‘Two Girls, One Gaze: The Ins and Outs of The Pornhub Podcast’, by Aimee Knight

Whether you’re a sex-positive slapper or a card-carrying misandrist, it’s fair to say that hegemonic porn is still a product made by and for the male gaze. So The Pornhub Podcast with Asa Akira, which purports to “discuss all things pop culture, sex, and feelings”, ostensibly seems like a radical yet accessible way to broadcast women’s sexual stories.

Could this novel audio format help normalise porn on the broader pop cultural plateau and, eventually, in everyday conversation? Or will it simply transpose the tenets of patriarchal spectatorship to its auditory platform? Let’s suck it and see.

Pornhub is the internet’s favourite XXX destination. But according to their 2017 Year In Review – derived from Google Analytics’ anonymised figures – only twenty-six percent of Pornhub’s eighty-one million daily users identified as female, consistent with the previous years’ figures. However, Pornhub also reported that users “are more interested than ever before in ‘Porn for Women’, making this the top trending search throughout the year, increasing by over 1400%”. It earned the second-highest percentage growth of all Pornhub searches last year (topped only by ‘cheerleader’). As the director of the Pornhub Sexual Wellness Center Dr. Laurie Betito notes, “this is a sign of things to come.”

Perhaps looking to capitalise on this hungry-thirsty female market (or simply driven by the modern compulsion to ‘have’ a podcast) Pornhub launched its titillating title in late January 2018. It’s hosted by Asa Akira: a porn performer, director, and the website’s brand ambassador. The weekly offering adds to thousands of extant podcasts about sex, relationships, and the identities we build around those keystones. Curiously, though, The Pornhub Podcast isn’t nestled in iTunes’ Sexuality category: it’s in Society & Culture. Might this be a move on Pornhub’s part to mainstream a topic that’s still largely taboo? What else can a virtual wank-bank with twenty-eight billion annual visitors gain from discharging even more free content on the aroused masses? Other than further saturation of a once flourishing, now flailing, industry, that is.

As Jon Ronson explores in his meticulous Audible documentary series The Butterfly Effect (2017), the tech bros at Pornhub (owned by IT company MindGeek, formerly Manwin) have spent a decade tightening their chokehold on the free porn scene. This exercise has been lubricated by a succession of #innovative marketing campaigns, like attempting to crowdfund the first adult film shot in space, and planting fifteen-thousand trees on Arbor Day to ‘Give America Wood’. If a podcast seems comparatively banal, that’s because it (well, this one, anyway) is.

Assuming one aim of The Pornhub Podcast is to expose the quirks and kinks of its constituents – namely Akira, plus a bevy of porn-centric and -adjacent guests – it does so while solidifying the most eye-roll-inducing stereotypes.

Presented in the conversational ‘two girls, one mic’ format familiar from My Favorite Murder, Another Round, and Call Your Girlfriend, The Pornhub Podcast is – at its best – warm, honest and sufficiently interesting. Akira and her interviewees (who, full disclosure, aren’t always women and do get their own mics) discuss pop culture, sex and feelings, as promised, plus hot topics like STIs, birth control, abortion, consent, menstruation and more. The free-wheeling show is loosely divided into segments such as ‘Let’s Talk About Me’, ‘Pop Shots’ and ‘Ask A Porn Star’, fuelled by Akira’s energetic but scattershot presenting style.

Let’s momentarily rewind to 1973, when feminist film scholar Laura Mulvey spawned the term ‘the male gaze’. Her landmark essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ details “the way the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form” in mainstream cinema. Her theory is equally applicable to pornography, given that porn leverages on one of essay’s key themes: scopophilia – sexual pleasure derived from watching folks bone.

Describing the experience of watching cinema (in a cinema – this is 1973), Mulvey notes how the “conditions of screening and narrative conventions give the spectator an illusion of looking in on a private world.” At that time, film consumption was, in a way, inherently voyeuristic. But in our age of hand-held streaming, watching movies – including porn – can be utterly intimate. (Pornhub’s pioneering in virtual reality, 360° videos and wearable tech is downright experiential.) Same goes for listening to podcasts.

Both activities are usually solitary, enjoyed from the comfort of home. The sensation of lying in bed, in the dark, as Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark lol me off to dreamland is, for me, deeply gratifying. Good podcast orators sound so comfortable, familiar and close that you forget they’re not actually there in your bed. Great porn performers do the same. That said, endowment in one sphere doesn’t guarantee flair for the other. And while the viewing conditions that catalysed Mulvey’s theory have evolved over the past half-century, the machinations of the male gaze remain the same.

