999). Hard core: power, pleasure, and the "frenzy of the visible" (Expanded paperback ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 9780520219434.


See also: Parent, W. A. (April 1990). "A second look at pornography and the subordination of women". The Journal of Philosophy. 87 (4): 205–211. doi:10.2307/2026681. JSTOR 2026681. A criticism of Vadas' paper.
  • Vadas, Melinda (August 1992). "The Pornography/Civil Rights Ordinance v. The BOG: and the winner is…?". Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy. 7 (3): 94–109. doi:10.1111/j.1527-2001.1992.tb00906.x. JSTOR 3809874. An argument that pornography increases women's vulnerability to rape.
  • Various (1988). Pornography and sexual violence: evidence of the links. The complete transcript of Public Hearings on Ordinances to Add Pornography as Discrimination Against Women: Minneapolis City Council, Government Operations Committee, 12 and 13 December 1983. London: Everywoman. ISBN 9781870868006. A representation of the causal connections between pornography and violence towards women.
  • Whisnant, Rebecca (2015), "Not your father's Playboy, not your mother's feminist movement: feminism in porn", in Kiraly, Miranda; Tyler, Meagan (eds.), Freedom fallacy: the limits of liberal feminism, Ballarat, Victoria: Connor Court Publishing, ISBN 9781925138542.

Neutral or mixed

  • Vance, Carole, ed. (1984). Pleasure and danger: exploring female sexuality. Boston: Routledge & K. Paul. ISBN 9780710202482. Collection of papers from 1982 conference; visible and divisive split between anti-pornography activists and lesbian S&M theorists.
  • Real Your Brain on Porn. Retrieved 2019-04-14.

External links


  • "American Porn". Frontline. PBS. Retrieved 1 February 2014. Interactive web site companion to a Frontline documentary exploring the pornography industry within the United States.