Friday, 6 February 2015

Is Erotica Ethical?

Pornography has a long-winded history that extends as far back as the silent era, but one of the first major "pornographic" films to make a significant impact was the 1972 movie Deep Throat, directed by Gerard Damiano and starring an unknown actress credited by the name of Linda Lovelace. Prior to the success of Deep Throat, pornography was in large part an underground movement confined to specific experimental filmmakers like Andy Warhol. Deep Throat started as an independent low-budget film that became an astonishing box office success and not only opened the gates for the porn industry but also for more explicit films to make it into the mainstream.

Sexual themes have existed in film as long as it has been around. It was the prominence of sexual ideas that contributed to the public outcry that resulted in the Production Code. Many of these films seem odd by modern standards. When looking at a "sexual" pre-code film like The Divorcee one quickly notices that the sex is never actually seen and only implied. The same goes for the handful of films that did manage to get under the Production Code's restrictions, such as Frank Capra's It Happened One Night, James Whale's The Bride of Frankenstein or Stanley Kubrick's Lolita. In all of these cases, the sexual themes are conveyed through undertones and innuendos, far from the more explicit sexual themes of movies that would come after it, including several of Kubrick's later films as well as those of David Lynch and David Cronenberg. Deep Throat was arguably the film that helped bring sexuality to the forefront and cleared a path for more explicit films.

In addition to subverting the rules in ways unprecedented even for 1972, Deep Throat would become the subject of an extensive controversy. In the process it would launch into the public a dispute that still goes on today: the ethics of pornography and whether it should be recognized as a valid genre of filmmaking. Many viewers were amazed by Deep Throat but others demanded it be pulled from theaters. President Richard Nixon was among its detractors, and he made every possible effort to bring an end to pornography in general. He even went as far as to finance a series of experiments to determine if pornography was harmful to viewers. When he got the results scientifically proving that it was not, he withheld them and went out of his way to keep people from seeing Deep Throat.

A more curious development in the controversy comes later on, starting in the 80's and 90's. During this time, an anti-porn movement began to emerge among feminists who came to see it as a civil rights violation. Their rationale was that "pornography" was based on objectifying women, usually glorifying violence and fulfilling a male fantasy of how a woman should behave. Director Bonnie Sherr Klein attempted to demonstrate this perspective in her documentary film Not a Love Story: A Film About Pornography. Her film makes a variety of claims about the porn industry, all of which are based on the assumption that simply watching it is promoting misogynistic ideals. Among other things, the film claims that pornography both depicts and promotes actual violence, that women do not do it out of choice, and that the majority of men are perverts and idiots. It then goes on to claim that pornography is detrimental to social progress and needs to be eradicated.

The thing about a movie like Not a Love Story: A Film About Pornography is that it is based on misinformation and generalizations. Klein attempts to persuade the viewer that pornography is violent by showing clips of erotic films that depict torture. She and others like her go on to claim that the women are always bound and gagged, and "silenced". They also assume that the torture depicted is real, and therefore a glorification of male superiority when in fact it is usually staged. What people making these assumptions also ignore is that this is only one of many different types of pornography, and that the genre itself is not inherently violent. 

Now this is not to say that there are no issues that need to be addressed in porn, but these feminists are going about it the wrong way. Even if we are to assume that porn is male-dominated by nature, that does not mean its eradication is necessary any moreso than any other predominantly male genre such as war or action. While it is true that there are specific cases of women being mistreated on the sets of pornographic films (including Linda Lovelace, the star of Deep Throat), what needs to happen is that working conditions need to improve. More women should become involved in the industry producing and directing films, and in fact this has happened.

A prominent misconception about pornography (as demonstrated by Not a Love Story: a Film About Pornography) is that it is something that can only be enjoyed by men. This is not in fact the case. There is also such a thing as "feminist porn" and has existed as long as there has been porn. Pornographic actress and feminist Annie Sprinkle has made a career out of her sexual experience, including one short simply titled Annie where she displays her body and invites the viewer to examine it (including a scene where the camera displays her cervix in extensive detail). Barbara Hammer got in on the act by making lesbian pornography as early as 1974.

In a way, pornography became, and still is, a scapegoat for social problems.Even considering the (admittedly few) examples cited of women being mistreated in pornography, it really means that actresses in those films need to be given better working conditions. It is worth mentioning that the alleged misogyny that these feminists claim to be present is not exclusive to porn and even appears in mainstream cinema. For instance, none of these women ever think to attack James Bond, one of the most iconic movie franchises of all time despite its misogynistic themes. The Bond most fans argue is the best, Sean Connery, is in fact the worst offender among them, and Goldfinger even had a glorified rape scene that went unnoticed by fans of the series.

In short, Connery's Bond films, which make up a series of mainstream blockbusters, do precisely the very things porn is being singled out for allegedly depicting. In these films, women really are objectified and used to convey visions of male dominance. They are basically nothing more than disposable sex toys whose only function is in giving pleasure to Bond before being discarded. Unlike pornography, the Bond franchise is also not meant to be about sex. It is meant to be a thrilling adventure of which sex is only one of many parts, and yet the series insists on treating women in a certain way.

