2011, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 53, summer 2011
Clips, clicks and climax: notes on the relocation and remediation of pornography
by Julian Hanich
Introduction: a critique of Magnus Ullén’s theory of masturbation
Masturbation[open endnotes in new window] is in vogue. After a long period of tacit denial, porn studies has begun to acknowledge that pornography strongly affects the consumer’s body. In fact, some porn scholars admit that it often leads to the kind of action that Woody Allen in Annie Hall (1977) famously described as “sex with someone I love.”
In a recent programmatic article for Jump Cut Magnus Ullén, for one, defined pornography as nothing more and nothing less than “a form of sex: masturbation.” Ullén forcefully argues that in order to get a better picture of what pornography is about we need to move from text to viewer, from interpretation to reception, from intellectual distance to rapt involvement. We cannot identify the pornographic with a specific content like sexually explicit words or images. Rather the “pornographicity of porn” lies in that famous consumptive, pleasurable medium interaction which involves first and foremost the viewer’s hand:
“A theory of pornography must […] be a theory of the mode of reading which the consumption of pornography habitually involves, which is to say that it needs to be a theory of masturbation. […] To enjoy pornography, mere intellectual processing of the discourse is not enough: it calls for a mode of reading which involves the physical activity of one’s body as well.”
For Ullén this is true regardless of the medium — no matter if we interact with a book, watch a film in a theater or download digital clips from the Internet. “Does pornography really change when it is mediated by new media?” he asks rhetorically. His answer is a clear-cut no:
“[T]he most important factor is not the medium as such, but rather the way we relate to it: it is not the medium that accounts for the specificity of pornography, but the way pornography is read. The fact that the original Josephine Mutzenbacher […] is a book while Debbie Does Dallas is a film certainly affects the way we relate to these pornographic discourses. But the difference is insignificant compared to the fact that the typical consumer of these discourses is too busy masturbating to ask what they mean as narratives.”
Ullén’s polemic intervention is laudable. But it is also problematic. On the one hand, he sheds light on that unspeakable aspect feminist, Foucauldian, media-effects and other approaches to pornography have largely left in the shade. But in his fervor to establish the importance of masturbation for porn studies Ullén clearly throws the baby out with the bathwater. Just because people masturbate when reading Josephine Mutzenbacher and watching Debbie Does Dallas does not mean that both experiences are alike, let alone identical.
To every ear trained in phenomenology and reception aesthetics his claim that the differences in medium are insignificant must sound flat-out wrong. Concentrating on moving-image pornography (as I will do in this essay) one could even argue that Ullén’s stress on masturbation is precisely an outgrowth of recent medium changes and the subsequent transformations of how people experience moving-image pornography.
This will be, at any rate, my point in this essay: through processes of relocation and remediation the consumption of moving-image pornography has focused more strongly on the masturbatory experience than before. Or, to be more precise, while other functions of moving-image porn have lost importance, recent developments have both facilitated and intensified masturbation due to a double tendency toward privatization and individualization. (By ‘intensification’ I do not suggest that masturbation became qualitatively better, but rather that it is now part of a denser decision-making process that distinguishes the experience of Internet porn from earlier types of moving-image pornography.)
My point will become particularly obvious through a comparison of today’s online porn with yesterday’s so-called golden age of heterosexual pornography: an era that lasted roughly from 1972 to 1985 and in which (comparatively) narrative feature films like Deep Throat (1972) or The Opening of Misty Beethoven (1976) were projected in theaters and consumed with other, mostly anonymous viewers.
Two modifications are crucial. They imply what Francesco Casetti, among others, has called the “relocation” and “remediation” of film (2009, 62). First, the spatial transformation from public/collective to private/individual porn consumption: relocation raises the question of how the reception changes once I watch porn alone at home and not as part of a cinematic audience. We can call this the problem of intersubjectivity. Second, the technological change from the analogue and projected celluloid film to the digital internet clip on hyperlinked sites like YouPorn: remediation raises the question of how the possibilities of jumping forward and backward and choosing between a plethora of clips alter the reception process. Call this the problem of interactivity.
Contra Ullén I will show that important differences exist. Masturbating alone at home vis-à-vis a series of YouPorn clips downloaded on a PC is unlike sitting in an adult theater with other co-viewers watching a feature film like Behind the Green Door (1972).
