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Authenticity in Porn Artwork

How social media and our obsession with "authenticity" is changing porn

Authenticity in Porn Artwork

The rise of "amateur" and "feminist" porn, along with webcamming and Twitter, is bringing porn stars closer to viewers than ever – and giving them a new set of problems

Authenticity is everywhere in 2018. It’s in media companies that promise transparency against a backdrop of fake news, and the personal atmosphere of shopping app Depop, where the exchange between shoppers and sellers is like texting a friend. Pared-back beauty brand Glossier taps into the trend by boasting pink-hazed products “inspired by real life”. Major fashion brands are working with bloggers, vloggers, and social media influencers in an attempt to seem more human, in the same way Tesco packaging is now designed to look like it’s selling meat from small British farms. On every level of culture, from food to beauty brands to celebrities to pop culture, there’s a shift happening away from the commercial and highly manufactured, and into greater transparency and intimacy. But “authenticity” in commercial culture is a paradox. If authenticity is the sense of realness, can it really be packaged up and sold? And at what cost?

This widespread cultural shift toward the “real” is also impacting the porn industry. The rise of “amateur” porn (DIY videos often shot by people in their own bedrooms) and so-called “feminist” porn – the new wave of alternative erotica that claims to be made with female pleasure in mind – marks a craving from porn-watchers for a sense of “realness” when they’re getting off. Meanwhile, off-screen, performers are finding that their real lives are bleeding into their performances more than ever. The rise of webcamming and social media means that porn stars are expected to be always accessible and responsive – more than ever, their viewers want a connection with them that goes way beyond seeing them naked. While seeing more genuine pleasure in porn can only be a good thing, this truth-obsessed climate is also creating a whole new set of complex issues for professionals to navigate.

In part, the rise of the “real” in porn has a correlation with the fact that more women are watching it. Both Pornhub and social network porn site XHamster reported increases of female viewers in their 2017 reports. At the same time, more porn labelled “for women” – an alternative to highly produced porn offerings full of big, bouncing tits, close-ups of overripe penises, and exaggerated screams – is being produced and watched. That’s not to say all women prefer feminist porn – but, as it grows in popularity, mainstream and hardcore porn is no longer as ubiquitous as it once was.

So-called feminist porn also often focuses on ethical production. This, supporters say, leads to more authentic pleasure on camera. Self-described feminist pornographer Tristan Taormino’s approach to making porn involves production practices that diverge from industry standards: according to a research paper about her work, performers choose their own sexual partners, and work in a clean and safe space. Taormino says this leads to more authentic porn, in which people are having the sex they want to have.

“Women don’t want the sex they watch to be someone else’s job,” says Dr Lucy Neville, a researcher on women's production and consumption of pornography. She explains that some women don’t get off on porn that looks over-engineered or like work. Instead, they want it to be something that’s “fun and authentic.”

Neville’s book, Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys, investigates the abundance of straight women watching gay male pornography – 37% of Pornhub’s hits on male-on-male porn in 2015 were from women. “A lot of that stems (from) authenticity,” Neville says. In guy-on-guy porn, there’s more visual evidence that men are clearly enjoying themselves because of the explicitness of their pleasure (with the help of boners and ejaculations). Viewers of gay male porn are also more likely to think they’re watching people who are actually enjoying themselves, because of a societal assumption that men enjoy sex more than women, says Neville.

Amateur porn, often made by non-professionals, also offers a more authentic representation of what sex looks like behind real closed doors. Paulita Pappel is a Berlin-based performer who runs Lustery, a website featuring videos uploaded by real couples. As each video comes with a presentation of the couple at the beginning, she says, the clips on her site give a sense of what kind of people they really are. “You establish a more human and emotional connection before you see them fucking,” she explains, “which is great, because you can relate more to them.”

“They are so sweet and passionate about each other. And that makes their sex so much fun to watch…You get the entire experience of making love,” a Lustery user said in a statement provided by Pappel.

But “amateur”, or “ethical”, doesn’t necessarily mean “real”. Implying that amateur and feminist porn are more “authentic” than other mainstream genres suggests that other forms of porn are either fake or feature people having unwanted or non-consensual sex.

“Some companies produce ‘amateur’ porn, and dictate strict sexual scripts to their performers, according to what they believe their customers want to see,” Pappel explains.  She argues that defining all amateur porn in general as “authentic” is “deceptive” to viewers, who could be watching a sexual sequence that they believe to be intimate and between only two people, when it was actually planned out by a director.

“There are people who say, ‘This situation is better because now my genitals are not getting just banged to death doing scenes day after day.’ But what is getting banged to death is their emotions” – Dian Hanson, pornographer

Even though amateur porn is not not real per se, people watching it want an “artificial sense of a relationship”, says Dian Hanson, legendary pornographer and German publisher Taschen’s sexy book editor. “It’s bringing love back into the sexual equation.”

Hanson, who has worked in the porn publishing industry since the 70s, explains how throughout porn’s “Golden Age”, around 1969-1984, the scene was glamourous. Porn was made only by affluent production companies, and performing in it was reserved for an exclusive selection of California’s most beautiful women and chiseled men. It had more in common with Hollywood than the online porn we see today. The glitz of the industry made porn performers seem unreachable, like the celebrities of today; porn was removed from people’s everyday lives, and from the concept of love.

