Porn: An Oral History by Polly Barton - review by Rob Doyle

Rob Doyle

For Your Viewing Pleasure

Porn: An Oral History


Fitzcarraldo 356pp £13.99

The title of Polly Barton’s second book, Porn: An Oral History, is a touch misleading. Rather than write a history of the porn industry with reference to its producers and performers, Barton has compiled a series of conversations she had with nineteen friends and acquaintances during the coronavirus lockdowns about their personal histories as porn consumers. The resulting work offers the considerable pleasure of an intelligent discussion on an inherently interesting subject – a pleasure complicated by limitations arising from the format.

A likeably earnest interlocutor, in her introduction Barton comes across as a semi-naif, candid about her squeamishness and ignorance around her chosen subject. None of this disqualifies her from undertaking the project, which is one of ethical and emotional enquiry. She owns up to an array of worries and meta-worries around writing about porn, including the seemingly widespread and surely exhausting one of being a ‘bad feminist’. We learn that Barton, who is in her thirties and is a translator of Japanese literature, has never really discussed pornography before, even with her friends – a faintly surprising admission that, it transpires, is echoed by a number of her subjects, both male and female.

The nineteen anonymous interviewees are referred to only by numbers, with basic details provided about gender, sexual leaning and age (‘One is a straight woman in her late thirties. She is in a long-term relationship, and has children’). While I’d have liked to know a bit more about each person, the anonymity allows Barton’s subjects to speak frankly about the near-universal yet secretive practice of watching pornography. ‘One’ admits that she uses it to get herself off because her husband doesn’t satisfy her sexually. ‘Two’, a middle-aged gay man, recalls first seeing porn as a kid: ‘I remember feeling a bit
sad too. As if there was nothing left to discover, almost. I remember thinking, this is the limit of what you can see in a movie, there’s nothing beyond this.’

The format and the interviewees’ vivid personalities ensure a welcome conversational lightness, while the interrogatory style is more appealing than the prescriptive tone that abounds in contemporary non-fiction. At their best, the conversations display a healthy willingness to acknowledge that one’s prejudices may be arbitrary, one’s moral self-image shot through with hypocrisy. A straight man catches himself out in what I suspect is a common situation: uneasy about the exploitative nature of most porn, he prefers to get his porn-viewing out of the way quickly and not think about the subject too much, so it has never occurred to him to pay a subscription to a reputable or female-run porn site, which after all is one way to be an ethical wanker.

Despite Barton’s efforts to include a diverse selection of her acquaintances in terms of age, sexual leanings and ethnicity, they all turn out to be virtually identical in political configuration. Porn is best taken as a survey of attitudes within a specific, narrow ideological bubble – a seemingly middle-class, feminist, progressive echo chamber with its own tribal codes and dogmas, from which radiates the assumption that anyone outside the bubble is misogynistic and backwards. Being in an echo chamber of my own, I’d forgotten that there really are people out there who unironically describe ideas, art and other people as ‘problematic’. A woman who doesn’t seem to be joking remarks, ‘I think what bothers me is that I’ve realised I am more attracted when it’s beautiful people making porn. It’s problematic!’ (Barton might have replied that wanting porn stars to be ugly is like wanting Premier League footballers to be unfit.) More gratingly smug is a male publishing-world type who cites Judith Butler by her first name and declares that ‘I find the women who love porn deeply problematic, even if they’re not as problematic as me,’ then tells Barton that her book ‘will probably only attract men who like to think that they’re emancipated. But we all know that men are not emancipated.’

What that guy was getting at does seem true in the sense that Porn is a book about, and perhaps for, a social stratum of people so good at tying themselves in ideological knots that it comes to seem like its own form of kink. It’s impressive that anyone still desires anything at all amid so much fastidiousness and anxious self-surveillance. 

Relief from the infinite problematic comes in Barton’s conversation with a man in his eighties who discusses the changing technological basis of pornography down the decades. Elsewhere, we meet an endearingly embarrassed burp fetishist, consider the question of whether Japanese child-porn manga offers a real solution to paedophilia and imbibe lots of lively, granular details about other people’s porn habits. Only in the book’s final stretch do the dialogues start to feel repetitive, the interviewees’ quandaries as generic as porn itself.

A natural response to reading a book such as this is to compare one’s own experiences to those recounted within it. Porn-wise, I didn’t quite see myself in any of Barton’s subjects: each of their relationships to porn felt tellingly different from my own. I kept finding myself so eager to pipe up about areas of experience no one was mentioning that I started wishing Barton had interviewed me – which only confirms that the indefinite article in the book’s subtitle amounts to a disclaimer. Porn: An Oral History is but one of the possible books it could have been. As such, it invites others like it to be written – or conversations to be had – to record things that this one leaves out.

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