A series of phenomenological observations will throw light on how the experience of heterosexual pornography has changed since the golden age, for better or for worse. To be sure, much of what I argue is valid for homosexual porn experiences as well, particularly in the remediation section. However, some important differences exist when it comes to the aspects of intersubjectivity and collective viewing. In contrast to heterosexual porn cinemas homosexual adult theaters often serve as places for cruising and open sex in which the film merely plays a secondary role (this is also true for nominally heterosexual theaters that were ‘appropriated’ by a gay audience, as some of the former theaters on 42nd Street in New York). What I will have to say about shame and disgust plays a significantly less important role here.
The following observations will also help to elucidate a curious contradiction in Ullén’s programmatic paper. Although he reproaches Linda Williams and others for insufficiently historicizing pornography, Ullén falls into the very same trap. By claiming that pornography means masturbation regardless of the medium, he essentializes the genre and thus argues a-historically. Even if the pornographic is a transgeneric as well as transmedial mode, it may yield very different masturbatory experiences.
The spatial change: shame and disgust in the theater
Heterosexual adult theaters have all but disappeared from the urban environment. Today, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) would have a hard time finding something like the “Show and Tell” theater, a combination live of show and porn cinema. Nor could he make the grave mistake of taking his beloved Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) into a New York porno house (Taxi Driver, 1976), the “Lyric” on 42nd Street.And when Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) follows Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) into the public screening of a hardcore film, the sequence looks more like a strange reminiscence to a bygone era than a realistic depiction of today’s Boston (The Departed, 2006).
In the 21st century people consume heterosexual hardcore pornography predominantly in places that allow for privacy and prevent others from intruding: on the pay-per-view channel of the hotel room; in the sex shop booth; at home on the VCR, the DVD player and, particularly, via the Internet as streaming on a TV set or on the monitor of a personal computer, which makes the experience even more private.
In his remarkable book Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999) writer-scholar Samuel R. Delany, for one, has forcefully lamented the disappearance of hardcore porn theaters. For the gay community these (often heterosexual) porn houses served a vital social function. Delany even considers these cinemas as paradigmatic sites for interclass contact and therefore important for a healthy democratic society. At any rate, whether we welcome or decry this change, we can hardly turn back the clock: the relocation of moving-image pornography has firmly taken place.
From a film theoretical point of view this development should at the very least make us sensitive to the fact that the reception of films (pornographic or otherwise) does not take place in some strange vacuum. It always involves a specific spatial setting with a potentially social environment. Yet Ullén’s essay ignores this important detail, just as more prominent work does not pay enough tribute to it. For instance, at a crucial passage in his ontological reflections on film as a succession of automatic world projections, philosopher Stanley Cavell maintains: when film reproduces the world magically, it allows us “to view it unseen.” As such, cinema fulfills an age-old “wish for invisibility“ (1979, 40). Sounding quite similar, Linda Williams claims that cinematic representation grants the viewers a “seemingly perfected form of invisibility” and allows them “to see and hear everything without being seen or heard themselves” (1989, 32).
Cavell and Williams’ observations are both right and wrong. They are correct when we consider the film experience in splendid isolation. Yes, the characters/performers beyond the ontological boundary separating real world and filmic world can never reach us. Even when they look straight into the camera, they won’t be able to see the audience — hence the viewers always remain unseen.
While this might sound trivial, it points to an important difference between filmic pornography and live striptease or sex on stage. The ontological distance relieves the invisible viewer from the unpleasant burden of being seen by the one he sees — a fact that could be experienced quite vividly in places that offered both live striptease and porn films (like the “Show and Tell” in Taxi Driver with its combination of “live show” and “xxtra rated movies”, as it says on the marquee). Film satisfies the viewer’s wish for invisibility and thus stands as an exemplary “expression of modern privacy or anonymity,” in the words of Stanley Cavell (1979, 40).
However, what might be correct from a film ontological perspective becomes questionable when considered from the vantage point of an actual phenomenological experience inside a theater. Only if we artificially separate film from theatrical experience can we overlook the fact that the viewer in the auditorium is never unnoticed. Invisible for the characters/performers he or she is right in front of the eyes of the other spectators.
To be sure, what one could call the cinema’s hiding effect belongs to the key features of the movie theater. The darkness of the auditorium, the unidirectional seating position, the focus of attention aimed at the film et cetera allow the viewer to partially hide from the presence of the others. Nevertheless we are always part of a collective situation in which we might have to carry heavy intersubjective burdens (Hanich 2010b).