Nobody tries to demand the eradication of the entire James Bond franchise. The solution to the problem is simple: as awareness of these issues grew the films subsequently had to make an effort to change the way they treated women. Compare the character of Pussy Galore in Goldfinger to Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale and there is a very clear difference. Pussy is basically the last in a long line of disposable sex objects for Bond to enjoy, to the point where a rape scene is played as charming. By the time Casino Royale was made, this was no longer an acceptable way to treat women, so instead Bond's habit of discarding women is reworked into a character flaw and Vesper is actually given a personality.

The same could arguably be said for a lot of action movies. The action genre is indeed predominantly male and even today it is sometimes guilty of objectifying women (these same feminists never seem to consider protesting against any of Michael Bay's films). The solution is simply to encourage more female protagonists like Sarah Connor, the Bride, and Lara Croft. While there are cases of actresses being mistreated during the production of pornographic films, this is no call for the eradication of the genre. What needs to happen instead is that porn needs to stop being recognized as a genre exclusively for men and that there should be an effort to encourage more women to make porn films and to promote better treatment of actresses in the business.

Action movies are not usually based around sex, but a lot of mainstream productions are. Several critically acclaimed directors such as David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick, have explored their share of sexually-driven material. Lynch's Blue Velvet explores erotic themes and depicts the same kind of violence against women that porn has been accused of, as is especially evident with the introduction of Dennis Hopper as Frank Booth who proceeds to violently and disturbingly abuse Isabella Rossellini's character Dorothy Vallens.

However, unlike the "violent" pornographic films most audiences can recognize that Hopper and Rossellini are simply actors performing for a camera, and that Lynch is not filming an actual rape as it happens. Kyle MacLachlan's character of Jeffrey Beaumont also goes through similar abuse. When Jeffrey and Dorothy first meet, she immediately pulls a knife on him and forces him to remove his clothes. If not for Frank's arrival at that moment, Jeffrey could very well have been raped by Dorothy. Frank also inflicts similar sexual abuse on Jeffrey, even going so far as to basically rape him in the middle of an open road. This is far more explicit than the average pornographic film.

This controversy that surrounds the pornographic industry is a complicated situation. Say what you will about the quality of porn. Personally, I prefer to watch movies with an actual plot, but I see nothing about the genre that makes it wrong for a person of either gender to enjoy watching. It has a reputation as being a sort of "lower film" but that is in large part because it is constantly being used as a scapegoat for broader social issues. Better representations of women in film does not mean the eradication of a genre, it means making an effort to better represent women within all kinds of filmmaking.


  1. Nice, thoughtful piece.

    1. Thank you. I was a bit nervous about how people would react to seeing me write about porn.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this essay, man. I have a problem with people demonizing certain things (pornography, for example) simply because they are easy targets. Having said that, I feel that porn has its purposes, and most of the porn I've been in contact with seems almost empowering to women. These women are choosing to do that work these days and most are paid handsomely for it. I can't say that all of it is there to serve a positive message, and porn these days is mostly just gets right to it. There is an absence of true erotica.

    You make some great points here about the domineering, demeaning male figure, especially in the James Bond series. I mean, that's the whole basis for the John Holmes "Johnny Wad" character and it's fictional counterpart, the Brock Landers character in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Boogie Nights."

    The hate from feminists towards pornography should most certainly be extended into mainstream film and entertainment as well, as I'm sure it has been. It's just not as prevalent in the media.

    1. So far as I'm aware, there is are feminists (myself included) who are aware of social issues in mainstream films. It's just that in most cases they seem to be separate groups. On the one hand you have the anti-porn feminists who see it as detrimental to society but fail to notice the same issues in other genres, and then you have the feminists who acknowledge the issues of representation in mainstream productions but fail to consider porn. Either way, there seems to be this perceived separation between porn and mainstream cinema.

  3. Very well thought out piece. Porn is a tricky beast. If we're comparing it to mainstream film making it's pretty much apples and oranges. Artistry has pretry much disappeared from porn and its mostly just pointing a camera at people doing it. And every section of society has lots of talentless people with webcams putting themselves out there getting busy. It's more akin to social media than movie making. Every angle of human sexuality is covered from the most misogynist to the most feminist. The only ethos that seems to exist is one upsmanship in trying to be the most outrageous.

    True erotica, at least in Western film making is a rare thing. It is still taboo among legit directors, or at least the studios they work for. That's why Fifty Shades of Grey is making such a big splash. It's the forbidden fruit many can't resist.

