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by Molly Lambert
“I am in the adult film scene for mainly one reason. On average, most of the porn I see is boring, and does not arouse me physically, or visually. There are only a handful of porn stars that continue to push the boundaries of what women are supposed to like, or be like in bed.” – Sasha Grey
Sue Lyon and James Mason in Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita
Pornography is a forty billion dollar a year business made largely by and for men. But the most famous porn stars are women, and the fact that they work in a studio system which treats them as largely replaceable and disposable commodities isn’t lost on them. The people who make major money off of porn are mostly still men, but the industry’s biggest stars are nearly all females.
Hannah Montana, naked teen in public posing for Annie Leibovitz
The sexually explicit porno-chic aesthetic that crossed into the mainstream long ago is still mostly engineered by gross old perverts like Terry Richardson, Larry Clark, and Richard Kern. But what about the young women being objectified by their cameras? The Miley Cyrus mishegoss was a rehash of the Britney Spears cover of Rolling Stone controversy. A manufactured scandal meant to titilate as much as to provoke outrage.
Miley Cyrus, bra-flashing in “private” (the internet is never private)
It is not (and never has been) shocking that people sexualize children, especially girls. It is not the pictures that rob these girls of their agency, it is the discussion around them. When an actually shocking story like the Austrian guy with the incest dungeon breaks, the public’s repulsion is matched only by their lust for sordid details. The flip side of disgust is fascination.
Alice Liddell as “The Beggar Maid,” photo by Lewis Carroll
The internet is a Pandora’s Box for pornography, and shutting down provocative preteen modeling sites like Lil’ Amber will not stop pederasty or the sexual exploitation of minors any more than banning Lolita would have. Shows like To Catch A Predator play on the desire that morally outrageous crimes be stopped, and encourages the public to think that modern society and its evils are somehow responsible for outbreaks of sin.
from American Apparel’s children’s section
But none of these problems are new. They occur behind closed doors in purposely antiquated settings like the FLDS, and reading any of the true crime records widely available online (or The Bible, for that matter) makes it obvious that most transgressions, no matter how hideous, have been happening for thousands for years. Which is not the same as deeming them acceptable.
Sex crimes and Silence in the FLDS, Big Love it is not
As with other things still somewhat socially entrenched as being “strictly for men” (sports, beer, video games, comedy, cars) women are equally interested in porn. It is an unavoidably widespread cultural phenomenon, and it’s not like the people who most vocally criticize pornography aren’t having (deviant) sex behind closed doors.
“Porn porn porn…This is some really good porn“
The reason Bettie Page is still so popular, especially with women and rockabillies, is because she sells fantasies with a smile that reminds you it’s just fantasy. You still feel like Bettie’s the one in charge. That’s what makes it empowering rather than merely objectifying or degrading.
Bettie Page, strong sexuality without sadness
I find the actual brass tacks business aspects of the porn industry to be fascinating as it acts like a microcosm of the Hollywood studio system, with its own cults of personality and associated ego clashes. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, (the heart of the porn industry) as did Paul Thomas Anderson, who funneled his own obsession with the history and folklore of Porn Valley into magnificent opus Boogie Nights.
Traci Lords, fully clothed in the eighties
One of the things about Sasha Grey that makes her so fascinating is how she bucks the traditional porn star narrative. She is not on drugs, does not come from an abusive background, has not had any plastic surgery. Sasha is like a legal version of teenage porn star Traci Lords, who was able to gain control of her career (and bank account) by taking her producers to court while letting critics decry that she had been manipulated by the business.
Jenna Jameson, putting her porno war paint on
The porn industry traditionally builds its stars by offering them in progressively more outré scenarios. Some actresses will do strictly solo and lesbian scenes for years before ever having onscreen heterosexual sex. This allows publicity-hungry porn studios to market the increasingly more intense plateaus of a porn star’s career as “events,” in order to hype the films in which they occur. Jenna Jameson, the most mainstream porn actress, had a long list of things she would not consider doing onscreen.
Sasha Grey, way more than barely legal
The stages of a porn star’s career are usually that as she gets older (and more famous), she gets blonder, the implants progressively bigger, the make-up more caked on, and the sex acts become more degrading. But Sasha Grey started her career doing the things Jenna Jameson still won’t do onscreen. Since Grey already does nearly every hardcore thing consumers might want to see her do, she is selling a new kind of porn stardom.
