Even apart from its punning subtitle, Porn seems to have the makings of one of those dubious inquiries into sexual experience whose high-minded claims to sociological or scientific interest will be undermined on every page by the hot, pervy details of people’s sex lives. But Polly Barton’s oral history turns out to be something different. A British translator of Japanese fiction, Barton interviews nineteen friends and acquaintances of different ages, genders, and sexual identities about the place of pornography in their lives. There isn’t really any history, and none of the participants is involved in making pornography—the interviews are all about its consumption. Barton’s interviewees describe their first, sometimes accidental, discovery of porn. Or finding something alarming in a partner’s search history. Or watching porn with partners. These are the kinds of scenes that would seem inevitably to acquire a pornographic energy of their own in the telling. Interestingly, they don’t.
The project has its roots in an experience that Barton had many years ago, at age twenty-one, in a video store while she was living in rural Japan. The shop had a separate room for porn videos that she was not aware of until a fellow browser beside her suddenly seemed to vanish. Where had he gone? Barton spotted a hole in one of the walls, concealed by pink satin curtains. She now observed a ritual that she hadn’t noticed before: men (it was always men) would pretend to study the TV box sets for a while, then dart through the curtains. A few minutes later they came back out with what she now realized was porn.
Barton did not want to go into the porn room (“I didn’t want to see the rows of DVDs with pictures that would probably make me feel strange and uncomfortable”), but she came to enjoy watching the men perform their ruse, not minding—indeed feeling “a faint sense of jubilation”—that her presence by the pink curtains might be discomfiting to them:
I think [it] was something to do with feeling the tables had been turned: until that point in my life, I’d felt that porn was a mechanism used to make me feel embarrassed or somehow hemmed in both existentially and physically, or at least, which did make me embarrassed and hemmed in, for a host of reasons that I found it difficult to unravel.
Barton didn’t want to be uncomfortable with the porn videos—she wanted to be as blasé as the video store clerks who read out “Edward Penishands” in the same neutral tone they used for any customer purchase. She was aware that there are many kinds of porn, and she knew the feminist line about the importance of female sexual agency. She felt the good feminist position was to be pro-porn, or at least porn-comfortable. But instead of an ordinary part of life, pornography seemed like life’s indecent obverse. Porn was to waking life as the pink-curtained room was to the main room. As “Edward Penishands” was to “Edward Scissorhands.”
Years passed, but not Barton’s “tortured ambivalence” about porn consumption (including her own). By then, public forums swirled with contradictory talk about porn—its addictiveness, its misogyny, its liberating variety, its salutary or detrimental effects on relationships. Barton was aware of the work on pornography in philosophy and film studies departments, the documentaries and podcasts about the porn industry, the porn addiction recovery community, and the right-wing movement to restrict access to pornography. But while there was no shortage of discourse, “I still hadn’t had a real conversation about it with someone I wasn’t going out with,” she writes. “I had no idea what [my friends] might think, or feel, or do, or watch.” She decided to write about it and sent a group e-mail to acquaintances and friends asking if anyone was willing to be interviewed, anonymously, about their experiences with porn, in preparation for a book she planned to write. In fact, the first nineteen interviews she recorded became, with minimal editing, the book itself.
Her subjects, identified only by gender, age, and sexual orientation, are drawn from a small pool of her social and professional worlds. Most of them live in the UK, some in the US or Japan. They range in age from early twenties to early eighties, with most in their thirties; some are married or in long-term relationships, others are single, including single by choice. As Barton acknowledges, the book makes no attempt to be anything like a comprehensive survey. Instead, it models the kinds of conversations she thinks are still missing from our social lives, showing the reader “what it looked like to talk about these things, amongst friends.”
Online erotic material is part of nearly every subject’s life. Many watch, or have watched, porn on popular sites like Pornhub and xHamster. Others subscribe to OnlyFans accounts or follow “porny Instagrams” and Tumblr porn blogs. One follows two real-life couples who post their own videos on Pornhub. One reads stories on Literotica, another on fan fiction sites. (One likes their written pornography in actual books, printed and bound.)
