Digital Manners: Watching Porn on a Plane

Navigating the intersection of etiquette and technology.
Dec. 20 2011 7:29 AM

Porn at 30,000 Feet (Transcript)

Farhad Manjoo and Emily Yoffe debate the question: Should you alert the flight crew if a nearby passenger is watching porn on the plane?

Farhad Manjoo:  Ladies and gentleman, for our in-flight entertainment this afternoon… porn!

Emily Yoffee:  I’m Emily Yoffe, Slate’s Dear Prudence advice columnist.

Farhad Manjoo:  I’m Slate’s technology columnist, Farhad Manjoo. And this is Manners for the Digital Age.

Emily:  Today’s question is from a listener who takes issue with her fellow airplane passenger’s taste in movies. Her name is Sally and she’s on the phone with us. Sally, thanks so much for your letter and for talking to us today. Why don’t you just go ahead and read what you wrote to us?

Sally:  Okay. 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. Any suggestions or is this just another surprise dividend of air travel in the digital age?

Farhad:  Wow.

Emily:  Talk about snakes on a plane, huh?

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Farhad:  I’ve always wondered whether people actually thought to do this because you’re on a plane ride for so long, but I can’t believe you actually saw this. Sally, what did you eventually end up doing? Did you just stay there throughout the whole flight?

Sally:  I did, and I did not do anything other than try to avert my eyes, but it’s hard to not see. The spaces are so tight.

Emily:  Did he make any attempt to shield you and your family from this?

Sally:  No, uh-uh, nope!

Farhad:  Do you know if other passengers saw it, and especially if the flight attendant saw it?

Sally:  I don’t know. I don’t know what people see when they go up and down the aisle. It was one of those little private DVD players. Maybe there’s glare on the screen. Nobody said anything as far as I could tell, and none of the flight attendants said anything.

Emily:  I’m always the one to call in the authorities in these chats, but this is just gross. And you’re absolutely right. 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.”

Farhad:  I suspect that watching actual pornography probably violates rules on the plane – maybe even federal … the law in some way. I think that the flight attendant would’ve done something in that instance.

Emily:  People have to recognize, even if you think you’re in your own private sphere, you’re in a public space.

Farhad:  Emily, did you hear about this other story? The European airline, Ryanair. The chief executive said recently that they may consider adding porn to their in-flight lineup. So perhaps it’s something that many customers have requested.

Emily:  Is this an all first-class, one of those you’re in your little…

Farhad:  No. This is actually one of the budget airlines.

Emily:  Oh, my goodness.

Sally:  My goodness.

Emily:  Okay. Well, then everyone will be given a parachute and the option of either watch porn or get off the plane.

Farhad:  I think that we’re all agreeing that watching porn on a plane is really out of bounds, and that if you see it, you should alert the authorities. But Emily, I think a more common scenario is not watching porn, but watching an R-rated movie, which I’ve done on a plane. And then, suddenly, you’re not expecting it – this racy scene comes on and you wonder what you should do. Should you turn off the movie? Can other people see?

What do you think about watching an R-rated movie on a plane?

Emily:  I have to say an R-rated movie is fine. It’s not explicitly porn. Yeah, R-rated movies can be racy, but they’re shown in theaters. You’re not just watching a piece of something explicitly sexual just for sexual arousal. You’re watching a movie and there could be a scene of a plane crash. Try to turn the screen if you see there’s a kid next to you.

Sally:  What about a slasher movie or some very violent movie?

Emily:  I think that’s another good point. Again, I think if you have a child near you and the content was not something that would be shown as the main movie on an airplane and it clearly would be disturbing to a child, in that case if it’s not porn, you might want to say, “I’m sorry to bother you. Do you have any other movies you could watch? My grandchild is seeing some of this and getting really upset.”

Sally:  Right.

Farhad:  I agree with you there. I think a plane is kind of a special place, because we’re captive, we can’t move, we’re all stuck in our seats. You really have to consider your neighbors in that circumstance. I think that you’re perfectly within your rights to ask the person who’s watching a movie very close to you to change the movie or perhaps the change the angle of their iPad so that you can’t see it or your child can’t see it – even if it’s not porn.

Emily:  So, Sally, did your granddaughter notice this? What was the outcome for your family?

Sally:  No, she didn’t. I was in the middle seat so I kept my arm up so that she would not go over there it. It was an evening flight so she fell asleep fairly soon after we got going. My daughter did see it, however.

Farhad:  I have to say, I don’t want to presume too much or psychoanalyze this stranger I don’t know, but I imagine that having other people see this was part of the point. Maybe that’s what he was getting off on.

Sally:  I kind of thought so, too.

Emily:  Well, if that becomes really obvious it’s time for you to be moved to first class.

Sally:  Yeah. And of course, the plane was completely full. Every single seat was taken.

Emily:  Naturally!

Sally:  But had it become obvious, I would’ve said something for sure.

Emily:  On the other hand, the flight attendant could make an announcement. If there’s a row where people would like to be watching pornography, we’re doing some musical chairs here.

Well, we’re sorry you had to go through this. Let’s hope this never happens to you again. But the flight attendants should be able to handle this one.

Sally:  Yes, they should be the ones. And I think I would say something the next time.

Farhad:  You could probably even write to your airline now and probably get a nice coupon or something.

Sally:  Now there’s a good idea.

Farhad:  At least get a free checked back the next time you fly.

Sally:  I like that idea. I think I might try that.

Farhad: Send us your questions about shifting etiquette in the online age. Our address is digitalmanners@slate.com

Emily:  You can also join our Facebook page where we carry on the conversation throughout the week.  Go to www.Facebook.com/digitalmanners.

Farhad:  And we’ll talk to you next time on Manners for the Digital Age.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column.