Pornography, technology, and masturbation:
response to Julian Hanich

by Peter Lehman

A kicker on page 41 of the Feb. 7, 2011 issue of New York magazine’s special porn issue screams in large, blue type,

“‘I used to race home to have sex with my wife. Now I leave work early so I can get home before she does and masturbate’” (Rothbart).

Whoever chose that kicker knew just what they were doing. The relationship between porn and masturbation is not just a problem within academia. It is also a problem within society at large but ironically for nearly opposite reasons. If academia has largely repressed the relationship of masturbation and porn, as Magnus Ullén argues porn scholars have, society has reveled in hysterical overreaction to it. The modern history of pornography within society has been tied to an almost apocalyptic fear of the ruin of “real” sex, defined as heterosexual intercourse. From this perspective, masturbation is not a form of sex but, rather, a threat to it. This is ironic indeed for a century that always condescendingly looked down upon the 19th century fear that masturbation drained vital bodily fluids and caused blindness. Our modern version is that pornography can offer something better than or preferable to “real” sex. Instead of being bad boys and girls who are frustrated because we can’t have real sex, we are now bad men (seldom women) because we don’t want to have sex; we want to have porn. Why would anyone (usually thought of as any man) want to have “real” sex (i.e., sex with a real person) when they can have masturbatory sex with the porn girl of their fantasies?

Both views of the relation between masturbation and porn are a problem. I have often thought that many academics in general feign total ignorance of porn or even claim that they can’t imagine anyone looking at it precisely because of its connection to masturbation. Whenever the topic of porn comes up, most university faculty and administrators express utter bewilderment about the phenomenon, as if none of them has ever, ever watched a porn film or logged on to an Internet adult site. Such embarrassment about masturbation is as ludicrous as the societal belief in porn’s masturbatory epidemic bringing down the very basis of society itself — human interaction. Ullén is right that academic porn scholars need to pay more attention to the role of masturbation in porn and Julian Hanich is right in insisting that none of this can be understood separately from the medium in which we watch, read, look at, or listen to any porn. The intersection of pornography and technology is central to its history, significance, and erotic fascination.

Hanich’s description of how the Internet intensifies porn’s masturbatory element is correct (the medium does matter). But I want to complicate things somewhat by adding yet another layer: the historical time sequence within any particular medium. I think that any given medium may have more masturbatory intensity when it is relatively new. In other words, it is not just the medium. For example, when gonzo porn first appeared as a form of videotape to be watched in the home, it may have had an intensity that came in part from the then relatively recent shift from the theatrical to the home setting, and from the new forms of representation resulting from the video camera as opposed to the film camera. But after years of watching videotape, for some viewers the intensity would be lost just as the Internet came along and offered its new forms of “clicking.” In other words, the very masturbatory intensity for a given viewer from watching certain types of videotapes in his or her home might lessen or be lost, and he or she might lose interest in seeing more of them though nothing in the tapes has changed other than that the medium has now in some way been “replaced” by Internet sites like VoyeurWeb and YouPorn.

From this perspective, what Hanich and many others call the “golden age” of theater porn may once have possessed a masturbatory intensity impossible to recapture, or perhaps even imagine, today — an intensity arising from the then unimaginable experience of sitting in a public theater watching hard-core porn. Again, years after such theaters were commonplace and had even been chic during the Deep Throat era of the early 70s, such intensity may have disappeared. I am not questioning the validity of the obvious fact that the privacy of the home intensifies porn’s masturbatory element, but simply pointing out that at one point in time being public may have carried more of that very element than we realize, though it required a different response.[1][open endnotes in new window] Indeed, just like watching video porn at home may at some point have become blasé in terms of masturbatory intensity, so may Internet clicking after the next technological innovation. It may simply be that after “viewsing” porn in a certain manner for a period of time, the thrill of doing so lessens. And when masturbation and porn are about that type of thrill, the lure of the newest and latest is strong.

Finally, I want to point to the manner in which Hanich’s analysis overemphasizes the penis in porn à la the infamous “money shot.” His primary example privileges the

“temporal anticipation…of the masturbating viewer [who] tries to ‘synchronize’ his orgasm with a cum shot in the clip… 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” (13).

