Cover Image: Porn: An Oral History

Porn: An Oral History

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date:

Member Reviews

A difficult, uncomfortable, awkward and alienating subject such as porn, could be handled badly, even dangerously, in lesser hands than Polly Barton’s- but Barton never approaches her subject with anything other than fairness, honesty and curiosity. 

In 19 interviews, with friends and acquaintances, Barton starts a conversation about porn, its purpose, it's aesthetic and mostly importantly perhaps, what role it has played in her interviewee’s life thus far. 

Barton makes it clear from the off that she’s no expert in her subject and that the book is a learning opportunity for herself and, she hopes, others. I was immediately struck by Barton’s introduction, where she examines her own feelings towards porn, and the reasons she has avoided the topic for so long. At the heart of the book is feminism, and the inescapable female viewpoint of Barton.

I really enjoyed the verbatim style of the book and thought the topic was fascinating, insightful and incredibly necessary. Barton doesn’t give you any answers, but provokes many MANY questions, leading the way for future texts on the subject of 'what is porn and why aren’t we talking about it more?'
Was this review helpful?
I think "Porn: An Oral History" is one of these books that claim to be groundbreaking but in reality they're trying to break down the open door.

The premise of the book itself is intriguing: people talking about their experiences of watching porn. It all would be great, if their issues with adult entertainment weren't so boringly similar. Polly Barton seemingly gathered people from many different walks of life, but at the end they all seem like educated middle class folks, who in general find their enjoyment of porn problematic. And because the author herself is struggling with the idea, there is not enough challenging the interlocutors because, well, birds of the feather... 

On one hand, I appreciate that Barton is not trying to hide that her attitude towards porn isn't neutral, but on the other, she comes across as stuck in her own perception, not capable of challenging and researching the subject, example of which are comments on ethically produced porn that lack depth and knowledge.

I'm afraid that this book will not impact discourse on porn much. Quite the contrary - instead of challenging status quo, it will most likely reinforce the problematic reception of adult entertainment amongst those who already are pretty vocal about the industry's vices.

Great title, though.
Was this review helpful?
First of all a word about the title. It seems odd to choose an obvious pun/double entendre for a book that isn't funny. The title gives you a false impression about the tone of what is to come.*

That said I think the basic intention of this book is a sound one. It seems partly an exercise to help Polly Barton deal with her feelings about porn and how we interact with it both individually and as a society. Porn is, in 2023, easily available and has dribbled into modern culture. Why bothered with Page 3 girls when you've got hardcore porn available at the click of a mouse? But her main point is that no one talks about porn. It's an awkward subject. Especially between men and women.

The book consists of nineteen interviews with a cross-section of people about their relationship with porn. There are men and women, straight, gay and bi, single or married. Basically it isn't just the same people so their relationship to porn is different. There are no adult film stars interviewed here. It is a civilians only zone. I thought to begin with this might be a mistake. I thought that Polly Barton was going to be pushing a particular agenda, which meant a condemnatory attitude to sex workers. That wasn't the case, which is refreshing.

The book doesn't avoid dealing with issues around misogyny, exploitation, kinks/fetishes etc. It is unavoidable. One of the questions that comes up a lot is 'do you talk to your partner about porn?' and what watching porn if you're in a relationship means. If it means anything. Discussions regularly touch of why people watch porn and what they get out of it.

It is interesting to hear people justifying why the watch or don't watch what they watch. Is porn something always just 'Men Possessing Women' (to nibble a bit off of Andrea Dworkin's book on the subject.) There is a lot of talk about the violence of a lot of porn, how one would feel if you found that your partner was into rape porn and similar topics. Does what a person watches porn wise mean that this is something they want to do in real life or just a fantasy. And can it be 'just' a fantasy if it is something like rape porn? There are many moral dilemmas.

I think Barton does a good job of exploring all these issues without being overly judgmental. I think her journey - to use a word I hate when used in reality TV - makes her less awkward about talking about the subject.

My problem with it was that I found myself zoning out a bit after a while. The problem with porn being, perhaps, that it exhausts itself as a subject quite quickly. It's one of those cases when you can admire the intention and the conclusion but still find yourself thinking...OK, I get it. However, I think Polly Barton was right to try and start a conversation.

*And now all I can do is think of double entendres.
Was this review helpful?
Really thought-provoking selection of interviews conducted by Polly Barton around the topic of porn. Very readable and accessible, and has achieved its fundamental aim by making me much more likely to talk about porn with my friends! The writing by Polly herself in the introduction and conclusion was lucid and precise - would definitely recommend to anyone with an interest in gender and sexual politics :)
Was this review helpful?
Unfortunately I DNFed this 20% in. The title and blurb is rather misleading. I wanted to read a history of porn as I find the ethics interesting and wanted to know more about it. However this was just discussions with people the author knows about their porn preferences. I have no desire to read about that and was left disappointed.
Was this review helpful?
This was quite disappointing. I usually love Polly Barton's work and translations, but the blurb was extremely misleading. It's just interviews of a small group of people. There isn't much history or anything in there.

I was really expecting something else from how it was marketed.

Thank you Netgalley for providing me with an eARC in exchange for an honest review.
Was this review helpful?
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! 

