Porn: An Oral History
by Polly Barton
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Pub Date 02 Apr 2024 | Archive Date 13 Mar 2023
How do we talk about porn? Why it is that when we do talk about porn, we tend to retreat into the abstract? How do we have meaningful conversations about it with those closest to us?
In Porn: An Oral History, Polly Barton interrogates the absence of discussion around a topic that is ubiquitous and influences our daily lives. In her search for understanding, she spent a year initiating intimate conversations with nineteen acquaintances of a range of ages, genders and sexualities about everything and anything related to porn: watching habits, emotions and feelings of guilt, embarrassment, disgust and shame, fantasy and desire.
Soon, unfolding before her, was exactly the book that she had been longing to encounter – not a traditional history, but the raw, honest truth about what we aren’t saying. A landmark work of oral history written in the spirit of Nell Dunn, Porn is a thrilling, thought-provoking, revelatory, revealing, joyfully informative and informal exploration of a subject that has always retained an element of the taboo.
Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 22 members
In this book, Polly Barton skilfully has difficult and awkward questions around porn with friends and acquaintances in a way that is refreshing, candid, and never judgemental.
She is an astute interviewer- these feel like genuine conversations, and she is able to challenge, prod and develop answers throughout, carefully avoiding the difficulty faced by many books like this, where often answers can feel repetitive by the end. Instead, it feels as if Barton's own understanding is developing throughout the book, with later interviews feeling like she is able to further a previous conversation.
I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
I had always thought of internet porn as a bit like Ted Talks, the repeated format, the confident erect presentation, the slick no-nonsense setting, and the faintly awkward audience reaction, unsure in their laughter as they expect a profound climax. But unlike a reassuring Talk that you seek out with an incisive click, porn is an unexpected object on the digital superhighway. You pull up and wonder what on earth this amorphous thing can be, pink and stark. Polly Barton's Porn is just such a stumbled-on encounter. After a brief intro, the book cuts to the content, twenty conversations without consensus. These talks expound porn, specifically internet porn, as something like a familiar—no longer a strange blob-like obstruction you swerve to avoid. In this account, porn was with us in the car all along, an amorphous backseat driver.
Gen Zee and Gen Alpha integrate porn without first stumbling upon it. They grew up beside it and saw it before they could spell the words to label the parts of their genitals. Porn was just below the surface of the screens they flicked with their young fingers. To wonder when it first came into their minds would be like wondering when they first met Sponge Bob or Shrek—cute, annoying, and slightly scary, prone to exaggeration and striving to be perfect.
Barton's conversations are wide-ranging, and it doesn't take her long to concur that porn watching, despite its assumed popularity, rarely crops up in everyday conversation. Where people may broach the subject of their success, pleasure, or displeasure in relation to a partner, it is unusual for them to go into detail or even mention their regimes of self-pleasuring, of which, in the book, porn watching is a part. Perhaps this silence is because there isn't much to say. Masturbation can't be good or bad, you get whatever you want and need in fair portion, or you quit and do something else. People are socialised to consider masturbation as private. It may be an affirmative relationship with their bodies, avoiding boredom, reducing emotional stress, a way to relax and fantasise, or a source of shame and anxiety. With arguably leading questions, Barton finds porn and masturbation entwined. However, while masturbation is self-contained, porn is unbounded, an ever-ready reserve of varied flavours stretching across cyberspace. Her interlocutors don't experience porn like they might a movie. It is more like a technique. People do not watch porn; they are exposed to it, use it or consume it.
Barton's dialogues are cogitative, drawing parallels with the ideas presented in Lynne Segal's 'Sex Exposed: Sexuality and the Pornography Debate', published in 1992, well before the widespread availability of porn on the internet. The book highlights the tension between women's struggle for empowerment giving expression to female desire and the commodification of sex with objectified and exploited subjects. Barton's book revisits these debates in the light of the current state of the porn industry and provides thought-provoking perspectives on contentious issues of porn's impact on the way sex is represented, learned, enjoyed, and, well…not enjoyed—is porn a reflection of sex or sex a reflection of porn. Is porn enabling? Does it reflect diverse bodies and tastes or fetishise differences as niche kinks?
The book begins in a video shop with men sneaking in and out to hire DVDs in an era when sex was a discreet, secretive, transgressive, experimental, and titillating activity. Now sex is contingent and mundane—equivalent to kicking a tennis ball in the park, relative to porn's premier league performances. Sex was the stuff of myth, fantasy, repression, and dysfunction before porn took over and showed how it's done in HD. Before the internet stripped things back to these bare bones, in 2003, Nancy Friday's My Secret Garden could reveal what truly turned people on. And Hite's Reports of 1976 and 1981 told of what sex was in the mysterious claustrophobia of marriage.
