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Out of the Vault—Hardcore and the New Anti-Porn Movement

Guy Rundle

Guy Rundle makes a case for considering pornography on the scale of human sexuality.

Saturdays were the worst at Lovecraft adult books and supplies. The shift went from ten in the morning to midnight—from the boredom of the first hours, the arrival of regulars and tourists in the early afternoon, to the full horror of a Saturday night in a shop full of dildos and spank mags, fifty metres from Leicester Square.

Most adult shops can rely on a quiet, even meek, clientele, desperate not to be noticed. But Lovecraft was different, a beacon in plain sight to those who would normally never darken the doors of such an establishment. For those unwilling to dive into the maw of Soho, those coming out of the pubs fuelled by Dutch courage and those who were simply passing by, it was the place to go in search of answers. Around seven in the evening, the lads in London for the football, from the north and Wales, would come in—packs of five or six, same look, blue jeans and neat untucked shirt, wetted-back hair and acne. The move was always the same, too: they scoped the wall of magazine covers—everything from Penthouse to the Scandinavian Ramstad series to sad British glossies like Readers Wives—pass over the books and VHS, and then alight on the groaning shelves of dildiana. There were hundreds of moulded, batteryfied penises—white (i.e. northern Caucasian pinkish), black, purple and transparent, standing proud, awaiting orders. The array would silence them for a second—some of those damn things were purely for a joke, torpedo-sized and then someone would inevitably say, ‘Mine’s bigger than that.’

Huge laughter from the boys, putting off the moment when they would have to go to happy hour shots clubs and talk to real girls and women. They could occasionally get lively; they would occasionally have to be ushered out or shamed into line—one developed as many put-downs as a circuit stand-up, the most effective being ‘[I’m here because] I get paid, you can’t get laid’, and it would quiet down again until ten, when the hens nights came in.

Later I would compare notes with other porn attendants and the verdict would be unanimous—hens parties were the worst. They were far from the only women coming in to Lovecraft—a good 30 per cent of our trade was the humble vibrator, or modestly realistic dildo, to women of all ages and types—but they were the ones with whom feminine power was concentrated, and roaring free. They were celebrating marriage, whose guarantee, inter alia and pro tem, was regular, routine and at-hand sex—the one thing the portly raincoat brigade and young lonely men in the store lacked. The place reeked of sexual starvation, and then ten drunk girls wearing spangled cowboy hats would crowd in, as if a reminder of deprivation had pursued our clientele into the sanctum. (Like all adult stores, Lovecraft was windowless, cavernous. Sometimes the pink, colour of porn and princesses, got to you, and then it was like being on the inside of a giant vagina, as if the vault had got you for good.)

There was no sense trying to tackle the girls if it got wild. Everything would have got quickly out of hand. ‘Don’t touch me, you horrible man,’ one said as I once tried to herd a group to the door. ‘You’re all horrible men!’ Eight pairs of shoulders browsing the racks sagged in unison. ‘Jumping Jack Flash’ was on the radio that played through the PA. The hen—she was in rabbit ears, but anyway—grabbed a dildo, wielded it from her groin and began dancing ‘Nurk nurk nurknurknurk nurknurk nurk nurknurk NURK NURK!’—a dumbshow of paradoxical sexual power that, out on the street, would have got her arrested or an arts grant, or both. (I wonder where she is now? Somewhere in the Midlands humming ‘The Ballad of Lucy Jordan’, I suspect.)

It was the mid nineties. Porn had become normal, nothing to be ashamed of, but you still had to go and get it, somehow. Cable TV and hotel PAY-PER-VIEW, at least in Britain, were not yet the pornucopia they would become, and the web was still dial-up for those who had it all. Within a decade the shop, which at that point was making ₤30,000 profit a month, would be on the verge of closing for lack of business. It was impossible to know whether that warranted a cheer, or a heritage preservation order. The world was changing faster than anyone realised.

