It was a fever-inducer.
I responded with two show-and-tell's of my own: "How to Read a Dirty Movie," and "All-Girl Action: The History of Lesbian Eroticism in Hollywood."
The following essay is a review contrasting our two presentations; the so-called "sex positive" and the "anti-porn."
I never read a critique of either of our shows which was more than, "Oh my god, they're showing nekkid people doing it!"
This review, therefore, was fascinating for me and I've always been surprised more people haven't considered it. Eithne Johnson's story is scholarly, published in a film geeks' journal. I'm glad to show it here, in digital form at last. I've included some of my own corrections and reactions in italics.
"In April 1995, MIT graduate students organized a public panel discussion in reaction to a private strip show that had been sponsored by male students in a dormitory. Offended by the idea of this strip show, the graduate students ambitiously wanted their panel to address the issues that they felt it raised: "prostitution, stripping, and pornography." Following advice from friends, faculty, and on-line respondents, the panel organizers decided to provide a "balanced" panel by setting up "pro" and "con" sides. Thus, they imposed this binary opposition on the speakers who (warily) agreed to participate.
"Pro" panelists included Kim Airs, "sacred sex worker" and sex shop owner; Cynthia Chandler, a Harvard Law School student who was under consideration for Playboy's "Ivy League" issue; and me, a media studies instructor and researcher on women's porn. "Con" panelists included Northeastern University professor Jackson Katz, founder of the "anti-sexist" group "Real Men"; attorney Sally Hunt, who defends street prostitutes; and sociology professor Gail Dines, "renown lecturer on the pervasiveness of the media in our MTV culture" (program). For the organizers, this panel was a feminist political response to the pressing problem of sexism on campus, epitomized for them by the strip show.
For me, the panel was cause to reflect on the many porn-related panels that I have organized, participated in, and/or attended over several years. Given that I had once been a student activist, I could relate to the students' desire for an immediate and feminist-identified response. However, I was dismayed that the anti-pornography argument, to which they devoted the lion's share of the evening, had already shaped their understanding of feminist media criticism.
Following on thirty years of women's activism, feminist media presentations, such as the anti-porn slide show, deserve more critical attention precisely as spectacles that use media for polemical education and advertising critique (most notably, Jean Kilbourne's influential "Killing Us Softly" series).
Since the early-to-mid eighties when X-rated movie screenings became the target of campus protests, a marginal space has emerged for feminist speakers who "educate" college audiences about the perils or pleasures of pornography, which may be defined so broadly as to include advertising and slasher films.
As you probably know, these feminist educators typically use slide shows or video clips as their main attractions.
That these spectacles purport to instruct even as they promise to titillate and/or terrify their audiences suggests a strategy similar to the exhibition practices of "classical" exploitation roadshows.
According to Eric Schaefer, because the "classical" exploitation film existed in a "space between" reputable cinema and disreputable (stag) films, producers were motivated to claim an educational value for their lurid pictures. Like the "classical" exploitation exhibitor, these feminist speakers offer hybrid pornographic/ educational roadshow attractions. As itinerant performers, they exploit the "space between" the official curriculum and extracurricular activities, which not so long ago could include porn movie screenings.
Here I will consider two prominent figures on the feminist roadshow circuit who exemplify the two types of spectacles — "anti-porn" and "pro-sex." Wheelock College professor Gail Dines is opposed vehemently not only to pornography but also to much of popular culture because both perpetuate "images of violence against women" (publicity). Writer/editor Susie Bright is a pro-sex feminist who encourages women to explore pornography for its range of sex fantasies and to contribute to the genre.
In this essay, I will look at the ways in which these pornographic-educational roadshows reconstruct pornography as a reading practice while also creating marginal venues for discussions of sexual agency and sexual abuse.
Two discursive tactics are deployed: 1) the anti-porn roadshow defines pornography as patriarchal propaganda for violence against women, illustrated by images from porn, advertising, and horror movies; 2) the pro-sex roadshow defines pornography as a genre in order to show its mutability as a cultural form and its accessibility to women as producers and consumers. Both moves reconstruct pornography through interpretive readings that depend on the appropriation of pre-existing images.
Formally, they recall the "compilation" type of the "classical" exploitation film. Thus, the anti-porn slide show compiles images that read pornography as the "objectification" of women: the educator (Dines) locates female victims upon whose symbolically posed bodies will be found traces of a now-absent male perpetrator.
The pro-sex video show compiles scenes that read pornography as the representational territory for sexual fantasies: the educator (Bright) celebrates pornographic scenes that exemplify female sexual agency and erotic pleasure.
It is important to reflect on the advantages and disadvantages imposed by using "pornographic" images as both the catalyst for and the organizing principle of feminist educational events.
What does it mean that these pornographic/ educational roadshows have appeared in reaction to popular entertainments (X-rated movies, strip shows) that promise pornographic spectacle? How do they teach women to read pornography and what are the implications of such education? To address these questions, I will show how pornographic/educational roadshows function as attractions.
BALLYHOO AND SELF-PROMOTION
Hoping to lure straight men for instant consciousness-raising, the MIT organizers promoted their panel to appeal to implied male consumers: "A Buyer's Guide to Prostitution, Stripping, and Pornography." On the promotional flyer, the catchphrases "LIVE GIRLS" and "Equality of the Sexes" appeared in light and dark print respectively, promising both pornographic entertainment and educational debate.
