A woman’s head appears as she lies down directly below the camera, filling the frame with her face and shoulders. She stares into the lens as she adjusts herself, and we hear the sound of her unbuckling and unzipping her pants. We see her shoulders and upper body tense up as she begins to touch herself, but her movements are beyond the frame.
As she brings herself to climax over the course of the next three minutes, we watch her move back and forth, open and close her eyes, make soft moaning sounds, and peer into the camera lens occasionally. Her orgasm is brief and the only evidence of it is in her face: she contracts, furrows her brows, and jerks back and forth, gasping. When she is finished, she gets up and leaves us with a view of her pillow. The video is sparse: there is no dialogue, no music, and no partner. There is also no nudity.
Straddling a line between art project and pornography, the Beautiful Agony website contains over 2000 such videos of orgasms, all showing pleasure only from the neck up. Anonymous contributors are encouraged to send video files of their faces as they masturbate and are paid two-hundred dollars (U.S) for each video submitted, plus one month’s free subscription. Internet porn in general offers an overabundance of explicit images and videos of all kinds, from the mundane to the extreme, all categorized for maximum choice. In contrast, but like many amateur pornographic websites, Beautiful Agony titillates its viewers by emphasizing eroticism and pleasure rather than graphic images, while appearing to allow unmediated access to bodies: bodies to chat with, write messages to, learn more about, and seek out online.
Watching the face during orgasm generates a unique intimacy, and personality on Beautiful Agony is neither edited, nor covered in stage makeup. A pimple, a mole, tussled hair, a self-conscious giggle—all flaws remain intact, and are vital to the impression of authenticity that is being created.Online amateur pornography appears more “authentic” than mainstream professional pornography because it features people who don’t look like professional “porn stars.” Unlike a porn star whose main identity is wrapped up in his or her career, the performers on Beautiful Agony are represented as “anyone”—your neighbour, your co-worker, your best friend. This personalization of the participants persists throughout the message boards. All users are encouraged to engage with one another in discussing the videos, their own pleasure, and any other topics they find interesting. The site’s own coded language adds a level of playfulness to the discussions; the codeword “Agony” for “orgasm” gives the project a certain coyness. Rather than using the words “performer” or “star” throughout the website, participants are numbered and classified in a numerical grid, distancing the participants from “porn stars” and placing them back into the realm of the user’s home, neighbourhood or potential circle of acquaintances. The anonymous yet still-traceable numerical system creates a very different relationship between consumer and producer than in traditional porn. Locating performers by their numbers, and saving videos as “favourites,” allows users to communicate with still-anonymous performers, whose need for privacy keeps them “real.”
Since cheap electronics and the Internet have democratized porn (anyone can now produce and upload images and videos to share, trade or post), the move online has created subgenres based on digital interaction. Chatting, posting to message boards and webcam porn are popular in part because they allow viewers to interact with others and to feel part of a community. Interactivity also offers a closer look at the supposedly authentic pleasure of the amateur, to whom the user can potentially talk or learn more about through the website’s message boards or chat rooms. Rather than passively consuming the bodies of the performers, viewers are invited to engage with and relate to them, both through the visual footage, but also on the message boards. Because of this sense of community, consumers can feel that they are witnessing pleasure among many sincere people, rather than between two onscreen professional actors.
The interactive interface thus creates authenticity and intimacy by allowing users to connect—a little—with the bodies they watch. Clicking to view different videos and choosing between sites lets viewers actively engage with their choices. The home settings also help to create a sense of authenticity, since familiar backgrounds and domestic scenes allow viewers to identify with what they are seeing. The “boring” domestic shots featured in most amateur sex tapes create an extra realism and the impression of truth. A set of Ikea sheets, a paint-spattered hardwood floor, or a teddy bear are all instant giveaways that the videos are shot in “real” beds, at “real” homes. Beautiful Agony uses this interesting mix of anonymity, interactivity and authenticity to create a different kind of viewing experience. Rather than watching the participants in Beautiful Agony passively, we engage with them actively, looking at them and reflecting on ourselves.
Looking is altered by technology, whether we’re looking at bodies, or relationships. Gazing into someone’s eyes and watching “authentic” pleasure and personality resonate from their face invites us to identify with the experience, to recall our own, and to respond. The faces in Beautiful Agony eroticize this reaction, inviting their viewers to identify with them and participate in their pleasure more actively than they would in conventional porn, while possibly enjoying themselves in kind.