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The Impact of Technological Innovation on Pornography: a Research of a Nascent Industry of Audio-only Porn

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Introduction

Consider that famous US Supreme Court definition of porn: “I know it when I see it”. But what about when you hear it? Audio-only porn is a nascent industry offshoot which may not nab as many headlines as VR technology in the bedroom, but that could be down to its innate unshowiness. While the porn industry grapples with headsets and higher quality cameras, lo-fi and cheap-in-comparison podcast porn has caught the attention of female entrepreneurs in the Silicon Valley ecosystem. In recent months, two recently launched websites, Dipsea and Quinn, have garnered media coverage explicitly stating them to be groundbreaking and feminist tools aimed at empowering women’s sexual wellbeing, while simultaneously emphasising their distance from traditional visual-focused porn.

In the past few years, audio-only porn has been thriving in Reddit communities like r/GoneWildAudio, as Tumblr screamer tracks, in the audio channels of literotica.com, and even goes as far back to the radio plays “composed of moans” in the 1970s and the still kicking adult chat lines which were born in the 1960s. Audio-only porn isn’t new, but this rebranding of it as slick, sexually empowering and female-friendly for the podcast generation is an example of pornography catching up with the headphones-on zeitgeist. The consumption of porn in a “covert manner” is entirely possible with audio-only porn. Dipsea is an app with monthly and annual subscriptions and has an editorial team producing “snackable audio” stories featuring women talking the listener through sexual situations (Clark, 2019). Quinn is a free library of sexually explicit audio clips and short stories which any user can submit material – think a Soundcloud of sex.

For the purposes of this essay, audio porn will not include described video, where “conventional visual pornographic texts are elaborately described in real concurrent time by a human voice”, such as in the Porn for the Blind project and Pornhub’s optimization for visually impaired users. Instead, this piece will focus solely on recordings which feel “with absolute certainty like that voice is speaking just to you, breathing right on your skin”.

Can Porn be Audio-only

Audio-only porn challenges what Mowlabocus and Medhurst (2017) call “the enduring centrality of this primacy of the eye”. There is an awareness of “aural dimension” in some works but most pornography scholarship “perpetually privileges sight over sound”.

Voice-only porn predates VHS technologies but “in spite of its longevity it remains a relatively understudied medium of pornography”. Do smutty recordings guillotined from the visual qualify as pornography or do they fall along the lines of “mediated forms of sex”? Using a pornification of culture argument these dirty podcasts could be grouped with the “explosion of sex-infused” romantic and erotic audiobooks.

But by following Penley (1982) these recordings can become part of the evidence that pornography is culture. Filthy limericks exist on the same popular culture spectrum as Anna Calvi’s music video for her 2018 single Hunter, which opens with a precursor soundtrack of sexualised breathing while the visual accompaniment is actors stimulating masturbation. Smith (2004) points to party records of the 1930s to 1950s as an examples of porn-culture crossover in the audio-space. These ‘blue discs’ were “recorded ertic performances on phonographic records”, risqué songs and comedy recordings, available to buy under the counter – bootleg style (Smith, 2014).

The production history of these blue discs echo the present incarnation of audio-porn. Blue discs emerged as the American burlesque tradition flagged and radio boomed over other media during the Depression (Smith, 2004). Radio professionals were often involved in making them. Blue discs happened because phonograph technology happened. One report on audio-porn relates their rise to air-pods and the prevalence of smartphones,. Podcasts are the millenial’s medium. Audio-porn though has a better hand – the technology is more easily available and much cheaper than cumbersome phonography recording. Anyone can use their phone to make a recording and submit it to Quinn. An email draft can be a brewing story for a Dipsea actor to inflect their way through.

Quinn straight up calls itself pornography. Dipsea skirts the term, self-describing as a studio which produces “sexy audio stories that set the mood and spark your imagination”. Both outlets produce content which fall under Ashton et al.’s working definition of pornography for the digital age. The Ashton definition takes pornography beyond the summary of “media basically construed as intended to entertain or arouse erotic desire” and encompasses issues such as expansion in access and publishing opportunities, content type, interaction and immersion possibilities as exemplified by VR, so-called pornification of culture and “challenges to the meaning of consent presented by self-produced content” (Ashton, 2018). It’s a crowded stew, but audio-only porn fulfills the 3 components:

  1. Content
  2. Producer’s intention
  3. Contextual judgment.

The second-part of the definition is most relevant to the discussion of audio-porn as, according to Ashton, it is the intention of the producer which distinguishes porn from other sexual material. Also the actions of the producer weigh heavily in audio-only porn as “changes in modes of production, delivery, and access to sexual material blur the lines of consent”. The material must have the “the primary intention of sexually arousing the consumer and is produced and distributed with the consent of all persons involved” (Ashton, 2019). By threading consent into the pornography poduced Ashton et al. “hope that discussion of consent will contribute to support for ethical pornography production”.