For many, possibly most heterosexual men the viewing position in the porn theaters of the 1970s and 80s was a particularly precarious one. Shame and disgust contributed negatively to their cinematic experience. How unfulfilled the wish for invisibility remained at the time can be read vividly from Scott MacDonald’s 1983 essay “Confessions of a Feminist Porn Watcher.“ In this illuminating essay the author describes with almost painful openness his fear of being seen, his yearning for privacy, his shameful insecurity:
“For me […] — and, I’m guessing, for many men who have visited porn arcades or film houses — these periodic visits are always minor traumas. While there is an erotic excitement involved in the decision to attend and in the experience itself, this is mixed with considerable amounts of fear and embarrassment. From the instant my car is carrying me toward pornography, I feel painfully visible, as if everyone who sees me knows from my expression, my body language, whatever, precisely where I’m going. The walk from the car to the door — and later, from the door to the car — is especially difficult: will someone drive by and see me? […] As a result, I try and look at ease during the walk to the door: any evident discomfiture on my part, I warn myself, will only fuel whatever laughter my presence has provoked. Once inside an arcade or theater, this anxiety about being seen continues, though with a different slant: will I run smack into someone I know?” (1983, 11).
The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre talks about the “immediate and burning presence of the Other’s look” that comes with the emotion of shame (1969, 270). A person in shame wants to get rid of the actual — or imagined! — look of the others and disappear from the earth as quickly as possible. MacDonald therefore describes the strong “desire for privacy and anonymity” many viewers feel as the “most fundamental dimension of going to a porn arcade or a movie house” (2009, 332).
Small wonder that in the past popular discourse often described porn theater patrons as men who wanted to remain invisible and anonymous from the start and therefore sported raincoats and hats pulled deeply into their faces upon entering a porn house. Again, director Martin Scorsese helps to illustrate this point: In The Departed the Jack Nicholson character sits in the cinema precisely with a hat and a large raincoat. The potential shame of the porn cinema was closely bound to the rather conspicuous affective response of the male erection. Hat and raincoat both served to cover it and therefore to avoid shame. Feona Attwood even goes so far as to claim,
“The ‘raincoater’ has become [… ] perhaps the clearest stereotype of audience member to have emerged in the history of media consumption.“
Raincoater or not, the stereotype describes the proclivity of many patrons to wear a kind of body armor that protected themselves from the penetrating force of the gaze. Like the sword of Damocles the fear of shame often dangled closely over their heads — and sometimes full-blown shame hit them forcefully. This clearly effected their inclination to masturbate openly (if at all). Again, Scott MacDonald’s confession is illustrative:
“Even though most men seem to look rigorously frontward in porn theaters [...], the idea of being seen masturbating has always seemed so frightening to me [...] that I’ve never felt free to get deeply involved in the act the way I can when I have real privacy“ (1983, 12, my emphasis).
Here the bulky garment of the raincoat had a further hiding function insofar as it helped its wearer to cover his lap while masturbating secretively and somewhat embarrassedly during the film.
Obviously, not every porn theater was alike. Some porn houses in the US, mostly on the lower social scale, allowed or even encouraged masturbation. Particularly the nominally heterosexual porn theaters ‘appropriated’ by the gay community and turned into cruising places were quite the opposite of shameful. In the first of the two essays in his book Samuel R. Delany reports numerous graphic scenes of open masturbation, fellatio and intercourse (he also recalls a heterosexual man masturbating in front of the mostly gay men).
However, in other theaters masturbation was actively discouraged, particularly those places that were frequented by couples. Monitors would watch the audience and ask anyone to leave who was caught in the act. In some cases even policemen patrolled the cinemas, as evidenced by the famous case of Pee Wee Herman (actor Paul Reubens), who was caught masturbating and subsequently got prosecuted. Hence one must not overgeneralize. What I describe here is merely a tendency: for those men who actually felt the intersubjective threat of shame, the relocation of moving-image pornography to the private sphere implied a greater freedom (and hence possibility) to masturbate openly.
In this context we should not forget the repulsive side effects of the public porn experience. As if shame was not enough, the adult theater was always also a potential source of disgust for many a viewer. Here I do not so much refer to the moral disgust elicited by one’s own ‘inappropriate’ desires (this can certainly play a role as well); I am thinking more about the bodily disgust that heterosexual men might derive from visual, auditory, olfactory and tactile encounters with other men’s actions and fluid leftovers. Again, one must not essentialize experiences her: I do not rule out that for some people this was precisely a strong stimulus — just think of Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert) in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001), who likes to sniff the sperm-filled tissues taken from the garbage cans of sex store porn booths. For many others, however, the potential confrontation with other men’s semen in particular could initiate a strong disgust response.
