When It Comes to Porn, the Medium is the Message
When I first started recording audios, a friend of mine asked, “They’re supposed to be sexy, right? Audio…” She trailed off. “Are we using the p word?”
I blinked. “What p word? Porn?”
“Or erotica?” she said quickly, obviously afraid she had offended me. “Audio erotica?”
I had only been recording for a few months at this point, but I had already become fully desensitized to the shock factor associated with porn. My audios depict graphic sexual scenarios; I provide one half of the dialogue while the listener fills in the other half with their imagination. They are essentially one-sided radio plays, and I’ve never thought of them as anything but porn.
With each recording, I try to construct a compelling story and perform it well, but the primary objective is to arouse the listener; that’s what the listener is looking for. If they walk away feeling entertained, amused, enlightened—but not aroused—then the scene has failed. Of course, not every audio works as pornography for every listener, but that doesn’t change my objective.
My friend was afraid to call my recordings “porn” in part because the word is so stigmatized in our current culture that the label must have seemed inherently insulting. And because I work exclusively in audio, she wasn’t even sure if the label was accurate.
The word pornography has a fraught history. Stemming from the Ancient Greek, pornographos, meaning “writing about prostitutes,” its exact meaning has always been ambiguous and malleable. From the 18th century on, pornography has been used to refer to catalogues of ancient artifacts, historical records, medical texts about bordello hygiene practices, and early risqué novels. As technology has evolved to provide all kinds of mediums, porn has increasingly come to refer to visual media. Yet, even within the category of visual media, sexuality can be expressed through illustration, animation, still photography, comics, sculpture, and even cave drawings. However, despite this vast range of sexual expression, the label pornography is now often assumed to refer to only one thing: live action film—specifically, films where we get to watch real people fuck on screen.
The assumption that porn is distinctly visual in nature so dominates our cultural mindset that, when sexually explicit materials take something other than a visual form, you’re far more likely to hear people refer to them as smut or erotica, as my friend was eager to do. Smut and erotica, after all, tend to be considered safer. One of these so-called safer mediums is that of the written word, best exemplified by sites like Literotica, the countless erotic e-books for sale on Amazon, and the romance novel genre that preceded them both. People might be used to the popularity of sexually explicit literature, but they might still be reluctant to consider it porn, so when I suggest that porn can exist in purely audio form, they’re taken by surprise; it’s an idea that the culture is only beginning to get acquainted with.
Yet, if the proliferation of apps, subreddits, and other online communities are any indication, audio porn is gaining traction. Perhaps, this shouldn’t be surprising. COVID-19 has brought constraints to day-to-day life unprecedented in our time. As a phone sex operator, as well as an audio producer, I know first-hand that clients, many of whom are married and quarantined with family, no longer have the freedom and privacy required to watch visual pornography. Audio allows consumers to enjoy non-visual sexual material privately via headphones, which leads me to wonder: How important is medium to our understanding of pornography, and what, apart from unique privacy, is the appeal of audio?
Marshall McLuhan famously asserted that, “the medium is the message.” What he meant by this is that the form in which a piece of content is delivered dictates how that content is consumed and understood. For example, today, it’s widely accepted that the speed and ubiquity of the Internet has shaped how we interpret news. Similarly, the medium through which erotic content is delivered impacts the way we interpret and experience it.
You read a description of a woman tied to a bed, for example, with full access to her inner thoughts, her consent and her desire, as a man approaches to fuck her. You know she wants what is about to happen, and can enjoy her anticipation, imagining yourself in her place or her partner’s. You see the same scenario presented visually with context conveyed through spoken dialogue, and the meaning changes. Maybe you don’t know her thoughts exactly, but you know what she wants her partner to hear, and what her relationship is to her partner. You hear the woman describe the scenario, her thoughts and feelings, without the visceral impact of visuals, just audio and imagination, and it takes on yet another meaning. Now you can fully immerse yourself in the scenario, bending it to your will, making her look however you want; you can actually be her partner. See the scene excised, as a photograph or a thumbnail, with no other context, and it changes shape yet again. You now have no idea what’s going on or how she feels; does this turn you into a predator, or merely, the consumer of a product, venting a fantasy in yet another form?
