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The Porn Monster

On her journal, DTG asked me a question to which I spent the better part of this morning crafting a witty and self-important reply. But when I went to post my answer, I discovered I had exceeded the 4800 character limit for comments. So I’ll answer her here. A little context:

DTG quotes Laura Kipnis, a professor of media studies at Northwestern University as saying:

“….Pornography manages to penetrate to the marrow of who we are as a culture and as psyches….pornography understands that amalgam of complexes, repressions, and identifications we call ‘me’”

I responded by quoting Ms. Kipnis saying:

“Pornography grabs us and doesn’t let go.”

and added “From my vantage point, Ms. Kipnis gives porn too much credit.”

DTG asked me “why?” Here’s my answer, by way of a lot of boasting and little self-disclosure:

Why? Well since you asked…

I wasn’t always an artist. