Joshua Calladine Jones reviews Polly Barton’s insightful, provocative book.
Barton, Polly. Porn: an Oral History (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 16 Mar 2023), 368pp.
If, like me, you are a person who exists at the time I write this, you have probably in some way interacted with (or been exposed to) pornography. Without a doubt, Polly Barton is also one of these persons. Her book, Porn: an Oral History, in which the sex-puns begin with the title and end shortly thereafter, is exactly as the name suggests: a history of pornography – predominantly its contemporary consumption, and the myriad ills or virtues of this at once intensely private and luridly exhibitionist medium.
The question of pornography, of blue movies, sex-vids, peepshows, camshows and all else porno, is generally confronted from opposing ethical positions. Porn is bad. It corrupts young minds. It makes men impotent. It degrades women. It’s harmful to society. Porn is sexually empowering. Porn explores fantasy. Porn opens the mind. It creates a safe space for kink, for queerness. It’s a form of sex-ed. Ding-ding! Back to your corners. Ding! The bell sounds again. But there is no knockout. The game, like some weird moralistic chess-boxing, quickly descends into a stalemate.
The issue that neutralises all arguments is profit: with sex-work being the proverbially most antique profession, and porn very much an extension and counterpart, it isn’t likely to be going anywhere fast. The root prostitution, or πορνεία, and pornography, or πορνογραφία, remain eerily adjacent in the Greek. Throughout Porn, this commonality stands uncontested. Nineteen interviewees of varying ages, lifestyles, and backgrounds, contribute to the oral history of Porn, Barton bracketing these with a prologue and epilogue of her own. The goal here isn’t, it seems, a survey of total principles, but an extraction of the universal from its few particulars. Already we have left the realm of the ethical. We have entered the phenomenological instead.
Barton engages various questions. How does porn change our view of sexuality, and with it our experience of the world? When we watch, witness, read, or see porn for the first time, whether at some delicate age, or following decades without it, are we really the same person afterwards? And is that the fault of porn, or just some latent sexuality? Sex is often talked of in terms of experience, rarely in the abstract: the raw quality that repulses and attracts in porn is its sensual one. But sex, good or bad, beautiful or awful, is a mind-altering experience. For better or worse, each time it happens, something changes. This prospect, and its secret quality, is exciting.
Exciting, like arousing?
Yes, definitely. I remember feeling a bit sad too. As if there were nothing left to discover, almost I remember thinking, this is the limit of what you can see in a movie, there’s nothing beyond this. But yeah, totally arousing.
The speakers of Porn demonstrate the pornographic allure: behind the last, thin border of propriety, sex remains the glorious horizon — porn provides a discreet way to see the sunset. What fascinates about Porn is the way the interviewees watch that sun go down. In reading the book, the reader, hidden in their own perch, plays peeping-tom on the speaker, glimpsing their sexual lives and perhaps recognising their own sexual experiences. There is, as is probably becoming evident, the thrill of the voyeur in this. Listening in, we are no longer spectators to a moral battle, but eavesdroppers beside the confession-box. An ironic position with regards to porn as a mode of prying for kicks.
While reading any literature that portrays living, feeling beings, with all their thoughts, wishes and emotions, it isn’t unusual to identify with those figures, or against them. This is why reading Porn, as with many oral histories, can sometimes feel like reading a novel: a disjointed but topically continuous one, peopled with many different characters, where the narrator, voiceless, neutral, or present, is the one consistent protagonist on their journey of discovery through the parallel lives of the speakers they encounter. Building a proxy relationship with these speakers via the conversations transforms them into dramatis personae: their names are Two, or Seven, or Fifteen. Liking them, hating them, disagreeing with them, or concurring, they land somewhere on the spectrum of enemies or allies, as in any good story.
It might sound off-colour to describe pornography as an empathic medium, but the interaction of the consumer to the consumed, the watcher to the watched, as in all mediums involving depictions of human activity, is one of self-distancing or alternately of self-identification. In visual porn, perhaps more than in other mediums, the aim of the viewer is to feel (virtually) everything one or more of the performers feel, to place themselves emotionally and hypothetically in that scenario: an exercise of empathy and imagination. The book’s speakers embody this in their sheer passion of debate, reflection and opinion. Imagine how good that would feel! To do that, to have that done, to be involved in that, to see it first-hand, to be this or that performer — are easy interjections when watching porn. How do you know good porn? When the fantasy is sustained. When it clicks. When you feel it.
Do you think there is something objective about what constitutes good porn and bad porn?
I feel like it’s hugely problematic to be the one deciding for everybody what good porn and bad porn is.