It’s always been a challenge for me to find the right visual porn to reflect my fantasies. There are plenty of niche sites that cater to specific kinks, but these often leave something to be desired. They feel too voyeuristic. I’m watching the scene; I’m not a part of it. It’s not my fantasy, but an interpretation of someone else’s. Even in so-called POV porn, it can be difficult to find a truly immersive experience. The camera is supposed to be you, and yet you’re in a room that’s not yours, in a bed that’s not yours. The screen is still there, reminding you always of the barrier between you and what you’re watching. These details drive me to distraction.
When I first experienced audio porn, it felt like a homecoming. This was truly immersive. Personal. I could lose myself in a compelling voice, and experience any story, no matter how outlandish, as if it were happening to me. After all, the medium of audio is limited only by the human imagination, and fantasies aren’t beholden to logic or the laws of physics. As soon as I discovered audio porn, I knew, with absolute certainty, that I wanted to perform in one of my own. I wanted to be on both sides of the experience: listener and voice.
In 1964, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, said, “I know it when I see it,” in reference to hard-core pornography. If you know it when you see it, what if there’s nothing to see? No visual stimuli, no words on the page? Just a voice in your ear?
I’m often asked (though rarely by clients themselves) why I think phone sex and audio porn still exist, even with the widespread availability of visual porn online. To some, it might seem a dead medium, and yet it continues to thrive, because it fulfills a need visual porn can’t always satisfy: the need to connect one-on-one with another person in a way that can only be achieved through spoken language, imagination, and the sound of a voice. The human voice takes on a different aspect when detached from a body. It becomes more ephemeral, more intimate. With all other senses removed, hearing has to do the work of all five, and this can sharpen the other person to a point that is at once unreal and all-consuming.
I’ve always been fascinated by voices. Many of my most emotionally resonant conversations—on the clock and off—have taken place through audio alone. There is nothing to contend with except a human voice, and the human voice can be a revealing, powerful thing. Hearing a person’s voice for the first time is not unlike seeing them naked for the first time. You’re getting to know them through a different medium.
When a book you love gets adapted into a movie, you might feel intense excitement at the prospect of seeing something that once existed only in your head become “real.” The visual often gets credit for being more real and immediate than other forms of media. How often or unsurprising is it when the experience of watching it proves disappointing or anticlimactic? How often does this reality fail to measure up to your own fantasy? It might be real in a way it never was before, but it’s no longer entirely yours. Part of what made you love it so much gets lost in translation.
Audio porn allows access to a different landscape, one that is not only immersive, but entirely personal, in a way so unique, it can be difficult to capture in any other medium. Listening to audio porn, or having phone sex, allows the listener to project their own distinctive, individual desires. The mind is free to go in any direction it wants. Fantasies that would not be possible on film become easy to grasp, made more alive and real by the sound of a voice. If a person goes through life thinking that “porn” applies only what you see on the first page of Pornhub: mainstream commercial offerings, catering primarily to the presumed desires of a straight white cis man (and not a particularly imaginative one), they might not realize what else is out there. It would be easy to think “porn,” as a concept, is not for them. The more we see ourselves and our fantasies reflected back to us, beyond the constraints of the visual, the more potential there is for inclusivity. If we can think of porn as something that speaks to our personal desires while allowing us to feel safe and seen, we can broaden our shared cultural erotic imagination. Regardless of medium.
You can watch a performer orgasm onscreen, and it will undoubtedly have a certain effect: the semblance or actuality of realism. The look. The sound.
Or you can read about having an orgasm on the page. The steady, slowly rising build of pleasure, eager and ready, your trembling body, moving in time with someone else’s as the burst of pleasure slowly bursts open and breaks all over you.
Or you could just listen:
We’re all fumbling for gratification, real or imagined, through any means possible. Medium provides a subjective guide. Audio invites satisfaction and connection in a uniquely imaginative and personal way; one that continues to surprise our culture and shape what it thinks of as porn.
April Would is a writer, audio producer, and phone sex operator. She is the screenwriter of the TALES series on ZeroSpaces.com, and frequently collaborates with SorenZer0, who designed her avatar. Find her on Twitter @April_AlltheWay.