As a member of the research team for Pornography in the Public Eye, I know my way around contemporary pornography research: the issues, the important figures and the often heated disagreements. As my response to the film ‘Love and Sex in an Age of Pornography’, I thought I would lay out what I think makes directors Maree Crabbe and David Corlett’s work on mainstream pornography really stand out.
1. Taking the Questions to the Key Players
If you’ve read a bit in this area, you’ll know that heaps of research addressing pornography involves a researcher looking at a sample of magazines, videos or clips and analysing them according to their particular criteria. Unsurprisingly, disagreements over what constitutes a ‘representative’ sample and how to distinguish violence and assault from rough and tumble sex plague the field and often degenerate into an antagonistic “my data is more accurate” or “my reading is better/more sophisticated than yours” impasse.
In their documentary, Maree and David take the questions to the key players – porn industry moguls, professional porn actors and young consumers. In doing so, they get compelling and authoritative answers to questions about production and consumption. Young people’s analysis of what porn sex is about is depressingly gendered: young men do it and young women take it. Interviews with industry performers and producers support their analysis: mainstream pornography is about pushing women’s bodies to the limit: female performers are praised for ‘taking everything’ thrown at them – except, arguably, the big bucks. While some claim that mainstream pornography can be empowering for women, you don’t need to look far for the misogyny in this industry, with mogul John Stagliano declaring that ‘pussies are bullshit’.
Without reducing the complexity of their interviewees’ stories to a simple didactic message, this documentary demonstrates the lessons young people are learning from mainstream pornography: gendered lessons about what sex is, who it is for and what they are expected to do to / for others sexually. As one young man candidly tell us, he thought ‘all chicks dig this, all chicks like it there, all chicks want it there…it went bad’.
2. Porn Sex is a Job – and it’s Hard Work
Secondly and refreshingly, Maree and David’s film is not invested in portraying mainstream pornography performers as either victimised or gloriously empowered. Their interviews with a range of male and female performers make it clear that for these people, having sex on camera is a job. It’s about money not pleasure, and it’s hard work. Porn sex is not what these people do at home for fun, and it is made possible by body-altering practices: men take Viagra for physical endurance, and women ‘prepare’ their bodies so that they can accommodate sex practices which would otherwise be painful and uncomfortable.
These narratives from performers remind us that mainstream pornography is a choreographed product, not an unmediated recording of the sexual proclivities of performers. This message has the potential to disrupt what I think is one of the most disturbing messages mainstream pornography puts across – that whatever’s being done sexually to a woman, she likes it and deserves it.
These are just two reasons why ‘Love and Sex in an Age of Pornography’ is of considerable public and scholarly value. We need to face up to what it is we’re consuming and the gendered lessons we’re learning from it, and Maree and David’s documentary provides an ideal springboard for these difficult conversations.