From the Medieval period we have the Decameron (1353) by the Italian , Giovanni Boccaccio (made into a film by Pasolini) which features tales of lechery by monks and the seduction of nuns from convents. This book was banned in many countries. Even five centuries after publication copies were seized and destroyed by the authorities in the USA and the UK. For instance between 1954 and 1958 eight orders for destruction of the book were made by English magistrates.
From the fifteenth century another classic of Italian erotica is the Facetiae of Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini.
An early pioneer of the publication of erotic works in England was Edmund Curll (1675-1747). The rise of the novel in 18th century England provided a new medium for erotica. One of the most famous in this new genre was Fanny Hill by John Cleland. This book set a new standard in literary smut and has often been adapted for the cinema in the 20th century.
French writers at this time also wrote erotica. One example is The Lifted Curtain or Laura's Education, about a young girl's sexual initiation by her father, written by the Comte de Mirabeau.
In the late 18th century the theme of sado-masochism was explored by the Marquis de Sade in such works as Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue and 120 Days of Sodom. The Marquis de Sade's work was very influential on later erotica and he (together with the later writer Sacher-Masoch) lent his name to the sexual acts which he describes in his fiction.
In the Victorian period, the quality of erotic fiction was much below that of the previous century — it was written by 'hacks'. However, some contained borrowings from established literary models, such as Dickens. It also featured a curious form of social stratification. Even in the throes of orgasm, the social distinctions between master and servant (including form of address) were scrupulously observed. Significant elements of sado-masochism were present in some examples, perhaps reflecting the influence of the English public school. These works were often anonymous, and undated, and include such titles as The Lustful Turk (1828); The Way of a Man with a Maid; A Weekend Visit, The Romance of Lust (1873); The Autobiography of a Flea (1887); Beatrice; Venus in India (1889) by 'Captain Charles Devreaux'; Raped on the Railway: A True Story of a Lady who was first ravished and then flagellated on the Scotch Express (1894); Flossie, A Venus of Fifteen: By one who knew this Charming Goddess and worshipped at her shrine (1897) and My Lustful Adventures by 'Ramrod'.
Clandestine erotic periodicals of this period include The Pearl a collection of erotic tales, rhymes, songs and parodies published in London between 1879 to 1880.
Towards the end of the century, a more 'cultured' form of erotica began to appear by such as the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne who pursued themes of paganism, lesbianism and sado-masochism in such works as Lesbia Brandon and in contributions to The Whippingham Papers edited by St George Stock, author of The Romance of Chastisement. This was associated with the Decadent movement, in particular, with Aubrey Beardsley and the Yellow Book. But it was also to be found in France, amongst such writers as Pierre Louys, author of Les chansons de Bilitis (1894) (a celebration of lesbianism and sexual awakening).
Twentieth century erotic fiction includes such classics of the genre as: Maudie by Anon; Sadopaideia (1907) by Anon; Trois Filles de Leur Mére (1926) by Pierre Louys; Story of the Eye (1928) by Georges Bataille; Tropic of Cancer (1934) by Henry Miller; The Story of O (1954) by Pauline Réage; Lolita (1955) and Ada, or Ardor (1969) by Vladimir Nabokov; Delta of Venus (1978) by Anaïs Nin and The Bicycle Rider (1985) by Guy Davenport.
Lolita and The Story of O were published by Olympia Press, a Paris-based publisher, launched in 1953 by Maurice Girodias as a rebadged version of the Obelisk Press he inherited from his father Jack Kahane. It published a mix of erotic fiction and avant-garde literary works.
Erotic fantasy is often very similar to romantic fantasy, but is far more graphic and goes into much more detail when describing sex scenes. Erotic fantasy can also be found in Fan Fiction. Erotic fan fiction focuses on using existing fantasy characters such as Galadriel or Éowyn from the Lord of the Rings novels and movies. Many recent works of erotic fan fiction use characters from the settings made popular by Dungeons & Dragons such as Dragonlance, and to a lesser extent Forgotten Realms. The nature of these erotic fantasy fiction varies widely, and include Slash fiction, and Elf porn.
Sensational journalism such as W.T. Stead's The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon (1885) about the procuring of underage girls into the brothels of Victorian London has also provided a stimulus for the erotic imagination. Stead's account was widely translated and the revelation of "padded rooms for the purpose of stifling the cries of the tortured victims of lust and brutality" and the symbolic figure of "The Minotaur of London" confirmed European observers worst imaginings about "Le Sadisme anglais" and inspired erotic writers to write of similar scenes set in London or involving sadistic English gentlemen. Such writers include D'Annunzio in Il Piacere, Paul-Jean Toulet in Monsieur de Paur (1898), Octave Mirbeau in Jardin des Supplices (1899) and Jean Lorrain in Monsieur de Phocas (1901).
From around the late 1970s, many sex manuals have been published and openly sold in the western world, notably The Joy of Sex. Sex manuals specifically written for sexual minorities are also now published.
