Adults Only Now Playing

Coming together: Finding a community in porn

Shares

At a pace not much faster than glacial, pornography has finally slipped its way into popular culture. For an industry that has been illegal, taboo or compared to a disease, online smut is today being consumed and disseminated with remarkable transparency.  But did you ever think porn would be so accepted as to become your friendly neighborhood hangout club, where you dropped by to chat openly about the latest smut with friends and acquaintances? Because that’s what has happened—pornography has now engendered itself into specific communities (and vice versa). Today, as with everything else online, it’s open season on discussing, sharing, and living with porn.

Although it’s one of the oldest elements of human culture, until very, very recently porn was also deeply private. Printed material was “read” in the privacy of one’s own home. Porn became a filmic experience shortly after the invention of film in the late 19th century. Later, consumers would go to adult theaters—notoriously shady and scandalous venues at which no one wanted to be caught. But go people did, to hunker down in the dark in their solitary seats, going to public places to do private things. It wasn’t until the advent of VHS tapes and then DVDs, in the 1980s and 1990s, that the adult theater audience decreased dramatically. Today few venues still exist, like the—(oddly, outdoor!)—Fiesta Drive In Theater in El Paso, but most adult theaters have largely gone the way of fuzzy x-rated funk soundtracks.

As popular lore dictates, adult theaters were a place where men (primarily) go to masturbate. That constitutes something of an accidental community, albeit one with obviously limited social interaction (though we must make an exception for theaters as “cruising” spots, especially within the gay community). The home availability of pornographic films—and soon after, with the introduction of online options—began to close down these theaters, and therefore their associated “communities.” At the same time, the mores surrounding sex and pornography began to dramatically change. They have changed so significantly by 2012 that porn is now openly discussed and porn actors/actresses can be household names. So significantly that when Fred Willard was arrested for “engaging in a lewd act” in Tiki Theater Xymposium, the outpouring of comments on stories related to the arrest wondered not at Willard's moral compass, but at his strange choice of venue.

At what adult theaters are left, anonymity is even less an option than it once was. According to the Daily Beast, Tiki theater manager Kazi Jafor says that the police “...have come here many many times. Sometimes four or five times a week. They are checking to see if people are drinking or jacking off.” User Pop Socket on Gawker had this to say: “Someone needs to teach the poor soul how to use the Internet. There is no excuse for wanking in public anymore if you don't want to.” 

The Internet is the perfect palliative for these concerns, allowing porn consumers to be wholly anonymous and wholly private. Porn online is also entirely legal. So it’s not surprising that it is now such a significant part of the Web: 12% of the Internet is based in porn.

What’s more surprising, and less easy to explain, is the boom of pornographic communities online. These are virtual neighborhoods where commenters go to share not just sex, but themselves. Today, with commentary options, discussion forums and legion other ways of communicating and sharing attached to most pornographic websites, and conversely, pornographic threads attached to many discussion forums, the lonely masturbator is only as lonely as he or she wants to be.

And it seems that many don’t want to be lonely at all, they want to be members of a club. They want to belong and belong vocally. While we can imagine that most of users are still probably the silent majority, there is an abundance of proof of those clubs for the most varied, diverse and strange interests. On 4Chan, the /s/ thread (“sexy beautiful women”) is a study in fetish both wide and niche, from women in one-piece swimsuits to “woman in sexy boots” to a “large areola” thread. Users who have less mainstream fetishes (onesie bathing suits? sick!) find a like-minded community here. The threads include jpgs, of course, as well as comments, anecdotes (which should be received skeptically, like the letters to Penthouse) and more. There is something for everyone here, a kind of omni-sexuality. The animated gif forum, /gif/, moves freely between gay and straight porn, though at the same time the commenters freely dispense the kind of homophobia and sexism you'd expect anywhere else. 

On Able2know.org, users share opinions about porn instead of film or video. Discussions include “Porn – degrading to women? Or 'the all you can eat salad bar,'”, and the thread “Is it wrong to view child pornography,” which has 721 replies and 19,802 views. It should go without saying that the latter has heavy moralistic and legal implications that make the subject very difficult to broach...and yet there is user agrote, with more than 1,000 words on the subject. Apparently the need for expression, even of unpopular ideas, trumps any kind of e-stigma; Agrote must have known he would receive comments like “Stay away from my children,” but this forum allowed for the conversation, and those who didn’t agree must have clicked on with full awareness of what they were getting into.

The sharing has even started to transgress personal boundaries, in that some users on Reddit blur the line between displaying their fetishes and the way they share anything else in their lives: funny videos, recipes, cat pix. Take user homerjsimpson4, who in talking about a particular “Mormon girl” porn video, said, “That was probably one of the best made videos I've seen in a long time. No bullshit story, sounds she made were real and not forced. Simple yet, brilliant.” Alongside porn critique comments such as this, and under the same username, are benign threads like “the most satisfying sound you can think of” (his response: his iPod), /pics (also not sexual), and in an Ask Reddit thread about tv show themes (definitely not sexual).

We think we understand why porn is becoming more mainstream, more accepted—to over simplify, we are more exposed to it, it’s all over, and we’re more inured. The shock value and taboo is dissipating, and the more it does, the more porn appears. But do we understand why the rise of the group mentality in porn? Why porn consumers no longer want to be alone, but rather want to belong—to other like-minded porn consumers, and to make small talk and chat about their interests?

Part of the explanation might be in the synonymous rise of “net communities and chat” in general, which, in 2007, occurred around the same time we in the U.S. saw the drop of adult-oriented sites (slightly). Did pornography and communities meet in the middle, when porn began to lag, and needed a little boost, a little infusion of new material? One site that features a little of both is Forumophilia, which specializes in “teen babe” gifs and jpgs while also running a fairly active “General Chat” forum. In their “make introductions” thread, you see a theme: interactions are symbiotic—finding someone with the same interests as you is worthwhile in what they can share.

Or maybe it’s just that as the taboo surrounding porn dissolves, the basic human need for company and shared interests takes over. Again in Forumphilia, user “410lover” wrote, “[I]t's nice to have a place to talk with somebody about my (our) problem and at the same time not solving it.” 

For most people, the idea of eschewing a holiday with friends or family in favor of the pleasures of shared Internet pornography might sound depressing. To say the least. But for those who choose to walk that path, there's a real upside to doing so. Users churn out fodder for fantasy, through shared files and experiences. They also, as in user 410lover's case, provide a sense of normalcy that seems to keep at bay some of the guilt that so many users of pornography experience. Ultimately, though, what brings people together in these sorts of forums is simple–even in the dark, and even in private, no one likes feeling completely alone.

Women and men often consume pornography differently, and their community choices reflect this. In an article about Sexy Baby, a new documentary about pornography, Slate writer Amanda Hess points out that “Women who engage effectively online can find resources for critically assessing [pornography’s] most sexist tropes, join communities that don’t share those norms, and benefit from a kind of increased sexual mobility they can’t always find in real life.” Pornography may have something to say about the way women are viewed, but this view is now being challenged and discussed by the very people pornography has so often—by looking so hard—overlooked.

As entertainment continues to blend with pornography, we will see the two continue to swirl together, until one day perhaps the two become inseparable. This year’s AVN Adult Entertainment Expo features Nadya Suleman as their headlining guest, though of course her fame (or notoriety) came from outside the industry, as the mother of octuplets. Porn has become just another sub-forum or pull-down box. It will be interesting to be witness to how much of ourselves we’re willing to share, especially in a medium that was once so quietly ignored.

Photographs: via 1stdibs.com, the_toe_stubber, New Line Cinema