Blog Post

PORN. What I don't think we're spending enough time talking about.

(It should be said at the beginning that a number of links in this post will be NSFW [Not Safe For Work - does this still need to be spelled out?]. As well, among the links I've posted here is material that is sexually explicit in nature and is of both gay and straight orientations. I'll do my best to indicate which ones specifically, but please consider yourself warned as you commence reading this.)

I think many of you will recognize the image below, it's from a series of photographs taken by artist Phillip Toledano. In this series, called Gamers, he got people to play videogames and took pictures of their faces while immersed in these game environments. These images are, as you might imagine, highly entertaining, often funny, and disturbingly revealing about how total our engagement with new media can be.

The picture below is of a similar genre, if you will. Take a moment and examine the similarities and differences.

Immersion by Robbie Cooper

Back? Ok, good. While the image at the top is of an individual playing a videogame, the man in the bottom frame is in fact, right at that moment, experiencing sexual climax. This still is from a short film made by Robbie Cooper for Wallpaper magazine called "Immersion: Porn Project 2009" in which he interviews a number of individuals about their experiences with pornography interspersed with footage of them masturbating and reaching orgasm (You can watch it here, the footage is shot only from the shoulders up, although there are a number of suggestive sounds and truly bizarre faces made so likely NSFW, or maybe NSFyourW if you don't have the luxury of being in academia. If nothing else you might want to turn the volume down. Without sound it's not unlikely people will assume you're simply watching a clip of people playing videogames).

Ok, that seems like a lot of effort (and trust me, it is, I ain't so good at all this blogging and inserting and formatting jazz) to get to my point, if I have one. If I'm being completely honest, I just wanted an excuse to post these images, but I guess what also struck me in looking at these pictures is the extent to which they could be interchangeable (although the prospect of being intimate with a partner who makes faces like those at the top is, I think it's fair to say, frightening to say the least). Granted, the man at the top appears slightly diabolical while the man on the bottom seems closer to emotional devastation than anything else, but in each of these cases we are presented with an individual so thoroughly immersed in an experience of (new?) media that they've blocked out the world around them to the extent that they are unable to even control their facial expressions. But while this experience of total engagement is discussed freely, arguably ad nauseum, in the context of gaming, it often seems that we have little to say about the ways in which new media has transformed how we engage with sexuality and pornography.

The Internet has clearly changed the way we consume porn. Gone are the days of furtively slipping into the sex shop on the wrong side of town to grab a couple skin flicks, instead we just set our browsers on "Private Browsing" and stroll around the WWW's red light district from the comfort of our own homes. And, most obviously and most importantly, the vast majority of us are no longer actually paying for access to pornography, the capability to get free pornographic media facilitated by filesharing as well as a growing genre of user-generated and amateur pornography. This latter development is the most interesting to me and I think the thing we are least comfortable talking about. A whole host of websites and online communities have emerged that are designed solely to allow people to not just view pornographic media made by normal people the world over, but to actually post and distribute their own homemade porn. Other sites allow people to broadcast their live webcam feeds as they partake in any number of sexual activities for the viewing pleasure of an anonymous audience distributed around the globe. (NSFW If you're curious, some prominent ones include,,, and so on). That these sites exist (located, it would seem, in the part of McLuhan's Global Village that is on the other side of the tracks) isn't really a surprise. Porn has a history of driving media technology and this has most definitely been the case with new media, broadband uptake and filesharing being two areas that have seen dramatic growth in part because of porn. And when we look around on these sites and see just the sheer number of individuals (predominantly male, though not exclusively and often global in scope) partaking in the services offered by these sites, we're forced to acknowledge the troubling (?) and unspoken fact that many of us, though we would be loathe to admit it, recreationally partake in these activities with a certain degree of frequency.

While the fact that people are using emerging technology to partake in these activities is by no means a secret or a surprise, it is rare that anyone mentions the potential of a given new technology to further advance our engagement with pornography. I imagine that many of you watched Steve Jobs sermon yesterday morning; am I the only one who thought that perhaps the best (or at least the most obvious) feature of the iPad was it's ability to facilitate watching porn in bed? Or in the car? Or in the airplane bathroom or wherever one might take such a revolutionary device designed almost solely for the purposes of media consumption. And nowhere in this discussion about the future of live video technologies in consumer electronics is it mentioned that forward-facing cameras on tomorrow's cell phones will probably be used, much like camera phones are used now, to broadcast video clips of peoples' private bits around the networked world and that this will (incidentally anyway) be a force behind the continued increase in megapixelage of cell phone cameras. And it seems that no one wants to talk about the fact that all these tiny little cameras embedded into the bezels of our laptops are actually only used partly for long distance video chat with our families and friends (a frustrating and off-putting exercise in my opinion) and very often for cam sex with headless strangers (The Internet: where it's ok to show your penis but not your face). 

