Sex on Screen: Reality-Checking Mainstream Porn

As with part one of this series, I'll be exploring mainstream porn in this piece—the content that is often available for free on tube sites—meaning porn that is not explicitly feminist, queer, or alternative. In this second installment, I’ll look at the landscape of mainstream video porn in America, and the ways in which it is -- or spoiler alert: isn’t -- accurately representing sexual experiences—from sex positions and orgasms to consent and safer sex.

“Cheating Out” & Sex Positions in Porn

When people have sex in porn scenes the goal is to have it look good on camera in order to make a profit. A big part of that is “cheating out” or “opening up” (links to YouTube video "Ask A Porn Star: "Real Sex VS Porn Sex." Includes explicit language).

Have you noticed how in plays or other kinds of theater, actors’ backs are almost never to the audience? Say a group of people are on stage standing in a “circle” discussing an important matter. Rather than actually stand in a circle, and block the audiences view of the action, the actors will “cheat out” and form a semi-circle so that each performer can be seen and heard.

They do something very similar in porn. Performers “cheat out” or “open up” so that the penis, sex toy, or tongue is clearly visible going into the vagina, anus, or mouth. This is not the most comfortable, and is definitely not typically the most pleasurable, way for most people to have sex.

There are also times when a sex position or act, beyond just being not super pleasurable, is explicitly painful for a performer (and not in the context of a BDSM scene where pain is intended to be experienced pleasurably). For example, even while a performer is acting out pleasure, their penis may be painfully bumping into their scene partner’s teeth, or their cervix may be being repeatedly and painfully hit by their scene partner’s penis. Pain might also come from fitting a very large penis (or multiple penises) into the performer’s vagina or anus.

Porn, like the rest of heteronormative and patriarchal culture, loves to focus on intercourse. While there are plenty of other parts of sex and sexual activities — like kissing, “dry humping”, manual or oral sex — intercourse is treated as most important in both straight and gay male porn, with most or all other types of sex being reduced to just “foreplay." The intercourse and fellatio that we see in porn are often aggressive and intense, involving fast thrusting and deep-throating (putting a penis so far into the mouth that it goes into the throat).

There are also certain activities that are used in porn disproportionately, misrepresenting the sex people have outside of porn. In straight porn you will usually see more fellatio than cunnilingus, for example. In gay male porn you will often see more of the “top” receiving oral sex than the “bottom.” And in girl-girl porn you may see more scissoring than queer women are actually doing in their personal lives. In some porn scenes there is even a checklist of acts that need to be filmed before the day’s shoot is done.

The majority of mainstream porn content caters to the purchasing preferences of cis-men. This is a primary factor influencing what is and isn’t shown in porn. Since cis-men are the most frequent consumers, what they are willing to pay for is what porn provides. A perfect example of this is that on porn hubs where there are different settings—for straight porn, gay male porn, and porn featuring trans women—“lesbian” porn is still categorized as “straight” porn. In many ways this is honest, since so much “lesbian” porn is really girl-girl porn made for a straight male audience, not for lesbians.

You should know that:

  • When people have sex their motivations are, ideally, things like pleasure, connection, intimacy, and/or personal or interpersonal exploration, rather than needing to worry about how they might look to an outside observer.
  • There is so much more to sex than just intercourse.
  • The sex acts that we see prioritized in porn are not necessarily what people enjoy the most in their personal lives. In real life, we have the freedom to be responsive to our and our partner’s moods and desires, rather than needing to follow a pre-planned script and direction from outsiders.
  • When pain unexpectedly pops up, we can say ouch, make an adjustment, or call it quits on that activity. But mid-workday, when a certain position is supposed to be captured, performers often have to tough it out, even if and when it hurts.
  • “Cheating out” for the camera removes a level of body closeness and other kinds of touch that often factor in to people’s experience of pleasure and connection during their sexual experiences.

The Big-O on Camera

If you're basing your understanding of orgasm on porn videos, you're going to have some major misconceptions.

First, straight porn videos perpetuate the very false idea that most people with vulvas can and do orgasm solely from penis-in-vagina sex without more direct clitoral stimulation. Second, in both straight and girl-girl scenes, cisgender women performers are usually presented as having many orgasms during a single sex session. Third, since porn is about performing for the audience, actors of all genders and sexual orientations perform very loud, dramatic orgasms.

