On the Legitimacy of Sexual Performance
Let’s take a moment to consider the legitimacy of sex as a performance art form conducted for the joy of the viewer.
A photo I shot a few years back of a man & woman performing for my camera and a half dozen onlookers. They were not a couple or lovers, but were giving a sexual performance for me to shoot and use for PR photos for the sex-friendly nude. (Hence why I am nude as well)
As an introduction let us consider the language used for recorded sexual performance. If a person or people are paid to expose their sexual parts or engage in sexual activity that is filmed, it is commonly denigrated with the name pornography. The word itself means: images of illicit sex. I would like to challenge that word and the underlying suppositions.
First we have to reject the base proposition that licit or lawful or legitimate sex must be in the setting of heterosexual married couples in private. Be sure, the word pornography inherently embraces that belief. Once you reject any part of that underlying belief, the word pornography ceases to have any meaning at all. Yet, even in Puritanical 21st Century America, that limited vision of licit sex has been rejected by the overwhelming majority of people. So why do we hang on to the pejorative word pornography for all sexual images even if it is simple nudity with no sex at all?
The power of the religious conservative to dictate to the larger nation what is moral and what is not.
It is no great pronouncement that licit sex does not have to be limited to married heterosexual couples in private. Sex between unmarried people is moral. Sex between people who have the same genitals is moral. Sex that involves one person or more than two people is moral. Sex that is not in private is moral.
Thus, visual recording (graphy), of moral sexual interaction should not be called pornography since the root word pornia explicitly refers to something that is illicit. This is not an esoteric concept: WORDS MATTER. Words frame the debate and emotional response to any subject. Think of the term “Pro-life” that the anti-abortion movement has embraced. They know how words matter. They seek to project a positive and uplifting image. They want people to feel good that embracing Pro-Life means they are helping people. This image is much more palatable than to admit they are religious zealots who seek to make all women conform to their religion despite the US Constitution’s guarantees of religious freedom. A campaign for theocracy would not go over nearly as well as “Pro-Life.”
Rather than pornography, what if we use the word amorography (pictures of love); or even better erographay (pictures of sexual love); or erotic photography. I tend to use the word erotica which encompasses photos of sex, written descriptions of sex and sexual art that does not include photos, but perhaps I should consider the word amorograhphy.
Consider this GIF that I found on the web:
What do we see in this gif?
We could say this is a spur of the moment tryst with a stranger.
Or this is a married couple who hired a photographer to film them having sex in a public park.
Or we could say the woman is a professional model riding a penis of a complete stranger for a photo shoot.
Or we could make up a hundred other scenarios to match this gif.
While it is most likely a professional model paid for her performance, that does not change the meaning of her look or the beauty of the gif one bit. The gif simply shows sexual penetration as a completely normal human activity. In any case, the woman’s face and body language are saying “This really is no big deal.” All the other factors are part of a story that we can write in our head. The story could be real or fictional. I could write a narrative about a woman breaking free of her boring monogamous life as a house wife by taking a younger lover. I could just as easily write a story of a couple who are rejecting suburban moral codes by hiring a photographer to film their love making. I could even write a story of a woman who is having sex on camera solely for money. Any of the stories could be compelling and valid. While the background story can be created after the image, the image itself does not hold any moral weight one way or another.
Here is the reality, the gif is telling the real truth: a penis sliding in and out of her, or any woman’s vagina is not, in and of itself a big deal. It is a very normal every day part of life. Sure in this case the woman is attractive and even sexy, but the act is not a big deal. It is not dirty or immoral or shameful. It is human.
In almost all cases, no matter why she is riding that penis; when she is done, she will dismount and go on with life. The penis she had ridden will be just an unimportant memory just as if she had been driving her car to the grocery. Sure she might have an orgasm or two, but that does not give the event significance (good or bad).
What would give the image meaning is the back-story. If this was the very first time she had sex for money, it would have meaning. If this was the first time a couple had sex in public, it would have meaning. If this was the first time she has taken a lover outside her primary relationship, it would have meaning. The meaning comes not from the penis going into her body, but on what she attaches to the event. If the event has no special meaning to her, then the act of riding the penis will have no meaning.
I’ve seen other men’s penises go into my wife many times. I know exactly what it looks like for her to have casual sex just for fun. I also know, for her it is not a big deal. In many cases the event will be utterly forgotten inside a year. In matter of fact that is why I keep my “narrative” of our open marriage. Much of the content in the over 400 pages of text, she or I (or both) have forgotten. The only “memory” is on the text or sometimes in the photos. The sex was just the normal stuff of life.
This not always the case though. Sometimes Paula and I have sex just for fun, but other times it is deeply meaningful. That is also true with sex with people outside our marriage. We have both had sex outside our marriage that had deep meaning. I have watched several times when Paula was deeply in love with the man. In those cases the penis going in and out of her body was touching her soul even more than her body. When that has been true, her face and body tell me how the meaning of the event is very different. Her face, as a man she loves slides his penis in and out, is deeply compelling and holds a beauty that cannot be compared to the most stylish casual sex.
But that is not what is going on in the above gif. That is clearly showing casual sex. It matters not if the woman is doing it for fun or money, it is sex just for fun. What does matter though is the performance. Not just the physical abilities of the man and woman as their bodies interact, but the skills of the photographer and other technicians to take a mundane act and give it style and beauty.
