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gonzo porn, realtity shows, and extreme sports

Porn has changed a lot over the years. First came the film loops that men watched in social clubs and at bachelor parties. Then we had the era of the classic movies that were filmed for the big screen. Next came the VCR revolution, which shifted the focus from movie theaters to the living room. This was followed by a drop in costs for cameras and other production equipment, which led to more people (mostly, but not exclusively men) making movies. And these days, it’s so easy and inexpensive to produce porn that there are about a zillion folks doing it, especially for the internet since online porn doesn’t need box covers, distribution channels or the other hassles of producing a physical product.

As internet and gonzo porn has expanded, I’ve been hearing more and more people talk about how porn is destroying American values, harming women, and generally making the world a worse place. And I think that there’s some truth to some of those accusations. There’s a lot of porn out there that looks to me like the focus is on humiliating women or forcing them to do things that they don’t want to do, especially on the internet. The problem is that there are, in fact, some people who like to play with being naughty, or explore the eroticism in being a “dirty slut”, or who enjoy deepthroating/face fucking. And that makes it harder to draw a line between the people who are doing things that they enjoy (Belladonna and Sasha Grey come to mind) and the people who are really not having fun at all.

To add another layer of complexity, it’s also pretty clear that some people copy what they see in porn without much thought about desire, consent, or safety. For example, I hear from lots of people who try anal sex without lube because that’s what they see in porn. What they don’t know is that the lube is there- it’s applied before they turn the cameras on. The fact is, porn sex is to real life sex what a car chase in an action movie is to real life driving. Fortunately, we see lots of examples of safe(r) driving techniques, so it’s pretty easy to remember that action movies aren’t trying to demonstrate driving skills. But most people never watch other people having sex, so it’s a lot harder to remember that porn isn’t trying to show you how to have sex. [Here’s a great blog by the fabulous Greta Christina on this.]

Lots of people also seem to forget or ignore that porn isn’t the only place where we’re seeing humiliation. One of the reason some people watch reality TV shows is to see someone get humiliated (American Idol’s Simon Cowell comes to mind). And porn isn’t the only medium people do ridiculous things just to be extreme. Steve-O’s Jackass and the entire genre that it produced is all about that. We can also see some parallels between the porn that focuses on people doing disgusting or dangerous things and TV shows like Dirty Jobs. In many ways, gonzo porn is participating in a larger trend that I suspect started in the non-sexual media. Even Animal Planet has it’s “most extreme animal shows”, which are a far cry from the Mutual of Omaha documentaries that used to be the staple of the animal show category.

The question for me isn’t whether people in general or women in particular enjoy rough sex, humiliation during sex, double penetration, triple penetration, or anything else that gonzo porn’s critics will point out. The fact is, some women and some men actually do enjoy those things, at least when they’re pre-negotiated and done in ways that those individuals find arousing. Instead, the questions I have are:

How many people enjoy these activities? And are we seeing a disproportionate representation in porn? I’m willing to bet that the percentage of porn that has facefucking is higher than the percentage of people who enjoy getting their faces fucked. I’m pretty sure the same thing can be said for double penetration, humiliation, etc. We don’t really know for sure since we don’t have much real data about the frequencies of these activities, but we’re almost certainly seeing a disproportionate representation. But let’s not fall into the trap of thinking that nobody enjoys it.

Why do people try to copy porn? How can we help them to develop more realistic ideas about sex? This is a sex education piece of the puzzle. And I think that a lot of this is about how we teach teens and young adults (especially girls and women) about sexual self-empowerment and decision making. If people had more accurate ideas about how sex works, if people had more knowledge about their authentic desires, if they had better negotiation and communication skills, the fact that porn doesn’t reflect real-world sex would be much less of an issue. It’d also help if people knew more about porn. Check out Violet Blue’s The Smart Girl’s Guide to Porn for some excellent info on the topic.

Given that “extreme” media is clearly a larger issue than porn, does it make sense to blame porn for it? I’d love to know when the various trends for extreme sports, tv shows, and gonzo porn started. I have a sense that porn was following the lead on that, but that’s based on my recollections of what I saw when. I might not have an accurate sense of the timeline. If anyone out there feels like researching that, get back to me.

Can porn that shows features more realistic sex compete? This is, I think, at the core of this issue. I’m glad that Tony Comtock is making movies that show real couples having incredbily hot sex that looks like what they’d be doing even if the camera wasn’t on them. There’s also a growing category of dyke-produced movies that step outside the porn world’s vision of girl-girl movies, not to mention the very sweet and sexy Abby Winters movies. And we even have a category of porn for people who are just beginning to discover erotic movies, not to mention our ever-popular features (porn with a plot), although most of those are made by the mainstream porn industry, so the sex isn’t as realistic as I’d like. There’s also been a resurgence of interest in the classics of the genre, which were all made before the development of gonzo. So maybe more realistic portrayals of sex can compete. We’ll see.

So where do we go with all of this? Porn may show a more extreme version of extreme/humiliation/reaction-provoking media, but I think that the tendency in some circles to blame porn for trends that are clearly much larger than porn is doomed to failure, if only because it’s looking at a symptom instead of the root cause. At the same time, I do think that this entire genre has become a self-perpetuating cycle in which each producer seeks to be more extreme in order to get attention.  I’m not sure what to do about that, but I think that any response needs to look at the entire picture and not just the sexually explicit part of it.

I’d also love to see the debates about porn shift away from the either/or arguments that we’ve been hearing for decades. Some porn is made by women who are truly empowered, and a lot isn’t. Some porn eroticises people doing things that they don’t want to be doing, and a lot isn’t. I’m sure that there’s a middle ground in there somewhere, and I don’t see a lot of people looking for it.

Lastly (for the moment), I’d like to see the debates about porn step away from the moral panic approach and look at the actual data that exists and the experiences of the people who make, buy, and watch it. But that’s another post.

Dr. Charlie Glickman

Charlie Glickman is the Education Program Manager at Good Vibrations. He also writes, blogs, teaches workshops and university courses, presents at conferences, and trains sexuality educators. He’s certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, and loves geeking out about sex, relationships, sex-positivity, love and shame, communities of erotic affiliation, and sexual practices and techniques of all varieties. Follow him online, on Twitter at @charlieglickman, or on Facebook.

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