With Akon and Snoop Dogg rapping about their randy desires in ‘I Wanna Fuck You’, E.L. James bringing sadomasochism to the mainstream with her Fifty Shades of Grey and Jeff Koons exhibiting his pornographic series of photographs, Made in Heaven, at New York’s Witney Museum, it is clear that we have a cultural obsession with the portrayal of sex. The coital act penetrates art from its lowest to its very highest forms; not a single medium is exempt from our collective prurience.

So what precedents does this sexual saturation have in the cultural history of the Western world? In Ancient Greece, the myths of Plutarch and Homer told salacious tales such as that of Aphrodite, goddess of sex, who grew out of the foaming semen of her father’s castrated testicles, and Hercules, a mortal hero, who ravished fifty virgins in one night and had an affair with his nephew, Iolaus. The female poet, Sappho, from the island of Lesbos — hence the word lesbian — composed a Hymn to Aphrodite that featured plenty of female homoeroticism. Ceramics were often painted with sexual scenes, some of them featuring homosexual or pederastic (the sexual relationship between a man and a boy) practices. The Greeks had no concept of pornography, as sex was not associated with immorality or illegality, so these depictions were simply reflections of every day life.

The Romans were just as open in their attitude toward sex, considering depictions of sexual acts to be in good taste. One of the first objects that was excavated from the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum was a marble statue showing the god Pan having sex with a goat. These towns were also littered with engravings of phalluses and testicles, the purpose of which was to advertise brothels and merely serve as decoration. Sex appears extensively in literature of the time, too: Cicero delivered speeches attacking his opponents’ sexual conduct, Ovid composed humorous erotic elegies and Juvenal railed against the sexual mores of his society. Pliny even gave practical advice for contraceptives, recommending the unappealing combination of pigeon droppings mixed with oil and wine.

So why did this all change? The answer is simple: the Bible. The canonical text of the Judaeo-Christian tradition introduced teachings on sexual morality for the first time. It taught that sex has its proper place in marriage with the dual purpose of pleasure and procreation. As such, many of the sexual acts that the ancients practised came to be seen as sinful, and their depiction immoral. Christian ethics meant that frank descriptions of sexuality almost disappeared from literature. Art became dominated by iconography and music by sacred chants, which unsurprisingly featured rather little rumpy-pumpy. Christian teachings certainly diminished references to sex in art, but did not eradicate them completely. Many of the stories in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales contain saucy sexual adventures, most notably those of the prolific Wife of Bath.

The Renaissance, which started around the Fourteenth Century, was a sexual revolution of sorts. Michelangelo created beautiful drawings of naked male bodies to present to his young lover and Leonardo boasted that his painting of the Madonna was so beautiful that the man who purchased it was plagued by indecent thoughts. Artists legitimised their depictions of erotic scenes by the fact that the themes were borrowed from antiquity. Countless paintings by Renaissance artists such as Titian, Bronzino and Correggio had Venus (the Roman equivalent of Aphrodite) as their subject. Most famous of these is Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, in which the nude goddess emerges from the sea on a seashell, which has been seen as a metaphor for a woman’s vulva. Ironically, some paintings, such as Titian’s Mary Magdalen Repentant and Rembrandt’s Bathsheba with King David’s Letter drew their subjects from the Bible, the very text which had discouraged these sorts of works. Almost all of these works depicted single nudes, which were certainly suggestive but also coy: implicitly, rather than explicitly sexual.

It was not until the Enlightenment that explicit sexual content re-emerged in the arts. Novels such as Richardson’s Clarissa explored the excitement and dangers of sexual perversion while Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons was founded upon a web of sexual dalliances and discussed virginity, lesbianism, rape and abortion in no unclear terms. While Bouguereau and Courbet painted female nudes with porcelain flesh and couples with limbs intertwined, Bornet illustrated the Marquis de Sade’s erotic novels with engravings, which featured oral, orgies and orgasms. However, more often than not these works were banned and, if they did make it past the censors, were available only to the very highest echelons of society.

In the aftermath of the 1960s sexual revolution, no portrayal of sex is too shocking. We have come full circle to the times when depictions of sex held no kind of taboo. However, sex, whether overt or covert, has always existed in our artistic imagination. We may complain that our society is overly sex-orientated, but we cannot deny that it has historic precedent. Ultimately, culture breeds sex as much as sex breeds culture.