Hence one might speculate whether the popularity of private porn consumption does not also derive, in part, from the possibility to avoid the emotion of disgust. In this respect the relocation of pornography would resemble a very different kind of relocation: the move from the dirty and sticky shoebox theaters of the 1970s and 80s to the multi- or megaplex cinemas of the 1990s with their strict hygiene policy. Drawing on Mary Douglas’ concept of purity, Phil Hubbard has argued that deep-seated anxieties about the despoilment of body and self through dirt drew viewers to the multiplex. Its clean space allowed audiences “to develop a clear sense of ontological security, knowing that they can enjoy an evening out without the boundaries of their body being brought into question by potential pollutants” (Hubbard, 261).
Porn theaters sometimes were actually dirty. More often viewers might have simply considered them a potentially ‘contaminated’ place. In a series of interesting experiments the psychologist Paul Rozin (1986) has shown how the contact with something disgusting can almost magically contaminate an object or place. Rozin calls this transformation “magical” because it lasts long after the disgusting object has been thoroughly removed. Just think of eating from a sterilized toilet floor.
As a consequence, in a potentially contaminated cinema the disgusted viewer tends to protect the outer boundaries of his (or her) body from despoilment. Here, again, the raincoat might serve the particular function of protection. And again, the metaphor of the ‘body armor’ is not fully out of place. In analogy to the ‘fear of shame’ mentioned above we could speak of a ‘fear of disgust’ that makes the adult theater a rather unattractive place for many viewers.
Seen from this perspective, pornography has an anti-social tendency, at least for many heterosexual viewers. Since in their case the anonymous co-viewers with their smells and body fluids do not constitute potential subjects of pleasure, the other audience members are not experienced as part of a collective We, but come across as antagonists in an I-you relationship whose gazes, odors and body fluids one wishes to avoid. Hence in contrast to the centripetal experience of collective laughter or shared fear that bounds the audience of a comedy or a horror film momentarily together, a centrifugal tendency away from the anonymous rest can dominate the heterosexual porn theater experience due to shame and disgust.
Under these circumstances it is not surprising that MacDonald admits,
“I’ve never masturbated in a theater (though on rare occasions I’ve seen others do so), but only later, outside the theater, in the privacy of a car or a men’s room“ (1983, 12).
In his — and many other men’s — case the pornographic experience was a precondition or cause for masturbation, but it did not coincide with it, nor was it identical with it. At this point the a-historical slant of Ullén’s “theory of masturbation” becomes particularly obvious: pornography was not identical with masturbation. Moreover, a brief look at an even earlier period could have shown Ullén that porn films often had other functions than exclusively masturbatory ones.
Take the stag film parties in the U.S. and Europe in the 1920s. They served predominantly as a homosocial initiation ritual and means of bonding. Bragging and commenting were supposed to strengthen male camaraderie and destroy sexual anxieties (Williams 1989, 73; Koch 1989, 97). This tendency seems to have survived well into the 20th century in some of the porn theaters that evolved from the burlesque tradition and thus combined live entertainment like stripping with porn film projections. Especially on Friday and Saturday nights the audience was quite active and lively during the live performances (calling out, applauding etc.). This spilled over into cinema portions, especially in theaters with a strong African American presence, where the social act of loudly verbalizing, commenting on and talking to the screen was common in Hollywood films as well).
Particularly in Europe pornographic films also served as foreplay. The films were often shown in brothels to stimulate patrons for the subsequent sex with the ladies of the house. Again, the arousing potential of the movie was not met simultaneously via masturbation, but later in bed through heterosexual intercourse.
All this is not to deny that Ullén’s argument is convincing when it comes to today’s private porn experience. As we have seen, the privatizing move away from the porn cinema has largely eliminated the direct disgust viewers might have felt in their actual theatrical surroundings (if not necessarily the disgust vis-à-vis the representations on the screen, as can be judged from pornographic subgenres who deal with the ambivalent pleasures taken in the abject [scat or bukkake] or the infamous 2 Girls and a Cup  trailer). But relocation has also reduced the burden of intersubjectivity by extending the viewer’s invisibility beyond the ontological boundary into the here and now. Since the advent of Internet pornography there is not even a need to leave the house. Viewers do not have to buy or borrow in public stores and can therefore avoid the embarrassment and shame MacDonald so vividly describes.
