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by Fenton Bailey, Chris Rodley, Dev Varma, Kate Williams (Directors)
Koch Vision, 2000
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Dec 12th 2006


Pornography: The Secret History of Civilisation examines the cultural history of pornography, from the ancient world up to the recent past.  The six 50-minute episodes (on 2 DVDs) combine interesting visuals with thoughtful commentary.  Right at the start, one academic points out that the concept of pornography was largely developed in the nineteenth century, and sexually explicit images played a very different role in the ancient world.  Most importantly, they were not considered private and shameful.  The Victorians thought that such images needed to be hidden away, so that people would not be corrupted by them.  Yet, as the series makes clear, people have sought after explicit images of sex and since the inventions of photography, mass produced pictures, film, video, and the Internet, pornography has been popular and widespread.  The episodes follow this development.

A common approach throughout the series is to briefly show an expert talking to the invisible interviewer, and then to show images illustrating the ideas being explained.  When showing photographs, the camera moves around from one side to another, even sometimes twirling around to show it from different angles.  For the more recent past, many of the people who were involved in creating the history are interviewed, and they are presented in between the commentaries of historians and social critics.  Some of the better known names are Seymore Butts, Marilyn Chambers, Bob Guccione, Camille Paglia, Ken Probst, and Matt Zane.  The mixture of academics with people who worked in the porn industry works well; the academics talk in plain language and make good points, and those recalling their experiences are thoughtful and often wryly funny.  The quality of production is reasonably high, and it is clear that a great deal of care was taken in creating this series.  For anyone wanting to get a background in the history of pornography, this DVD pack will be both entertaining and valuable. 

This TV series, shot in widescreen, was originally made and broadcast in the UK on Channel 4 in 1999, and it carries many marks of this.  The narrator Marilyn Milgrom is British, many of the talking heads are British, and the directorial style is distinctly British in its combination of serious ideas and popular culture.  (Surprisingly, it seems that the DVD is not available for sale in the UK.)  The images are often quite explicit: there is both full male and female nudity, and most sexual activity is shown.  It is far more graphic than one would find on American TV except for the content on the sex channels on cable and some late-night premium cable shows.  Yet the tone remains sober, and all of the images well illustrate the points being made.  I would have little hesitation in showing one of these episodes to a class of undergraduates. 


© 2006 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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