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Sunday, 14 February 2010

PORN

The last thing you expect in the Polish press is a debate on the cultural values of pornography! And yet this is what I encountered: an article on porn star Sasha Grey in the December/January issue of lifestyle magazine Exclusiv, and an entirely different view in an interview with a sexologist in Wysokie Obcasy (High Heels), a weekly supplement to Gazeta Wyborcza, a very popular daily newspaper.




Sasha Grey has a myriad of services supporting her online image: she's got a website, MySpace, Twitter, tumblr, and YouTube channel. She stars in the new Steven Soderbergh film, The Girlfriend Experience. The interview with her circles around her ascension from porn to non-porn (The Girlfriend Experience scriptwriters contacted her through her MySpace), the fact that she never aspired to more than being a porn star, in fact she treats her job very seriously and executes it with honest passion. She lists Nouvelle Vague films as a source of inspiration, and is proud and open about her conscious decision to 'revolutionize the porn business creatively and let go of stereotypes'. She says she wanted to change the image of women who act in porn movies, as 'they are not victims forced to do something against their will, nor drugged prostitutes delivered en masse by pimps'.  She admits it's controversial to treat one's own body as a commodity, and sex as a source of money and power, but quotes a manifesto she wrote for herself when she began her career, in which she stated she was ready to become that commodity and fulfill other people's fantasies. That is also the theme of Soderbergh's movie, she says: it's about 'independent women who make money selling their bodies on the internet, as their own decision, a cold calculation. Girls who are trapped by ruthless pimps and sell their bodies against their will - that's terrible'. Grey also says she believes every woman is a feminist in life, whether or not she supports pornography. This is just a short, and far from comprehensive, impression I got after reading the interview. The full Polish text is to be found here. All quotes are my translations.


The second article I translated in full:





A conversation about pornography for women with Alicja Długołęcka, sexologist, by Magdalena Grzebałkowska

Alicja Długołęcka: I’ll put the first film on.

[We see a young tipsy woman on screen. She’s walking through dark streets.] 

I told my friends I was going to talk to you about female pornography. They all said it’s probably some sort of lesbian films, where women have sex, and a man joins in at the end.

It’s because we assume that pornography is for men, correct? And the female kind is one where we have two women experiencing pleasure, whether authentic or not, but above all in a way that’s stimulating for a man, whose excitement is visually driven? Sad and pathetic. No lesbian would actually watch that kind of movie, it would make her sick. It’s an unbelievably stereotypical and sexist thinking pattern, without any greater analytical depth; you could say it describes the general attitude of the society towards female sexuality. There’s so much talk about how educated, assertive and independent we are, how we divorce at will and bear illegitimate children, but still it turns out we live in a culture that’s oppressive towards ourselves and our bodies.

Is real pornography for women even possible?

 Yes, but it’s harder to define. Carole Vance suggested the following: ‘Show your favourite erotic image/painting to a group of women: 1/3 will say it’s disgusting, 1/3 will say it’s funny, and 1/3 will say it’s arousing’. Similar conclusions were a result of a photo exhibition, organized by the Kiss & Tell group in San Francisco in 1990. The photos showed women in different situations: from neutral to obscene. The task of female viewers was to decide the difference between pornography and erotica, and to point out photos they considered unacceptable. It was completely impossible to make out a definite boundary.

Women don’t watch mainstream pornography?

I meet women who watch and like these movies very rarely. More often, but still quite rarely, I meet women who watch porn, because their partner finds it “therapeutic” for their relationship.

Glossy magazines recommend: ‘To have a good sex life, watch porn with your partner.’

It’s a bit ridiculous. Of course, it’s great to watch something together, but something that will stimulate the woman, too. And that doesn’t exist on the market.

[Meanwhile on screen, the young tipsy woman enters a building and meets a frog in the hall. She kisses the frog, and it turns into a woman. The end.]

That’s it? They didn’t even do anything, and it’s finished? This is supposed to be female porn?