While exploiting pornography's generic imperative to reveal live flesh, the organizers sought to persuade attendees to take an "educated" position according to the "pro" and "con" factions seemingly represented by us, the panelists. This balancing act made the evening tense for us since we were precisely set up to become spectacular. For the audience, it delivered the ultimate battle between pornographic/ educational roadshows, pitting pro-sexers against anti-pornographers.
The audience did not know that the terms of the engagement had been rigged from the start, as I will explain. However, as such campus spectacles go, the unannounced strip act by "sacred sex worker" Kim Airs was probably the exception rather than the rule. This was clearly more LIVE GIRL than the organizers expected to see, even as they had unabashedly promoted the event with such ballyhoo.
Gail Dines and Susie Bright also negotiate the distinction between the "serious" educator and the entertaining LIVE GIRL according to their discursive tactics. Both cultivate visibility within the public sphere, are represented by agents, and have appeared on talk television.
For Professor Dines, the anti-porn discourse opens up a channel for official institutional support. For example, she was scheduled at Emerson College in April, 1995, under the auspices of the Dean of Students Office and the Committee for Awareness Programs at Emerson. "Seriously" entitled, "Sexy or Sexist? Violence Against Women in the Media," her presentation was accompanied by publicity from her agency calling it, "A Powerful Slide/Lecture Presentation by Gail Dines, Ph.D." Here, a photo of Dines, posed austerely in professional attire, appeared bottom-right, visually counterbalancing a sexy fashion photo upper-left.
Even as this semiotic display exploited the education/entertainment divide, Dines' credentials served to situate her roadshow as seriously instructional:
"Drawing upon research by sociologists, psychologists, feminists and media scholars, Dines will examine how these images affect the way we think about ourselves as males and females, as sexual beings and as potential victims and victimizers."
Suggestively linking sex and violence, this anti-porn discourse proposes to preempt any pleasure associated with explicit imagery by framing heterosexuality in terms of the "objectification" theory: female = object/ victim; male = subject/ victimizer. The disciplinary educator promises to reveal the latent meaning of pornographic imagery through the re-representation of the LIVE GIRL as victim.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Dines not only supported local protests against an adult video store in Boston (as did fellow panelist Jackson Katz), but she also brought Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon to testify for their controversial anti-porn ordinance before the Massachusetts legislature.
Because the anti-porn roadshow created a space for "serious" feminist educators, it has dominated the scene from the college campus to Capitol Hill. At the same time, it has engendered resistance to its polemical "objectification" thesis. Bright's pornographic-educational roadshow emerged out of the feminist pro-sex and anti-censorship movements, with which she identifies, given her history as sex toy specialist at Good Vibrations, a film reviewer for Penthouse Forum, and the founding editor of On Our Backs, which dared to play off the more "serious" feminist publication, off our backs.
Like other women porn producers, Bright seeks to subvert the prevailing anti-porn argument by countering it as an informed consumer/connoisseur. In this way, she implicitly claims to be subjectified, not objectified through pornography. Not only does Bright reject the distinction between "good" erotica and "bad" pornography supported by anti-porn feminists, but she incorporates the generic promise of the LIVE GIRL into her own performances and her promotional materials.
In 1987, Bright hit the college circuit, beginning with Cal Arts; she was also welcomed at gay/lesbian film festivals. Her first roadshow was titled "How to Read a Dirty Movie," featuring a video compilation. She followed with another video compilation roadshow, "All Girl Action, The History of Lesbian Eroticism in Hollywood."
Her roadshows tend to be supported by gay-lesbian-bisexual groups either on campuses or outside official institutions. In Austin in 1990, "How to Read a Dirty Movie" was part of the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, while "All Girl Action" was "sponsored by the Women's Media Project" (Maher).
At Williams College in 1995, Bright's "Sexual State of the Union Address" was sponsored by the Dively Committee, the BGLU, the Lecture Committee, and the Theatre Department. As a self-appointed, bisexual-lesbian spokeswoman for the LIVE GIRL, Bright occupies a more marginal position on the campus roadshow circuit than Dines, whose institutional affiliation secures her status as a legitimate educator.
As a "sexy" performer, Bright seeks to challenge the limits of women's respectable behavior in public; for Dines, institutional codes set limits on dress and behavior that can affect career opportunities.
A pornographic/educational roadshow succeeds as an attraction to the degree that the educator fulfills the ballyhoo's promise to deliver a spectacular performance. True to her "serious" publicity photo, Dines performs as a Marxist-feminist vanguardist. (This is interesting news to me, since I also think of myself as coming from Marxist and feminist foundations... SB)
Dines' agency markets her roadshow as a humane mission; statistics on the incidence of rape, battery, and molestation of females (whether or not accurate) are meant to shock.
As an agit-prop performer intent on persuasion, Dines has sought to control the impact of her presentation before it even begins. On the eve of the MIT event, organizers admitted they had allotted Dines more time for her slide show than the entire "pro" side combined. The students justified the disparity by saying that Dines would not participate unless they gave her a minimum of 20 minutes, which was all she would agree to edit her 45 minute show down to. She has purportedly set rigid terms at other events as well.
According to Jim D'Entremont and Bob Chatelle of the Boston Coalition for Freedom of Expression, they invited Dines to participate in a debate at Boston University regarding the anti-porn ordinance then supported by Dines, Dworkin, and MacKinnon. At the event, Dines refused to debate the other panelist and took questions only from students.
After taking up much more than her allotted time, Dines summarily left the panel, followed by a group of supporters. (D'Entremont and Chatelle suspect that the audience was stacked with several of Dines' students from nearby Wheelock College.)
