As the internet has gone from a technological curiosity to a standard utility, pornography — aided by the ultra-discreet nature of digital data transmission — has similarly become, if not commonplace, then, at least, easy to find. In some corners of the world, the proliferation of porn has led to a great deal of hand-wringing; in others, it has sparked a slightly more intelligent breed of discourse, one that attempts, not to decry porn, but to merely distinguish it from the kind of sex that people tend to have in the privacy of their homes.
Colloquially referred to as “porn sex vs real sex,” or #realworldsex, this discourse was shifted into high gear by Cindy Gallop’s 2009 TED Talk, “Make Love Not Porn,” which analyzed differences between the kinds of sex that Gallop had witnessed in pornography and the kinds of sex that Gallop had experienced in her own life. After her TED Talk exploded, Gallop increased her platform’s visibility with MakeLoveNotPorn.tv, a “don’t call it porn” porn site that seeks to counter the offerings of porn with depictions of “real world sex.” And then, this week, production studio Kornhaber Brown released a short video titled Porn Sex vs Real Sex, which takes a by-the-numbers look at the type of sex acts that appear in porn and the type of sex acts reportedly had by people in their personal lives; it cheekily uses various items of food to illustrate the differences.
There is certainly value to the “porn sex vs real sex” conversation, and it’s miles ahead of those who would simply dismiss porn out of hand as worthless filth. But — as often happens in broad discussions that are boiled down to mission statements and two minute videos — what’s missing is a great deal of much needed nuance about what porn is, what real sex is, and what we really need to talk about when we differentiate between the two.
Porn is not a monolith.
To broadly discuss “porn” as one specific, undifferentiated mass is akin to discussing “portrait photography” as though there were very little variation between the work of Cindy Sherman, Terry Richardson, and Jacob Riis. Pornography is a genre, and like any genre, it is home to many different artists and subgenres with many different visions. Yes, those who make their money in the San Fernando Valley tend to produce material that hews to a specific set of expectations, but pornography is also a label that applies to the work of Erika Lust, Petra Joy, Shine Louise Houston, Tobi Hill-Meyer, and — notably — the numerous gay porn directors who almost never seem to merit much mention in any discussion of pornography. And despite Gallop’s protestations that the work she promotes on her site is not “porn,” as sexually explicit media that’s intended to titillate, it is, in fact, pornography. It just happens to be pornography that, like the work of the above named directors, offers a different view of sexuality than one found at most of the major porn studios.
“Real sex” is not a monolith.
In the same way that all porn directors aren’t crafting the exact same vision of sex, all people aren’t turned on and titillated by the same things in the bedroom. Given the breadth of human sexual experience, there’s likely far more diversity within the porn sex and real sex camps than between them. There’s a much greater chance that the sex you’re having resembles what you saw in the last porn movie you watched than what a random stranger on the street is planning to get up to this evening.
“Porn Sex vs. Real Sex” addresses this disparity by speaking in statistics, but the focus on percentages and averages can still create a skewed view of uniformity. 70% of women don’t orgasm from penetrative sex, sure, but that still leaves a whopping 30% who do. And while group sex is certainly far more common in porn than in the bedroom, that may be more due to logistics than desire. Even gangbang loving porn performers will attest that they prefer that scenario in the structure of a porn set, where everyone is tested and rigid boundaries (and an ever present film crew) help keep things safe.
Porn is fantasy.
About those gangbangs; many people who enjoy watching them in porn probably aren’t that interested in experiencing them in real life. While the editing magic of the porn studio is able to present mass group sex as something effortless and always enjoyable, actually having to manage and organize a crowd of horny people can be more of a headache than it’s worth. And that’s okay. Part of the purpose of porn is to give us access to the kinds of sex that we can’t, or don’t want to, experience in life.
I don’t have a penis. I don’t want a penis. But I sometimes enjoy the fantasy of imagining that I have a penis — and indulging that fantasy through POV porn from a male perspective. If porn sex is dramatically different from what people enjoy in their actual lives, perhaps it’s because porn is most valuable when it gives us what we can’t have. We don’t question the urge to watch movies and TV that present us with fantastical scenarios that are completely unlike those that take place in our every day lives. So why do we expect pornography to match up, one-to-one, with the kind of sex we have in the comfort of our homes?
Recorded sex can never be “real.”
To invoke a cliche, consider the observation effect. The minute you turn a camera onto a couple mid-coitus, the sex they’re having is immediately affected. More importantly, a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional act will never be completely accurate — especially when you’re trying to create a representation of something immersive and intense that utilizes all five senses with a medium that’s only able to record sight and sound (and, one could note, often doesn’t accurately record either).
Pornographers are aware of the limits of the medium; oftentimes the tropes they employ are an attempt to address their boundaries. The closeness and intimacy of missionary-position sex doesn’t translate well from a third party camera angle; that’s one of the reasons why you rarely see it in porn. Likewise, enthusiastic cunnilingus that feels really great for the recipient reads, on camera, as the back of a head and not much else — that’s why performers are encouraged to back away and give the camera a view of the action, even if it means they’re not employing the most proper tongue technique.
True, the alterations that pornographers make might depict a kind of sex that’s different than what the performers do at home. But if it’s more visually stimulating — and more arousing to watch — than setting up a steady camera and just letting people go at it missionary-style, then aren’t these pornographers ultimately doing a good job?
The actual media literacy that porn viewers need.
Recognizing that pornography is a fantasy is a good start. But the idea that porn shouldn’t dictate the kind of sex people have is less groundbreaking than it might seem at first; given the scope of human sexuality, consent and desire are the only things that should be dictating what you do in bed. As it attempts to deconstruct the “norms” put forth by pornography, the “real sex vs porn sex” discourse runs the risk of enforcing a different, but no less constricting, set of norms. Regardless of what kind of sex porn may depict, or your neighbors may be having, the “right” sex for you is whatever feels good to you and your partner. If 95% of people are having sex one way, and you’re in the 5% that goes down a separate path, you’re still having sex “the right way” — it’s just not necessarily the right way for most of the other people around you.
What would be helpful, on the other hand, is education about some of the finer points of safety and technique that rarely make it on to camera. In the same way that The Fast and the Furious doesn’t show Vin Diesel checking his mirrors and making sure his seat’s the proper distance from the pedals, most anal scenes neglect to depict the extensive warm-up and preparation (often including enemas) that their stars undergo prior to shooting. They’re not wrong to do this — for most people, watching a person undergo a series of enemas is about as erotic as proper auto safety is exciting — but it can create an incorrect perception of the ease, and safety, of anal sex sans proper prep. Similarly, porn sets that eschew condoms in favor of rigorous testing aren’t abandoning safer sex; but if you’re unaware of the time and money performers are devoting to making sure that they’re arriving on set disease-free, you might get that impression.
Discussing the kinds of sex that people have — and the ways that porn may or may not misrepresent that — doesn’t necessarily get us anywhere. But encouraging frank discussion about what goes on behind the camera to make sure that performers are having sex that’s safe, consensual, and enjoyable? That might actually help people improve their sex lives — no matter what kind of sex they’re having.