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27 March 2023

Where are all the good books on sex?

Polly Barton’s “oral history” of porn shows the myopia of cultural criticism drawn from personal experience. We desperately need a new literature of sexuality.

By Ann Manov

Polly Barton’s new work from the garlanded literary publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions is entitled Porn: An Oral History. This may come as a surprise to those familiar with her prize-winning debut, Fifty Sounds, a memoir of her study of the Japanese language and career as a literary translator. Barton is well aware that she may not seem the most qualified person to write a book about porn, let alone one with a title so boldly all-encompassing. In her introduction, she describes her initial, vague plans for a book of essays on the subject; then her thoughts of travelling to the San Fernando Valley to write a “journey of discovery”; then, finally, her decision to write an oral history focusing on “laypeople, and their experiences with and thoughts about porn”. Indeed, an oral history drawing not on a representative cross-section of porn users – Barton did not feel equipped for a “full-blown research project” – but, instead, a handful of friends.

“Rather than provide something with a claim to objectivity,” she writes, “a representation of the full range of thoughts and opinions or, heaven forbid, which attempted to locate some kind of ‘standard’ or majority position, I wanted with this book to set my sights on what it looked like to talk about these things.”

So the purchaser of Barton’s book – which is 368 pages long – should be aware of what it does and does not comprise. Porn: An Oral History comprises Barton’s brief preface and postface as well as 19 short interviews with acquaintances, identified by their approximate age, gender and, in most cases, sexual orientation. Of these, about half are identified as non-heterosexual. The vast majority are around Barton’s age (39) with one outlier straight male in his early twenties, and one outlier straight male in his early eighties. Quite a few are expats living in Japan, like Barton, and quite a few work in the arts. One has a burping fetish; the others have no particularly unusual relationship to the subject, invested or tortured. This, I suppose, is what Barton promised – a look at the average porn consumer, but with no attempt at identifying him.

Her work lacks scientific rigour – it is more lifestyle journalism than history. But one might still appreciate it on its own terms. After all, as Barton writes in her introduction, she was so enthralled by the interviewing process, and felt her “pornchats” to be so “generative”, that she ultimately chose not to condense or edit them: “I began to feel that the voices in which these stories were being told were integral to the accounts themselves,” she writes. “It was important to preserve a record of what it was like to speak for the first time about something awkward with someone – there was value precisely in preserving the sloppiness of the process not only in reproducing the mood of the chat, but also a route of insight into conversation itself.”

[See also: Netflix doesn’t understand why people watch porn]

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There’s something appealing about this proposition – which suggests an intimate, DIY approach. But, unfortunately, it doesn’t work. If these conversations aren’t edited – which I find hard to believe, there being not a single hesitater across these pages – they are sterile and unedifying.

Barton’s opening and closing pages are elegantly written, testifying to a mind alert to a raft of unsettling and urgent questions. One wishes she had written the remaining pages, too. As for the rest, one is left with the impression that, much like a person’s conversations while on drugs are never quite as interesting as one thinks they are, Barton’s friends’ conversations on porn are not quite as interesting as she thinks they are.

What does one learn from this book? That Barton’s friends – in the main highly educated, well-travelled queer women in their thirties – have considered that porn may be related to the denigration of women, may change relations among the sexes, and may impact one’s relationship with one’s own sexual appetites, but are not sure what to do with any of these questions.

There are interesting anecdotes: the octogenarian recalls seeing hardcore porn for the first time, with work friends over fish and chips, and feeling absolutely shocked, even repulsed, by it. A half-Japanese woman recalls seeing young girls harassed by an older businessman at hot springs, and feeling that it was impossible, in the Japanese language, to forcefully fend him off. This woman’s discussions of Japanese and Japan are fascinating, as are Barton’s – so, too, are the octogenarian’s discussions of a pre-Sixties moral landscape that now seems unimaginably foreign. And, of course, we learn about burping fetishes.

But on the big questions, we read page after page of clichés: “I don’t think porn should be banned, but there’s moderation needed”; “It’s hugely problematic to be the one deciding for everybody what good porn and bad porn is”; “Talking about porn is not talking about the thing that’s the problem, which is patriarchy”; “Maybe [porn is] a form of escapism”. Barton leaves us with a repetitive and predictable series of conversations. One struggles to imagine her target audience.