Was this review helpful?
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'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.
Was this review helpful?
I really enjoyed Barton's first book with Fitzcarraldo, and I also enjoyed this— but it's not an oral history of porn. Rather, it's a series of incredibly diverting dialogues about porn, and I think the title has misrepresented it. People who wanted to read an oral history of porn will be disappointed not to find one in these pages. The dialogues themselves are well executed, flow well and pull the reader into the different desires, expectations and ethical questions of a broad church of people. I found a lot of them very reassuring and the book delivered on perhaps its core purpose: to make me talk about porn. Happy to recommend, but I really wish it had a different title!
Was this review helpful?
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.
Was this review helpful?
Porn: an Oral History is not quite the critical exploration of the history of pornography that the title suggests. However, the simplistic style of the novel really appealed to me and I found myself enjoying the book the way I would enjoy a conversation with friends.

In the book, Barton transcribes nineteen conversations between herself and people that she knows, talking about the largely taboo subject of porn. Every person is from a slightly different demographic and, subsequently, every conversation if different. I found it very intriguing how the different conversations took such unique directions, reflective of each person's own feelings towards the subject.

Many topics came up repeatedly but each conversation was distinct and many different aspects of the subject were covered. I've seen criticism of the lack of analysis, however I don't think it's fair to criticise because Barton does not claim this book to be any kind of critical analysis or historical account (though I do feel that the title is suggestive of this, the description and introduction clearly state otherwise and I don't think many people would read this book just based on the title.) 

Personally, I enjoyed the book. Polly Barton aims to open up the conversation about porn by documenting her own personal discussions with real people in her life. Personally, I think this takes a whole lot more courage than interviewing random strangers. I found it inspiring how these people were so willing to completely open up, not just about porn in general but their own sexuality, sex-life, turn-ons and trauma. It's a reminder that porn is a giant monster which surrounds us in every aspect of life and is part of a deeply personal aspect of our lives which isn't spoken about enough. Barton is trying to encourage people to star the conversation, to try talking more about these things with their own friends, and I think she does a brilliant job to achieve this. No, it's not the most impressive feat of literary history, but I think it's a very important book nonetheless.
Was this review helpful?
A dive into the oldest form of human expression. Although severely distorted by capitalistic, sexist exploitation which uses human (often womens') bodies as fodder to feed a seemingly-insatiable desire for MORE, this book elucidates the history and cultural significance of pornography outside of this paradigm.
Was this review helpful?
I really wanted to like this book. A non-fiction book about porn published by Fitzcarraldo Editions? And written by a great literary translator (and a very good writer - I loved her "Fifty Sounds")... I was sure I would be blown away by it.

And then I wasn't. The thing is - there are so many great topics mentioned, but are just skimmed through. It's not an essay collection or a non-fiction book that one could expect; it's basically a transcript of 10+ conversations with anonymous people about porn. And sex. And masturbation. And other random topics that come up.

There is so much to unpack in regards to our attitude towards porn, sex work and sex in general and "Porn: An Oral History" just barely scraped the surface. The conversations are random and chaotic, often they are more about masturbation and sex in general than porn. There is almost no deeper context, nothing that would make me want to explore the topic further. Especially if it's for example a a confession of an anonymous person about their niche fetish or someone's recollections of the first time they saw porn with friends when they were teens. 

I wish I had the mental strength to abandon it after few conversations, but somehow I kept hoping there would be *something*, so I kept forcing myself to read further.

This might have worked really well if it was a podcast. Or an online feature in a lifestyle magazine. To sum up - I just don't see the point of this book.

2 stars rounded up.
Was this review helpful?
2.5 rounded up

After reading the brilliant Fifty Sounds I was really excited to see what Polly Barton would write next. Whilst I found this mildly diverting, the title is misleading (at least it was for me) and the format - conversations between the author and various individuals about porn and their relationship with it/feelings about it - ended up feeling incredibly repetitive. Maybe one to dip in to if you have an interest in the topic, but if you come in expecting an actual history or any in-depth analysis you'll likely leave somewhat disappointed.
Was this review helpful?
I think the title of 'An Oral HIstory' (however punning) is misleading and set up expectations for me that the book doesn't fulfil. This isn't a 'history' at all and doesn't have any intellectual or academic underpinning, and doesn't explore the topic of porn historically.

What it is is Barton chatting to a group of people (16, I think) and transcribing their conversations: there's no analysis, no specialist knowledge - this is sort of what you'd get if you collected a group of mates and everyone opened up about their porn habits. Everyone sounds urban, intelligent, sophisticated; there is diversity in terms of genders and sexuality but not obviously so in terms of age or class - and lots of commonalities in how they think of porn: everyone's read the broadsheets, is worried about the lack of representation, the misogyny, the persistence of male fantasising even in porn 'for women'. 

This is somewhere between Nancy Friday's 'My Secret Garden' but without the reach of people who contributed to that and Lisa Taddeo's 'Three Women' revealing the secrets of other people's sex lives. Sadly, though, this feels quite repetitive and doesn't say anything that we don't already know.

It's a shame that when there is so much academic interest in issues of 'pornography' and how it exists historically, what cultural work the 'erotic' and 'sexual' is doing both in the past and now, that this book doesn't engage with any of that. There are a couple of mentions of Judith Butler's performative theorising and Audrey Lorde on the erotic - but this is essentially what your bright postgrad mates would say after a few cocktails: interesting but disappointingly uncontextualised.
Was this review helpful?