The Porn I’d Like to See in the World

I spend a lot of time thinking about and talking about porn. I find our cultural relationship to it fascinating, partly because it sheds light on some facets of our attitudes towards sex that are hard to see otherwise.

In the interest of full disclosure, I work for a company that sells sexually explicit movies and also produces queer porn and sex education movies. I have many friends and colleagues who are or have been porn performers. Some of them have had amazing experiences and enjoyed their time in the industry. Some of them disliked or hated it and are glad to be out of it. I mention this both because I want to be transparent about both my biases and because, unlike most people who discuss porn, I have as much of an insider’s view of the industry that one can have without actually being a performer or producer. And since I’m not actually on the inside, I have more distance than most of the folks who are.

I recognize that a lot of people have problems that center on porn. I don’t subscribe to the sex addiction model. Instead, I think that some people deal with their anxiety, fear, and shame through sex and/or porn, just as other people use video games, food, or shopping to self-soothe. I agree with Michael Bader that the real issue is how people can learn how to respond to the root cause rather than blaming the mechanism they use to avoid it. Further, it’s quite common for people’s self-soothing strategies to amplify the difficult emotions that they’re supposed to decrease. Binge-purge cycles of any kind are often one example of this.

None of this is specific to sex or to porn, which is why I think we need to look more deeply at the commonalities that transcend the specific object used. At the same time, I also see that our cultural representations of sex, which both affect and are affected by porn, often create or reinforce the issues around which people feel discomfort. Some people use porn and sex to self-soothe their pain, fear, and shame. A lot of porn and the types of sex it usually portrays can contribute to the problems that people face around sex. And plenty of people enjoy porn in any of a number of ways without it reinforcing maladaptive patters, either in themselves or in the world around them.

I believe that some of the current trends in the porn industry are deeply problematic, in some of the same ways that the food industry is problematic. This isn’t the first time I’ve drawn a comparison between sex & food, but the analogy recently inspired a few questions for me.

In many ways, a lot of porn is comparable to junk food. It’s a highly distilled and concentrated formulation that is engineered to tap into some of our most basic urges. As a culture, we’re really good at taking something that’s good for us or fun and distilling it to the point of toxicity. In the case of food, it’s salt, sugar, and fat. In the case of porn, it’s formulaic, unrealistic sex that follows predictable conventions and neglects genuine pleasure. In both cases, real diversity and variety is removed and instead, superficial differences are promoted as innovations. When it comes down to it, what’s the difference between Cheetos, Doritos, or Fritos? They’re all corn products, with salt, fat, and variations in flavoring additives. Their purpose isn’t to nourish- their purpose is to get people to buy their products so the producers can get as much money as possible.

food + capitalism -> junk food
sexually explicit media + capitalism -> junk porn

There are some companies that are trying to produce different products. In the realm of food, Amy’s Kitchen comes to mind. In the porn world, QueerPorn.tv, Good Releasing, Pink & White are doing much the same. They’re still processed products, but they’re trying to offer more wholesome (for lack of a better word) alternatives. Of course, we could debate whether the financial pressures of 21st century capitalism will push them towards the junk food end of the spectrum, but for the moment, let’s just leave it as “some food/porn companies are trying to offer better (but still processed) options.”

To follow this analogy a bit further, when people grow up eating nothing but junk food and fast food, they often have a lot of difficulty learning to appreciate the flavors of unprocessed or less processed food. When I stopped eating sugar, it took about a month before I was used to it. These days, I notice an incredible range of tastes that my palate simply wasn’t sensitive to when it was being overwhelmed with highly-concentrated sugar on a regular basis. Now, if I eat a candy bar, all I can taste is the sugar corn syrup.

I can’t help but see that lots of people who have grown up with easily-accessible porn have been shaped by it. Lacking accurate and non-judgmental sex education, plenty of them turned to the one source of information they could find. And just as people who grow up eating junk food on a daily basis end up being affected by it, I don’t see any reason to believe that junk porn would be different.

Of course, some people will point out that porn’s purpose isn’t to educate or to model accurate representations of sex- its purpose is to provide a fantasy. Personally, I think that’s a cop out because it avoids the questions of what fantasies porn offers or what effects that has on individuals and on our culture. And to use this analogy a bit more, it’s comparable to someone saying that since the purpose of processed food is to give people something tasty, the manufacturers have no responsibility for the effects of their products on the health of their customers. I don’t buy that when it comes to food and I don’t buy that when it comes to porn.