Barton's discussions probe sexual fantasies, now on the overexposed porn stage. You don't have to try all these things for yourself when a well-meaning troupe of performers are willing to give you the gist of it, and you can imagine yourself in on it. The book's interviewees find it hard to distinguish acting from reality. Somehow, when we watch Sponge Bob arriving for another day of work at the Crusty Crab and getting into flipping the crabby patties, we know he is a character playing a part, but when we see porn actors pretending to be naive or disinterested, being seduced, being aroused, and getting into the stride of their working day, they are just so good at it we can't believe it is another dull day workin' at the mill for them. In fact, considering the acting isn't always good, nevertheless, it seems committed, commanding attention and suspending disbelief. Their skills and competencies set a gold standard against which our limp and clumsy efforts, failure to climax, our bodies' inertia, and our stink can be compared.
From the start, Barton claims, 'the agenda of this book is not to expound my beliefs about porn.' And on the surface, the series of conversations that follow are neutral and open-ended. Still, the agenda lies in the field framed by masturbation and consent, the individual and the sexual partner, the getting or taking of precisely what you want and need. In a patriarchal and capitalist culture of consumption, in this sense, porn is compensation for what you don't get or cannot have in erotic relationships. It is no less bound up with power than rape, actual or threatened, used to control and regulate bodies and libidos to a dominant regime.
In this economic model, 'female friendly' porn and all porn produced by women, such as Erika Lust (Hallqvist), Petra Joy, Lily Campbell, Holly Randall, or Paulita Pappel, counters the myth that women working in the industry must have been coerced. A myth founded on the premise that sex is something done to women by men. The permissive capitalist ambition to draw more women in as both consumers and creators doesn't stop female-centric porn from being power erotics based—as Yanks.com's Billie Miller has commented, ironically, 'female models have more power than men.'
Where do Barton's engaging conversations end up? With hyperbole that appears to take things at face value. Even a discussion of the trauma evident in a reel of outtakes reverts to sensationalism, what people boast of the quality, quantity and debauchery of their and others' sex lives. The book turns to child porn star Traci Lords for an affirmative experience. In her 'coke-fueled' memoir, she depicts acting and truth as integrated, leading Barton's interviewee to conclude of porn, 'I guess it's like acting or something.'
And, with women's porn, you still get more porn. So, still more to legitimise not talking about human relationships.
Thanks ever so much to @fitzcarraldoeditions for sharing this title with me on @netgalley!
Porn: An Oral History by Polly Barton @pollybukuro, published by @fitzcarraldoeditions
It is a truth universally acknowledged that I will endeavour to read anything and everything Polly has written or translated. The impeccably titled Porn: An Oral History was not going to be an exception. And, obviously, I loved it. In it, Barton interviews 19 different people, as well as offering her own reflections on the topic, pre and post interviews. There is a diverse range of speakers in terms of gender, sexual orientation, age, race, and backgrounds, making for a hugely enjoyable reading experience, with every single person bringing something new to the table. Even when you think some of the interviews might blur into each other, every single person has a unique experience that makes for an engaging read: growing up in a strict religious community, experiencing porn habits in different countries, pre-internet porn, being witness to the early days of online pornography...
The interview format is ideal for this sort of book. Barton acknowledges that trying to come up with an overarching argument/philosophical position/moral standpoint on such a vast, nuanced topic is almost impossible and that the key take away should be, simply, to talk more about pornography: with our partners, friends... breaking through the taboo that has always enveloped the subject. That's exactly why I love these interviews: they're not trying to lead you to a grand moral/ethical conclusion: it's simply normal people discussing their experiences, asking questions about their habits and beliefs that may not have a definite answer.
My favourite aspect of the book is when pornography is discussed in the context of other topics, such as the early days of the internet and its development, racial representation/fetishism, and pornography in other countries and cultures, especially Japan. I also love when the tables turn and some of the interviewees interview Barton, as it ensures we also get her point of view on different aspects, making the entire conversation feel a lot more rounded. In many ways, Barton is the 20th interviewee.
This is a brilliant read on a seldom discussed topic, but one that has huge ramifications for the way we operate within an oppressive, patriarchal society. To absolutely no one's surprise, this is highly recommended!