The other panelist, a woman with much experience defending civil liberties and supporting women's shelters, had little time to present her argument against the anti-porn ordinance, much less to contend with an audience that was greatly disturbed by Dines' rhetoric.
The rabble-rousing anti-porn performance appears to demonstrate the triumph of the disciplinary educator over pornography's perversity. Emotionally moved audiences obviously find something gratifying in this victory in rhetoric. By refusing to debate, democratic dialogue is suppressed in favor of moral indignation.
Whereas Dines issues radical-critical theory warnings about popular culture's seductiveness, Bright revels in seduction's consumerist pleasures. In performance mode as "Susie Sexpert," Bright wants to be the "bad" girl to the "good" women of anti-porn feminism. Like porn stars-turned-performance artists, Bright uses her body to deconstruct the theater of pornography, its sexual stylings and fantasy constructions.
Her sartorial choices as Susie Sexpert signify her cultivation of perversity: she embodies a connoisseur of pornography, the pleasure-seeking, sexually subjectified consumer which anti-porn feminism has traditionally denied to women and ceded to men.
Unlike Dines, who has an appointment at an academic institution which gives her economic security, Bright has a much less secure occupation as "freelance writer, editor, and lecturer."
Dines' roadshow may be motivated by Marxist feminist politics, but she does not have to tour for a living. Bright has financial reasons to stay on the lecture circuit as well as on book tours (sometimes simultaneously). Indeed, Cleis Press (one of my first publishers- SB) markets Bright as a pop culture commodity/ connoisseur: "America's favorite X-rated intellectual" (publicity).
Since Bright has to consider the possibility of future gigs, she probably has to give a "good" performance" to be invited back. Criteria for judging her performances would emphasize their entertainment value and inclusiveness of sexual identities; of course, official discourses can also deploy these very criteria to withhold legitimacy to her lectures. Few academic programs would actually hire her as a self-styled "X-rated intellectual," (I actually haven't found that to be true, particularly in private universities- SB) but she has taught the occasional class, including a course, "The Politics of Sexual Representation," at UC Santa Cruz (her alma mater).
In contrast, Dines' academic credentials authorize her performances as an educator, seemingly removed from the realm of commodities. As a professor, her words have weight; however, if her presentation were subject to peer review, it might have attracted a lot more critical attention from media scholars by now.
THE "SQUARE UP" OR HOW TO ATTRACT AUDIENCES BY ALARMING THEM
As Eric Schaefer explains in his dissertation, the "classical" exploitation film typically began with a "square up": "a prefatory statement about the social or moral ill the film was attempting to combat". Purporting to provide a somber educational perspective, the "square up" served as a moralistic pretense for showing the lurid spectacle which the film promised its audience.
Schaefer points out that roadshow advertising ("exploitation" as it was then called) played up such pictures' edifying and titillating aspects. For films dealing with sexual matters, audiences were even segregated by gender, an exhibition strategy that could be seen to support a conservative take on sexual relations (even if it was only meant to safeguard the box office). Pornographic/ educational media presentations also use the "square up" tactic, especially those that promote an anti-porn argument.
Indeed, anti-porn presentations perpetuate an inherently conservative, segregationist model of gender relations by setting up a female victim against a male victimizer. Because this strategy is used by porn opponents on the far right and the radical left, it deserves further scrutiny. In asking people to identify with the quintessential victim — the young girl — such educational presentations talk down to their audiences in order to scare them into the correct reading.
Before discussing the "square up" for Dines' presentation, it is worth comparing two videos that promote anti-porn positions: Sut Jhally's DREAMWORLDS (1990) and Focus on the Family's LEARN TO DISCERN (1992).
Offering a radical critique of gender on MTV, DREAMWORLDS opens as follows: "Warning: This video contains scenes of graphic sexual violence which may disturb some viewers."
Then the title appears followed by the subtitle, "Desire/Sex/Power in Rock Video." While the warning sets up the expectation for exposure to "graphic sexual violence," without explaining what constitutes such, the subtitle then suggests erotic excitement.
Since both violence and erotica can be emotionally unsettling, the warning primes audiences to become disturbed. The opening sequence explains that MTV was designed to target teens, but the accompanying visual imagery (taken from a music video) implies that the real target is young girls, echoing the anti-porn argument's claim that the true victim of a pornographic culture is the female child.
From a critical Christian perspective, LEARN TO DISCERN opens with a similar warning directed toward parents presumably ignorant of how popular culture puts their children "at risk," especially the innocent girl.
Not surprisingly, heavy metal iconography figures prominently in both DREAMWORLDS (as sexist imagery) and LEARN TO DISCERN (as satanist imagery). Though from opposite ends of the political spectrum with regard to gender relations and capitalism, both videos incorporate the feminist anti-porn strategy of linking "pornographic" images (from porn, MTV, advertising, and slasher films) with violence against women. Seeking to impose fear, DREAMWORLDS exploits the theme music from HALLOWEEN; LEARN TO DISCERN is shot with a studio audience, so reaction shots of disturbed faces bolster the educator's lecture.
This "horror show" approach has proven very effective attracting and provoking audiences, from students to senators.
As an exhibition practice, the "square up" helps position the educator as expert (on media, on female victimization), and therefore most competent to read popular imagery. To prepare people to see Gail Dines' presentation at Emerson College, the Director of Student Activities issued the following memo:
"Please be advised that the slide presentation will contain adult content and that children under 18 are discouraged from attending."