Relax, there will be more going on in the next movie. You will witness, for example, a filmed female ejaculation. I’ll show you ‘One Night Stand’ by a young French director Émilie Jouvet. The frog movie was hers, too. Four years ago ‘One Night Stand’ won first place on the I Berlin Porn Film Festival. The film mostly contains lesbian scenes, because it’s lesbians who do the most for female porn.

[There’s several girls appearing on screen. They explain they want to star in the movie to fulfill their fantasies and break taboos.]

Those are professional actresses?

I think it’s just regular girls, the director’s friends. Look at them - they have no make-up, they’re relaxed and smiling, very ordinary. They have acne, cellulite, or small breasts. No silicon or botox. They are like us. What do they have in common with porn actresses? Well, nothing. Though I have a feeling it’s a trick, because they could be actresses pretending to be ordinary girls. But it still would be a great, and very feminine, move.

It’s an unusual start for a porn movie. Usually the actors exchange a few meaningless words and start having sex.

And here: surprise! These talks at the beginning, that’s a great psychological tactic, because they disperse our fears of entering the porn world, where the woman is treated as an object.

Can you imagine Polish women in a film like this?

I guess so, but female pornography is generally very new everywhere. These movies have only been made for ten, maybe fifteen years. Polish women who watch them are below 30, gender or art students, from queer or questioning communities. I met such women at the FAQ! festival where I did vaginal workshops. Polish girls already have a different attitude to sex, they want to experiment with their gender and sexuality. The first scene is starting - have a look.

[A club in some bunkers. Two girls start flirting with each other. They dance. It all looks like it’s filmed with an amateur camera.]


This is a representative movie for female porn?

I suppose 2005’s ‘All About Anna’ is more representative. It was made by Innocent Pictures, which is owned by Lars Von Trier’s company, Zentropa. It’s the most famous porn movie for women, very popular in Scandinavia. The women who made it were earlier the founders of Pussy Power, and wrote down the rules of porn for women.

What are those rules?

In ‘female productions’ you create female characters in a way that their desire arises from a relationship, and not only from a sexual act. The film should have a plot and continuity. Sex without context is forbidden, unless in the heroine’s dreams, fantasies. Instead of ‘gynecological porn’ there is eroticism. The point of departure is a woman’s sexual desire and pleasure, with an emphasis on closeness, passion, and sensuality. In such a film, you should see a positive view of the body: and a male body is of equal sexual value. Any images of forcing are banned, especially of fellatio, with hair-tugging and ejaculating on the woman’s face. Aside from ‘All About Anna’ the studio made ‘Constance’ (1998) and ‘Pink Prison’ (1999) in accordance with those rules.

Does ‘All About Anna’ go by those rules? Is it a porn film at all? It seemed more like a pretty erotic romance to me.

The movie fulfills the ‘stated conditions’. It has a plot, suspense, and at the same time a lot of elements of female erotic fantasies: spontaneous sex with a lover, a stranger igniting wild passion, oral sex in a dangerous place, with a woman. Sexual motives are dominant, but the story has an emotional consistency. And it’s a movie with a happy ending where love wins! The heroine is not forced to do anything, she experiences a lot of contradictory feelings, she looks for something and finally finds it. There is no ‘genital exposure’, but the body is shown without any censorship. That film is a light version of what we’re watching now. From my sexological perspective, it’s ‘One Night Stand’ that’s more important. I show fragments of that movie to women as a self-assessment method. They can confront their feelings, because watching images of strictly sexual content can, aside from a cognitive value, be arousing.

So pornography can be used in sex therapy for women?

Of course. Already in the 80s there was a film company Femme Films. The majority of their films was produced and directed by an actress, Candida Royalle. In 1995 she published a book: ‘XXX: A Woman’s Right to Pornography’, which was a manifesto for female-friendly pornography. Her movies were used in counseling and sex therapy, because they portray sex realistically and emotionally, and fulfill the partnership conditions in sexual relationships.