A woman in her thirties who describes herself as fat prefers major sites to smaller, independent channels because of the variety of body types she can find among the amateur content. “Until discovering Pornhub a few years ago, I had genuinely not seen any images of fat people having sex,” she tells Barton. A man in his eighties supplements his visits to xHamster with an occasional full-length film that he watches with a partner: “If you have something which lasts an hour and twenty minutes, the development gives you more sexual satisfaction than an instant shot of fellatio or cunnilingus or ejaculation.” A woman in her thirties takes something like the opposite view: “I don’t want to watch all the narrative build-up…. Basically I really enjoy very graphic close-ups of genitals having intercourse.”
Most have been looking at some form of porn since adolescence. One was first shown online pornography by his father when he was twelve. Another had a group of friends who would steal magazines from train station kiosks. Another accidentally discovered porn at a slumber party, through an innocent Web search for a popular brand of pencil cases called Bang on the Door. No one is categorically against porn, but nor do they seem under the tyranny of sex positivity. “There’s an infinite number of things that people get off on,” reflects a gay trans man in his thirties. “So interesting and so stupid. I feel bad for all of us, honestly.”
Some people find that too much porn can intrude on their own fantasy lives and on the sex they have with their partners, and they are careful to moderate their viewing. A woman in her late twenties says she takes a porn hiatus if she finds herself watching it so regularly that it becomes difficult to masturbate without porn. Another interviewee, a gay man in his early thirties, has cut way back on what had become a daily porn habit, feeling that when he watched too much of it he would unconsciously act out the generic formulas and “sexual scripts” with partners. But another, a straight man in his late thirties raised in a religious Christian household, has gone in the opposite direction—from fearing that he was addicted to porn to having the liberating realization that porn was not actually causing problems in his relationships.
A lot of Barton’s subjects describe picking their way through a minefield of content they dislike or find ethically questionable. “If it’s an ‘Oh sorry, pizzaboy, I have no wallet’–type scenario, I won’t watch it,” says one of the subjects, a gay man in his forties. “If it’s an interview with someone first and then sex happens or something, I find that really fascinating.” A straight man in his thirties says, “I’m not really looking for the stepsister wants stepbrother’s dick stuff, which seems to be a blight upon the whole thing.” A queer woman tells Barton, “I haven’t found a way to look for mainstream lesbian porn without immediately getting five pop-ups with fifteen penises in them.” A straight woman likes to see “people having sex that is dominating, but feels consensual…. There’s a real slippery line between consensual stuff and people just abusing a woman, and the woman looking like she’s not enjoying it.” “Part of the whole experience of watching,” another woman sums up, “is having to scroll past or shut your eyes to stuff that you think is abhorrent or troubling.”
For what it’s worth, in this small and self-selecting group there’s not a strong division by gender when it comes to either consumption habits or opinions. One woman recalls feeling furious when she saw “eight person gang-rape or something [like that]” in her boyfriend’s browser history. Another woman says she feels apprehensive when she learns the porn preferences of a man she’s seeing:
The moment I’m confronted with their porn consumption, I’m like: Oh, that’s the thing you’re going to expect me to conform to, and I immediately feel I’m being pigeonholed. It’s only a matter of time before I’ll be requested to behave in a certain way that doesn’t come naturally to me.
Yet a straight man says the same thing about his encounters with women—or specifically, American women. After living in England, France, and the Netherlands, he moved to the US and was struck by the fact that the women he went home with gave him detailed directions based on their favorite porn: “It would be like, Okay, now you’re going to do this, and now you’re going to do that, and now you’re going to do this…. It felt empty of content, somehow, formulaic. Where did you get this from? And why am I strangling you?”
What does distinguish women’s testimony is their sense that as they move around in the world, they are regularly seen as living pornography. “I don’t know what came first,” says an interviewee in her thirties who is Japanese British and remembers white men in the street calling her “geisha” and “China doll” from the time she was in elementary school, “my understanding that Asian women were fetishized, or being aware of porn.” Barton herself tells one of her interview subjects that porn
feels tied up with everything unpleasant I’ve experienced as a woman, from teenagehood on…. When I first encountered porn, I had a strong feeling that this lies at the heart of everything I’m experiencing in interacting with men, this is why I’m being treated the way I am.
