Sex Nerd and Porn Geeks: Check This Research Out!

If you’re as frustrated as I am with the biased writing about porn that we usually hear, and if you like to geek out on some well-designed and well-written research, you’ll enjoy From The Devil in Miss Jones to DMJ6 “ power, inequality, and consistency in the content of US adult films. Written by Dr. Chauntelle Anne Tibbals, it’s a fascinating look at some of the trends in porn over the last few decades.

Dr. Chauntelle (as she likes to be called) selected 26 “key adult films” from three different eras: Reels (1957-1974), Video (1975“1994), and Digital/Virtual (1995“ongoing). She analyzed and coded them using Grounded Theory to look for patterns, trends and recurrences.

If you’re not familiar with it, Grounded Theory is a method of collecting and analyzing data that asks the researcher to maintain an open mind as much as possible, while also acknowledging their biases in order to minimize the effects of preconceived notions and prejudices. It’s used in qualitative research when you want to let the patterns emerge from the data, rather than going in with a specific set of questions you want to find answers for. If you want to know more about it, google it or read this section from my dissertation.

Some of the trends and shifts that Dr. Chauntelle identified weren’t really news to me, while others gave me a lot to think about. For example, in the early movies, sex is often woven into the storyline. It’s often the motivating force behind the characters, such as Linda Lovelace’s quest for orgasms in Deep Throat and Misty Beethoven’s transformation into a goddess of passion in The Opening of Misty Beethoveen. Early movies often featured more diversity of ages and body type among the female performers, although much less racial diversity than later movies. The few movies with Black men, for example, tended to use stereotypical and racist imagery.

During the Video era, some of the characteristics of the movies started to change. The sex scenes, for example, began to become longer and have discrete beginning and endings, rather than blending into the surrounding plot while the storyline might not contain any sexual themes. It was during this time that a narrower range of age and body type became the norm and performers started to look less like “everyday people.” Breast implants and manicured pubic hair started to be common. And some women of color began to appear, although the themes often revolved around racist imagery.

In the Digital/Virtual era, the storyline-sex-storyline-sex pattern was fully entrenched and sex scenes became more formulaic. Performers became visibly younger and more women of color entered the industry. While there continue to be many problematic and racist depictions of people of color, there has also been an increase in the percentage of scenes featuring them “in straightforward adult film sex depictions without (overtly) problematic tropes or narratives.”

Movies also began to include special effects and bigger budgets, as well as mainstream press coverage. But the social commentary that had been present in some movies from the Reel era effectively disappeared, even in movies with a recognizable plot.

One point that Dr. Chauntelle makes is that many of the sex acts that we see today are also present in earlier movies. “Combinations of visible pop shots, anal sex, oral sex, double penetrative sex, various iterations of group sex, and the use of sex toys are depicted in every film in this sample.” But I’m not convinced that that’s the whole story, mostly because she limited her review to movies that were “both top sellers and/or rentals and well regarded by adult film industry insiders.”

As a friend of mine put it once, the further you get from the mainstream, the further you get from the mainstream. So while the movies that are sold and rented the most may be the ones that feature sexual acts that are more widely accepted, it does seem to me that the range of sexual acts that one can find in movies has expanded tremendously, particularly on the internet. Unlike some, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing- I’m just pointing out that both sides have a point. In the most mainstream of movies, sexual practices haven’t changed a lot. And there is more porn that lands outside that range than ever before, especially online. Personally, I’d like to see someone write about that without vilifying it or pretending that it’s representative of the entire genre.

I’m really glad that Dr. Chauntelle got this published. It’s going to be an important contribution to the academic study of porn and culture. Give it a read and see what you think.

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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