Two influential approaches to understanding sexuality emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Europe: sexology and psychoanalysis. These approaches develop a method for thinking about human sexuality apart from religious discourse. Sexology births the concept of the congenital “homosexual,” often understanding this figure as pathological. In turn, psychoanalysis, as it was first developed by Sigmund Freud, considers infantile sexuality as polymorphous and perverse. It analyzes how this perversity develops into adult genders and sexualities, sometimes through the repression of drives that, even in their repressed form, continue to show effects. In both these models, sexuality is figured as a natural force, one that may come to be shaped by social and cultural milieus, but that is ultimately innate. Breaking from this tradition, Michel Foucault’s 1978 The History of Sexuality, Volume 1 offers a different, groundbreaking approach. Rather than arguing that sexuality is repressed, Foucault argues that sexuality, as a discrete nexus of experiences and sensations, emerges in a particular nexus of power and knowledge, one that disciplines bodies to become productive and docile while also seeking to manage populations through the human sciences. In this vision, sexuality does not oppose power, but rather sex and power spiral together, producing or inciting one another. Feminist, queer, and decolonial approaches to sexuality also consider how the organization and even production of sexuality is tied to structures of power and inequality such as patriarchy, heteronormativity, colonization, and anti-black racism. For example, black feminist and queer of color scholarship explore the ways in which racial difference and inequality has been justified through the production of gendered, sexual stereotypes. Indigenous and decolonial approaches build on this argument, looking to how colonization was often figured as a form of erotic penetration of a feminized land, considering how enforcing heterosexuality and binary gender formation have been key to both colonization and settler colonialism, and attending to the ongoing legacies of colonial sexual violence. These approaches often seek to reclaim and reimagine the erotic as a part of a project of resistance and collective survival.
Sexually explicit images are among the oldest known representational artifacts, and yet none of these were ever understood as “pornography” until the word and concept began to emerge in Western European languages during the 19th century. At that time, it was used equally to refer to written texts and visual representations. The word has since entered into much more widespread usage, often referring to any and all sexually explicit material, more often to material that appears specifically designed “to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic feelings” (Oxford English Dictionary). Since the popularization of internet pornography in the late 20th century, the term has even come to be applied to any image considered to emphasize the pleasure and seduction of the viewer over realistic representation (as in “food porn,” “real estate porn,” etc.). Many attempts have been made to define pornography more specifically, but little consensus has been achieved. Courts of law have generally avoided defining the word “pornography,” preferring to categorize sexually explicit or arousing representations in terms of “obscenity.” Feminist scholars have disagreed on the definition of pornography to the extent that the conflict became known as the “Porn Wars” of the last several decades of the 20th century. Sexually explicit or sexually stimulating representations can elicit powerful emotional responses that vary widely, and they are inextricable from questions of social power. Thus, the very act of defining pornography is implicated in political struggles over some of the most fundamental issues of human life: gender, sexuality, social equality, and the nature and power of representations. There remains no general or stable agreement concerning what it is, what effects it may have, or even whether it exists at all.