One of the criticisms that I hear about porn is based on the anecdotal evidence of young people (mostly, but not entirely men) who have difficulty connecting sexually with a partner unless they’re watching porn or fantasizing about porn. I’ve heard this from enough different people who have experienced it and from therapists and clinicians who have clients in these situations that I can’t discount it. And I can’t help but think that perhaps, some people are in the place I was when I stopped eating sugar. It can take a while to develop a more sensitive palate and appreciate the subtler experiences of real life sex when you’re used to the concentrated form.

I can imagine a world without junk food. I think that world would still have processed food, but there’s a difference between these two things. Or perhaps more accurately, junk food is a subset of processed food- not all processed food is junk.

Similarly, I can imagine a world without junk porn, or at least, with more options. I think that there would still be sexually explicit movies (SEM) and I’ve been wondering what that might look like. Here’s some of what I’ve come up with.

SEM performers would perform sexual acts that they personally enjoy. Viewers would know that performers were enthusiastically consenting to whatever they were doing. At any time in a production, if a performer felt uncomfortable for any reason, they would be able to address that, which might mean changing or ending the scene, without negative consequences. Performers would also be able to choose who they would work with.

SEM production companies would be transparent about their hiring and labor practices. There would be no financial or emotional pressure to engage in sexual acts that performers don’t enjoy pleasure or with people they would prefer to not perform with. Performers would not be considered too old at 25 because our culture would celebrate the sexual expressions of people of all ages. Older performers would not be pressured into engaging in more extreme sexual acts in order to compete with the new, fresh face. Nor would younger and less experienced performers be pressured into doing anything they didn’t already know that they enjoyed in their personal lives.

Rather than focusing on formulaic sex, which requires performers to engage in activities that they might not want to do in that moment, performers would be able to negotiate their desires and needs with each other as they shift. There would be room for viewers to see things like people applying lubricant, shifting positions, or asking for a different kind of stimulation, just as folks do in real life. While there would likely be some focus on the sexual organs of the performers, it would not be to the exclusion of the rest of their bodies and their interactions with each other.

There would be many more representations of different kinds of sex, different bodies, and different genders. Performers would not be pressured to modify their bodies in any way (including breast implants, pubic hair removal, etc.), and they would be free to modify their bodies in any way they saw fit.

The glass wall between male performers who have sex with men on camera and those who don’t wouldn’t exist. Performers would be able to shoot scenes with anyone who consented to without sexist or homophobic attitudes influencing their careers. Similarly, the fetishization of performers’ races and ethnicities would have disappeared. And performers’ careers would not be affected by their decision to shoot a scene with a partner of any race.

I know that we are a long way from this world. And I also think that it’s important to hold onto the fact that while the porn industry is deeply problematic, many of its flaws come from the context in which it takes place. It’s easy to blame the industry for the ways in which sexism, racism and homophobia are expressed, without acknowledging that it’s a reflection of the larger culture. Many of the problems of the porn industry also exist in effectively every other industry in our culture.

It’s valuable to examine the ways in which the porn industry as it currently exists perpetuates many of these patterns. That’s part of the process of improving things. At the same time, it’s important to question whether the problems people identify as coming from porn are actually inherent in sexually explicit movies, or whether they’re the result of the interplay between SEM, capitalism, and social oppressions. Blaming porn for being affected by and sexism, homophobia, racism, transphobia, etc. is missing the point. And we have plenty of evidence that shows that trying to get rid of porn causes a whole slew of problems and consequences of its own.

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
–Buckminster Fuller

But until we can look at these dynamics, until we can separate our feelings about sex and SEM from the very real problems that exist in the porn industry, we’re not going to be able to move forward. As long as we keep getting stuck in the “porn is/porn isn’t” fights, we’ll go round and round in circles, just as we have for the last several decades. Porn is much too complex and diverse to fit in a single description, so there are always counter-examples.

Given the very clear record of the consequences of trying to ban or censor sexually explicit media, and given that it’s entirely possible to imagine and create SEM that doesn’t reinforce the many problematic patterns within media and US culture, what would that look like? What’s missing from the list above? Can you think of anything else we could add?

I invite you to consider that without getting caught up in the question of “how do we make it happen/is it even possible to make it happen?” The first step in moving things forward is envisioning where we want to go. Once we do that, we can look at what’s actually possible. So without worrying about what’s feasible or likely (for the moment), what kind of porn would you like to see in the world?

(Note- comments about specific sexual acts or performers will be deleted. That’s not the point. Attacking or blaming will also result in your comment being deleted.)

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7 Responses so far.

  1. Eli says:

    A junk food diet may be lacking essential nutrients, so people become overfed but undernourished. One could probably argue that this is the case with representations of sex in the media (not just porn) at present.

    Regarding sex movies, I think they’ve been approached too much from the “movie” angle, with actors acting and even (heaven forbid!) plot and stuff. As opposed to the “sex” angle. Personally I much rather watch amateur porn of people having actual sex than a “performance” by actors…

  2. Great observations. I would love to see a list of your recommended “healthy” porn sites.

  3. Josh Ryan says:

    It’s amazing to read something and just be “Yes! That Exactly!”
    I’ve been trying to articulate this sentiment for a long time, and you just hit it spot on.
    There’s a new service called offbeatr that’s like a kickstarter for adult projects, and it’s suppose to launch tomorrow. I’ve got a project going up there and I hope you don’t mind that I quote from this article. 
    But it’s my attempt at SEM. Yes, I intend to use actors, who play characters, but I’m not really sure there is another way to tell the story I want to tell.
    In a lot of ways I’m modeling it after the movie Shortbus, which I thought was amazing, and I think would qualify as SEM under Charlies definition.

  4. R says:

    An excellect article. I especially like the description of ‘sex addiction’ as the method of self-soothing rather than the cause of the problem. I’ll have to remember that next time the topic is mentioned.
     
    However, I feel I may have misunderstood this sentence. “Similarly, the fetishization of performers’ races and ethnicities would have disappeared.” As much as we can’t judge people of one race based on the behaviour of an individual, isn’t sexual attraction or fetishisation different?
     
    Some people are attracted to blondes, for example. Obviously not all of the blondes in the world, and not to the exclusion of all people who aren’t blonde, but it can be a preference. Likewise, some people are attracted to Africans or Asians or Caucasians. Personally I don’t think people should be discouraged from seeking out sexual material containing these specific groups just because it might be seen as singling out a performer by their race or ethnicity. How is choosing sexual material based on the ethnicity of the performers different from choosing based on the sex acts they’re performing or their aesthetic traits?

  5. Brida says:

    As a straight girl watching and enjoying porn, I end up avoiding most porn with male – female interactions. And this is absurd if you think that would be the most similar to my real sexual preferences. But I just find that every time there are a man and a woman performing sex – the woman ends up diminished, used, hurt, and almost certainly not really enjoying what she is doing very much. I find that all the cuts leave out the female pleasure, all the positions are thought from a male perspective. So I watch pretty much everything else, sometimes it might be very far from what I actually like, but I am more turned on by someone doing something that I don’ t personally like – and enjoying it – than by someone who does what I do with no pleasure…

  6. xoxoskeleton says:

    R,
    Race and porn isn’t so simple as aesthetic preference. On one hand, I’d actually still like to be able to look up certain races because I’ve found that depending who my partner is at the time, sometimes I want to specifically search the combination of mine and their race or mine and their body type. It’s surprisingly difficult! Racial diversity is far from achieved in porn.
    And so what I’ve found most problematic about searching porn by race is that some people seek out sexual stereotypes of a race and even project those expectations onto their partners, or I will only find stereotypical representations of my race’s sexuality with little variety.
    Charlie, I want a world where when I look up a certain fetish, I will see many different identities enjoying that fetish together. And when I look up a certain identity, I will be able to see that identity enjoying many different fantasies and kinks. Diversity and *pleasure* in porn are so important because sometimes I want to be able to relate to my porn and their turn ons and other times hearing why someone else enjoys something helps me appreciate the fetish even if I don’t enjoy it myself.

  7. […] Let’s Get Picky When Picking Porn Charlie Glickman (who paid us a visit this weekend!) discusses changes he’d like to see in the […]

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