Living vicariously: porn provides a tasting plate for our unspoken fetishes

Porn allows us to explore desire safely and anonymously. nasty days/flickr

Pornography is hardly an under-theorised medium.

For decades, radical feminists have decried its imagery as an instruction manual for rape. As women being objectified, humiliated, tortured. As men receiving positive reinforcement for perpetuating degradation.

For decades liberals – be they of the academic, activist or artistic ilk – have raged against slippery slope, causal link allegations, instead suggesting that porn is too often credited for attitude and cultural change; that porn’s only measurable influence is in stoking libidos.

For the purposes of this article, I am significantly less interested in autopsying porn for evidence of misogyny or liberation and instead interested in focusing on the complexities of its use.

Whether championing or condemning, no one’s disputing that porn is pretty much the most lucrative of all media.

Products don’t get manufactured, sold or vigorously used without customers. With this many customers and we soon realise that there’s a hell of a lot more people availing themselves of such material than the mythic shadowy raincoated figure.

In shattering the porn fiend stereotype and accepting a wide audience with infinite preferences and penchants, porn has expanded far beyond the women-being-screwed-by-men image consistently regurgitated by fringe activists.

With porn functioning primarily to arouse, popular discomfort with masturbation means that too often do we talk around porn. Hearts are racing, genitals are tingling and discussions about the hows and whys of stimulation are too often quelled.

The stereotype of porn frequently involves surgically enhanced, shaved and peroxided women panting their way through faux orgasms. And indeed, porn is replete with such images. Pretending that this is the only porn on show however, is a significant oversight.

Amid all the blondes and waxed genitals and glossy lips, there’s a wonderful number of thoroughly ordinary-looking women in porn.

Women with small breasts, women with flabby thighs, wrinkled women, freckled women, furry women, women with glasses.

And just as there are well-hung and all-too-buff gents on offer, there are also fat blokes and old blokes and blink-and-you’ll-miss it blokes too.

Mainstream media presents us with a thoroughly distorted view of what it means to be attractive. Movies and television peddle a world of thin, young, white people and tries to convince us that these are the only folk able to arouse.

Arousal is a fickle beast, tastes can be diverse, unexpected and thoroughly fleeting.

Yes, we can get aroused by beautiful people but also by average ones and by those we’ve been trained to think of as fat or ugly or repellent.

Yes, we can get turned on by intercourse of the bump and grind oh-baby-baby kind, but scenes of intimacy, of power play and of kinky prop-laden theatrics work wonders too.

While the spectrum of aesthetic predilections are well catered to by porn, so too is sexuality in the broadest, most diverse understanding of the word.

Thinking of porn as only about thrusting men and acquiescent women ignores the diverse content available.

Yes, there’s dominance, but men aren’t always at the helm. Sure, there’s patent leather boots and nipple tassels but women aren’t always wearing them.

When beautiful, busty women and hunky mustachioed lotharios are presented, the medium can be construed as providing access to unattainable fantasy.

When there’s an element of the strange or kinky, such images can also provide outlet for sex that may not be available.

Perhaps your partner isn’t interested in role play. Perhaps you’re living as a heterosexual but are aroused by snapshots of homosexuality.

Perhaps you don’t see yourself as an orgy guy or as a practicing masochist but are nonetheless turned on by the depictions.

Porn provides vicarious access.

Of the infinite ways that the Internet has revolutionised our access to porn, an often neglected aspect is its role is aiding people to experience the extent and extremes of their sexuality. Safely and legally.

For people with exhibitionist bents, the ability to upload images facilitates self-exposure without a ride in the paddy wagon.

For those with voyeuristic bents, amateur porn provides the illusion of peeking without the criminal conviction.

For people with untested gay or transgender bents, porn provides a tasting plate.

For couples exhausted by the missionary position, porn provides new ways to configure limbs.

Porn is not without its concerns. Like chocolate, like diamonds, porn’s production raises questions relating to labour conditions, exploitation and corruption.

But to think of it as only one thing, as only one kind of image and as having only one kind of use is cursory analysis at best.