Many orgasms in porn are faked. In some scenes, performers are told by directors, “Come now!” so they quickly perform an orgasm. The anxiety and urgency that come with that kind of direction are usually the last things that help anybody reach orgasm. When performers are able to experience orgasms while filming, they can be so concerned with how they look and sound on camera, or whether they have ejaculated enough and in the right place, that they are not able to relax and enjoy the experience.

It's also important to think about whose orgasm is deemed most important in porn. Whose orgasm signals that sex should be over (and why does orgasm signal that in the first place)? While heterosexual sex scenes in Hollywood almost always end with the man and woman magically reaching orgasm at the same time, heterosexual scenes in porn almost always end with the man reaching orgasm, and often with him ejaculating onto the woman’s face or body. Prior to that, the woman is often shown as being in near-constant ecstasy, despite the fact that, in terms of pleasure anatomy and other things we know play a big role in sexual satisfaction, the positions and acts are catered to the man’s orgasm. Whether the woman performer is experiencing (or faking) multiple orgasms, or experiencing no orgasm at all, is not often clear. In gay male porn, the scene is often centered around, and ends with, the top’s orgasm. Similarly, many scenes end with him ejaculating onto the bottom’s body.

Boundaries & Sex Acts

The porn industry generally attracts more sexually adventurous folks than the average person is, and porn performers are typically making sexual choices based on their career and finances, rather than what gives them sexual pleasure. So, they are generally up for doing more kinds of sexual activities or kinds of encounters than your average person on the street. That being said, porn performers are also just like everyone else in having boundaries about what they are comfortable with sexually! Some performers may be comfortable doing something with their partners in their personal lives, but not on camera for work. Other performers may be comfortable with doing something on camera for work, but not be interested in doing it with their partners in their personal lives.

A recent study showed that, among American cis-women performers, 13% have never done a scene where a partner ejaculates on their face, 38% have never done an anal sex scene, 61% have never done a double penetration scene (penis or toy in both the vagina and anus), 69% have never swallowed their scene partner’s semen, 72% have never had their scene partner ejaculate inside their vagina (“creampie”), and 74% have never “squirted” in a scene. In one interview, a number of women performers shared the acts on their “no list” when working. One trans woman performer highlighted topping. Other performers listed bondage scenes, humiliation scenes, simulated rape scenes, as well as sexual scenes involving food, blood, and poop.

You should know that:

  • In healthy sexual situations, partners care about mutual pleasure and treat each other as equals. In one scenario, this might mean that orgasm is not a goal for one or all partners. While in another scenario, orgasm might be the goal for everyone involved, in which case it will usually happen for each person at different times, and often in different positions.
  • Barring experiences of abuse or assault, we are usually able to enjoy our orgasms, rather than worrying about reaching orgasm at the exact right time or whether we will produce enough ejaculate. While plenty of people struggle with anxiety and insecurity relating to their orgasms, a supportive partner will not guilt us for not orgasming enough, at the right time, or at all.
  • In Scarleteen’s direct services, users have wondered: if they are not letting out involuntary screams, could it still be an orgasm? The answer is yes! When someone experiences an orgasm they might be super loud, silent, or anywhere in between.
  • Research suggests that only about 15% of people with vulvas have had multiple orgasms during sex.
  • Only about one-quarter of people with vulvas are able to orgasm from vaginal intercourse alone, without more direct clitoral stimulation from a hand or sex toy or other sexual activities. The other three-quarters need direct stimulation of the external portions of the clitoris in order to climax.

Consent & Communication

Consent and communication are not only necessities for having sex that isn't abusive, but are also a key part of having pleasurable and fun experiences.

Unfortunately, they are often viewed as un-glamorous parts of sex, particularly by porn’s primary audience: cisgender men. As a result, consent and communication are often completely missing in porn scenes. Aside from short enthusiastic phrases, there is very little scripting in porn—actors are more likely to use moans and screams than words.

There are also often highly gendered dominant and submissive roles in porn. In straight porn, men will usually be the more dominant partners and women the more submissive. In gay male porn, a person “giving” anal sex will usually be the more dominant partner and someone “receiving” anal sex will usually be the more submissive. Meanwhile, girl-girl scenes are often shown as having little to no power play.