The problem here extends beyond one individual book. Barton’s is just one example of a myopic form of cultural criticism that relies not on research – in archives, in the field, in experiment, or in conversation with any expert source – but on one’s own “personal experience”, a totally irrefutable but also totally unconvincing source of authority. Barton, admirably, has at least expanded her subject matter to include those other than herself – but, regrettably, she has expanded it in nearly the smallest possible degree to encompass a whopping 19 of her acquaintances. This offers us barely more intellectual rigour than those all too familiar op-ed pieces in which three to five anonymous sources seem very certainly to be three to five acquaintances of the “journalist”.  In brief, then, Barton’s “oral history” consists of little more than mutterings within an echo chamber.

[See also: The tasteless dangerous rise of charity porn content]

Barton’s publisher bills this book as “a landmark work of oral history written in the spirit of Nell Dunn”. Nell Dunn’s work Talking to Women also relied on the testimony of friends – ranging from heiresses to factory workers to Edna O’Brien. But no one calls that book an oral history. Oral history is still history – and that entails the study of the past, often through the voices of those excluded from traditional, written resources. The discipline of history requires “full-blown research”, burdensome as Barton may find it.

Where are the good books about sex? In her brief bibliography, Barton cites recent titles by Katherine Angel (Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again) and Amia Srinivasan (The Right to Sex). Like these works, Porn is too timid to offer a bold thesis. Angel and Srinivasan’s books offer provocative, well-researched thinking: Angel’s is rich in psycho-biological studies on female sexuality; Srinivasan’s is rich in political history. But both writers hesitate at their final conclusions: Angel’s compelling thoughts on desire steer away from specifics on how “sex will be good again”; Srinivasan’s riveting discussions of porn, age gaps and race preferences peter out into lukewarm ecumenicalism.

This impulse is totally understandable, with sexual libertarianism essentially the order of the day. And the other end of the spectrum fares worse. Recent “sex-negative” tracts The Case Against the Sexual Revolution by Louise Perry and Rethinking Sex by Christine Emba read as over-long op-eds, as might be expected of books by opinion writers. But even these reactionaries aren’t that provocative in their prescriptions. Perry declares: “We should treat our sexual partners with dignity.” Emba concludes: we must “will the good of the other”.

None of this is enough. We desperately need a book to go deeper: how do our desires come about? What should we do about them? Is it wrong to feel alienated from one’s sexuality? How can we treat others ethically? When is a “power imbalance” too much? What are the conditions for consent? There are paradoxes in the world of sex, and new norms are being violently hashed out. In the face of this, is there any unifying principle of sexual ethics whatsoever?  As it is, it seems that sex is an arena in which no moral or philosophical progress can be made, even by those who bill themselves as its most astute observers.

There have been visible, important changes in sexual life over the last few years: internet porn, “sugar babying”, amateur porn and online dating (which has in a decade gone from obscure to totally ubiquitous). How, if at all, have they actually impacted the average person’s life? Rather than drawing on friends and pop-culture headlines, why not some actual history?

One can imagine a fascinating oral history of porn. It might explore virtual reality or OnlyFans; contain interviews with pin-up girls, adult-movie theatre workers, video-rental shop owners, web aggregators, performers, or addicts. Instead, Barton leaves us with hollow speculation in lieu of ideas. Has porn changed how the sexes relate? Is it exploitative? One wishes she had some facts; perhaps, even, a theory.

Polly Barton is well aware that a world in which the great majority of people are exposed to sex in their teens or childhood via pornography – which often portrays the subjugation of women – is troubling. She is aware that this status quo has emerged suddenly and inescapably, with little regulation or study of its effects. She is aware that the question of whether politically “incorrect” desires are innate or exacerbated by this state of affairs is one of urgent importance. To explore this question, and others, is the promise of her book. Sadly, it is a promise unfulfilled.

Porn: An Oral History
Polly Barton
Fitzcarraldo Editions,368pp, £13.99

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[See also: The sex lives of medieval women]

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This article appears in the 29 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special