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Book Review: The Erotic Engine

As a humble undergrad student studying for my Bachelor’s in Language Arts, I somehow managed to make it through Mass Communications 1, Applied Media Technology, as well as Art History 1 and 2 without ever reading about porn. And while some people may want to believe that cave paintings, Egyptian hieroglyphs or the internet contain zero depictions of vaginas and penises, the truth is irrevocably the opposite. And I always felt like I was missing something in my understanding of these topics when sexuality was so blatantly ignored.

Which is why I am super stoked to have read “The Erotic Engine: How Pornography Has Powered Mass Communication from Gutenberg to Google” by Patchen Barss.

The Erotic Engine is a wonderful history of mass communications that includes pornography, erotica, and the sexual yearnings of the users and inventors of all mediums in technology.

This book begins where nearly all discussions of mass comm begin: cave paintings. But right from the start the author offers a refreshing perspective that carries through ancient sculptures, the printing press, photography, film, cable, Bulletin Board Systems, the internet, virtual reality and the cusp of biometric sex toys.

The book is by no means a dry academic account of history and trends. Barss employs a myriad of voices from every walk of life as he interviewed everyone from anthropology professors to developers of X-rated video games. The author included quotes and conversations from these people that add a great deal of perspective and life to the narration.

Barss discusses porn: the industry and, moreover, the consumption of sexy visuals. But the book delves much deeper than just the distribution and buying of images or videos. The author also discusses how people use the technology to connect, on a very intimate level, to other people with the same needs and desires. I think it is important to remember that erotica, porn, and interacting with other people online constitutes a large part of many people’s lives and relationships. I feel the author addressed this with respect and honesty.

The author also high lights the darker side of porn and tech by discussing things like scams, theft, and child pornography. The book also describes how law enforcement works with technology to find and stop perpetrators of these crimes.

Overall I thought this book was very well balanced – the author shed positive light on the great things happening with porn and technology, and the innovators behind them, while acknowledging the downfalls and imperfections of the trends, as well as the less than savory personalities in the industry.

The author also showcases times when porn or sex did not provide a driving force behind the development of a technology, and explains the climate of the time and how the sex industry adapted to these changes.

At no time did I feel the author was pushing a particular agenda, a rare find indeed in a book regarding pornography.

I recommend The Erotic Engine to anyone who has an interest in mass communications – this book will likely fill in some blank spots left by mainstream discussions of the subject. And of course, anyone who has a soft spot for Multi-User Domains or Betamax, and likes a little spice with their nostalgia.


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