In the brilliant, sardonic, and deeply political Dark Brothers movie New Wave Hookers 2, the theme of the original New Wave Hookers is made topical with a cleverness that is not, alas, typical of the genre. Whereas the first movie takes as its premise the idea that new-wave music can transform the girl next door into a raging slut (which is hilarious enough), the sequel delves into the contemporary archaeology of cults: the American obsession with white-bread normalcy subverted. Here the moral pollutant of new-wave music is present as a sign of ultimate female dominance. The Powers That Be hunt down the cultists but to no avail. New-wave music and sexual perversion enjoy a well-deserved triumph.

The New Wave Hookers movies are exceptional in foregrounding the role of sound, which pornography historically has neglected. Its wah-wah guitars and pseudo-Barry White string arrangements are so distinctively bad that the music constitutes a recognizable genre. Its dialogue is generally notorious only for its banality. “Ooh, baby, ooh, baby” and “Yes! Yes!” (hardly ever, sadly, “No!” No!”) could be moving statements of erotic intent, but there are too few porno actors and actresses with the skills to pull this off and too few directors with budgets that allow them to care. This is a shame, because the voice and the ears are the great unrecognized sexual organs. To be fair, there are some porn performers who display great vocal talent. For my money the now-retired queen of porn, Marilyn Chambers, packed a greater erotic charge in her voice alone than any image could hope to convey. Chambers is the Chrissie Hynde of the X-rated movie.

It seems obvious enough, then, that porn should branch out into the world of audio. But even here there is, shall we say, a failure of vision. The two recently released erotic CDs Cyborgasm and Private Erotica do not present themselves as merely vehicles for the erotic voice, or as an occasion to listen in on the slurping sounds of sex. As if that could not possibly be sufficiently arousing, this audio erotica is presented as “Virtual Audio” (Cyborgasm) and as “Real Life Experiences in Virtual Reality” (Private Erotica). As the IMAX movies blanket one’s field of vision with an image that is so real it tricks the brain into believing that what we see is where we are, so virtual audio gives us a front-to-back as well as a left-to-right stereo field. And the result, yes, is that your brain is sometimes tricked into believing that you are there. (Whether or not you want to be there is another question.) Both CDs need to be listened to with headphones to get the full effect, and technically speaking Cyborgasm is more convincing than Private Erotica. The VR hype is redundant in any case, since a good voice in regular stereo (hell, in mono) ought to do the trick, if it says the right things, in the right way. The “3-D” sound presented here, while sometimes convincing, often just bounces the sounds back and forth from ear to ear at a rate that suggests not so much an encounter in libidinal cyberspace as a new, eroticized version of tennis.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that somewhere in the future lies a meeting point of sex, music, and high tech. Raves are one pointer. So is Madonna. Cyborgasm and Private Erotica are another. My own experience thus far leads me to approach all cultural products prefixed with either “cyber” or “virtual” with a lengthy virtual barge pole. But there may be important lessons here for the theory and practice of pornography.

On Private Erotica (put out by A Lasting Impression Music Corporation) the cover graphics are graphic, and the grunting is gruntlike. If listening to your neighbors entertaining themselves in the bedroom gets you hot, this might do it for you. After all, you can always make up your own stories. Private Erotica is almost devoid of dialogue or indeed speech of any kind, contenting itself with a mixture of gay and straight scenarios producing both duet and solo renditions of the aural orgasm. The sex is mostly vanilla, as far as one can tell; in other words, no hint of bondage, games, or pain. The “CyberSex!” song that tops and bottoms the whole thing is courtesy of Tone Def (who last year brought us the anti-Republican single “Bushwack”), and unfortunately it has all the musical shortcomings of that piece.

The problem is that for the most part the sounds of sex are less erotic than someone emoting about sex using words. This is true of both the music and the sex scenes on Private Erotica. Songs that attempt to convey the actual sounds of arousal and its aftermath like “CyberSex!” are mostly just comical. Think of Robert Plant’s multiple orgasms on Led Zep’s “Whole Lotta Love,” Donna Summer’s less adventuresome excursions (such as “Love to Love You Baby”), or Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s hilarious synthesized cum-shot in the middle of “Relax.” And as far as the scenes go, where we hear someone masturbating but with no story line, no narrative context–well, it is difficult at times not to be reminded of the Monty Python sketch “Are You Embarrassed Easily?” Listen to this, if you can!

Lesson #1: When selling sex and erotica, do not forget that most of us possess a sense of humor. Mistakenly trigger this at your peril.

Cyborgasm (Algorithm) is altogether more ambitious. Obscure quotes from Twin Peaks grace the cover. The performers include artist/theorists Annie Sprinkle and Susie Bright. The whole package is put together by Heyday Records boss Ron Gompertz and Lisa Palac, editor of the superior sex magazine Future Sex. Most of the scenes are narratives of one kind or another, some working more or less as stories while others attempt some kind of virtual-reality experience. Here the VR tech routines can be annoying. Mistress Kat (on “Absolute Sadist”) brandishes a whip with some conviction, but thanks to virtual audio, she is flagellating our ears. Which is certainly not my idea of a good time. And “1-900 BLOW” could have been the kind of phone sex that would put the rip-off merchants out of business for all time. But instead of placing us as customers on the end of the telephone line, we become aural voyeurs of a nondescript standardized porno scene.