But let’s get back to what we see on screen. Tell me about your reactions.

It’s already 15 minutes into the film, and they are still warming up. Is this all supposed to be foreplay, which is absent in mainstream pornography?

Yes. It’s a modern, and at the same time female version of foreplay. It’s not making sweet eyes across the room: there’s loud music, eye contact, jealousy and a crowd of people, so an element of risk. The girls go to the club’s basement, and one of them is getting ready to make a move. Another stereotype has been broken, the assumption that if it’s two women in female porn, it has to be beautiful long dresses and nice interiors. And here we have regular girls in a club. We believe it could actually happen. Did you ever see fisting?

Vaginal or anal penetration with a fist? Oh no, I don’t know if I can handle that on screen.

It’s great that you say that. Please watch this scene to find out.

[The action is moving forward, the women are kissing passionately and are partially undressed, one of them is going down on the other, then puts on a rubber glove and puts lubricant on it. Loud music in the background.]

Do you find it repulsive?

I’m amazed, but actually I don’t. But why did I expect to find fisting repulsive, if I’ve never seen it before?

You probably assumed it would be a monstrous physical impact. But if you gave birth to a child, you know how much can a vagina stretch. Additionally it’s our girlish self-consciousness that often tells us that female organs are ugly, and showing and watching them is linked to a loss of dignity. How many more generations until our daughters can think the vagina is “alright”?

Is fisting close to sadomasochistic sex?

A little. That’s why we started to watch the movie from a controversial scene. I sometimes show my students scenes from this movie, because it presents sexual norms that are not accepted by some. And they should develop non-judgmental attitudes. You can see in this scene that the situation is pleasurable for both women, so it adheres to the so-called norm. There is no faking. We believe they really are sweaty, aroused, and one of the will really have an orgasm. Nobody is hurt in any way.

[The girl stimulated by the other girl’s hand is starting to touch her own clitoris.]

And additionally, it has an educational value.

What do you mean?

We see a tutorial on vaginal and clitoral stimulation. This girl is touching her clitoris patiently, for a long time, and in many ways, just like it happens in real life. Only in porn movies does a woman have orgasm after orgasm as a result of traditional intercourse. And that’s why this scene is believable, because every woman who has ever had an orgasm can recognize something of herself in here. She can think: ‘I’m OK, I even make sounds like those girls in the movie, and not like in some porn film where it’s all staged’. Seeing these images, a woman can masturbate, because the scene’s length will correspond with the time she might need to reach orgasm. Watching a classic porn film, she’d have to rewind a scene a few times for that, because it happens way too fast. And here, they even promote safe sex. It’s a casual encounter, so they use protection in form of gloves. OK, let’s jump to another scene.

[Two people kissing in a hallway.]

It’s a girl we could identify with. An ordinary Parisian. Pretty, but you can see she’s got cellulite, her tights will rip and make-up smudge. Her partner is a queer person. He is a great lover.

Oh, something is blocked. It’s probably because so many women watched that film. Let’s fast forward to the foreplay scene.

Were there movies like that before?

Not really, and that’s probably why this one won the festival, as the audiences decided it was the way forward. Ordinary pornography has oppressive and kitsch connotations. And here you see that if women start doing it themselves, porn doesn’t have to be bad by default, but it has to have certain traits to fit in their needs. Women identify with a movie better when it’s natural, when nothing is fake.

So earlier there was nothing for us?

There was something, there’s soft porn movies like ‘Emmanuelle’ from 1974, with nice music and sophisticated scenes. Back in the day I wasn’t opposed to them, but I’d be concerned to show them to modern, thinking women.

They’d die laughing?

