In most places, paying for sex is illegal. That is, unless you document the transaction and sell the footage on the internet. And if you show an attractive young woman, enticed by promises of cash, having sex with a complete stranger in a public setting – only to be kicked to the curb afterward with no pay and plenty of insult – chances are your porn site will be very, very popular. Unoriginal, but popular.
Gonzo. Porno verité. Reality porn. Whatever you call it, this particular variety of smut has flooded the internet in much the same way that reality shows have taken over television. "Real" sex has always been valued in porn, but even the casual consumer can testify that realistic trappings – sets, plotlines, and especially dialogue – are usually an afterthought. The genre's latest offshoot, so-called reality porn, has upped the ante, featuring scenes that appear to unfold unedited and in real time, with participants who directly acknowledge the camera. But what really distinguishes this new smut from its predecessors isn't whether the action is scripted, but whether it's portrayed as nonconsensual.
Reality porn features some of the most violent and demeaning porno scenes to hit the mainstream, what some call "humilitainment." Tagging these disturbing spectacles of deception and abuse with the "reality" label enhances their allure, as it claims to offer consumers unstaged and authentic action. Where reality TV usually panders to the collective schadenfreude – that sordid side of human nature that finds us taking delight in others' misfortune – pornographic content sends already sleaze-bound reality entertainment into new and disquieting territory.
Take, for instance, the pithily named BangBus, which debuted in 2001 and features two men roaming the streets, trolling for young women they can lure into their van to have sex with them on camera in exchange for a little cash. The bang squad searches out "every girl's inner slut," testing how far she'll go to sexually satisfy a stranger. BangBus's popularity led to other reality sites popping up overnight like silicone implants. The throng of high-profile sexploitation offerings now includes web sites like BangBoat, BaitBus, BackroomFacials, XratedGangBang, and Trunked ("It's simple. Throw the bitch in the trunk. If she doesn't like it, she can get out. Oh yeah. We're goin' 55 mph...").
The guiding premise of these sites is that a woman must be coaxed into sex – but, once persuaded, she's soon begging for it upside down and sideways. "Under every skirt is a pussy that just wants to be fucked," proclaims BackseatBangers. Penetrability is simultaneously celebrated as a woman's most valuable quality and scorned as evidence of her indelible sluttiness. In the end, she always gets her due, with most episodes culminating in a facial (and not the spa treatment kind), and many topped off by the guy spitting on her face. After the besmeared, duped woman musters a grin for the camera – sometimes, as on Trunked, with a sticker advertising the site plastered across her forehead – she is left stranded. While the money shot is the crown jewel of traditional hardcore porn – proving the action is genuine – reality porn derives its authenticity from a thornier crown: Someone has to be humiliated, and that humiliation has to look real.
While degradation in porn is certainly nothing new, the presentation of it as real rather than performed is a more recent innovation. The producers of these sites position their works as erotic documentaries that capture real encounters with eager women who are dumb or desperate enough to fall for their trickery. The people who have engineered these scenarios thereby downplay their own hand in the abuse in order to make viewers feel better about getting off on it. But behind the scenes, reality-porn producers must document the fictive nature of their productions in order for the operations to remain legal. They need to juggle the fantasy of authentic humiliation with the reality of staging in order to elude law enforcement's scrutiny – or even to maintain personal integrity. "We do it where the girl has fun, not where she feels bad. I'm not into that," says Greggory Meyer, whose company, PhotoGregg, provides content for more than 40 reality-porn sites. And though he provides site copy like "This little cum dumpster just has that look. The look that says, 'I suck dick!'... I guess you can tell a slut by her looks!," Meyer doesn't believe any of his creations are degrading.
It's worth wondering how many keyboard-noodling at-home viewers are taken in by the proclaimed reality. PhotoGregg's ubiquitous disclaimer makes it clear (to fine print readers, at least) that the smoke isn't confined to postcoital cliché nor the mirrors to the ceiling:
The images and videos within this web site depict real people and their behaviors when placed in fantasy situations. The behavior and actions within are intended only for the world of fantasy and it would be both irresponsible and dangerous to behave or act this way in the real world.Not to mention criminal. But a surprising number of fans do buy into the illusion, says Meyer, who receives more than a dozen e-mail messages each month from men touting themselves as excellent candidates for BikiniHookups, where average-looking beachgoers (really actors) score with young babes who'd otherwise shun them.
Faux reality has become the norm in pop culture, with far-reaching implications: Surrounded by convincing fakery, perhaps we're so hungry for something genuine that we're willing to suspend disbelief, ingesting even sham authenticity to sate our voyeuristic appetites. Reality porn lets consumers rebel against the tired old porn setups – the pizza man and the bored housewife, the take-charge nurse and her helpless patient – while enjoying the supposedly genuine degradation of women. If violence and debasement are presented as real – "human behavior brought to frightening lows," as BangBus puts it – consumers can ignore their own complicity by believing they're merely witnessing a spectacle rather than perpetuating humiliation. While the desire to believe these scenarios are real rather than acted out is arguably more misogynistic, a viewer might justify initial interest by attributing it to curiosity or disbelief. But the fan who continues to be fascinated can lessen any shame by recognizing that the action is staged. "Ess2s2," a poster on an Ubersite.com porn forum, writes: "I get a kick out of it *because* I know it's fake. It appeals to my more meanspirited side. Do I debase real women because I enjoy watching bangbus? No. I respect women because I understand the difference between fantasy and reality." But fans don't necessarily acknowledge that their interest – along with a willingness to shell out cash in support of it – is precisely why this material exists in the first place.
As in most porn, while humilitainment consumers and producers are mostly men, many women are fans and some earn their livelihood through it. Trunked acknowledges economic motivation for women's participation in the antics while calling their victimhood into question, featuring one performer saying, "I wasn't born fuckin' yesterday, ya know. ... The price was right so I let him have his horny little way with me." Candi, the 21-year-old who has been fellating every guy in the virtual neighborhood for the past three years on CandiFromTheBlock, isn't in character when she bristles at the suggestion that her own work constitutes humilitainment: "Who wants to go to a job that you dread? What I do is have fun every single day. I get to fulfill some guy's fantasy in every single episode. I'm the girl who everyone jacks off to. I love that!"
Furthermore, the threat of criminal indecency charges is always hovering over humilitainment porn (one company, Extreme Associates, is facing federal obscenity charges for distributing its graphic, supposedly real rape and murder video over the Internet), revealing a double standard in public outcry over real violence against women versus media depictions of it. Janet Jackson's overpublicized wardrobe malfunction warranted a federal investigation not because it was simulated sexual violence, but because a partially bared breast at the Super Bowl is apparently obscene. A better example of obscenity lurks in the fact that genuine violence is often dismissed as fictitious, with crimes like date rape often ignored or tacitly condoned, the charges doubted or denied.
The realest thing about humilitainment porn is the way it buttresses long-held assumptions of women's inherent inferiority, even if that's not foremost on the minds of those who get off on it. The question of authenticity overshadows the sexual politics of why a woman might be willing to play the dupe, and any law-enforcement fixation on its social demerit misses the point that pop culture reflects the popular imagination at least as much as it creates it.