Here Hanich develops his argument that Internet porn is about searching (clicking) for the ideal clip until choosing to end it as follows:

 “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?” (13).

This is another instance of what I have recently characterized as porn scholarship limiting its exploration of sexuality and eroticism within the industry confines of defining the distinction between soft-core and hard-core porn (Lehman 2010). The fact that there are many clips that end with cum shots tells us little except that the people that make and post those clips still think of porn in terms of the conventions formed during the golden age. There are clips that do not follow that form, and indeed entire categories that do not even include penises, or so-called “lesbian” scenes.

But for the sake of argument, let me return to the kind of clip to which Hanich refers. He overlooks what is for me potentially the most interesting aspect of the clicking-searching, pausing, replaying Internet phenomenon: the porn spectator determines what he or she desires to see and re-see and finally, if they are masturbating, to have an orgasm with while watching and listening. There is no reason why it should have anything to do with the cum shot. Some men have never seen a “satisfying” cum shot and it is not because they all fall short of some ideal fantasy, but because the eroticism of watching porn for them has nothing to do with cum shots.

And that is where the profound power of clicking lies. It lets spectators find something else even when the video-makers are trapped in timeworn conventions. Pornography needs to be opened up to new forms of eroticism that are less penile centered and this refers not just to how it is made, but also to how it is watched on the Internet.[2] With his attention to anecdotal evidence about what some porn viewers are doing, Hanich has an overly limited, fixed notion of what hard-core porn is, who its spectator is, and how he watches it. Just like most people that make and post clips or other images replicate past genre conventions, undoubtedly many spectators respond to those conventions in predictable ways.

What interests me at this moment in the history of new technology and porn is the exact opposite: that small minority who make clips and images that are formally and ideologically different and spectators that find creative and highly individualized ways of looking at the clips and images they find on the Web and over which they have a new-found control.


1. I have great respect for Scott McDonald’s essay “Confessions of a Feminist Porn Watcher.” Anecdotal male porn theater goers of the time support McDonald’s observations that they did not see others masturbating, but I want to caution against concluding much about spectators’ masturbation habits in porn theaters from this for two reasons. First, most of those spectators probably never looked carefully to see what anyone else was doing and secondly there are discreet ways to masturbate that would bring little or no attention. Although Ullén invokes a tradition, which he traces back to Rousseau’s lighthearted image of reading with one hand, there are other ways of masturbating. Ullén himself stresses the psychological and physiological complexity of masturbation. Like all stereotypes, that of men in raincoats is fraught with danger. Men did not need raincoats to masturbate in movie theaters and my guess is we would be surprised to know how widespread that activity was during the golden age. [return to text]

2. For a related discussion of sex scenes in mainstream cinema and what is now commonly termed “hard-core” art cinema see Peter Lehman and Susan Hunt, Lady Chatterley’s Legacy in the Movies.

Works cited

Lehman, Peter. “How Do You Simulate a Caress?: The Difference between
Hard-Core and Soft-Core Porn and Why It Matters.” Plenary address at the VIII MAGIS/International Film Studies Spring School, Gorizia, Italy, March 20, 2010. The paper was published as “Come Simulare Una Carezza?: Perché è importance la differenza tra hardcore e softcore,” in Il Prono Espanso: Dal cinema ai nuovi media a cura di Enrico Biasin, Giovanna Maina, and Federico Zecca con una postfazione di Peter Lehman (Milano-Udine: Mimesis, 2011), pp. 463-476.

Lehman, Peter and Susan Hunt. Lady Chatterley’s Legacy in the Movies: Sex,
Brains, and Body Guys. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2010.

Mcdonald, Scott. “Confessions of a Feminist Porn Watcher.” Film Quarterly,
 Vol. 36, No. 3, 1983, pp. 10-17.

Rothbart, Davy. “He’s Just Not That Into Anyone.” New York. Feb., 7, 2011, pp. 38 41.

Ullén, Magnus. “Pornography and its Critical reception: Toward a Theory of
 Masturbation.” Jump Cut. No. 51, Spring 2009.

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