I watched a documentary on John Holmes the other day. First, let me just say: wow. That guy was packing. And second, it—the documentary, not the package—got me thinking. Holmes’s sex scenes, featured throughout the film Exhausted, were vastly different from most of the scenes I watch for review. Late-seventies porn—called “classic” these days—has a relative realness to it. Even with John Holmes’s “overtly large” member in the mix, pornographic scenes in those days still resembled sex that regular people could have if they wanted to. There were real people having it, complete with hairy bodies that occasionally sagged, and natural breasts that sometimes flopped. The scenes were often filmed in soft focus and dim lighting, which put the spotlight on the relative hotness of the mere fact that sex was happening. They featured reasonably-timed bouts of banging, blowjobs that looked pleasurable and sensual, characters talking before and after, and hell, even some plot points leading into the action.

These days, watching an entire porn DVD is a marathon undertaking that requires as much suspension of disbelief as your average teeny-bopper vampire film. The people in them—if you can even see them over the medical-grade close-ups of their behemoth genitals—are hardly recognizable as human. They sport orangey fake tans, fake hair colors and even wigs, frighteningly long fake nails, fake eyelashes, fake breasts, chemically-enhanced hard-ons with unimaginable endurance, an apparent penchant for gagging, and smooth, hairless bodies. These people do not appear to be real in any important way; they are as different from normal folks as Barbies or robots. The scenes themselves are often shot in HD so that every razor-burn bump shows plain and clear during endless humpfests so acrobatically difficult that one wonders why these people went in for porn instead of Cirque du Soleil. From the too-bright lights to the gymnastics performed to keep the performers in positions that allow for those lights to stay trained on their privates, it seems the actual penetration is the source of the hotness, rather than the pleasure the performers are experiencing.

What’s going on here? Why the fakeness? What the hell? Why don’t we want to watch real people have sex anymore? I’ve been trying to figure this out, and a few ideas have occurred to me. None are any more encouraging than the others, really. Maybe I’m just a pessimist.

First, the overblown fake aesthetic of modern porn could just be yet another symptom of the sex industry going way overboard. Men do tend to like big boobs, so maybe adult entertainers just took that bit of accepted wisdom and, like they do with many other things, pushed it too far. The ideal woman, they reasoned, has big cans and a tiny waist, so let’s give ‘em the biggest bazongas they can handle and emaciated middles! They’ll love it! You can’t really fault that logic. But it’s gone too far, and now we’re stuck with boobs that hardly bounce, even in reverse cowgirl, and have permanent glasscutters on their tips. Similarly, just because from an evolutionary standpoint a tan signals strong genetics and healthy time in the sun does not mean that most men want to watch Oompa Loompas going at it. Nor do many women really want to go out with a guy who shaves his entire body—it’s strange. Porn people realized that we don’t want long, curly bushes obscuring our view of the action, so they went whole hog and took every last bit of it off the menu. Well-groomed nails are prettier to look at, and nobody wants filthy hands filling their holes, so “lesbian” scenes (I hardly need go into detail about the laughably uninspired performances of most girl-on-girl scenes, where two women seem more eager for the scene to end than to spend any time on each other’s junk) are supplied with gigundo fake nails that should go nowhere near a vulva. Supple lips signal youth and health, so let’s inject them with collagen. And so on, ad nauseum.

At this point, many of us might not really find this stuff attractive anymore, but we buy porn with synthetic-looking performers because, well, it’s easier to find. And few of us are going to take time in the adult video store or on the sleazy websites we frequent to find real-looking performers, even if we prefer them. Sure, there are fetish aisles in the stores full of real-looking men and women, but who wants to be seen in that aisle next to the furry porn? And of course there are amateur videos, but then one must deal with crappy camera work, bad lighting, and downright unattractive stars—sometimes even that too-bushy bush we deride. I guess fake is the easiest way to go.