Pornhub – like the wider adult entertainment industry – is owned and operated predominately by cis-het men. How does this power dynamic transpire in The Pornhub Podcast? Through its host’s performance of sex positivity cum toxic femininity.

Since 2011, Akira has earned a swag of AVN and XBIZ awards (the Oscars and Golden Globes of porn, respectively), among others. She’s written two memoirs, worked as a dominatrix and stripper, and – thanks to Stormy Daniels – is one link in the bang-chain away from President Donald J. Trump (allegedly). She is also an atrocious podcast host. Listening to the first episode, in which Akira ‘interviews’ fellow porn performer Dana DeArmond, I finally understood how my partner feels when I listen to My Favorite Murder: confused, frustrated and excluded from a Cool Girls Club™ where I don’t get the jokes, catchphrases and tedious, tangential chatter. Akira repeatedly speaks over her friend, and rarely waits for, nor listens to, DeArmond’s replies. Thirty-five minutes in – after discussing whether they prefer to date ‘rich guys or poor guys’, wise-cracking about eating disorders, and criticising Marica Hase’s ability to speak English as a second language – DeArmond flags that listeners may struggle with the pair’s exclusionary discourse:

DeArmond: I hope people wanna listen to us.
Akira: I hope so, too.
DeArmond: I don’t know if it’s inclusive-
Akira: Lemme check that this is recording. You just made me scared. We are [recording].
DeArmond: -Our rapport is good, y’know? But I don’t know if people will get excited about it, or if they’d feel-
Akira: Annoyed by it [laughs].
DeArmond: -or excluded by it, because we’re in a bubble.

Here lies the first hurdle of recontextualising porn and its established narratives. Given that this endeavour requires a hot load of lived experience, how should a listener feel when the best person to tell the story isn’t the best person to tell the story? If one intention of this podcast is to fling open the curtains on adult entertainment, it can only do so if Akira straddles the divide between industry insider and curious onlooker. Rarely does she nail this nuance, instead leaning on shock value, like announcing that, as a kid, she masturbated to pregnant Maria on Sesame Street, and that she’d have no reservations about ‘fucking a midget’.

Intimate revelations can add value to cultural conversations by diminishing stigma and undoing taboo. But when compounded by flouncing ~political incorrectness~ (like using a litany of ableist slurs or referring to eating disorders as ‘ana’ and ‘mia’ phases), these antics coagulate clichéd notions of oversexed women as crass, callous, selfish, silly or any emotional cocktail thereof. Shades of Akira’s vulnerability do seep through: she describes herself as ‘needy’, prefers the security of monogamous relationships, and worries about her career prospects while stuck – at age thirty-two – in no-man’s-land between ‘starlet’ and ‘MILF’ archetypes. Generally, though, her brash persona reeks of ‘Manhattan mean girl’, creating distance – not closeness – with temperate listeners.

While Akira identifies as a feminist – I have no intention of challenging those credentials – she does joyfully describe the tradition of hazing young starlets. She disparages ‘crazy girls’ who ‘love drama’. She delights in proliferating the busted myth of a female peer who shoves tampons in her arsehole to stop it from leaking.

What’s more, her tone and language change depending on the gender of her guest. With DeArmond and Daniels, she’s a bawdy extrovert, recalling the time she “gallop[ed] around naked on a stick-horse like a fucking idiot” at an audition. But in the car with her agent Mark Spiegler – who sounds like a squelchy, slurry, cartoon mob boss – she’s bewildered that porn was once shot on Betamax and, before that, actual film. Does Akira feign ignorance to endear herself to this powerful man? Spiegler, after all, holds the key to her financial security. Perhaps she’s aping the asinine porn-star stereotype with a Monroe-like commitment to her pretty-dumb pigeonhole? I can’t say with certainty, nor is it my place to question the perceived authenticity of a woman, a person of colour, and/or someone engaged in sex work. I mean only to question her aptitude as a storyteller – representing an industry that’s gagging for an insightful, sex-positive probe – and ruminate on Pornhub’s objectives for this show.

Upon her second book deal in 2015, Akira explained that her intentions as an author are “to connect more with women” and “normalize female sexuality”. Those ambitions align with Pornhub’s increased interest in catering to the ‘Porn for Women’ audience. In contrast, Akira recently joined Men’s Health, where she writes a monthly column on sex and relationships for a heterosexual male readership. Covering topics such as cunnilingus, threesomes and rim-jobs, Akira’s proclivities play directly and intentionally to the male gaze as Mulvey described it:

The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact… Woman displayed as sexual object is the leit-motif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to strip-tease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire.

