How to Read Adult Content: It’s Ok, It’s Fantasy

Recently, I spoke with Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals about her new book Exposure: A Sociologist Explores Sex, Society, and Adult Entertainment. During our conversation we happened upon the subject of reading and analyzing adult content the way you would any text or cultural object, and commented that there should be more investigative rigor when looking at the adult industry. In anticipation of the book, which comes out July 7th, we’re publishing an article series on different ways to read adult media and content, complete with wisdom from people in sex media, technology, and academia.

Almost everyone you ask about how to analyze adult media will say that pornography is fantasy – not only the various Game of Thrones porn parodies that exist. This is a basic step in understanding adult content and digesting it in such a way where the producers of adult don’t constantly come under fire for allegedly steering folks toward harmful sexual practices, including misunderstandings regarding consent. It’s too simplistic to declare all porn volatile, and reading it as fantasy works to dispel that constricting notion.

“I advise having a critical eye, but not a porn-negative attitude,” comments sex educator, podcaster, and one of the minds behind The Art of Blowjob and The Art of Cunnilingus Sophie Delancey. “This means being aware that it shouldn’t be taken at face value as true to life, and that it is almost always staged or fluffed up to some degree. Some porn is very over the top and unrealistic, which isn’t bad, it’s just confusing when people have troubles with identifying fantasy.”

Often, academic or critical thinking is seen as a negative and condescending. There are some who’d probably argue that it’s not worth training a critical lens on the adult industry, but sex media is very much part of our cultural fabric and has an impact. Often, said impact is derived very much from interpretation of the medium, not just the medium itself. Being critical but not negative means uncovering how porn fits into culture, rather than making broad assumptions about how the industry works and this fantastical shadow mainstream culture seems to think is cast by adult content.

Because it’s a fantasy, adult media can and should be looked at like any fantastic or fictional text, without judgment, and as an art that’s far more complex than the big, scary, amoral monster mainstream has dreamed it to be.

Porn star, director, and writer Amarna Miller suggests that, “You can use porn scenes as something to fantasize about, an inspiration. But not as an example of reality.” Porn by definition is fantasy, as there’s a script, a director, actors, and all manner of technical staff working to bring audiences an end result that’s engineered to look a certain way. It’s a manifestation of where the sexual imagination is able to go. “What porn represents could not be real, and could be harmful if practiced in the wrong way.”

“I think forgetting the distinction between fantasy, entertainment and reality is where both adolescents and adults can run into problems when thinking of porn and sex,” says Katie Hakala, relationship and sex writer. “Not everything that happens in a porn is always done in the bedroom. Not holding our partners accountable for the things we see in the heightened fantasy might be one of the first things to teach about porn. Porn is a tool of arousal, it’s not a manual.”

In the same way as films like The Fast and the Furious – Hakala, along with numerous other performers, writers, and producers in adult use this as an example – inspire the viewer to experience adrenaline through a fantasy, pornography inspires arousal without the expectation of it being taken as instructive science. It’s cinematic art, like any other film or television show that wants the viewer to feel a certain way. The creators of adult media don’t stipulate all their viewers replicate everything they’ve seen in the scenes they’ve chosen to view.

Distinguishing between fantasy and reality in the bedroom, and in the processes leading to and following a fruitful boinking, is crucial in reading porn successfully. Also, taking a cue from Hakala, it’s not constructive to hold ourselves accountable for being unable to measure up (word play’s fun!) to a fantasy that’s been created by sex professionals. Let it inspire some blissfully naughty adventures, but don’t treat it as mantra. That’s how muscles get pulled and stuff gets stuck in other stuff.

Follow Kate Hakala on Twitter:

And also Amarna Miller:

Plus Sophie Delancey:

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