Bare Bodies: Reality Checking Mainstream Porn

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Alice OA clear-eyed, in-depth exploration of mainstream porn that can: amp up your sexual media literacy so you can better suss out what's really going on with and in porn, fill you in on how it may or may not — and sometimes just plain shouldn't — match your expectations or experiences of sexuality offscreen, and tell you more about its politics and behind-the-scenes realities.

Porn is huge. Online video pornography, specifically, is a massively lucrative industry that dominates large swaths of the internet. In America, as of 2008, over 90% of young men and over 60% of young women in college had encountered online porn before they turned 18. Given the abysmal state of school and community-based sexuality education in America, combined with porn’s vast online presence, it is no surprise many young people turn to porn looking for sex education.

As Jiz Lee, a leader in the queer porn movement, performer, and writer, wisely observes, “In the absence of comprehensive sex education, people use porn to learn about sex—what sex looks like, who gets to have it, and what it means to be sexy. On its own, that’s fine. But a limited example of what porn is has the danger in dictating what’s ‘normal’, raising issues in our understanding of sexual health, and also our sexual psyche. Diversity in porn lets us find ourself in the erotic landscape, proving we are ALL capable and deserving of love.”

I’ll be exploring mainstream porn in this piece—the content that is available for free on tube sites—meaning porn that is not explicitly or intentionally feminist, queer, or alternative. This first installment talks about the landscape of mainstream video porn in America, and the ways in which it is — or spoiler alert: isn’t — accurately representing bodies: from penis size, pubic hair, and anal douching to race, disability and gender identity.

Penises in Porn

Let’s start with the genitals we most often see in porn . With few exceptions, cisgender male pornography performers have larger than average penises; sometimes slightly larger than average, sometimes significantly larger. This is doubly true for Black performers, who are expected to have especially large penises in order to fit the mold of the made-up (and racist) “BBC” or “Big Black Cock” stereotype.

The majority of penises we see in porn are also circumcised. This is likely because America produces and watches a majority of the world’s porn, and in America, most people who have penises are circumcised. That’s in direct contrast to the rest of the world, though, where the overwhelming majority of people who have penises are uncircumcised.

Porn performers also maintain erections for a remarkably long time. The videos featured on internet porn hubs are often five to fifteen minute clips (usually stolen) from much longer films which themselves are edited down from even more footage. This means that, like with movies and TV shows, the filming process is substantially longer than the final product delivered to audience members. One performer estimates that for every ten minutes of sex in a porn video, the cast and crew worked for four hours. Another performer estimates that it takes even longer—for every forty minutes of sex in a porn video he says it takes around ten hours of filming. It’s not uncommon for a porn shoot to go for even twelve hours. That’s a lot of time to maintain an erection! Sometimes performers are able to do this naturally, but usually they utilize erection-inducing pills or shots (which can have detrimental short and long-term health effects).

When people with penises receive anal sex in porn, they’re also usually shown as having erect penises, which is hardly always the case in reality. This is true for bottoms in gay male pornography, and for trans women performers—who may have additional difficulty maintaining erections if they are taking estrogen and/or testosterone blockers. There are also plenty of scenes of trans women using their penises for insertive sex, despite the fact that this act may not play a major role in plenty of trans women’s personal sex lives. Trans women are often expected to ejaculate even though, as Tobi Hill-Meyer says, “the ability to ejaculate is about as common (or uncommon) among cis women as it is among trans women.”

Then there’s the “money shot” or the ejaculation scene. When porn performers with penises ejaculate, there is often a large amount of pearly white semen that shoots a considerable distance. In reality, occasionally the “ejaculate” you are seeing is not even ejaculate at all! It might be the face cleanser Cetaphil, or a product explicitly sold as fake ejaculate, or if it is in someone’s mouth, it might be piña colada mix (because who wants to hold soap in their mouth when they could hold a piña colada instead?).

You should know that:

The average penis is around five inches when erect, but plenty of penises are smaller than that. If you’re worrying about how your penis compares to those in porn, please remember: there is no right size for a penis to be!
Just like with size, there is nothing “better” about a penis with intact foreskin or removed foreskin. Worldwide, most people’s penises have not been circumcised.
Porn performers with penises are expected to maintain erections for much, much longer than is common in people’s personal lives.
Porn performers engage in vaginal and anal intercourse for much, much longer than is common in people’s personal lives. A recent study found that the median length of heterosexual intercourse was between 5 and 6 minutes.
When people with penises are on the receiving end of anal sex they may not have an erection at all, or may only experience erection intermittently.
Many trans women do not feel comfortable with or particularly interested in having their penises play a central role in the sex they have.
People ejaculate different amounts of semen that may be white, greyish, yellowish, or clear-ish, and usually do not travel far distances.

