Art

How Porn Holds Up a Mirror to Society Through the Ages

Stag, on view at the Museum of Sex, presents the history of pornographic film going all the way back to the silent era.

From The Modern Gigolo (c. 1934) (courtesy Museum of Sex)

In 1972, Behind the Green Door and Deep Throat debuted as the first wide-release pornographic films made in the United States. Both films ushered a titillating subject from the cultural fringes to the center, a new stage for an artistic tradition that humans have obsessed over for thousands of years. On view at the Museum of Sex, Stag: The Illicit History of Pornography maps the evolution of pornographic films and the mirror they hold up to the social contexts in which they are produced.

From Esprit de Famille (c. 1948) (courtesy Museum of Sex)

One thing the Museum of Sex and affiliated curators do well is create immersive exhibition environments, and Stag is no exception. Staged on the first floor, the exhibition includes video screens housed within four temporary walls in the slightly too small gallery. Low couches are set between the viewing stations, and from there visitors may sit or stand to watch the short, grainy black-and-white films. At the far end of the gallery, there are rows of movie theater seats before The Stag Experience, a short film narrated by media and communications professor Joseph Slade. A timeline charts porn’s history in cinema, from early daguerreotypes through its “golden age” of 1969-1980. At the end of the timeline sits an antique desk on which an internet-enabled computer is open to Pornhub, the exhibition’s corporate sponsor.

From No Swimming (1906) (courtesy Museum of Sex)

Stag doesn’t incorporate fine art responses to porn. That desire is beautifully met by an installation of James Bidgood photographs on the Museum’s second floor. Instead the exhibition follows an anthropological path. Well-written companion texts highlight the origin of the term “stag,” the amateur and often anonymous directors whose films shadowed the early 20th-century commercial film industry, the evolution and disappearance of narrative elements in porn in the 1950s, and the scenarios that form the rough foundation on which later adult films were built. It’s not about aesthetics per se, but rather the gritty DIY aspect of these flicks. They bear more than a passing resemblance to contemporary indie porn (RIP Tumblr), and act as forerunners to later studio productions.

A notable takeaway, one that hits a tender social nerve, concerns questions of who has access to pornography, and how. Before corporations sterilized Times Square, it was the place to go for adult entertainment. If you lived outside urban centers, male-only viewing parties were held in homes or certain locations, including VFW halls. As told in commentary and interviews in The Stag Experience, smut films served as tutorials for men on how to sexually interact with their wives. Interviewees offer frank descriptions of how it felt physically and psychologically to participate in such viewing parties, their nervous twittering echoed by many seated in my audience. Porn served as an educational tool then — as it does now, as we reckon with how easy it is for children to access and learn about sex through adult content online

From Mr. Abbot Bitt Visits the Convent (c. 1925) (courtesy Museum of Sex)

Anyone who is interested in porn’s history — or how, unexpectedly, it serves as a social metric — should check out Stag. Much of what is addressed will be frustratingly familiar. Women are presented as dangerous beasts who must be controlled, lesbian sex is harmless and ripe for male voyeurism while sex between two men somehow shreds our collective moral fiber, gender is a binary state, brown and Black people are marginalized and objectified, and sexual harassment is par for the course (the Museum of Sex could stand to learn a thing or two about this). Stag demonstrates how no matter how far we’ve evolved socially, and as much as media and technology can inform an inclusive worldview, our pornographic entertainment can be just as hamstrung by racism, homophobia, and misogyny as our mainstream entertainment. But there is hope. This delightfully perverted exhibition offers a subversive path into these complex issues. 

From Eveready Harton in Buried Treasure (1929) (courtesy Museum of Sex)

Stag: The Illicit Origins of Pornographic Film is on view at the Museum of Sex (233 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan) through November 9.

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