Quality, then, is as subjective a matter as ever. But the notion of erotic empathy implies bad watchers as well as bad content. Where porn is ‘bad’ is where empathy is absent, and where empathy is absent we aren’t looking at a person, but an object. It’s redundant to say that the failures of porn are the failures of society, though the failure of societies to produce empathic people is surely the road to bad pornography (not to mention bad sex). And ‘bad’ isn’t always brutal or distasteful (bad taste is better than no taste) but ‘bad’ is always empathically lacking: it doesn’t connect. It might be fun, but it leaves an emptiness.
Can you describe your current porn-watching habits?
It’s not something that’s set in stone. I probably watch it more in the morning than I do at night. I find if I do it in the morning then I can just get on with my day.
It isn’t unwatchable, bad porn, provided it isn’t offensive. Very often, like fast-food — cheap, ethically questionable, but instantly satisfying — it fulfils an urge. It isn’t nutritious, it isn’t sophisticated and ultimately, it’s not all that filling either. Gorging on cheeseburgers at any opportunity is probably more harmful than frequently watching tacky porn in some sleazy corner of the internet. But with porn, where the ethical parameters of ‘bad’ are troubling not only for the performers involved, the question of harm is difficult to untangle. Especially when at the same time scores of horny folks are getting off to it.
However, the goal of Porn, once again, doesn’t seem to be to arbitrate the good and the bad from the ugly. The art of the oral history as a form is in discerning and revealing what the speakers truly think, what the narrator seems to think and what we, the readers, do or do not think in relation to that. To discover a world of hidden experience, not of absolute morals. To understand that experience, not to dismiss it. To feel it, not to turn away. A form well-suited to difficult or taboo subjects, it is intensely individual and facelessly collective. The oral history is an interrogation of secrets, conducted in anonymity and absorbed in the intimate.
In the past, I was scared to bring up the topic, because I was scared of finding out something that I didn’t want to hear. The whole thing felt like this big untouchable.
It is a bit of an untouchable. For me it’s very connected to sex-work and sex-trafficking, and those industries. It’s very different to consume porn than to pay for sex, but somehow I feel they co-exist, or inform each other.
Tasteless, gaudy, streamed without context on seedy sites adorned with garish, near-offensively vulgar ads, porn frequently embodies the truism that it’s easier to pick apart the ethics of the aesthetically unsound. Whitewashing, pinkwashing, greenwashing, all require a certain aesthetic benchmark to succeed. The tawdry is easy to criticise. Just see how bad it looks. Almost no one is fighting the battle that home-shot porn, spawning itself not only an entire taste, genre and mode of consumption aped even by mainstream studios who wish to dissimulate themselves as ‘amateur’, might be an aesthetic movement as worthy of theoretical analysis as Cinéma Vérité, Dogma 95, or Kino-Pravda.
Porn, outside of the academic setting and the hands of a few film-makers, isn’t a medium that is often dramatically or theoretically considered, let alone defended or lauded. It is, in the general sense, consumed with indifference. And this consumption is also met with indifference in the generality. This fact alone is enough to make Porn a landmark of sorts, an examination of difference, indifference and experience. In many ways, it is a landmark too imperious to ever construct, a Monument to the Third International (if the Monument was a kaleidoscopic peepshow) doomed to only partial or imagined completion. The memorial of an attempt. A brilliant, engaging, sextoy-shaped cenotaph.
This, though, is the nature of the oral history: in proportion to the increasing scale of its object, it becomes more and more diffuse. And it’s arguable that no book could ever fully encapsulate the expanse of variations that pornography and its contemporary consumption imply. Every consumer: every class, every background, every nation, every belief, every form of sexual identity. Every production: the high-end, the underground, the pay-per-view, the subscription, the DIY, the leaked, the shared, the hardcore, the softcore, the kinky, the vanilla, the hacked, the streamed, the legitimate, on and on in an orgy of delightful and horrifying, banal and ecstatic. Even the author herself specifies, in an ending graceful in its humility, that such a book might never be written. But if she has tried, then maybe it can. Maybe she already has.
Joshua Calladine-Jones is a poet and the literary-critic-in-residence at Prague Writers’ Festival. His work has appeared in journals such as 3:AM, The Stinging Fly, SPAM, Minor Literature[s], The Hong Kong Review of Books, The Anarchist Review of Books and Literární.cz. In 2021, his first pamphlet, Constructions [Konstrukce] was published with tall-lighthouse. Reconstructions [Rekonstrukce], its follow-up, was published in 2022.