Porn on a Plane: How To Deal With Awkward In-Flight Situations

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Your luggage is checked. You passed the security points without losing too much of your dignity. You made it to the terminal with enough time to get a coffee and relax. You finally board the plane. You can't wait to sit back and put the hustle and bustle of life on hold for the next five hours. You're going to indulge yourself. You will catch up on some reading. Maybe even take a little nap. The possibilities are not endless, but they're pretty damn good.


"In-flight reading" via Shutterstock.

You squeeze into your row and settle in, your favorite guilty-pleasure magazine in hand. But no sooner have you taken off, leaned back and started to disappear into the article in your hands that an image catches your eye in the monitor of the person immediately beside you. Oh, dear Lord. The person next to you has plans for relaxation, too. Unfortunately for you, these plans involve watching porn.

You try to avert your eyes, but the images continue to flash on the screen. Suddenly, your options for relaxation disappear. Even turned away from the monitor, the images remain beside you, oppressing your choices, your space, your time, and your peace of mind. You realize with dismay that while this flight could have been a wonderful timeout from life, you're actually trapped, held hostage by the choices of those around you.

This happened to Sally, who brought the issue to Emily Yoffe and Farhad Manjoo on Slate's Manners for the Digital Age:

On a seven-hour plane trip, the man squished into the third seat in our row spent most of his time watching male porn movies on his DVD player. I was traveling with my daughter and her young child and it was almost impossible not to see from time to time the screen with some pretty raunchy acts being performed. Since he was on the aisle, I suspect that others were also sharing in his viewing.

Yoffe, who handles etiquette queries as Dear Prudence, responded to Sally: "You're not in your own private little space on a plane. You are inches away from other people, particularly if you're sitting next to a grandmother, mother, and a young child, it's absurd. I think you would've been perfectly justified excusing yourself, going to find a flight attendant, explain what's going on and say, 'Can you handle this for us? Either you need to move our family, you need to move him, or you need to tell him he just can't be viewing this on a row with a small child.'"

This is great advice, but as Jill at Feministe points out, a traveler should not only take into account mothers, grandmothers and children when viewing pornography in a confined space. Jill enjoys porn as well -- but just because people aren't against viewing pornography on their own time doesn't mean they want to view someone else's porn with them. Jill writes:

What's bad is watching porn in front of a bunch of strangers who are trapped in a small flying box and cannot get away from your choice of entertainment. I am neither a mother nor a grandmother nor a small child [...] but if I were sitting next to some dude on a plane and he was watching his favorite pornographic films, I would be majorly skeeved out, and feel vaguely unsafe. Watching porn in public so clearly violates basic social boundaries (and violates them in a sexual way) that I would be immediately suspicious of that dude's general desire (or lack thereof) to adhere to social and sexual boundaries in public places. And I do not want to be sitting next to the guy who likes violating social and sexual boundaries.

No one is inherently cool with porn -- not college-aged kids, not men, not a sex columnist whose work clearly indicates she’s extremely porn-positive. Viewing pornography is a personal choice that cannot be imposed on anyone else.

Almost a decade ago, I was in a similar position as the guy with the porn on the plane. Sort of. I was reading an amazing article my friend had written for Playboy. I don't consider this magazine particularly raunchy, but it only took me a second to pull it out and catch the expression on the barista's face as I ordered my Americano at the terminal to realize it wasn't appropriate. The magazine went right back into my bag, were it stayed. Should I have known better? Maybe. But then, I don't think courtesy is something we're born with so much as something we must work on constantly. I will never forget this moment. Consider me schooled.

We can't possibly guess what is going to make other people uncomfortable. This can be a little hard to navigate when you make your living writing about sexual issues, because you always have some book or magazine or clip you need to thumb through or watch, but if I can make it work, anyone else can, too. Here's a quick run-down of my rules of thumb for viewing potentially offensive material:

Magazines and Books

Always assume you're going to have someone who's easily offended beside or behind you. Always remember that silence does not imply consent. If the magazine or book has images on the cover that are suggestive, sexual, violent, disturbing or triggering, then cover it with something else. A folder works for magazines. Buying hardcover books enables you to ditch the cover altogether. If the magazine or book has a lot of images within its pages, making it easy to expose people who may be behind you, ditch it altogether. Tough luck. Next time, consider the rest of the world when you pack your in-flight reading material.

Websites

If you have to look at a website that may have objectionable content, consider doing so discretely on your phone, not your laptop. The smaller the screen, the better. Keep it short or try to find a way to block other people’s ability to see by leaning away from them toward the window, or use the airline blanket or coat to browse covertly.

Movies

Maybe you never get a chance to watch porn at home. Hey, I'm not judging. Your porn, your business. Just don't let it become my business. Ever heard of the TV Hat? Think about employing something like that if you plan on viewing something inappropriate on a plane. In fact, I would recommend such a thing for any material that may be violent or triggering in nature. And please, please, please employ a pair of headphones that work well. The last thing other passengers need is to have to deal with delighted moans or blood-curdling screams escaping from your second-rate headphones. (This actually holds true for everyone listening to anything. No one else needs to hear your opera or your jazz or your rap or your Angry Birds or whatever you're blasting.)

Public Displays of Affection

The problem with the Mile High Club is having initiations unfold near you while you're trying to mind your own business. Yes, being in love or lust is a wonderful thing, but no one else on that plane needs to be aware of it. If you can't be certain that no one will be the wiser, save the pleasure-seeking for the hotel on the other side of the flight. It doesn't even have to be sex! Even making out can make people uncomfortable. Try to be considerate about how your enthusiasm affects the people around you.

Great rules. But what if you know and follow these but your neighbor doesn't? What should you do?

It can be awkward to speak to the person who's being discourteous. Face it, most of us weren't born with Amy Alkon's backbone. The idea of turning around saying, "listen, stranger, I don't feel like watching porn with you, so knock it off," can be paralyzing to anyone who's been reared to minimize awkwardness. What you can do is what Yoffe suggested to Sally above: Get up and go talk to a flight attendant about the problem.

Be Polite

Repeat after me: this is not the flight attendant's fault. This is not the airline's fault. Yes, you may be able to score First or Business class seats, but there is no need to act like a three-year-old over the incident. Let the flight attendant know what happened politely and concisely and let him or her know how you'd prefer the situation to be handled. Use your "I'm SO tweeting this!" tantrum for good and not evil, oh, you mighty influencer.

Think Ahead

Do you want to sit next to someone that you just tattled on for the next five hours? Before you send the flight attendant after the porn-watcher, suggest that you be moved or that they move the offending party. If the plane is full and that isn't possible, ask the flight attendant to wait five minutes before walking down the aisle and "noticing" what is happening.

Unrepentant Abuser

Say you or the flight attendant asked the person to stop engaging in the offending activity but your neighbor is still doing it. Are they doing it covertly? If they are, ask yourself if it really bothers you or if at this point it's just the principle of the thing. If it's the latter, go back to your book.

If, on the other hand, they're out and proud about it like it's their right to share their porn with the world, call the flight attendant back. This is their issue to resolve now. You've done your part. The porn watcher can quit it or suffer the consequences.

Redress

You have every right to write a (polite but firm) letter to the airline and let them know how the experience affected you and how this has affected your enjoyment of flying with them. You might get an upgrade or some miles out of it, but more important than all that is letting the airline know that this is something they need to be training their flight attendants to deal with.

Happy travels, all of you! May you never have to deal with a situation like this!

AV Flox is the section editor of Love & Sex and Health on BlogHer. You can connect with her on Twitter @avflox, Google Plus +AV Flox, or e-mail her directly at av.flox AT BlogHer.com

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