That is not to criticize or belittle the actors. It is just to put it in context. Casual sex is perfectly legitimate. So is sex done primarily as performance. There are those who claim that sex done as a performance (paid or unpaid) is somehow not real or legitimate. I reject that concept. Performance sex is a way to transmit joy across a room or across time, no different than expressive dance. When a couple hires me to create artistic photos of them making love, I tell them before we start that they will be performing for me; not engaging in sex with the natural rhythm they might have. I let them know if they want the end product they see in my portfolio, they have to let me be the director. Over the course of the shoot, I ask couples to pause for me to change lights, I ask them to move from one place to another, I ask them to pause to let my assistant touch up hair or adjust outfits and above all, I tell the man he must go at the pace I set.
Does that make the sex fake? No. Does it mean the couple don’t enjoy the experience? No. It means that we are, in effect having a threesome and though I am not on the bed, I am the alpha.
Consider this image I shot a few years ago.
Same man and woman as the first photo
First this is not a “real” couple. The man and woman were employees of the sex-friendly nude resort that had hired me to do advertising images for them. The owner asked for volunteers to model for me (on the clock). So, in effect they were paid performers. They are both part-time bartenders for the resort and had never had sex with each other before. And yes, his penis did go into her vagina at times as I worked with them. And yes she had several orgasms and he had one. But, I set their poses carefully.
Oh, and the whole time there were between five and ten people in the room, an audience as it were.
For this image, while he licked her labia, I had her move her hips back, then lean back as far as she could. They had to wait for my assistant to move the light boxes to get the lighting just so. Now, to be fair, he kept eating her while we worked and she was very much enjoying it. But it was not natural. They were performing for me and my camera.
Does that distract from the beauty and power of this image?
I don’t think so.
Does it make their sexual interaction illicit or illegitimate?
Not at all.
Sexual performance is in fact every bit as normal as any other physical activity done for the enjoyment of the spectators. One can think of it as akin to combining ballet, acting and wrestling. Just because it involves the genitals, does not change the nature or the legitimacy of the performance.
When we saw Michael Jordan’s physical artistry when he played for the Chicago Bulls; did the fact he was paid to perform change the beauty or impressiveness of what he was doing? Of course not. We never discounted his court performance or the joy we got out of watching because he was paid. Neither should we discount the artistry or visual impact of models engaging in sex for money. Couples engaging in sex in front of a camera or audience (or both) are no different, no more or less moral than any other performers who use their body to express, achieve or to entertain viewers. Singers, dancers, actors, and athletes all do this. Whether or not the performers are paid does not change the quality of the performance.
Yes, I know some people say paid sex for an audience is immoral because the actors could be harmed or exploited. And it is true. Sexual performers can be exploited, both emotionally and physically. But I ask, is that unique to those who give sexual performances?
Consider American football. Young players begin using their bodies, many times by age ten, to learn the sport. By age sixteen or seventeen they are playing to an audience who pays to see them. If they are good enough they go on to college where the television rights to broadcast their games dwarfs the money in the “adult entertainment” industry; yet the performers get not one red cent of that money. For their efforts they get fame and glory; and, a whole host of injuries that will follow them for life. Not the least being brain injuries that can lead to dementia or uncontrollable violence.
Compare this to those who engage in sexual performances. It is true on a few rare occasions performers get serious sexually transmitted disease. Yes there are unscrupulous managers and/or producers who mistreat the young women they represent. Yet… is this any worse than how the even younger women were treated by the USA Gymnastics? Not at all. Or how about young boxers or well any sport. The bodies of young people are the raw material and the older people tend to be the biggest beneficiaries.
Away from sports it is no better.
Does anyone seek to ban kids from acting in films or television? Yet we all know how many of those kids are damaged for life. Even performers like those in ballet are often injured for life then tossed aside when they can no longer benefit for the ballet troop.
I am not suggesting that it is OK to abuse performers of any type, but to single out sexual performers is unjust and dishonest. The reality is those who call for the banning of sexual performance are not doing so because of the dangers to the performers. NO. They have an anti-sex agenda. Potential harm to performers is just a fig leaf covering their real motives. We must not let such dishonesty go unchallenged.
As sex positives, we should be aware of the potential abuses and seek just and healthy work environments for those who engage in sexual performance; however, that should push us to call for better working conditions, not a ban on sexual performance. However, the risk of abuse does not take away from the beauty of the performance; nor should it give justification for restricting or banning it.
I was appalled a few years back when left and right wing media “slut shamed” the actress Stormy Daniels when she sought to set the record straight about how her story. I certainly expected FoxNews to pillory her for her years as a sexual performer, but Huffington Post and other aggressively left leaning publications did the same. We cannot stand by silently as sexual performers or their work are treated as if they belong in the gutter. The fact is we are in a golden age of nude and erotic photography. Many of you read my prior essay (now in this site’s archive) on how we should support sex-positive sexual videos and I gave links to some examples of companies that make beautiful and artistic sexual performance videos. I say again, it is incumbent on those of us who strive to see sexual performance pulled for the shadows, we must support those actors and producers without money as well as our praise.
In conclusion, let me say that sexual performance is entirely licit and is a legitimate art form. While there is “pornography” that presents sex in a degrading or violent or illegal manner; that does not tar all or even most sexual performers or performances. Unless proven otherwise, sexual performance should be treated as on par with sports, music or dance. Let us strive to support sexual performers and their work.