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Why Are Historians So Afraid of Fucking?

Last month, archaeologists on the Greek island of Ithaca found a couple of dicks etched into a cliff face at the Bay of Vathy. Aside from their age, what made the finding unique was the archeologists' willingness to openly discuss the sexual aspect of...

A big old penis with legs jizzing into an eyeball, circa second century AD. Image via Wikicommons

Last month, archaeologists on the Greek island of Ithaca found a couple of dicks etched into a cliff face at the Bay of Vathy. The dongs, as well as an inscription on another rock written in ancient Greek that read “Nikasitimos was here mounting Timiona,” are estimated to be 2,500 years old. The press scrambled to label it among the world’s oldest and most fascinating erotic archaeological finds, but that’s not quite true. Erotica is everywhere in the historical record, and archaeologists have come across sexual displays and descriptions far older and more fascinating than this. What made this particular finding unique was that—in addition to what the scribbles taught them about literacy during the time of Acropolis—the archaeologists were happy to talk about sex, and willing to acknowledge that the inscriptions suggested gay sex wasn’t just an upper-class affair practiced in limited social settings. Academics have only very recently become comfortable discussing sexual aspects of history, and many still avoid it. That's unfortunate, because there's a whole lot of ancient, instructive, and revolutionarily important smut out there.

The Venus of Willendorf, source of countless historian boners, circa 25000 BC. Image via Wikicommons.

Not counting the stylized and lumpy Venus of Willendorf and her female nude counterparts, the oldest archaeological find on sexuality may be a small figurine of a male bending over a further bent female, both with recognizable genitalia, aged 7,200 years and found in Germany in 2005. But that’s hardly an isolated find. Anywhere you go in the world, from possible pansexual orgies on cave walls in Xinjiang in Central Asia, to pocket-size clay tablets of 4,000-year-old Mesopotamians engaged in doggy, anal, and possibly a stylized form of buzzed-out fellatio, to Ramesses’s Playboy scroll from about 3,000 years ago, the ancient world was full of fuckin’. Any reading man throughout recorded history has been confronted with the bawdy and naughty thoughts of his predecessors, from the lewd and crude in Boccaccio to Chaucer to Sappho to Shakespeare, from The Perfumed Garden to The Plum in the Golden Vase, to the roots of Japanese tentacle porn in Japanese woodblock shunga prints. History is undeniably porny, yet many of us tend to think of it as austere and scrubbed clean.

The key to our image of a clean and starched history is largely a result of a mixture of active destruction and strategic ignorance. Although there was no real systematic (or at least no thorough, well-defined, and long lasting) suppression of dirty materials before the invention of the term “pornography” and development of anti-obscenity laws around 1857 with the British Obscene Publications Act, our ancestors made every effort to stomp out whacking material in their own times using a Justice Stewart Potter–style know-it-when-you-see-it approach. In the 1520s, the church arrested an Italian engraver for printing a pamphlet on better sex positions, and in 1748 the first English-language porn novel, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, also known as Fanny Hill, faced staunch censure.

But some historical works, like the tawdry lines from Roman authors such as Juvenal or the dirty doodles in the margins of medieval monks’ books of hours, were already established parts of historical traditions and widely dispersed. “Of course,” writes the late Walter Kendrick, author of The Secret Museum and still a seminal authority on the history of porn and its suppression, “they could not be destroyed... Any relic of the ancient world possessed, merely thanks to its survival, a value that overrode the nature of the relic itself.”

Depiction of Greek men getting sexy with one another, circa 475 BC. Found in the Tomb of the Diver. Image via Wikicommons

By the end of the 18th century, however, many English speakers had accepted the Edward Gibbons Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire idea that depravity crumbled the West’s ideological and cultural ancestors, so evidence of or engagement with that licentious imagery was considered more dangerous than ever. So, just as history started to expand its audience thanks to the advent of mass printing and the expansion of education, a massive project to whitewash it kicked into gear. In one famous case, academics found it unseemly to deal with an insult in the Roman author Catullus’s Carmen 16, roughly rendered “I will bugger you and I will fuck your mouths, / Aurelius, you pathic, and you queer, Furius.” So instead, until 1970, no one even tried to offer a translation, often just deleting the line from manuscripts and claiming that the poem was a fragment, the rest of which was lost to time. It took just as long for scholars to admit that the Turin Papyrus, a 3,000-year-old Egyptian scroll, had an erotic segment showing a great orgy of actions, known by scholars in the 1820s, but kept a secret until the 1970s. Perhaps most egregiously, a number of 18th-century editors committed something known as bowdlerization, the deletion of crude elements, on Shakespeare and other classic authors, at times rewriting whole scenes to work around the absent sexual jokes. As recently as the mid 20th century, the translators of Sufi poet Jalal al Din Muhammad Rumi’s now immensely popular Mathnawi decided to leave the naughtier poems in Latin. Rumi’s stories of donkey-fucking noblewomen and servants and impotent Caliphs remained unavailable to English readers until 1990, when Coleman Barks finally translated 47 omitted poems and published them as Delicious Laughter: Rambunctious Teaching Stories from the Mathnawi.

Pan Copulating with Goat, circa first century AD. Image via Wikicommons

Around the same time, scholars were grappling with the lasciviousness of classical art, too. While excavating Pompeii in the mid 18th century, high society types discovered a vast array of graphic-to-hardcore murals, statues of fauns fucking goats, and a particularly amusing depiction of a gladiator wrestling his own cock transfigured into a raging beast. Unable to destroy the effigies, the Franco-Italian nobles in control of the region created the proto-moral category of pornography and tucked the artwork away in locked rooms in the local museum, later known as the Secret Museum, where only a handful of individuals deemed proper and prepared were allowed to access them. The secret museum idea caught on, and throughout the 19th-century museums around the world started forming their own secret wings and rooms to blot out their more graphic collections from the public eye.

Still, the preservation of these tawdry tableaus for study meant that the secret keepers were obligated to release images of their collections for those unable to visit. Many prefaced their works with introductions warning the reader of the explicit contents within, and enjoined them to be serious and detached critics, to try to desexualize the figures with aggressive theory. Others attempted to protect the young, female, and poorly educated by fogging out the genitals in sexual scenes, or turning them into odd geometric shapes, in their reproductions of the images.

Periodic attempts were made by revolutionaries and libertines to undo the redactions and ferretting of contemporary scholars. In a fit of liberalism, Giuseppe Garibaldi threw open the doors of Naples’ Secret Museum to usher in a new, united, free Italy in the 1860s. Meanwhile Sir Richard Burton attempted in 1883 to introduce the Kama Sutra to the West. But ultimately the more squeamish won out again and again. “Until the 1990s,” explains Roman sexuality-in-art expert Professor John Clarke of the University of Texas–Austen, “academics avoided working on ‘obscene’ Greek and Roman texts or ‘pornographic’ painting and sculpture, letting hack writers publish sensational and highly inaccurate picture books.”

A flying dick with a dick for a tail, circa first century AD. Photo via Wikicommons

What changed, Clarke goes on to explain, was the slow development of a very recent academic consensus that the past ought to be considered on its own terms, and by its own rules. “Well into the 20th century,” wrote Kendrick in The Secret Museum, “…the emphasis fell on the opposite side,” encouraging people to evaluate art in terms of their own social mores. But now it’s agreed that we can analyze the social importance of sexual items in history, distancing ourselves from our current notions and perceptions of them. “Moments of sexual shame,” wrote Barks in Delicious Laughter explaining his views on the eroticism in the Sufi poetry he was translating, “erections and their sudden droopings, a clitoral urgency that admits no limit, the mean impulse to play a sexual trick on one’s mate—these are recognizable behaviors and Rumi does not so much judge them as hold them up for a lens.” It was this spirit that, in 2000, finally saw the Secret Museum of Naples opened to the general public, permanently.

But even in this new age of theoretical openness to sexuality in history, practice often falls far short. “Once I discovered how underworked this topic was in academe,” says Clarke, “I had no qualms about pursuing it. I did of course have tenure and a chair at the point. I remember discussing with [a colleague] how difficult it was for her to get her first job with a dissertation on Roman sexual humor.” Often, it seems, academics (if not moved by subtle personal prejudices or cautions) just fear what the wider public might think.

In 1991, the Biblical Archaeology Review had a minor crisis about whether to publish photos of a ceramic oil lamp depicting a couple fucking, and polled their readership about what to do. They decided to print the image on a page with perforation so those who didn’t want to see it could remove it, and even then a few readers still canceled their subscriptions. And of course the tendency of newspapers to run headlines like “The Earliest Pornography” and “Prehistoric Pin Up,” about the 2009 excavation of a Neolithic female nude a la the Venus of Willendorf, but 10,000 years older, scares off some scholars who would prefer to avoid sensationalism.

Some guy in Pompeii getting a beej. Image via Apricity 

More than all of this, though, it’s just hard for most people to take what we now deem pornography seriously as an academic discipline. “It’s hard to justify to people that, ‘hey, I need money to go watch porn,’” says University of California Berkeley Fellow Matthew Kirschenbaum, who currently teaches a course on contemporary pornography called “Critical Sex Studies and Pornography. He’s one of many academics across America trying to study modern forms of erotica, and says that many feel the need to dress modern pornography up in theory or history to give it a little legitimacy. The study of modern pornography is, to Kirschenbaum, important because it’s a massive and influential modern industry that, while flying under the radar, can affect the way we talk and think about important issues like STDs and, of course, sexuality. But for many it’s hard to hack past the awkwardness of studying something that might turn them on, whether historical or modern, and then to deal with public perception and entrenched moral values before getting down to the social import or historical relevance of erotica.

There are bastions of scholars who are more than comfortable talking about and dispassionately studying sexuality. And with every day we get to chip away at a bit more of the taboos that make something like the announcement of a find of Greek erotic graffiti so headline snatching and provocative. But, at the end of the day, says Kirschenbaum, “it can get awkward showing someone in a class your favorite porn.” That applies often to historical erotica as well. So while we’re no longer actively redacting and hiding our sexual pasts, it’s still odd to see that history, openly discussed, can still make academia squirm.