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Note: This is part two of my series of posts related to a screening of The Price of Pleasure and discussion about pornography that took place at the Boston University School of Public Health on Friday, 10 February 2012. Part one can be found here and my discussion of the post-screening debate can be found here.

The Price of Pleasure: Pornography, Sexuality, and Relationships (2008) is a documentary with a message. Although it can’t quite decide what that message is. The many-tentacled porn industry is fucking with our minds and our sexuality? Men who watch porn are more likely to be misogynist racists and sexual predators? All women are victims of porn, both in its production and its consumption? One way or another, pornography — we gather from the film — is bad. The Price of Pleasure tells the following story: In the hands of unscrupulous corporations run by men, the “porn industry” exploits female performers and relentlessly pushes a commercialized version of (heterosexual) sex that is, in turn, consumed by (heterosexual) men. The sexuality of male consumers is shaped by the narratives of “porn” — narratives which are sexist, racist, and violent, in short about different types of domination and control. Then these men turn around and bring pornography’s poisonous narratives into their own (heterosexual) sex lives. Individuals in the world of Pleasure — both porn-watching men and the women these men are in relationship with — are figured as populations almost totally lacking in self-determination and agency. And the documentary clearly wants us to get upset about this state of affairs — and I would, if I thought it were true! What the film’s audience might do to resist the porn industry’s grip on human sexuality is much less clear.

How did The Price of Pleasure make its argument for pornography as harmful to our sexuality? In part through interviews. Women interviewed in Pleasure describe feeling subjected to watching porn with their male partners (or sometimes abusers), or feeling pressure to conform to the hypersexualized imagery of womanhood peddled in consumer culture. Men describe sexual behavior that is shame-ridden, secretive, obsessive. The men and women interviewed about their consumption of pornography were all young Those in the porn industry, interviewed largely at an industry expo in Las Vegas, come across as product pushers, while the anti-pornography talking heads (interviewed against a black backdrop, in professional dress) come across as measured, authoritative experts. The talking heads are, for anyone who follows the discussion of pornography and culture, a cast of usual suspects: Gail Dines, Robert Jensen, Pamela Paul, Ariel Levy. While I’ve read some of these authors’ work, and find much to admire there, I also depart from their final analysis about what porn is and how it works as a cultural medium. So I definitely felt cranky, while watching the film, about how these authors were positioned relative to those in the porn industry — about the lack of any dissenting voices who were similarly situated as credentialed researchers. I might disagree that an individual with a doctorate and a long list of publications is a more authoritative source than the owner of a porn production company — but there’s no way that the industry insider is going to carry the same weight of someone positioned as an objective researcher.

I found myself noticing the visual choices being made in the film, and how these visual choices worked to support the documentary’s main porn-is-a-threat argument. The visuals we got of both the porn itself and of porn producers were rapid out of context clips. As a viewer, I felt visually assaulted by the rapid change of images that lacked any explanation, other than the understanding that these were typical images in porn. The scary voice man hired to narrate the film (if you’ve wondered what he does between election cycles, now you know) describes what you’re seeing — i.e. a female porn actress sucking off a group of men before the ejaculate on her face. But documentary context is very different from pornographic film context. “Porn” in The Price of Pleasure is synonymous with exploitative working conditions that, in turn, produce visual images and narratives that encourage men (and always men) to replicate those exploitative scenes in their own lives. We’re shown what does, much of the time, look like a violent, non-consensual sexual assault or torture scene. And as viewers we’re not given the information needed to evaluate the particular example of pornography in any meaningful way.

For example: Was everyone on the set consenting, in a meaningful, non-coerced way, to being there and engaging in the activities depicted? Were the activities specifically negotiated prior to shooting the scene by everyone, and were the activities and conditions agreed to in that negotiation adhered to? Were all of the individuals hired for the production paid a working wage? Were health and safety concerns addressed and ensured throughout production? In terms of the depiction of sex the film conveys, is it clear to the viewer of the film that these activities are consented to and negotiated, that adequate safety measures are being taken? These things matter. Does the woman (or subordinate partner) in the scene enjoy being bound and gagged, in the context of a role-playing scenario, or not? Power play doesn’t have to be exploitative as long as it’s play, and clearly demarcated as such. But The Price of Pleasure never acknowledges these distinctions, instead choosing to use shocking, non-contextualized imagery in support of its argument about how pornography is, in and of itself, an assault on our sexual selves.