No, these 70s films can still charm today. It’s the ideology: they are very sexist. Even worse than regular pornography, because the sexism is dressed up in a nice disguise. What’s awful in those films are beautiful, ‘emancipated’ women who do everything to please their partner. And they pretend it’s a great joy for themselves. There’s pseudo-lesbian subplots. Female porn is also a way of filming, it’s important how the lovers look at each other, and you can see they are close. Contemporary mass culture tries relentlessly to please male audiences, because it centers on visual stimuli and on every occasion uses contexts linked to male (and not female) sexuality. So it’s no wonder that to a lot of feminist activists in the 80s, pornography was an extreme expression of male desire and a pure symbol of patriarchy.

And it’s not like that?

From the initiative of famous feminists Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon there was a proposal for censuring pornography. Most feminist theorists are opposed to the fact that women are shown as objects for consumption, but also to the linking of sex and violence. In traditional pornography, women derive pleasure from humiliation, and violence has an erotic side for them. Despite a general consensus on these points, there were feminists who protested, arguing that any censorship is against the basic values of liberation movements. The controversy in the community remains red hot to this day.

So pornography for women exists?

A German director, Jutta Bruckner, proposed that a dominant model of sex in porn films is ‘a man working on a woman’s body, where a prize for both is a splash of sperm’, but she didn’t discredit pornography altogether. Like many women, she just thought the male version of pornography was boring, and she used an interesting comparison of female sexual sensitivity to dreaming. Dreaming is a more intuitive form of perception, not clearly distinguishing between what’s internal and what external, it’s open to imagination and feelings, and not to overview, repetition, and logic, as it happens in male pornography. Women who are in favour of pornography often reject traditional images and search for their own language in porn which would suit their sensitivities better.

[Meanwhile we manage to fast forward the film to the scene in the flat. The lovers are already in bed.]

Look how patient this lover is. Now he’s stimulating the frontal wall of her vagina, the mysterious G-spot. In a classic porn movie there would already be at least one ejaculation.

And then there’s a problem, because men watch their porn and are pathetic in bed.

The schematism of typical porn movies creates a perception of the woman as a piece of high quality electronic equipment. You press a button, you turn a switch, and the effect is guaranteed. I’m not criticizing men in themselves, because many of them really have good intentions and a distance to what they’re watching. I’m criticizing pornography as a confirmation of male stereotypes with regard to sexuality, with equal damage to both sexes. Men in porn films are just as unhappy - they have to have ejaculation after ejaculation (usually it’s soap sprayed from the off), fulfill certain penis size conditions (which really has tertiary importance in sex), and fake arousal at the sight of the actresses (hard work). This is a problem mainly for young men, because they learn unrealistic and damaging behaviour. With these models, they will have huge complexes, and a funny picture of female sexuality.

[The girl in the movie has an orgasm, and vaginal ejaculation. It looks a bit like she wet the bed.]

Is this real female ejaculation?

I think so. This girl was saying in the beginning of the movie that it was the first time it had happened to her.

I’ll show you another extremely female scene with two girls. They will be uncomfortable, but determined. Satisfied yet lonely.

[On screen we see two young women sitting at a table in a room. You see they don’t have much to say to each other. One gets up and leaves. The other is remembering when a few minutes ago, they were having sex in a small toilet cubicle.]

Look at their acting, what’s happening to their faces. It could be they are faking it like that, but they do it in such a way that we believe them completely. This scene is less than 15 minutes - that’s pretty short for both of them to orgasm.

[One of the girls orgasms.]

It doesn’t look like she’s faking that one.

Exactly. But what does it have in common with female orgasms in male pornography? With the rhythmic ‘ah ah ah’ in monotone?

[End of movie. Émilie Jouvet, the director, before 30, in a pink fairy suit, waves us goodbye with her wand.]

A magician, a nice girl, who made the movie. She gave women an opportunity to have fun, and for some to discover their sexualities in the process. The director found a good way to get into the female psyche - no forcing, an opportunity to ask questions, follow your fantasies.

So a patient comes to see you after watching this movie, and says...

