Everyday Pornographies: Pornification and Commercial Sex
There is a prevailing trend in both popular and academic writing on pornography to map what has been labelled the “pornification” or “pornographication” of the mainstream – that is, the ways in which the aesthetics and explicitness of pornography infiltrate mainstream culture. At its most useful (such as in the work of Gail Dines and colleagues) such work enables us to identify and understand a pornographic continuum and examine how mainstream stories about sex are being filtered through a pornographic lens. However, I have been thinking recently about what is lost – politically and intellectually – in this emphasis on the ubiquity rather than specificity of porn.
In reflecting on ‘everyday’ pornography in this paper, I want to think about the ‘everyday’ in two distinct – but I hope, politically and intellectually connected – ways. First, I will argue that framing pornography’s ‘everyday” or dominant form as a form of commercial sex is a useful political strategy that allows us to re-engage with feminist analyses of porn as a practice rather than simply a text. Second, I want to think about pornography as a represented object within the mainstream, specifically in factual television. In doing so, I am not concerned with how such representations blur boundaries but rather with the kinds of stories about porn as a distinct category that emerge in these “everyday” (ie non-subscription, non-specialist) contexts. This is consistent with an approach to pornography as a form of commercial sex in ways I will discuss.
Pornography as commercial sex
Talking about pornography as commercial sex is somewhat at odds with the widespread academic interest in pornification. Linda Williams’ 2004 volume Porn Studies, like many other contemporary accounts of pornography, is interested in its boundaries and the ways in which the pornographic infiltrates non-pornographic spaces.1 As such, the objects of analysis in this book are not necessarily made, sold or consumed as pornography and a wide range of texts are discussed as pornography in this context and porn’s relationships to more (or less) ‘legitimate’ modes of popular culture (comics, avant-garde films, current affairs reporting) are detailed. As a result, we might be left wondering what, if anything, is distinct about pornography.
Further, there is little consideration in this volume of porn’s own ‘mainstream’ (that is, commercially produced sexually explicit material aimed at heterosexual men). Yet, in her introduction Williams makes the case for taking pornography seriously by focusing on the scale and reach of a defined commercial porn industry:
“To me, the most eye-opening statistic is the following: Hollywood makes approximately 400 films a year, while the porn industry now makes from 10,000 to 11,000. Seven hundred million porn videos or DVDs are rented each year. Even allowing for the fact that fewer viewers see any single work and that these videos repeat themselves even more shamelessly than Hollywood […] this is a mind boggling figure. Pornography revenues- which can broadly be construed to include magazines, Internet Web sites, cable, in-room hotel movies, and sex toys-total between 10 and 14 billion dollars annually. This figure as New York Times critic Frank Rich has noted, is not only bigger than movie revenues; it is bigger than professional football, basketball and baseball put together. With figures like these, Rich argues, pornography is no longer a ‘sideshow’ but ‘the main event’.” (Williams, 2004: 12)
This is inconsistent with the book’s emphasis on porn’s more marginal forms and its traces within non-pornographic culture. Taking Porn Studies as an example of contemporary ‘porn studies, the ‘soft’ or the ‘marginal’ has taken centre stage in academic accounts. As I have argued elsewhere, this makes it fairly straightforward for Williams to argue that debates about sexual politics and inequality are no longer key.
Partly, this is an issue of methodology. Despite the frequent use of statistics which map the scale and reach of the commercial sex industry, much recent work on pornography and the “pornification” of mainstream culture has been text-based. From Linda Williams’ Hard Core onwards, porn studies began to find a disciplinary home in film studies (albeit, largely in select and liberal US universities) and as part of the film studies’ list of major publishers. What is often lost with this move is any analysis of pornography’s existence in the world – its production and consumption contexts, the laws governing its distribution and exhibition, its role in sexual inequality.
Which is why I want to argue against the prevailing trend for the importance of maintaining the distinction between hard core pornography and its mainstream referents, citations and copies and I have found it most useful to do this by considering pornography as a form of commercial sex. In commercial sex, sexual acts are performed by real human beings for the (usually sexual) pleasure of a paying third party. It depends upon a sexual transaction, on there being a group of people who are willing to buy access to the bodies of another group of people for their own sexual gratification. In pornography, customer and performer do not necessarily interact, but the performer’s body is still real and (like the body of the prostitute) is really involved in the sexual acts constructed for the sexual pleasure of this third party (which is not to argue that they ‘really’ experience those acts as shown on screen). If we locate our study of pornography within a broader study of the sexualisation of culture then the danger is that the specifics of this transaction are obscured. To give one further example of this from Porn Studies, in Williams’ description of pornographic revenue, she tags “sex toys” on at the end of a list of pornographic products. Sex toys may well be profitable business for porn companies, but they function here as a kind of alibi which diverts our attention away from the specifics of the pornographic transaction. Buying or using a vibrator is not the same thing as buying or consuming pornography. One activity depends upon the use of the bodies of other human beings, the other does not. The casual equation of these activities seems to me to be a way of making commercial sex appear less misogynistic by suggesting that women are also consumers, ignoring the fact that what is being sold to women – whether in the form of sex toys or pole-dance classes – is something for their own bodies and not sexual access to the bodies of others.