(What better way to prime an audience of college students than to warn them of "adult content?") Attached to the memo, Dines' publicity flyer provided a provocative warning that was posted all over campus:
"On a daily basis we are bombarded with media images that suggest sexual harassment is flirting, battery is foreplay, and rape is hot sex. Using examples from advertisements, films, magazines, MTV, and 'slasher' movies, Gail Dines shows how images of violence against women are so commonplace that we, as a society, are becoming desensitized to them."
Dines' "square up" sets up an expectation to be "desensitized," presumably by viewing an atrocity exhibit of "violence against women." While Dines repudiates these images as dangerous to women, her slide show exhibition compels her to inflict those same images on her largely female audiences.
Given that Hitchcock's notorious quote — 'Torture the women! The trouble today is we don't torture the women enough" — appears at the top of her publicity flyer, she seems to have learned something important from this Hollywood showman. Hitchcock, DePalma, slasher films, and made-for-TV movies have exploited audience sympathy for female characters-as-victims.
Similarly, Dines wants to generate and exploit such sympathy in order to win adherents to anti-porn feminism. Even as the anti-porn educator urges women to become "image-literate" (so they are aware of this "violence"), anti-porn discourse preempts individual women's competency to read popular imagery by presenting only one correct, disciplined reading. If any woman finds the imagery erotic, then she is left to conclude that such pleasures must be guilty.
(At this point, you might like to know that Dines shifted emphasis since her antiporn roadshow days. She is now the central American figure fighting "sex traffiking", and her politics on prostitution reflect the same views she portrayed in her antiporn work. - SB)
Because Susie Bright seeks to challenge anti-porn discourse, she uses the "square up" tactic in seeming parody. Her first roadshow, titled "How to Read a Dirty Movie," echoes the anti-porn educator's assumption that audiences need to be taught a proper way to read porn. Thus, Bright's "square up" beckons an audience already sensitized to anti-porn discourse. As Bright explained to reviewer Kathleen Maher,
"It's very much like an erotic literacy tour...A lot of it is about gender and then I talk about what people mean when they talk about violence in pornography" (21).
Like Dines, Bright claims the educated reader's position, but from personal experience rather than formal education. To counter the anti-porn presumption that (good feminist) women are porn-illiterates, pro-sex discourse issues from a s/expert — a feminist whose consumer/producer experience with the genre qualifies her to explain it. For her sexpertise, Bright draws on her impressive background as reviewer, performer, and consultant for sexually explicit films.
Whereas Dines' "square up" warns audiences about harmful violent images, Bright subverts the tactic by warning audiences of the dangers of a feminist discourse that fails to acknowledge women's pleasures in and production of sexually explicit imagery.
In fact, Bright wants to champion porn — especially its non-normative "girl-girl" convention — and selected film imagery as sites in which lesbians could locate and read female sexual desire in a society that has refused direct representation of lesbian sexuality.
With "All Girl Action, The History of Lesbian Eroticism in Hollywood," Bright promises to reveal the pleasures of "deviant" readings.
(I was, as you might be guessing, influenced by John Berger's "Ways of Seeing," and Vito Russo's "The Celluloid Closet" - SB)
Unlike Dines' show, which attempts to close down alternative readings, Bright's show opens up space for multiple readings and interpretive competencies. Moreover, she does not talk down to her audiences nor ask them to assume a universalized position of the innocent young girl.
THE MEDIUM IS THE DISMEMBERMENT
According to Dines' publicity,
"By carefully analyzing and dissecting the images, Dines helps to promote image literacy by making the viewers aware of the ways in which the media manipulates and seduces it audience."
How she uses her chosen medium — the slide show — is key to this method of "dissection" analysis. Indeed, the anti-porn slide show formally constructs the objectifying dismemberment which it claims pornography does: it gives a serial display of anonymous female body parts cut out of any meaningful context. In an essay written in 1981, Paula Webster describes a feminist anti-porn slide show that included:
"About 30 images of predominantly heterosexual couples engaged in intercourse...There were shots of individual women, bound and gagged, pictures of female dominatrixes, assorted album covers, posters, clothing advertisements, as well as a handful of very jarring images of self-mutilation and the now-infamous Hustler photos of women arranged as food on a platter or put through a meat grinder." (48)
This strategy of reconstructing pornography as images without specific histories suggests that porn is a static cultural form. To support the objectification theory of violent imagery and its detrimental effects on women, anti-porn feminists have to mount evidence that popular culture is dangerous and even resistant to change. Indeed, Dines exhorted the MIT audience to "stop analyzing" pornography and start building an "old-fashioned organization" to fight it.
Following Dines' presentation, MIT professor Henry Jenkins noted a contradiction: she criticized "textual analysis" yet used it to read meaning from the slides. Dines said her method of textual analysis — in contrast to what she identified as polysemic postmodern approaches — was accurate for understanding "overall context" as well as how texts are constructed. Dines warned,
"Ultimately there's nothing you can play with to get this woman out of this position [referring to an explicit slide image]."
In a literal sense, she is absolutely right: no matter how one "plays with" an image, one is powerless to alter the context through which the image was produced. But this point only makes sense if one accepts her disprovable assumption about production context — that the woman was forced (more so than any other laborer) into a pose she did not consent to perform.
The only "proof' usually offered in support of this assumption is Linda Marchiano's poignant testimony from her autobiography, Ordeal, in which she reveals that, as "Linda Lovelace," she was beaten and manipulated by her former husband/manager. By invoking Marchiano' s painful past as a porn celebrity (DEEP THROAT), Dines and others insinuate that her experience represents that of women in porn and sex work.
