Lifestyle / Society

My Kind of Porn

Separating masturbatory practices from masturbation and sex-act fantasies from sexualized fantasies

by Adeline Manson

©K.Primakova

©K.Primakova

Around the same time I started watching porn, I developed a habit of investing meaningless hours into Instagram. My steep into Instagram manifested as an attempt to acquire more followers and familiarize myself with popular culture. While I tried to care about niche net-art aesthetics or the rise of street-wear, I consistently found myself in bed illuminated only by the white light of my iPhone, researching the details of each photo and video on super model, actress, and celebrity Cara Delevingne’s handle.

Handle, as such, refers to “a part of a thing by which it is to be held in order to use, move, or carry it” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. That there is no better word for any individual Instagram account suggests the ‘thing’ represented is superseded by the form of its representation: a gallery space without art, a novel without words, a bare manikin. A handle, not unlike any other form of mechanical reproduction, suggests a flattening of the person or the thing being represented into merely an image; however, a personal account differs from a Google Image search of a person because it also, quite subtly, obliterates the presence of the person ‘handling’ or viewing the account.

Screencap of Cara Delevingne's handle on Instagram

Screencap of Cara Delevingne’s handle on Instagram

Easing into pornography

Although I had seen glimpses of pornography throughout my childhood, I was twenty-one when I first sought it out. I needed to ease myself into watching the videos because the sounds, bodies, and movements looked neither like the sex I’d experienced, nor the sex I’d admired on billboards or in movies. I felt more shame before, while, and after watching pornography than I had ever felt before, during, or after having sex; by avoiding porn I felt, whether just below the surface of my skin or somewhere deep in my chest I am unsure, I maintained a sense of innocence, and by watching it I relinquished that sense of sexual purity. Such shame circumscribed the actresses of ‘lesbian soft-core’, the only kind of porn I initially watched, within a realm of fantasy from the moment I opened a ‘Private Browsing’ window on Safari.

While watching, I was engaging with a fantasy grounded in the simultaneous excitement and embarrassment bound to taboo, exoticism, and debasement. The stars of videos such as “All Girl Massage Sensual Lesbian Pussy Licking” were – for better or worse – porn stars. My ability to separate these women from ‘my reality’ lay in the medium through which I watched their bodies: pornography. Before all else, they were women making a financial living by way of their bodies and their ability to pander to a man’s direction and a male gaze, rather than sexual objects I would desire in ‘real life’, bodies I wished to resemble, or sexual partners I would want to actually engage with beyond my computer screen.

I always visited the same site, searched the same keywords, and watched a variation of only half a dozen videos I had gradually become comfortable with: I knew when to look away from shots I didn’t like, such as close ups, when to decrease the volume because the screams were suddenly too shrill and unrealistic, and when I wanted to orgasm. It was calculated, controlled, and contained, whereas my intercourse rarely has such potential. Because I have only slept with men, these women performed a kind of sex disparate from the kind I knew from experience. They touched one another in a way no ‘real’ sexual partner had ever touched me, but in a way that I have at times longed to be touched.

In “All Girl Massage sensual Lesbian Hotel Pussy Licking” there was no penetration; the idealization that sex could be free of male-female power dynamics aroused me. But knowing these women had likely been directed by men to cater to a male audience, my fantasy, in which I projected myself onto the video, was twofold: to virtually engage in a sex-act I hadn’t experienced – the simultaneous preservation and relinquishment of purity. And to make myself the object of a man’s gaze without really being the object of a man’s gaze. To envisage control over the men directing and looking at me: what parts of my body they focused on, how their mouths contorted as they watched, what they commanded, what they begged for. Pornography was a place where I could converse with my shame, a platform to engage with my body as is it is, rather than as I, or a man in my bed, might want it to be.