Miley Cyrus, totally still so underage
You cannot degrade Grey, because she has already “degraded” herself. And while porn is a world where violence against women is explicitly coded in the amount of pain and submission involved in some sex acts, Sasha exudes control even in the most sadistic situations. And in doing so, she rejects the idea that what she is doing is degrading. Because although much of her work still has her playing Lolitas, what she is selling is a ubiquitous fantasy, and everyone involved is (in reality) a consenting adult.
Britney, not a virgin when this was taken
Besides, Sasha is doing all this within the context of porn. She is running for AVN star of the year, not the Senate. Rape fantasies are not the same thing as actual rape, nor do they actually encourage rape as a practice. Women’s pornography as a genre is still in its infancy. But maybe girls wouldn’t feel so weird and conflicted about their sexuality if there was porn made for them instead of just about them?
Lolicon, controversial pedophilia-themed manga genre
Some feminist critics would argue that this is a horribly dangerous idea, that empowerment through taking one’s clothes off on camera is not a great long-term strategy for garnering respect. Diablo Cody’s journalistic experiment with stripping and sex work divided Jezebel commenters into two oppositional camps, many of whom could not reconcile innate writing talent with a desire to disrobe for strange men.
Diablo Cody, feeling sexy looking steampunk
I don’t really think Diablo got into sex work specifically with winning an Oscar in mind. She’s most similar to other famously witty ladies of burlesque like Lili St. Cyr and Gypsy Rose Lee (and flapper writer Anita Loos, who didn’t strip but was an awesome slut as I discussed here), in that she seems well-aware of all the conflicting messages this sends out. I imagine she endorses that young women hoping to write movies jump on the powerbook rather than the pole. Or as I like to put it, do as I blog, not as I do.
Gypsy Rose Lee, you gotta have a gimmick
Sasha Grey’s plan for world domination involves her desire to unionize the industry and to direct porn that is more cinematic. As far as feminist porn goes, I predict it becomes the next boom in the adult industry (the current popular trendlet is POV Porn). Women are a huge virtually untapped audience for pornography and it’s not like they aren’t already watching it online anyway.
Absolutely Fabulous’s Dirty Old Women
In her Richard Kern Vice shoot Sasha says what she intends to do as a director and Kern basically laughs it off. He claims no one would want to see narrative porn when what he means is “I, Richard Kern, do not care about narrative in porn.” It’s not that women hate hardcore (they don’t), there’s a way to do it so that it isn’t totally exploitative. Even something like queening can be filmed in a way that won’t demean the participants. What makes the bulk of what’s available so unappealing to women is the humorlessness and self-seriousness, the continuing focus on money shots as the be-all and end-all point of pornography.
Sasha Grey, the birthday girl
It’s not even the sex acts in porn that are really degrading, it’s the way the girls are treated on (and off) screen. All we’re asking for really, are more attractive male porn stars (the least creepy one is Lex Steele), just some cute non-tatted dudes without gross spray-on tans or ponytails, and for better made porn that appeals to a wider range of interests. Is that really so much to ask?
Female Friendly Porn Stars Making Female Friendly Porn
(NSFW, obviously, unless you work in an Adult Bookshop)
Belladonna: Grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah in a Mormon household. Has appeared in over 250 adult films, most of them anal-themed. Retired from performing in 2007 after getting herpes only to unretire a few months later. Just won her first AVN award for directing Belladonna: Manhandled 2.
Tristan Taormino: Anal sex expert, graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in American Studies from Wesleyan University and edits the occasional compilation of queer erotica. Former editor of lesbian porn mag On Our Backs. She is the niece of Thomas Pynchon, and probably sees his rarely glimpsed face at Thanksgiving (this is speculation).
Joanna Angel: Runs her own alt-porn empire called Burning Angel, was raised in northern New Jersey as an Orthodox Jew, went to Rutgers University and earned a BA in English Literature with a minor in Film Studies. Occasionally mistaken for fellow Hebraic sex enthusiast Sarah Silverman.
Molly Lambert is the managing editor of This Recording
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