First Notes on Contemporary Independent Pornography and Possibility: Function, Form and Philosophy

Jack Sargeant

Calling works erotica, rather than porn, means that the audience / user does not appear as a ‘pervert’ who watches ‘smut’, but at base such distinctions are false. Erotica, that most middle class and depoliticised of terms, is believed to appeal to the heightened artistic sensibilities of those engaging with it, often described in terms that play on notions of sensuality. Pornography, in contrast, is denigrated and debased; it arouses the spectre of concupiscence. To evoke and even celebrate the term is often to elicit negative cultural interpretations that see sex simply as grime, as explicit, as hot, as sticky, as damp, as dirty and as physical. If the erotic plays to sensuality, then pornography appeals to pure libido.

Pornographic works function beyond the visual tropes still commonly associated with cinema. Relating instead to pure affect, porn confronts because it is one of the few genres designed to physically stimulate the viewer. Porn should be celebrated as representing and satisfying the myriad demands of its viewers, but instead it invites criticism not necessarily for its content, but for its limited aesthetic and its frequently unimaginative engagements with the complexity of sexualities.

Much pornography does not explore the power and political potentialities that exist within the genre. The Internet has encouraged a world of five-minute porn clips, each defined by the endless breakdown by act, desire, fetish and fantasies that appear online. Compilations and clips of endless blow jobs, threesomes, cream-pies, double penetrations, squirts and so on, all speak to a virtual and strangely rigid shopping list of pre-designed and clearly mapped specific desires. The dominant forms of porn are often over-lit, almost home video style, which, alongside the quasi-yoga positions of flensed bodies, better enable the viewer can see the action in glorious forensic detail.

This is not to simply dismiss mainstream pornographic works; so much mainstream pornography also (perhaps unwillingly) plays on fantasies that, despite the often unimaginative or repetitive aesthetics in their depiction, are joyously perverse and even transgressive; paradoxically much of the form could be read as implicitly queer despite dominant audience interpretations suggesting otherwise. How else can we explain the popularity of films that depict multiple facials without addressing the possibility that the ‘straightest’ male viewer has, on some level a fascination for the visual spectacle not just of females being slathered in ejaculate but also in watching numerous men masturbate and the splashing appearance of cum? Thus, while often unimaginative, even mainstream porn has the potential to offer the opportunity to explore the myriad desires that lurk in the viewers’ unconscious. This may be an accidental factor in, or side-effect of, mainstream pornography and it is not to suggest that consumers of such porn would read their own desires or fantasies in terms of transgressive pleasures; more likely they approach it as a momentary distraction provided by sexual spectacle.

But there are works that are made to challenge the dominant homogenised shopping-list conventions that define so much porn–works that demand more from both viewers and creators. The following two examples–Amber (dir: Gala Vanting and Frank Ly, Sensate Films, 2012) and The One on the Bottom (dir: Zahra Stardust and Mister T, 2012)–are both produced by Australian female pornographic artists, and both offer a glimpse into the radical potentials of independently authored pornography as a form of film and aesthetic. These works engage with arousal, desire and fantasy by focusing on scenarios that contextualise the activities that they show. They directly explore the wider aspects of the representation of sex and the ramifications of exploring and depicting personal sexual choices as an artistic choice.  Both affirm their status as pornographic works and do not simply superimpose a crass metanarrative of eroticism onto the actions and activities that they depict. Instead they present an alternative to the increasingly predictable, almost staid, heteronormative manifestations of sex in porn and offer personal challenges to the limits of representation in mainstream porn.

These films directly engage with the transgressive, cultural and political aspects of pornographic representation. They portray desire as a way in which to fully engage with the genuine possibilities of lust. What in mainstream porn appears almost as an accidental rupture that enables transgressive pleasures to find their way, dripping, into the zone of the heteronormative, in these works becomes one of the key elements. Both of these films embrace the presentation of an authenticity of pleasure that recognizes the frequent inability of so much mainstream porn to foreground those elements that move a scene from the mundane to the genuinely transgressive. These are moments when sex exceeds the limits around it; when depiction shifts from merely looking at sex to looking at the subtle nuances of communication and patterns of power exchange between lovers.

These two works exemplify emergent feminist pornographies, not necessarily because of a singular ideological perspective or style, but because of their emphasis on new, more personal manifestations of desire. Moreover the economy from which they emerge differs greatly from mainstream pornography: they are proud of their non-mainstream credentials.

In Amber the two performers are both credited as directors; this is low budget filmmaking that foregrounds collaboration. The film depicts an interaction between a dominant man and submissive woman in a space that could be a warehouse or industrial garage. However Amber is no mere BDSM post-Fifty Shades of Grey pop fantasy. Rather it is a fascinating and emotive depiction of a series of consensual acts undertaken by ‘lovers’. Whether their relationship is real or temporary remains unimportant. The piece emphasises that the performers are initiating and controlling the activities that transpire, suggesting a connection beyond that which satisfies the generic demands of mainstream porn. The film follows as the couple engage in a series of actions that include scenes of knife play, spanking, bondage and humiliation. There is no obvious (male) (ejaculatory) climax or narrative peak, simply a progression that reveals a fascination with sexual limits and the nature of the edge. This is not to suggest that the actions that transpire are not consensual, but that they challenge mainstream beliefs about dominance and submission, positioning it instead as a continual series of negotiations based on the gestures and movements of the protagonists. Their actions eschew the traditional top and bottom dichotomy of much BDSM pornography. Instead their gestures – a kiss, a look, a touch – suggest a series of intimacies that extend beyond the borders of the work. Many of these aesthetic and sexual strategies contribute to ideas of slow porn as an alternative to mainstream pornography.  

The One on the Bottom (2012) by and starring Zahra Stardust and Mister T is more overtly engaged in politics. It gets its name from a throwaway comment made on a television current affairs program, suggesting that in gay porn the one who is oppressed is the ‘one on the bottom.’ Explicitly addressing this reactionary cliché, which manifests the common straight male anxiety at same sex penetration, the film shows the couple engaging in heavily lubricated fist-fucking and subsequently female ejaculation. The short film re-frames the activity not as a predictable act of aggressive dominance but as a loving, consensual, joyous activity. The process is presented with a calm gaze. The spectacle of the activity is explicit, but it is neither rushed nor unnecessarily theatricalised. Rather it is slow and calm, recognizing the closeness of the protagonists and the willing and pleasurable exchanges of power that take place throughout the process, building to a sexual crescendo. The One on the Bottom negates the simplistic interpretations that suggest that ‘transgressive’ sexual activity can only be imagined in the limited terms dictated by conservative dull missionary-position heterosexual discourses of active and passive. These interpretations create (and limit) the sexual representation of females as ‘weaker’ but in The One on the Bottom Stardust makes it clear that she is not only enjoying the activity but is engaged in a mutual loving, orgasmic act.

Being locally produced, the film also acted as an aesthetic challenge to Australia’s  absurdly restrictive Classification Codes that prohibit the importation of pornography deemed fetishistic, including films that depict activities such as female ejaculation (which is considered ‘simply’ as pissing in the eyes of those lawmakers unable to comprehend that ejaculation is not only a male phenomena) and fisting. The One on The Bottom simultaneously presents an authentic sexual encounter, offers a criticism of clichés of the sexual representation of fisting, and challenges the control limits that prohibit the depiction of fetishism. This is deeply political pornography.

Crucially, while both of these works depict sex, focusing on communication and tenderness, neither shies away froms the representation of physical desire, nor do they polices fantasy. Instead they eschew the discourse of the erotic as a justification, preferring to affirm their investment within the pornographic. These works demand a genuine commitment. They do not hide behind false distinctions between erotica and pornography. Rather they attest to the need for a pornography that recognizes and represents the multitude of shifting and evolving desires that the individual experiences.
If much online mainstream porn has become rote and boring, these films – and others like them –  re-imagine the depiction of sex as porn, but with an emphasis on the artistic demands of those who perform before the camera and those (often the same) who also work behind the camera. These works represent new possibilities of porn in which there is a greater investment in the nature of the fantasies, the relationship between the performers and the investment an audience makes in a work. These works seek out new and evolving possibilities for sexual representation, challenge the clichés associated with the genre, and freely embrace the liberating power of pornography.  

Combining writing, curation and artistic practice Jack Sargeant is the author of numerous books include Deathtripping: The Extreme Underground, Naked Lens: Beat Cinema (like Deathtripping...


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