That she had a problem with this or that scene in it. I of course assume that watching porn is great and therapeutic for women, and watching a movie like that, they can think about what’s it like with themselves. They don’t have to experience a similar adventure, but they can imagine, where would it go, what would be arousing for them. To awaken sexually, we have to send a signal from the brain to the body from time to time. As a ‘female sexologist’ I am all for putting various sexual content to our heads in a controlled way, also things that break our rules. Pornography in a traditional sense can have the effect of a physical block. Whereas this kind of movie can feed the imagination.

It’s a strange thing to say, but I’m sad after watching bits of ‘One Night Stand’.

Cause you envy these girls?

Maybe a bit, but also because it shows really important things, and so few women and men will see them. We’re all like children walking in the fog.

It made you sad, and it gave me a feeling of loneliness that women experience in the sex sphere. There’s nobody you can honestly talk to. Most of us, women, are lonely atoms, even if we happen to have a phase of great sex in life. Please notice that we watched some hardcore porn scenes, but instead of feeling embarrassed or laugh, as we probably would to a traditional porn film, we felt some kind of female solidarity and communication, saying: “Look, this is what it really looks like”.

What is the male response to this film?

First time I saw it was in a cinema. It was a festival movie, of course, so a niche audience. But I was under the impression that men were moved. If I was a guy, I would go through a shock and then think a lot, about what I really know of sex. Not everyone wants to be conscious of him- or herself, and of the other person, because it’s the hard way. So you can easily stay in the porn reality clichés - that glitzy, kitschy kind, bordering on ridicule.

Where can women take these movies from?

Nowhere. Our conversation is ahead of the times. The movie we saw is probably available on the internet in French, and ‘All About Anna’ - in English and Danish. There are three strands of female pornography. The first is movies like ‘One Night Stand’ in the harder extreme and ‘All About Anna’ in the lighter: sources for imagination and ‘self-education’. The second is socially conscious and artistic cinema, where women expose stereotypes. And third - satirical, intended strictly to criticize male pornography. It’s all very fresh, only two years ago I wrote the first article on female pornography to an academic journal. Maybe it really is strictly sexologist material, but at the same time an expression of cultural change.



I found that interview extremely interesting, but also extremely controversial in parts. Is female porn essentially lesbian porn? Is a blowjob offensive for a woman? Is all oral sex equally offensive for people in general? Is sex that does not arise from a relationship bad? Oppressive? An instrument of power? Whereas if lovers are close to each other, it's all good? I realize I'm picking on words here and the poor sexologist just wanted to get her discipline of study a bit more exposure, so she talked about all kinds of things at once, and perhaps imprecisely. But especially in confrontation with figures like Sasha Grey, the question about rules and ethics in pornography comes back. Her MySpace is actually quite similar to that of Émilie Jouvet, the filmmaker and photographer mentioned for her feature film 'One Night Stand'. Both seem extremely dedicated and active in their communities. Grey, whose adopted last name is supposedly a tribute to Dorian Gray, says: 'I wanted to express my sexuality as a strong woman, to push my own boundaries ...  I wanted to do all of this in a sex positive way.' Jouvet uses the same expression to describe her documentary (trailer featured on website) : 'TOO MUCH PUSSY! Feminist Sluts in The Queer X Show is a sex-positive road-movie ... about the wild adventures of 7 women on a performance art tour'. On her French blog she calls it 'un documentaire féministe pro-sexe'. Jouvet has a MySpace and YouTube as well. Grey keeps repeating she is 'not sexually abused', 'not on drugs', and what she does is always 'consensual'. Her attitude is almost defensive, glazed over with her self-confidence: 'I am a woman who strongly believes in what she does — it is time that our society comes to grips with the fact that "normal" people (women especially) enjoy perverse sex.' Despite citing highbrow inspirations, the conceptual scope of her self-presentation appears limited, and sometimes you wonder what it is that she really means ('Despite the controversy that surrounds this industry, I felt I could ultimately bring an enigmatic quality to it. ... I hope to inspire people from all walks of life, and to collaborate with innovative individuals (bohemians welcome).') Jouvet, in contrast, doesn't write too much, but mostly posts videos - of interviews, too, but mostly of the stuff she does. So seemingly, she is less self-absorbed and lets her work speak for itself. She quotes Bertha Harris in that a woman's central organ one that makes us different, strong, and artists, is the brain and not the uterus. She promotes safe sex. Which is more 'ordinary', or 'natural'? Grey is interested in mainstream heterosexuality - but she invited 'bohemians'; Jouvet explores alternative sexualities. Grey speaks like she's the girl next door, Jouvet shows girls who seem at the same time ordinary and extremely extraordinary. I am immediately disposed to be suspicious about Grey, as if her saying she does what she likes was not enough, because she also probably wants to be every man's ultimate dream, a sexy babe who enjoys fucking - but isn't that a steak of total stereotypes? Who am I to decide whether by doing what she says she strongly believes in,  she somehow also is catering to the uncool majority, with or without knowing it? If Sasha Grey starred in an Émilie Jouvet film, would that make her better and more credible? Are we supposed to like one type of thing and not another? Find one thing arousing and another only superficially so? Who decides when one's dignity is compromised and when it isn't? 

