It took two years of working as a script writer and producer in the porn industry before I told my mom what I did for work. Now I complain over dinner about the cost of purchasing Cetaphil face wash in bulk (an amazing ejaculate substitute for money shots) and map out the economics of pizza deliveries paid for in sexual favors. We’ve come a long way.
In part, I didn’t tell her because I wasn’t sure how to fit it into our otherwise standard mother/daughter dynamic: She asks me to explain pop culture; I try to hide how long it’s been since I’ve done my taxes—that sort of thing. Last year, on that note, she asked me what “the deal” is with Netflix’s Shondaland hit Bridgerton: Why were so many of her friends suddenly obsessed with a show that—to her—seemed like a run-of-the-mill Regency drama?
Despite my pragmatic relationship with the topic of sex, I struggled to tell my mom that her fiftysomething peers probably weren’t as interested in the historical accuracy of the costume design so much as what happened when the brocade was ripped off. A revisionist romance series, Bridgerton was described by the comedy writer Jenny Jaffe as having “a solid 90% more graphic sex scenes than I expected it to when I started watching it with my entire family.” It reached No. 1 on Netflix in 76 countries, buoyed by an accessible streaming service and hot cast stacked with up-and-coming stars.
What word, I wondered, should I use to describe Bridgerton to my mom? I know one Netflix doesn’t want me to: The streamer made more headlines last year when it issued takedown notices to porn sites that had the series’ explicit scenes uploaded onto their platforms. Following the takedown, a source told a British tabloid that the show’s sex scenes “appearing alongside some of the most obscene material the web has to offer has sparked horror and anger” among the show’s cast.
While I fully concede intellectual property theft and piracy are legitimate concerns for Netflix—to say nothing of the cast’s consent about where their work appears—the side of moral panic surrounding the show’s approximation to “obscenity” was confusing. Watching the show as a consumer, I didn’t see much of a difference between their well-lit choreography and what I was producing for work. Bridgerton might not be on the level of a “click this and try not to cum” hentai pop-up ad, but a plot revolving around whether or not a man will or won’t creampie his wife isn’t exactly prudish.
Since the rise of YouTube-style aggregation sites, sex scenes from mainstream television or film winding up on porn platforms has become a regular occurrence, usually followed closely by PR statements that seem more concerned about the association with pornography than any copyright violation. When full-frontal sex scenes from the Hulu production of Normal People started appearing on adult platforms, executive producer Ed Guiney told Variety, “We’re hugely disappointed that excerpts from the series of Normal People have been used in this way. It’s both a violation of copyright and more importantly, it’s deeply disrespectful to the actors involved and to the wider creative team.”
In the adult industry, work like Bridgerton, Normal People, and a lot of HBO’s lineup would be categorized as “softcore porn”—frontal nudity, but no penetration or visible “money shot.” This is clearly not mainstream Hollywood or media’s definition. A Vulture article described Normal People’s sex scenes (which occasionally dominated up to a third of the episode) as “never pornographic but quite explicit.” If explicit sex does not make a scene pornographic, what does? As sex-forward shows only seem to get more graphic—and more popular—the need to hold on to this distinction is looking a little dishonest, and maybe a little desperate.
In the legal sphere, the attempt to separate pornographic or “obscene” material from art has proved difficult. Consider two well-known cases from Ohio: In the Jacobellis v. Ohio Supreme Court case of 1964, a theater manager, Nico Jacobellis, was charged with possession and distribution of “an obscene film,” the Louis Malle drama The Lovers. His eventual conviction was ultimately overturned by the court, and inspired then-Justice Potter Stewart’s famously murky quote about the distinction between First Amendment–protected obscenity and “hard-core pornography”: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.” Almost 30 years later, an art museum and its director were put on trial for obscenity after showing artist Robert Mapplethorpe’s exhibit The Perfect Moment, a case that inspired citywide protests in Cincinnati both for and against the piece’s validity as art. (They were acquitted.) As we see in nearly every related trial and the subsequent culture war it sparks, sexuality and human expression can’t be classified so neatly. Art can be pornographic, and pornography can be artistic.
