I was in a warehouse in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley, anxiously scribbling in my reporter’s notebook while waiting for a porn shoot to begin.
Charles Dera, a performer with jet-black hair and a well-groomed beard to match, crouched in front of me, stretching his calves. Tommy Gunn, a performer named after his biceps, sat on the floor flipping through a release form. He hopped to a stand and asked to borrow my pen.
As a journalist, I had been on porn sets more times than I can count, but this shoot was making me uncharacteristically nervous.
I started looking at porn as a teenager in the late 1990s, using a spotty dial-up connection. It seemed a vibrant human sexuality textbook next to lackluster sex-ed classes featuring black-and-white anatomy diagrams and condoms rolled onto bananas. When I started actually having sex, porn became my aspirational guide to seductive moans and technique. One person I watched in those days was Tommy Gunn, who was now standing next to me, handing back my pen. That explains the anxious scribbles: I was starstruck.
Then I heard something that yanked me from my distracted state: “Girls these days.” Girls. These. Days. Three such innocuous words, until they are strung together in that particular order.
“Girls watch our porn, because it’s free everywhere, and then they grow up thinking that’s what sex is,” said Dera. “They go and have sex with a normal dude,” Dera continued, “and he’s like –” he screwed up his face in mock horror – the kind of face, actually, that women give in those tube site ads where they’re surprised by a home intruder or snooping stepdad.
Gunn nodded knowingly. “When I have my private sex, I’m not trying to be like, ‘Huh-huh-huh,’” he said, theatrically grunting while aggressively humping the air. It was a parody of the work he’s done for well over a decade. Here, one of my unwitting, de facto sex educators seemed to be saying that what looks like great sex on screen doesn’t necessarily make for great sex. He was suggesting that porn is an inaccurate representation of what many straight men want. In fact, his co-star was saying that women like me, who grew up “thinking that’s what sex is”, horrify “normal” dudes.
This wasn’t the first time I’d heard these messages, nor would it be the last. Hahaha, girls these days. I had to admit, there was something darkly funny about the suggestion that my sexuality had been shaped by an illusion. And yet through watching and reporting on that “illusion”, I was introduced to a vital truth: sexual fantasy can be a route of exploration and revelation. It was a path to myself.
My first introduction to porn was in middle school watching the “scrambled channel” to catch the few split seconds when the static morphed into a bare butt thrusting. Then I started exploring the explicit porn sites of the era, which were cheekily crude and ceaselessly alliterative. By the time I graduated high school, I used my meager salary from a part-time job to subscribe to Vivid.com, the premier porn site of the time. I worshiped performers like Jenna Jameson, finding inspiration in their ravenous enthusiasm, which seemed to turn men into puddles of desperation. Officially, I thought of watching porn less as entertainment than instruction, an investigation into men’s desire more than my own.
Now I know this is typical. Studies have found that young women often describe their engagement with porn as educational, a useful tool for examining what heterosexual men want from them, while “simultaneously distancing themselves from revealing too intimate a knowledge of it in ways that might mark them as strange and perverse”, as the researcher Alanna Goldstein wrote. This is in part a reflection of feminine sexual norms around being desired rather than desiring.
In my emerging sex life, I took inspiration from what I’d seen on my computer screen–not just in porn, but also mainstream TV and films. I enacted a fantasy of men’s supreme desirability and sexual competence. Porn just provided the explicit inspiration for these performances, which led one of my sexual partners to exclaim, “I feel like I’m a teenager discovering Playboy for the first time. No, make that Penthouse.”
Meanwhile, I faked nearly all of my orgasms.
Except for the ones I had by myself–while “investigating men’s desire.”
Lately, the concept of teaching “porn literacy” has gained some buzz. The idea being that young people need to be taught to critically consume pornography as they might any other entertainment medium. This sounds like a solution to the purported problem of young people growing up watching porn and, in Dera’s words, “thinking that’s what sex is”. Indeed, when I first stumbled across the idea, I thought: brilliant, yes, let’s talk to teenagers about porn.
In practice, it’s more complicated.
