The Great Porn Dichotomy
It was a truly bizarre conversation, the sort that I definitely never imagined that I’d ever have back when I was studying astronomy in college. It was the fall of 1997, and I was sitting in a meeting with a fairly unlikely collection of people, two seated on either side of the table, while I took up a spot at its head. On the left were was a self-styled “outlaw biker” who raised (and fought, illegally) gamecocks in the deserts of Arizona, and a talented young programmer who once wrote a piece of shareware that enabled the user to send time-delayed emails (primarily for the purpose of creating the impression in the mind of said user’s boss that his loyal, hardworking employee was working late at the office, when it fact he had left work hours before).
On the other side of the table were two veteran pornographers, both originally from New York. These were men who didn’t much trust this new-fangled technology called “the Internet,” and knew absolutely nothing about it or how it worked, but were determined to make it pay for them, anyway, somehow, nonetheless.
Privately, I referred to the different sides of the table as my “Internet Bosses” and my “Porn Bosses.” As a group, they represented the primary investors and producers behind the Internet porn company that had recently hired me, and the purpose of the meeting was to outline the company’s vision for online porn distribution —including the evidently very thorny question of what manner of porn to distribute, beyond the obvious idea to distribute all the porn that had already been produced by the pornographer contingent present at the meeting.
As the discussion began, it became very clear to me that in the minds of the pornographers present, the porn that literally everybody else in the industry made was decidedly inferior to their own. They made outstanding erotica, after all — you know, the good stuff. Other pornographers made crap, content that was barely worthy of consideration, not to mention ugly, poorly shot, dumb, exploitative, demeaning and possibly responsible for the impending extinction of the California condor.
As we went through samples of content that was available for us to license and distribute, a theme emerged from the Porn Boss side of the table: all of it was shit — unsexy, unprofessional, artless shit.
Handing me a picture taken on the set of a BDSM producer that he considered a friend, one of the Porn Bosses asked me, “I mean … does this turn you on?”
It was a very odd question, considering that my personal tastes seemed pretty irrelevant to the question of which porn I thought would be profitable for the company to distribute. I responded that if we only distributed porn that turned me on, we’d soon be out of business.
“Guys, I want to sell any and all porn that other people want to buy,” I said, quickly adding the obligatory caveat: “Any and all legal porn, that is.”
My point was missed entirely, and the BDSM photo went into the discard pile, along with numerous other viable candidates that failed the Porn Bosses’ personal “hot test.” Since the Porn Bosses were both producers of big bust porn, that was destined to be the only kind of porn we distributed —until flat sales numbers dictated that we needed to expand our horizons, and soon we had more absurd meetings to debate the merits of various niches and styles.
It was my first taste of a phenomenon I’ve encountered many times since, something I call the Great Porn Dichotomy. The defining, and in many ways only, characteristic of the Great Porn Dichotomy is an ardent and sincere belief on the part of a pornographer that his or her work is on par with that of Picasso, while the competition makes trash that’s barely worthy of recording, much less distribution.
It’s not quite that simple, of course, because just like any other sector of the population, the adult industry is prone to the development of cliques and informal social units, small groups of people who acknowledge the quality of each other’s work, but generally disdain the efforts of those who fall outside the clique.
Part of the Great Porn Dichotomy’s function is satisfying a psychological need to put distance between our own actions and behaviors and the very similar actions and behaviors of people we don’t approve of or like. For example, whenever it hits the news that one pornographer or another has been indicted on obscenity charges, inevitably there’s a rush of pornographers clamoring to publicly declare the indicted producer’s work to be sick, disgusting, abusive, completely outside the realm of social acceptability, and — most importantly — totally different from the porn that those pornographers make themselves, of course.
I’m not saying there’s no objective, qualitative difference to be found between one porn movie and the next, or that the porn Ira Isaacs makes (or used to make, I suppose I should say) is the equivalent of that produced by Wicked. I’m just saying that the whole idea of a pornographer adopting a holier-than-thou attitude toward a peer that’s based on differences in the content they make, or the particular sex acts involved, is a bit silly — bordering on positively inane.
If you find yourself looking down your nose at the porn produced and/or distributed by a competitor — particularly a competitor whose work you find nasty or downright “wrong” — it’s worth remembering that somewhere out there are people who think the very same thing about the porn you make and/or distribute.
I don’t care if what you distribute is nothing but pictures of 35-year-old women in bikinis that never get more explicit than what you’ll find in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit Issue, you can absolutely bank on the fact that someone, somewhere, finds it deeply offensive.
For that matter, there are countries where you’d lose your freedom (and possibly your hands) for producing or selling such content.
The bottom line is that while porn might be art, it’s also a product, and what matters is what the viewing audience wants, and what they will buy. Your opinion of another pornographer’s work, while potentially interesting in an academic sense, is almost entirely irrelevant. Your opinion simply doesn’t matter when weighed against the opinions of prospective consumers concerning the same work, and it never will.
It’s good to be proud of your work. It’s good to be passionate about your work, as well. What’s not good is deluding yourself into believing that your porn really is objectively, fundamentally and inherently “good” in a way that other porn isn’t. Such a belief will not indemnify you against liability in a court of law, or against criticism in the court of public opinion, and it sure as hell won’t increase your sales. It might provide you some psychological benefit, particularly if you suffer from some sort of latent shame over being a pornographer in the first place, but that’s about it.
In other words, at the risk of getting oddly biblical here, when it comes to porn, the best rule for looking at the work of other pornographers might just be “judge not.”
A 16-year veteran of the online adult entertainment industry and long-time XBIZ contributor, Q Boyer provides public relations, publicity, consulting and copywriting services to clients that range from adult website operators to mainstream brick and mortar businesses.