And since we continue buying and watching it, the porn industry has run with the idea that that’s what we like. By now it seems that nearly everything in some pornos is idealized (read: fictionalized) to a point that our favorite stars seem to have no flaws whatsoever, even in HD. But, do we really not want to see any flaws on these people? I mean, sure, we want our performers to look nice, but isn’t one of the stipulations of our ability to get turned on by pornography that the performers be human? I’ll admit there’s something interesting about robot sex, but it’s mostly a curiosity thing. Some get off to hentai that features ridiculously-drawn sexual caricatures and tentacles, and lots of people even go in for the furry thing. And we’ve all got fond memories of childhood games when Barbie and Ken, those paragons of tanned, blonde, hairless perfection, got down to business. But still, the only reason porn works for us, at a basic level, is because the idea is that these are people having sex, just like we want to. But some of the scenes I’ve reviewed appear to feature androids so hyper-perfect they can’t be human, pistoning in and out of one another like machines. They’re nothing like most of us. Sure, we’ve seen bodies almost that nice in celebrity sex tapes, but celebrities aren’t real people any more than porn stars are, as far as the public is concerned …

Wait. Woah. Holy crap, maybe the first explanation was only half right. Maybe it’s not that we don’t want to see real people have real-looking sex so much as it is that we don’t want those people to be like us. Maybe we want them to look alien and perfect because it makes it easier for us to keep them at an arm’s length. Maybe we don’t like to think that these piston penises and hairless holes engaged in hardcore sex acts are like our own, because that would implicate us in some kind of gross moral degeneracy, throw our own less-stunning sexual prowess into a very dim light indeed, and most of all, put us and the people boning on camera on the same basic level as human beings. So we buy up porn featuring people who don’t look like people, which reinforces the stereotype and encourages performers to continue getting implants and spray tans. We hold them at a distance as things, vaguely like ourselves and yet comfortingly different. It feels safer that way.

But it’s not, obviously. The mental divide between them and us allows for a disconnect between the two sides as to what is sexy, what is acceptable. It lets us watch things happening to them that we could never conscionably stand if it were done to one of us. We must realize that in the past several decades, our pornography has become more hardcore, more violent, more debasing. John Holmes wasn’t choking anybody with his monster member, or screaming obscenities at his costars. But some of the porn made today features spitting, gagging, choking, outright violence, and even blatant psychological and physical abuse. Films like these, while they sound extreme and on the fringe fringe of sexual perversion, are in fact numerous, and they are made with the very real intention of degrading women so that their minds give up and their bodies become empty cavities for their costars to fill. Dolls. Like the Barbies they resemble. And I think people watch it because, like so many other parts of modern porn, it seems fake. Who could really do this to a woman? As soon as the cameras go off they’ve got to all be laughing, right? It’s fake, just like the boobs and the hair.

But it’s not. It happens, and there’s filmed evidence of it. Imagining everyone involved as a distant and fictional them just makes it easier to stomach. Of course, not all porn performers will work in spectacles like the above: they are just one extreme example of what can happen when we shove a group of people so far to the margins that we forget they are people. And what better way to make sure we don’t unknowingly mistake one of them for one of us than to label them? Mark them as too-tan, bleached blonde, big-boobed targets of derision.

What we end up with is a seriously skewed vision of adult entertainers versus the rest of us, a great divide between those who do and those who don’t, will or won’t. The chasm yawns at us and begs us to cast aspersions on those on the other side from our safely fenced in perch. And many of us still do cast our aspersions while still purchasing products made by the mocked minority. But slowly, ever so slowly, things are changing. A bridge is what we need, and while the one we’ve got at the moment is a tiny rickety rope thing, people are crossing it. Stars like Sasha Grey, whose mainstream acting roles and musical projects aren’t exactly leaping over the divide with unaided grace, are nevertheless crossing, and more and more of us seem to be willing to cast off our judgments. But, it must be said that the fake aesthetic still abides, and with it that glaring gap between them and us. I don’t like that gap, and I don’t like watching giant, French manicured, acrylic nails being slipped into very delicate orifices—it makes me want to cry just thinking about it. And that is not the reaction I want to have to porn.