Using Voice-recording Technology to Emphasise Consent

With Dipsea and Quinn, the aural is the focus. Listeners have said of audio-only porn: “I get to feel like the star of the show.” And “I honestly couldn’t believe what I was hearing. A woman who wasn’t moaning dramatically at the first touch. She actually sounded like a normal human being, and it was super refreshing.” When people are in that sexual space, there is an opportunity to make it safe.

Consent in audio-only porn involves two issues. First is the publishing process. Worryingly, anyone can upload a recording to Reddit communities. Meanwhile Dipsea’s stories are the result of an editorial process, and fictional. The danger of ‘revenge porn’ is somewhat obfuscated. Quinn also has submissions protocol. Neither process is cast-iron, but both publishers have assumed the shape of a watchwoman. Then there is consent in the content. Dipsea’s storytelling policy insists consent be explicit, the written material must adhere to safe sex standards and condoms must be used. Kristina Long, Dipsea’s storytelling lead editor, told The Daily Beast “the team has gotten creative at how to sound design safer sex” and don’t always rely on dialogue with the soundscape often including the unwrapping of a condom to reinforce the responsible narrative.

Where the aural realms of Quinn and Dipsea promise consensual satisfaction, the immersiveness of blue discs isn’t centred around female arousal. They mobilise “the participation of the listener by forcing him or her to imagine the obscene situation” and in most cases the woman in the recording isn’t ‘in on the act’ (Smith, 2004). Her role is “actively policed” in a ‘woman is out’ frame – the innuendo is at her expense. Smith mentions one particularly vivid recording which doesn’t hold up well in modern light – in Silent George the listener hears the responses of Mary to her beau who has crept into her bedroom and forces himself on her. She repeatedly asks him to not touch her but by the end is receptive and sated. It is “a kind of striptease, a verbal spectacle” and the listener has a “voyeuristic identification with George”. It’s a script you won’t find in Dipsea but a scenario you can easily find elsewhere online, in a vintage grain or knife blade sharp definition.

The sonics of pornography can reinforce the authenticity of the narrative. BDSM is enhanced by vocal commands and submissive whimpers. Accents dialogue can fulfill a fantasy. Outside noise – traffic, weather, overheard conversations – can immerse a listener in the scenario. However, the voice of porn can also reinforce “gendered identities” – gay pornography in particular showcases a “queer disavowal” – and bad acting and dialogue lend proceedings a “hyperbolic and often comedic dimension”. For the most part the visual aspect of a porn performance is prioritised over the vocal track. Porn dialogue is “an afterthought.” Post-production dubbing is common. With audio-only porn, the dialogue, narrative or background noises can all come together to ‘normalise’ an atmosphere of consent from the get-go. Think of it as ethically-sourced moaning.

Issues with the Feminist Framing of Audio-only Porn

The media frames Dipsea and Quinn as feminist The Daily Beast used the descriptor “fantasy made for ‘the future is female’ t-shirt set” and “a medium some insist is the most empowering way to get off”. Refinery 29 positions Quinn’s “non-visual” porn offerings as an antidote to the “notoriously misogynistic world of aggressive thrusting, hairless bodies, and over-exaggerated moans” associated with ‘free porn’ which supposedly caters to the male gaze (Gil, 2019). However, this sort of narrative-building can “often involve the deployment of specialist languages and concepts that carry with them their own implications, histories and problematics”. There is a clear desire to distance these websites from the tawdry.

Audio-only porn could be intrinsically feminist, especially if one takes Song’s (2011) stance that “visuality is inextricably linked to the male gender whereas aurality is tied to the female gender” and that “the sound of sex that emanates mainly from a female voice remains subordinated to visuality, functioning as a complement to the visual rather than claiming its own autonomy in a cinematic sexual economy in which the visual image par excellence is the (male) ‘money shot’”.