The Lovecraft days came back to me while I was reading Gail Dines’ Pornland, the most recent and well publicised in a small revival of the anti-porn feminist current that had a degree of importance, even cultural dominance, in the social movements of the late seventies and eighties. By the time I joined Lovecraft, the movement had long since lost its influence, for reasons still keenly debated. Most visibly represented by the twin figures of Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon, anti-porn feminism—just one aspect of a broader approach—could turn out rallies, run large campus networks, see campaigns extend to sexism in advertising and the like, and mount legal challenges to the porn industry. In the process it elaborated a fairly ‘strong-association’ argument concerning the relation between porn and sexual violence.

That, say some, was its downfall—the lawsuits forced on it a reductive argument, in order to show real harm and, in the United States, remove porn from the realm of first-amendment-protected speech. It also threw the movement into alliance with Christian fundamentalism, provoking bitter splits and disarray. Then, in the late eighties, the ground appeared to shift under the movement. By that time, the last of the major and clear political demands originating in second-wave feminism—such as affirmative action and sexual harassment law—had been won; nothing now bound together what remained of the movement, since ongoing struggles presented themselves as indefinite campaigns to change whole social behaviours, such as legitimised domestic violence. Other issues, and porn was one, had supporters and opponents within the movement, and only larger common cause had delayed a wider split. But principally, in the late eighties, forms of subjectivity and cultural projection appeared to be changing. The current that had powered anti-porn flowed increasingly into social-identity politics and notions of who could speak about what when how.

Other currents arose, such as the riot grrrl movement, which celebrated liberation through positive cultural appropriation rather than oppositional campaigns. Increasingly, as the society of the spectacle developed to its second and third generation, the notion of trying to stop something as widespread as the mass- media production of a subgenre came to seem not merely difficult, but a category error. Down in California’s San Fernando Valley, the porn industry, its market vastly expanded by the VCR, ploughed on. The Berlin Wall came down, global capitalism was triumphant, and its ‘ethic’—that everything could be commodified without loss of meaning—fused with the rising demand for and accessibility of porn. Suddenly in the nineties, it was not merely all around us, but at hand—a crucial cultural taboo about its use had been broken for millions. It became by turns conceivable to watch it, then fashionable, then simply a part of some people’s lives. Though boys and men were far more likely to return to it repeatedly, both sexes were likely to watch it—and many of the young women, had they come of age a decade earlier, would more likely have cleaved to an anti-porn position. In retrospect, it was clear that the eighties—for all the Baudrillard and ‘greed is good’—had been a puritan decade, money crowding out more polymorphous desires, complemented by the remnants of the old new Left. The nineties were to be the decade when global capital and an image culture brought down the last barriers of taboo and transgression that national capital had not been able (and was perhaps unwilling) to abolish. The San Fernando Valley became a mecca for men and young women willing to do hardcore for a quick buck.

Not in Lovecraft it wasn’t. There, an older air of genteel shame prevailed. Britain left its archaic porn laws in place so long that they were in operation even as the first broadband rollouts were delivering Anal Squirt Gangbang vol. 43 via the major telco carrier for a charge on a parent’s filched credit card. In principle, hardcore porn/anything showing explicit sex acts remained banned in Britain, but the interpretation of the law varied from place to place—indeed from borough to borough. This created some hilarious features of the job. A big part of our sales was Scandinavian porn: Private and Pirate magazines. Quarto size on high-gloss paper, these mags featured gorgeous blonds and hardbodied himbos fucking, sucking and cumming on each other, usually in sparkling lakeside settings. They were the archetypal ‘Danish porn’ that had been the sine qua non of under-the-counter sales in the sixties and seventies. The genre had evolved from the nudist magazines that had functioned as surrogate porn for decades. And indeed many of the photo shoots were decades old, dated by eighties and even seventies hairstyles; the shots simply recycled through new editions. We could sell this stuff legally, but explicit anal penetration and ‘cream pies’—ejaculation on the face—was out. So once a week we would take a stack of these mags, and a roll of the little coloured circular stickers galleries use to indicate that a picture is sold, and work our way through each mag, obscuring every punctured winkle and cum-splodge pooling in a pert blond’s dimpled chin. The mags would then be resealed and put on the shelf. Purchased for 20p a unit, they sold for £6. Today this feels like a memory of ploughing behind oxen.