While earlier the implicit or explicit knowledge of the presence of others was a possible threat to the involvement with the pornographic moving-images, they can now develop their full potential. The relocation and privatization of moving-image pornography has clearly facilitated masturbation. And this might not only be true for men. In fact, it could be worthwhile to empirically investigate the hypothesis that this development pertains even more to women.
The medium change: availability, choice and interactivity
The second crucial transformation in moving-image pornography since the golden age concerns the medium itself. Since the 1970s a remediation took place from the analogue and projected feature film of the adult theater to the digital clips of hypertext sites like YouPorn. This remediation, in turn, brought with it three major changes: it implied a growth in availability, in choice and in interactivity. The enormous increase in availability and choice, once again, facilitated masturbation. But the third change — the interactive use of the medium — also transformed masturbation in another way. I will speak of an intensification of the masturbatory experience due to a more individualized form of consumption and hence an increased imperative to decide.
But let me begin by looking at how the medium change implied an explosion of availability. This is, first of all, true financially. Today, porn consumers do not have to buy a VHS tape (as in the 1980s); they do not have to rent a DVD; they do not need to purchase a theater ticket or spend coins in a booth. As long as they have Internet access, they can download all their pornographic clips on sites like YouPorn or The Hun for free.
More importantly, there is also an increase in temporal availability. Back in the 1970s film was a comparatively rare product. Films were seen in movie theaters or on television, but the situation came nowhere close to the permanent disposability we know today from the internet and video stores. This was particularly true for porn movies, which required special venues with specific opening hours. With the introduction of VHS and later DVD the situation began to change. Today, via the Internet consumers have pornography literally at hand 24 hours, 7 days a week. They are independent of opening hours and the presence of theaters, sex shops or video stores — the archives of Web 2.0 sites like Redtube do not close.
But apart from the availability of porn its quantity and variety skyrocketed as well. This is true simply because not only the professional industry but also huge numbers of amateurs (“prosumers”) upload material. As a consequence free hypertext sites like YouPorn, Redtube or The Hun offer almost innumerable paths. Depending on the interface design either small windows with short previews (YouPorn, Redtube) or brief written summaries (The Hun) lead the way. For instance, YouPorn grants an overview of 30 clips on its welcome page; Redtube presents 20 — and in both cases these windows indicate only a tiny fraction of what is on offer.
Of course, this continuously available, endless amount of clips has an effect on many viewers’ porn experience. Once the viewer accesses a porn site, the overabundance of clips brings with it a strong temptation to keep on searching, clicking and trying out. Behind every window a potentially better clip could wait, matching one’s individual taste more perfectly than the current one. The overwhelming choice makes it rather unlikely that a user would restrict him- or herself to a single clip and watch it linearly from A to Z — particularly if the clip does not fit the goal.
As Zabet Patterson notes:
“To imagine the goal [...] is to project into a moment of perfect satisfaction — and the obtaining of a perfect image, one completely adequate to the subject’s desire. But in comparison to this imagined perfect image, every image will always remain inadequate, and so the ’search’ continues“ (2004, 109).
Of course, the search does not go on forever, but the sprawling, distracted, search-like activity of surfing certainly dominates the Internet porn consumption of many, possibly most users. For media theorist Anna Everett Internet surfing in general is characterized by “click pleasure “ and a “lure of sensory plenitude” — no doubt that these descriptions certainly ring true for the specific consumption of Internet porn as well (2003, 15). For many a viewer the forward-driven search therefore turns into a temporary goal itself.
A result of this forward-driven search for the perfect clip is a strong temporal immersion: a thrill of anticipation. Anticipating a new, surprising and better clip that might be waiting at the near temporal horizon and which might be brought about at any moment makes the user’s consciousness of internal time lean toward the immediate future, even while it is simultaneously focused on the clip right now (for the notion “consciousness of internal time”, see Husserl 2008). In the words of D. N. Rodowick:
“the immediate present becomes oriented to an already emerging future. Our relationship to the screen is to anticipate future events to which we must respond, and our corresponding action produces effects that generate the possibility of new future events, all within a highly condensed time frame.“ (2007, 178).
