What we talk about when we talk about ‘rock porn’

Posted by on May 18, 2012 in Daily Life | 0 comments

Researchers in France have discovered what could be 37,000 year old porn. Carved out circles with small slits in them supposedly symbolising female genitalia have been found in an ancient stone shelter.  It is ”the oldest evidence of any kind of graphic imagery”, said Randall White, an anthropologist at New York University and one of the researchers working on the project.

Rock porn? All in the eye of the beholder.

Rock porn? All in the eye of the beholder.

I always love these sorts of discoveries because they reveal as much about the minds of those that find them as anything else. The fact that a modern man can look at a circle carved in stone and immediately think “PORN!!!” may  tell us more about our own modern cultural preoccupation with porn than that of any past society.

To be fair, the images may very well symbolise lady-bits.  But why assume a pornographic context as opposed to a fertility symbol or something else entirely?

I can’t help but think that carvings as ambiguous as these act almost like the ink-blot cards psychologists hold up to delve into the minds of their patients. What we choose to see in them provides us with as much insight into the inner workings of our own cultural psyche as anything else.

You can imagine the interview with the good Professor now.

Journalist: What can you tell us about these incredible discoveries?

Anthropologist: The working theory is that there was a king overlord who lived in these caves with tens or even hundreds of nubile concubines as depicted by these circles, here.

Journalist:  Do you have any evidence for this theory?

Anthropologist: No, just elaborate fantasies at this stage. But we did find a broken vase. We believe it may have belonged to the head concubine who we think could have roughly resembled Scarlett Johannson. We haven’t any definitive proof as yet, but there’s also nothing to rule it out.  We’re all very excited about this.

Equally fanciful are the porn enthusiasts who latch onto these findings as a historical justification for all modern porn.

“Ha!” they cry. “I told you there was nothing wrong with porn! How can there be anything wrong with three grown men gang-banging a drugged out teenager when we have proof- proof!- that ancient people drew circles in caves?”

To be clear I’m not having a go at all modern pornography. As numerous sex-positive feminists have been quick to point out, there is a long history of erotica and nude art made by both men and women and today, there are certainly genres of “ethical” porn produced by feminists and other consenting adults in non-exploitative circumstances.

But dismissing ALL modern pornography as harmless and “natural” because our ancestors may have indulged in a little rock art, is akin to excusing violence or slavery because these things also have a long history to them. Longevity is not a test of morality.

The other interesting point to consider here is the revisionist view of history through a masculine lens. After all, there is no good reason to automatically assume that it was men who were crafting these images, or that they were being crafted for other men. Is it that inconceivable to think that perhaps arts and crafts were the women’s department?

When it comes to reading historical artifacts that we know very little about there is a cultural tendency to always attribute productivity (outside of childbirth) to the men. Writer Sandi Toksvig recently pondered this issue in an article about women and history:

“When I was a student at Cambridge I remember an anthropology professor holding up a picture of a bone with 28 incisions carved in it. “This is often considered to be man’s first attempt at a calendar” she explained. She paused as we dutifully wrote this down. ‘My question to you is this – what man needs to mark 28 days? I would suggest to you that this is woman’s first attempt at a calendar.’ It was a moment that changed my life. In that second I stopped to question almost everything I had been taught about the past. How often had I overlooked women’s contributions?”

It’s certainly food for thought. Like almost anything to do with early human society, nothing is- despite appearances to the contrary- set in stone. There are too many variables, too many unknowns. There is still too much of a tendency to read past human civilizations through a framework of what we know- or think we know- about our own. But the assumptions that we make and the ways we choose to read these snippets of form provide us with great insight into a very fascinating society: our own.

Nina Funnell is a freelance writer and social commentator.

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