The nuances of sexual codifications and their accumulative effects

Instagram is engineered to allow the user to present a complex identity; by combining captions with photos and videos, anyone with a smartphone can choose to construct a simulacrum of a layered personality. Therefore an Instagram handle, for example the personal account of Eileen Kelly (@killerandasweetthang), which leans toward pornographic, or at the very least highly sexualized content, presents not just a sexualized body as does ‘classic’ pornography, but a young woman with an identity – part of which is sexual. In one photo she stands in front of a mirror wearing pink lace lingerie and makeup that is well applied – unlike in pornography, hers is so well applied one cannot determine ‘how much’ makeup she wears.

Although 20 years old, at times Ms. Kelly more closely resembles a sexualized pre-teen: eyes wide and timid yet enticing, body dwarfed in an oversized t-shirt, cheeks and jawline plump with youth. In one image she pouts, holding a teddy bear that masks her entire torso. She sits on a swing in a different photo, wearing a cotton sundress –the kind my mother dressed me in as a child. One can assume these are conscious decisions: a way of enticing followers, expressing herself, or trying to reclaim agency over her body. In another picture, she shows her 173,000 followers her childhood bed: pink and floral, not unlike my childhood sheets. Whereas the nearly nude selfie is explicitly sexual, the photo of her bed is implicitly sexual; a follower might imagine her, the reality-based-fantasy character they’ve constructed of Ms. Kelly, sitting in the foreground of the pillows, beckoning them. Such a reverie is made possible by the myriad of other selfies on the handle, all of which have the capacity to be explicitly sexual, and each of which personifies her in a different way: in some she evokes innocence, others sadness, flirtation, youth or mischievousness.

Screencap of a picture posted by @killerandasweetthang. Picture ©killerandasweetthang / Instagram

Screencap of a picture posted by @killerandasweetthang. Picture ©killerandasweetthang / Instagram

Ms. Kelly also posts more ambiguous photos, like a snapshot of Toronto’s autumn leaves. It’s a pretty landscape and does nothing to sexualize her. Rather, it provides a sense of the kind of person she could be. Its implications are so vague – countless people appreciate the spectacle of autumn’s coloration – what the photo implies about Ms. Kelly is determined by the viewer. But whatever their determination, photos like these embellish, even humanize, her persona. She is not just a body, but a young woman who has friends, travels, attends basketball games, likes dogs, and so forth. While a typical follower probably doesn’t know Ms. Kelly, the longer they observe the handle, the more ‘real’ she appears. Ms. Kelly exemplifies the sexualized, selfie-oriented handle.

What then can be made of handles by supermodels such as Gigi Hadid (@gigihadid), previously mentioned Cara Delevingne (@caradelevingne), or model/singer/socialite Lily-Rose Depp (@lilyrose_depp)? Aside from being professional models, it is of course critical to note that each of these three women are white, cisgender, and wealthy. I select these women, not only for mention in this article but also as I scroll through Instagram, because I intuitively relate to the fundamental attributes of their bodies (gender and race), and because such common denominators allow me to easily project myself into fantasies of their lives.

Screencap of Gigi Hadid's handle on Instagram

Screencap of Gigi Hadid’s handle on Instagram

The institutionalized sign of beauty no doubt assembles this ‘intuitive projection’: if the signifier is the word ‘beauty’, a female model’s thin and well-tended body is signified. Implied in the signification of that body is a man’s body beside her, sexualizing her; even if a woman poses alone, for example in a selfie, a male’s gaze is inescapably implicit. I might be drawn to a billboard in which a woman’s eyes allure a man because the attention of his sexual desires enrapture me too; her face and body say, ‘this is what beauty looks like’ and before I have time to unpack the difference between sex and beauty, I see another advertisement or compulsively scroll to the next Instagram photo in search of another example of what my life could be if I were ‘beautiful’.

Clearly this is problematic: a man’s body need not be accompanied by a woman’s; where do genderfluid, transgender, or other non-gender conforming bodies fit into our collective sign of beauty? At least in the U.S. the predominant signified beauty is white: where are the signified bodies of color?

