In 1851, Moby Dick, Herman Melville's great story about man being all at sea with the the forces of Nature, was banned in Britain – not for any lewd suggestiveness in the title, but because the narrative included inflammatory words such as "underclothes". How times have changed.
One hundred and fifty years later, we are now far more familiar and less uncomfortable with sexually explicit material. In Britain in 2001, frank depictions of all manner of couplings have become commonplace in art, film and literature, while expletives abound in our everyday language; cities proudly host 48-sheet billboard posters shouting the word "FCUK" at passers-by – and even the normally demure Vogue uses nipples in its advertising.
All these democratisations – some would say vulgarisations – of sex are applauded as a refreshing assault on the prudish claustrophobia of the past. But while we have undoubtedly witnessed a revolution in taste since the Victorian age, there remains a wrong-headed tendency to believe that sexual intercourse really did begin in 1963. In fact, sex and civilisation have always gone together, though not always in the obvious way. Perhaps it's more accurate to say that the old sex gods have now simply been fully integrated into the modern world.
After all, in ancient Greece, phallophores carrying phallic images on the ends of sticks were a regular sight in religious processions. In Rome and Hindustan, the gods Priapus and Siva had a specific – and indeed rather active – sexual character. To some archaeological authorities, even the plan of the Christian church, itself derived from the Roman basilica, with its sequence of entrances and spaces, is an architectural symbol of the female reproductory system. Later, in medieval times, brothels became known as "abbayes", the source of an association between the Church and sex that has stimulated erotic art and literature from Chaucer and Bocaccio to Diderot and Rabelais.
In the latter Middle Ages, women would go to Mass wearing a Roman fascinum, or phallic amulet: the British Museum contains astonishing examples of winged penises turned into hatpins for Christian pilgrims. These had an explicit character both erotic and religious, surviving evidence of pagan belief and practice.
Renaissance erotica was more refined, less robust, but just as sexual. Pietro Aretino (1492-1556) has been described, by the US scholar Lynne Lawner as "the first journalist and publicist of the modern world". It is therefore unsurprising that this pioneer of PR wrote the most notorious of all sex books. Aretino's Sonetti Lussuriosi were composed as a commentary on erotic drawings by his friend, the architect Giulio Romano, made in 1524. It was inflammatory stuff. Pope Clement VII ordered engravings based on these drawings to be burnt, the engraver, Raimondi, to be imprisoned, and a death sentence for anyone who might attempt to print a new edition.
The severity of this Papal reaction suggests that this publication's lustful, energetic and irreverent invitation to sex was a pagan challenge to the Church. A brief reading of the Sonnetti (unpublishable even now in a family newspaper) provides a stirring reprimand to those who feel our con- temporary obsession with sex is destructive of civilised values.
But despite the continuous presence of eroticism in civilised culture since a Sumerian first incised a symbolic slit in a stone found in a desert, or a magician in Willendorf fashioned an earth mother who combined in her ripe proportions the dual stimuli of fertility and sex, constraining forces – social, moral, practical, medical – have tended to keep sex stimulatingly furtive. The Elizabethan magician Simon Forman used Latin in his description of his sexual encounters for the purposes of discretion. For the same reason, Samuel Pepys disguised his embarrassment with his considerable carousing and fornication in diary notes of execrable franglais.
In England, sexual puritanism became an active social force in the early 18th century. Accordingly, the notorious Fanny Hill, or the Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1748), an early masterpiece of erotic literature, in fact uses restrained language. Here you will find little more frank than, "the emotion grew so violent that it almost intercepted my respiration". Giovanni Giacomo Casanova spent so much time in the act of seduction that he had to postpone the writing of his remarkable memoirs until the very end of his life. Eventually published in 12 volumes in France between 1826 and 1838, they, too, are elegant and inoffensive, if undeniably erotic. As Anthelme Brillat-Savarin was a philosopher in the kitchen, so Casanova was a philosopher of the bedroom – although that was a title, in fact, that was assumed by his near contemporary, the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), whose La Philosophie dans le Boudoir (1788) is only one volume in his massive encyclopedia of sexual perversions. In Justine (1781), for instance, we find cannibalism, coprophagy, vampirism, Satanism, pederasty and many of the other cruel practices that gave us the term Sadism. The marquis was to spend 27 years of his life in prison as a consequence of his reckless dissipation.
