Historian Oliver Lee Bateman examines the potential scholarly applications of websites like Xtube and RedTube.
“It’s only when one gives serious attention to these facts which are so self-evident that they pass for insignificant, these banal things which most of those whose task in life is to understand and articulate the social world would consider unworthy of their attention, that one is able to construct theoretical models that are both very general and yet not ‘empty.'”
Pierre Bourdieu, Culture and Politics
Even today, in an academic world that has spawned impenetrable tomes on the most obscurantist topics imaginable, certain research proposals are still viewed skeptically by dissertation advisors. Sports and pop culture have a bit more of a purchase on scholarly imaginations than they once did, but work in these subjects is generally done on Important things: baseball/soccer/boxing/the music of Bob Dylan as each is related to the construction of race/class/gender. Vast swaths of everyday life remain unobserved, which is striking when one considers the proliferation of “studies” departments over the course of the past three decades.
Consider, for example, the serious research on professional wrestling. Aside from a dated essay by Roland Barthes and some well-intentioned and informative mass-market efforts by ECW Press, little of any consequence has ever been published. Someone wishing to correct this oversight faces an uphill battle convincing his peers that a lurid spectacle even its staunchest supporters and promoters view as puerile warrants significant study. Wrestling, a cultural phenomenon as dimly understood as it is widely known, offers significant rewards if examined with the same theoretical and methodological rigor as seemingly higher-profile topics. In other words–and I write this as someone just entering a full-time career in a history department–it’s doable, as large-scale projects go. And not only is it doable, it’s likely to be undertaken with great passion and vigor, given the enthusiasm of person undertaking the research.
But this isn’t an essay about pro wrestling. My collaborators and I have already written too many of those, with more on the way in the next few weeks. Rather, this is an essay about stories left untold…stories hung out to dry, really. This is an essay about Xtube, perhaps the greatest single archive of user-created pornography yet assembled, and the terrifying possibility that no meaningful scholarship will ever be produced about it. There are other embedded-video sites–RedTube, PornHub, YouPorn–but these traffic primarily in professional and semi-professional work. Xtube, although filled with its fair share of “sponsored posts” that are intended to trick careless users into spending real money on otherwise-free smut, is mostly just an entrepôt for low-quality user-made pornography. By “low quality” I don’t necessarily mean that it is bad in some performative sense–I’m passing no judgment on that at all–but rather that it has been filmed on cell phones, Flip Videos, and the like, with little attention paid to lighting and camera angles.
Before I continue, allow me to attach some provisos to the topic under scrutiny here:
- I’m not interested in arguing about whether it is good or bad to watch videotaped depictions of human beings engaged in sexual relations. It’s fascinating from an evolutionary standpoint that mere images can excite any reaction at all, and also fascinating that more men than women seem to prefer this material, but that is neither here nor there.
- It’s entirely possible that much of this material was uploaded surreptitiously, without the consent of one (or even both!) of the parties.
- It’s entirely possible that one (or even both!) of the parties were reluctant to record this activity…or were unaware that their activities were being recorded at all.
- Disparities of power, privilege, etc. abound in this material. It is precisely for these reasons, among others, that this material is a suitable subject for academic study. But studying such material, particularly the worst of it, is hardly commensurate with condoning it. Do scholars of slavery somehow sanction slavery because they research and write about it? Well, according to one of my former students, who also complained that a lecture on race was racist because it was about race, the answer was yes…but for the rest of us, that answer is a resounding no.
Classes on pornography, like classes on Bugs Bunny cartoons and romance novels, have become somewhat trendy fare in university course catalogs. These suggestive titles are sure to attract full houses of semi-interested undergrads, whereupon Professor So-and-So can help his or her charges come to terms with the existence of pornography as, say, a “tradition of moving-image culture that must be taken seriously.” The syllabi for these courses are chock full of the “greatest hits” of the trade: Foucault (for some reason), MacKinnon (obv), Dworkin (although geez), Paglia (why not?), et al. Or they can go the route taken by some others and construct the course around the economics of the adult film industry, occasionally inviting top “stars” to speak about the LeBron James-esque efficiency with which they undertake their daily labors. This is “sexy” (pun intended, I guess), but it gets us no closer to understanding sex as one of the structures of everyday life.
In other words, this treasure trove of material is something of a rosetta stone for historians and sociologists interested in sex, sexuality, the family, and related subjects. But it appears that no Geertzian “thick description” has yet been generated to contextualize the Xtube oeuvre–not so much to legitimize or approbate it (as conservative doomsayers like Christopher Lasch frequently excoriate pop culture scholars for doing) but rather to normalize the myriad forms of intimate conduct that constitute the human sexual experience. What’s frightening to me, you see, is the idea that I could track down some of these pornographic content creators, interrogate them about pornography, and listen as many of them denounce the very conduct in which they had engaged. To which I must (and can only) write: WTF?!?
