Welcome to Porn Week, Mashable’s annual close up on the business and pleasure of porn.
The amount of full-frontal dongs we see on TV shows has skyrocketed in recent years. We have online porn to thank for the money shots, media experts believe.
From HBO’s Euphoria, The Deuce, and Big Little Lies to Showtime’s Billions to Hulu’s Normal People, premium cable and streaming networks have shown they aren’t afraid to show us more dicks. Scenes from Normal People, which arguably aren’t even as kinky as other sex scenes on TV, are steamy enough that they’ve popped up on Pornhub alongside explicit content.
As explicit content online seeps into the consciousness of content creators and audiences, porn is increasingly influencing TV, and vice versa. Further, popular streaming and premium cable providers (that also distribute their content on streaming networks) don’t have to adhere to federal rules against nudity, sexual content, and explicit language like network television, nor do they have to bow to the will of advertisers like basic cable. Plus, new technology is spicing up this smorgasbord of shlongs — and not just by letting us toggle between Pornhub to Netflix on our phones with one click.
“There’s so much free adult material out there that it’s just become part of our cultural reference,” said Angie Rowntree, founder of adult content site Sssh.com. Porn has “certainly desensitized us,” she continued.
While full-frontal female nudity has long been the “norm” in sex scenes both in film and TV, this newer proliferation of full-frontal male nude scenes in episodic content may be because it’s not shocking to see dicks on our screens anymore.
TV creators also continue to have a fascination with the adult industry itself. An upcoming show The Big Time, for example, is about a porn performer trying to save a film studio. Rowntree said Sssh, a member-based site that produces videos based on what viewers want to see, contributed photography for the set’s walls.
Recent submissions to Sssh are heavily swayed by television, Rowntree said. Witches (after Sabrina the Teenage Witch and The Magicians) and superheroes (no doubt based on the Marvel Cinematic Universe and other comic book hero resurrections) are among them.
Rowntree also acknowledges the adult industry’s influence on television making. She herself, as a part of Sssh, has shot content for a couple other mainstream TV productions (but couldn’t elaborate due to legal reasons).
“It’s almost like we feed off of each other,” she said. “It’s really a two-way street.” She cited shows like Game of Thrones and American Horror Story as examples; both feature graphic scenes, and both also were subject to porn parodies (Game of Bones and This Ain’t American Horror Story XXX, respectively).
Why big-budget TV is sexier than Blockbuster movies
This convergence has influenced prestige TV more so than Blockbuster films, said Maria San Filippo, professor of visual and media arts at Emerson College and author of Provocauteurs’ and Provocations: Screening Sex in 21st Century Media.
“As a means of brand differentiation, TV has taken up the sex that Hollywood has increasingly distanced itself from,” said Filippo, referring to Tinseltown’s filmmakers.
Whereas the most popular, chatted-about TV shows (such as Game of Thrones) often portray sex, buzzy movies tend to be more prudish. The world of big-budget films has had an explosion of intellectual property franchises, such as Marvel movies. These stories are sexless and family friendly, Filippo explained.
That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of titillating R-rated movies released year after year. Blockbusters, however, don’t tend to touch the adult topics that prestige TV is willing to go after.
When the “golden age of television” (considered, by some critics, to be 2000-2019) took off, it gave us a hunger for prestige shows that pushed boundaries and sometimes felt like episodic movies. Streaming services have also taken off in parallel, leading to even more content being produced and a greater willingness to test out new concepts.
The rise of prosthetics and intimacy coordinators
Two other factors that have contributed to the “latest burst” of male nudity on television include the improvements in prosthetics (and digital alterations) and the rise of intimacy coordinators, said Peter Lehman, director of the Center for Film, Media, and Popular Culture at Arizona State University and author of Running Scared: Masculinity and the Representation of the Male Body.
Many of the dicks we see on our 4K televisions are fake, he wrote for The Conversation. HBO has a long history of displaying naked penises, such as in the 1990s show Oz. The difference between Oz and, say, Euphoria, which stirred up dick discourse in 2019, is that the dicks in the latter are prosthetics. The penis tide changed from real to artificial with the 2010 Starz series Spartacus, Lehman said.
Why? Because prosthetics allow filmmakers and actors to decide how they want characters’ dicks to look, namely: huge.
Society’s obsession with big dicks isn’t anything new, but it’s an obsession perpetuated by porn. The dicks on porn performers are sometimes portrayed as cartoonishly large (no doubt enhanced by camera angles, lighting, and other movie magic), and if not then definitely above the average penis size of 5.1 to 5.5 inches.
Credit: vicky leta / mashable
Meanwhile, the use of intimacy coordinators became common practice on set of film and TV productions around 2018 in light of the #MeToo movement and more people speaking out about sexual harassment. Intimacy coordinators choreograph simulated sex scenes, negotiate and communicate between actors and production teams, and provide a sense of safety and support for actors.