The other, most glaringly obvious, problem with The Price of Pleasure was that the film-makers never defined their terms. What did they mean by “porn”? From the examples shown in the documentary, it was clear that “porn” meant very specific types of pornography videos, usually produced with an archetypal heterosexual male consumer in mind. In the world of Pleasure only men willingly produce pornographic films, only men who desire women consume pornographic films, and any other type of producing/consuming demographic and/or genre of sexually explicit materials is rendered invisible — because (I would argue) it fails to fit within the scope of the film-maker’s argument — namely, that “the porn industry” is destroying our sexual self-determination and ability to find sexual pleasure in non-destructive, equitable ways. Their argument thus becomes somewhat circular: limiting the discussion of porn to porn which appears, as presented, grounded in narratives of sexual dominance, abuse, and inequality, then it seems self-evident that pornography equals these things. And from there, it is but a small leap of logic to argue that consuming these messages about gender, race, and sexuality inform how we approach race-, gender- and sexual relations in our real lives (though the film makes this seem like a very simple causal relationship, when in fact I would argue the dialogue between fantasy and reality is much, much more complicated!).

Where, in the narrative this film is constructing, are the many genres of gay male and m/m erotica (film, textual, photographic, and otherwise?) Where is the feminist porn, the lesbian porn, the porn created within and for the many sexual identity communities — from swinging couples to polyamorous lovers to trans-identified queer folk to asexy kink lovers? Where, in this film, is there space to talk about amateur porn, whether in the form of the home videos once circulated via mail-order catalogs or xtube porn videos made by couples of all persuasions who have fun getting it on in front of the camera? What about amateur and professional erotica writers? Textual erotica is the pornographic medium I’m the most personally familiar with, and I can tell you that the variety of flavors is pretty much endless. And while “non-con” and “dub-con” erotica exists, the volume of fiction produced in which people consensually and joyfully get it on attests to our overwhelming desire, as a readership/authorship, to construct sexual worlds in which sexual intimacy most often means a surfeit of needs being met rather than alienation or social control.

There is a very interesting documentary to be made — or even more than one! — comparing and contrasting the various pornographic mediums, porn creators, and porn consumers. There are, to my mind, endlessly fascinating questions to be asked about how erotic materials figure into our sexual lives — whether we’re talking about our individual sexual selves or those selves in sexual relationship. Instead, by depicting both pornography and the creators of pornography in a monochromatic, sinister light — and by depicting male consumers (and all women) as victims of “porn” — this film closes the door on any conversation about the productive intersection of sexually explicit, erotic materials with human sexual expression. In Pleasure, pornography is constructed in opposition to authentic human sexuality, as the producer of false sexual selves. These false selves then serve to obscure, rather than open a pathway for, our (authentic) desires and the realm of possibility for acting on those desires. I was disappointed (though not surprised) that alternate narratives of pornography as a more positive force in society were absent.

I concur with the film, and with porn’s many critics, that there is a serious and urgently important conversation to be had about the economics and politics of sex work, and the exploitation of individuals through the making of pornography. Just like with any other industry, worker exploitation should not be countenanced, and employers should be held accountable by law for ensuring workplace safety and respect for workers rights. However, I don’t believe these conversations are at all advanced by positioning all men as the aggressors, all women as the victims, and pornography as the medium through which patriarchal oppression is produced and reproduced in culture. People of all sex, gender, and sexual orientations and identities work in pornographic production, and we should be supporting those workers on a community level to articulate their needs and goals for improvement to their lives. But although The Price of Pleasure makes clear its belief that workers (women particularly) in the porn industry are, as a class, badly done to, there are no solutions put forward in the film about how to go about supporting porn actors who want to change their (individual or collective) situations.

This is perhaps the final problem with The Price of Pleasure: that they fail to offer any sense of direction for change. If the problem, as the documentary film-makers see it, is the strangle-hold of “the porn industry” on our means of sexual expression, as a viewer I would have appreciated more explicit suggestions offered as to what the solution to this problem might be. As it is, The Price of Pleasure leaves us with an ominous sense of pervasive subjection, of helplessness, and no explicit pathways to liberating ourselves. I have my own suggestions, of course, for alternatives to non-consensual, unsafe, and exploitative sexual narratives — but I suspect the makers of Pleasure would not appreciate them. Thus, this film, in the end, simply reinforces the very sense of victimization the film purports to document.

Cross-posted at The Pursuit of Harpyness.

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