Interestingly, a technological gadget many porn sites offer underscores this emphasis on the future-of-the-present-moment: the timeline at the bottom of the window. As it grows gradually from left to right like the sand steadily trickling off in an hourglass, it indicates the passing of time and hence the approaching end of the clip.
However, the more perfect the clip seems, the more the viewer will hope for a suspension of this ideal moment in time (a suspension, by the way, that cannot be achieved by pressing the pause button since freezing the image would imply a radical change of time experience: from the ‘life’ of the moving-image clip to the ‘death’ of the photo-like freeze frame). In turn, the more obvious it becomes that the clip remains unsatisfactory, the higher the user’s proclivity to search anew. Both cases may lead to yet another intensification of the future-inclined time experience.
Of course, the search is not without its own pitfalls and frustrations. This is true not only because many clips are very much alike in their representational content. Thus they can create the impression that the constant search for the new yields ever the same. (The progression toward the goal seemingly stands still.) It is also true, because the search will not progress linearly toward the perfect clip, but will move in various amplitudes between the poles of “satisfactory” and “frustrating.” (The search is sometimes thrown backwards.)
But precisely those moments of frustration can further ignite the search and its thrill of anticipation: who would stop the hunt for the perfect clip at a negative point, particularly in light of this almost infinite plenitude? While the relocation of pornography would theoretically allow for an instant masturbatory gratification, its remediation rather suggests a deliberate individualized delay of the climax: a willing suspension of the peak.
In fact, there may be yet another kind of temporal anticipation, implying not the clicks for clips but the climax of clips: cases in which the masturbating viewer tries to ‘synchronize’ his orgasm with a cum shot in the clip. I can offer no empirical data on this phenomenon, but anecdotal evidence from a couple of porn users I have talked to indicates that it is rather common. In this case the parallel ejaculations constitute a kind of double closure: the diegetic climax ending the mini-narrative within the clip; and the climax of the masturbating viewer in front of the screen.
If we combine this desire for ‘synchronization’ with the aforementioned search for the new, better and more satisfying clip, we end up with an interesting scenario. Since every search comes to its end when the porn consumer finally and for whatever reasons chooses his last clip, the thrilling anticipation of the search disappears, while suddenly a new kind of thrill erupts. Will the clip end with an ejaculation? And will the cum shot be a satisfying one?
Even if there is a quantitative dominance of cum-shot clips on Internet sites like YouPorn, obviously not every clip contains an ejaculation, let alone a satisfying one. Now, for the ‘synchronizing’ user the time line of the clip that was (at least temporarily) deemed satisfying enough will move inexorably from left to right. Since for him this clip can only be the last one if it turns out reasonably satisfying and it will be satisfying only when it ends with a cum shot, he will hope for a suspension of time the closer the timeline approaches its end so that a cum shot can still fit in the remaining time slot. But the more he hopes for this suspension of time and the arrival of the cum shot, the denser and more intense his time experience will be. This specific phenomenology of time is not unlike the one we know from scenes of suspense (for the phenomenology of time in two types of suspense, see Hanich 2010a).
To a certain degree the thrill of anticipation was part of the feature film experience of the golden age as well. To quote Scott MacDonald for one last time:
“Even though there’s always a skeletal narrative, this is so obviously a function of the need to create a context for the [sexual] motifs that one doesn’t need to pay attention to it — except insofar as it raises the adrenaline by slightly withholding the awaited imagery” (333, 2009).
Plus, based on the repetitive and climactic structure of the ordinary porn film the movie theater patron could always hope that the next number would be more exciting than the previous one. The effect was amplified with the advent of more interactive media such as VHS players with their fast-forward function. And the chapter structure of the DVD allowed for an even quicker and more efficient access to the next number.
However, it was the Internet that offered the latest turn of the screw. Since the next clip is always only a mouse-click away, the search for the new is facilitated and accelerated: “in a digitally encoded text any part can be accessed as easily as any other so that we can say that every part of the text can be equidistant from the reader,” as Martin Lister et. al put it (2003, 24).
What is more, apart from the accelerated availability of new clips, the technological development since the golden age has also increased and accelerated individualizing interactivity. The comparatively passive theater patron became what Laura Mulvey calls a “possessive spectator“ (2007, 161). Through interactive devices such as the remote control or the mouse the consumer takes “possession” of moving-image pornography insofar as he or she may interrupt the continuous linearity by fast-forwarding, skipping passages, freeze-framing images and returning to previous scenes.
