Before the development of motion picture technology, photographic pornography was available all over the world through the distribution of nude photographs. In the late nineteenth century, Eadweard Muybridge's (1830–1904) motion studies, in the form of a series of stop-motion photographs accompanied by a lecture, were some of the first experiments in pornographic representations—although these motion studies were distinctly soft core as they simulated sexual relations and showed no close-ups or penetration. Images such as two nude women posed together, either smoking a cigarette or being doused in a tub of water, differed markedly from the same motion studies of naked or near-naked men, posed alone either running or jumping. Any titillation occurring from these representations was safely contained by the contextualizing discourses of science and technology.

Mainstream cinematic representations, such as Edison's The Kiss (1896), were chaste, but more explicit pornographic films (known as stag films) were also made in the primitive era of filmmaking (1896–1911). These films comprised a single reel (approximately 15 minutes), were silent, black and white, and contained very little narrative structure. These primitive films were more interested in technologically representing authentic bodily movements than creating coherent stories; primitive films were thus termed exhibitionist in the way that they displayed images for consumption and represented documented bodies in motion.

Even after mainstream filmmaking moved out of the primitive era, pornographic films still maintained these primitive attributes. One of the earliest extant American stag films, A Free Ride (dated by the Kinsey Institute as from 1917 to 1919), employs an introductory setup of a man and two women driving in the country. As they take turns relieving themselves in the woods, the crude editing and title cards indicate that the women become turned on watching the man, and the man is aroused by subsequently watching them. These scenes are followed by various close-ups of fellatio, male ejaculation, and a woman being penetrated during intercourse while lying down and standing, all shown in a disjointed manner divorced from narrative structure and narrative modes of identification. Extreme close-ups of genitalia, filmed in an almost clinical manner, are referred to as "meat shots." Through numerous close-ups these films tend to employ a type of theatrical frontality, in which the spectator is often directly addressed by the bodies on camera—a presentation with some historic connections to striptease.

Stag films were primarily (and illegally) exhibited in European brothels and exclusively male clubs in the United States (though sometimes female guests were invited) at gatherings known as smokers. While the reasons behind these group screenings were social and sexual, future exhibition of primitive or stag films became much more solitary. Later stag films or loops, shot largely in color, could be found in adult arcades, where coins would be repeatedly fed into a slot so that the disjointed spectacle could continue as the spectator watched the footage in a private booth. As pornographic films grew to feature length, their narratives became more coherent and sophisticated, supplanting stag films as the standard for explicit sexual representations.

Until 1957, in the United States the distribution of pornography was under state control. American law has differentiated obscenity, which is disgusting or morally unhealthy material, from pornography, which is a representation of sexuality, and there have been problems with the inconsistencies of definition. The First Amendment was generally understood to protect all forms of speech with any social value, while communities could impose some regulation on materials they deemed harmful. Most states in turn allowed communities to maintain tight controls on pornography, while the US Post Office, as mandated by the notorious Comstock Act of 1873, which made it illegal to mail any "obscene, lewd, or lascivious material," regularly searched the mails for offensive material, which had been defined to include information on contraception. This policing of the mails began to wane around 1915, which was a high point in the stag film's popularity.

The first pornography case heard by the US Supreme Court was Roth v. United States (1957). In upholding the government's powers, Justice William Brennan defined pornography as "material which deals with sex in a manner appealing to prurient interest." At this time, the term "hard core" entered legal discourse. Brennan also defined pornography as exciting "lustful thoughts" or "a shameful and morbid interest in sex" which could be determined by "community standards." Pornography was considered unprotected speech as it was "without redeeming social importance." Roth proved minimally useful as community standards were difficult to establish and prurient interests were hard to determine. The Court subsequently tried to clarify its standard in A Book Named "John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure" v. the Attorney General of Massachusetts (1966), claiming that obscenity had to be " utterly without redeeming social value"; but again, this "social value" was difficult to determine. Consequently, the Court began overturning obscenity prosecutions unless the material was sold to minors or advertised in a way that emphasized its sexual nature ( Redrup v. New York , 1967). Simultaneously, discourses on sexuality were becoming more prevalent and commonplace, as Alfred Kinsey's work at the Kinsey Institute in the late 1950s and Masters and Johnson's research in the late 1960s attest. These cultural changes, combined with a new obscenity standard, led to the easier availability of increasingly explicit sexual materials and fed the campaign against the Warren Court and activist judges.

