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What We (Don't) Talk About When We Talk About Porn08:15
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From left to right: Jacky St. James, David Cruz, Danielle Brinkley, Shira Tarrant, Isiah Maxwell, Lisey Sweet. (Liz Kuball for NPR)
From left to right: Jacky St. James, David Cruz, Danielle Brinkley, Shira Tarrant, Isiah Maxwell, Lisey Sweet. (Liz Kuball for NPR)

A porn director worries that young adults think sex is what they've seen on-screen.

A young man worries that the ubiquity of porn creates unrealistic expectations for everyone.

A porn performer worries that young viewers might think her videos are instructional.

They all wish people talked about it more.

Millions of people in the United States watch pornography, thanks largely in part to the Internet and free sites like Pornhub.

A majority of those people are under 34 years old. They've grown up in a world where online porn is free and, with the rise of smartphones, where viewers can watch it pretty much whenever — and wherever — they want.

But while porn may be easy to view, it's still hard to discuss — even for those with the easiest access to it — and it creates a host of worries and misconceptions.

"My students are often immersed in it but don't often have an opportunity to ... learn about it with tools for critical analysis," says Shira Tarrant, a professor at California State University, Long Beach.

NPR is exploring how people talk about sex — or don't — and why it matters. And regardless of whether you think it's good or bad, pornography is everywhere and it's shaping the way people, especially young people, think about sex.

As part of the series, NPR visited a porn film set to hear the conversations that happen behind the scenes. (Listen to the audio story above for more on that.) On set, it's clear that pornography is performance — like a TV show or choreographed dance.

But that's not obvious for many people, especially for those who've never had sex before.

Here are six perspectives on how the fantasy of pornography affects our attitudes toward the reality of sex.


The Director

Jacky St. James is a pornography director and writer who has hundred of credits to her name. She has been in the business since 2011, when, on a whim, she wrote a script for a porn-writing contest — and won. When her script was made into a film, she was blown away by how professional the process was, and she left her job in online advertising to join the industry full time.

St. James, 42, says she thinks there's a lot of good that comes from porn — for example, creating sex positivity and normalizing a healthy sex life. But she hates the thought of minors viewing her work and recognizes there are downsides to the easy access so many young people — even those over 18 — have to porn these days.

"I think where it's a disservice is that a lot of people ... that are growing up on porn somehow feel that what they're seeing is what they should be doing, instead of really discovering what they want," she says. "When I grew up, you know, porn was so hard to get — I mean, I saw porn, but I couldn't watch it every day if I wanted to."

She says she worries about how that could affect young people.

"Pornography is not sex education, and it should never be looked at that way. ... And I don't think the onus of responsibility is on us to educate the public — I think that should be done in the school system and with parents, but certainly it's not our responsibility. And I don't think a lot of people are willing to accept that," she says. "They want to blame us for everything, and I'm not going to be blamed, because it's a fantasy — that's what we're creating at the end of the day."


The Students

David Cruz has tried to talk to friends about porn but has had little success.

"That's maybe the appeal that porn has, is the fact that it's supposed to be a secret, it's supposed to be something that we don't talk about," the 26-year-old college student says.

Like many others, Cruz assumed that what he saw in pornography reflected reality and had to recalibrate his expectations once he started having sex.

"As a male, you see the performer acting a certain way, and giving pleasure a certain way, and you absorb that, and you expect that, and you want that from your partner," Cruz says. "But I quickly learned that it takes connection-building and all kinds of other factors that lead into what works for specific people and certain couples."

Porn definitely affects how a person interacts with the world, Cruz says, adding that it is only going to get easier and easier to access. "This conversation is long overdue. Because there's no going back, it's only getting bigger, and we have to adapt."

Millennials may be talking about sex more, Danielle Brinkley says, but she doesn't think they're talking about porn more — and that can lead to miscommunication and unspoken expectations.

"It means when they watch porn, they're like, 'Oh my gosh, that girl is doing all these circus tricks,' then when they go to the bedroom with their boyfriend or girlfriend [and] they're expected, or they expect themselves to be able to do that, and I don't think that's necessarily fair," she says.

Brinkley, 23, says she hasn't watched porn much herself and she wasn't sure if her boyfriend had, but she did feel like he might have been bringing unrealistic expectations into the bedroom. She says she was nervous to ask him about it, mainly because she was worried the conversation might make her feel inadequate.

After she spoke with NPR, Brinkley brought up the subject with her boyfriend, and they ended up having a long discussion about it.

"Once we started talking about it, I was wanting to ask him more and more questions," she says. "It actually reassured me in our relationship."


The Academic

Shira Tarrant, a 56-year-old professor, has given a lecture on pornography for 12 years as part of her class on pop culture, gender and media, and is the author of The Pornography Industry: What Everyone Needs to Know. She says her students are at least exposed to — and often immersed in — pornography, but have never really thought about how to analyze it critically. She refers to it as "porn literacy" — understanding how porn is made, where it comes from and how it shapes society's views on sex and sexuality.

"When people are watching stunt performers, they know it's a stunt. When you go to the movies, you know that the movie was edited," she says.

But people tend to not make the same connections when they watch pornography.

"It gets into our private desires, and people don't want to talk about that out loud, even though it's so important if we're concerned about both sexual pleasure and sexual safety," she says.

Tarrant is neither pro- nor anti-porn but thinks that we should recognize that it's here to stay — and then figure out how to talk about it. "We're not going to get rid of porn any more than we're going to get rid of Disneyland even if we don't like the princess trope and the happily-ever-after motif," she says.


The Performers

Now 30, Isiah Maxwell began performing in porn films in his 20s, and sex off camera, he says, is very different from the sex he has on camera.

"The better male performers are great at having sex uncomfortably," Maxwell says. "You need to get yourself in uncomfortable positions, because it disconnects you from the scene. And it allows the audience to put themselves in."

Creating that disconnect, he says, often means leaning back, physically distancing himself from his partner and opening out toward the camera — which is not how ordinary people have sex. And he worries that less sexually experienced viewers don't understand how manufactured the final product is and think that's how they're supposed to act.

Maxwell thinks a lot about peeling back the mystique around the content the porn industry produces, even though his job depends on the fantasy.

"For me, I see the conundrum," he says. "Porn magic is what makes porn great. But an open dialogue instead of being closed off about it would help bring more of an understanding how much actually goes into this product. I mean, I could see how it kills the fantasy, but I think it would be beneficial."

Lisey Sweet, 29, was a research scientist before she got into the pornography industry. She says she has found it freeing — but she also worries that some viewers don't understand it's not reality.

"What they don't see is that we laid out all of positions, and anytime something didn't look natural, we would cut it out. So it really is like a perfectly choreographed dance," she says. "It's not a reflection of what they should be doing in their bedroom — it's supposed to be entertainment."

She thinks that's why the conversation about porn should start early — because as much as she doesn't want minors to see pornography, she also realizes it's inevitable.

"I know that our society is not quite there yet, but the discussion about pornography should be part of sex ed in high schools and in middle schools," Sweet says. "What do you think is more likely, that they're going to come across porn first or they're going to come across actual sex first? And it's probably more likely porn."

The audio story was edited by Jolie Myers; the Web story was edited by Maureen Pao.

Copyright NPR 2019.

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