Sexual acts are portrayed as happening without asking for consent nor any other type of communication or negotiation. Even in fairly “vanilla” scenes it’s common to see a dominant person moving their partner’s body around, and seemingly making all the sexual choices for them, and without any communication or consent. In addition, a dominant partner will often spank, choke, and/or ejaculate on their partner, also without any communication or consent. If a submissive partner is someone with a vagina and an anus, you might see their dominant sexual partner abruptly switching from vaginal to anal sex, again, without any communication or consent.

There are also many, many scenes portraying plots of sexual abuse or profound power imbalance—like initiating sex while a person is sleeping, having sex with one’s student, employee, child, or step-child, or coercing, bribing, or physically forcing someone to have sex.

In porn, when one person initiates sex, their partner(s) is almost always apparently in the mood. If they aren’t immediately in the mood, they are often “convinced" to participate. Of course, being “convinced” is being coerced, which is not an example of enthusiastic consent, but of rape or other kinds of sexual abuse. Once “convinced” they are unrealistically portrayed as going on to have an enthusiastic, pleasurable sexual encounter, rather than the reality: experiencing a sexual assault.

But even though it isn’t shown to us, off-camera there usually is a lot of consent and communication happening.

Behind the scenes, performers have “no lists” where they list performers they do not want to work with. Some performers with more established careers have “yes lists” where they list the only performers they are interested in working with. Performers also have model releases where they specify their boundaries in terms of what they are and are not comfortable doing on camera.

Best practice is that once a scene is cast, before arriving on set, the performers will review and agree upon everything that will be a part of the shoot—partners, acts, tone of the scene, etc. On-set, they'll often discuss with their scene partner what they like and don’t like. Before filming begins, there will sometimes be a pre-scene interview where the performers articulate on-camera their understanding of that day’s shoot, and afterwards an exit interview where they are asked on-camera if they were harmed in any way or did anything they didn't want to do. So while we as the audience rarely see active consenting and other sexual communication and negotiation, many of these conversations take place off-set.

All of that being said, abuse and assault certainly happen in the making of porn, just like they do in every other industry and every other community.

When we see performers acting out being pressured or forced to have sex, there is usually actually consent and communication happening off-camera. But sometimes performers are pressured or forced to do things they did not agree to beforehand. Even when best practices are employed, much more worker protection is needed than exists currently. How honest are exit interviews given that they are not confidential and porn is an insular community? Given that these are freelance workers, will they be comfortable speaking up if they were harmed knowing that they might be viewed as “difficult” and not hired again? Some companies do not pay the performers unless the scene is finished as planned, which further incentivizes them to push through even if they feel uncomfortable. What are the proper avenues for reporting assault on a porn set, and will people be believed?

Just like in many other industries, and in our culture at large, there is a long way to go when it comes to properly protecting people from sexual misconduct and believing and supporting them when it does happen.

You should know that:

  • In sex between men and women, women can play a dominant role, not just men. In sex between men, the person receiving anal sex doesn't need to be the more submissive partner. Women and nonbinary people can play with dominance and submission in their sexual lives and interactions, too. And in any experience, between any kind of partners, there doesn’t have to be dominant and submissive roles or dynamics at all.
  • Open sexual communication can be difficult or awkward, but with practice it gets easier, and it plays a huge role in having healthy, fun and satisfying experiences.
  • We are not always in the mood! Even partners who have similar levels of desire will inevitably want different things at times—maybe one person wants to have sex and the other wants to sleep, just cuddle, be alone, or hang out without a lot of touch. The realities of our sexual desires means that consent and communication are extra important.
  • Contrary to the messages that mainstream porn sends, consent is super SUPER important. Consent is about everyone involved and can always be withdrawn. Nothing makes consent automatic, and in some situations (for example, being drunk or asleep) consent simply cannot be given. If someone says no, either with their words or their actions, that always means stop. But also, a lack of no does not equal a yes. Consent needs to be mutual, enthusiastic, and ongoing.
  • When we are having sex with safe and supportive partners (meaning partners who are invested in our well-being and pleasure), we are able to decide what activities we want to try based on what we feel comfortable with and interested in.
  • It doesn’t matter whether an abuser is a teacher, neighbor, parent or step-parent, coach, or classmate—sexual abuse and assault are NEVER okay. Some people have sexual fantasies about these situations, or enjoy watching these plots in porn, and that is okay—but, in this area especially, it is imperative to remember the difference between fantasy (or role-play) and real-life.

