Social Porn? Is it anything new???

Social Porn? Is it anything new???

**This is a post about pornography – guess what – the links are NSFW**

Yesterday I was interviewed by a very nice journalist working for The Guardian on the topic of ‘social porn’. The same journalist has recently written an article on this subject and is hoping that her extended piece will appear in a future edition of the newspaper’s G2 section – so watch out for it.

This is something of a cheeky blog, considering I’ve just given an interview on this subject for someone else’s publication but  I hope the journalist in question doesn’t mind. I am also certain that her article will get more eyeballs than this post. You may or may not have heard of PinSex, which in the grand tradition of adult entertainment forms, is the porn version of Pinterest, the online social networking site where users build and curate collections of digital forms – a big hit with with anyone planning a wedding apparently.

PinSex allows you to gather together porn that you enjoy or find interesting and, like it’s less smutty forebear, it also allows people to comment and ‘connect’ around that particular digital form. So far so Web 2.0. Indeed I’ve written about the notion of a Porn 2.0 elsewhere (hopefully this will be available as a French translation soon too).

But the question of whether porn is therefore becoming ‘social’ remains. I understand that the owner of PinSex sees his enterprise as an opportunity to democratise porn. This is of course is not a new idea. Almost all forms of socially-connectable digital porn (including many of the Tube sites, the TGP sites and the forum sites) have made similar claims in the past. I am not going to spend the rest of this post discussing whether PinSex does in fact democratise porn (not least because that would involve a discussion about what such a phrase means).

Instead, what I would like to think about is vinyl discs.

Blue Discs in fact.

Because the idea that porn is only now becoming ’social’ is a misnomer. Yes, there have been changes in the way in which (some) users of porn connect around the objects of their desires. This is undoubtedly true. And the term ‘social’ is correct here, in that what we mean by ‘social’ today most often refers to a collection of practices, technologies and discourses that have coalesced around digital platforms that allow a particular style of peer-to-peer (and peer-to-public) interaction.

But porn has long been social. 

I learned about blue discs a few years ago when I was working on an article with a colleague that explored the sonic dimension of (primarily gay male) pornography. Blue discs were available in the 1920s and 1930s and featured a mixture of ‘low-brow’ bawdy comedy and salacious stories of a sexual nature. Importantly, these were not records one necessarily listened to alone. Obviously, it wasn’t the kind of thing you would play on the family’s gramophone system – that being located in the front room or parlour and there often only being one unit in the house.

No, these records were listened to in a covert manner but often within a group setting. I’m imagining a group of men (probably wearing rough wool blazers), drinking warm beer and smoking cigarettes while gathered around a friend’s gramophone listening to the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ and dirty jokes. This was, to all intents, a ‘community’ of porn users’.

Chronologically speaking, the blue disc pre-dates but overlaps the better know Stag film, again, a pornographic form that was consumed in a group setting – a social setting. I doubt very much that either forms were discussed very much. I doubt that the (male, heterosexually-identified) consumers of these texts sat around and discussed their sexual desires and what they found ‘hot’ or ’not’ before, during or after consuming the text. This is unlikely. But nevertheless, early pornographic texts produced in audio and visual formats did carry with them a social dimension in the associated consumption practices.

And then of course there was the golden age of porn. The mainstreaming of pornography via films such as Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones. In the USA (and less so in the UK?) people – ‘regular’ people – would go to the cinema to watch pornography – together. Cinema-going is a social practice. It continues today. We might not (should not) talk during the film but the chatter beforehand often focuses on ‘catching up’ with friends and the discussion afterwards normally centres on the film just watched – at least for a while. That is social – but then almost all media has a social dimension. Social media is not new.

So how and why are we now talking about porn going social? Well for one thing it certainly did become less social in the 1980s and 1990s. Following the decline of the adult cinema and before the domestication of networked technologies, pornography went indoors – it became a much more private affair. Videotape and video recorders privatised pornography. Cable and pay-per-view channels put porn on the small screen as it was being evacuated from the big screen. And yes, HIV/AIDS even played a part in this anti-socialising of porn. The adult cinemas and other public arenas of porn consumption were driven out of town by moral crusades who saw such venues as breeding grounds for the virus.

In saying this, I am of course not suggesting that in the 1970s you could pitch up at work on a Monday morning and spend your coffee break discussing what skin-flick or porno mag you’d spent the weekend jacking off to. No. But then ‘social’ doesn’t always mean ‘talking’. Likewise, in the 1980s, some people did form loose networks of connection around pornography. One need only look at the magazines and catalogues dedicated to selling pornography to find comments from readers, for instance. 

Today we do talk about porn a lot more than in the past couple of decades – and maybe that is where things have changed – a little. Some people are talking more about porn. Academics including myself have begun to make progress once more in our discussions of pornography. And we have the rise of the ‘post-porn’, Queer porn, Feminist porn, Alt porn, Pro-am porn, Prosumer-porn ‘movements’. All of these genres/styles/movements/practices share in common the fact that some of the consumers of these types of porn are also producers and performers of porn.

But this is also not that astonishingly new. Gay men have been talking about porn for decades. I always feel very inadequate when (older) colleagues and friends of mine are able to talk about their favourite porn star, or the history of a particular porn studio – I can never remember any such fan trivia – about anything. But gay men have been sharing their porn with another for a long time. And since the earliest days of the Net (namely in forums and BBS) people (gay and straight) have been talking about and sharing porn and information about porn. These are still thriving scenes online. And fierce arguments are waged regarding who is the best performer, what is their best film, which scenes are the hottest and whether that gay-for-pay ‘straight’ star is going to ‘bottom’ at some point in the near future (they nearly always do).

So, when we ask whether porn has gone social we need to think about the following questions:

- what do we mean by ‘social’? Is it a particular style of discourse that is merely common now? Or should we be more expansive in our use of the term?

- what is the history of these sets of social relations? And why do people talk about or consume porn in ‘social’ ways?

- and in what ways does the recent claiming of porn ‘sociality’ as a democratising of porn ignore the fact that what is being said in such discussions doesn’t necessarily always challenge some of the (highly) problematic politics of the adult entertainment industry.

I’ll post the G2 article link here when it comes out.

Update: Here’s the link.