Henry Miller was a celebrated American author known for his bold and often explicit writing. His works “Tropic of Cancer” and “Tropic of Capricorn” both faced backlash and bannings given their sexually-explicit nature. Miller’s works helped redefine Western culture’s expectations and acceptance of mature literature. Meanwhile, the privacy of love letters between him and his lovers emboldened his writing even further. Referring to another famous author, Miller even wrote

“I wish God had given me the gift of writing about sex like D. H. Lawrence. Somehow my efforts always seem crude and shocking.”

Despite this harsh self-critique, Miller’s personal letters often involve very affectionate phrases such as “You’re food and drink to me” which break up the more explicit content. 

Letters to Anais Nin

Anais Nin is an accredited author in her own right, and her letters to Miller fuelled his passionate writings. When they were apart, Miller wrote

When you return I am going to give you one literary fuck fest—that means fucking and talking and talking and fucking.”

They often shared steamy memories, future promises and steamy hypotheticals.

With Miller’s characteristic stream-of-consciousness monologue style, it’s easy to imagine the lonesome author narrating the letter through his daydreams and fantasies. 

I feel your soft mouth closing over me, your leg clutching me tight, see you again in the kitchen here lifting your dress and sitting on top of me and the chair riding around over the kitchen floor, going thump, thump.

Letters could take weeks or even months to arrive and the drawn-out angst of awaiting a reply must have been agony. Compared to the near-instantaneous responses lovers can access now, the wait must have been practically unbearable. Much like the internet, the postal system held many a secret between lovers. Miller was acutely aware of the possibility of a mistaken recipient, remarking

God forgive me if this letter is ever opened by mistake. I can’t help it. I want you.”

These personal communications rarely appear publically, though Anais Nin’s family saved her personal diary and letters she kept from Henry. They were published after her death as part of an homage to her career in erotic literature. These two authors made their careers pushing the boundaries of published work, and their love lives clearly served as inspiration for their explicit narratives. 

Accessing sex-related media in the form of books, art or film has never been easier. The internet serves as the ultimate platform to create, sell and access pornography, in a variety of forms. From on-demand one-on-one camgirls to archives of homemade and professionally produced pornos, there’s no shortage of explicit material. Before that, however, getting a hold of erotic imagery could be much more difficult.

The Rise Of Printing

People have created, traded and sold nude art for millennia, but nudity often portrayed vulnerability and innocence. It wasn’t until recently, that nudity took on a risque or suggestive side. While there were certainly sexually suggestive artworks available, they were few and far between, and not available for personal collection. It wasn’t until the 19th century that printing duplicate copies of erotic illustrations became practical. Even after the printing press, printed media was difficult to come by and wasn’t part of a mainstream market.

Cultural Constrictions

The regulations regarding published media typically restricted printed works from depicting sex scenes and frequently censored the images. Uncensored publications were more often available through underground networks than from reputable sources.

The 1960s marked cultural shifts that generated more demand for sex-related content. Soon after that, the laws regarding the publication of explicit content shifted to reflect it. Some countries remained quite conservative which led to the development of black market distribution of pornography. Others, like the United States, embraced their new-found sexuality. Whether it’s seen as part of a sexual revolution or a newfound way to objectify and crudely profit from women, the changes were a global phenomenon.

The Golden Age of Print

The 1970s and ‘80s were the height of the X-rated magazine industry, particularly in the U.S. The improvement of printing technology meant better quality images and they were able to be mass-produced and distributed. Playboy, with its iconic bunny ears, sold 5.6 million copies in 1975. It was among the most successful magazine companies, alongside Hustler and Penthouse. Magazines were available for purchase at newsstands and convenience stores, and could even be periodically mailed to your home.

Going Digital

As the internet became more available to the public, sharing erotic material became easier than ever. Printed magazines couldn’t keep up with the accessibility, convenience and prices of online alternatives. Many printed publications, like Playboy, had to shift to online platforms or risk disappearing from the porn industry altogether. Currently, printed editions are available for purchase online but the overwhelming majority of pornographic material is entirely digitally based.

While the centrefolds of erotic magazines no longer fuel young men’s imaginations, those paper-and-ink origins paved the way for the socio-cultural and legal changes that allow digital media to flourish. The dog-eared pages of pornos-gone-by are responsible for some of the biggest shifts in modern attitudes toward sex. So, next time your X-rated video isn’t loading fast enough, imagine the frustration of it getting lost in the mail!