It gets harder and harder to find someone who will say a good word for pornography. Angry feminists, chagrined liberals, Henry Miller and Pauline Réage fans, all agree that this is not what we meant, not what we meant at all, while the legions who never wanted to let the genie out of the bottle in the first place feel both outraged and vindicated. Die-hard (so to speak) porn liberationists like Al Goldstein of Screw are embarrassments to what is left of the hip subculture that spawned them—as out of date as skirts up to the thighs or inspirational speeches hailing groupies as the vanguard of the cultural revolution. Yet in spite of this ecumenical disapproval, pornography may well be the characteristic mass art form of this decade. What could be a better icon of the Nixon years than a fiftyish, balding businessman in suit and tie, briefcase on lap, hands chastely folded over briefcase (I checked), watching with solemn absorption a pair of larger-than-life genitals copulating in close-up to the strains of—was it really “Stars and Stripes Forever,” or am I making that up?
The ironies may be painful, but they are hardly surprising. The revolt against Victorian morality has always had its left and right wings. On the one hand it has been part of a continuing historical process, the economic and social emancipation of women; more narrowly, it has both reflected and facilitated the shift from a production-centered (hence austere) to a consumption-centered (and hedonistic) capitalism. At this point the feminist version of the sexual revolution has been incorporated into the broader program of the women’s movement, while the consumerist version has ended up on Forty-second Street, which is as American as cherry pie—and as masculine as chewing tobacco.
For men, the most obvious drawback of traditional morality was the sexual scarcity—actual and psychic—created by the enforced abstinence of women and the taboo on public acknowledgment of sexuality. Sex was an illicit commodity, and whether or not a sexual transaction involved money, its price almost always included hypocrisy; the “respectable” man who consorted with prostitutes and collected pornography, the adolescent boy who seduced “nice girls” with phony declarations of love (or tried desperately to seduce them), the husband who secretly wished his wife would act like his fantasies of a whore, all paid in the same coin. Men have typically defined sexual liberation as freedom from these black market conditions: the liberated woman is free to be available; the liberated man is free to reject false gentility and euphemistic romanticism and express his erotic fantasies frankly and openly; by extension, the liberated entrepreneur is free to cater to those fantasies on a mass scale.
Understandably, women are not thrilled with this conception of sexual freedom. In a misogynist culture where male sexuality tends to be confused with dominance and corrupted by overt or covert sadism—read any one of the endless spew of male confessional novels that have come out of the closet (or the bathroom) since Portnoy’s notorious liver-fuck—its potential is frightening. Nor have men allowed themselves or each other to push their “liberation” to its logical extreme (that is, fascism). The sexual revolution has simply institutionalized a more advanced form of hypocrisy: instead of saying one thing and doing another, the game is to say and do the same thing but feel another, or not feel at all. Of course this is no news in 1973. Everybody knows it—“everybody” being middle-class intellectuals and bohemians and their feminist wives and girl friends. Which is exactly what’s so embarrassing about pornography. As an ideology the fuck-it-and-suck-it phase of the sexual revolution may be passé; as a mentality it is nonetheless big business.
Like all popular culture, pornography is shaped by its social setting, and the relaxation of the obscenity laws has not only brought it out in the open but has inspired new genres, chief of which is the x-rated movie. Partly because of the logistics of moviegoing, which is a communal rather than a private experience, and partly because the movie industry has only recently thrown off censorship of the crudest and most anachronistic sort, porn movies have retained an air of semi-respectability, fuzzing the line between liberated art and out-and-out smut. They turn up at art houses, where they are known as “erotic films”; they occasionally get reviewed; in time of need a stray professor or two can be induced to testify to their redeeming social value. If there is such a thing as establishment porn, these movies are it. They apotheosize the middle-American swinger’s ethic: sex is impersonal recreation, neither sacred nor dangerous; above all, it has no necessary connection to any human emotion, even the most elemental lust, frustration, or fulfillment.
While pornography has never been known for its emotional subtlety, this ultradeadpan style is distinctively contemporary; watching a “documentary” history of stag films that came out some time ago, I was struck by the difference between the earliest clips, which were amusingly, whimsically naughty, and later sequences, which contained progressively less warmth and humor and more mechanical sex. Traditional pornographers reveled in the breaking of taboos, the liberation of perverse and antisocial impulses. Today’s porn is based on the conceit that taboos are outdated, that the sexual revolution has made us free and innocent—a fiction that can be maintained, even for the time span of a movie, only at the cost of an aggressive assault on all feeling.
Since the image on the screen is so inescapably there, imposing strict limits on the spectator’s imagination, film is an ideal medium for this assault. Not only do most porn movies fail to build tension or portray people and situations in a way that might involve the viewer; they use a variety of techniques to actively discourage involvement. Clinical close-ups of sexual acts and organs, reminiscent of the Brobdingnagians, are one such ploy; a Brechtian disjunction between visual image and soundtrack is another. The first commercial porn movies often presented themselves as documentaries about sex education, the history of sexual mores, pornographic film making, and so on—a device that had an important formal function as well as the obvious legal one. Narrators’ pedantic voices would superimpose themselves on orgy scenes, calling our attention to the grainy texture of the film; blank-faced young girls would explain in a bored monotone why they acted in porn movies—“It’s the bread, really…I guess I dig it sometimes…. It’s hard work, actually”—while in the background, but still on camera, another actress fellated a colleague with the businesslike competence of a plaster-caster.