Vulvas and Vaginas in Porn

One area in porn where there is a somewhat more accurate representation of bodies is the variation among performers’ vulvas. As previously discussed, penises in porn are big, with very few exceptions. The media likes to scapegoat the video pornography industry for the recent rise in labiaplasties (plastic surgery on the labia), but given the diversity of vulvas in video porn, performers have pushed back on that accusation. Despite so many parts of women’s bodies being inspected, categorized, and marketed in porn, performer Dana Vespoli says, “There’s no market for specific vagina type.” Performers Joanna Angel and Bella Vendetta wonder about the role of pornography magazines — rather than video porn — like Playboy, Hustler, or Penthouse in misrepresenting vulvas, often through retouching. While no kind of porn offers representation of the full, wonderful range of vulvas that exist in the world, video pornography generally does features different types of labia.

There are other ways in which genitals and what they do are misrepresented in mainstream video porn. While Cetaphil and piña colada mix are used for ejaculate in some ejaculation scenes, water is used in others. Performer Bailey Bay describes that in one of her “squirting” (or ejaculation from a vagina) scenes, she used a turkey baster to insert water into her vagina which she then held and pushed out, mimicking ejaculation.

You will almost never see a performer queef or fart. You will also very rarely see a scene featuring a performer who (visibly) has their period, mostly due to specific economic concerns.

Porn payment processors have strict rules including banning any porn that involves menstruation.

Lubrication is another area full of misrepresentation. While there are some videos out there where it seems everyone and everything is covered in lube, those videos are not the norm. In general, performers are rarely seen applying or using lube. Instead, they are often seen inserting penises or sex toys into their vaginas using only fluids produced by their own bodies, even if there isn’t much, or using saliva. This is also true in anal sex scenes, despite the fact that the anus does not naturally produce any of its own lubricant. You can bet that performers are reaching for their lube bottles off-camera, though!

You should know that:

Labia come in all different sizes, shapes, and colors. It is perfectly normal to have inner labia that extend outside the outer labia, or to have inner labia that stay within the outer labia. It is also perfectly normal to have labia that are two different sizes and shapes.
Queefing, farting, and periods are all common, normal parts of sex!
Vaginal and anal intercourse (and other types of sex!) are usually more comfortable, pleasurable, and safer when one’s natural lubrication is supplemented by additional lube—and saliva is no replacement, since it only remains effective for short periods of time and isn’t as slippery as lube.

Body Hair in Porn

Imagine of a couple of normal looking people thinking about an idealized porn couple and not seeing themselves in it.

While there is some diversity in when it comes to vulva parts like the inner and outer labia, or the external clitoris, you will rarely see a vulva with full pubic hair. Most vulvas in porn have been groomed to be completely hairless. If there is pubic hair, it is usually trimmed and contained to the mons pubis, with hair being fully removed from the outer labia. When un-altered pubic hair does appear on a vulva in porn it is usually under a specific “hairy” category or tag. Jiz Lee describes how a few days before a mainstream shoot, the producer found out that they usually film while “naturally hairy.” Jiz says, “I was told immediately that I was required to shave everything for the scene.” (Jiz ultimately chose to decline the shoot.)

When you see anuses and testicles in porn they, too, are usually hairless. Cis-male performers in porn display more variation with this, but often their pubic hair is removed or trimmed, too. Since their bodies (specifically in straight porn, and certainly in the wider culture) are less under the microscope, there’s more accepted variation in how they look, including more allowance for them to exhibit natural pubic hair.

When it comes to other types of body hair, hairlessness continues to be the name of the game.

Women performers — cisgender and transgender alike — almost always have removed all their leg hair, armpit hair, and even arm hair in scenes, as well as any other body hair they might have—belly, butt, feet, wherever. Men in porn often leave their leg, armpit, and arm hair—as is common in Western culture. There’s some variation with chest hair, especially in gay male porn where the presence of body hair on one partner may be an intentional choice to present them in a more ‘masculine’ or ‘dominant’ role’.

Breasts, Butts, and Body Size

The breasts, butts, and general body types we see in porn are, like the genitals we typically see, not representative of the general population.

Women performers usually have large breasts or large butts combined with thin and fit bodies. While more belly rolls are on view than in say, Hollywood films or major TV shows, the bodies are still far from representative. When a woman performer is fat, she’s usually relegated to a specific “BBW” (Big Beautiful Woman) category.