Much less can be said of actresses in slasher films and models who pose for advertisements, which regularly focus on specific body parts (eyes, hands, legs, etc.). Because they "objectify" by showing female body parts, Dines reconstructs slasher and ad images as "pornographic." She concludes such images symbolically dismember the female body. These images are then considered a warning to women that their actual bodies may be treated as objects by men, who implicitly read the media as patriarchal propaganda in support of their objectification of women.
In 1981, Paula Webster noted this flaw in the anti-porn logic:
"The most important misunderstanding was that a mere representation was spoken of as a reality — as an actual event recorded by some Candid Camera" (48).
In Dines' anti-porn roadshow, still images seemingly give documentary evidence of male violence against women. Women in the audience are asked to imagine being in the position of the women displayed, reading images as a record of spontaneous domination instead of staged performances. The anti-porn slide show works — inasmuch as one believes in it — precisely because it performs the symbolic dismembering of female bodies.
This dismembering is produced specifically through reconstructing pornography as a serial display of static slide images (using gory, glossy body-part imagery). The serially projected images function much like the editing in PSYCHO's shower scene — accumulated shock cuts convey the impression that a stabbing might have occurred.
As this serial slide display reconstructs "pornography," the educator's narrative supplies interpretive competence-horror and outrage are the appropriate reactions for reading pornography. This propaganda's sheer disciplinary force makes it unlikely that audience members will risk appearing incompetent in order to point out the obvious: the pornography reconstructed by the educator exists only through this interpretive approach.
Bright has popularized pro-sex roadshows which reconstruct pornography as a "do-it-yourself' project: anyone can become a porn connoisseur.
Subverting the anti-pornographer's insistence on a monolithic reading, Bright's Sexpert reconstructs pornography through videotaped compilations. Although these tapes might seem to indicate only her own preferences, as a lesbian-identified bisexual Bright also understands how lesbians may collectively interpret a variety of images as scenes of sapphic desire. (This labeling terminology seems quaint to me now. I don't care what anyone calls themselves... "show me the business" is more my attitude - SB)
For her video compilations, Bright not only picks "girl-girl" porn scenes but also selects from films that have erotic significance for lesbians — QUEEN CHRISTINA (1933) and MOROCCO (1930) for drag performances, and girl-centered movies, such as MAEDCHEN IN UNIFORM (1958) and THE CHILDREN'S HOUR (1962). She shows how home-video allows anyone who can afford two VCRs to construct her own pornographic movies.
Indeed, "All Girl Action" builds on separate scenes' homoerotic charge by sequencing them to prolong the viewing experience, intensifying the charge since such scenes are otherwise defused within heterosexual narratives.
According to Bright, "All Girl Action" represents "sort of a triumphal tour." Audiences respond with pleasure to shared lesbian-bisexual readings.
Bright argues that people have learned more about sex from porn than other sources, and that lesbians in particular have learned about sex with women from pornographic conventions. According to Ehrenreich, Hess, and Jacobs, the mass marketplace is "impersonal," "democratic," and "nonjudgmental":
"As a setting for learning about sex, the marketplace offers some clear advantages over friends, medical experts, or even more liberated manuals."
As porn film production shifted to video in the early 80s, it became more readily available, especially to women, in many video stores instead of remaining marginalized and stigmatized in adults-only enterprises. Nevertheless, porn's status as marginally legal affects what the market can offer. From Bright's perspective, the problem is summarized in a video guide for Good Vibrations (the sex specialty store designed for women):
"There are millions of sex films available to erotically minded video viewers. Most of them are guided by formulas imposed by nothing less than censorship, legal restrictions, limited budgets, and a very narrow view of the intended market for explicit sexual cinema."
Since formulas are influenced by market pressure and innovation, Bright advocates that women not only become better consumers but also producers of porn. She has been especially involved in making porn from a "clit' s point of view" (Herotica).
From 1984-1991 at On Our Backs, she was the "Toys for Us" columnist, in which she championed all kinds of sex products and activities, such as dildoes and penetration, which at the time challenged the prevailing lesbian-identified conception of female sexuality. Incorporating her essays from that magazine, Bright has written four books.
Since the late eighties, she has edited the Herotica and Best American Erotica collections. These and her own books have been issued by alternative feminist publishers, including Cleis Press (gay-oriented) and Down There Press (sex-oriented), as well as by a mass-market publisher, Simon and Schuster. But Bright's enthusiasm for "pornotopia" underplays established porn video companies' and distributors' enormous resistance to change; their audience is internally identified as "raincoaters" (a derogatory male-identified term that they have embraced to flout porn opponents).
Building to a rhetorical climax, Dines invokes porn's presumed violence by asking women in the audience if they'd planned to grow up to become "masturbation stimulators" for men (the evil raincoaters). Because competency to read pornographic imagery as violently objectifying is linked to the anti-porn educator's expert reconstruction, she establishes a context for her slide show structurally hostile to alternative readings.
Having enticed audiences by warning about the dire effects of desensitization to media imagery, the anti-porn roadshow must satisfy the expectation to be resensitized, shocked and horrified. To borrow from Linda Williams, the anti-porn roadshow must deliver as a "body genre." Fear is the predictable reaction as rhetoric and context invite audiences to "mimic" the appropriate response to sadomasochistic narratives of (female) victimization. Insidiously, Dines invites women to imagine themselves as unwitting victims for men's sexual fantasies.
