Sex in Porn is a Serious Business

When I read the post Some laughter with the lovemaking, please: on porn, performance, and deadly seriousness, I was struck by his observation:

If there’s one thing that we see rarely — if at all — in porn, it’s laughter. What strikes me about most pornography is that it’s always so deadly serious. A nervous giggle is permissible in a few instances (such as those ghastly “casting couch” videos that are evidently ubiquitous, in which “innocent newcomers” are interviewed and then fucked for the first time on camera.) But laughter during sex, a shared joyful recognition that getting naked and sweaty and contorted is frequently hilarious? Nope. For too many, porn reinforces the obligation to perform, which creates anxiety, which creates in turn a deathly humorlessness.

It reminded me of something that Linda Williams wrote in her 1989 book Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, & the “Frenzy of the Visible”. Williams drew a lot of comparisons between the musical films of the 1940’s-1970’s like Singing in the Rain and Oklahoma! and the movies from the Golden Era of Porn. In particular, she pointed out that in both genres, the story and the acting were really just supposed to get you from one song & dance number/sex scene to another. People could be mediocre actors or the story could be banal, because the real purpose of the movie was to showcase the singing or the sex, respectively.


You can see these connections most strongly in some of the classic porn movies, especially the ones that Radley Metzger made, like Barbara Broadcast. In fact, his film The Opening of Misty Beethoven was based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, just as the musical My Fair Lady (with Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison) was. But even in the porn movies that weren’t directly based on previous works, the sex scenes were the focus rather than the story, just like the dance numbers in more mainstream films.

I think that this comparison is just as relevant today, but instead of following the patterns of musicals, a lot of porn seems to follow the pattern of action movies. For example, did you see Tron: Legacy? The entire point of the movie was to go from one cool action sequence to another. And in most martial arts movies, the story just gets you to the next fight scene.


What makes this relevant is that the performers in action movies aren’t really expected to be able to act. Or perhaps more accurately, it’s entirely possible to have a thriving action movie career without being much of an actor, as long as you either have the skills (like Jackie Chan) or you look good in the role (like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix). If you can act on top of that, it’s even better but it’s hardly a requirement.

A lot of porn, especially the kind of porn that gets produced for the internet (short clips instead of a full length feature), is pretty similar in many ways. Folks are chosen because they have a certain look or because they can perform a particular act, such as double penetration, getting into a challenging position, etc. They aren’t expected to act, they aren’t asked to act, and much of the time, any acting they did would simply be edited out. That’s why the industry terms for them are performers or talent.


Now, other than the occasional newbie to the porn industry who only works with her boyfriend, many porn performers shoot their scenes with whoever gets assigned to them. They might not know who they’re working with until they arrive on set, they probably don’t know their real life name, and they may not even like them on a personal level. There generally isn’t much time to build rapport or intimacy when the director and camera person are waiting for you to get going, either. Of course, people will have their favorite co-performers, just as the baristas at your coffee house have their favorite co-workers. In both cases, a pleasant working relationship doesn’t mean you have much of a connection with each other on an emotional level, and there’s no reason to expect otherwise.

So with all of that being said, one result of that is that there isn’t so much room for (as Hugo puts it) “connection, spontaneity, genuine creativity, and…the chance to be silly”. Sure, if something funny happens, performers might laugh about it, and that might make it onto a DVD’s extras, but expressions of joyful connection or playfulness aren’t as likely to occur because there’s no relationship to give them context. Those more tender moments are most likely to emerge during sex when we feel safe and comfortable with our partners. When we trust them to laugh with us instead of at us. When we know them well enough to know that they aren’t likely to misunderstand. By the nature of how porn is produced (not to mention having a bunch of people standing around waiting for you to do your thing, stopping every few minutes so makeup can be put on your butt to take off the glare, and having a camera between your legs), it simply doesn’t happen all that often.

This shouldn’t be taken to mean that I’m suggesting that the only way to have good sex or passion or connection is within a relationship. But if two people who don’t know each other are going to make room for spontaneity, they’re going to need to be able to talk about it, both in advance of having sex and during it. There are so many possibilities for how sex can work that there will need to be some negotiation along the way. And there simply isn’t much room for that in most porn. I’ve often wondered if this is part of why a lot of porn follows the same basic formula- it makes it easier for performers when they know what they can expect. Of course, it also makes the product more consistent, in much the same way that hamburgers at McDonald’s will taste the same no matter where you are.

The original Gonzo performer

In a different world, porn performers might be able to act well enough to create the impression of connection, spontaneity, creativity, and silliness. After all, actors in other genres do it all the time. But that’s the difference between porn performances and acting. They’re very different skills and not a lot of the people who have the acting chops are trying to get hired for porn. As long as porn is stigmatized and being in porn is a career killer, there aren’t going to be many people in the business who can act.

So if the nature of the industry makes genuine playfulness unlikely and attitudes towards sexual performance create a barrier for people with more acting skills, there isn’t going to be a whole lot of the kind of on-screen connection that allows for the humor and playfulness of sex. It’s no wonder with all of that that the sex in porn is so darn serious.

Fortunately, there are some folks making sexually explicit movies that feature performers who have more connection or real-life relationships, like Tony Comstock. And a lot of the up and coming queer porn being made makes room for the individuality and spontaneity that creates room for passion and pleasure. And I have to say that some of the classics of porn were made with a very different feel. I’ve always liked the goofiness of Alice In Wonderland, a musical comedy. After all, when Alice drinks the potion at the beginning of the story, why would her clothes shrink when she does?

In the meantime, it’s good to remember that learning to have sex from watching porn makes as much sense as learning to drive from watching an action movie. And as Amanda Marcotte points out, partners often know “when you’re doing something because you saw it in a porno.” So if what you see in porn turns you on, enjoy it. But remember that porn doesn’t represent how real life sex work and it certainly doesn’t show you how to have a great relationship. Thank goodness that the real world has much more room for laughter, silliness, joy, and love.

4 Responses so far.

  1. Cate says:

    “Original Gonzo performer”, lol.

  2. Antonia says:

    Great points, & I love the Gonzo pic!

  3. I like your analogy between porn and action movies. And I agree with your critique of porn for lacking convincing connection. I too like Tony and Peggy Comstock’s films for its capturing of connection, that I also see in some new queer porn. I would of course add the new porn by women I write about in my work. – As you know, convincing portrayal of mutual desire and pleasure–“connection, spontaneity, creativity, and silliness”–is one of my key criteria for discussing quality in porn.

  4. Lori S. says:

    I should point out from experience that some people actively dislike and discourage laughter and playfulness in their porn. I used to work for a certain famous queer sex magazine. Every time the editorial staff tried to put a picture of someone laughing or smiling in the photo payouts, we’d get negative feedback from some of the other staff. They’d report that it looked like they weren’t taking the sex seriously enough, that it was all a put-on. Or that they were laughing at the reader for looking. It told me that it’s a complicated issue — although I still wanted more precisely b/c you’re right, it’s still so rare (and rarer then).

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