Þorsteinn Vilhjálmsson: Three Steps Towards the Birth of Pornography
This article highlights three steps towards the birth of the modern concept of pornography, all of which lead back to Greco-Roman antiquity. The Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria (2nd cent. CE) first created a separate category of sexual representations and condemned it as such. Before Clement, knowledge and representations of sex and sexuality were accessible everywhere but were not categorized or thought to be an essential part of one’s character. Foucault called this understanding of sexuality ars erotica, as distinct from the modern need to categorize and essentialize, scientia sexualis. But with the rise of Christianity ancient representations of sex and sexuality were purged from public spaces and their radical otherness forgotten. When the ruins of the ancient Roman town Pompeii were unearthed in the 18th century, this otherness was shockingly rediscovered. Clement’s category of condemned sexual representations was reinvented and given the name pornographia. But there was in fact a trace of such a category to be found in the pagan societies of the ancient world: The sex manual, most famously the manual ascribed to Philaenis of Samos. These representations of sex were repressed even while the representations in Pompeii were commonly accepted. This may be because the sex manuals offered a different understanding of sex and sexuality than was common in the ancient world: Their systematic treatment of sex is more reminiscent of the modern scientia sexualis than the ancient ars erotica. This gives rise to the theory that a special category of condemned sexual representations – which is the foundation of the concept of pornography – has its roots in an ideological clash between rival understandings of sex and sexuality.
Keywords: Pornography, sex, sex manuals, Pompeii, classics, Philaenis of Samos, Clement of Alexandria, Michel Foucault, ars erotica, scientia sexualis