Beyond porno chic

by Jose B. Capino

Julian Hanich’s essay is a welcome addition to the scholarship on movie porn’s many lives beyond the adult theaters of the 1970s.

My response begins with a rewriting of a sentence in Nataša Durovicová’s essay on national cinema, “Some Thoughts at an Intersection of the Popular and the National.”[1] [open endnotes in new window] Here is that sentence, with my changes in italics:

“(Not too) polemically we can thus propose that pornographic cinema has constitutively never been quite public and always rather private.”

Reversing the order of the last two italicized terms works just as well for the point I want to make.

In repurposing Durovicová’s words, I caution against the tendency to draw too sharp a contrast between adult cinema’s public character and video/new media porn’s private nature. It makes more sense to think of moving image pornography as never having been fully private and public from the start. One also learns as much from studying continuities as from marking ruptures between movie porn’s old and new forms (and sites).

Amy Herzog has usefully teased out the pornographic peep show’s importance in understanding the relationship between movie porn’s public and private faces.[2] When the peep show patron cracks the door open, presses a button that opens a window to an adjoining booth, or minds the dick poking through the glory hole, he or she breaches the arcade’s thin veneer of privacy or, as Hanich puts it, “individualization.” That said, the codes of behavior inside the arcade, the arcade attendants’ monitoring of booth occupancy, and the cubicles’ design allow for privacy when desired. Even unwanted noises and vibrations that mark others’ presence could be silenced (or amplified) by the power of one’s fantasy.
In its many guises, the peep show booths anticipated the twinning of technology and sexuality that Hanich attributes to home video or to Internet porn videos. Before the Internet, peep shows offered a wide array of bodies and fantasies to choose from. Even the supposedly more intense, synchronized orgasms that Hanich attributes to home/Internet videos’ fast-forward and slider bar functions had their peep show precursors. The smelly booths’ users could switch channels to find money shots to mirror their own ones, or they could stroke themselves faster before the meter ran out. One also finds new media equivalents to the peep show’s cum-soaked paper tissues and bad smells: think of those view counters and obscene comments left by Internet videos viewers. As for the feeling you get at arcades that others are not only watching porn at the same time as you but also sensing you as you watch porn, the home PC has its equivalent. Think of those browser’s cookies that spy on your viewing choices and webcams that, while turned off, stare directly at you like peeping Toms.

As the theatrical porn film’s richer, ever-present and longer-living twin, the peep show cannot be regarded as peripheral to adult film spectatorship even in the porno chic era.[3] The notion that old porn is mainly theatrical and public while the new sort is home-sited and private is, as Hanich acknowledges, only partly true. Such an idea requires us to factor out the rich histories and subcultures of adult film’s nontheatrical sites—those actual and virtual places that include not just old porn’s peep shows and bath houses but also new media’s porn pop-ups, email spam, and all the dirty movies being flashed on LCD screens at bars, alternative bookstores, and adult novelty stores.

Hanich’s reflection on home video and internet porn’s relation to sexuality is especially intriguing.[4] I am eager to see this phenomenological approach extended to other porn-viewing technologies affecting the sensorium, the “individualization” of porn consumption, or one’s relations to dirty movies. I have in mind such things as vibrators attached to iPods, 3-D porn, customizable webcam shows, and porn star-branded sex toys and prostheses. I also think it is useful to consider new media porn’s dis-pleasurable and inaccessible objects or experiences: explicit content blocked by whims and passwords, files with Trojan horse viruses, and corrupt files that freeze before the good parts. While such elements of sex’s material culture vary widely across countries, their existence puts pressure on theorizing porn, including offering a phenomenology of it.

Finally, if history has also reshaped bodies and sexualities alongside technologies and films, how might Hanich’s account help us in tracking those changes?  It is worth recalling that Internet porn took root in Cold War technology and has thrived in the age of neoliberalism. The Internet has engaged producers and consumers who have had not only different desires but also different relations to the obscene and perverse than those in the age of porno chic. To what extent, for example, does the culture of surveillance inform the private and public character of porn production and consumption? What connections might we make between changes in the culture of public sex or public health policy, on the one hand, and on the other, the intersubjectivity of new or old porn?[5] If we take into account such things as the glamorization of porn stardom in the 1980s by Steve Hirsch/the Vivid Entertainment Group—or the complex democratization and exploitation of the heading “amateur porn”—how might we think about the spectator’s changing relation to porn bodies and performers?[6]

I eagerly await more efforts at going Merleau-Ponty on porn.


1. Natasa Durovicova, “Some Thoughts at an Intersection of the Popular and the National,” The Velvet Light Trap (Fall 1994): 3-9. [return to text]

2. Amy Herzog, “In the Flesh: Space and Embodiment in the Pornographic Peep Show Arcade,” The Velvet Light Trap 62 (Fall 2008): 29-43.

3. Articles about Reuben Sturman reveal the popularity and earnings history of peep show booths. See, for example, Eric Schlosser, “A Reporter at Large: Empire of the Obscene,” The New Yorker, March 10, 2003, 60-66, 68-71 and Harris Gaffin, Hollywood Blue: The Tinseltown Pornographers (London: BT Batsford), 123-25.

4. A fine example of this project is in the epilogue to the expanded edition of Linda Williams, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible” (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999), 296-316. 

5. Something of this sort—although not about porn—is achieved in Richard Cante, “Pouring on the Past: Video Bars and the Emplacement of Gay Male Desire,” in Queer Frontiers: Millennial Geographies, Genders, and Generations,” ed. Joseph A. Boone et al. (Madison: The University ofWisconsin Press), 135-66.

6. A model for this kind of study is Richard Dyer, “Idol Thoughts: Orgasm and Self-reflexivity in Gay Pornography,” Critical Quarterly 36.1 (March 1994): 49-62.

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