Brow Beat

What It’s Like to Describe Porn for a Blind Audience

A man wearing headphones leans back in a chair with his eyes closed. There is a laptop on his lap, and there is a superimposed image of two people embracing and kissing in the background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by 10,000 Hours/DigitalVision via Getty Images Plus and Bill Ling/The Image Bank/Getty Images Plus.

In 2016, Pornhub announced a buzzy new initiative that drew quite a bit of news coverage at the time: porn for the blind. The site launched a small “described video” category, commissioning audio description tracks for existing porn videos to explain what’s happening on screen for visually impaired viewers. The videos range from professionally produced orgies to the Kim Kardashian–Ray J sex tape, but they all have added narration to offer some context to the grunting and moaning.

The video begins with a small Latina with dirty-blond hair lying face down on a massage table with nothing but a small towel covering her ass,” the voice-over for one video explains. Another describes an actress: “Black hair, lots of makeup, and squeezing a nice, curvy figure into a tight blue dress.” You can probably imagine where they go from there.

To the uninformed, “porn for the blind” might sound like an oxymoron, given that we tend to talk about pornography as a visual medium. But audio porn has its own rich history, and describing existing videos is a natural extension of that tradition while widening access for blind porn consumers. Pornhub’s initiative was not the first attempt to do so, but describing porn comes with unique challenges. A decade earlier, a nonprofit allowed volunteers to give describing porn a try, but the amateur tracks, even when they were accurate, didn’t exactly set the mood.

Pornhub built on that model by hiring freelancers—some of whom were encountering audio description for the very first time—and using professional voice actors to help make the tracks suitably sexy. The results are unconventional and a little messy, occasionally stepping on the performers’ lines and describing things we can already hear. But they’re also vivid and playful in ways more conventional audio description usually isn’t. (It’s generally frowned upon for describers to editorialize, let alone say that a performer’s underwear “foreshadows his ample dick.”)

As disability advocates continue to fight for more and better access to pornography, I was curious to learn more about how the sausage gets made, so to speak. I spoke to Kathryn Simpson, a freelance writer and editor who penned the descriptions for a total of 35 videos for Pornhub. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Marissa Martinelli: How did you get involved in Pornhub’s project? Did you answer an ad? “Seeking porn describer”?

Kathryn Simpson: Pornhub actually reached out to me. I had just finished my Ph.D and was looking to start freelancing. I’d had a really successful academic career, but it just wasn’t the life I wanted anymore, so I wanted to focus on writing.

Did you have any prior experience with audio description?

The funny thing is, I didn’t. I really came at it more from the angle of my art history background, because in art history, image description is essential. One of the ways we’re asked to think about writing a description of a work of art is literally to describe it for someone who can’t see, so I had that experience in visual description and analysis.

How did those skills translate into describing porn? I would imagine that you’d already be comfortable talking about anatomy.

In my Ph.D., I was actually looking at ugliness and self-representation, so a different set of issues, but still very much about embodiment. Mostly the art history background helped with choosing what to say, which aspects to describe. Obviously, you can’t describe everything, so it requires a kind of selectiveness. The challenge is to capture the right balance of inclusion and exclusion and creating the right mood.

You wrote descriptions for a total of 35 videos for the project. How much choice did you have about which videos you would describe?

For the 25 videos I wrote up in May [2016], I got a list from Pornhub and chose from those. A lot of my choices were based around my interest in doing videos in the LGBTQ and “for women” categories. I did a few more videos for them in July, and for the second round I think I was just given those titles at that point.

For me, it was all about putting myself in the viewer’s place and figuring out, can I speak to this mood, can I speak to what’s sexy here? Naturally, some of the videos spoke to me more than others. But I was pretty happy to do whatever they gave me.

Did Pornhub give any guidelines for the description?

This actually wasn’t the first time that porn for the blind had been attempted, but they told me the problem with previous attempts was the way it had been approached, which was far too clinical. You know, there’s a time and a place for clinical language about sex and bodies, but porn is not that place.

For instance, “He inserts his penis into the other man’s mouth. The second man sucks on the first man’s penis for 42 seconds.” That’s not going to make a lot of people come. So yes, Pornhub did offer language guidelines to me, and I definitely had to use casual language, sexy language, pornographic language. It was one of the only times in my life I spent looking for synonyms for wet pussy or thick cock.

But you didn’t have a style guide to tell you, for example, whether to use pussy or cunt instead of vagina? I notice your videos tend to mix it up.