The world we have inherited is a screwed-up one, which is equally everyone’s and no one’s fault. An obsession with convention, even among the unconventional, ensures that almost nothing of substance is ever said about anything. And I suppose that’s only fair, because life would be difficult if inquisitive jerks like me were always walking up to you and asking, “Do you REALLY love your spouse? Is your life WORTHLESS? How often do you FEEL TERRIBLE, and why? And what are the STRUCTURES causing you to feel this way?” All that aside, I consider searching for genuinely authentic statements made with total candor to be my life’s mission. Such statements are no more “objective” than any other truth claim, but certain revealing remarks, offhand or otherwise, cause me to snap to attention. For example:
“[I like] ebony lesbian sex…I don’t like straight sex. I check my email online, play games online…so probably far after that, as an extracurricular activity, I consume it like some people consume news.”
Chanelle Dorton made that statement to NPR correspondent Aarti Shahani in a report about the ailing fortunes of the adult film industry. In the same piece, Neel Bell claimed he only watched “heterosexual porn that doesn’t involve porn stars [because] it lets you think that it’s a real-life situation more.” I could’ve listened to a hundred hours of this material; instead, the bulk of Shahani’s feature is devoted to the fact that free pornography is cutting into for-pay pornography’s bottom line, a development that all of us should welcome as eagerly as the end of professional football.
Now here’s the thing: Dorton’s pornography-watching likely consumes a significant amount of her life, perhaps several hours a day. She and Bell claim to be fans of the “real deal” amateur material–in other words, they’d rather watch five 5’10” guards on an NAIA basketball team brick treys than stare in incomprehension as LeBron James uses otherworldly post moves to make 70% of his shots near the basket. For some reason (and they don’t elaborate, because they weren’t asked to do so), these two want to watch amateurs. Amateurs in the etymological sense, acting here as “lovers of” one another. Even if it’s forced or bad or wooden or packed under multiple layers of culturally-imposed hypocrisy (a gay sex scene labelled “sex with my str8 married dude” or some such), there’s a certain naturalness in the work that evokes desire among those millions of people desiring relief.
It stands to reason that the next truly great work on sex and sexuality ought to consist of watching thousands upon thousands of hours of amateur pornography. And not watching it in some abstract and rarefied manner (which often amounts to writing about it without watching it at all), but watching it so as to describe it in such a way that someone who hasn’t seen it at all would be able to experience the activities under study. Field studies of sexual practices–BDSM clubs, bathhouses, etc.–have their place, but in those cases the “gaze” of the observer remains too close for comfort. Likely the webcam or smartphone also serves as a reminder to participants that they are objects of scrutiny, but this is at a further remove and perhaps is even diminishing in significance with the emergence of a generation of individuals whose relationship to the world has always been mediated by some impartial technology (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram).
A college class on the subject, ideally a graduate seminar, would follow the same lines: hours of voluntary communal watching, with meaningful commentary generated at the end of each session. “What happened here?” “What social relations are implicated in this encounter?” “How are we meant to feel?” are but a handful of questions that should be asked after working through a dozen or so user uploads. Again, “objectivity” as such is impossible, but after a certain point, the realization that all sorts of things are happening–not just forms of sexual expression that conform to one binary or another (straight sex, gay sex, by-the-book “fetish” sex), or correspond to the assembly-line precision of the dying adult film industry (e.g., Jenna Jameson accommodating a dozen insertions with the grace and fluidity of an Olympic gymnast) or the goofy Disney-ification of post-Hays Code Hollywood sex (i.e., the “rolling around under sheets” that characterizes most set-tos between ostensibly “gorgeous” people)–ought to provide no small comfort to those studying this content.
Of course, none of that will happen, because it can’t. Most of the great causes of human sadness are assumed to be ineffable, and they will remain so for as long as we think they are so. Even psychologists–the helpmates and caretakers of the modern soul–are told only a sliver of the truth, which is thereafter made comprehensible via an awkward translation into the gobbledygook of therapy-speak. Yet I cling desperately to the belief that we must be open with ourselves and others regarding the specifics of our sexual drives and desires, without the felt pressures or influence of one political faction or another. The way forward, which will ultimately entail a tremendous redistribution of the wealth and many other unpalatable sacrifices besides, demands nothing less.