Why Is It Harder to Suspend Disbelief When We Watch Porn?

5 years ago

I recently had a discussion with a friend of mine, Rose, about pornography and acting. She is involved in the sex industry, has worked as a prostitute and escort, and occasionally does both photographic and film pornography. She mentioned she'd recently finished a shoot where she had earned more in five hours than I've yet to earn this month.

Curious about her experiences, I asked what being in porn was like. Specifically, whether she viewed it as a sexual experience or a 'this is an action I'm doing because I'm getting paid" experience. Rose said that it was the latter: really not much more enjoyable than serving coffee or collating copies, just quite a bit more lucrative.

Photo by Jessica Janson.

The conversation got me thinking about what we -- as audience members -- ask of actors. Because going to a play almost always involves some suspension of disbelief. Perhaps Chicago’s Neofuturists toe the line of theater which requires no suspension of disbelief, but they're in the minority. For the most part, going to a show involves allowing ourselves to believe that the actors are their characters. That they're falling in love, planning for battle, forging alliances, destroying relationships, and on and on and on.

When I go to a play I could sit there the entire time thinking, "Well, she's not really in love with him. He doesn't really find what she says so funny as to laugh out loud." But that would make me miserable, so I suspend my disbelief and allow their actions to read as true.

That's not how viewing porn seems to work, however. For whatever reason, audiences want to believe the people they're watching are really attracted to each other (even if only on a physical level) and do reach a real, satisfying, climactic (natch) orgasm. Why is that?

This isn't true for every porn. There's a great movement of feminist porn that attempts to portray actual, pleasurable, orgasmic, sex (links obviously NSFW -- please share more in the comments if you know other examples): Crash Pad, No Fauxxx, and Doing It Ourselves, to name a few.

But those are the minority. Most porn is filmed the same way any other film would be: actors are told what to do, and they do it. Regardless of whether or not they really cum. That's what I'm talking about when I use the word "porn" in this post, even though I know it's a subset of all porn.

I'm also talking from my own cultural understandings and assumptions about porn and American gender dynamics. That is a topic for a lengthy thesis, not a little blog post, so I'll be making a lot of unsubstantiated and unresearched claims about why people (mainly men) watch porn, and what they think while doing it. I'm also not focusing on kink or fetish porn. Feel free to correct me if you think I'm way off base at any point.

The place to start in answering this question may be the perceived audience. This type of porn is primarily produced by men, for men. There are cultural expectations and understandings around the ease of the male orgasm and the difficulty of the female orgasm. Porn feeds into the first, but somewhat contradicts the second: a woman is going to get off because that's how the audience wants to be projected into the story. The (male) viewer wants to imagine himself with the woman in the porn, easily and handily getting her off.

So there's no desire for examination of the actors' ability to portray getting off. Someone might come out of a theatrical production saying, "Wow, you could really feel the emotion on stage." But -- if they stop to think about it -- they don't assume the actors were all actually mad at each other, or in love with each other, or whatever. In porn, though, similar examination leads to questioning one's own partners: If that porn actress was faking that orgasm, how do I know my own partner wasn't doing the same?

There also seems to be a parallel with the use of stunt doubles in Hollywood. Audiences are impressed when there aren't any stunt doubles. "She does all her own stunts!" is a high compliment to pay an actress. Because we know what they're doing is fake. There isn't really a Nazi chasing Indiana Jones. Salt wasn't really running from those assassins. And for sex scenes, the love interests aren't really having sex.

In porn, though, there is actual sex happening. Someone is being penetrated, and someone is penetrating. Licking or being licked. Sucking or being sucked. You get the idea. But why go that far if you can't go the step further? Why aren't they actually achieving orgasm? It seems more difficult to separate the fiction from the reality. Or to even want to separate the two.

Porn also generally serves a different, more (ahem) utilitarian purpose than non-sexual film or theater. While audiences certainly view actors to evoke an emotional response, the expectations are generally more open ended. When I go to a comedy, I may laugh at the actors or with them. Likewise, a drama may evoke my pity or tears at love-lost or happiness at love-found-at-last. I don't always know going in, except in the broadest of fashions. Porn, on the other hand, is different. The viewer is expecting a specific physical response.

Justifying any of these assumptions would take research that -- quite frankly -- I don't foresee doing anytime soon. But thinking about when and why I've watched porn, all of the above makes sense. I don't watch much porn these days, but when I have I wanted where the women looked like they were enjoying themselves. Something I could imagine participating in, either causing the woman's reaction or having the woman's reaction (a whole different topic). And if pressed, I'd admit most of those women -- perhaps all -- weren't actually enjoying what I was watching as much as they portrayed enjoying it. As much as they acted like they were enjoying it.

I guess my final thought is about whether or not this -- the shared desire to believe women in porn are actually cumming -- is a good thing. No one says "Dexter sucks! He's not really killing people!" At the same time, women faking orgasms in porn seems to feed into all of the second wave feminist ideas of why all porn is inherently bad for women and creating unrealistic and overly-sexualized expectations around women. And -- both as an occasional viewer of porn and a friend of people who work in porn -- I don’t buy into that.

So I'm left not knowing what to think. I'd love to see a move toward more actual orgasms in porn, but some fantasies viewers want to see may simply not evoke an orgasm in the actor participating. And I'm hesitant to say that there should never again be porn of Situation X simply because they can't find an actress who cums from it. But I don't know how to balance that with encouraging healthier views of female sexuality. And male sexuality, for that matter. Any thoughts?

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