Everyone Likes Porn—Yes, EVERYONE

Unlike Justice Stewart, many people don’t know porn ‘when they see it.’ Yet we all see it all the time—and happily.

Not you? Momentarily lift your mind out of the gutter. What about food porn or decorating porn? Kitten porn or fashion porn? All around us is porn porn porn porn porn – including sex porn. These various porns share something basic: fans know what’s coming, and they find it satisfying.

This secret essence of porn came to me as I was writing a novel that contains numerous sex scenes. I’d stuffed the story with metaphors and philosophical import, so I couldn’t be producing anything as lowly as pornography. Thus, all those mentions of condoms had to be for some higher end—drama, perhaps?

Nope: test readers told me that drama, in the conventional sense, was not my work’s strong suit. It wasn’t driven by some overwhelmingly suspenseful situation: a crime to solve, an attack to thwart, etc. As a big fan of Proust’s practically plotless In Search of Lost Time, I didn’t acknowledge the problem. Maybe I got a bit defensive, but I started questioning whether readers (and viewers and listeners) truly crave nonstop suspense.

What about The Prophet, or The Catcher in the Rye? What about World War II shows on PBS? History books? Well-worn tales from the Bible? Repeated viewings of Star Wars? Impressionist paintings of pleasant scenes? Scenic rides through picturesque countryside? No, I thought, people like their drama, but they like predictable, comforting things as well. And, if we include photo spreads from Southern Living, banter among local news announcers, retellings of family lore, and the like, then it’s clear that most people most of the time take the safe and comforting route and embrace relatively non-dramatic productions.

Because I was worried about how to characterize all those sex scenes, it popped into my head that sexual porn (I’m told) is about as formulaic and predictable as entertainment gets. In fact, it’s a wonder that there are so many productions with such little variation. And then it occurred to me that the same was true for all sorts of things labeled porn, as listed above: they’re low-stakes indulgences. Drama, in contrast, has the power to inspire the greatest thrills, but it also can end up maximally disappointing, not to mention disturbing.

So sections of Bonobo! might be more like driving through the country than wingsuit flying, more like Leap-the-Dips than Kingda Ka. Not that the novel is bereft of suspense and surprises—I think it’s replete with discovery, and some parts should be disturbing—but high drama isn’t its main engine.

It’s a mix. And that’s another facet of porn versus drama: everything’s a mix. Porn and drama are just concepts for thinking about art—ideal types that no experience is likely to match completely. For example, Star Wars had plenty of suspense and surprises, but the story arc, character archetypes, score, and obvious imagery were pornographic through and through.

Furthermore, a person’s experience of a work might change from relatively dramatic to relatively pornographic and back. When I was sixteen, seeing Pete Townshend slide across the stage at the end of The Kids Are Alright utterly revolutionized my life. That was dramatic. Repeated viewings at the time removed the surprise and slightly dulled the effect, but I still enjoyed the buildup and release. Then decades passed without my seeing that scene again. When I got the DVD for Christmas in my 40s, I experienced a new surge of drama as I relived my youthful awe. Likewise, kids who watched Star Wars over and over (and over) went from experiencing it as mostly drama to enjoying it increasingly as porn.

Those viewers expected something similar (and thus less drama) in the sequels, as did readers of Harry Potter, addicts of Krispy Kremes, subscribers to Better Homes and Gardens, compulsive reciters of Monty Python routines … They wanted more predictability in their pleasure: aka porn. And it’s okay – there’s no shame! We all do it, just with different objects.

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