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Gonzo: we need to talk about young men and porn

Young actors give voice to what teenage boys think about porn – how often they watch it, who they watch it with and why. Sol Rumbl, Ari Maza Long, Sam Salem and Jack Palit in Gonzo. Photo credit Sarah Walke.

Gonzo: we need to talk about young men and porn

Young men’s use of pornography has been the focus of considerable debate, if not anxiety and moral panic, in recent years. Recent incidents such as the high school “porn ring” have in many respects fuelled these anxieties around the impacts that near-ubiquitous access to pornography has on boys and young men, particularly when it comes to issues regarding sexual violence and consent.

Yet, so often missing from these debates are the voices and experiences of young men themselves. Clare Watson’s new theatre production, Gonzo, sets out to provide this often-absent perspective.

Drawing on surveys and group discussions with teenage boys about their use of pornography – and interspersed with more mundane, everyday experiences – Gonzo provides a window into young men’s experiences with porno that is in equal parts funny, engaging, entertaining, and highly confronting.

Anyone with the misfortune of having seen the notorious “2 girls, 1 cup” clip will surely relate to the notion that with some porn, “what has been seen cannot be unseen”. At another point in the show, the current popularity of incest porn amongst young men is casually mentioned (for which we can apparently thank Game of Thrones).

Sol Rumble, Ari Maza Long, Sam Salem, and Jack Palit in Gonzo. Photo credit Sarah Walker

Pornographic images are an almost constant feature in the show, shadowing the cast on a large screen, yet unremarked upon. They speak to the infiltration of porn into our everyday lives, largely thanks to the Internet. The actors constantly look to their phones, highlighting the ease of access boys now have to this material.

It is easy to see how we have developed such collective anxiety about young people and porn. It is seemingly ever present and unavoidable. Yet, to its credit, Gonzo refreshingly resists making simplistic claims about the role that porn plays in the lives of young men.

Instead, Gonzo presents a highly complex and nuanced account of young mens’ use of porn. Delivered through the format of a casual conversation between a group of young school mates, the talented young cast seamlessly move between chat about everyday life to recounting young men’s encounters with porn – with this shift signified through sharp changes in lighting, music and projected imagery.

Pornography is neither an uncomplicated positive force, nor an oppressively negative one. It can be a tool for sexual gratification, or used to explore nascent sexual desires, or a source of amusement, or of reassurance that one’s burgeoning sexuality is “normal”.

Yet, there are some uneasy tensions here. Although the role that pornography plays in promoting violence against women is hotly debated, undoubtedly at least some pornography contributes towards a culture that condones and supports sexual violence against women, and some within the pornography industry openly engage in the exploitation and abuse of women.

Ari Maza Long in Gonzo. Photo credit Sarah Walker

Consent is rarely discussed in pornography – everyone is always already wanting sex, open to everything that is on offer, and the negotiation of sexual encounters is non-existent. This is particularly concerning given that young women aged 16-24 are the most likely to experience sexual assault.

However, it is also important to be mindful of which pornography we are talking about here. Those who argue that pornography is linked to sexual violence tend to lump a diverse canon of work together (while their opponents tend to downplay the extent to which mainstream pornography is violent): for example, is it fair to argue that gay pornography, queer porn, or feminist porn, all contribute towards this cultural backdrop?

Towards the end of the performance, Australian feminist and queer porn producer Gala Vanting joins the cast onstage to discuss her own experiences of working in the porn industry. Vanting’s insights highlight the potential for porno to function as a political vehicle, and as a mechanism to challenge mainstream representations of sex.

Gala Vanting, an ‘erotic imaginist’ who is outspoken about the need for better sexual education. Instagram

Gonzo also asks us to consider the role that popular culture plays in shaping our sexual practices, and in contributing towards rape culture. It deftly suggests a complex interplay between mainstream culture, pornography, sexual practices and violence against women. While pornography may be an influential factor here, it cannot be isolated from the broader cultural context in which it is situated.

A commonly expressed concern is that young people lack the “real life” sexual experience required to contextualise or make sense of what they see in pornography.

This fear appears somewhat unwarranted, as the young men quoted show a refined, reflexive engagement with porn: they are acutely aware that it is not “real life”, and often does not reflect the types of sexual practices they want to engage in with partners. They are critical, media-literate consumers.

Simultaneously, these young men appear cognisant of the influence that porn does have on their sexual encounters. One anecdote recalls an experience of a sexual partner moaning loudly in imitation of porn actors. This echoes the recent Australian research of Maree Crabbe and David Corlett.

Even if young people’s sexual practices are being unduly influenced, we might question why adolescents lack the skills to make sense of what they see in porn. This speaks to the general failure of our culture to talk to young people openly and honestly about sex across their life, and a denial of young people’s sexual subjectivities.

Indeed, research consistently tells us that young people find school sex education a disappointing experience, with topics such as consent and how to talk to a sexual partner routinely left off the curriculum – an experience which is mirrored in the young people’s stories in Gonzo.

While there are some sound arguments for reforming aspects of the pornography industry (particularly towards developing more “ethical” practices), perhaps the key take-away message from Gonzo is the need to shift our pedagogical practices (both at school and in the home) when it comes to talking to young men (and women) about sex and relationships.

In this respect, if there is anything “perverse” about Gonzo, it is that the show has been recommended to an 18+ audience. That young men are unable to watch a performance that covers their own lived experiences is surely part of the problem here.

It is a missed opportunity to be able to initiate a nuanced and informed conversation with young men about pornography, and contributes towards the broader social and cultural silence about sex that renders porn such a powerful influence in young people’s lives in the first place.

As the dialogue on stage fades out to the sounds of music, Gonzo tells us that this conversation is unfinished and must continue.



Gonzo is showing at the Malthouse Theatre until October 1.