A recent paper found that porn literacy is often framed as young people’s “ability to critically read porn as negative and comprising ‘unrealistic’ portrayals of sex”, where only “conservative ideals of ‘good’, coupled and vanilla sex” are cast as “realistic”. In these cases, the goal is less to foster a thoughtful, nuanced engagement with porn, but rather to reject the medium as “fake”.
Consider a 2018 New York Times feature on a porn literacy program in Boston. In a class exercise, students were asked to imagine a reality TV competition in which they are required to “kneel on the ground while someone poured a goopy substance over your face”. This scenario was meant to represent similar acts in porn.
The teacher wanted to know: just how much money would these teenagers have to be paid for these gross-out tasks before they were willing to compete? The questionable lesson here – aside from moralizing around sexual behaviors that many people genuinely enjoy – appears to be that the performers on screen do it for much less.
That isn’t a nuanced lesson around the production of fantasy fodder, but rather performs its own shame theater. It perpetuates “whore stigma”, a term used to describe the societal dishonor placed on sex workers and non–sex workers alike, for stepping outside the bounds of accepted sexual behavior, as the journalist Melissa Gira Grant explains in Playing the Whore.
Too often, ostensibly progressive attempts at educating young people around porn replicate this dynamic, casting performers as abject and worthy of pity. What’s more, it reproduces what the anthropologist Gayle Rubin famously called the “charmed circle,” which casts as “normal” sex that is private, heterosexual, married, monogamous, procreative and non-commercial.
This is counter to the compelling and undeniable truth offered up by porn: sex can be a great many things.
While diving into the emerging sphere of piracy-fueled tube sites, I discovered a host of idiosyncratic fictionalized scenarios that made my insides move: masseurs who unexpectedly slipped their oiled-up hands between women’s legs and beer-bellied men posing as Hollywood directors to trick women into casting-couch sex.
At the time, I was working as a feminist blogger and I struggled with the fact that these fictionalized videos eroticized the kind of real-world abuses that I railed against in my writing. But it became clear to me that the things that oppress or offend us in real life can be what titillate us most in the make-believe realm of fantasy. I realized that the only contradiction to my feminist beliefs was that I was not paying for my porn.
Subscribing to sites of the indie, feminist, queer and kinky variety, I latched on to women performers who portrayed sex as a weird, messy and sometimes deeply un-pretty affair. It was a model for what mutually attentive and enthusiastic sex might look like. But they also played with power dynamics, moving between submission and dominance. It felt to me like cathartic drama.
Men and their desires had been the focus of my amused, occasionally horrified attention, but now I was riveted by my own. How many different doors could I walk through? What dusty, dimly lit rooms might I discover? I’d taken the master key and was eager to unlock every hidden corner.
In the process, I was getting to know my body. More than anything, though, I was becoming familiar with my own mind.
It goes without saying: as I was growing up, no one had talked to me about the sexual politics of power, performance and perspective. No one – not my parents, not my sex ed classes, not the writers of glossy magazine sex advice – had bothered to go beyond basic mechanics and technique. A true sexual education has less to do with diagrams of the human reproductive system than with understanding another organ: the brain.
Sex could be creative, fun and theatrical, it turned out. It was more than just nerve endings, blood flow and muscle contractions; it was more than angles, friction and rhythm. The physical and psychological experiences of sex were inseparable. Every act was embedded with social and political meaning, and porn let me examine that meaning from a safe and comfortable distance, while alone in my bedroom.
It would be a long time before I felt as free to explore my own desire and pleasure in my partnered sex life.
For all the talk of young people misinterpreting porn, fully grown adults routinely fail to grasp the distinction between fantasy and reality, or else fear the power of the former. Nowhere is that more evident than the current resurgence of morally and religiously motivated attacks on porn that some have described as a “holy war”, and which has been devastating for sex workers.
The porn industry has been attacked for decades, in part under the premise that what one watches, the fantastical scenarios that one entertains, will influence behavior to disastrous, and even criminal, ends. Years of research has failed to produce sound evidence of a link between explicit material and sexual aggression. This hasn’t stopped anti-porn conservatives from declaring the existence of sexually explicit films a “public health crisis”.
Fictionalized scenarios of coercion or abuse, from casting couch to faux-incest films, are argued without actual evidence to encourage the real thing. Meanwhile, when porn performers speak out about the very real problem of nonconsensual porn proliferating on monopolistic websites, or on-set abuses within the industry, they are routinely ignored.