These obscenity decisions played a role in Richard Nixon's successful presidential election campaign (which was invested in attacking the Supreme Court). However, even Nixon's interest in returning to tradition was subverted by the changing nature of motion picture pornography, as the form moved from stag reels, largely consumed by men, to publicly screened feature films attended by men and women, of which Gerard Damiano's Deep Throat (1972) was the most notorious example. Nevertheless, the widespread popularity of these films in theatrical venues was short-lived, as a more conservative Supreme Court attempted and partially succeeded in turning back obscenity laws. In Miller v. California (1973) and its companion case, Paris Adult Theatre I v. Slaton , 413 US 49 (1973), Justice Warren Berger redefined obscenity by weighing the pornographic materials' social value against its offensiveness and, most importantly, brought the community standards test back to a local (rather than a national) level. State and local governments' power to control sexually oriented materials increased, as the state could act "to protect the weak, the uninformed, the unsuspecting, and the gullible" from their own desires. Still, the ways in which pornographic and obscene materials were perceived and illegalities were prosecuted varied from community to community, and state to state. At the same time, the increased presence of sexuality in public discourse made it difficult to align

Protestors outside a theater playing Deep Throat (Gerard Damiano, 1972).
sexually explicit films with pornography lacking redeeming social importance.

Hard-core pornography's legitimacy followed a trajectory of sexually explicit films that historically and culturally tested the boundaries of what was allowed. The late 1950s and early 1960s were seen as the heyday of the sexploitation film—soft-core pornographic films that contained copious nudity. These cheaply made American films were known for their spectacular representations of sex (and sometimes violence). One of the earliest "nudie cuties" was Russ Meyer's (1922–2004) The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959), which featured a delivery man who, after visiting a dentist, develops X-ray (or X-rated) vision, enabling him to see fully dressed women in the nude. Radley Metzger's (b. 1929) distribution company, Audubon Films, also offered risqué exploitation films, but his foreign pictures, such as Danish filmmaker Mac Ahlberg's Jag—en kvinna ( I, a Woman , 1965), maintained higher production values and a more elite reputation.

In the mid- to late 1960s, the "beaver film" became popular. These films were similar to the illegal stag film in that they consisted of short loops where women stripped and then displayed extreme close-ups of their naked pubis. Beaver films were mostly shown in peepshow arcades and sold through private mail order. "Action" beaver films either showed a woman fondling herself, or another woman touching a woman's genitals and performing cunnilingus; nevertheless, these films did not show hard-core "action," defined as penetration by penis, finger, or tongue. Another form of sexually explicit film of the period was the educational sex documentary. For example Dansk sexualitet ( Sexual Freedom in Denmark , 1969), which ostensibly documented Denmark's burgeoning (and legal) pornography industry, was shown in exploitation and grindhouse theaters. Audiences who went to see these films could watch hard-core pornographic action—including erect penises and penetration—under the guise of gaining knowledge.

With the influx of hard-core film representations in the early 1970s, the feature-length, hard-core pornographic film became prevalent, heralding the rise of "porno chic." Deep Throat opened in the summer of 1972 and played at the New Mature World Theater in Times Square, a typical exploitation theater. Starring Linda Lovelace as Linda, and Harry Reems as her sexologist doctor, the film tells the story of a woman unable to reach sexual fulfillment (that is, orgasm) through sexual intercourse. In the course of her examination, she is found to have her clitoris in her throat and can only climax through the process of "deep throating," where the throat is opened in order to envelop the penis during fellatio. Deep Throat stands out as one of the first films that intertwines a cohesive narrative with hard-core sex scenes; critics reviewed the film (often negatively) in the mainstream press, and the film was shown in theatrical venues for audiences of both men and women. The film's success encouraged other notable releases in 1972, ostensibly known as the "golden age of porn": The Mitchell Brothers's Behind the Green Door , starring Marilyn Chambers (a former Ivory soap model), and Damiano's The Devil in Miss Jones , with Georgina Spelvin and Harry Reems were the most well known.

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