Porn: It’s Never Been So Pornographic
Porn has quickly adapted to an explosively facilitated Internet market by not only fragmenting into numerous subgenres that cater to particular fetishes, but by purging itself of what its audience doesn’t want, which is whatever fails to get the chemistry pumping. This substantive evolution in porn product has rendered it less real and more fantastic than ever.
The primary means of the change in porn has always been proper to the graphic media: exclusion and exaggeration. By “graphic media” I mean media that depend on visual presentation for their effect. It follows that such media would eliminate distractions from, and focus on, the subject. In porn the subject is the physical operations of sex and the erotic state, and even the earliest forms of porn visually isolated and exaggerated these. Take, for instance, those enormous, elaborately labiated and plicated vulvas and phalluses in the shunga prints of 18th- and 19th-century Japan. Note the expressions of the characters—the men’s frowns of determined assertiveness and the women’s gazes of rhapsodic abandon. These depictions are erotic precisely because they hyperbolize the genital activity and erotic state of the subjects. In contrast, illustrations of human genitalia in medical texts depict neither erotic response nor erotic experience. They have no intention to arouse and they don’t. Pornographers have long understood—some consciously, some instinctively—that the anticipated euphoria of sex is itself an exaggeration. Thus porn, as it evolves, assimilates sexual motivation (prospective pleasure) and discards the sexual turn-off (reality). And this is why porn, which is pro-erotic, is so often absurd.
Anyone who is familiar with porn has likely realized that porn doesn’t replicate sexual reality but exaggerates sexual experience—excludes what does not sexually excite and maximizes what does. The physiological and psychological complications of sex are, therefore, conspicuously absent from porn. Real sex, rife as it is with emotional and medical complications, dulled as it is by domestic habit and physical logistics, is rarely as easy and carefree as it is in porn. Porn almost programmatically omits boredom, anxiety, insecurity, revulsion, disease, pregnancy—all the non-erotic aspects of sex. Baudelaire claimed that “art flees the details.” Well, porn flees reality.
This distillation of the erotic, to the exclusion of the non-erotic, is exactly what distinguishes porn as a genre. In fact, porn could be characterized as a ludicrous eromania. That’s why it leaves you with that “as if” feeling, the sense that what you’ve seen is indeed possible, but absurd. Aristotle says in his Poetics, “With respect to the requirements of art, a probable impossibility is to be preferred to a thing improbable and yet possible.” Porn suffers from a paucity of artistic integrity because it presents something possible and common (sex) in a ridiculously improbable way. By stripping sex of its attendant complexity and amplifying what’s left, porn ends up, unapologetically, being something quite other than a representation of real sex. It does what maniacs do—inflates a particular into an entirety.
Though porn has always focused on the sex act, today’s porn product takes this exclusion and exaggeration to an obsessive degree. This is evident when one compares contemporary porn to that of the 1970s, the “golden age” of pornographic film. In the current product, the dramatic and technical requirements of the feature film have been replaced by sustained, zoomed-in, genital action. The drama-sex ratio has diminished to nil on the drama side. The pornographic portrayal of sexual experience has abdicated ideas and sentiments of any kind, even those relevant to sex. Its conceptual locus has atrophied into explicit sexual exertion. If actual sex eventuates from a complex of thoughts, feelings and negotiations, pornographic sex is nothing but the acrobatics of gratification.
On the ideological level, 1970s porn treated sex as something that had social and political significance. It was a time when sex was associated with freedom from social strictures and authority, when “swingers” were adventurous progressives who regarded sexual expression as a form of active rebellion against an inhibitive status quo. This early porn often had liberation via the breaking of taboos as its subject. Sex happened the way it does in Chuck Norris films: situation (setup), dialogue (rationale), and action (reward). In Behind the Green Door it takes almost 20 minutes for the sex to get underway. In Taboo, much of the time is spent situating characters according to plot and negotiating the controversial topic, incest. In today’s porn all such discussion and drama is an unnecessary pretext (as it is in Marquis de Sade’s books). And how does today’s porn consumer react to it? “Deliver the groceries already!”
Another typical characteristic of the present-day porn is the physical “perfection” of its stars. Stars of the golden age, like Kay Parker, were not physically exceptional. Miss Parker, the most renowned porn star of her time, had an ordinariness of appearance and plausibility as a real woman in her mid-thirties: mature facial features, pubic hair, laxity of flesh, pallor of indoor living, etc. Today’s most renowned porn star, Jenna Jameson, has the body of a 20-year-old and the face of a 10-year-old. Her breasts look like they’re about to explode. Depilated from nose to toes, she has the muscle tone of a panther and the teeth of a barracuda. She’s like something out of the pages of Heavy Metal—a cartoon. Most of today’s mainstream porn is populated by these baby-faced Amazons and Muscle Beach Tarzans. And the commingling of their fantastical physiques is more athletic than sexual, void as it is of the visual vocabulary of real sex, which is full of strange and not always savory detail.
And note the improbable sustain and variety of techniques. While few would want to admit that they have boring sex, if they were to base their sexual expectations on the extended gymnastic performances in the current porn, they would feel boring. Back when porn was more or less marginalized, pornographic sex was more like actual sex. The camera usually stood where the voyeur would stand (at the foot of the bed), capturing the relatively vanilla spectacle of two people fucking. The sex in films like Taboo consists mostly of vaginal penetration and fellatio. In the current product, however, the positions and acts are extraordinarily various and the aspect of the viewer is almost entirely focused, from a variety of angles, on the active organs. A current porn film can dedicate a quarter of an hour to a squirting vulva and its adjacent anus, alternately penetrated by tongues, penises, dildos and gloved hands. The degree of exposure is absurd and includes views of the internal tissues of the vagina and rectum, not to mention play with secretions and ejaculations. Nowadays the sexuality of which porn is expressive is so hyperbolically focused that it provides far more graphic imagery than real sex ever could.
For a long while now the majority of porn actors have shaved their genitals bare. This evolution to hairlessness reveals something about the objectives of porn. First, hairlessness is suggestive of youth. Obviously, young adults are more physically appealing and capable of sustained sexual activity. Additionally, youth lacks experience and is, therefore, less precautionary and inhibited—relatively free of the ties and practical responsibilities that put a damper on libertinage. Combine looks, vigor, ignorance and freedom and you have the most viable candidate for gratuitous sex, or sex for sex’s sake, which is all that pornographic sex is.
Hair is also a banner for biology. It shows that we’re animals and suggests our subjection to biological imperatives and limitations. Not only does hair remind us that we are ruled by nature, it reminds us of our mortal weaknesses. Porn consumers do not want to be reminded of biology—of birth, death, hunger, illness. Morbid thoughts of aging, disease and childbearing are not conducive to carefree erotic indulgence. So, by getting rid of pubic hair, porn has omitted a host of unpalatable biological associations.
If porn has purged itself of art, drama, ideology, biology, controversy and sentimentality, it has evolved into exactly what its audience wants. It is now like a Chuck Norris film that is all fight and no facile narrative, shallow characterization, moral platitude or bestial mustache. The state of today’s porn is a de facto assertion that accusations of pornography being nothing but a rude visual stimulant for people who need an escape from reality are correct. This raises the question: should porn try to be anything else? It would appear that when people want ideas and drama they go to art. When they want real sex, they make romance and negotiate consent. When they want stability and dedication, they get married. In fact, none of our civilized conventions are invalidated or rendered inaccessible on porn’s account. Meanwhile, people want porn, and they want it downright pornographic.
© Copyright 2007, Jan DiVincenzo. All rights reserved.