Whereas I feel alienated by Ms. Kelly’s handle and somewhat ashamed by engaging with porn, a model’s Instagram handle is the product of an institutionally created image of ‘beauty’ so inextricably wound up with sex that the two are difficult to tease apart. Because women are not supposed to look at porn, not supposed to envision the way our bodies are subjugated, explicit sex is still jarring. I don’t want to be sold explicit sex from Ms. Kelly; I want to solicit it in private. Instead, I’ve become a neoliberal subject who sells the concept of beauty to herself: on their handles the models present themselves without particularly explicit sexual representation – that is, they rarely expose their skin. Among the media they post are the same photos or clips I see in music videos or aforementioned movies and billboards. I feel no indignity when gazing into the photos of any of these women: they are cultural figures of varying degrees, and millions of people, many of which are women, look at them every day. However, I engage with them in the same space I engage with pornography: within the privacy of my bed, in dark, passing time before I try to fall asleep. Compulsive examination of models’ handles allows me to monitor my own body by closely comparing myself, pore for pore, to these representations of real-life beauty. While classic pornography allows me to fantasize agency, models’ handles allow me to fantasize a place in which I am capitalism’s perfect female neoliberal subject: self-regulating, heteronormative, and sexual only when called upon.

Screencap of a picture posted by @killerandasweetthang. Picture ©killerandasweetthang / Instagram

Screencap of a picture posted by @killerandasweetthang. Picture ©killerandasweetthang / Instagram

Subjective preferences and indoctrinated preferences are not mutually exclusive.

So, why do I feel alienated by Ms. Kelly’s Instagram account? As someone who is not entirely comfortable with her sexuality and generally prefers not to expose her body, I encounter a unique sense of shame when looking at her handle. The shame I experience while watching porn feels externally imposed, as though directed from an anonymous wagging finger who scorns, ‘you shouldn’t be doing this!’ But scrolling through @killerandasweetthang elicits an internal, self-perpetuating shame: a disappointment with myself for being neither as innocent nor as overtly sexual as she characterizes herself. It brings to my attention the complex combination of youth, beauty, wealth, and sexuality that I am meant to uphold, but inevitably fail to fulfill.

Ms. Kelly’s representation seems most obtainable – our facial features are similarly ‘young’, she appears perhaps only slightly wealthier than me, and she offers an identity that is varied enough to suggest she is someone I could know. Her handle offers a middle ground between classic pornography and curated, commodified ‘beauty.’ This middle ground is more difficult to distinguish as fantasy, at once making it an ideal masturbatory realm for some, and a didactic realm of stripped agency and acute heteronormativity for others, like myself. While pornography and supermodels are clearly selling something, one overtly and the other clandestinely, Ms. Kelly disturbs this binary; she appears to be a real person; aside from herself it’s not clear what she’s selling, and it’s easy to forget that @killerandasweetthang is not Eileen Kelly, but the simulacrum she has created that obliterates the viewer into an unidentifiable consumer.

In other words, her handle is a space in which the subject represented and the subject viewing the representation are flattened into temporal objects: projections of normative societal roles.

Photo References:
@killerandasweetthang photos
Lingerie: https://www.instagram.com/p/9QF8e6xj8X/?taken-by=killerandasweetthang
Teddy bear: https://www.instagram.com/p/5yM5P2xj6g/?taken-by=killerandasweetthang
Swing and floral dress: https://www.instagram.com/p/5r8Cy7Rj9h/?taken-by=killerandasweetthang
Pink bedding: https://www.instagram.com/p/5YvKSMRj9w/?taken-by=killerandasweetthang
Leafs in Toronto: https://www.instagram.com/p/9UYYWOxj2y/?taken-by=killerandasweetthang

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One thought on “My Kind of Porn

  1. Pingback: Waiting for Eileen Kelly to out herself as a performance artist. | The Geopolitics of Beauty

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