    You make some valid points about mainstream cinema. However, I think lots of good work has been done by feminist who work in the industry and who protest against it, as well as some forward thinking men of decades past and current ones who grew up in a more enlightened society. They are why Bond's womanizing has gone from virtue to flaw (as well as his excessive drinking). They are why there is going to be an all female Ghostbusters and possibly an all female Expendables. And they are why Michael Bay's particular brand of objectification stands out as a relic from an earlier time rather than the norm. That's not to say Hollywood is perfect. Far from it. But tremendous gains have been made in this area and the growth is continuing.

    1. I can certainly see why some people would argue that porn doesn't have much in the way of artistic qualities. If anything, a lot of the "artistic" elements of porn got absorbed into mainstream productions but that does raise a few questions. After all, what is it that separates a typical pornography film from something like Blue Velvet or Eyes Wide Shut? I'm not entirely sure if there is a dividing line.

  4. This is an excellent essay on porn because it is part of film land even if it is behind " closed doors". I have seen porn and I actually find it funny but I also find that the women are just as strong as the men. Porn does play to the basic urges which actually is geared to men more hence why there is girl on girl action which men love (ughh). What I find quite interesting is how the film industry can take "porn" and place it in a "regular" film to make it grand like "Last Tango in Paris" and "Boogie Nights".

    1. That's true. There are quite a few mainstream films that could on at least some level be considered pornography.

  5. This is a thought-provoking essay. I have mixed feelings about pornography, for several reasons, but it's definitely not going anywhere. And your analysis of how misogynistic aspects of porn parallel facets of mainstream movies is a solid point. I agree that awareness is they key here. When film viewers become consciously aware of the messages about sexuality and gender roles they're receiving, they can make choices about whether to internalize them.

  6. It's an interesting discussion that I think most people are afraid to discuss. So kudos to you for challenging us with this discussion!

    IMHO there is a distinct difference between erotica and pornography. Erotica is as you described above in the early films, like Lolita or the Divorcee. I would also count Belle de Jour or even another Catherine Deneuve film, 'The Hunger.' I don't mind nudity or sexual situations in erotica. Erotica is really about exploring sexuality and sensuality.

    Pornography is a different animal. My husband is a big gamer, with lots of gamer buddies. So I've heard plenty of conversations I wish I hadn't :). Anywhoo, some of the stuff these guys are talking about that they are watching is upsetting to me (DPs, spitting, punching, slapping, kicking women, pulling hair, choking, gagging, the list goes on). Some of this gonzo stuff is so abusive, that it frightens me that men are watching this stuff.

    I read an article, that I wish I could find, about a male porn director who finally had to leave "straight" porn for gay porn because it was so abusive to women. He said that gay porn didn't have nearly as much abuse. I've also read several expose articles about the rampant drug abuse.

    Lastly, I've read a few articles about former porn stars (both male and female) about the things that they've seen an the abuses they've suffered. So IMHO, pornography has some serious issues.

    1. Well, I suppose that's just it. I won't deny that there are cases of women being abused in the making of porn. I've actually heard multiple anecdotes of men involved with porn that left because they couldn't take it anymore. Yours would be the third such anecdote I've heard, so it's clear that issues do exist.

      I won't deny that it has issues, but they aren't exclusive to pornography and the point I've aimed to make is that the solution does not require eradicating it from the face of the Earth.

      I think I can see why you would be frightened by men watching those particular kinds of pornographic films, especially if ones that depict abuse of women make up a large portion of the stuff they watch. To be honest I'm not entirely sure where the appeal of films that attempt to arouse the viewer by showing anybody of either gender tied up and gagged comes in. However, there's a difference between criticizing that sub-genre and claiming that it represents every pornographic film that has been made.

    2. My point was that I don't think it's a sub-genre anymore and that's its more mainstream than people realize. And there are varying degrees of abuse. There are some forms of abuse that are much milder in scale, but it's still concerning. I don't think that anyone who is a regular consumer of porn can say that every pornographic scene they've watched has been "above board" so to speak. I'm sure there are some things (perhaps subtle) that most people have seen that could be deemed as degrading or abusive, without someone being gagged or tied up.

      It's the law of escalation. What was edgy 10 years ago isn't edgy enough anymore. So if they are going to continue to push the envelope it's going to get worse. It's all about ebbs and flows.

      It has been documented that excessive porn use does desensitize men with regard to sex with real women. Meaning, they have a difficult time sexually without pornographic stimulation. This may be a minority of men, but I believe that this problem does exist.

      Pornography has been in existence in some form or another since the beginning of time. They've found pornographic images drawn 10,000 years ago in caves, so I doubt it will ever be eradicated from the earth. I just think there should be a dialogue as to why it's becoming so misogynistic and abusive.

      And as you've said, it's not exclusive to male-dominated porn. I think the same thing of 50 Shades of Grey. I read the first book, and it's probably the absolute worst books I've ever read, without an ounce of true eroticism.

  7. Wow...I have to say that when I started reading this, I was not expecting the position you were going to take about it. I have to say, this is a really well thought out and expressed piece here...and I agree with you that certain specific examples should not be used to condemn an entire medium.

    Marvelous work here, especially considering that taboo on the subject itself.