Pornography, Fantasy, and Documenting Sex: The Role of Documentary in Porn Studies

"Passionate Collections" Panel at the NYC Porn Film Festival 2015.

“Passionate Collections” Panel at the NYC Porn Film Festival 2015.

Pornography is the film and media genre that seeks to arouse. While few published studies have narrowed down a precise calculation as to how large the pornographic industry is, it is estimated that in the United States alone, the pornographic industry deals with $11 billion annually.[1] Although the conditions are largely different today, as 1980s pornography director Carter Stevens puts it, “people make porn features for one reason: money – easy money.”[2] And in the popular, free Internet pornographic website PornHub’s extensive analysis of online traffic, it was determined that their online, free videos were viewed 78.9 billion times during the year 2014, with 18.35 billion unique visits.

Because of pornography’s wide audience and diverse array of fantasies, it is necessary to take a closer look at what exactly its images document. And while easily accessible through free Internet ‘tube’ sites such as Pornhub, Xtube, and RedTube, little effort towards pornography’s preservation have been made. Although widely distributed, pornography is not commonly archived. While a few pornographic archives exist – in the United States the Kinsey Institute in Bloomington, Indiana, the Museum of Sex in Manhattan, and ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives in Los Angeles as a start although there are more – these archives are many times not easily accessible by the public, all while allowing visitors to access only a handful of their material.

UK-based visual artist, Richard John Jones, conceived Documenting Sex in conjunction with the first ever NYC Porn Film Festival 2015 held this February to emphasize the genre as having similarities to that of documentary film and to raise the question “What would it mean to consider the pornographer as documentary filmmaker?”. At the festival, Documenting Sex presented three panels: “Barbara Hammer, Pioneering Lesbian Sexuality,” “Passionate Collections,” and “Narrating Our Sexual Selves.” These presented topics ranged from a discussion and presentation of three films by lesbian filmmaker Barbara Hammer to a panel of librarians, archivists and academics who worked with or encountered pornography within the archive. Documenting Sex aimed not to limit access to taboo material, but rather engage the public in conversations surrounding creating and archiving pornography. Unlike the genre of pornography itself, which categorizes viewership by “straight,” “gay,” or “lesbian,” the NYC Porn Film Festival 2015 created a space in which all were encouraged to collaborate and participate in the theory behind the world’s most popular and longest lived film genre.

The NYC Porn Film Festival premiered in Brooklyn, New York during the snowy month of February 2015. As anti-pornography feminist protesters lined the street alongside the entrance to the festival, attendees were able to participate in photo booths, informal discussions, and of course watch a variety of pornographic films throughout the festival’s weekend program. The panels organised as part of Documenting Sex questioned the role of pornography as pure fantasy by bringing to the table filmmakers, academics, and curators in the field. By creating a collaborative discussion between these professionals, Documenting Sex at the NYC Porn Film Festival questioned what the role of documentary is within the pornographic genre.

16 mm film frame from Dyketactics (1974) by Barbara Hammer

16 mm film frame from Dyketactics (1974) by Barbara Hammer

While simultaneously working towards her master’s degree at San Francisco State University, Barbara Hammer directed Dyketactics (1974), a utopic four-minute film that depicts lesbian women gathering and frolicking in the nude in the Northern California wilderness.[3] Alongside cinematographer Chris Saxton, Hammer portrays her attitude towards lesbianism as carefree and idyllic through scenes of women strolling around tall grass in the nude, smiling, cuddling and masturbating in a bed of pastel orange sheets. During Hammer’s presentation, she emphasized that her goal as an artist is to make the audience “self-aware of their own bodies.” While pushing away from the category and identity of ‘pornographer,’ Hammer elaborated on her use of shadows, sublime and mellow music, and even her “stroking” camera movements in order to argue her work as not pornographic, but rather erotic. Dyketactics was followed by Hammer’s rarely screened ‘Blue Film No. 6: Love Is Where You Find It (1998) in which she re-edits a straight commercial porn film to leave only the female stars and was rounded up by introduction to Sync Touch (1981) through which she discussed her ideas of an active cinema.

Barbara Hammer and Richard John Jones at the NYC Porn Film Festival 2015.

Barbara Hammer and Richard John Jones at the NYC Porn Film Festival 2015.

As film theorist Linda Williams addresses, while pornography “must keep close to the documentary evidence of [sexual] truth, it has habitually resisted narrative elaboration, complex plots, character development, and so forth.”[4] This paradox of pornography is characterized by the genre being both documentary and fantasy, in that it depicts a truth of the sex acts that occur, while simultaneously using fictitious narratives to provoke one’s sexual imagination. Hammer’s work perfectly fits into this paradoxical model, as both Dyketactics and Blue Film No. 6: Love Is Where You Find It examine not only the fantasy of having a group of women who engage in a sexually fantasy together without men, but also documents what sex acts between women might look like in 1974 in the case of Dyketactics and provides a critical analysis of how sex acts between women are represented in commercial pornography in the case of Blue Film.