Porn had the “original” intimacy coordinators, said Filippo, though they don’t use the title. Porn shoots, in the best of circumstances, are choreographed and negotiated beforehand by performers and producers. Like a TV scene, a porn scene is a highly orchestrated production. Intimacy coordinators were also popular in theater productions before making their way to film and TV.
With intimacy coordinators on a prestige TV set, there’s consent and a designed comfort level with nudity that may have not been there previously. In 2018, HBO announced it would use intimacy coordinators on all its shows with sex scenes. Its first show to do so was The Deuce, which portrays the golden age of pornography in the 1970s.
Porn’s influence on storylines and characters
The Deuce is an example of television creators’ being inspired by porn itself to create content. It’s not a new phenomenon.
“The adult industry provides TV — or the media, or the entertainment industry — with a lot of topics,” Rowntree said. The Girlfriend Experience, a Starz show about escorting, and Secret Diary of a Call Girl, also about escorts that ran on the UK channel ITV, are two more examples of TV writers being influenced by the porn world.
Even when a show’s subject isn’t the adult industry, though, it may still be informed by it in subtler ways.
“Porn has become so ubiquitous in our culture, especially among millennial and younger generations,” Filippo explained. “A lot of important new television has taken it up. The creators of those shows raised in those environments have addressed it very frontally.”
Filippo cited HBO’s Girls as an example. Creator Lena Dunham shot sex scenes that were impacted by porn — not attempting to replicate it, but instead mindful of how porn has changed our idea of what sex should be. For example, Filippo said, the show’s first on-screen sex scene displays Dunham’s character Hannah going along with a role-play scenario where her partner said she was a “junkie” at 11 years old. When the sex is over, her partner is uncomfortable discussing the dirty talk.
“In this and other scenes of characters’ sexual role-play,” Filippo wrote in Provocauteurs’ and Provocations, “Girls mocks porn’s ludicrous scenarios” and winks at the cognitive dissonance of being both attracted and disgusted by these scenarios.
In the case of Euphoria, porn’s influence isn’t just seen in a locker room scene with dozens of prosthetic cocks, but in how porn informs characters’ sexual tastes and interests. The pilot episode, for example, includes a montage of Pornhub clips as the protagonist explains her peers’ proclivity for rough sex.
“Do you need to show explicit sex? Or do our minds fill in the explicit sex?”
As television becomes sexier and sexier, Rowntree wonders where the line between porn and other forms of content should fall.
“As soon as they [TV shows] become explicit, where does that leave the adult industry?” she asked. “Or will they have their place, and we’ll have our place?”
At the same time, she has considered whether being more explicit is always the right move for a TV show. She recalled a compilation of disturbing American Horror Story: Hotel (2015) clips: A man’s (unseen) penis super glued into a dead woman’s body; a man being penetrated by a spiked penis; and two vampire characters feasting on humans during an orgy. These clips didn’t even show nudity; they all aired on FX, a basic cable channel. Still, the images struck audiences even without an X rating.
“The question is,” mused Rowntree, “do you need to show explicit sex? Or do our minds fill in the explicit sex?” It’s an interesting question she couldn’t answer, but considering that Pornhub receives billions of visits a year, it’s likely viewers can indeed fill in those blanks.
Regardless, the experts said neither porn nor provocative TV is going away anytime soon. If anything, the lines are becoming blurrier.
The future of TV and porn
Filippo believes the line between porn and mainstream TV and movies is artificial and created for political and commercial reasons. And those reasons don’t serve anyone except “maybe Hollywood studios and the executives that run them,” and advertisers.
As exemplified by OnlyFans banning explicit content only to suspend the change days later, the adage of “sex sells” often stops when the selling benefits sex workers. Sex work is devalued across industries such as entertainment and tech, even though these industries profit off it. Filippo hopes that meshing television, an industry largely impacted by labor organizing, with the adult industry could result in better labor practices for the latter.
Lehman sees future potential not just for prosthetics, but digital enhancements. In the 2013 Danish film Nymphomaniac, for example, the director digitally manipulated actors’ faces onto other people’s naked bodies.
Nymphomaniac is an erotic art house movie, though the technology could potentially be used in mainstream American TV, too. “You can digitally create bodies that never existed — but in a different way than prosthesis…It’s a digital creation from two bodies being represented as one,” he said.
Both TV and porn (at least, the free porn proliferating the internet) perpetuate an ideal body, one chiseled with a big dick — and an ideal sexual encounter, one with penetration. Lehman hopes, however, that TV will evolve and show more diverse bodies and types of sexual expression.
“The notion of what constitutes good sex [on TV] is so limited,” he said. Like in porn, penetration is seen as the “main” sexual activity on TV. “I see it as a rich area for younger and current active filmmakers, television makers, to break some of these boundaries that are so restrictive and self-limiting.”
Particularly, Lehman said, outside the framework of penetration — and outside a locker room full of dicks.