In gay male porn, performers usually have particularly muscular and toned bodies. Depending on what role or type they are portraying, their body type may vary—especially muscular, more thin, slightly thicker, etc. But again even with this variation, the bodies are still far from representative of the diversity of bodies out there.

While the bodies of cis-male performers in straight porn are also not representative, given that they are less featured on screen and in marketing, there is slightly more allowance for natural variation. Plenty of these performers are still hyper-muscular or skinny, but others have larger bellies or in general more body fat than is accepted with all other performers.

You should know that:

Outside of porn, lots of people have hair on and around their vulvas, anuses, and testicles.
Porn shows very limited body types and sizes. In reality, people with all kinds of bodies are sexual and enjoy having sex.

“Ebony” & Racism in Porn

The performers in the mainstream porn industry are overwhelming white. In America, approximately 71% of performers are white, while 14% are Black, 9% are Latinx, 5% are Asian, and 1% are “Other.” 

Image of a Black man in front of a wall of text representing all the racism in mainstream porn and saying, "Really?"While this maps fairly accurately on to the overall racial demographics of the United States, it is not representative of Americans in their 20s, who we have learned are the age group primarily performing in porn. Almost half of Americans in their 20s are people of color, making the performers in porn disproportionately white. This becomes even more true when it comes to the top performers in the industry. Ana Foxxx, a Black performer in porn, says that there are around three to five Black women who compete for top roles. “There’s different categories of black. There’s the light skin, there’s the dark skin, there’s the thick girl. But out of each category, there’s one.”

When women of color are featured in porn videos, especially Black women, they are often working on sets with lower production value and worse working conditions. There is also a racial and gender wage gap, as there is in almost all other industries, but it is especially pronounced in porn. Black women performers often make one-half to three-quarters of what white actresses make.

When performers of color are featured their race or ethnicity is often tokenized and fetishized. On Internet porn hubs, performers of color are often relegated to categories like ‘Ebony’, ‘Latina’, or ‘Asian’. If a video features white performers, their racial identity will rarely be commented on because on porn websites, as in Hollywood and our society at large, whiteness is both assumed and idealized.

There is a whole “interracial” genre of straight porn that has birthed lucrative companies dedicated exclusively to films of dark-skinned Black cis-men and light-skinned white cis-women having sex. These scenes often play out common racist fantasies and tropes, where black men are portrayed as “overly sexual” and white women are portrayed as “pure”. Interracial scenes even have their own category at industry award ceremonies.

As a result of the racism — and very expressly anti-Blackness — that exists in America and our world, white women performers often wait to do their first interracial work until it is strategic in their career. When they do agree to their first interracial scene, they will often request a higher rate. The idea that white women should be paid extra to have sex with Black men is obviously extremely problematic. As Mickey Mod, a Black male performer, says, “For people of color, there is an unstated suggestion that they are of lower value.”

You should know that:

In healthy, respectful sexual interactions and relationships, everyone involved should be seen and treated as whole people, not just one part of who they are, like their race or disability, and as real people, not sexual stereotypes.

Age, Disability, and Gender Presentation

Across the board, porn performers are usually young.

In America, the average age of a woman beginning to work in the porn industry is 22 years old, compared to that of 24 years old for men. On average, women performers work for three years and men for four. While performers of all genders and sexual orientations skew on the younger side, it is women’s age that is especially policed, just as it is in Hollywood. If a woman porn performer is not being typed as a “teen” she is probably being instead typed as a mom, stepmom, or “MILF”—meaning “Mom I’d Like to Fuck”. (Similarly, in gay male porn, older performers are often cast in “daddy” roles.) But the “type” someone is portraying is often not in line with their real identity. For example, the women in the plethora of “teen” and “barely legal” porn are usually, like the “teen” characters in most of your favorite TV shows, actually in their 20s. The cis-women in porn who portray moms may not actually have children—they are just older than their counterparts and/or have obviously surgically enhanced breasts, which is now a defining feature of that genre.

Image of someone in a wheelchair looking at porn and saying, "Abled bodies again? Boring."Whether you are watching straight or queer porn starring folks who are trans or cis, these performers will without a doubt be visibly able-bodied. A performer with a wheelchair? Insulin pump? Breathing tube? What about a performer using ASL? Utilizing a prosthetic limb? Or exhibiting symptoms of Tourettes? Performer with visible disabilities are nowhere to be found. Disability awareness consultant (and Scarleteen writer!) Andrew Gurza writes about the need for disabled performers in gay male porn. The erasure of people with disabilities “sends a really loud and clear message to queer crippled men that their sexuality is not valued or valid in the LGBTQ+ community.” He adds, “Seeing a disabled male porn performer would send the message to the community as a whole that disability is sexy, and that it is okay to sexualize queer crippled men.” The same holds true for disabled performers of all genders and sexual orientations.

