Warning: This post contains explicit content and may not be safe for work.
I forget exactly how I first stumbled upon Delta of Venus, an online compendium of vintage smut. But soon after digging around the landing page I found myself enraptured by a black-and-white animated cartoon, from 1920s France, titled “Les Misadventures de Monsieur Gross’ Bitt,” which loosely translates to “The Misadventures of Mr. Big Cock.”
The silent short opens with a small mustachioed man just waking from a nap, only to find his unruly erection has jumped right off his body and is wiggling itself antagonistically in his direction. A chase ensues, and eventually the tomfoolery comes to an end with Mr. Big Cock finding his prized part, giving it a small kiss, and then sticking it through a hole to be welcomed home by a sensual looking cow.
It’s a weird, perverse, delightful little video that, while not quite mentally or physically arousing, somehow captures the hijinks of a man who thinks, well, with his dick.
To me, the film seemed more self-deprecating, open to the fumbling failures of heterosexual masculinity, than contemporary porn. More playful, and surely more surreal. I continued to poke around the site.
In the 1970s short “She Cums From Outer Space,” a babely humanoid alien wearing nothing but a giant triangle zaps into the home of a young earthling, who has clearly had it up to here with the Sex Education for Young People book on his lap. “Did you float out of some disco or something?” he asks, before she invites him to experience her “out of this world" body. The bow-chicka-bow-wow background music, low-fi production and kitschy-yet-futuristic aesthetic conjure a mixture of nostalgia and arousal that’s absurd and exotic.
I’ve never been a huge fan of mainstream porn, opting instead to fast forward to my favorite sexy scenes on Netflix or peruse softcore erotic Tumblrs. And after spending time with Delta of Venus, I couldn’t help but ask myself: Is good porn, like good wine, best served super old? Is vintage erotica the holy grail of sexual representation? Or was I simply fetishizing these historical gems -- enchanted by the same sepia tone of an Instagram filter or Lana Del Rey music video?
To attempt to answer these questions, I got in touch with Delta of Venus’ self-described webmaster, Robert Stewart, a freelancer in assorted fields, from tech writing to garden design, who dabbles in antique film restoration and analogue-to-digital transfers. We emailed back and forth for a few months while I immersed myself deeper and deeper into the Delta lifestyle.
In the meantime, I also headed to Pornhub, Delta of Venus’ 21st century counterpart. My first reaction was, well, quite grossed out. The first video that popped up, via an advertisement plastered across the screen, bore the title “Small, Tiny, Teens Gettin’ F**ked!” Overlooking the unnecessary comma in the headline, I clicked, and was greeted by, yes, both small and tiny young women wearing nothing but the thick-framed “hip nerd” glasses you’d likely encounter at a Librarians-and-Barbarians-themed frat party. A visual pastiche, if you will, of penetrative and oral sex ensues, clearly amping up the innocence, inexperience and gag reflexes of the women.
It wasn’t the explicitness of the video that rubbed me the wrong way, but the feebleness of the fantasy, one which clearly catered towards a man with zero interest in pleasuring his sexual partner. You’ve heard it before -- youthful bodies, hairless and tanned, engaging in aggressively dull sex accompanied by laughable audio tracks. Save for a dude-on-dude high five I could only hope was somewhat ironic, this particular video lacked self-awareness, humor, awkwardness -- so many of the subtler aspects of having sex. Even something as outlandish and bizarre as “Mr. Big Cock,” in this respect, touched on something more real.
This was my initial reaction, a reaction, from what I’ve gathered, not all too different from many young feminists dismayed by the male dominance and misogyny they find on screens. But what I first understood as moral opposition, over time, revealed itself as something far more slippery and subjective -- an aesthetic aversion, and sometimes plainly, distaste.
As Stewart put it: “Watching a vat-grown tribal-tattooed meathead pneumatically pumping away at a silicone-enhanced porn star while she hollers and carries on to a ridiculous degree, it holds zero interest for me."
I get it, and mostly agree. I also, however, don’t like gruesome horror movies, yet I don't deploy the same high and mighty sense of judgment to critique them. I wouldn’t necessarily say there’s something morally objectionable about an excess of blood, guts, and gore (though some would), I just don’t find them interesting.
The Populist Power of Poor Taste
Taste, sometimes disguised as morality, plays a key role in how we digest porn, a sentiment echoed by Constance Penley, a University of California, Santa Barbara professor of porn studies and firm believer in porn’s rightful place in the pop culture landscape. “If there are conversations about gender and masculinity going on in this much reviled form of popular culture, it’s free speech, and feminists should be very interested,” she explained in an interview with The Huffington Post.