The videos are not about me and my writing and my ego, so, in that sense, the language should be basic and straightforward. A little bit of repetition isn’t the worst thing in the world. It wasn’t the time for me to be busting out a million different flowery adjectives or getting all Proustian. It was important to be succinct. At the same time, sometimes using the same word over and over again can actually get distracting. I tried to change it up just enough for variety.

Do you remember the first video you transcribed?

I do, because Pornhub had me do a test to make sure that I was right for the job. I remember it was a stepbrother-stepsister shower scenario.

It hadn’t even occurred to me that there would be a tryout for something like this.

Oh, yeah, it was an important project for them, especially with accessibility and disability issues at stake.

How did you approach that first video?

The first few minutes … well, there was obviously an acclimatization period, because I wasn’t sure how best to start. But I learned quickly. You have to pick up the right language and the right mood to match the genre.

I was writing a little bit too much at first, so I had to learn to hold back a little. In the first few scripts I wrote, I did describe some of the audio, because it was second nature to me to explain, “He proposes they do X.” But I was told that I didn’t have to touch on anything that you could hear, because it was redundant, so I quickly dispensed of that habit. It’s all about what you can see.

How many times would you estimate you watched a particular video while writing the script?

It depended on the video, but the short answer is: a lot. Like, a lot of times. Certain videos were more straightforward, but different factors could make a huge impact on how challenging the job would be, as you might expect: the number of players in a particular video, how repetitive the actions were, the variety of different sex acts that they engaged in, even some aspects of the physical environment that they were in. The simpler it was, usually, the fewer times I had to watch the video.

Let’s talk about a specific video! This one is “Sexy Threesome in the Office” by Brazzers, which I think is probably the kind of video most people think of when they think of porn. It’s very obviously staged with cheesy acting.

Very Brazzers.

Right away your script mentions the race of the actors in the scene—and in this case, they’re all white.

I made a conscious decision to do that for white players, because I don’t really like the idea that white is like, neutral and only nonwhite players should have their race mentioned. I think it’s important to be consistent when describing what people look like and not make assumptions. To me, it would have been strange to be coy about race.

How was your approach to describing a video like “Sexy Threesome” different from how you describe a video in another style, like one of the “for women” videos? Let’s use “Sensual Fuck and Facial for Extra Small Babe” as an example.

It’s clear that these are different genres, so I tried to take that into account when I was writing. There were quite a few details in that “Sensual Fuck” video that I described in detail, like I talk about a decorative glass bowl on the side table. And I was a little bit more descriptive—I was rereading the script just now and I chuckled at the “long, gazelle-like legs,” but you know, I think it was appropriate for that video.

Regardless of this category of “for women” and not wanting to be gender essentialist, it was clear to me that the people making the video were staging the sex to provide an alternative to something like the Brazzers video. A position like “seated, facing each other” is very different from “jackhammer doggystyle,” so I make sure to mention that and get a little more into the aesthetics in this one. Not because, oh, that’s what women want to hear about, but because those details are clearly important to the director.

It’s not just what you focus on but also the language itself that’s different, right? I can’t imagine writing something as poetic as “pleasure overtakes her” about the Brazzers threesome.

Yeah, it’s a very Harlequin-y kind of way to phrase that. This video was very soft focus—there was practically Vaseline on the lens—so I was trying to capture that mood as best as I could.

What was the hardest part about writing audio description for porn?

It sounds counterintuitive, but the most challenging videos for me were the ones where it’s very repetitive and there’s not a lot of variety. There were a couple of instances where I thought, How can I make this interesting? A sighted person is already one or many steps removed from a pornographic sex act that they’re watching, and then of course, with description there’s this extra level of mediation now of me filtering it. Something that is very repetitive may feel great for the people that are involved, but it’s like, How do I bring that to life for someone and keep it sexy?

Have you watched the finished videos with your commentary narrated by professionals?

I’m pretty proud of my involvement in this project on, like, a disability rights level, but I’m not a huge consumer of porn. Pornhub is a really prolific and reliable employer, and I was excited to work with them, and I’m happy to have been involved, but it’s out there in the world and they don’t really belong to me anymore.

Did you learn anything from this experience that you can apply to your other writing?

I definitely honed my image description skills and my editing skills. This was actually probably one of the more informative projects I’ve worked on, particularly because it was a very tight deadline.

How tight are we talking? Like a month? A couple of weeks?

Oh, God no, it was a few days.

A few days?!

Oh yeah.

What, did you just lock yourself in a room and watch tons of porn?

You know the drill with publishing: long days, tight deadlines. But in this case, it was all about sex! I really didn’t want to see a penis for a long time after that.