Beginning with the rhetorical "square up," the anti-porn educator's impulse to locate female victims can be so powerful that women present at the roadshow may confess to experiencing victimization.
At the MIT event, panelist Cindy Chandler offered her own testimony of sexual abuse, following Dines' sarcastic attacks aimed at Chandler's desire to appear in Playboy. Under such pressure, Chandler inadvertently supported Dines' assumption — that sex workers are always-already victims of abuse — in order to (re)claim her own authority to speak for her ability to distinguish between coerced and chosen sex acts.
By reconstructing pornography as violence against women, the anti-porn slide show appropriates the "sadomasochistic" scenario of the "teen horror film," in which sexually active females are punished by marauding males (Williams). Thus, Dines hopes that both virtuous women and masturbatory males will be scared away from porn.
While Dines sacrifices female sexual agency to the anti-porn cause, Bright explicitly addresses and encourages it. Promising "dirty" movies and "all girl action," Bright's roadshow audiences expect entertaining, diverse, and novel spectacles which women may find exciting. Her videotape compilations include many sex acts, including female ejaculation through masturbation.
If Dines' audiences leave terrified, Bright hopes her audiences come and come again. (Actually, I was hoping they'd think and think again. Maybe it's the same thing. Also laugh a bit. - SB)
Her enthusiasm stems from interrelated motives: 1) a porn producer's (self-serving) purpose to encourage women to buy porn; and 2) a feminist's consciousness-raising effort to empower women as sexual agents. Bright seeks to relieve viewers' boredom with, or resistance to, porn formulas by emphasizing the hot moments, as if the "on time!" temporality of seduction could be endlessly sustained (Linda Williams).
Bright wants to leave her audiences begging for more. Through reconstructing pornography by appropriating a variety of images, from Hollywood to "how-to" productions, Bright encourages the viewer to develop her own sexpertise, which may multiply her potential pleasures as a sexual subject. Moreover, she suggests that women use porn as men are presumed to use it — for masturbation. Thus, Bright's "user-friendly" conception of pornography suggests that the "pornotopia" has arrived, thanks to home video.
THE (IM)MORAL OF THE STORY
Although the MIT students' believed their ballyhoo would appeal to the campus majority (heterosexual males), the panel attracted a diverse audience-students and humanities faculty, a gay student/sex worker, and community "free speech" activists.
Given the way the pornographic/ educational roadshow exploits the "space between" the academy's objective to teach and pornography's promise to titillate, it is not surprising that the event would attract people who already feel marginalized on campus, regardless of the fact that some disagree bitterly over the meaning of pornography. On one level, the event failed the organizers' intended mission — to educate and punish (straight) men, especially the ones who had sponsored the strip show.
The anti-porn presentations failed to attack directly the (always absent) male conspirators who presumably produce the images of violence against women. In a moralistic move, the anti-porn educators saw women as incompetent to read porn unless seduced into a masculinized reading position.
On another level, the event did provide an enemy since feminist anger was displaced onto the women speakers — and their presumed allies in pornography, prostitution, and stripping — who refused to see porn strictly as the "theory" of violence against women.
Having had my allegiance to feminism thrown into question by Dines, I was further dismayed to see several young women surround her during the reception. Nevertheless, I had to admit that as an undergraduate I, too, once found that argument passionately convincing. Where there was no space on campus (outside women's studies courses) for specifically feminist discussions of either sex or sexual violence, feminists have created one by protesting pornographic movies, in retrospect an easy target for public disapproval.
Having displaced porn movies as sexist entertainment, the anti-pornographic/ educational roadshow provides a feminist space where women can become allies (regardless of their differences), where victims of abusive men can be hailed as "survivors," where consciousness raising can extend to men who support the cause. Drawing on the techniques of the horror/slasher genre, the anti-porn roadshow urges every woman to take a lesson from the Final Girl, who is fierce and chaste.
As a result, in its eagerness to stigmatize explicit entertainments, the anti-porn roadshow fails to address sexual pleasure and its diverse expressions. While deemed appropriate, erotica can never be shown because distinguishing between objectionable porn and acceptable erotica would not only collapse the binary opposition that sustains the anti-porn atrocity exhibit, but also subvert the educator's claim to superior knowledge.
While the anti-porn educator exploits pornography's popularity (without admitting that the slide show itself may titillate), the pro-sex educator seeks to address the genre's appeal. Much as X-rated movie screenings may have signified liberation from adult supervision, pornographic-educational roadshows (regardless of orientation) may attract students precisely because students are intrigued by the prospect of exposure to topics previously forbidden to them by adults or banned from the campus by administrators.
While promising a pornographic spectacle, feminist roadshows offer informal sex education for college students who face concerns specific to their sexual identities and practices. Obviously, the moral implications of the anti-porn and pro-sex roadshows differ markedly. The former frames heterosexuality as a violent experience leading to female victimization/objectification; the latter frames sexuality as simply a matter of personal agency. In either case, this form of sex education remains an extracurricular affair since sexual knowledges accrue informally on campuses.
Some might argue that both porn and sex education should remain outside the college curriculum since organized efforts to educate about sexuality may suppress diversity and threaten to reinstate the academy's parietal role. According to Andrew Ross,
"The call to 'educate' desire... is one which comes instinctively to intellectuals, all too willing to propose or act out their reformist zeal on behalf of others."
Certainly, the anti-porn roadshow offers a good example of this problematic urge to "educate" desire by imposing one politically correct, gender-identified reading. Anti-porn discourse perpetuates porn's status as low culture and considers its consumers uneducable. But if pornography is understood as a product for masturbatory male consumers ("raincoaters"), then both porn and its pleasurable use are ceded to men.