This viewer/viewed dynamic is fundamental to porn (obviously). Through Akira’s performance of toxic femininity – a vile by-product of patriarchy’s taste for pitting women against each other – it has similarly manifested in The Pornhub Podcast. As such, it’s worth noting that men generally consume podcasts, like porn, more than women do, albeit by a much smaller margin. So it’s hard to definitively judge whether Akira is presenting for a predominately male or female audience. (I use essentialist binaries because Akira calls Caitlyn Jenner “the dad” and describes her with the pronoun “he” in the show’s debut episode. I’m not confident that gender diversity is high on the agenda.) But if this is Pornhub’s shot at converting women listeners – or those of any gender, really – into brand-loyal advocates, it sure misfires on inclusivity.

Let’s assume any hole is a goal, audience-wise. The Pornhub Podcast’s rollcall of guests, thus far, more or less achieves gender parity. But if the intention is to normalise porn, and women’s interest therein, guests like photographer Kirill Bichutsky, aka Instagram’s self-titled @SlutWhisperer, are not the most effective means to an end. In this two-hour episode, there’s enough edgelording to give Bill Maher and Ricky Gervais a run for their collective fortune. The colloquy crosses such territory as paedophilia in the animal kingdom, why folks should be allowed to say ‘faggot’, whether fucking a pregnant woman ‘counts’ as paedophilia, and Bichutsky’s desire to ‘fuck a paraplegic’ (“… not just for the story.”)

I guess Bichutsky’s right in saying, “Art shouldn’t be accepted by everyone.”

“Same with comedy. If it doesn’t offend anyone, is it comedy?” Akira asks. It’s a rhetorical question. They agree that, in this day and age, everything offends everybody. Akira says that if porn was as acceptable a career path as accounting, she wouldn’t find it so alluring. Perhaps that’s the catch-22 of this podcast: you can’t destigmatise an industry that wants to be taboo. What would the point even be? And who would it truly serve?

A sex-positive podcast by a porn star sounds fascinating on paper. To be fair, this one does contain glimpses of promise. Do porn stars catch feelings on the job? (Akira married a co-star.) Which genres are commercially successful? (Comedic porn doesn’t sell but, anecdotally, is a fan favourite.) What does a porn set smell like? (Body spray and catering.) The problem is, whenever the performative ribaldry gives way to tones that are comparatively sincere, someone takes a phone call, or changes the subject, or fails to ask a follow-up question because their prior knowledge, unlike the listener’s, has no gaps.

There are moments in which Akira shows her smarts and strengths as a host. When Spiegler declares that all girls in porn have ‘daddy issues’, Akira replies, “I resent that.” When she muses on the sexualisation of women’s breasts, and Bichutsky deems the subject “too philosophical”, she corrects him: “It’s not philosophical. It’s anthropological.” Her delicious directness gives way to flimsy phrases like, “Not to make this a feminism thing, but…” before she loses her bottle and leans back on the old persona. As Mulvey explains:

Traditionally, the woman displayed has functioned on two levels: as erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium… [T]he device of the show-girl allows the two looks to be unified technically without any apparent break in the diegesis.

This is where The Pornhub Podcast trips over itself. In emphasising Akira’s on- and off-screen ‘show-girl’ guise – with ‘feminist’, ‘cool girl’, ‘comedian’, ‘confidante’ and ‘provocateur’ personae thrown in – its host lands somewhere between enigmatic and disingenuous. If it sounds like Akira is trying to be all things to all people, she probably is. Like the time she had two dicks in her butt simultaneously, that’s not an enviable position.

On the path to normalising porn, it doesn’t hurt to scrutinise the industry’s gatekeepers and stakeholders – and their vested interests. The Pornhub Podcast with Asa Akira has the capacity, platform and resources to reframe the way we discuss porn, sex work, and (women’s) sexuality in general. It’s a very different beast to The Butterfly Effect because it’s made by porn performers – there’s no saviourism to speak of. It’s certainly spicier than similar ‘sex and feelings’ shows like Tinder’s official podcast DTR, or the very vanilla Why Oh Why. But for all the gregarious talking, The Pornhub Podcast doesn’t really have anything radical to say. Not as far as I can hear.

Aimee Knight writes cultural criticism and creative non-fiction. She’s the Small Screens editor at The Big Issue and her work appears in Little White Lies, Kill Your Darlings and more. She’s writing her first full-length work: a narrative non-fiction exploration of Australian women and the true crime boom.