On the evidence of the transcripts gathered here, Barton is right that people have learned to talk about sex “without blushing.” More than that, we—or some subset of us—are able to talk about sex in a way that conveys narrative control of our material. We have mastered confession, made it our mode: no one in the book seems to stammer in embarrassment or yield information haphazardly. In fact, everyone is so thoughtful, reasonable, and forthright that the interviews themselves throw into doubt the idea that there’s an uncomfortable silence around porn consumption. Certainly it doesn’t seem like a silence that’s terribly hard to break.
While Barton’s subjects coolly take the measure of the porn scene, she herself emits a steady pulse of anxiety and dismay. She initially describes her feeling about pornography as “a nebulous, all-pervasive worry and discomfort,” but as the interviews unfold, it seems like her concerns run in one direction: porn’s potential misogyny and its negative influence on how heterosexual men view and treat women. She sprinkles her misgivings like a trail of breadcrumbs throughout the book.
“In principle, if I’m with a man, I have no issues with him watching porn,” she tells one interviewee, a straight man in his thirties. “But…I’m concerned that the type of porn will be gang-banging a slut who was gagging for it.” “I still to this day,” she tells a woman in her twenties, “find heterosexual porn quite a scary territory.” In another conversation she says:
The idea of going out with a secret misogynist is scary. I know that’s a really silly way of putting it, but it makes me angry to think about men pretending to be all woke and then actually behind closed doors getting off to “Blonde Slut Gets Pummelled by my Monster Cock.”
Barton, who also goes out with women, has never felt the same fear or suspicion with female partners: “Whatever she’s watching, it’s totally fine, I don’t really feel threatened…. With men, I feel like: Are you pretending to be nice to me but secretly fantasizing about hurting women?”
Speaking with another of her interviewees about his porn preferences and turnoffs, Barton chimes in with her own: “For me, ninety-five percent of the straight, mainstream porn you find on Pornhub feels to some degree exploitative, or if not exploitative, then at least replicating this phallocentric, problematic…” She pauses, searching for a word, and her interlocutor has a suggestion:
Degrading, I guess?
Yes, degrading, exactly.
In another interview, Barton says that porn makes her feel that there is “an unbridgeable gap” between straight men and women. “Which makes me think, if this is how straight men are then I can’t be with a straight man. That’s not my calm, settled position, but sometimes that feeling flares up.”
There’s more than ambivalence here: to my ear it sounds like incredulity and anger verging on repudiation. Some pointed questions seem to want to emerge from Barton’s interview comments, perhaps about the ethics of filming or watching realistic-looking violent sex scenes, or about why it is that everyone searching for porn has to be routed through a gallery of cock-pummeled sluts on the way to whatever they’re looking for.
But when Barton turns outward to address her readers in the concluding chapter, she doesn’t seem able to gather her sentiments into any sort of critical perspective. In fact, the conclusion is notably inarticulate compared to her winning introduction. Unbound from the requirements of social-scientific or journalistic methodology, free to say pretty much anything she wants about pornography, Barton only points back to the need for more talk:
What I’ve come to realize about porn over the course of these conversations is that what scares me the most about it—what I now believe has always scared me the most about it—is the way that the shame and the silence and the guilt and the awkwardness surrounding it, in combination with its compulsive and private nature, work to produce a sense of passivity, a lack of agency and responsibility, that come through on the rare occasions we do speak of it in any earnest way.
Are shame and compulsiveness really what we’ve been hearing in these interviews? And what is it that we should be taking responsibility for? What exactly is the problem, as she sees it?
You get the feeling that Barton really, really wants someone else to formulate her objections to porn. That she exhorts us to talk and keep talking in the hopes that we will venture some negative views, test them against one another, coalesce around a set of opinions, and articulate the community values that mainstream hetero porn can be said to be violating. Yet the interviews themselves cast some doubt on this prospect: a lot of people don’t like certain things about online pornography, but they’re not necessarily the same things, and meanwhile most of them also like other things about porn.
The so-called pro-sex feminist activists and scholars who dissented from the anti-porn movement in the 1980s didn’t do so out of a love of what they saw on porn shop shelves. They readily agreed that plenty of porn was misogynistic. It was one of the first points they wanted to get out of the way in order to say something else. “As the most cursory observation suggests,” wrote Ellen Willis in her 1979 essay “Feminism, Moralism, and Pornography,” “there are many varieties of porn, some pernicious, some more or less benign.” In the introduction to her study of twentieth-century porn films, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible” (1989), Linda Williams wrote:
The question I wish to pose regarding early illegal and later mass-produced legal film and video pornography is therefore not whether it is misogynistic (much of it is) or whether it is art (much of it is not); rather, I wish to ask just what the genre is and why it has been so popular.
Candida Royalle, one of the first women to direct X-rated films, has said that she got her start in the 1970s because she was “horrified to see how sexist” most adult film was. The sex columnist and writer Susie Bright recalls, in an obituary for Andrea Dworkin, that she and other sex-positive types
saw the sexism of the porn business…but we also saw some intriguing possibilities and amazing maverick spirit. We said, “What if we made something that reflected our politics and values, but was just as sexually bold?”
Of course, a lot of porn is misogynistic, but… It was their favorite independent clause, the one that freed them to do the work they found pressing: to turn their political energies to a different cause, to formulate theories of sexuality along lines that were not strictly feminist, to make their own pornography, to study pornography without having to establish or disprove or debate the question of sexism in the political terms of the day.
But they deferred a certain kind of onerous reckoning. Is mainstream porn misogynistic? To a lot of people, it scans that way. But anyone trying to answer the question today must work with an enormous, constantly changing online archive that includes amateur, indie, and studio-produced content scattered across many different sites and platforms, making it nearly impossible to define the parameters of a term like “straight, mainstream porn.”
We don’t even seem to have an effective critical language for thinking the question through. Sexist, problematic, phallocentric—these terms are useful for pointing out the unacknowledged biases and blind spots of many kinds of cultural products, but they’re not very well suited to making meaningful critical statements about the content of pornography. Porn may recirculate stereotypes, but a work of pornography can’t be said to have blind spots or biases: it makes no claims to psychological or emotional realism, to fully formed characters, to representing the world as it is. Is the average blow job video sexist? How do we know?
Is sexism inherent in the text? Or is it in the indexing systems and categories of the porn sites? Or is it an effect of phallocentric porn’s disproportionate numbers and top billing on the sites? Or is sexism a function of how porn is interpreted by its viewers, of their readiness to think that male or female performers represent, or refer to, men and women in the world, categorically? Does repeating the idea that these kinds of videos are insulting to the real-world population of women actually contribute to making them so? To judge by Porn, we seem far from being able to explain heterosexual pornography satisfactorily to ourselves.
In the meantime, friends in conversation supply each other with whatever phrases first come to mind—often the ones that are familiar from overuse, that have been overwritten with decades of conflicting political meanings and intentions, that blur rather than clarify the object of scrutiny, that dig us deeper into the grooves of received ideas. Porn is…what’s the word? Degrading.
Barton is, I think, too quick to attribute her interviewees’ somewhat subdued voices to awkwardness or guilt. Their willingness to compartmentalize is not necessarily a sign that they’re stifled by embarrassment; on the contrary, it might mean that they’ve accepted the idea that if you embrace sexual liberalism you have to help maintain a climate of respect for sexual variety and difference. What looks like passive resignation may in fact be an active suspension of judgment: even those who aren’t crazy about a lot of things they see in porn might decline to condemn any type of pornographic fantasy, even the mainstream hetero male kind, so as not to risk reviving an atmosphere of shame, guilt, and sexual conformism. In the porn commons, people are bound to encounter a lot of things they don’t like, after all; one person’s discomfort is not in itself an indication that someone else has done something wrong.
Nevertheless, I came around to her larger point: there is something lacking, or unduly constrained, in the discourse on porn. Objections to the porn status quo have been raised by people concerned with actual abuse that ends up circulating on the sites; with sexism and harassment still common in the industry; with porn addiction; with children’s early exposure. These are objections raised by (or on behalf of) people who feel themselves to be directly, negatively affected by some aspect of production or distribution. They are not exclusively or even primarily feminist concerns; the political right is currently leaning on these issues to put regulatory pressure on porn sites as well as on nonpornographic LGBTQ online content and sex education materials.
But unharmed malcontents like Barton herself seem reluctant to articulate their views, as if believing that only victim testimony or sociological data can legitimate an opinion. Her inability to present any kind of substantive concluding chapter seems emblematic of a larger difficulty: it’s been hard to find ground on which to raise critical questions about the current state of porn from a liberal or progressive point of view. Notably, she feels free to complain about porn while talking with her interview subjects, but not in the considered piece of writing that she addresses to the public.
