This Woman Writes Captions For Blind People For Pornhub

Porno für Blinde

Slate magazine interviewed Pornhub’s appointee for creating subtitles for the blind. The result was a deep insight into the difficulties of putting pornographic images into words.

Kathryn Simpson is excellent at her job. She is probably one of the world’s few experts in subtitling pornographic films for the blind. Marissa Martinelli from Slate magazine met the art historian for an interview.

Marissa Martinelli: How did you get involved in Pornhub’s project? Did you answer an ad? “Seeking porn describer”?

Kathryn Simpson: Pornhub actually reached out to me. I had just finished my Ph.D. and was looking to start freelancing. I’d had a really successful academic career, but it just wasn’t the life I wanted anymore, so I wanted to focus on writing.

Did you have any prior experience with audio description?

How did those skills translate into describing porn? I would imagine that you’d already been comfortable talking about anatomy.

In my Ph.D., I was actually looking at ugliness and self-representation, so a different set of issues, but still very much about embodiment. Mostly the art history background helped with choosing what to say, which aspects to describe. Obviously, you can’t describe everything, so it requires a kind of selectiveness. The challenge is to capture the right balance of inclusion and exclusion and creating the right mood.

You wrote descriptions for a total of 35 videos for the project. How much choice did you have about which videos you would describe?

For the 25 videos I wrote up in May 2016, I got a list from Pornhub and chose from those. A lot of my choices were based around my interest in doing videos in the LGBTQ and “for women” categories. I did a few more videos for them in July, and for the second round, I think I was just given those titles at that point.

For me, it was all about putting myself in the viewer’s place and figuring out, can I speak to this mood, can I speak to what’s sexy here? Naturally, some of the videos spoke to me more than others. But I was pretty happy to do whatever they gave me.

Did Pornhub give any guidelines for the description?

This actually wasn’t the first time that porn for the blind had been attempted, but they told me the problem with previous attempts was the way it had been approached, which was far too clinical. You know, there’s a time and a place for clinical language about sex and bodies, but porn is not that place.

For instance, “He inserts his penis into the other man’s mouth. The second man sucks on the first man’s penis for 42 seconds.” That’s not going to make a lot of people come. So yes, Pornhub did offer language guidelines to me, and I definitely had to use casual language, sexy language, pornographic language. It was one of the only times in my life I spent looking for synonyms for wet pussy or thick cock.

But you didn’t have a style guide to tell you, for example, whether to use »pussy« or »cunt« instead of »vagina«? I notice your videos tend to mix it up.

The videos are not about me and my writing and my ego, so, in that sense, the language should be basic and straightforward. A little bit of repetition isn’t the worst thing in the world. It wasn’t the time for me to be busting out a million different flowery adjectives or getting all Proustian. It was important to be succinct. At the same time, sometimes using the same word over and over again can actually get distracting. I tried to change it up just enough for variety.

Do you remember the first video you transcribed?

I do because Pornhub had me do a test to make sure that I was right for the job. I remember it was a stepbrother-stepsister shower scenario.

Oh, yeah, it was an important project for them, especially with accessibility and disability issues at stake.

How did you approach that first video?

The first few minutes … well, there was obviously an acclimatization period, because I wasn’t sure how best to start. But I learned quickly. You have to pick up the right language and the right mood to match the genre.

I was writing a little bit too much at first, so I had to learn to hold back a little. In the first few scripts I wrote, I did describe some of the audio, because it was second nature to me to explain, “He proposes they do X.” But I was told that I didn’t have to touch on anything that you could hear, because it was redundant, so I quickly dispensed of that habit. It’s all about what you can see.

How many times would you estimate you watched a particular video while writing the script?

It depended on the video, but the short answer is: a lot. Like, a lot of times. Certain videos were more straightforward, but different factors could make a huge impact on how challenging the job would be, as you might expect: the number of players in a particular video, how repetitive the actions were, the variety of different sex acts that they engaged in, even some aspects of the physical environment that they were in. The simpler it was, usually, the fewer times I had to watch the video.

The complete interview can be accessed here.


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