These days the narrators’ voices have mostly given way to music, which generally sounds as if it were composed by a Chamber of Commerce committee just returned from a performance of Hair. Sexual partners in porn movies rarely make noise, and I’ve never heard one talk sex talk; most often they perform silently, like fish in an aquarium. When there is dialogue, its purpose is generally to break the mood rather than heighten it. In the opening scene of Deep Throat, for instance, the heroine enters her apartment and is cheerfully greeted by her roommate, who just happens to have a man’s head buried in her crotch. He looks up to see what’s happening, but roomie firmly guides his head back down to business. Then she lights a cigarette and says, “Mind if I smoke while you’re eating?”—a line that just might be the definitive statement of the porn aesthetic.
Throat is the first porn movie to become a cultural event. Besides being a huge moneymaker, it has been widely acclaimed as an artistic triumph. Allegedly, Throat is “different,” the porn movie everybody has been waiting for—the one that has a plot and characters and humor and taste and really gets it on. It has been playing at “legitimate” movie theaters around the country, and in New York, where its run at the New Mature World has lasted seven months so far, the Post reported that lots of women were going to see it, with other women, yet—an unprecedented phenomenon. When the managers of the World were charged with obscenity, Arthur Knight, film critic for Saturday Review and professor at the University of Southern California, testified for the defense, praising the movie for its concern with female sexual gratification and its socially valuable message that “the so-called missionary position is not the only way to have sex.” He also liked the photography.
There is something decidedly creepy about all this fanfare, which—Professor Knight’s remark about the missionary position excepted—has no discernible relation to what’s actually on the screen. I suspect a lot of ambivalent libertarians of hedging by badmouthing porn in general while rallying around an “exception,” but that they should pick Throat for the honor suggests that they have been missing the point all along.
True, Throat has certain peculiarities that distinguish it from the average porn flick. It may not have a plot, but it should get some sort of award for the most grotesque premise: the heroine’s clitoris is in her throat. It’s not hard to figure out how that fantasy got started; needless to say, I couldn’t identify with it, though I did feel like gagging during a couple of scenes. Or am I being too literal? Is Throat really a comment on the psychology of oral fixation? (It does have one of those socially redeeming blurbs at the beginning, about Freud’s stages of psychosexual development and the use of suggestion in curing sexual hangups.) Is that what the bit with the doctor blowing bubbles is all about? And near the end, when Linda Lovelace shaves her pubic hair to the accompaniment of science fiction music and the Old Spice theme, does that represent a ceremonial transition to the genital stage?
Linda is fresh-and-freckle-faced, comes on like a cut-rate Viva, sighs, “There must be more to life than screwing around,” gets genuinely upset about her predicament, and hangs around for the entire movie, all of which I guess makes her a character, at least by porno standards. Throat also boasts lots of moronic jokes. (Linda to doctor, who is making light of her problem: “Suppose your balls were in your ear!” Doctor: “Then I could hear myself coming.”) What all this means is that in ten years I may dig Throat as an artifact, but for now I find it witless, exploitative, and about as erotic as a tonsillectomy.
The last point is really the crucial one: movies like Throat don’t turn me on, which is, after all, what they are supposed to do. On the contrary, I find them a sexual depressant, partly because they are so unimaginative, partly because they objectify women’s bodies and pay little attention to men’s—American men are so touchy about you-know-what—but mostly because they deliberately and perversely destroy any semblance of an atmosphere in which my sexual fantasies could flourish. Furthermore, I truly can’t comprehend why they excite other people—a failure of empathy that leads straight into the thickets of sexual polarization. I know there are men who don’t respond to these movies, and I’m sure it’s possible to find a woman here or there who does. Still, the fact remains that their audience is overwhelmingly male—the Post notwithstanding, I counted exactly three other women in the Throat audience, all of them with men—and that most men seem to be susceptible even when, like the letter writer who complained to the Times that Teenage Fantasies was erotically arousing but spiritually degrading, they hate themselves afterward.
My attempts to interrogate male friends on the subject have never elicited very satisfying answers (“I don’t know…it’s sexy, that’s all…. I like cunts”). I suppose I shouldn’t be so mystified; “everybody” knows that men divorce sex from emotion because they can’t afford to face their real emotions about women. Nevertheless it baffles and angers me that men can get off on all those bodies methodically humping away, their faces sweatless and passionless, their consummation so automatic they never get a chance to experience desire.
I’ve often had fantasies about making my own porn epic for a female audience, a movie that would go beyond gymnastics to explore the psychological and sensual nuances of sex—the power of sexual tension and suspense; the conflict of need and guilt, attraction and fear; the texture of skin; the minutiae of gesture and touch and facial expression that can create an intense erotic ambience with a minimum of action. Not incidentally, the few porn movies I’ve seen that deal with these aspects of the erotic were made by gay men. A classic underground example is Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour, an unbearably romantic and arty movie that nevertheless had a strong effect on me when I saw it in 1964. Aside from a few masturbation scenes, the sex is almost entirely in the minds of the characters (prison inmates and a guard); the overriding mood is frustration. Yet it is exactly this thwarted energy that makes Chant exciting. It works on two levels: it is serious anguish, and it is also a tease. Either way, Genet makes the point that sex is a head trip as much as it is anything else. Similarly, in Wakefield Poole’s currently popular Bijou the coming-out process is presented—again too romantically for my taste—as a kind of psychedelic theater in which the hero discovers his various sexual personalities and accepts the male body in all its aspects.
Women have no pornographic tradition, and at the moment it doesn’t look as if anybody’s about to start one. The New York Erotic Film Festival recently scheduled an evening of movies by women, but they turned out to be more about self than about sex, which pretty much sums up a lot of women’s priorities right now. I enjoyed them; in the middle of the whole dying culture of swingerism they radiated life. Still, I was disappointed that no one had made my movie. Maybe next year.
January 25, 1973