No surprise: in the solitude of writing, the responsible porn critic hears an imaginary chorus of protest to the kinds of arguments she might be tempted to make. “But I like this kind of porn—and I’m a woman.” “Censorship usually ends up suppressing queer and feminist porn while leaving misogynistic porn in circulation.” “Why do straight men have to answer morally for their porn preferences when no one else does? Aren’t you just perpetuating double standards in another form?” “Can you really condemn 95 percent of straight male porn? A lot of it is just about female characters who want to have sex. Why is that wrong?” And, inevitably: “Who gets to decide which porn makes the cut?”
No, someone in Barton’s liberal sex-positive position can’t reasonably be against porn, not even so-called straight male porn. But there’s so much more to say than the merely reasonable. Why, in fact, should anyone be expected to have only moderate responses to a cultural product that often exemplifies and celebrates immoderation, that gleefully showers what society holds dear in a rain of semen? Even if we value pornography’s will to travesty, there’s something absurd about the lingering post-1980s liberal consensus that says this moving, flashing wall of provocation can arouse us to orgasm but never to criticism.
The trouble is, immoderate responses to pornography have tended to be voiced by people who position themselves against the whole enterprise and go on to wage campaigns of censorship. React, condemn, suppress—in the history books these actions seem a single, continuous gesture, one long swing of the axe into the saloon window. An interviewee in her thirties recalls encountering a book by Dworkin in a feminist reading group: it was “horrifying” and “full of hate and right-wing sentiment.”*
But one can write critically about porn without being interested in censorship, or making alliances with the homophobic right. It’s precisely as people who have a stake in pornography that women, along with others, can give voice to whatever disenchantment, or anger, or ambivalence, they feel. In the online era phallocentric porn has gone maximal while sexual double standards, harassment, and violence are still very much extant and disproportionately borne by women. The fact that our society has created a vast simulacrum of female lust before creating the conditions in which women can be sexually free is unacceptable. That is grounds enough for at least one kind of cri de coeur.
“Porn’s bad! Porn’s bad!” says one of Barton’s interviewees, a straight man in his thirties. That’s not the sum total of everything he thinks about it, as he explains, but he allows that particular feeling its turn on the stage. It could be that what we need is for more people to feel free to say—playfully, provisionally, for the sake of argument, as an opening gambit, as the first stage of their dialectic—“porn is bad!” They could, for that matter, begin with “Porn is good!”—an idea as underdeveloped as its opposite in these interviews.
What someone like Barton needs is a rhetorical mode, or perhaps a literary form, that can channel all her antipathy toward the porn she dislikes, a form that frees her to hate what she hates about pornography without feeling limited to purely earnest and actionable statements. This kind of writing probably won’t look like an op-ed or a polemic. It probably won’t point the way to immediate political action, and may well leave us with irresolvable dilemmas. It could be performative and overstated, it could argue with itself, it could be polyphonic, comic, satirical.
This writing could in fact be fictional. Sometimes it seems like the voices in Porn want to be poured into a novel, where they can express their positions more fully and freely. A sprawling panorama of a world in the vise of porn. You can imagine some of the situations described in the book, such as finding something unexpected in a partner’s search history, depicted five or ten different ways. Barton’s references to “scary,” “secret” misogynists suggest a Gothic treatment, but the scenario might be more fruitfully explored in a lower key: What if a character found something in their partner’s porn history that was simply a turnoff?
Or, better yet, mock Gothic—a new Northanger Abbey. The heroine had misunderstood her partner’s porn search history. Years of reading Me Too testimonies left her jumping to conclusions. “Gangbang” doesn’t necessarily mean gang-rape in porn world, after all, and her partner turns out to be a fan of that cheerful sub-subgenre in which many men gather to help a woman get pregnant. He doesn’t want to hurt her—he wants to have a baby with her! And with seven or eight of his friends. She can invite her friends, too, and together they will bring forth the next generation. The children, paternity obscured, will be raised communally and doted on by all, having been conceived on what was universally acknowledged to be the hottest night of everyone’s life.