Buried under a pile of leaves in the woods near my house, we found it—the Holy Grail of the peri-pubescent crusade: a wrinkled copy of an old Playboy magazine. I was probably in sixth grade at the time, and in those pre-internet days (closer, it seems, to the Jurassic period than today), this was as good as it got. A happenstance discovery, my grade school friend and I wondered who had abandoned it. The glossy pages were more curious to us than exciting, though we knew their purpose in life was really to conjure up blood flow in the viewer, a modern twist on Medusa’s disabling gaze that turned men to stone. Scratching the freshly-sprouted hairs on my chest (they were two in number and just as precious to me as the pair Homer Simpson carried on his head), I quipped that I was just reading it for the articles. Really, it was like dangling a set of keys in front of an infant: I was certainly wide-eyed and distracted, but I didn’t know what to do with it just yet.
There was rumor that the local college library carried Hugh Hefner’s esteemed periodical somewhere in the basement stacks. The purpose of that subscription, if it even existed, I don’t know. Some 20 years later, I have to wonder if a select few academics argued they used it for research. Though talking about sexual roles in ancient Greece or nude paintings of the Baroque period is considered higher education, considering the economic underpinnings driving a woman to appear in Playboy’s “Girls of the Pac-10” is smut and taboo. But it does make for great cocktail party conversation.
Recently, in a bar in fact, I met a Duke Ph.D. student who is studying representation of the black male in Brazilian pornography. And I know of at least one faculty member who has tried to demystify the naughty bits that have helped us (and other animals) perpetuate our species for the last quarter-million years. These are not the type of guys you’d expect to be sitting next to Pee-Wee Herman in an adult movie theater. Their curiosity about power dynamics, camera angles and financial compensation looks beyond the copulation and “legitimizes” the sex industry (print and video pornography, strip clubs and prostitutes) in a way. In other words, talk about nudity and sex (we all have to pay for it in some respect) doesn’t have to be relegated to dirty whispers. They’re a part of life, just like eating and sleeping. And regardless of what others may say, they’re curious, too.
While exploring my options for a post-residency fellowship, I was surprised to learn about a hidden population of sex workers. Sipping Vietnamese iced coffee in Los Angeles, a would-be colleague remarked to me that though most of the day laborers waiting outside home improvement stores are trying to rent out their bodies for construction work, a small subset of them are willing to also function as “rough trade,” selling their bodies for a different, carnal purpose. Public health campaigns that reach out to the LGBT population will never reach these men, as that is not how they self-identify—many with “completely heterosexual” lives back at home. Across the country in Philadelphia, a sociologist embedded amongst a department of family medicine physicians later piqued my interest by suggesting this actually could be an area of research, much in the same way other authors I had read explored the microeconomics of street gangs in Chicago or crack sales in Harlem. If violence and drugs could be studied formally, why not sex? And so I began to wonder why those involved in the sex trade do what they do.
A cliché we’ve all seen over and over is the young (blonde) woman, potentially with a precocious mixed-race child in tow, who is forced to work as a stripper (or even a prostitute) to make ends meet. In these fictionalizations, we learn that the money is good but the clientele is lecherous, and there is always a bubbling undercurrent of illegal drug use and violence. With Coca-Cola and the internet permeating every continent on the planet, has this situation changed any over the last 20 years? If money drives a person to work on the corner or in a strip club, is it also the impetus to participate in pornography? What are pornographers’ motivations?
Camera phones and digital cameras have allowed “sexting” and private captures that no longer need to be filtered through a Kodak film-developing hut. Amateur webcam pornography brings the so-called seller and buyer much closer together and affords some sense of anonymity, which can be both a blessing and a curse. In fact, the person in the dorm room next to yours could be broadcasting when his roommate is out, and no one would be the wiser. Recognizing the rise of this medium, mainstream television shows have even started using it as a plot element, rather than defaulting back to strip clubs. Does the increased personal privacy of viewing a performance through a computer screen (compared to being amongst a crowd in a strip club) make it more palatable? Has amateur webcam pornography replaced the strip clubs of yore?
Peering into a world most of us don't know, I explore why people participate in amateur webcam pornography in my next column.
Benjamin Silverberg is a second-year graduate student and practicing physician. His column runs every other Monday. Send Ben a message on Twitter @hobogeneous.