How to make better porn

There’s an inconceivable amount of pornography sluicing through the cyberworld. It feels out of control and often not too admirable. But if pornography is something that can’t be stopped, could it perhaps be improved? When people eat badly, we don’t try to stop them eating at all. We hope to improve their diet. The aim isn’t to abolish food, just because some food is terrible. We want good food to be more widely and easily available. The same move could apply to online sex sites. We can’t abolish porn. So the goal is to get good pornography. Better porn isn’t stuff that’s even more thrilling or exciting. It is ‘better’ in the sense of being better for us – less at odds with the rest of our lives. The idea that porn could, under the right circumstances, actually be beneficial, strikes many people as very strange. But it shouldn’t. In fact, humans have a long history of taking erotic art seriously and doing it well. It sets out to be very sexy indeed. But it has bigger ambitions as well.

There are four fundamental principles of good pornography:

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1. It’s accurate about desire

Sex sites use categories like ‘blonde’, ‘high heels’, ‘muscle’ (to stick with the more polite options). These are attempts to understand the sources of excitement. They are so prevalent that we end up internalising them; we believe that it’s normal to be turned on by such things. Not because these terms really capture the truth about arousal but because we’ve learned to see ourselves in those terms. As a pornographer, the French painter Pierre Bonnard suggested that a lot of other things might feed desire: the afternoon, crumpled bedclothes, trust and shy eagerness. These might sound like weird categories. But only because they are unfamiliar. Good porn can help us connect more accurately with our own sexual tastes. Our sexual tastes are much more psychologically deep, even tender and sensitive than is currently imagined. One might really be excited because someone seems confiding or confident or forgiving or has a witty intelligence. Recognising that this is what one really wants is beneficial in the rest of life.

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2. Other parts of life are kept in mind

The ancient Greeks were into statue porn. In this one they have taken a lot of trouble to get the forward thrust of the hip just right; the pose of the raised arm is very suggestive. They were hoping you’d be turned on. But he’s also the god Apollo: the representative of wisdom and skill. He’s going to be really dirty in bed, but he’s got a lot of other things going on too. The statue of Apollo gives greater prestige to a very important ideal. It pictures someone very successful, very admirable and competent – who is also highly sensuous. This ideal was meant to be in people’s minds as they grew up, as they judged themselves and others. The Greeks were presenting Apollo as someone who could combine being sexual with being clever and accomplished. And they were saying to themselves and posterity: ‘Maybe you should be a bit like this too.’ We have – unfortunately – left porn largely in the hands of people who don’t seem to be much interested in anything apart from sex. That wouldn’t matter if they were – as in the past – only addressing the minds of a relatively small number of people. But today, these people have access to the minds of half the planet.

The Greeks were trying to create good role models: people who combined being very sexy with other virtues. We need that too.

3. Good porn assists relationships

Niemeyer's 'Casa Das Canoas'

Casa de Canoas, Brazil

Even if things start very well in a relationship, it very often turns out that sex gets more and more difficult over time – especially if a couple have children. It’s awful. But it’s too common for blame to be useful. So a key task – which good pornography could undertake – is to help people get excited together. Sensuality gets undermined in long-term love: the delights of swaying one’s hips to music, of caressing and being stroked get harder as relationships develop. We become awkward because we need to maintain our self-respect and get worried that we will appear ridiculous or leave ourselves vulnerable to rejection. Will the other person want to stroke us back? If we get up and dance, will our movements be fluid and enticing – or shamefully disjointed and inept? The Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer built a beautiful house, the Casa de Canoas, which seems designed to help us with such troubles. It repositions sensuality as part of a sophisticated, mature life. Instead of suggesting that sensuality might be the special province of the young, the louche or the pretty, he creates a place where you can be an accountant or work in the ministry of infrastructure (be a responsible, hard working person much concerned with technical and administrative problems) and relish your body. You can have a conversation that stretches your mind and also be gently exploring the back of your lover’s knee; or kiss in the warm shadows before taking a conference call about worrying regional sales projections. The glass and rock help us feel sophisticated while letting ourselves be natural. Sadly, one is not very likely to find images of the Casa de Canoas on the average porn site. And this has the effect of making pornography more furtive and embarrassing than it really should be.

4. It’s a serious profession

Working in the porn industry does not feel like a very respectable career. Some people might like it as a job. But it is extremely unlikely you know anyone who does.

Barbara Frittoli, Milanese soprano, not MILF Fetish

It was fine for Barbara Frittoli to do this shoot – because she did it to advertise an opera written in 1905 rather than for MILF Fetish. That’s a pity. The porn industry needs people like her. Bad porn shows us bad role models. Good porn would show how a refined, sensitive and noble person can also be very erotic. Demonstrating this is important. It’s not tawdry or exploitative. It’s teaching us something we really need to learn.

The most serious person of the 17th Century in a state of sexual arousal: inviting us to be loyal, devoted, very ambitious. And kinky.

We shouldn’t be negative about porn, just because of how most of it seems today. In 1800, many people offering medical services were quacks. They didn’t know what they were doing. There was a hunger for remedies – however misguided. So ‘being a doctor’ was nothing like the respectable career choice it is today. What changed was the realisation that we needed really serious, thoughtful and honourable people to go into this field. Health was too important to be left to self-appointed peddlers of fanciful potions. Right now, pornography is distracting, distorting and unhelpful. It takes up too much time and it leaves most people feeling ashamed. None of that is necessary. The solution isn’t to ban porn, but to make it better.

In the Renaissance, the best minds and greatest artists made porn