Even if the episodic structure and the looping projection of 1970s porn allowed the theater audience to come and go somewhat independently of the starting times, the viewers were nevertheless subjected to the relentlessly progressing movie — there was no chance to influence the projection. When the non-erotic intermezzo dragged on too long or the sex scene was too monotonous, the viewers might have reacted with the opposite of arousal: weariness and boredom. Today the viewer can not only swiftly switch between an almost endless number of clips, but also drastically shorten the moments of frustration and easily repeat and thus prolong the moments of satisfaction. While once in the ‘hands’ of the apparatus, the porn consumer can now take aspects such as unity, continuity, succession and duration into his or her own hands. Even if this bigger control over the movie will not automatically lead to masturbation, it will at least favor it since the viewer can form the porn experience according to his or her own liking.
Hence while the relocation of pornography is linked to a growing privatized usage, its remediation is connected to a growing individualized consumption. Each viewer’s individualized potpourri of clips will differ according to the highly differentiated possibilities of sexual preference and choice: Redtube currently offers 24 different categories, YouPorn grants even 61 choices — from amateur, anal and funny via gonzo, hentai and interracial to Latina, MILF and squirting. As Lister et. al put it:
“The larger the database the greater the chance that each user will experience a unique text” (2003, 21).
But the viewer’s idiosyncratic form of consumption will also follow a highly individualized temporal logic with variables such as succession, duration, repetition etc. This is completely unlike the more standardized type of experience in the porn theater.
But why do I connect this individualizing tendency to an intensification of the masturbatory experience (as argued above)? Because masturbation is now part of a denser decision-making process: the bigger choice of products and the more numerous options for interactive actions may allow the viewer to create a very individual porn and masturbatory experience, but they simultaneously imply a permanent imperative to decide. Just like any other surfer on the Web, the porn consumer oscillates between moments of rather inactive intertwinement and instances of interactive involvement, between a status as a watcher and a searcher, between comparatively passive viewing and rather active using.
This pendulousness between viewing and using is sometimes called viewsing (Harries 2002, 172). But in comparison to ‘normal’ viewsing surfers on the net, the porn consumer also adds the autoerotic exercises of the hand. This involves further decisions to make since the viewer needs to pay active attention to his or her body. As Peter Lehman once put it laconically:
“It is hard for someone to masturbate without knowing what she or he is doing” (2006, 89).
The Internet porn consumer thus divides and shifts his or her attention between three foci: the clip (viewing), the technological device (handling the mouse) and the body (masturbating).
What this implies, becomes more obvious when we, once again, compare an Internet user to an adult theater patron like Scott MacDonald. A MacDonald-like viewer would simply follow the movie, neither able to influence the film nor openly masturbating during the projection — as we have seen, he masturbated only afterwards. On the other hand, after having secured his privacy the Internet porn consumer masturbates while simultaneously doing other stuff. At any one point he or she has to decide between viewing a clip, searching for a clip, interactively altering a clip and masturbating because of a clip. While this comparison is in no way meant to make a qualitative judgment on both types of experience, it certainly sheds light on the change that came with the remediation of porn. Pace Ullén, the medium does matter.
1. I would like to thank Chuck Kleinhans for a number of extremely helpful comments on an earlier version of this essay. [return to text]
2. Magnus Ullén: “Pornography and its Critical Reception. Toward a Theory of Masturbation.“ In Jump Cut. No. 51, Spring 2009.
3. This comparison does not serve as a nostalgic celebration of the golden age (as in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights [USA, 1997]); nor do I want to define the golden age as the norm from which other forms of pornography deviate (a tendency we find in the first edition of Linda Williams’ famous study Hard Core from 1989, if less so in the second and expanded edition from 1999). The comparison merely serves a heuristic goal: against the backdrop of old the new becomes all the more visible.
4. Since this essay tracks changes in reception I neglect important transformations on the level of production and distributtion.
5. Over the last years various essays have underscored the characteristics of homosexual porn consumption (cf. Delany 1999 or Capino 2005).
6. For more information on the “Lyric Theatre“, go to
where one can also find a discussion whether the “Lyric“ actually was a porn theater or simply showed an occasional soft-core film.
7. Samuel R. Delany: Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. New York: New York University Press, 1999.
8. The highly self-reflexive name “Show and Tell” reminds us of the very difference at stake here: the live and performative mode of showing something taking place right now; and the reporting and narrating mode of telling something that took place in the past. Since the golden age of pornography in the mid-1970s, when Taxi Driver was shot, the clear-cut discrepancy between live showing and filmic telling has been somewhat blurred by today’s rather performative and anti-narrative porn clips on the Internet.