Zealous educators need to reconsider what Ross identifies as porn's basic appeal:
"Pornography's popularity lies in its refusal to be educated."
Taking the contrary attitude expected of it across the education/ spectacle divide, pornography is discursively linked to education as its quintessential juvenile delinquent. As Jennifer Wicke puts it,
"Pornography peeps out from its brown paper wrappers and asks how a culture reproduces itself, in and through the images and texts it disseminates, in a paideia at large."
By engaging with porn, pro-sex activists and academics confront the bad boy/LIVE GIRL pair that underpins the premise that porn refuses to be educated. To accept this premise is to deny women's efforts to blur the boundaries between the education/spectacle divide precisely to interrogate pornography and to produce generic innovations that engage both sexual desires and sexual knowledges.
It is time for a theory of sexual subjectification to counter the theory of objectification (Birken). It is time to recognize women's stake in sex education and sexy entertainment. As a self-identified consumer/producer of porn and sex education, Bright offers an example of what Ross calls the politics of the "liberatory imagination."
If it is possible that such a politics can "set the agenda for a radical democracy beyond liberal pragmatism," then feminist educators should continue to seek alliances with both pro-sexers and health care activists. In Alice Echols words, we may
"reclaim the radical feminist vision that joined sexual liberation with women's liberation."
By liberating feminism from its association with the anti-porn discourse, we can make a difference in students' lives precisely by acknowledging the ways in which popular culture invites them to be (hetero)sexual subjects.
After the MIT panel, several people, especially self-identified queers and lesbians, expressed appreciation that the event included my presentation on porn by and for women. Little did they know that it took much persuasion to be included precisely because the organizers wanted to ignore women's engagement with porn in their zeal to prove it only appeals to misogynists. Inevitably, this attitude perpetuates a climate of shameful secrecy that suppresses the diversity of women's sexualities.
1. During lengthy discussions with these science students in advance of the panel, I tried to explain the range of methods/approaches that are typically used to analyze media and to convince them that the image-based anti-porn slide show was not at all typical in the field.
2. Further research needs to be done to write a history of campus activism against pornography in relation to the popularization of the anti-porn position. From the mid-seventies to the mid-eighties, both sexually explicit and explicitly X-rated movies were shown periodically on some college campuses, including the University of New Mexico (where I was an undergraduate) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (where recent organizers had no sense of this local history).
Such movies were scheduled for a number of reasons, such as to indicate students' sexual liberation as legal adults and to promote fraternal bonding, but they probably best served to increase revenues for campus theaters. With the feminist anti-pornography movement in the 80s, student groups effectively stopped screenings of DEBBIE DOES DALLAS (UNM) and DEEP THROAT and HIGH SCHOOL MEMORIES (MIT, as reported by McCain).
3. See Schaefer's dissertation, "Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!": A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959.
4. Bright has appeared in many sexually explicit poses for photographs: balancing over a horse to expose her naked ass or dressed as a dominatrix for On Our Backs; (No, that wasn't me, that was the legendary Cynthia Slater! - SB) with a "Macho Slut" button pinned near her cleavage for Outweek; wrapped in a black leather sheath (latex, actually - SB) for her book Susie Sexpert's Lesbian Sex World.
In addition, she has been in a porn movie, BEHIND THE GREEN DOOR, THE SEQUEL (Mitchell Brothers, 1986); she appeared as Susie Sexpert in Monika Treut's first feature, THE VIRGIN MACHINE (1989); and she makes a cameo appearance in the women's bar scene in BOUND (Wachowski Brothers, 1996), a caper film revolving around lesbian lovers, for which Bright also served as a writer-consultant. (I was a non-sex extra in two Mitchell Bros films, with all my clothes on. Sorry! - SB)
5. Henry Jenkins noted that publishers are likely to pay Bright much more as a popular writer than they are likely to pay scholarly authors, such as Dines. While this is true, it should also be noted that Bright's visibility is contingent on the currently favorable attitude toward lesbianism in some aspects of the marketplace. (I could write a lot more about this note! - SB... basically, the antiporn activists of yesterday are financially supported by the Federal Government and church partnerships that have developed around grant-giving to fight porn, sex workers, etc. This has proven to be more financially fruitful than the average college professor position.)
6. In her essay, "Live Sex Acts," Lauren Berlant explores the problems and limits to arguments that hold up a universalized young girl as the ultimate victim. Draft, April 14, 1994, distributed through the Center for Literary and Cultural Studies, Harvard University.
7. According to Chuck Kleinhans, DREAMWORLD's warning is meant to prepare viewers for dramatized rape scenes from THE ACCUSED (1988, d. J. Kaplan), which are appropriated to support Jhally's critique of MTV. But Jhally' s advance warning does not specify the source of upcoming "graphic sexual violence," leaving viewers on alert throughout the video presentation.
8. In Girls Lean Back Everywhere, Edward de Grazia describes many occasions in which Senators and Congressmen screened hardcore movies at the insistence of conservatives, especially the National Organization of Citizens for Decent Literature (CDL), who sought to vilify liberal justices and politicians.
De Grazia notes that in the late 60s conservative senators and the CDL sought to link explicit materials to abuses of actual women by recounting specific cases in which the male perpetrator was allegedly motivated by exposure to such materials. "Horror stories" of this kind would in the late seventies be staple testimony before the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography (Meese Commission)". That the feminist anti-porn slide show was preceded by propaganda created by anti-porn conservatives speaks to the relative friendliness of conservative politicians to radical feminists on this particular issue.