Everyone realised that the situation had become absurd. But neither the Major nor the Blair governments would attempt to overhaul the laws, terrified of the fierce moralising they would attract from the likes of the Daily Mail and other prim tabloids. Indeed, when the British Board of Film Classification tried to force their hand—by letting through a hardcore film, BatBabe, an old skool blockbuster-porn-parody movie, for legal sale—the Blair government did tighten the laws. ‘There can be no repeat of BatBabe,’ the grim ex-Stalinist home secretary Jack Straw intoned. BatBabe’s producers no doubt concurred—the video sold through the roof. We moved as many copies as the rest of our videos put together, which were lame softcore versions of hardcore with less sex than was by now appearing in mainstream movies.

When DVD replaced VHS, long after I had left, the government just gave up. Occasionally revisiting the store to see former colleagues—a mixture of Soho spivs, resting actors, an ex-Trot turned Tamil translator who would occasionally fly off to Helsinki for international peace negotiations—I would be amazed at what was now available. Year by year the racks of magazines lessened as the DVDs filled out the store. What was most curious about them was the way they were presented. The mags had a comparative naivety about them; the DVDs by contrast, to judge from their covers, were trying to outdo themselves in playing up the ‘nasty’. The cover straplines were a series of variations on sluts/bitches ramming/getting fucked/taught/reamed/creamed gagging/choking. It seemed entirely possible they were automatically generated. The shift was palpable. Had something happened along the lines suggested by Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Boogie Nights, a tale of porn arising from the sexual revolution becoming corrupted by the mass-market advent of video?

That’s where Dines comes in to say, yes and no. Porn has become steadily more violent, brutal and misogynistic as audiences have become jaded by market … ah, saturation—but the idea that this is some corruption of innocence is an appeasing fantasy: porn’s trajectory was present in its modern irruption with the creation of Playboy in 1953. Hugh Hefner, its wily impresario, took nudie shots out of the barber-shop magazines where they had been sequestered and paired them with lifestyle journalism and middlebrow literary culture, mainstreaming porn. Subsequent competitors such as Penthouse and Hustler, once inside the mainstream, define themselves by ever more explicit and industrial rendering of sex. Once old moral sequestering of porn has been broken down, hardcore porn ‘evolves’ within the mainstream until it comes to be dominated by ‘gonzo’—roughly made porn emphasising the humiliation and degradation of the women involved. This production spiral works in symbiosis with a consumption spiral, whereby porn users—particularly young men—become more addicted to ever more revolting and misogynistic material, which in turn dictates their desires in real sexual encounters. The emphasis is on power, transgression and extreme acts, especially hetero anal sex and ‘facials’. Porn, Dines argues, even relatively straightforward hardcore, is inherently misogynistic—but even if you don’t accept that, its drift towards deliberate degradation is so evident and inherent that the only effective solution is a campaign against all porn and to support a society in which sexual relations exist on the basis of equality.

Dines’ book, and the new anti-porn campaign that she and others have tried to get started, has attracted a fair measure of criticism. But speaking from the Lovecraft point of view it seems clear that she is onto something—something has happened, and it has occurred in the last fifteen years. Where this writer and, I suspect, most others would depart from her philosophically and politically is in her apparent opposition to visual eros all together. She rejects the notion that explicit erotic visual material, produced for its own sake, and not as part of a broader text, could be a legitimate feature of a post-religious culture. At times the visual order itself, abstracted from touch, and sex abstracted from love or care, appears to be the core target of Dines’ attack. Smuggled back in is not merely a highly specific morality but also a metaphysic of sexual being, with a lot of the Judeo-Christian stuff we’ve long been trying to get rid of.

