This Might Hurt a Little: The Value of Porn Criticism
When I applied and accepted a position as a staff reviewer for XCritic, one of the most popular review-sites for adult entertainment, I had an inkling of what I was getting into. I had made it a small priority to write reviews of some of the most acclaimed pornographic films from the renowned "Golden Age" of the medium on my personal website. It was an era that stretched from the 1970s into the 1980s. During that time, the majority of porn was directed by men who brought an artistic eye to their material and written (yes, written) by those who felt story was just as important as the sex.
Today, porn DVDs and Blu-Rays are predominately compilation discs: high quality, roughly three-to-four-hour collections of scenes from adult websites under the umbrella of a theme or isolated story-lines. Today, most porn is consumed via the internet, on popular websites such as PornHub and XVideos, for free by people of all ages. The idea of taking the time to watch an entire porn DVD — let alone purchase it — comes off as an archaic idea. But there are still thousands of people who are loyal consumers of porn in the classical sense; they pay for porn when they want to view it, whether by purchasing DVDs or single scenes via websites.
Therefore, when I began reviewing porn from 2016 to 2018, I never sneered at the idea or thought my work was a fool's errand. By taking the time to watch the discs I requested, take extensive, sometimes five-to-six page notes on them, and produce comprehensive reviews for XCritic, I was adhering to the same principle that has inspired me to write film reviews for almost ten years: if you pay hard-earned dollars for something, you should have a right to know whether or not what you're paying for is of quality.
I reached out to my former XCritic editor, Chris Thorne, and he emphatically agreed. He spoke about the effect XCritic has on the adult entertainment industry. "The studios actually use our feedback to improve their products," he said. "We tell them when they have hit their mark and when they have missed it. I've seen a marked change in the industry since we started."
I must admit that during my time writing for XCritic, I was mostly met with positive remarks — not so much negative comments as confused ones. Many people couldn't seem to wrap their mind around what there was to analyze in porn, let alone the point of enduring a lengthy DVD. I'll admit I thought I'd have a difficult time when I first started reviewing. But after my first review — "Nice Girls Swallow Vol. 7," a title by Amateur Allure — I found that there were intangible elements, like themes in a conventional movie, that could be explored: performer chemistry, screen presence, verisimilitude, the versatility of the direction, and the natural beauty of both the male and female body.
I analyzed the direction of porn titans such as Jonni Darkko (Evil Angel), Billy Watson (Dogfart), and the great Greg Lansky (Blacked/Tushy), and often found impeccable beauty in their styles, not to mention contrasts and cinematography. I would often watch an entire disc all the way through in one sitting, take notes, and then proceed to go to my computer, take screenshots of scenes, and then write the review in one day. At times, it was a seven-hour process. How did you spend your rainy Sunday?
My time with XCritic culminated with two specific events. One was getting media passes for Exxxotica, the annual porn convention held in cities across the country. It's the largest gathering of adult film stars, both active and retired, as well as studios, webcam-sites, and all things sex. I made the trek to Rosemont during my 21st birthday weekend in June 2017 (what a time to be alive) with a friend, who served as my "assistant" for the day. I mingled with several adult film stars, including Sara Jay, Adriana Chechik, and Alexis Fawx, and let me say, they were some of the sweetest, most endearing individuals with whom I ever interacted. There's no one I wouldn't want to meet again. The day was an adrenaline rush. I hope my piece on it did it justice.
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The other marquee moment came when porn star August Ames committed suicide in December 2017. It was a gut-wrenching time for the adult industry; one that not only saw an outpouring of condolences for Ames' family but a genuine cry for mental health and support groups for adult film stars. Ames' name is among the depressingly long list of adult stars, such as Amber Rayne, Shyla Stylez, and Olivia Lua, who have died either from suicide or drug overdoses. It's an ongoing epidemic the industry must grapple with, although it's been encouraging in the past several months to see folks like Lansky, and even Ames' husband, push for inclusivity and emotional openness in the porn industry as a united whole.
I resigned from XCritic in April 2018 due to time constraints and a need to focus on future opportunities. I wrote 69 reviews for the site, a number I didn't plan although one that couldn't be more germane. I'm still infrequently questioned about it, and I'm happy to reiterate most people offer kind sentiments — not that I need them. I know the work I did was valuable, and my reviews professional and insightful.
When asked the purpose of porn criticism, Thorne had the most pithy but truthful answer. "We all know there's good sex and bad sex, good art and bad art, good entertainment and bad entertainment," he said. "Why shouldn't there be the same kind of intelligent criticism that there is for other forms of expressions? That's why there's XCritic."
- Steve P
(photos courtesy Patrick Parker)