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Porn: An Oral History

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unexpected but illuminating

Porn: An Oral History was not the book I thought it was going to be, but I was intrigued all the same. I have been vaguely aware of Polly Barton and her writing and I have been wanting to read Fifty Sounds for so long! After reading this book, I know that Barton’s writing style is engaging and informative, so I want to read Fifty Sounds even more.

Barton conducts several interviews with anonymous individuals about their relationship to and experience with porn - specifically around consuming porn, rather than producing it. I was hoping for some general history of the porn industry, but perhaps that is for another book. I do not have any personal history with porn or the industry, so I found it illuminating to find out how it has affected some normie strangers. If you are also curious about how others have interacted with porn, then I would definitely recommend this book.

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Unfortunately did not meet expectations.

I believe that this book would have benefited from a different advertisement angle, I would have not have include the aspect of 'history'.

I was expecting more of an interview style, probing yet still managing to engage the interview into deeper topics, and whilst this was briefly featured throughout, I found that the interviewer had more influence on the direction of opinions and statements than I was expecting.

Overall, I struggled to remain engaged and found myself dropping and returning to this book on multiple occasions.

Thank you to Netgalley and Fitzcarraldo Editions for this eARC.

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What exactly was this supposed to be? It's titled "Porn: An Oral History" but there's no historical perspective on pornography, no analytical take on its impact, just a recollection of the personal experiences of a pretty arbitrary group of people. What was the objective? Where was this going?

I won't deny it brought up some interesting points and pushed me towards carefully reexamining my own relationship with pornography, however, it failed to convey any clear and meaningful message.

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“Porn: An Oral History” – Polly Barton

My thanks to @fitzcarraldoeditions and @netgalley for my copy of this one!

Not quite what I was expecting due to the title, what we have here is the author’s candid conversations with 19 others, exploring their relationship with porn and how it has affected them in their lives and what they have come to think about the matter, allowing the author to try to come to terms with her own misgivings.

Due to its very nature, the book does a good job of presenting a variety of views and ideas on the topic, even when certain points are repeated, and I came away with some new ideas and thoughts on the issue, which I suppose is the whole point. That said, I am coming at this as a cis white male who is about the same age as the author, so a lot of the cultural touchstones are going to be similar. It should also be noted that the book comes from a Western perspective with elements of Japanese culture, and the author admits that she is in no position to write a global perspective, so keep that in mind.

Rather than really go in depth, I’ve included some things I highlighted below, and I recommend this book if you’re at all interested in the topic.

“Anonymity (on the internet) comes with assumed whiteness”.

“I read (Boys Love Manga) and definitely found some of it a turn-on, partly because it’s removed from the problematic depictions of women which I find so oppressive and which constitute an immediate brake. That raises the question of, who are you identifying with?)

“The analogy I want to reach for here, maybe this is dubious, is Amazon Prime. We were all totally fine without it…(y)et if that’s offered to you on a plate it’s hard to say no. I wonder if it’s not the same with porn.”

There were more, but these are a brief selection.

Have you read this? What did you think?

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I was certain this book would be the best nonfiction read of the month, however the conversations included were all over the place, chaotic and random, whilst porn was almost never the focal point.

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"Far less salacious than its title suggests, this new release compiles a series of lukewarm conversations between essayist Polly Barton and various acquaintances about their personal histories with porn. Despite differences in race, gender, and sexuality, her interlocutors fall back on the same topics: violence, taboo, and the internet. Porn may still feel off-limits and edgy — but it isn’t, really. The absurd number of undergraduates writing erotica should tell us so. Without significant research or any novel insight, Barton guides us through a seedy underworld which is not very seedy, nor in the end much of an underworld at all."
Taken from

Massive gratitude to Polly Barton and Fitzcarraldo Editions for the early copy!

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I had really high expectations for this book, having absolutely loved her previous work of non fiction Fifty Sounds.Though loving the title pun, I had anticipated that it would be exactly what It said it was on the tin - a history of porn throughout the ages and an examination of our relationship towards it. I was particularly keen to read Polly Barton's take on this subject due to her time in Japan and their intriguing relationship to and use of pron , often straying into the realms of the problematic.

What we are presented with instead is a series of transcripts of conversations the author had on sex, porn , masturbation and other related topics.While there is nothing wrong with this as a format , for say a newspaper or magazine article, I feel it presents little of any interest here aside from a possible voyeuristic tendency of sticking one's nose in other people's private and personal sex lives and it offers nothing of any real relevance or insight given that the reader does not know the people being interviewed.

Having said that I would pick up work by Barton in the future, just not in this format.

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DNF at 48%

I would have like to have finished it but I just got slower and slower at reading and then I felt like it wasn’t going anywhere.

I’m interested in the discussions in the book but they weren’t diverse, or interesting or deep enough for me. There was a huge amount of repetition and in the various conversations, mostly surrounding masturbation or first experiences or partners and their relationships with porn.

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This was an interesting book that explored some really diverse thoughts around pornography - the product, the industry, the ethics, the fantasy. I enjoyed the topic and the exploration of people's feelings, however I feel the interview format let the book down, as it felt a bit too much like a transcript of a really good podcast or something. Ultimately I think perhaps I would have enjoyed it more if Barton synthesised the thoughts of each interview into an essay, or if she introduced or reflected on each person's contribution a bit more, rather than just having a bit at the start and end of the book. Glad I read it, but definitely not the Porn book to end all porn books.

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The title of this book is misleading. I was expecting interesting insights, analysis and actual historical information - not conversations. It is an interesting concept, but the title should've just been oral debate or something else.

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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?'

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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.

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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 :)

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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.

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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.

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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!


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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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