Thus you don’t have to be signed up with the professional pollyannas of the Australian Sex Party to believe that Dines, consciously or otherwise, steers into bad faith in her assessment of how much of porn is gonzo or manky—porn in which the women simulate or experience pain and humiliation from rapid anal sex, deep-throated gagging, ‘ass-to-mouth’ oral or the like. As the producers at Sexpo tell her, maintaining industry leadership demands going into ever darker territory. But the Vivids and Gregory Darks are the head of the iceberg—it appears, from a scope of the main online sites, that a great deal of porn consumption and production is standard San Fernando Valley wall-to-wall porn: short, near-plotless films featuring machine-like fucking in a series of combinations as generically rigid as a Spenserian sonnet. This is as much the case now as it was with the DVDs of the pre-broadband era—and as with them, standard hardcore is often labelled as being nastier than it is.

Thus a standard clip of a fairly pneumatic blond in high heels having an energetic encounter with two tattoed musclemen on a mid-price sofa will preserve the ostensible fiction of most modern hardcore—an insatiable woman being momentarily soothed by a gavotte of oral, handjob, double entry, facial—and, until that last, screaming for more and harder. The male cries—‘Yeah, suck that dick!’ etcetera—celebrate the fictional abandon of the act. Its visual rhetoric is Sadean but not sadist, desubjectivated but not dehumanised. Its appeal strikes me as being based on very efficiently summoning up the transcendent other of phallic penetrative fucking, straight and gay—the ahuman real that appears at the moment when a fuck becomes autonomous, takes on a being of its own. Porn of this sort, chock full of genital close-ups and cum shots, is metaphysical—its fascination is with the nature of human interiority and bodily separateness, with the self and non-self summoned by the abject plenty of bodily fluids. Hence the absence, as Dines notes, of foreplay, kissing, caressing—except in the rule-proving exception of girl-on-girl sequences, where such activities occupy rather more of the action than actual genital attention. This general ‘Sadean character’ of such porn, and the pleasure to be derived from it, may explain why increasing numbers of women access it. Crucially, however, something else is needed to explain why they don’t access it as repeatedly and relentlessly as male customers.

That ‘something else’ is a supposition that men and women are different, and that the difference is one of ‘depth’, biologically determined in the last instance, even if productive of highly varied cultural expressions. That basic supposition is why we would agree with Dines that standard-issue porn is based on the fiction that in general many women would enjoy the same sort of sex—impersonal, industrial, Sadean—that in general many men would and do, and in the same quantities. We don’t doubt that men have a ceaselessly renewed appetite for this sort of porn in a way fewer women do—nor do we doubt that male performers, at least initially, enjoy the work more than women do. We need to hold those two presuppositions for standard porn to be a political issue at all for non-conservatives.

The problem for Dines’ argument is that by and large she doesn’t hold a ‘depth’ position on sexuality and gender. She prefers instead a social constructionism common to Anglo-American theory, admitting to no ‘ordinary’ level of social and bodily being prior to its present cultural expressions. Thus for Dines:

to talk about women’s free choice is to enter into the tricky terrain of how much free will we have as human beings … this is especially true of our gender identity as gender is a social invention and hence our notion of what is ‘normal’ feminine behaviour is shaped by external forces. (p. 101)

Porn, in this respect, is not a product provided in response to a drive, but simply a creation of manipulation and marketing.

The contradictions of such a position should be obvious. Were porn simply a wholly self-created product ab nihilo—like, say, the razor scooter—it would simply rise and fall among other fads. Were one to take the ‘stronger’ argument that porn cashes in on a socially constructed desire, the obvious question would be: why construct that one? As Dines notes, most porn producers are money-obsessed, sex having nullified itself via the mass production process (something that happens to the humble shop assistant as well). Were public desire wholly suggestible, attachable to anything, why not sell them hobby kits and stamp albums rather than wading round in santorum all day? The obvious answer is: because social and cultural construction builds on foundations laid by something else. If you do not acknowledge that the power of porn is built on the deep ground of sexual difference, then a final question obviously suggests itself: what does it matter how people are constructed? If any desire can be equally produced, why would it matter whether the fiction of the ‘insatiable woman’ were to be circulated and transformed the culture accordingly? Were one to fall back on a one-dimensional power argument—that porn grants the male viewer pleasure through subjection of women (and presumably connects to constructed female masochism for female viewers)—one would have to explain the vast spread of relatively neutral porn, softcore, girl-on-girl, gay male porn, and the burgeoning field of ‘amateur’ porn (craft porn is perhaps more accurate, since most of it is done for small sums) whose aesthetic usually follows the less ‘industrial’ style of the seventies.