Representations of commercial sex 2
The work I have been doing most recently on television representations of pornography and other forms of commercial sex may seem to sit rather uneasily with my insistence on the importance of maintaining a distinction between ‘pornography’ (as a practice of commercial sex) and other sexualised representations and practices. So it’s important to reiterate that I am not interested in programmes such as Porno Valley, Porn: A Family Business, Cathouse, The Girls of the Playboy Mansion or Personal Services as examples of the proliferation and transformation of commercial sex, rather I am interested in what these programmes have to say about pornography (and, relatedly, prostitution) as a distinct category. By thinking about pornography at one remove – as represented rather than as a representation – it is possible to get beyond the textual impasse of much contemporary academic work on pornography as what is being represented is not the text of pornography (which cannot be shown on British television) but, more commonly, aspects of its industrial practice.
The first thing that is apparent about representations of commercial sex on television is that the focus is almost exclusively on the women who “sell” sex. While women’s testimony was indeed an important aspect of early feminist work, more recently testimonies of individual women who are pro- or anti-commercial sex have tended to be pitted against one another and the women themselves judged as in/authentic. This is where engaging with these arguments at one remove – by focusing on television representation – can be useful. Examining these testimonies in the context of an analysis of television, allows us to unpick their generic qualities and highlight how they function. That is, it’s not about accepting or questioning the truth of individual women (or men), but of thinking about how their stories are used in particular ways. This is also why I am leaning towards the term “commercial sex” rather than “commercial sexual exploitation”, as my experience has been that the term ‘exploitation’ seems to invite questions/ comments that further scrutinise the woman and not the industry. In contrast – and in line with recent feminist campaigns around prostitution in particular – my analysis is less concerned with the women as individuals or even as a “class” but rather with pornography as an industry which depends upon its male consumers and on gendered inequality.
To be clear, the television programmes I’ve been looking at do not themselves present such a feminist analysis, but they do provide a space for the porn industry to talk about itself and we can learn a lot about what the industry thinks its public wants through what its representatives are prepared to say in public. And what is immediately striking about this for anyone versed in the arguments of the anti-porn movement is the extent to which there is an explicit acknowledgement of the harm of pornography. Porn personnel often delight in detailing the degrading content of their product (including in scenes of sexual violence), and it is frequently acknowledged that the repeated performance of sexual scenes can be painful, difficult or damaging for the performers. The short shelf-life of performers within the industry is openly acknowledged and it is accepted that this leads many performers into more and more extreme acts.
What distinguishes these accounts from those most often cited in radical feminist writing of the 1980s is that these are from people who are still connected with the industry. The candid comments of contemporary porn personnel suggest that in the contemporary landscape tales of abuse do nothing to damage the “product” and may even enhance its value. There is a disturbing pornographic doublespeak at play here – male producers describe time and time again how dirty, filthy, disgusting women are degraded, abused, humiliated and hurt in their films: but they call it sex. This pornographic doublespeak makes critiques of the industry extremely difficult as there is no language that has not been colonised and rebranded as sex (something Andrea Dworkin well understood).
Obviously, we have to be cautious about accepting any of these accounts at face value and that is not my point. Rather, I focus on the way that violence, degradation and abuse of women is part of the story of commercial sex as it is told to present and future consumers. This isn’t the extreme, the unusual but part of porn’s everyday and its marketing strategy. And it is in this way that I want to argue that studying pornography’s crossover into the mainstream can be part and parcel of the project of studying pornography’s everyday.
Dr Karen Boyle, Senior Lecturer in Film & Television Studies, University of Glasgow, Gilmorehill Centre, G12 8QQ. K.Boyle@tfts.arts.gla.ac.uk
1 A more detailed critique of Linda Williams’ Porn Studies can be found in my article “The Boundaries of Porn Studies.” New Review of Film & Television Studies, 4 (1), pp.1-16 (2006).
2 A more detailed account of this research can be found in my “Courting Consumers and Legitimating Exploitation: The Representation of Commercial Sex in Television Documentaries.” Feminist Media Studies, 8 (1), pp.35-50 (2008); and “The Dark Side of Hard Core: Critical Documentaries on the Sex Industry”. In: Kerr, D. & Hines, C. (eds) Hard to Swallow: Reading Pornography on Screen, London: Wallflower (2008/09 forthcoming).