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Does Pornhub's Porn for the Blind Actually Work?

Visually impaired users speak to the difficulties inherent in making erotica for the blind, well, erotic.

by Alice Sanders
Sep 6 2016, 9:19pm

Illustration by Joey Alison Sayers

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By its very nature, pornography is a visual medium—despite the loose plot and mood music of some, at the end of the day, it's what's on the screen that gets you off. But what do the blind and visually impaired turn to when they want to buff the banana or flick the magic bean? As it stands, little—and considering there's an estimated 22.5 million Americans who report experiencing vision loss, the potential market for accessible pornography is huge.

This June, web pornography behemoth Pornhub launched a (NSFW, obviously) "described video" category to make a portion of their offerings accessible to visually impaired users. The site hired professional voice actors to record "audio description" tracks—a translation of visuals using precise, brief language—for 50 of the site's top-viewed videos. It may represent the largest and most comprehensive effort to date to make erotic materials available to the visually impaired, a field that has, until now, been sorely lacking quality content.

Since 2006, volunteers have recorded audio descriptions of pornographic videos and porn trailers on a website called Porn for the Blind, and while the amateur offerings there represent at least some sort of accessible erotica available for the visually impaired, the majority of the site's content is of poor quality. Clips there are solely audio description and lack audio from the actual pornography they describe, amounting to an "uncomfortable sounding voice talking to you about sex you can't hear," Cody Kirchner, a 27-year-old blind man, told VICE. "Not sexy at all."

In some, describers use clinical language, such as "vagina," "anus," and "ejaculate"—far from sensual. "One sample I listened to described a girl as having 'clearly augmented breasts,'" said Kirchner. "No one wants that kind of language in their porn."

Beyond Porn for the Blind, the Reddit community /r/gonewildaudio, created in 2012, represents a popular and higher-quality alternative for aural pornography; there, users write and perform pornographic scripts, akin to erotic radio plays, which are then shared with the community. Some feature multiple characters and involved plots, while others have sound effects and mood music, and a variety of genres—from science-fiction porn to BDSM—are represented.

Oliver Kennett, a blind writer from Bristol, England, prefers the narrative pornographic offerings of /r/gonewildaudio to other kinds of visually accessible porn. Especially for those who have always been blind, involved narratives are a welcome alternative to the simple physical descriptions one may find in other offerings. "For example, 'she takes her top off' can be quite true," he told VICE, "but unless one can actually visualize what a girl with her top off looks like, it's meaningless."

Pornhub's offerings represent a huge new entry in the field and are made possible through the company's philanthropic arm, Pornhub Cares. "The point of this initiative was to improve the [Pornhub] experience for those who are visually impaired and also initiate a larger conversation with our user base on how to make our platform more accessible to all," Corey Price, Pornhub's vice president, told VICE.

And it's an important step forward. Porn is part of our shared culture, and the blind should absolutely have access to a Kim Kardashian sex tape, albeit with a breathy voice describing Ray J's schlong as "waving around impressively."

"I train audio describers around the world, and I always emphasize that there's no good reason why a person with a physical disability must also be culturally disabled," Dr. Joel Snyder, a veteran audio describer and director of the American Council of the Blind's Audio Description Project, emailed VICE. "People who are blind or have low vision have the right to experience anything their sighted peers can experience."

I solicited feedback on Pornhub's audio described clips from visually impaired people, and they expressed a positive reaction to their content. "The actors sounded like they were comfortable using four letter words, knew the kind of things people like to see in specific scenes, and accentuated them," said Kirchner.

But the offering is new, and some issues made themselves apparent, including audio volume. "The description is too loud compared to other, well, sounds in the video," Jakob Rosin, a visually impaired student and journalist, told VICE. "Where a straight, sighted man might look for large breasts or a big butt [in porn], a blind person might look for a girl who sounds sexy, or is a screamer, or begs for something to be done to her," said Kirchner. And if users are unable to hear their pornography over the description of it, they're going to have a bad experience.

"There are certain things—upping volume of original footage, toning down description in certain instances—that we will be mindful of while compiling new content," Price said, emphasizing the site is interested in opening a conversation about accessibility and tailoring their service to suit the needs of the visually impaired.

"I've only had the opportunity to experience snippets," wrote Snyder of Pornhub's audio described offering. "But I do note that the site's promotional material emphasizes 'professional voice talent.' That's fine—and can be an important part of the audio description process—but the writing, the language to be used, is far more critical. That's where the emphasis should be—audio description training is necessary to help AD writers/producers understand how to use as few words as possible in the most effective ways."

Indeed, the difficulty in making porn accessible to visually impaired people is that the fundamental point of porn is pleasure, not plot—it's style, not substance, that counts most when it comes to describing what's happening within it. Of course, users want to know if a blowjob is happening on-screen, but the most important aspect for them is not that it's described, it's how it's described. And robotic, clinical, or demure descriptions are bound to be a boner killer. "You can't merely state the facts of what's happening on-screen," said Rosin. "When you describe porn, the vocabulary and words you use become important. They need to be as sexy as the video. If you read your description, however juicily written, with the tone you'd read the latest Bloomberg economy reports, you'll lose viewers pretty quickly."

"It's like trying to verbalize a piece of art—anything evocative is lost in translation," said Kennett. Making porn accessible to the blind isn't simply about tacking on a few descriptions of what is happening; it's about making the whole audio descriptive experience of porn more erotic. And the field, as it stands, has a long way to go until it truly reaches its erotic potential.

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