Pornography’s educational potential for women should also be considered. In the absence of sexual information pornography can act as an important educational resource and challenge “outmoded” views on female sexuality and purity discourses which prevent women and young girls from receiving comprehensive and effective sex education and it can be used to actively promote safer sex practices (Albury, 2014). Technology enables access to educational pornography and in the case of smartphones it does so in a private, judgement-free environment. Quinn guided masturbation recordings have great potential in this regard.

Body-confidence is another issue audio-only porn uses technology to temper. Quinn’s founder credits her experience of sexual dysfunction caused by anorexia as prompting her to run with the idea of porn “entirely devoid of imagery”. April Woods is a performer who has pivoted from former telemarketing to becoming “a one-woman erotica machine” and sees her work as “a way to be sexy without getting objectified” (Demopoulos, 2019). Irish audio-porn star Gaelforce also sees the lack of visual as empowering, telling The Daily Beast “you’re not looking at the body of the actors and comparing yourself”.

While Quinn and Dipsea’s intentions around messaging, consent, body positivity and safe sex are admirable examples of early-stage governance, both outlets subscribe to narrow, assumptive and possibly patronising interpretations of female sexuality and desire. A Refinery 29 article about Quinn immediately classifies mainstream porn as catering to the male gaze and quotes a woman who sees visual porn as not “very respectful of women and their bodies”. A writer in Allure mentions how viewing traditional porn prompts concern in her for the actress involved. Dipsea performers can record the story from home while being directed by a team in San Francisco. This process removes the clichés of the seedy and disempowering traditional porn industry from the production chain.

This supposedly feminist media frame mostly ignores the work of self-declared empowered feminist outliers such as Erika Lust and Stoya and internet search trends. “Women are twice as likely as men to watch gangbangs and double penetration, but also twice as likely to watch romantic videos,” wrote Vice.com in an analysis of Pornhub’s 2018 statistics.

Female sexual desire is complicated. In one study assessing heterosexual women’s genital responses to audio-narratives “women showed a nonspecific pattern of genital arousal”, meaning they respond to preferred and non-prefered scenarios. In that study, men’s genital responses remained in the preferred neighbourhood. To classify all female sexual desire as one devoted to healthy and consensual depictions of sex is to deny women their individual sexual agency. Relying on the “cooing sounds of female sexual pleasure” as the norm could be the start of a “tyranny of esctasy”.

Conclusion

Online-accessible aural porn adapts to technology, as opposed to revolutionising a popular medium. Telephone sex lines have been thriving for decades, but the foundations of telecommunications technology were not built on the thirst to hear a woman gasp authentic-sounding pleasure into a receiver. Podcast ponb is, in many ways, an iteration of the sex line. One crude comparison is the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). These courses are available to humans with internet access worldwide. They have rendered courses from institutions such as Harvard accessible and are a shining example of the internet’s most positive attributes. However, the groundwork for such innovation lies in the romantically titled School of the Air, an Australian radio-based initiative established in 1951 in Alice Springs to educate children living across the remote Outback. The School of the Air was initially a one-way broadcast, but it adapted to include question and answer sessions and broadcast real-life classrooms scenarios.

Yet, this spate of recent reinvention has led to pornography growing up in some ways. The language of feminism has been co-opted by sex tech entrepreneurs, the shame attached to female desire is being challenged through confident branding and marketing, and consent and safe sex are central to the production processes of Dipsea and Quinn. The journal Porn Studies introductory issue in 2014 opened with a reflection on porn in the 21st century: “The increasing accessibility provided by various media technologies has opened up the market for pornography”. In the audio-only space, the market is responding to an available and thriving medium.

Bibliography

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The Impact Of Technological Innovation On Pornography: A Research Of A Nascent Industry Of Audio-Only Porn. (2021, March 18). GradesFixer. Retrieved July 24, 2021, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-impact-of-technological-innovation-on-pornography-a-research-of-a-nascent-industry-of-audio-only-porn/
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The Impact Of Technological Innovation On Pornography: A Research Of A Nascent Industry Of Audio-Only Porn. [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-impact-of-technological-innovation-on-pornography-a-research-of-a-nascent-industry-of-audio-only-porn/> [Accessed 24 Jul. 2021].
The Impact Of Technological Innovation On Pornography: A Research Of A Nascent Industry Of Audio-Only Porn [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2021 Mar 18 [cited 2021 Jul 24]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-impact-of-technological-innovation-on-pornography-a-research-of-a-nascent-industry-of-audio-only-porn/
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