The inadequacy of Dines’ position becomes clear when she discusses the ‘Girls Gone Wild’ series, that amazing phenomenon that persuades young women not only to take their clothes off and/or masturbate on camera, for nothing more than a cowboy hat, but also persuades them to sign releases for use of the material. The ‘insatiable female’ fiction of porn usually requires that women be either well paid (it is the sole industry in which they earn more than men for ‘comparative’ work) or violently coerced. The process, as Dines notes, involves a lot of nagging, cajoling and peer pressure, but surely the girls could not be persuaded to engage in absolutely any free activity by such a process. None of them would build a balsa wood model of a Mosquito bomber, or learn Spanish irregular verbs, say, for a Senor Frog T-shirt. Desire and drive are at work, catalysed by tequila but not created by it. Surely Girls Gone Wild is an effective refutation of a simple sexual–economic exploitation model of porn.

Once accepted, this sort of social constructionism, when combined with a teleological approach—modern porn was always on the road to gonzo, from Playboy’s first airbrushed nipple—yields a politics that elides the question of whether there might be a positive visual erotics (forgetting the piss-weak category of erotica), because it is held to correspond to no deep or unreconstructable desire. It thus avoids difficult negotiations over questions of asymmetrical heterosexual desires, sexual exploitation versus general economic exploitation, and so on. That inevitably leads Dines into puritan territory, as exemplified by the worst chapter in the book, an argument that ‘hook-up sex’—casual sex with vestigial rules, as practised in US college student populations—is porn-produced sex from which young women come off worse. Based on a few studies from the hundreds made of college behaviour (US undergrads are the Bororo of contemporary sociocultural studies), the argument simply smuggles back in Victorian notions of female desire—and with them, a Judeo-Christian ideal of ‘good’ sex as necessarily involving emotional relations of depth. Love alone is real, the visual order of erotics is wholly fabricated. From Babylon and Salome to What the Butler Saw, the world would beg to differ.

Women will get into porn, are getting into porn. But like the drunken hen doing her impromptu Rolling Stones phallic ballet at closing time in Lovecraft, they may be unlikely to do so seriously or consistently. Those girls had just been to a male strip show. Like many women they would go once or twice in their life, and largely as a masquerade-parody of male sexual appetite, a mirror of drag acts. Men cannot believe women have such a complex topography, and most hardcore is in response to that male fascination, a Mobius-strip tease. Women cannot believe that men will never lose their fascination and will so long linger in that realm.

Much of what the ‘Anglo-American radical feminist’ movement is campaigning for should be supported—crackdowns on violent gonzo, pathways out of porn for coerced women, laws against the trafficking of women, and a critical cultural resistance to the porn-obsessive culture that supplants rather than complements real sexual encounter for some young men. But a campaign for ‘no porn’, the words with which Dines ends the book, strikes one as absurd, lacking any social base, based on manifestly inadequate theorising, and doomed to failure—or leading to a renewed accommodation with a state, and religious right, eager to further extend its powers of censorship and more than happy (as in the war in Afghanistan) to borrow a feminist argument to legitimise it. At that point, it would have to be politically contested. In proposing it I can’t help but feel that, even more than me, Dines is lost in Lovecraft on a Saturday night, or the memory of it, believing that the struggle could be won if only we had enough stickers.

Copyright Guy Rundle 2011

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