Porn Is Easy To See But Hard To Talk About, Shaping The Ways People Think About Sex

May 1, 2019
Originally published on May 1, 2019 5:06 pm
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For the past few weeks, we've been bringing you stories about sex - how we talk about it, how we don't and why it matters. We've explored LGBTQ sex ed and abstinence before marriage. Today's story is about pornography - not whether it's good or bad but that it's everywhere, and it's shaping the way people think about sex.

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Millions of people in the U.S. watch porn thanks largely in part to the Internet and free tube sites like PornHub. That site alone has over a hundred million visits a day. People in the U.S. make up the biggest chunk of that traffic, and most of those views come from people under 34 years old, people who've always had easy access to porn. It's on Twitter, Instagram, even in GIFs sent around in text messages.

The bottom line is porn is easy to view, but it's still hard to talk about. NPR's Kat Lonsdorf went to Los Angeles to do just that - to talk about it.

And just a warning - obviously for the next eight minutes, we'll be talking frankly about pornography and sex, which may not be suitable for all listeners.

KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: It's 9 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, and director Jacky St. James is worried about patio furniture or the lack thereof.

JACKY ST JAMES: They're going to hate me if I make them have sex on the floor (laughter).

LONSDORF: We're in back of a big house off a winding road in the San Fernando Valley. This house is a filming location for movies, TV shows and today a porn shoot. Jacky is getting ready to direct a scene that's a pretty standard setup. A guy shows up for a private yoga lesson without his girlfriend. The tension with the female instructor slowly builds. And, well, you can probably figure out the rest.

ST JAMES: Looking into each other's eyes, kissing. But it's not, like, a slow, making love. She's not your girlfriend.

ISIAH MAXWELL: OK.

LONSDORF: I'm here to hear the conversations that happen behind the scenes in mainstream porn, the ones that show you just how manufactured it actually is, the ones that viewers don't hear.

MAXWELL: Yeah, that's what I was thinking.

KARLA KUSH: Yeah, OK, so we'll just do it standing, then.

ST JAMES: If you feel...

LONSDORF: Today's scene is with performers Isiah Maxwell and Karla Kush. There are cameramen setting up equipment, a sound guy, a makeup artist, a production manager. They shoot the scripted dialogue first, and then...

ST JAMES: You guys need to do anything before sex, or are you guys good?

KUSH: We're good.

LONSDORF: And Jacky sets a timer for 25 minutes. Yep, the sex is timed, and it's heavily directed.

ST JAMES: And action. When you guys have a second, give me some - a little bit more connected. This looks a little disconnected. Watch that right hand, Isiah. Touch her with it as well. Give me 25 more seconds, and then bring her up vertically to kiss her. Action. Cool, cut. That was beautiful, you guys.

LONSDORF: When you're on the set, it seems obvious that pornography is a performance just like a TV show or a choreographed dance. But most people haven't been on a porn set, and so the idea that it's a performance is not that obvious. Jacky, who's in her 40s, says that worries her, especially with how easy it is for younger viewers to see it now.

ST JAMES: A lot of people that are growing up on porn somehow feel that what they're seeing is what they should be doing instead of really discovering what they want. And when I grew up, there - you know, porn was so hard to get. I mean, I saw porn, but I couldn't watch it every day if I wanted to.

LONSDORF: And do you think that that's where the conversation needs to be had?

ST JAMES: For sure. I mean, I think we definitely need to talk about the impact that porn has. But at the same time, I think it's important to just set the standard of, this is not real in the sense of this is not true connections. These are two sometimes strangers having sex and doing what usually a man told them to do.

LONSDORF: Just down the coast from Jacky's porn shoot...

SHIRA TARRANT: All right, so today we're talking about pornography.

LONSDORF: ...Shira Tarrant is teaching a lecture at Cal State University Long Beach all about porn. It's part of a class on pop culture and media. There are about 30 students, and many of them are those young people that Jacky worries about who've grown up in a world where hardcore porn is free. And if you have access to a smartphone, you can watch it wherever and whenever you want.

TARRANT: My students are often immersed in it but don't often have an opportunity to either talk about it or to learn about it with tools for critical analysis.

LONSDORF: Tarrant says that's exactly why she devotes an entire lecture to the topic.

TARRANT: When people are watching stunt performers, they know it's a stunt. When you go to the movies, you know that the movie was edited. And there's something about pornography where people suspend all disbelief or disconnect from the fact that they're engaging with a screen and with algorithms and with an editing process.

LONSDORF: She says that disconnect only gets worse because people don't talk about porn like they do other forms of media. So I pulled a few of her students aside after class and asked them about it. Junior David Cruz (ph) jumped in first, followed by junior Danielle Brinkley (ph) and then senior Keelin Dunn (ph).

DAVID CRUZ: Whenever I bring porn up in a conversation with friends, they almost look at me like I'm crazy. It's not the thing that anybody really wants to say or, like, mention.

DANIELLE BRINKLEY: I think millennials are maybe having more conversations about sex. I don't think that they're having more conversations about porn.

LONSDORF: And what do you think that means when those two things collide?

BRINKLEY: That when they watch porn and they're like, oh, my gosh, that girl is doing all these circus tricks, then when they go to the bedroom with their boyfriend or girlfriend, they're expected or they expect themselves to be able to do that. And I don't think that's necessarily fair.

KEELIN DUNN: When you're really young, it's not something that you're allowed to talk about or have any experience with. You know, like, when sex happens on the TV, your parents are like, cover your eyes. So, like, I think the first time I stumbled across porn, it was like, this is what sex is. You don't have a reference point.

LONSDORF: So then if that was one of the first times you ever saw sex, can you think of, like, a time once you started having sex - this could be for anyone - that you were like, oh, that's different?

CRUZ: When I realized that porn wasn't reality was when I first started having sex. It didn't last for an hour and a half. And the expectation was that we're going to try all these moves, and things are going to get done. But I quickly learned that - I don't know - it takes connection building and all kinds of other factors that lead into what works for specific people and certain couples.

LONSDORF: I mean, have you guys been in situations where you either expected something to be like porn and it wasn't or you felt like that expectation was being put on you?

BRINKLEY: I don't really know if my boyfriend has watched porn or not, but I would say, like, he expects me to have sex for so long, so I feel like he has brought expectations into the relationship. And sometimes I feel bad because I can't meet those expectations, so I feel like something's wrong with me.

LONSDORF: Yeah, I mean, do you guys ever talk about that? Have you ever asked him about porn, or...

BRINKLEY: No, I actually haven't, so maybe I should (laughter). I just feel like it hasn't come up before because probably I don't want to ask him just because I'm scared of what the response might be.

CRUZ: It's something that needs to be talked about. And this conversation is long overdue because there's no going back. You know, it's only getting bigger, and we have to adapt.

LONSDORF: There are people who argue that one way to adapt is to get rid of porn, to cut out engagement with it completely. But professor Shira Tarrant says that's just not realistic.

TARRANT: We're not going to get rid of porn any more than we're going to get rid of Disneyland even if we don't like the princess trope and the happily-ever-after motif.

LONSDORF: And even if you don't engage, someone close to you probably will.

Later on, I meet up with a few performers for happy hour at a noisy bar. They tell me they think a lot about peeling back the mystique around the content they produce even though their jobs depend on the fantasy.

MAXWELL: For me, I see the conundrum.

LONSDORF: That's Isiah Maxwell, the male performer from the shoot earlier.

MAXWELL: An open dialogue instead of being closed off about it would help bring a more of an understanding of how much actually go into this product. I could see how it kills the fantasy, but I do think it would be beneficial.

LONSDORF: Lisey Sweet, one of the other performers at the table, chimes in.

LISEY SWEET: I know that our society is not quite there yet, but the discussion about pornography should be part of sex ed. What do you think's more likely - that they're going to come across porn first or they're going to come across actual sex first? And it's probably more likely porn.

LONSDORF: Porn isn't going away, and as it becomes ever easier to see, maybe it's best to simply acknowledge it. Remember college student Danielle Brinkley who didn't know if her boyfriend watched porn? Well, he does. And they talked about it. She says she was nervous, but once they started talking, they both felt so much better to have it out in the open. Kat Lonsdorf, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.