The era of Casanova and de Sade was also the age of Thomas Bowdler, whose 10-volume Family Shakespeare purged all the Swan of Avon's bawdy, the better to protect English youth from vice of a sexual character. Not satisfied with un-manning literature, Bowdler went on to castrate history and censored Gibbon's Decline and Fall of all its ripe descriptions of choruses of Syrian damsels performing their lascivious dances to the sound of (barbarian) music. Bowdler was the intellectual ancestor of the Victorian prudes, or what Maurice Girodias, the publisher of Paris's Olympia Press, whose authors included Nabokov and JP Donleavy, called "the hounds of decency".
But while Victoria's Great Britain has been caricatured (wrongly) as the age when piano legs were shrouded for decency's sake, what we forget is that it also had its brilliant champions of erotica. Sir Richard Burton's translation of The Thousand and One Nights is a monument to intelligent liberalism, as well as to scholarship. However, even the distinguished soldier-poet Burton could not entirely escape the repressive spirit of the age; his wife burnt his translation of the Kama Sutra (as well as his diaries) in order to maintain his sound reputation.
The High Victorians employed the evasive euphemism "curious and uncommon" to describe erotica. And with a thoroughness appropriate to that age of giants, High Victoriana produced one of the greatest erotomaniacs of them all, the bibliographer Henry Spencer Ashbee, who, under the name Pisanus Fraxi (a smutty conflation of fraxinus for "Ash" and apis for "Bee"), left 15,000 volumes of sex books to the British Museum.
Ashbee's collection went blushing straight into the museum's Secretum, but by the later 19th century the emerging modernist sensibility was bolder about sex. Highly aestheticised sex and sensation were the currencies of Swinburne, Baudelaire, Huysmans and Beardsley. At the same time, the gradual discovery of Japanese shunga ("Spring Pictures") brought the prospect of refinement to European erotica. Created with the clear intention of exciting desire, but only to the highest artistic standards, shunga remains one of the most exquisite and powerful forms of erotic art, though it has some equivalent in European art in the drawings of Beardsley and the paintings of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele.
These artists and other 20th-century Modernists annexed sex in the cause of radicalism. In 1913, the Futurist Emilio Marinetti coined the term "fisicofollia" to describe this body madness, but a more general assumption equated sex with revolution. Picabia and ee cummings found further common ground between erotica and Modernism when each used the mechanics of the automobile as a metaphor for sex. It says a lot about willingness to infer sex wherever possible that a cross-section of a carburettor (discovered by Picabia in Brewer's Motor Car Construction and Carburation in Theory and Practice) or an account of starting an engine ("i went right to it flooded-the-carburettor cranked her") can, in the hands of an artist, appear erotic.
Again, for the Surrealists, the brain-reeling rapture of sex offered easy access to imaginary life. Louis Aragon wrote of the "decor of desires" and, under the hilariously incongruous pen-name Pierre Angelique, Georges Bataille conscripted sex in the cause of metaphysical seduction. In liberating ourselves from our guilt, we liberated ourselves from much else besides. This political aspect of erotica was confirmed in 1933 when the Nazis burned down Berlin's Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (proprietor, one Dr Magnus Hirschfeld) because the 12,000 volumes in its library were both pornographic and Jewish.
So although it is true to say that the radicalisation of sex is, as the critic Peter Conrad put it, "one of the 20th century's most cherished projects", it's equally true to declare that sex and civilisation have always been an item. Our changing attitudes to the erotic both reflect and give direction to our attitudes about art, life, death and the whole darn thing. Now we are frank and explicit, then we were subtle and evasive; once we were embarrassed and shy, now in-your-face FCUK and red-top Page Threes threaten national desensitisation. Tonight on television you will see broadcast images that would have earnt their perpetrators a custodial sentence in the middle of the 20th century. And just the other day I heard on Radio 4, sometime between the news and "Thought for the Day", an unembarrassed – even somewhat bored – discussion about oral sex. All of which goes to prove that we have grown more civilised.
Sex makes people smile nowadays, where once they used to smirk or blush or curse. DH Lawrence said that sex proved that God had a sense of humour. But perhaps it was another writer, Anatole France, who summed it up best, when he said that, "Of all sexual aberrations, chastity is the strangest."
'Sex', an anthology of writings from 'The Erotic Review', edited by Stephen Bayley, is published on 8 November 2001 by Cassell, price £25Reuse content