The first conviction for obscenity in England occurred in 1727 when Edmund Curll was fined for the publication of Venus in the Cloister or The Nun in her Smock under the common law offence of disturbing the King's peace. This set a legal precedent for other convictions. However it seems it was for the publication of other books by Curll considered seditious and blasphemous, such as The Memoirs of John Ker, which caused most offense to the authorities. Prosecutions of erotica later in the eighteenth century were rare and were most often taken because of the admixture of seditious and blasphemous material with the porn. For instance no proceeding were taken against the publishers of Cleland's notorious Fanny Hill (1763).
It was the Obscene Publications Act 1857 which made the sale of obscene material a statutory offence, for the first time, giving the courts power to seize and destroy offending material. The origins of the Act itself were in a trial for the sale of pornography presided over by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Campbell, at the same time as a debate in the House of Lords over a bill aiming to restrict the sale of poisons. Campbell was taken by the analogy between the two situations, famously referring to the London pornography trade as "a sale of poison more deadly than prussic acid, strychnine or arsenic, and proposed a bill to restrict the sale of pornography; giving statutory powers of destruction would allow for a much more effective degree of prosecution. The bill was controversial at the time, receiving strong opposition from both Houses of Parliament, and was passed on the assurance by the Lord Chief Justice that it was "...intended to apply exclusively to works written for the single purpose of corrupting the morals of youth and of a nature calculated to shock the common feelings of decency in any well-regulated mind." The House of Commons successfully amended it so as not to apply to Scotland, on the grounds that Scottish common law was sufficiently stringent.
The Act provided for the seizure and destruction of any material deemed to be obscene, and held for sale or distribution, following information being laid before a "court of summary jurisdiction" (Magistrates' court). The Act required that following evidence of a common-law offence being committed - for example, on the report of a plain-clothes policeman who had successfully purchased the material - the court could issue a warrant for the premises to be searched and the material seized. The proprietor then would be called upon to attend court and give reason why the material should not be destroyed. Critically, the Act did not define "obscene", leaving this to the will of the courts.
Whilst the Act itself did not change, the scope of the work affected by it did. In 1868 Sir Alexander Cockburn, Campbell's successor as Lord Chief Justice, held in an appeal that the test of obscenity was "...whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall." This was clearly a major change from Campbell's opinion only ten years before - the test now being the effect on someone open to corruption who obtained a copy, not whether the material was intended to corrupt or offend.
Cockburn's declaration remained in force for several decades, and most of the high profile seizures under the Act relied on this interpretation. Known as the Hicklin test no cognisance was taken of the literary merit of a book or on the extent of the offending text within the book in question.
This question of whether a book had literary merit eventually prompted a change in the law. The Obscene Publications Act 1959 provided for the protection of "literature" but conversely increased the penalties against pure "pornography". The law defined obscenity and separated it from serious works of art.
The new definition read:
"[A]n article shall be deemed to be obscene if its effect or (where the article comprises two or more distinct items) the effect of any one of its items is, if taken as a whole, such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it."
After this piece of legislation questions of the literary merit of the work in question were allowed to be put before the judge and jury as in the Lady Chatterley trial. The publishers of the latter book were found not guilty by the court on the grounds of the literary merit of the book. However in later prosecutions of literary erotica, under the provisions of the act, even purely pornographic works with no apparent literary merit escaped destruction by the authorities. Purely textual pornographic texts, with no hint of libel, have not been brought to trial since the Inside Linda Lovelace trial collapsed in 1976. However, in October 2008, a man was charged under the Obscene Publications Act for posting fictional written material to the Internet allegedly describing kidnap, rape and murder of pop group Girls Aloud.
In the USA, the First Amendment gives protection to written fiction — although in one case, a man pled guilty and was convicted for writing unpublished stories (these were works of fiction concerning sexually abusing children) that were contained only in his personal and private journal. That conviction was later overturned on appeal.
Importing books and texts across national borders can sometimes be subject to more stringent laws than in the nations concerned. Customs officers are often permitted to seize even merely 'indecent' works that would be perfectly legal to sell and possess once one is inside the nations concerned. Canada has been particularly notorious for such border seizures.
In some nations, even purely textual erotic literature is still deemed illegal and is also prosecuted.
Readers of erotic fiction in most of the world's liberal democracies are now able to indulge their fantasies in the comfort and privacy of their homes, without the social and legal restrictions of a pre-digital era. Online bookstores now legally carry a range of professional, commercial and non-commercial erotic writing.
Where as once access to online erotic fiction was largely restricted to membership or pay sites, in recent years a marked increase in the number of community based, not-for-profit or free access websites has led to an explosion in the level of popularity of this genre.
Increased interactivity and anonymity allows casual or hobby writers the opportunity to not only author their own stories (sometimes based on personal fantasies), but then share them with a world wide audience.
Many authors adopt colorful pseudonyms and can develop cult followings within their genre, though a small number use (or claim to use) their real names. Among transgendered authors, it's common practice to adopt a feminine alter-ego, although it's not unheard of for a writer to use his own first name.
Over the years, many non-profit sites have limited themselves to a particular sub-genre (or fetish). Other websites have started and then vanished (or have never been updated or properly maintained).