But of course, when we talk about media technologies qua media technologies, we only mean certain media. Not pornographic media anyway (although, as many of you know, there are porn apps available for the iPhone and I would love for someone to introduce the iPorn store for the iPad; arguably the porn industry will need to do something like this if it's going to remain viable). Porn is this thing that somehow transcends its medium, it is pure content. What I mean is that when something is said to be "porn", no one asks questions about its format or medium let alone its genre or narrative structure or formal filmic techniques. Instead, it is assumed to be perfectly essentializable to this bizarre and obscure monolithic category of "porn" which we're all supposed to miraculously understand and be able to identify. Its existence fulfills no need other than to stimulate viewers. Yet, especially with the porn explosion made possible by information tech, there has never been such diversity in the range and style of erotic and pornographic material available to consumers. (The implication for this being that there is also an explosion in the ways that people use, identify, read, and come to think about pornography.) To begin a list, we have literary, photographic, and cinematic texts; we have a spectrum of amateur material made with photographic technologies as cheap and rudimentary as cell phones to big budget, studio produced cinematic spectacles (this is a trailer LA Zombie directed by Bruce Labruce, what is either the most innovative or most disturbing porn film I've ever come across; NSFW unless gay zombies having sex is cool in your office. Actually, there's no sex or nudity in the trailer although there is gore and, like i said zombies, and images of men who are clearly about to be having sex with each other so it's your call). We have any number of "genres" of porn if that's the right word: gay, straight, and bisexual to say nothing of the limitless variety of sub-genres that cater to every conceivable sexual preoccupation. 

Yet while the emergence of new media has resulted in an increase in pornographic engagement of all types (consumption as well as production) and the emergence of a range and variety of available content that is greater and more diverse than ever before, there is still a dearth (at least I think there is and I encourage you to educate me if I'm mistaken) of balanced academic discussion about this phenomenon (at least of the critical/interpretive variety, there's no shortage of empirical/experimental stuff, especially in mainstream communications research). It's something I'm wary of even bringing up with my friends, let alone my colleagues, for fear that I'll be accused of "knowing just a little too much" about the subject (but, really, don't we all?). I think the intersection of new media and pornography will have pronounced implications for how we think of ourselves as sexual beings, especially for generations to come that have been steeped in a porno-centric digital media environment since birth. I think that very soon we will have a presidential candidate who, it will be revealed with photographic documentation, partook in some type of salacious online activity as a youth and the ways that we come to think about these issues now will shape how we deal these types of situations in the future.

Anwyay, this ended up being way longer than I thought it would be. I'm not really in the mood to go through and edit it all and it is only a blog post afterall that I doubt anyone will get all the way through so I'm not going to worry about drawing any great conclusions. Tell me what you think. Am I wrong? Am I missing something? Where do we go from here?





Cool post, very cool pics (thanks, I'd not seen them before). I actually read through it all!

Not to 'plug' other potentially unrelated stuff, but earlier this afternoon, I posted a comment in the Race, Ethnicity, and Diaspora in the Digital Age forum. The post was just a polite challenge to think about race and pornography. Thought you might like it. Also, I include a link or two to some porn studies volumes.

Also, in response to your profile - Hi.




Great post. I think HASTAC in general seems a bit timid to talk about subjects outside of art, science, tech and humanities (not that this post isn't in some way addressing all of those disciplines). How do you feel about the lack of pornographic material in these fields? There are certainly technological objects and phenomena developed specifically to suit this field. I recently discussed this post to a friend who studies Visual Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She chuckled when I told her talking about pornography in a venue like HASTAC felt, in many ways, taboo. And she said something like "it's hard to be in a class at SAIC that doesn't in some way explicitly cite pornography or sexuality." It's often easy to push aside sexual tones within Academic writing and I would argue there isn't any in the technological realm. Why is this? Why can't we talk about pornography, sex, or nudity? As a general credit as an undergrad in art school, the nude model is introduced within three or four weeks. Why does this have to be so different across disciplines?