Barriers & Birth Control

As with consent and communication, there’s a lot that happens off-camera when it comes to birth control and safer sex practices, which are almost always invisible in porn. Reducing the risk of pregnancy and STIs is a super important component of sex for most people, but unfortunately they are not glamorous enough for porn. Jiz Lee describes suggesting using dental dams on one “lesbian” set they worked on. “The director laughed at me, saying flat-out, ‘No you can’t use a dental dam. No one would want to watch that; it’s not sexy.” Of course, in reality, things like dental dams and condoms are part of lots of people’s sexual lives, and plenty of people experience them as sexy.

Part of the movie “magic" of the porn industry is that these aspects of sex are managed off-camera. In girl-girl scenes, barriers for safer sex are virtually non-existent. In cisgender, straight and girl-girl porn, there is a lot of unprotected sex—condoms or other barriers are rarely used. Back in 2012, Los Angeles began requiring porn performers to wear condoms when filming. As a result, over the next four years, there was a 95% drop in porn permit requests, and instead they filmed elsewhere. The porn production companies knew that their primary audience did not want to see condoms, meaning profit would go way down. Since then, the proposition to make condoms mandatory on California porn sets was defeated, and we continue to see lots of unprotected sex on camera.

What we don’t see is that, off-camera, performers in professional straight porn (not amateur, for example) are required to get full STI testing at least every two weeks through the Performing Availability Screening Services (PASS). PASS provides this part of the industry with rapid response STI results. As Lorelei Lee points out, this means that performers “(unlike most sexually active adults) learn very quickly that they had contracted an STD, would not continue to work, and would be treated long before that STD could cause long-term effects.” For performers to work, they must have valid test results available on the PASS database that indicate they do not have any STIs at the moment.

In gay male porn, there's more of a mix when it comes to safer sex strategies. The standard used to be the inverse of the straight/girl-girl porn standard: no testing, yes condoms. Now there’s a mix of condom and no-condom shoots. When condoms are used, they are generally used for anal sex but rarely for oral sex, leaving performers especially vulnerable to transmission of gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis and other infections. This part of the industry does not use PASS for the most part because PASS does not permit people to work who are HIV positive. There are currently no reliable numbers for how many gay male performers are HIV positive—some anecdotal estimates are one-third or one-half, but even if it is lower than the lowest end of those estimates, using PASS would still exclude a large segment of the industry. As a result, when testing is utilized it is less uniform—individual performers get tested through their own doctors and bring their results to set. Some people who work in gay male porn have articulated a strong need for an industry-wide PASS type system that will also work with HIV positive folks, in an effort to help keep all performers safer.

When it comes to birth control, performers minimize pregnancy risk in the same way that other people do. For cisgender women performing in straight porn, while condoms are often not a birth control choice, they may utilize options such as the IUD, the shot, the patch, the pill, or others. Also, only about 1/4 of performers have had someone ejaculate inside their vagina during a shoot, meaning the majority are utilizing withdrawal as an additional birth control method. While withdrawal on its own is not highly effective, using two forms of birth control is a great way to get pretty close to 99.9% protection.

You should know that:

  • Though birth control is usually invisible in mainstream porn, it is a really important element of many people’s sex lives. Along with condoms, there are also a plethora of other birth control options out there, all of which become even more effective when you use more than one method at a time, for example using condoms and taking birth control pills.
  • Though condoms are often not used in straight porn, and are increasingly not being used in gay male porn, they are a great option for our personal lives. There are a lot of awesome things about condoms—including, but not limited to, they are the only form of birth control that also protects against STIs!
  • Safer sex is not just for straight people and gay men. While sex between people with vulvas does pose a lower risk for STI transmission, the risk is still there, as well as risk for other infections like bacterial vaginosis.
  • If you are switching from anal to vaginal intercourse, always use a new condom!
  • Safer sex practices like using barriers and getting regularly testing for STIs are crucial for your sexual health. And they do not need to be buzzkills! They can be playful and sexy. As Heather Corinna writes, “Being assertive, responsible, educated and smart about sex is empowering and about as sexy as sexy gets.”

In short, remember that porn and other sexual media are a genre of fantasy and the videos featured on mainstream X-rated sites will almost definitely not be representative of you, your body, your sexual health, and your sexual experiences.

For part one of this series, click here!

Illustrations © 2020 Archie Bongiovanni/Scarleteen. All rights reserved.

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