But trends are evolving so that people can digitally connect with their favourite porn stars. They can follow their idols on Tumblr, Twitter and Instagram, email them whenever, and even buy them gifts. Now everybody wants to get close to the people they admire, Hanson says.

The quest for a more genuine connection with the naked people on our computer screens is draining porn performers both financially and emotionally. The unprecedented takeover of porn pirating sites like Pornhub and YouPorn – both owned by private company MindGeek – has made explicit videos freely available, stripping money away from established porn film studios. Porn producers and performers are now obliged to find new ways to make money, such as custom videos, or leave porn altogether.

Webcamming is a particular favourite amongst performers in the free porn world. Cam sites like Chaturbate and MyFreeCams take the viewer directly to the star’s bedroom for a personalised sex show, with instant chat and tipping functions pushing the limits of interaction. Cam stars can even make public Amazon wish-lists that viewers can pay for treats from.

“Webcamming is it now,” says Hanson. “Everybody has to cam to live. The fans want a real connection. They want to be able to say ‘Take your bra off now’ and see the woman looking into the cam and taking her bra off as if she’s actually there with them.”

“Authenticity and amateur (fall) into traps about not acknowledging porn performance as craft, labour, and work” – Rebecca Sullivan, feminist media and cultural studies professor

But personalised forms of porn, like camming and “amateur” shoots, have put pay in jeopardy, says feminist media and cultural studies professor at Canada’s University of Calgary, Rebecca Sullivan. It lets consumers off the hook for not paying for porn on the basis that it’s “natural” – just real people having real sex. “The idea of amateur and ethical and unpaid, doing it for love, (some people think) means ‘Okay, then it’s okay for me to not pay you’.”

“Authenticity and amateur (fall) into traps about not acknowledging porn performance as craft, labour, and work”, Sullivan says, referencing a piece in the SF Weekly in 2014 by performer Siouxsie Q. In the article, the pornstar argues that, although authenticity is “one of feminist porn's favourite words”, striving for an “authentic” sex scene undermines the labour that goes into creating a porn film. It erases the fact that performing is work, and not a hobby, which in turn justifies people watching free porn on the basis that it’s not worth paying for, says Sullivan. She thinks authenticity needs to be separated from the idea of actuality and redefined to mean the craft of the performance, in order to show people it is work and not fun and games.

“The sexual aspect (of webcamming) is minuscule compared to the emotional labour that's necessary for any cam model,” say Moth and Rust, partners, artists, and cam models whose live online shows get around 1000-10,000 viewers each. They write in an email, “Interacting with people and forming real friendships while on cam and across social media takes a lot of time and energy. People want a live connection and experience, be it emotional or sexual. (But) if we're not careful, we can definitely reach a point of spreading ourselves too thin emotionally and in our relationships.”

Like many industries in the digital age, the Paris-based duo says their work requires around-the-clock attention to communicating with viewers, as well as logistics, design, and strategy. “We don't get to clock out.” They say webcamming from home is freeing and rewarding, but also isolating, exhausting, and limiting.

It’s all become too personal, Dian Hanson says. Fans get hold of their favourite webcammers, and pursue them, online. Social media creates the potential for a never-ending digital connection. “It sounds better, and there are people who say, ‘This situation is better because now my genitals are not getting just banged to death doing scenes day after day.’ But what is getting banged to death is their emotions. Because they’re having to support individual fans.”

It’s a shift that’s also paved the way for cyber-bullying and abuse. Porn star August Ames took her life last year after an onslaught of online abuse, her husband Kevin Moore said. Ames is one of five porn actresses who recently died in a span of three months, mostly for reasons relating to their work and mental health stresses.

The instant and personal reach of the internet makes it easier for people to access porn stars and manipulate and shame them. When viewers don’t feel satisfied with their connection with the performer, they turn to abusing them online, says Hanson. “There are porn trolls now who are consuming material made by these young women and masturbating to it, but they’re also angry with the young women.”

It’s all become even more personal with the rise of virtual reality porn, which is filmed from the perspective of the viewer and placed right in front of their eyes with a headset. The result is an immersive, more lifelike experience. It seems like it’s on the verge of a breakthrough: virtual reality was one of the fastest growing categories on Pornhub in 2017, continuing to gain popularity throughout the year. But Hanson insists, “virtual reality is just a gimmick at this point.” She’s unsure that it is “masturbatable”, because viewers might not be able to relate to their own body if they can’t see it.

As our thirst for authenticity grows, many porn performers are going back to basics by turning to prostitution. “Unfortunately, a lot of sex workers have had to just go back to the original oldest profession, because they can’t make money selling fantasy anymore, they have to sell this reality,” says Hanson. Other porn makers, like Lustery’s Paulita Pappel and Moth and Rust, are swerving the dangers of online porn by taking matters into their own hands, and creating their own content. Just how long porn makers can keep finding new ways of making money in a struggling industry that demands both free porn and endless connection, depends on us: the people that watch it.