Despite these nebulous borders, professionals working in the film industry seem overeager to distance themselves from their openly raunchy siblings. This is especially clear among the actors and other artists who walk freely between the industries—and are met with frantic tabloid coverage and insidious “concern.”
Consider Caitlin Stasey, the mainstream Australian actress known for her roles in Reign, Please Like Me, and Bridge and Tunnel, who has also written and directed porn films for Afterglow, an independent studio based in L.A. She’s seen firsthand the shame mainstream Hollywood has built around its triple-X counterpart.
“I think the actor’s sense of fear isn’t even one they’ve come up with themselves,” she told me. “You’re convinced as an actor that if you do porn, if you’re associated with porn, you’ll never work again.”
This culture of fear in the film industry goes beyond studio porn, too: Stasey describes a peer’s concern for her career after she uploaded a nude photo of herself on her own website. “There are a lot of people who get nominated for Oscars for putting their pussy in a Martin Scorsese or Lars von Trier film, but because I did it on my own terms—for my own art—it was regarded as reckless, compulsive, nonessential,” she said.
In much of her work, Stasey plays an explicitly sexual character, but existing as a sexual person in her own right was met with reproval. In the film industry, she argued, there is a precedent in which sexuality is only respected when someone with established power profits from it. She describes some of her earliest work—acting as a scream queen in a horror movie—where she was told to crawl over the bodies of other women dressed in lingerie, a process that, to her, was far more degrading than anything she’s seen working in porn.
Allie Oops, an indie porn performer and producer studying to work on more mainstream sets as an intimacy coordinator, the growing subindustry designed to make actors feel protected during sex scenes, has felt similar pressures. For Oops, watching mainstream media’s explosion of explicit sexual content has been frustrating. The double standard has never been more obvious, with porn performers experiencing unprecedented censorship online while mainstream production companies are lauded for “realistic” sex scenes.
“It feels unfair,” she said. “If this is where we can be in Hollywood, where sex is beautiful and artistic and special and cool, then why can’t we extend that respect to the adult industry and to sex work in general, and start valuing the labor that goes into making beautiful sex scenes?”
Oops said that while a performer’s experiences do vary based on whether or not penetrative sex is actually involved, the processes of sex-scene coordination and porn production have huge overlap. “Sure, maybe their genitals aren’t touching,” she said—though unsimulated sex does occasionally happen on mainstream film sets—“but in porn, we go through similar negotiation processes, similar contracts, similar choreography and blocking.” Sex workers, with honed experience in everything from sexual performance to consent and boundaries, are a natural fit for intimacy coordination—but a lack of respect for those who create erotic content for a living is limiting the entire industry.
Like Stasey and Oops, I’m very proud of the work I’ve produced, which isn’t reflected in how long it took me to tell my mom what I was doing. I hear similar stories all the time—people in the adult industry who love their careers but are deflated by reactions at family gatherings or parties or high school reunions. As Bridgerton rose to cultural ubiquity, I felt a distinct resentment imagining how excited the cast must be to tell their parents about their roles, while doing much the same work so many of my peers have been ostracized for.
Bridgerton or Normal People have, after all, found success in large part through their blunt depiction of sex, to say nothing of the ever-racier titles that fill out Netflix’s top 10. Arguing over whose sex scene qualifies as art—and whose does not—ultimately leads to sexuality gatekept by deep-pocketed institutions and sex workers facing further stigmatization. There is nothing “deeply disrespectful” about being associated with a lot of the great porn produced in the past and today; sexual expression has artistic value both as a plot device and for the sake of itself. The crossover from adult to mainstream isn’t only speculatively successful either, as shown by porn performer Chloe Cherry’s well-received performance in HBO’s Euphoria this year. The rise of explicit content is not a moment to redraw lines and reinforce old boundaries. It’s an opportunity for mainstream media to recognize and welcome the sex workers who have been perfecting this art form for years.