Sex is too important to be left to pornography. Sex is too fun, too silly and too brilliant to be pornographic; it’s too obscene, too ridiculous. Porn is too serious to be an accurate reflection of sex. Don’t get me wrong, porn is perfect at what it does, but that old debate about whether or not it’s artistic should be left in the 70s when, for legal reasons, it was argued that porn be considered artistic rather than obscene. I don’t think porn is erotically artistic: good sex can be filmed and photographed, but never recorded.
Perhaps some context will help you understand what I’m getting at.
Throughout our development as a species, we’ve used all of our creative ingenuity to examine our relationship with sex. One of the oldest works of art we’ve yet discovered is a statuette of a woman, with (presumably) exaggerated breasts and vulvae. It’s called the Venus of Hohle Fels, and it’s really rather beautiful. Similar venuses (veni?) are found across Europe, starting from around 40,000 years ago. Amongst our ancestors’ stunning depictions of hunting and spirituality, there can often be found stylised imagery of sex. The earliest known sex toy is 29,000 years old, venus figurines become more an more abundant towards the end of the paleolithic era and cave paintings closely link associate sex with food and religion. (Interestingly, Paleolithic art that we might consider ‘erotic’ concerns itself with female genitalia; phallic representations are massively underrepresented until closer to the Common Era.) Early human art is laced with sex – or at least fertility.
Skip forward 30,000 years and the world’s first writing appears in ancient Sumeria, now Iraq. Not only is this early writing densely articulate and absolutely magnificent, it’s also heavily tinted with sexuality and eroticism. In fact, there is a whole subgenre of research into Sumerian literature that covers and handles erotica – and that’s significant, considering Sumerian is world’s first known writing system. Not only is it the first, it’s also one of the most fascinating. Meanings of words can change depending on how you hold the clay tablet on which they were inscribed, making the language incredibly rich with puns and humour – and difficult to translate.
The Sumerian Creation Myths (which would later by adapted to form large parts of the Biblical Genesis chapters and are probably the most direct inspiration of Noah’s flood myth) were driven primarily by sex. For instance, in Sumerian myth there is a god of saltwater (Tiamat) and a god of freshwater (Apsu), and the Earth was created from the mixture of their waters. This water-mixing motif appears in other Sumerian poetry as a metaphor for sex. What’s more, the Sumerian myths that would become the prototypes for the Adam and Eve story were also sexual in nature: in the Sumerian writing, the act that caused humanity to fall from grace was explicitly sexual in nature. This might be why the Tree of Knowledge was so called; in Hebrew, the word ‘knowledge’ or to ‘know’ something can mean to be familiar with something, or to engage in sexual intercourse with something. “And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived.” (Genesis 4:1.) The Sumerian, then later the Akkadian, then the Hebrew, then the Greek and then the English could all tolerate the same duality in the language of knowledge and sex.
In between all this was the invention of Papyrus, as a replacement for clay tablets. The Turin Erotic Papyrus was (rather unfairly, in my opinion) dubbed the “men’s magazine” of its time. It consists of explicit depictions of sexual acts and was painted in the Ramesside period (1292-1075 BCE, at least 3000 years ago).
Now let’s skip a few revolutions and bring this up to date. In the 1830s the first photographic cameras became available, and many of the first images – daguerreotypes – we have are of naked women, and lead to arrests. 1888 saw first movie camera was invented – in 1891 the first couple filmed themselves having sex. Skip forward another 100 years and the next revolution – the internet – was immediately sexualised, and continues to be.
This is all a very longwinded way of saying the following: every creative innovation we’ve ever developed has immediately been used to record, transmit or otherwise communicate sex. From cave art to binary code, the first thing we do with any new technology is have sex with it. For humanity, it seems, the urge to create is as intrinsic as the urge to reproduce. Art and sex are indistinguishable in that sense.
And that’s why we need erotic art. Because when you look back through time, and when we look at ourselves, sex has always demanded expression, and always will.