In her essay “Crackers and Whackers,” Penley describes the shameless aesthetic of porn as “an ingenious deployment of white trash sensibilities.” While for ladies, stylistic choices like body hair, tattoos, and androgynous clothing serve as subtle digs to the patriarchy and enforced codes of feminine conduct, the porn aesthetic is a radically non-intellectual, anti-bourgeois way of being that’s a crafty rebellion in itself.
“It stations itself firmly on the bottom of the socio-cultural chain of being,” she writes. “It’s deliberately stupid humor, savaging of middle-class and professional codes of decorum, its raunchiness and sluttiness all scream white trash.” For the progressive and permissive among us, a billion bare nipples may not be as viscerally irksome as a single bro tank, but both, in their way, are manifestations of personal taste and subtle unrest. This revelation isn't meant to excuse a porno that does degrade women, but simply shift the conversation from immediate outrage to critical analysis, treating bad porn as you would a bad movie or work of art.
The Feminist Porn Studies Professor
“If I have an overall project, I want feminism to be popular,” Penley continued. This larger mission led Penley to pornography because she found that many women who otherwise lived in line with feminist beliefs refused to identify as such, she claims, because of the movement’s staunch anti-porn stance.
Penley came to porn through film studies and feminist theory. Her first major subject of interest was slash fiction -- a subset of erotic fan fiction in which two characters of the same gender get it on. “I saw a very transgressive process taking place -- rewriting mass media to meet your own desiring ends,” Penley explained.
She started writing about and spending time with slash fiction writers and fans, and soon found that not one of them considered themselves feminist. “I was a bit surprised by this because the ways they would talk about their lives or careers seemed to align with feminism. I wanted to see why they didn’t feel that feminism could speak to their issues. It didn’t take me long to figure out that through the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, and aughts, the popular perception of feminism has been staunchly anti-porn.”
Of course, not all feminists are anti-porn. Artists like Betty Tompkins and Cosey Fanni Tutti have been pushing the boundary between art and porn since the ‘70s, and today, there are sex-positive feminists advocating for access to pornography. But mainstream media and pop culture tended, prior to the 1980s, to create a mythical Platonic Feminist, one who understood porn to be objectifying, damaging and obscene.
“It’s much juicier to write about feminism as a moral decency campaign as opposed to the complexity of feminist sexual expression,” Penley said.
When she started teaching pornography on the university level in 1993, Penley hoped to project an image of a different kind of feminism. “I wanted to get a different image of a different feminist out there, one that was pro-sex and anti-censorship.”
In her essay “A Feminist Teaching Pornography?” Penley writes: “Porn is not a singular ahistorical thing but largely a social construction prompted, at the very least, by class, taste and fear.” In part, Delta of Venus is fascinating because it provides that history. You see the original naughty nuns and sexy secretaries, the nascent inspirations for future porn cliches. You see the thematic and tonal threads that persist from 1920 to 2016 -- that Mr. Big Cock’s sexual humiliation reappears in 1947’s “The Dentist” and 1994’s “John Wayne Bobbitt Uncut.”
Perhaps most importantly, through binging on vintage erotica, you learn that at its center, porn has always aligned itself with the countercultural, the avant-garde, the populist and the taboo. In this context, even the most obnoxious of horny plumbers is, in part, a middle finger to upper class decorum and good taste.
After speaking to Penley, I thought again about my reaction to the “tiny teens” discussed above. Yes, many women in porn are criticized for their fake tans, plucked parts and overdone plastic surgery. In response to the latter, Penley gently adds that porn has deep roots in vaudeville and circus culture. From burlesque acts like the Ziegfeld Girls to Irving Klaw’s fishnet clad BDSM, there was always a layer performative drama draped over the sex acts themselves. If fake boobs are the new fishnets, so be it.
The unrealistic standards of beauty some porn actresses go through great lengths to meet are not all that different from the standards placed upon women in film, music or television -- and real life. In Penley’s opinion: “It’s a taste difference.” Unlike a Hollywood star pressured to look perfect and ageless without showing a hint of artificiality or exertion along the way, the porn aesthetic is an unapologetic exaggeration of the world we live in. And, even though I’m partial to a lady with natural curves and a full bush, it’s important to be mindful of criticizing a woman’s aesthetic decisions lest we veer right into bad-feminist territory.
Pornography with a capital “P”
At this point, my examination of contemporary porn had focused on the sort of stereotypical, heterosexual, low budget stuff that most women would not watch to get hot. But this, Penley emphasizes over and over again, is only one part of a present porn landscape so vast, multidimensional and porous it would be impossible to accurately generalize.