Meanwhile, Love magazine publishes a bunch of photos that echo Jouvet's themes very well [via Huffington Post]. But those models are not really so alternative. So is it the image, or is it ultimately who you are? You being the model, photographer, film director, costume designer, lights set-up person? Is authenticity a factor that brings explicit imagery closer to pornography, or further from it? If it's staged, is it art? If it's real, is it life? Etc, etc.


 
  
 


I have no answers, but one thing I know for sure: I want to see these movies hailed as female porn! Is this a good marketing strategy then? 'One Night Stand' is available off Jouvet's website. Innocent Pictures, 'the world's only company producing erotic mainstream feature films with explicit sex', have a shop with 'All About Anna', the mentioned 'Constance', 'Pink Prison', and even the 70s 'Emmanuelle', but also.. 'Deep Throat' or 'Marquis de Sade'. A very interesting-looking website: Porn movies for Women. There's an entire section on Female Directors. Enjoy!

3 comments:

Ned said...

This was a really interesting post! The interview and the movement are really fascinating (and really difficult). I agree with you though that there are some controversies to the interview.
One point I found a little difficult was the idea of 'three strands of porn'. I know it's semantics, but talking about pornography as educational or artistic isn't really porn by definition. Isn't pornography meant to be a consumer product? Something which entertains or arouses but is still ultimately throwaway?
Maybe the question is how to accept that the final product is something perhaps to be consumed gratuitously by men and women, but that the bodies of the actors aren't. The emphasis being on something that both genders can comfortably consume. But then, gender is something subjective that goes beyond male and female; sexuality, even further.
It's a massive question and the more I think about it the bigger it gets.

A funny little point just occurred to me as well, if you do treat porn as art, or as educational, then you may end up applying a critical value to it, and if the sexual experience of the actors really is authentic, doesn't it seem a bit oppressive upon the individual sexuality to do so? After all, not all people are sexually compatible in either their tastes or actions as a lover. (That one's total open to criticism, well, it all is really)

Anyway, babble, any thoughts? brilliant post!
x

marta lucy summer said...

Thanks for your comment Ned! Very good point on the inherent temporary/throwaway quality of porn - I think I agree, though all this hustle is obviously about 'what if' it was anything more.. Like with anything, I think it merits debate, but it's maybe important to remember that if porn is porn it serves a certain purpose. As always though, the biggest trouble is serving even just that one purpose becomes complicated because of the mediation, and representation contained within.. It's like you say - the more you think about it, the bigger it gets, haha. I really like your idea of the distinction between the product and the actors' bodies. And the point you make about its near-always present oppressive quality: no porn is ever wide enough to cover all the spectrum of individual sexualities; like you say, it's all very subjective. I guess there's just better and worse tries, and ultimately, porn is not something that receives attention for how well it represents reality -- not much does, anyway -- but certain conditions to do with representation are as important as they are in anything else.

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