9. For more on lesbian readings, see Chris Straayer, Deviant Eyes, Deviant Bodies: Sexual Re-Orientations in Film and Video (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), reviewed in this issue of Jump Cut by Jane Gaines. (Anything by Chris Staayer is awesome -SB)
10. That "meat grinder" image has logged a lot of miles on the anti-porn roadshow circuit. In a "Script" (circa 1983) produced for a slide show by Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media (WAVPM), the narrative to accompany the Hustler image reads, "This 1978 cover of Hustler implies that women are meat to be ground."
Dines not only continues to use this dated image, but also regularly features the poster for SNUFF, which she erroneously claims shows a real murder. As Eric Schaefer and I have argued, the release of SNUFF in 1976 prompted a discursive shift in which porn was taken, especially by feminists, as evidence of sexual violence against women rather than as a progressive expression of sexual liberation. (Johnson and Schaefer are the people who exposed the SNUFF film hoax, step by step. A brilliant study in exploitation roadshows - SB)
Following on this shift, the Hustler cover should be understood historically as a hyberbolic response to the feminist anti-pornography movement (Kipnis). Flynt's "meat grinder" shot sardonically followed the specious anti-porn argument — porn kills women — to its extreme end. According to Laura Kipnis, "This cover was instrumental in the founding, the following year, of Women Against Pornography."
11. The reference to PSYCHO is not coincidental. As illustrated by Dines' own publicity, anti-porn feminists and some feminist film scholars have singled out Hitchcock's films for evidence of violence against women.
When I was an undergraduate at the University of New Mexico, I took a popular culture class with a professor who argued that the shower scene not only offered sexual violence as content but also was a formal demonstration of sexual violence by the director against the implicitly feminized film body. This argument points to the limits of a theory that presumes the following: 1) that the film body is gendered female; and/or 2) that the ideal film is a holistic body (rather than the sum of its component shots). Not surprisingly, this professor promoted the anti-porn argument and frequently used the slide show for this form of cultural critique. Although I pursued different approaches, I am indebted to this professor for encouraging me to study popular culture.
12. THE MEETING OF TWO QUEENS (1991, C. Barriga) offers a similar reconstruction — a meta-narrative of lesbian desire — by editing shots from Dietrich and Garbo movies so that the women appear to fall in love with each other.
13. Unfortunately, Chandler thereby undermined the intent of her own presentation, "How to Empower Women and Represent Women in the Sex Industry."
14. Given their emergence in the seventies, it is not surprising that the feminist anti-pornography assumption about gendered competency echoes the theory of the male gaze and the transvestite-female spectator popularized in feminist film studies through Laura Mulvey's "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema."
15 The term, "Final Girl," is taken from Carol Clover's Men, Women, and Chainsaws (1992). (This is a must-read book- SB)
16. This argument is elaborated in my dissertation, "Desiring Ourselves: Sexology, Pornography, and Feminist Ars Erotica."
Birken, Lawrence. Consuming Desire. Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1988.
De Grazia, Edward. Girls Lean Back Everywhere: The Law of Obscenity and the Assault on Genius. New York: Random House, 1992.
Echols, Alice. "The Taming of the Id: Feminist Sexual Politics, 1968-83." In Carole S. Vance (Ed.), Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984. 5072.
Ehrenreich, Barbara, Elizabeth Hess, and Gloria Jacobs. Re-Making Love, The Feminization of Sex. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1986.
Good Vibrations. "Videos." (Brochure). nd., n.p.
Johnson, Eithne and Eric Schaefer. "Soft Core/Hard Gore: Snuff as a Crisis in Meaning" Journal of Film and Video 45 Numbers 2/3 (Summer-Fall 1993): 40-59.
Kipnis, Laura. Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America. New York: Grove, 1996.
Maher, Kathleen. "Susie Sexpert Explains It All to You." The Austin Chronicle 9 Nov. 1990: 1.
No Respect, Intellectuals and Popular Culture. New York & London: Routledge, 1989. 171-208.
Schaefer, Eric. "Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!": A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1994.
WAVPM. "Script-Abusive Images of Women in Mass Media and Pornography." nd (circa 1983), np.
Webster, Paula. "Pornography and Pleasure." Heresies 3.4 ("Sex Issue," 1981): 48-51.
Wicke, Jennifer. "Through a Gaze Darkly: Pornography's Academic Market." In Pamela Church Gibson and Roma Gibson (Eds.), Dirty Looks. London: British Film Institute, 1993. 62-80.
Williams, Linda. "Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess." Film Quarterly 44.4 (Summer 1991): 2-13.
Thanks to Henry Jenkins, Chuck Kleinhans, Julia Lesage, and Eric Schaefer for their comments. I would also like to thank the following folks: Susie Bright; Jeanne Maguire at Emerson College; Bob Chatelle and Jim D'Entremont of the Boston Coalition for Freedom of Expression; and Eric Schaefer, for finding an article on MIT's X-rated movie history. Since Eric and I went to Susie Bright's "How to Read a Dirty Movie" together, we simultaneously came to the conclusion that the education/ spectacle format was similar to the style and exhibition practices that Eric had observed of the "classical" exploitation film. In this essay, I hope that I have convincingly extended his analysis to these contemporary presentations.
© Eithne Johnson
To read the rest of Susie's history with her old-school porn road shows, check out: