Exploring the Kinkier Side of Porn

By: Mark Hay

A couple of weeks ago I sat down to catch up on Louie, the semi-biographical brainchild of comedian Louis C.K. The show has touched upon sex before, but a nugget of observation in the episode “Eddie” caught my attention: Otherwise a cautionary tale of a darker side of the bile of comedy, the episode features a sex-centric standup routine by a rock-bottom comedian of the same name.[1] In one riff, Eddie puzzles at the “recommendations” section of the free streaming porn site, YouPorn.

“If you use YouPorn, be careful, because they track what you beat off to. Go up to the top of YouPorn next time you’re on YouPorn and click recommended for you. … It’s like Amazon: ‘People who beat off to this also beat off to this, this, and that.’ A lot of that stuff you’re not into. How is cock and ball torture equal to peeing on me? I don’t want you to pee on me! … That’s gross!”

A funny quip, and part of a larger narrative of a man’s loss of desire and disengagement from physicality, but it raises interesting questions. We’ve already gotten the story of porn on the Internet—diversity, incredible accessibility, and a host of debates that followed. But as the porn industry catches up with other online trends (open sourced content, streaming free video, content tracking, and recommendation algorithms), we stand at the edge of another pornographic and sexual revolution, both in terms of our understanding and of the common sexual vocabulary.

In many ways, this is nothing more than the next logical step in a sexual revolution spurred by porn as far back as the birth of public adult theaters. Dr. Jennifer Nash, then a visiting Humanities Fellow at Columbia University, first explained to me the transformative value of pornography in new medias two years ago. Nash studies pornography—one of the few serious academics willing to do so, and her ability to throw around Mike in BrazilBrazzers and other porn sites in the same breath as respected sociological theorists is both refreshing and astounding. As Nash put it to me, the movement of pornography onto the big screen and into mass distribution via videos mitigated the isolation and psychological distress of many sexual minorities.

“A gay man in Texas,” said Nash, “could go to a theater to see a porn and realize, ‘Woah, I’m not the only one who has these feelings.’”

These mediums though were limited to big porn production houses selling in markets that could restrict buyers, which controlled the availability of fantasy deviating beyond those of white male heterosexual norms. The proliferation of pornography onto the Internet, though, and the spread of editing and sharing tools allowed for an explosion in amateur and niche video—a plurality of pornography with something for every taste and widely available for public and reinforcing, or private and safe viewings by absolutely anyone with a basic Internet connection.

Porn’s explosion onto the Internet became a source of exposure of, and education for, the public to non-basic white male heterosexual sexual mechanics. It allowed the exploration of unique sexual experiences and the development of appetites—as Nash puts it: “These films can teach us much about sex, bodies, alternative forms of pleasure, and in that way can provide comfort—they might even be a big part of sexual education.”

Many individuals fear that this explosion just enables the darkest fetishes—pedophilia, rape, and sexual abuse. Anecdotally in conversations with sex crimes prosecutors, they seem to think the nature of their cases has grown markedly weirder since the advent of the Internet (I could tell a few stories involving frozen feces, constriction, squirrel carcasses, and nettles, but I will refrain for the sake of space and mystery). And there’s been a long string of research to support the idea that exposure to pornography decreases sympathy towards female victims of rape and compassion towards women in general.[2]

But, as Nash says, “This [mentality] leads to a fear that what we view is what we do. It’s not so one-to-one.” A host of further studies have found that the availability of pornography decreases sex crimes.[3] Beyond that, frequent viewers of porn, even in its early video stages, were consistently more comfortable discussing sex and were more open to diverse ways of achieving orgasm.[4]

So that’s where we stand—the Internet has enabled comfort with fetishes through an explosion in user-created porn across all different spectrums of desire. But one problem of the Internet thus far is that it has failed to enable exploration—the foot fetishist may not know himself a foot fetishist or may not know what to look for if he suspects his feet are eroticized. The norms of sex—busty, heterosexual humping with copious manufactured moans and a healthy money shot at the end—still proliferate many individuals’ experience and (as many a woman can tell you) have helped to shape and normalize a sometimes dissatisfying sexual environment.

Therein lies the virtue of YouPorn and its equivalents eerily tracking your masturbatory habits—in making recommendations, these sites now offer a way for a viewer to expand his or her sexual vocabulary, exploring new fantasies, desires, and fetishes. Because these recommendations are made on the basis of what other people like you enjoyed, there is an implicit approval that it’s alright for you to explore this realm of sexuality, and especially because it is usually an amateur production the social barriers are doubly removed. And as the free nature of these streaming sites attracts more and more viewers away from the norm of sites, it stands to challenge the widespread narratives of pornography and open up an increasing diversity in sexuality.

Even if the algorithms are horrible (as Eddie notes, he has no interest in urination porn), there’s benefit. Laura Kipnis’s book Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy makes the case that fetishes can challenge our aesthetic prejudices and tear up our built up senses of disgust. (Disgust, it should be acknowledged, is tricky. At a biological level it theoretically exists to keep us from doing things that are unnatural or dangerous. Yet much disgust is constructed—the accumulation of taboo and power that serves little biological purpose and less social purpose now than to disenfranchise portions of society.) But when Kipnis wrote the book there was little chance that these fetishes would have a large effect on the general population. Now the tracking of commonly used porn sites exposes viewers to content they would not otherwise find, and challenges them to view content that may initially disgust them, but that they must accept that others view and appreciate, and they may come to appreciate in their own way.

Any way you slice it, the same technology that puts countless ads for MuslimSingles.com on my Facebook wall now seems to want to challenge sexual orthodoxy and ring in, unintentionally, a new age—an age of plurality in pleasure, of pornography that opens up rather than restricts and shapes sexual experience and education, of the deconstruction of social taboos of disgust. Sure, a one-night stand may get a tad bit less predictable. But it’s an exciting new world nonetheless.

[1] Played by Doug Stanhope.

[2] See Dolf Zillmann and Jennings Bryant’s 1982 article in the Journal of Communcations for reference.

[3] Especially child pornography—see Berl Kutchinsky in a 1973 article in the Journal of Social Issues or the more recent article “How the Web Prevents Rape” on Slate.

[4] Pornography and Sexual Deviance by Michael Goldstein, Harold Kant, and John Hartman (1973)