Watching Porn With Strangers

Who'd choose to sit and watch porn with a room full of strangers in this day and age? Quite a few people, it turns out, and I went to join them.
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Who'd choose to sit and watch porn with a room full of strangers in this day and age? Quite a few people, it turns out, and I went to join them.

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Over the past few decades the sex industry has gradually been taken from the sordid backstreets of the dodgy parts of town and been turned into a multi-billion dollar business, complete with corporate branding, award ceremonies and celebrities. A walk through Soho, the home of London's own sex industry, is a good indication of these changing times. Gone are the unlicensed clip joints of the 1960s and '70s, replaced by welcoming shop fronts, neon signs and Ann Summers. Amongst all the sanitisation however, there's one curious throwback to that bygone era still operating that has fascinated me for years: the adult cinema.

Since pornographers have realised the potential of the internet you don’t have to go to a sex shop or the back room of your barbers to buy porn anymore; you can wake up in the morning, open the laptop and have ‘Jurassic Poke’ up on screen before the kettle's boiled. So why, in the 21st century would somebody choose to sit in a stuffy cinema with strangers and watch porn together? Are there real porn enthusiasts for whom home viewing just isn't good enough? People who will argue that, like the latest Hollywood blockbuster, “you’ve got to see ‘Busty Anal Babes 8’ on the big screen to really appreciate it”. I'm determined to find out what the draw is for myself, which is why I've found myself stood in a Soho doorway paying my fee to a scary looking but very helpful man on the door of London's premier adult cinema.

I've made it clear to my female friend that we're here simply out of curiosity and not an ultra-creepy date. She seems happy with that. The friendly doorman hands us a small rule book which prohibits 'indecent or offensive behaviour' and, in a thick Russian accent, directs us to the public cinema downstairs. I'm a tad disappointed not to see a helpful old dear with a torch ushering me through the door, and no offer of popcorn or ice cream puts a slight dampener on festivities, but I'm full of anticipation nonetheless.

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After walking through a foyer so '80s a Dalston bar would kill for its threadbare carpets, the door opens and we're greeted by a chorus of heavy breathing and an overpowering smell of damp. Perfect. Just what I expected. I am slightly relieved to see the carnal grunts coming from the screen rather than the clientèle, who all seem slightly bemused, and possibly aroused, at seeing a young attractive female making her way to the back row. On screen a dolled-up actress whines, wails and screams while a group of people look on pretending to be excited. Not too dissimilar to X Factor.

After ten minutes of muffled giggling, the film comes to an end the way most adult films tend to and it's time for the end credits to provide us with some brilliant porn-star names and more lolz. The low-budget DVD menu on screen does leave me wondering where my extortionately high entrance fee is being spent, but the burly 'Eastern Promises' type bloke on the door doesn't look like he'd be too sympathetic to my business advice.

In the end my mind becomes numb to what's happening on screen and I find myself becoming more engrossed in the flimsy storylines, even joining in the ripples of laughter when the script reaches its most dire. It's certainly no Sound of Music sing-along but it's a far cry from the Caligulan free-for-all I'd imagined. Still, there's only so much hardcore pornography you can take in one sitting and just before the hour we decide to brave the rainy Soho streets again. I can't say I'm a converted public porn-watcher, nor am I any closer to understanding the psychology behind the adult cinema, but I wouldn't say I've had an unpleasant evening. I suppose some things are best left to 'other people'.