Often, sex workers are discouraged from speaking out to begin with, “for fear that our opponents will use our trauma against us to further crack down on our industry”, as Selena the Stripper writes in the new anthology We Too: Essays on Sex Work and Survival.
Indeed, these concerns are taken more seriously when promoted by groups bent on the outright eradication of porn – and the collapsing of all nuance around fantasy and reality, not to mention sex work and trafficking. As Lorelei Lee wrote in N+1 of this mindset: “All sex trading is understood as trafficking and our ability to consent does not exist.”
Interestingly, researchers have proposed that individuals’ perceptions of problematic porn usage – including self-described feelings of addiction – can stem from viewers’ conflicted feelings of moral disapproval.
Fantasies themselves are often driven by moral prohibition. In his survey of thousands of Americans, Kinsey Institute researcher Justin Lehmiller found that some of the most common sexual reveries involved themes of multiple partners, power, taboo and erotic flexibility. “To me, this collection of themes suggests that the American id is primarily characterized by desires to break free from cultural norms and sexual restraints,” he writes in his book Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life, noting that the majority of Americans are brought up with narrow and idealized notions of heterosexual, monogamous, cisgender, procreative sex.
Fantasies are an escape hatch – and so much more. They can symbolically process hopes and fears, pleasure and trauma, like only the richest of dreams. They certainly can’t be interpreted literally or predictably.
The therapist Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, calls fantasy the “central agent of the erotic”, noting that it can “connect us to hope, playfulness, and mystery.” She goes so far as to write: “I believe, if we didn’t have fantasy, we couldn’t live.”
In my mid-20s, I was reassigned to officially cover the sex beat. It was what I was already finding excuses to do: write about sex – but, really, porn.
Off-camera, outside the frame of fantasy, there were solicitous assistants equipped with gloved hands and a squirt bottle of lube. There were tables laid out with wet wipes, hand sanitizer, moisturizer, hair ties and an assortment of trail mix and granola bars. There were the sober contracts detailing the parameters of consent.
Over the years, I found that the most thrilling on-set moments were revelations of the details omitted from the idealized, fantastical frame: when co-stars negotiated their likes and dislikes off camera, a performer paused to request for lube, the photographer politely asked for a body part to be moved for a better composition, or laughter exploded at the awkwardness of improvising positions in a five-person scene.
The revelations of these behind-the-scenes details have often felt to me like watching a heart-racing action movie sequence slowly dissolve into green screen. Typically, it’s these staged aspects of porn that are used to dichotomously cast it as “unrealistic” as opposed to “realistic”, “bad” versus “good”. For me, these behind-the-scenes moments make a wholly different point about the power of fantasy. It can be a realm filled with pressure, expectation and misdirection – but fantasy, especially when it is understood and celebrated as such, can also be a realm of release and rapture, intimacy and self-discovery.
That “girls these days” conversation on set came in the midst of my ongoing education around porn. After Gunn finished his comedic air-humping, talk turned to a reminiscence of the porn of yore: pin-ups, VHS tapes, the X-rated pics of the early internet. “You could trade anything for a nudie mag,” said Dera. A couple other men on set had joined in. Everyone wanted to talk about their early encounters with fantasy fodder. I mentioned the scrambled channel and, although we were a multi-generational group, there was a collective enthusiastic shouting of, “Yeah!”
In that moment of shouting, I suspect we all remembered feeling the spark of discovery, the introduction to fantasy, the opening of a new sexual dimension, the revelation that there was more to the act than black-and-white anatomy diagrams and condoms rolled onto bananas. I wondered what it might have meant for me to get greater context around sexual fantasy decades earlier – not just in a high school class, but ongoingly in a culture that allowed for nuanced, expansive discussions of sex. What might it have meant to feel free to pursue porn for my own pleasure from the very beginning, instead of framing it as an education in giving pleasure to men?
My career, even well into my 30s, has often been an exercise in trying to make up for that inadequate education, that woeful backdrop. Many people never get to fill in those gaps.
• This is an adapted excerpt from Want Me, by Tracy Clark-Flory, to be published on 16 February 2021 by Penguin Books