Embodied: Porn And Erotica, Pleasure And Shame

May 14, 2020

How comfortable are you talking about porn and erotica? Does it make you embarrassed? Ashamed? If you knew more about how porn is made, and how to navigate your own exploration of pleasure, would you still blush at the mention of it?
 

Cultural norms stigmatize the adult film industry, and many people feel shame about their porn habits. But one of the most popular pornographic websites in the world, Pornhub, says their website hosts an average of 115 million visitors a day.

Shine Louise Houston (center) directs performers Arabelle Raphael and Devorah (left) while Ajaporn on second camera (left) for CrashPadSeries.com
Credit Courtesy of Pink and White Productions

If so many of us consume adult content, why are we embarrassed to talk about it? On this installment of Embodied, host Anita Rao aims to answer that question. Durham-based artist Monét Noelle Marshall talks about her forthcoming virtual exhibit “Shameless Pleasure.”

Over 200 people from across the world answered questions about the shame they carry related to their porn consumption. Feminist beliefs and fear of partners’ hurt feelings were a primary source of shame for both men and women, Marshall notes. She hopes that her exhibit will encourage people to talk about their fantasies.

Also joining the conversation is Lynn Comella. She is an associate professor of gender and sexuality studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and the author of “Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure” (Duke University Press/2017).

Dipsea co-founder Gina Gutierrez says female sexual empowerment is the primary goal of the audio erotica app.
Credit Courtesy of Dipsea

Shine Louise Houston shares her perspective on the adult industry as the founding director and producer of Pink and White Productions. The adult film company produces the Crash Pad Series and PinkLabel.TV.

Houston started Pink and White in 2005 to expand queer representation in pornography, and now she highlights queer content through PinkLabel.TV.

Gina Gutierrez is a co-founder and the CEO of Dipsea. She and her team create original audio erotica — a new kind of media that differs from pornography in several ways — to empower women to access their sexuality.

The Dipsea app includes narrative stories centered around sexual themes, as well as a guided content section dedicated to sensual exploration.

''My feminism shouldn't tell me that my desires are wrong.'' -Monet Noelle Marshall

Shameless Pleasure

Marshall got the idea to ask people about their porn habits by looking inward. She is a queer woman who came out in her mid-20s. She says the shame she carried around related to her own adult content habits, because her search terms did not match how she presented herself. Once she got past that, it was a more peaceful relationship. Then, she wanted to know what that was like for other people.

“As an artist, so much of my art comes from a vulnerable place. I'm always interested in the parts of ourselves that we still feel like we need to hide,” she says. “And porn is definitely one of those places. ... We don't necessarily announce that we watch it, we definitely don't tell people what we're watching and the specifics of our enjoyment, we turn the volume down, I have my headphones on in the dark. And I'm just curious about what happens when we do the opposite where we talk about it out loud.”

Over 200 people from multiple countries responded to the survey on her website. While wading through those responses, Marshall realized that a lot of them share very similar sources of shame.

“So much of what I learned is that as diverse of porn searches we have, the buckets that bring us shame are actually so small — we actually carry a lot of the same shame.”

Some major themes she noticed were feminism and partner-based shame. Respondents who identified as feminists found it difficult to reconcile their desire to watch porn or consume erotic content. And people whose partners' appearances did not align with what they watched in porn felt guilty about potentially causing their partner harm.
 

''There's all that guilt that comes up. And it's just not helpful ... I think that it gets in the way of us having safe sex. It gets in the way of us asking for what we want.'' -Monet Noelle Marshall

Marshall hopes that recognizing other people worry about these things will help people shed their shame.

“I think because that shame is so quiet — particularly on subjects of porn and sexuality — it makes us feel like we are the only one experiencing this thing. I'm the only one that feels shame. I'm the only one that doesn't know how to communicate my needs. I'm the only one that enjoys this sort of porn and it's just not true, right? But because we can't talk about it, it then makes us feel alone. And then that becomes a cycle of shame. So I think people want to disrupt that cycle, and to be able to step out and find other people to dismantle the shame and also to celebrate in pleasure, too.”

Her virtual exhibit “Shameless Pleasure” can be found on Instagram in June (@shamelesspleasure). The account will feature content from the survey.

“As you [scroll] through, you'll see an image with the porn search terms. You swipe to the next image, and that'll be the same topic. And then so that'll be on each side. And then in the middle will be quotes, resources, places to learn more.”

The page will also include material from interviews Marshall had with a black queer sex ethicist, a kink coach and North Carolina artist Omisade Burney-Scott.

The Adult Film Industry

Experts say it is difficult to nail down an exact number, but adult film is a multi-billion dollar industry with millions of people visiting pornographic websites every hour. Sexually explicit content has been around for centuries, but Lynn Comella says porn as we know it emerged in the 1960s.

“The adult industry as an industry really began to form and organize into some kind of recognizable entity towards the late 1960s,” she says. “It was a result of the loosening of obscenity laws. It was a result of the countercultural movements of the 1960s that put sex and gender on the map in new kinds of ways.”

Plot-driven adult films shown in theaters guided the industry through what many call “the golden era” of pornography. Then the 1980s and the rise of VHS tapes brought change and diversity to a white, cisgender male-dominated field.

“What also started to happen with the VHS revolution was because it was less expensive to make explicit movies, more people were picking up video cameras and making the types of films that they wanted to see,” Comella adds. “So it's that era where we start to see different, new kinds of filmmakers moving into the adult industry making different kinds of films for new kinds of audiences.”

Feminist pornmakers and members of the LGBTQ community started producing content, though it was still far from the mainstream. Today, the rise of the internet expanded production access.

“We have this whole world of online porn — pornography driven by the internet. And we have adult webcamming sites which are booming. We have clip sites that are increasingly popular, and that allows a lot more control for performers. So we have this whole new generation of performer-producers that are kind of making their own content.”

But the internet also expanded consumer access to pornography. Websites that offer free pornographic videos with minimal verification of consumer age has many parents worried about what their kids can find online. Comella is skeptical of anti-porn critics who frame pornography as a public health crisis.

“There's not a consensus around the effects of pornography and that's true of a lot of media effects research. It's difficult to isolate variables, all that kind of stuff.” She adds, “But I do think the internet did kind of make it easier for all sorts of people to access pornography. And there is, as you note, a lot of concern around young people's easy access to pornography and the ways in which thought is influencing [and] shaping their ideas about intimacy and their ideas about kind of sexuality and relationships, as well.”

She points to porn literacy, the ability to recognize that porn is a produced fantasy, as crucial in educating young people about sex.

“We need more porn literacy, not just for young people, but for adults as well. And by porn literacy, I mean a kind of curriculum-based programs that really kind of break down how porn images are created, what they are and how they work,” she notes. “But I think porn literacy also has to include discussions of consent, that has to include discussions about intimacy and about healthy relationships."

''We need more porn literacy, not just for young people, but for adults as well.'' -Lynn Comella

Ethical Porn

A buzzword in the adult industry is “ethical.” Consumers concerned by pay discrepancies, treatment on a film set and other concerns for adult actors’ safety look for that term to assuage worries about the content they watch. Houston has a complicated relationship with that label.

“I feel like it really polarizes the industry. I'm just as much of the industry as Vivid [Entertainment] or any other big company. I'm in that pool. I am not different from them. So to say that some people are ethical implies that the rest of the industry is unethical. And that throws a lot of really awesome people under the bus, and I don't feel comfortable with that.”
 

''The [adult] industry is not a monolith. The industry is incredibly diverse.'' -Shine Louise Houston

But that doesn’t mean she operates unethically. Rather, Houston is hesitant of labels that divide the industry she’s worked in since 2005. When she conceptualized Pink and White Productions, several considerations wormed their way into her business model.

“Right off the bat, several things that are important: different body representations, different gender expression representations ... And I wanted to be sustainable.”

Houston also challenges the idea of “degrading” porn by pointing out that adult films are in fact films, and are performed by consenting adults.
 

Shine Louise Houston (right) with performers Drew DeVeaux (left) and Andre Shakti (center) on the set of Put the Needle on the Record.
Credit Courtesy of Pink and White Productions

“That's kind of pointed, assuming that a lot of stuff out there is totally degrading. I think what people forget is that there's actually a lot of discussion about what's about to happen on set and how it's going to happen. And the porn performers do a lot of negotiation,” she explains.

“You might find that action degrading, but there's some people who were like: Wow, that was like my biggest fantasy or that was awesome,” Houston says. “It might not be my style of shooting or might not be my fantasy … but just because some things are, for a particular viewer, hard to watch … I'm not going to necessarily label that degrading, right?”

Both Comella and Houston say consumers of porn hold equal, if not more, responsibility in the production of ethical porn. By paying for content, consumers engage in the economic cycle that allows talent, producers, directors and other crew members to get paid for their labor.
 

''The first thing to do as a consumer is to pay for your porn.'' -Shine Louise Houston

That payment helps support systems like the Free Speech Coalition, which is the adult industry’s national trade association. It provides legal support to industry members, as well as run the FCS-PASS system, which regularly tests performers for a cornucopia of sexually transmitted infections.

“[In] the industry at large there are systems in place for everybody's safety. I don't know if people really understand the lengths that the industry goes to keep people safe. We have the PASS system — people get tested every two weeks,” Houston notes. “We have a really, really good system for like, if somebody tests positive, the whole industry shuts down. There's contact tracing. Those people that they shot [a scene] with — they're tested. And if all those people come up negative — great. If not, then we have protocols on how to handle that person and how to get that person care.”
 

The audio erotica app Dipsea helps users explore their sexuality through narrative and guided audio pieces.
Credit Dipsea

Audio Erotica as an Alternative to Porn

Still, some people prefer not to watch porn. Outside of the adult film industry, erotic content options are less abundant. Gina Gutierrez, co-founder and CEO of Dipsea, sought to fill that void with audio erotica.

“I was really fascinated by the idea that in my community of people, when you ask the question: Where do you go for erotic content? They didn't really have good answers. There's a lot of: Well, I've looked a lot, and I've seen a lot that I don't want to see,” Gutierrez says. “You hear a lot of: Oh, I have this one chapter from this one book that I think is really sexy. And that's kind of been it. You hear a lot of grim options and a lack of options. And that, to me, indicated that there was more to be done, and there were different ways to creating erotic content.”

''I was really inspired by creating something that felt really safe and different and accessible and approachable.'' -Gina Gutierrez

Audio as a medium for erotica stood out to Gutierrez for its potential to capture user imagination.

“Audio had a really interesting potential to be really immersive, felt really safe and in your own mind, in your own thoughts. And also that it's so deeply imaginative and it opened up the realm of creating a lot of content where you could imagine you know, those two characters, pretty much however you want to imagine them, in whatever space you want to imagine.”

In the narrative stories that Dipsea produces, voice actors separately perform their lines from a scripted scene. Later, the sex scene is crafted by producers. 

Consent in Porn and Erotica

A major theme in Dipsea’s content is consent. They make a point to bake it into their narrative stories, and hearing how consent plays out in real time in a variety of scenarios serves as an almost educational service to listeners.

“I think people assume that consent is a barrier, that consent slows things down or makes things awkward, and we were really intent on proving that that isn't necessarily the case ... There's actually a huge range of gray between [consent and nonconsent] and how to actually layer and thoughtfully model it,” Gutierrez says. “How many blog posts or activists or celebrities have we heard talk about consent? It sounds like a task list. But when you actually hear people integrate consent into their actual, realistic-sounding encounters, you suddenly start to see: Oh, like, that's a frame. That could happen. That's the way that you might leave that in. And it feels really natural. And so it's really exciting for us, even though we don't position our content as educational.”
 

''I think people are excited to hear these things interwoven in a way that feels replicable for them in their own life.'' -Gina Gutierrez

Consent also plays a major role in pornography. For Houston, the actors in the scenes she films fully control the action and direction of the scene. She also frequently includes “talkbacks” at the end of her films — where the actors candidly discuss what happened in the film.

“Whether it's a vanilla scene or there's any BDSM, when we edit, we keep in those moments like: Hey, is this okay? Would you like to stop? I'm going to get a check in,” Houston notes. “I keep that in the edit so you can see how that seamlessly goes into the play. We also do a post-interview and we talk about what people liked, what people thought was challenging. We discuss what their safe sex decisions were for that scene. And sometimes people talk about that stuff like what they do in their personal life as well.”

Using Content to Explore Your Own Sexuality

In addition to the narrative stories, the Dipsea app has a guided section. Choices include tantric breathing exercises or an intro to BDSM with a certified BDSM and kink educator. Gutierrez says the connection between sexual wellness and overall wellness is intentional.
 

''We are hopeful to move sex out of vice and move it more towards the idea of wellness or a whole and healthy life.'' -Gina Gutierrez

“I think in many ways health and sexuality is the same. Well, what are the ways that I can integrate that into my real life or into the content that I consume? And so the two parts of our content library are both designed to be supportive of one another,” Gutierrez says. “Ideally, you might look into a certain story and really like the way that the characters interact, say it's a more BDSM style story. And you're like: Wow, it's really interesting to incorporate aftercare into my sexual practices. Well, then we have a couple guidance pieces led by experts in those spaces to say: Hey, here's how you actually might go about integrating that into your life.”

The idea that the content we consume can inform different realms of our sexuality — the fantasy side that exists in our minds, and the reality side that we want to live out in our bedrooms or elsewhere — is central to feminist thought on sexual freedom. Comella says the diversity of the adult industry, from pornography to erotica to romance novels, is built to help explore those desires.

“This idea of pleasure is worth exploring: that you are entitled to explore your pleasure. That's something that feminists in the 1970s worked so hard to communicate with people,” Comella adds. “That's something that businesses such as Good Vibrations that Shine mentioned — this legendary sex toy store in San Francisco — has historically worked hard to communicate to their customers of all genders and all sexual orientations. Pleasure is your birthright.
 

''Pleasure is a huge and misunderstood part about the conversation that needs to happen around female empowerment.'' -Gina Gutierrez