Cyborgasm aims to provide a script for every fetish. But it has no loops that suck you in, because it wants to push that narrative forward toward its inevitable climax. The result sounds a bit like a radio play, which is suggestive for the future of the form.

One of the problems of critiquing porn is what to do when you are confronted with something that repels or offends you. “Daddy’s Grrrl” involves a scenario that I find not only a turnoff but pretty repugnant. Even as I contemplate the various scenarios that I like, and which others would find appalling, still when the female character says, “Tell me I’m a good girl, daddy,” I want to say, Stop it, this is sick. Yet a friend of mine who listened to Cyborgasm found this the most compelling scene of all. And she’s a mother, a feminist, and a perfectly “normal” person who is not a victim of any of the various traumas that are so easily ascribed to anyone who likes kink. (I am thinking of the various self-appointed pathologizers of porn, who reach for the casebook whenever they encounter the nonvanilla.) “That was intense,” said my friend. “That’s my fantasy.” Well, quite. I found Cyborgasm disappointing because it doesn’t contain many of mine. But if there were 100 cyborgasmic CDs out there, that would be a different story.

Lesson #2: We have to be prepared to accept fantasies that are not to our taste. Nobody in their right mind says “I dislike the music of Garth Brooks intensely, therefore it should be banned.” When you encounter fantasies or scenarios that don’t turn you on, they often do seem obscene or disgusting, more so than the other, perfectly “normal” sexual practices or images that you like. It’s a classic problem of much porn criticism. The way out of this hypocrisy is to admit that often we are repelled by representations because we don’t understand them. Fantasies (for instance, playing with power, as Susie Bright does so impressively on Cyborgasm’s “Circus Whore”) often contain layers of meaning that cannot be seen from the outside. This does not make porn impervious to criticism. But it does mean that the critics of erotica need to be honest about acknowledging that taste is sometimes the parent of meaning.

This is lesson #3: Porno is polysemically perverse–an erotic movie or CD has as many meanings as a TV show, a movie, or a pop song.

It is one of the great myths about pornography (and there are many) that it is “boring.” And there are many parts of Private Erotica and Cyborgasm that seemed designed to buttress this myth. Listening to one of the “romantic” scenes on Cyborgasm, my fellow adventurer in erotic high tech commented that she had completely forgotten, until she heard this, just how boring straight sex was. On the other hand, she found the orgy scene “Swing” convincing and exciting. My reactions were the inverse of hers. There are countless articles published on the boredom induced by porn (Cosmo ran one last month), but generally speaking this is merely a clever way of suppressing the fact that pornography is in fact, as Andrew Ross pointed out in his book No Respect, arousing–a small matter that may perhaps explain its enormous popularity. If you think that it’s boring to watch good-looking men and women having sex in every conceivable way (and in some that you’ve probably never contemplated), in unusual and sometimes appealing outfits and costumes, and in bizarre and occasionally digusting narrative circumstances that often stretch the limits of credibility, then your social life is certainly quite a bit more interesting than mine.

Lesson #4: It may be offensive, it may be silly, it may be low-budget (usually the reason it’s silly), it may be sexist, but boring it is not. Adult videos do, after all, constitute the largest portion of the market in home video rentals. Whether audio porn can cut into that market is going to depend in part on how people feel about sexual experiences that take place under headphones. Like so many VR ideas, you have to wonder simply at the practicality of the technology, and the extent to which it is predicated on solo excursions into pleasure. Solo excursions are fine (especially now that masturbation is considered politically correct safe sex), but adult movies have a solid foundation in the couples market–a shared experience.

The other question that remains is whether audio erotica can find a form that works through repetition and narrative (as the porno movie does), combining the minimalism of Private Erotica and the narrative drive of Cyborgasm. This interesting question will hardly be debated, however, because for most critics this stuff is either “only” porn or it’s a shiny new high-tech toy to play with (in either case content goes undiscussed).

It is no small irony that the debate about adult entertainment is conducted at a level that is often extremely childish. The level of irrationality on this topic is through the roof. In the normal course of cultural criticism you often upset people who do not share your views. It is a feature of the job to be attacked and ridiculed–a feature one suspects some critics become overly attached to. But when you write about porn not only do you expose yourself personally (honestly, I didn’t enjoy any of it, it was just research) and risk alienating many people you normally agree with, but you do so in a very, shall we say, touchy area. Otherwise perfectly rational individuals will ask you to account for your personal role in the victimization and terrorization of women, should you venture to suggest that pornography is not a form that should be wiped off the face of the planet forthwith.

Maybe that’s lesson #5, not that I like its cynicism: When discussing pornography you may expose yourself, but you must try to cover your backside. But there is a more difficult lesson hidden inside that one. Do the sights and sounds of our deepest desires necessarily play themselves out in every social interaction? Is there no distinction between what I want and what you think I want? If we fantasize about something, do we always want it to actually happen? Perhaps lesson #5 is really this: If you want to understand pornography, you must stop thinking with a rapist’s logic.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Jeff Heller.