Sexual Intelligence

Sex—and culture, politics, psychology—and sex

Watching a Porn Shoot: Professionals at Work

Porn+privacy+imagination=positive meaning; Porn+fear+anger=negative meaning.

I've spent a lot of time interpreting pornography and pornography-watching for the American public--not only clinically, but by training professionals, testifying in court, interviewing actresses and producers, and wrestling with the Religious Right.

I’ve been on movie sets and I’ve been on network TV, but in all these years I’d never watched a porn film being made.

So last week while I was in L.A., I finally accepted an invitation. After lunch I drove out to the San Fernando Valley, parked in a neighborhood of modest homes and small warehouses, and walked into the studio of Brash Films. I spent about two hours there, watching and occasionally chatting. Everyone involved made me feel welcome.

The most interesting thing I have to say about it all is—nothing.

But maybe not for the reasons you think.

* * *

Sooner or later, watching the same people having sex is repetitive and boring—unless, of course, you’re adding to it via fantasy, imagination, arousal, and voyeurism. I didn’t do much of that, because I was there working (yeah, I know—nice gig). So yes, watching the shoot did reduce the sex (along with the filming itself) to a technical craft. She used her left hand when the camera needed it, even though she’s right-handed. He stopped right in the middle of licking her when some sweat dripped into a bowl of fruit.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Some people condemn how watching porn at home supposedly does the same thing—it reduces sex to “mechanics.” But the critical difference between watching a film being made and watching it at home is what the consumer brings to the experience. And that transforms the “mechanics” into something stimulating.

Those who say that watching porn reduces sex to mechanics aren’t adding anything to the film. Nothing positive, that’s for sure.

This is the same dynamic when consuming any media—whether it’s Seinfeld, or Guernica, or Star Wars. In fact, both Bach and the Beatles are just noise unless the listener adds something to them. Ever listen to Chinese music and think “This isn’t music”? I went to China last spring, and sure enough, their tunes sounded like noise—because I didn’t know what to add to the sound to turn it into what I recognize as “music.” The Chinese architecture looked like art to me, because I was able to add something to it. But I couldn’t make the Chinese music sound like “music,” so it sounded like noise. The same is true with Coltrane or Miles Davis, if you’re not conversant with their hum.

What I brought to the porn shoot was nothing. And because of the situation, I was perfectly willing to have a bland, non-erotic experience.

What a consumer brings to a porn film is imagination, privacy, a little time, maybe lube or a toy. And that gives the images meaning—erotic meaning. When anti-porn crusaders take the same film and add fear, anger, and a sense of helplessness, they also give the images meaning—but distinctly un-sexy ones (such as “exploitation” and “immorality”). So:

Porn + nothing = neutral meaning
Porn + privacy + time + imagination = positive meaning
Porn + fear + loneliness + anger = negative meaning

* * *

In all, it was just like being on any other movie set: a bunch of people wearing t-shirts and shorts (except for Her, Him, and Him), intensely concentrating and cooperating for short bursts of time-and then stopping to adjust a light, mop a brow, snip a loose thread, or find the damn beeping that only the sound guy can hear. Then another burst, maybe stopping when a scene is completed. Or when an actress really needs to pee.

Of course, the focus was on the people having sex. Her underwear was gorgeous, and she had exactly the body it was designed for. The guys had abs and muscles on top of their abs and muscles, and pretty fair penises, too. But what I admired most about all the bodies was their backs. You gotta have a strong back to thrust and thrust and keep thrusting. You gotta have a strong back to twist around and service a guy at each end, changing positions without missing a beat.

I imagined what these people do in their spare time--a little bit of sex, and a lot of time at the gym.

* * *

I wasn't there on a political mission--in fact, I had no agenda at all except to just be open to whatever happened. But I finally couldn't help asking myself--what exactly is the problem here? Crew, actors, actress: they're all adults, they're all getting paid, they all know exactly what they're doing. No one's exploited, no one's been tricked into thinking they're making Art. They know they're not working with Pixar or Spielberg, Natalie Portman or the Coen Brothers. And they're also not working the graveyard shift at 7-Eleven.

They're making a living. Like most working stiffs, they're not brilliant, they're good enough.

I saw a few orgasms (perhaps), spoke with a couple of tech people, and thanked the director. Several people on break thanked me for coming. I gave them a copy of my book America's War On Sex, which they admired.

They have their craft, I have mine. Different in some ways, not so different in others.

Marty Klein is a certified sex therapist and licensed psychotherapist. He has written five books and 200 articles about sex; his TV appearances include 20/20 andNightline. more...

Subscribe to Sexual Intelligence

Current Issue

Dreams of Glory

Daydreaming: How the best ideas emerge from the ether.