9. Interestingly, the cinema’s hiding effect was pushed to an extreme not in porn theaters aiming for a strong form of anonymity and privacy, but in a special auditorium designed for a film museum: the original Anthology Film Archives in New York. Austrian avant-garde filmmaker Peter Kubelka’s “Invisible Cinema” separated, even isolated the viewers from each other by dark panels between the seats and thus allowed for a very concentrated film experience, undistracted by the presence of other people in the auditorium.
10. In a supplementary piece to a recent reprint of his essay, written 25 years later (“Addendum, 2008“), MacDonald insists that “there is still considerable embarrassment about being seen as ‘exposing myself’ in public” (2009, 341).
11. Feona Attwood: “‘Other’ or ‘One of Us’? The Porn User in Academic Discourse.” In Participations. Vol. 4, No. 1, May 2007. The porn industry used to distinguish films as “one, two or three hat films”, thus describing the amount of explicit scenes they contained by referring to the number of times the audience member hid his erection with his hat. Tree was more commercial than one.
12. Once again, this claim describes a tendency within most heterosexual porn theaters. It certainly cannot comprise the homosexual porn theater experience, in which social contact and mutual sex are much more common, as the reports of participant observer Samuel Delany underscore.
13. An exception is the couple that voluntarily watches the film as a common turn-on. Obviously, in this case both viewers do not experience themselves in an antagonistic way, but comprise a kind of mini-collectivity with a common intentional object. For a recent representation of a couple consuming pornography in the non-theatrical, private surroundings of the home, see the lesbian pair in The Kids Are All Right (2010). On the other hand, the antagonism of a couple in which the female part has been persuaded to watch a porn film can be seen in the Taxi Driver episode in the “Lyric Theatre”: Betsy leaves the theater disgusted and embarrassed, while astonished Travis would have liked to stay on.
14. Thanks again to Chuck Kleinhans for bringing this to my attention.
15. Long before internet pornography existed the often extremely astute commentator on modern life, Alexander Kluge, put the nexus of search, desire and utopia in his early film Die Artisten in der Zirkuskuppel: Ratlos/The Artist in the Circus Dome: Clueless (1968) as follows: Interviewee: “You’re like a child blowing soap bubbles, blowing or producing, more and more bubbles, never stopping, because you hope you’ll blow one bubble more colourful than the last. You thereby forget that you’re blowing bubbles. – Interviewer: “So that one bubble will remain?“ – “That’s the problem. That’s why it begins at all, the blowing, the senseless part of it.” – “Because one wants a bubble that really exists?” – “A bubble that ‘should’ exist, I’d say, because they don’t actually exist at all. It should be one that could retain its form for more than a few seconds. To put in a more abstract way: You don’t want utopia just flying round in your mind, you want to see utopia realized in a concrete way.” Off-Commentary from protagonist Leni Peickert: “Utopia grows ever better the longer we wait."
16. The individualization of Internet porn consumption therefore implies what I would call its anti-collective tendency: the less an untouchable apparatus like the projector dominates the film experience, the less unified and collectivized the porn consumption will be. While it is true that the content of the various categories is similar in many respects, this does not apply to the various temporal logics, which are necessarily unique.
17. Internet pornography thus becomes a haptic film experience par excellence. In contrast to Laura Marks’s concept of “haptic visuality“ (2000, xi), in which the eye serves as a quasi-touching organ, in case of Internet porn tactility does not come into play indirectly via synaesthesia – rather, the hand is directly involved in masturbation and mouse-clicking.
18. The individualized and anti-collective tendency of Internet porn consumption mentioned above is fueled by two other reasons. First, the visual access to the computer monitor is severely limited in comparison to the theater screen. Second, the constant imperative to decide and take action works against a collective experience, since the personal preferences will be hard to reconcile and the ensuing decisions and actions therefore become almost impossible to coordinate (not to mention the prosaic fact that only one person has access to the mouse at a time).
19. As mentioned above, some theaters allowed and even encouraged masturbation. Hence viewers like MacDonald were not the only kind of porn theater patrons. However, for my argument the MacDonald-type viewer serves as a handy illustration for the transformative tendencies implied in relocation and remediation.
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Cinema Treasures: www.cinematreasuers.org
The Hun: www.thehun.com
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