Pornography and erotica document literal sex acts that takes place in front of the camera. This reflects the wider theme of Documenting Sex. The project takes a set of sex acts and their filmic representation – here from a celebrated experimental filmmaker – and understands them not as prurient or excessive, as pornography might be, but rather as illustrative and as a documentary of the time and space in which the film was being shot. Pornography not only portrays one’s innermost desires on screen, but also documents sex that happens in that specific time and place during which the sex acts are shot.

While widely distributed, pornography is rarely archived. In Tim Dean’s introduction to his 2014 anthology Porn Archives, he writes thats “archives offer sites of preservation and permanence, whereas porn is commonly considered to be ephemeral and amenable to destruction.”[5] Pornography, regardless of form or content, is a medium in which archives are hesitant to engage with. Institutions such as the Kinsey Institute and the Museum of Sex can be understood as forerunners in the archiving in the pornographic medium. However, these archives (amongst others) are geographically isolated and inaccessible to those without a university affiliation. And even if one is affiliated with a university, many times an accreditation process is required in order to be given access to the pornographic materials. Given the inaccessibility of the pornographic archive, it becomes clear that Documenting Sex is necessary in order to make accessible discussions surrounding pornography and its vast yet unwritten history.

"Passionate Collections" Panel at the NYC Porn Film Fetival 2015.

“Passionate Collections” Panel at the NYC Porn Film Fetival 2015.

At the festival, Documenting Sex also hosted “Passionate Collections,” a panel of various professionals in academia and library sciences that discussed pornography’s preservation and place within the archive. Engaging in conservation around their respective work, Whitney Strub (Rutgers University), Karl McCool (Dirty Looks NYC), Branden Wallace (Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art)and Jason Baumann (New York Public Library) all expressed the importance of archiving pornography through collaboration amongst institutions. The presentations were diverse and wide-ranging, from an introduction to the unique categorisation of materials held by the New York Public Library to a presentation of images from pre-1972 gay male pornography advertisements.

As a researcher in critical sex and pornography studies, I find the work of Documenting Sex invaluable to the field of sex research. At the University of California, Berkeley, I have studied under Professor Linda Williams in order to navigate the rhetorical effects of condom usage in gay male pornography (or lack thereof) on discourses surrounding H.I.V. Projects such as Documenting Sex make rare erotic and pornographic films, that archives might not preserve, accessible. By engaging with the community on issues surrounding the documentation of sex acts as well as understanding the pornographer as a documentary filmmaker, it becomes clear that Documenting Sex as a talks programme associated with a porn film festival will be a milestone in the fields of critical sex and pornography studies.

As Los Angeles now mandates condom usage in pornography with the passing of Measure B, and as the United Kingdom now censors various forms of pornography through the Audiovisual Media Services Regulations of 2014, Documenting Sex can be understood as a timely project in the changing history of the pornographic genre. Moving forth from pornography being understood solely as fantasy or documentary, Documenting Sex calls into question the genre of pornography as a whole. As opposed to other fields of academia or library sciences, this project does not classify and categorize fields of inquiry based on gender, class, or sexual orientation, but rather invites all to participate and collaborate. As both the United States and United Kingdom censures and shapes the way in which pornographic films are made, Documenting Sex calls for a new field of inquiry by scholars, community members, and pornography viewers at large.

NOTES

[1] The two leading works surrounding the economics of pornography include David Hebditch and Nick Anning, Porn Gold (1988) and Frederick S. Lane III, Obscene Profits (2000).
[2] Robert H. Rimmer, The X-Rated Videotape Guide (1986), note 13.
[3] For a comprehensive analysis of Hammer’s cinematography in relation to the queer theory and the history of gay film, see Greg Youmans, “Performing Essentialism: Reassessing Barbara Hammer’s Films of the 1970s,” Camera Obscura 81, V. 27, No. 3, 2012.
[4] Williams, Linda, Hard Core p. 50.
[5] Tim Dean, “Pornography, Technology, Archive,” Porn Archives, p. 1.


 

Matthew Phillip Kirschenbaum is a 2014-2015 Haas Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley and is based in Oakland. He aims to publish his forthcoming thesis, “Prurient Pleasures and the Pornographic Effect of H.I.V.” during the year 2015. He currently teaches an elective course at the University of California, Berkeley, entitled “Critical Sex Studies and Pornography.”

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