Performers are also usually highly gender-normative in their presentation. Most trans and cis women in porn are performing a very specific and limited type of femininity. One result of this is that “lesbian” porn is almost always girl-girl: about two or more femme women having sex. Rarely are more masculine, gender nonconforming women, or women who just do their femininity differently included or featured. And most men, both in gay and straight porn, are also performing a very specific and limited type of masculinity.

Trans men are majorly missing in mainstream porn. On one main hub for internet pornography, there were recently 371 videos in the “trans male” category, as compared to almost 35 thousand videos in the “transgender” category (which, in mainstream porn, means trans women). While queer porn studios produce films with trans men, these performers are excluded from mainstream shoots. Buck Angel, the first trans man to win an Adult Video News award (“the Oscars of porn”), explains that until there is a demand from customers for trans men porn talent, there won’t be a change. (And/or until the customers who desire to see trans men on screen have the financial capital to be seen as meaningful consumers by the porn companies.)

While there is a large market for trans women performers, their work is, like most pornography, marketed to cisgender men. In this process, their videos are often labeled with degrading and inaccurate slurs, something major sites are only now slowly beginning to move away from.

You should know that:

In reality, people of all ages, from teens through elders, engage in sexual activities, though porn often makes it look like only younger people do.
While you may not see people with visible disabilities in mainstream porn, don’t forget: People with disabilities can and do have fulfilling sex lives.
Despite often being excluded from mainstream porn, trans men and genderqueer people can and do have fulfilling sex lives.  Trans women engage in much more varied types of sex than the limited acts which are featured in mainstream videos.

Physical Strain

Performers’ bodies are often challenged in ways that are not common in sexual experiences outside of porn.

Performer Chanel Preston says, “I equate it to sports, because it is a sport. People don’t watch sports and say, ‘I’m going to go try that at home, I can do that.’ They like sports because [athletes] are like gods: They do things that other people can’t. And porn should be [seen] the same way. We do prepare for it. There’s a lot of things going on behind the scenes.” Performer Andre Shakti echoes this sentiment. She describes the “rigorous athletic nature” of having sex in porn shoots, and lists a number of workplace injuries including “genital burn from hours of condom friction.” Performer Lorelei Lee explains that one reason some performers chose to explore more “extreme” acts like double-penetration or fisting on camera is the interest “in pushing our bodies in an athletic sense.”

Prep Time

The pre-sex preparations before a mainstream porn shoot are quite involved. Along with body hair removal, women performers will do (or have a professional do) their hair, make-up, fingernails and toenails. They will also sometimes vaginally douche. Preparing for anal sex scenes is far more elaborate. Every performer is different, but some common preparations include: limiting one’s diet to only water-based foods, at a certain point stopping eating entirely, taking laxatives, using an enema, and anal stretching with fingers or toys. As performer Charlotte Sartre says, the viewers, “see the penis going in, [but] they don’t see me laying on the bed for half an hour going back and forth between squeezing water into my butt and stretching it out.”

You should know that:

When people have sex in their personal lives, as far as I am concerned, the only mandatory pre-sex preparation is mutual, enthusiastic consent. Sometimes safer sex supplies like condoms or dental dams may need to be acquired, sometimes people want to shower or groom themselves in various ways, sometimes a sex toy needs to be cleaned, but the pre-sex preparation that happens in porn is definitely not necessary and isn’t reflective of most people’s actual sex lives.
Vaginal douching is not only never needed (the vagina is a self-cleaning organ), it’s also not generally advised as a health or sexual practice. Douching can make you more likely to get vaginal infections.
The intensive pre-anal prep that porn performers is also not needed. It allows for them to all but guarantee that they will not release any fecal matter while shooting. In reality, traces of fecal matter sometimes show up during anal sex, just like other bodily fluids are a part of many types of sex. Sex is often messy! As long as you and your partner are comfortable and communicative with each other it shouldn’t be a big deal.

You’ve just got to remember that porn is a genre of fantasy  — it’s usually not meant to be nor provide sex education  — and the videos featured on mainstream X-rated sites will almost definitely not be representative of you, your body, your sexual health, and your sexual experiences.

To find out about sex positions and cheating out, orgasm, consent and communication, boundaries, birth control and safer sex in mainstream porn, click here for part two!

Illustrations © 2020 Archie Bongiovanni/Scarleteen. All rights reserved.

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