“I never talk about Pornography, capital P. It’s always lower case pornographies. What I’ve come to understand as even mainstream pornography is so complex and contradictory and rich and varied.” Since radical transgression and avant-garde ideals were always at the foundation of pornography, kinky and queer and diverse sexual encounters have always been woven into porn’s dense fabric. Even the hardcore stuff, of which there is a lot, is not the only explicit material that could qualify as porn.
There’s softcore porn, erotic fan fiction, strip club performances, peep shows, dungeons, romance stories, tumblr postings, lingerie advertisements. “The queer and feminist movements’ most powerful rhetoric has always been that of freedom of choice and self-definition,” Lorelei Lee writes in "A Feminist Porn Star Manifesta." “The amorphous monolith we call ‘pornography’ is just a microcosm reflective of, and influenced by, the attitudes toward sexuality held by society as a whole.”
As the content on Delta of Venus makes abundantly clear, porn was just as multifaceted in the 16th century as it is in 2016. The site alone contains literature, drawings, photos, stag reels, and plenty of films. Marcantonio Raimondi’s 16th century “I Modi (The Way),” known to be the first Western European work combining erotic images and text, is essentially the first nudie mag. And then there are the bizarre 18th century moments when having sex with the devil was all the rage, as illustrated through detailed black-and-white depictions of demons with engorged penises.
The Happy Ending
My original assertion -- that porn then is, on the whole, better than porn now, as if either could be gathered up into a coherent bunch -- is perhaps as misguided as insisting “contemporary art sucks.” And just as it’s difficult to discuss art without taking into account the market that backs it, it’s difficult to consider the sex industry of the past without thinking about the labor that backed it.
Delta’s stash of explicit imagery was originally produced and distributed on black markets and thus widely unchecked. “With a lot of the early explicit stuff the majority of these women worked in brothels,” Stewart explained. “The prostitute’s life was not an easy one.” Contemporary regimens like STD testing and guidelines for protection were unheard of when most of these early erotic films were created; since pornography was illegal, it was essentially unregulated.
Today, progress has been made for and by women laborers in the industry, in terms of compensation, safety, representation and stigma. But often the victimized stereotypes imposed on women in porn are the opposite of beneficial. But now we realize that feminist academics and feminist porn producers have a common project of expanding sexual/political consciousness.
Speaking with Penley illuminated the strange space porn occupies today -- separate from the categories of film, pop culture, art and performance, domains of free speech for which we fight intensely. A space wildly popular and lucrative but not quite mainstream, graphic and explicit but not always associated with the avant-garde. A space often discussed as catering to the fantasies of heterosexual men but able to visualize the infinite permutations of fantasies and desires for every individual who chooses not to condemn it.
In the words of Lorelei Lee: “When I say that pornography is good for women, I mean that sexually explicit imagery in which women are shown giving performative demonstrations of their own sexual power is imagery that can transform the cultural paradigm and ultimately change the world.”
In another magnificent animated porno from Delta of Venus, a 1970s German short called “Sexcorzist,” a priest is sent to help a “possessed nympho fraulein,” risking temptation along the way. The nympho fraulein, a cartoon blonde with devil horns and a tail, reclines sexually on a bed, her ankles tied to the ceiling, while tiny red devils climb out of her vagina like it’s some sort of clown car. The priest, clearly stressed out, tries to purge the horny demon within, but ends up acquiring a devilish boner of his own.
The video centers around the dangerous, even diabolical, nature of female sexuality, amped up to cartoonish degrees. Even if she is possessed by a sex-hungry demon, the fraulein serves as a stand-in for the pro-sex woman, being frantically tracked by Victorian and religious traditionalists and their unlikely allies, anti-porn feminists.
The things that originally excited me about Delta of Venus -- the sundry range, the visualization of female pleasure, the irreverent humor, the kitschy visuals -- these are not particular to porn of the past. The glorious strangeness, irreverence, gendered critique and transgression that appear on Stewart’s site are just as prevalent today, if you take the time to dig them up, or look past the fake tans and tribal tattoos.
Beyond approaching a porno you don’t like as morally reprehensible, consider imagining it as a single option on a never-ending buffet line, and try moving on to the next dish. There is no Erotica of the past. There is no Porn today. There are pornographies, past and present, too many to ever count, timeless titties and dicks and vaginas and butts glittering like stars in the sky.
If all this talk of porn is turning you on, here are some feminist friendly sites to get you started off right: