Sex: Ethical porn and exploitation

Sarah McDonald reviews: Anne G Sabo, 'After pornified: how women are transforming pornography and why it really matters'. Zero Books, 2012, pp245, £12.99

Female fantasies
 “Throughout the centuries men are the ones who have speculated about sexuality; women have never had the opportunity to define it for themselves”

 

Referring in its title to Pamela Paul’s Pornified (a book that is a less than nuanced, moralised view of contemporary culture from a bourgeois feminist perspective), Anne G Sabo’s After pornified really does little to combat the arguments of either Pornified, Ariel Levy’s Female chauvinist pigs or others of their ilk. She does, in the final chapter, take on Gail Dines (anti-porn feminist and author of Pornland) to an extent. Nevertheless, the title is perhaps misleading.

What the book does, however, is engage in a thorough, detailed exploration of pornography, particularly in film form, that has been directed and produced for women, by women. The idea being that through such films women are positively changing porn in a way that is sexually empowering.

There is a view held by radical anti-porn feminists that, in the words of Robin Morgan, “pornography is the theory; rape the practice”. There is also a more widely held view among feminists and among many on the left that porn should just be condemned as objectifying, sexist and exploitative. This is, in my view, not wholly accurate: it is a crude simplification that fails to take into account the depth and variety of the porn industry, the sex industry in general and its practices.

Sabo’s book looks at a range of films and vignettes that have been made by women, describing the scenarios in detail and analysing how they differ from mainstream porn. One of the most progressive practices she highlights is the consideration for the wellbeing of the actors and actresses in female porn producer Candida Royalle’s works. She employs safe-sex practices, HIV screening, condoms, etc. Also, couples who have a sexual relationship off screen are paired together.

In terms of the movies themselves, Sabo distinguishes the work of Candida (curiously the female producers/directors are referred to in first-name terms throughout) from mainstream porn, in that it is filmed in a different way. Both partners are given camera time, and the POV (‘point of view’ shot) is neither solely that of the male actor nor that of the anonymous voyeur. The body language from both actors is responsive, consensual and warm.

Sabo decries the typical ‘money shot’, where traditionally the male actor will ejaculate on the woman (normally the face/lips) and she will gratefully lick off the semen. This is all fine and well, but it does strike me as rather, well, dull. If watching a warm, intimate scene turns you on, then good, but the same could be said of a three-way, of an orgy, of gay or gender-bending porn, of BDSM - whatever in the myriad of clips out there floats your boat (so long as it is consensually made and no-one really gets hurt).

Aroused or repulsed?

Sabo refers to a study in which women view two clips: one by Candida Royalle and another of standard porn. This revealed a difference between the physical and verbal responses: “The measurements of the women’s physical arousal showed that the women responded equally - and powerfully - to both clips.” However, they “reported being annoyed, repulsed, disgusted and decidedly not turned on” by the mainstream porn film, “while they said they were excited, amused and aroused” by Royalle’s piece (p36).

Other studies have also indicated that straight women’s physical response to pornography differs considerably from what they say turns them on (often straightforward ‘vanilla’, hetero sex). So, while these women may genuinely be “annoyed” or “disgusted” intellectually by what they see, it certainly has a powerful effect on them sexually.

Sabo looks at what she considers makes good porn, judging it by its production values: script, soundtrack, convincing acting, convincing sets, convincing moaning … you get the picture. She also looks at the ‘political’ commitment: camera angles that are democratic and do not exclusively portray the male gaze; appropriating and revising erotic fantasy; depicting pleasure in ways other than the traditional ‘money shot’ described above; confronting censorship and shame, and so on. Fair enough: such considerations ought certainly to lead to more artistic productions.

Puzzy Power, a subsidiary of Lars Von Trier’s company, Zentopia, started producing hardcore films aimed at women, claiming they are “based on women’s pleasure and desire” and focus on “feelings, passions, sensuality, intimacy and the lead-up”. The beauty of the body, both male and female, must be emphasised, not just the genitalia. Subtle humour is welcome. The films can be set in the past or present. Banned are scenes where women are subjected to violence or coercion, and especially “the oral sex scene where the woman is coerced to perform fellatio, her hair pulled hard, and come is squirted into her face”. However, “it is fully acceptable to film female fantasies in which the woman is raped/assaulted by an anonymous man/a bit of rough trade, if it is clear from the plot that what we are seeing is a woman living out her fantasy, perhaps by agreement with her significant other” (p56).

In Sabo’s view, only one of Puzzy Power’s films, Pink prison, lives up to its manifesto statements, while the others give way to conventional porn stereotypes. Perhaps this is down to the men in the production process, societal norms, conventional tastes … or maybe there is actually something fundamentally appealing about the traditional pornography format, after all.

Sabo describes the work of one of Britain’s leading female porno film makers, Anna Span. Span originally came from an anti-porn, feminist background, but could not deny that there was something about pornography that is fundamentally alluring. While a film student, she started producing her own porn movies. Span, according to Sabo, was a member of Feminists Against Censorship, founded in 1989: “Anna has been an advocate for feminist porn since she started making her own ... She has pushed for regular health screenings for people in the industry, including free testing for STIs and HIV, already granted to others whose work exposes them to physical contact, such as boxers. And she has fought the British law’s prohibition of porn featuring female ejaculation - which it defines as urination and therefore obscene to portray, according to the British Obscene Publications Act (OPA). In 2007, she was presented with the award for Indie Porn Pioneer at the second annual Feminist Porn Awards” (p95).

Her movies certainly seem a lot more fun, featuring explicit, steamy sex, a focus on ‘anal and oral’, and humorous play on acronyms (the ‘A&O’, as opposed to A&E, department). Her films have less hang-ups than Candida Royalle’s and feature light-hearted experimentation between girlfriends and such. Her camera angles veer away from those of traditional porn and tend towards those we are more familiar with within mainstream film and TV.

Span’s progressiveness stops there though, seemingly. She stood as a Liberal Democrat candidate in 2012, under her married name (how feminist), Anna Arrowsmith. Among her campaign points were not only “mandatory, comprehensive human sexuality education that covers wide ground and starts early” (fair enough), but “an age limit on web pages with adult content”. Try enforcing that. “In her capacity as chair of the Adult Industry Trade Association, Anna has overseen the industry’s work with the relevant authorities to try to prevent underage access to pornography online.” Ah, censorship - wasn’t she opposed to that?

Art or porn?

Sabo’s comprehensive description of the work of artists, producers and collectives all have a similar theme. High production values, an artistic style, sometimes humour, clever use of music, intimacy, plot, dialogue and a focus on female gratification. It is hard for me to ascertain, as (probably in part due to its niche market and possibly also all of the above adding to production cost) I have not been able to find any of these films free online, but I find myself asking the question: at which point do these films cross the line that marks the boundary of art, or art house cinema, and step into the realm of pornography?

Let us take the two examples of Fiona Banner’s 2002 Turner Prize entry, Arsewoman in Wonderland, and the 2000 French film, Baise-moi (‘Fuck me’), directed by Virginie Despontes and Corlaie Trinh Thi, in order to make a comparison: Banner’s work featured her own full, descriptive transcripts of porn movies written on the gallery wall and was incredibly seductive; Baise-moi featured real, fairly violent sex with real porn actresses - but neither could be labelled pornography. And, at the end of the day, does it matter? Do we need to impose moral values upon either? In Caitlin Moran’s book, How to be a woman, the author draws a distinction between burlesque (just good, dirty fun) and strip clubs (degrading, exploitative, etc). In other words, to use the old adage, ‘What turns you on is pornographic; what turns me on is erotica’.

Sabo makes the point that there is no great benefit in making a moral distinction between what is erotic art and what is deemed pornography, yet she does go on to distinguish between what she considers ‘high-quality’ and what is ‘bad’ or ‘extreme’ - but surely all these things exist on a continuum. With certain qualified exceptions (snuff movies and the like), surely this comes down to a matter of personal preference. She, like the anti-porn feminists, is against anything that is depicted as non-consensual (including animated images biting into a woman). While it can be argued that such violent scenarios might inspire men to rape (and in some tiny minority of cases this may be true), in general, men (and women) can differentiate between fantasy and reality. Most people will idly fantasise about things they would never do in real life. It is perhaps a more measured argument to say that this provides a safe fantasy area in which to delve into these scenarios rather than mimic them in reality.

When it comes to violence in porn movies, it still makes up a fairly small proportion. There have been studies showing that around two percent of porn films have scenes of non-consensual aggression by men against women, some of which includes things like spanking. Only around 0.5% show extreme violence. It is safe to say that, while most may find such things unsavoury, they are far from as rife as certain liberal feminists would have us believe.

A common argument against mainstream porn is that it leads males (especially young men and boys) to arrive at an unrealistic perception of what the female body ought to look like. Actually, if we are worried about how teenage boys (or teenage girls, for that matter) view the female body, compare mainstream TV shows with internet porn and you will find that porn is definitely more representative in all sorts of ways. With fetishism, for example, there will a wider range of body shapes and ages than those observed on most TV programmes aimed at the teen demographic. And if we are concerned that porn encourages an unrealistic and unhealthy view of the female body, then what about sex toys aimed at women? As Dr Brook Magnanti points out in her book The sex myth, no-one is crying out for the Rampant Rabbit to be banned because it will warp female perception of penis size.

Sabo’s book offers the idea of ‘progressive porn’ - a ‘good’ or ‘gourmet’ porn, a porn made by women that offers an alternative to the mainstream and can encourage people to have better sex. This is obviously a great idea in theory and there should be an increasing space for such material out there. But when Sabo poses this ideal against mainstream pornography I find that she makes too many sweeping generalisations. She has a tendency to write off mainstream porn as a purely male thing, which it increasingly is not (there are more and more female directors); as violent (as I have pointed out, this accounts for a very small minority); and as constraining (in fact, the internet has led to a very diversified porn industry - gone is the all-pervasive white, busty California blonde of 1990s DVDs).

Sabo regards mainstream porn as exploitative against women. It is and this ought not to be defended, but it is arguably more exploitative of the men featured in such films, who are paid less, are placed under extreme pressure (to, say, maintain their erections) and are more easily replaceable. There again, it is ABC for Marxists to point out that all workers are exploited - we are obliged to sell our labour-power, often performing tasks that we would rather not be doing.

To conclude, After pornified offers a well researched study of a movement that is evidently close to the author’s heart. She writes passionately about the subject and discusses it in depth. She is an expert in the field, with over a decade’s experience in research of female pornography behind her.

Despite this, I was left feeling a little unfulfilled. In part this is down to the title having led me to believe the book would represent more of a political challenge to the view held by the Pamela Pauls of this world. But mostly it was because I could not help but feel - while it is good that some pornographers are sincerely aiming for a more ethical outcome - sometimes you could just do with a good burger.

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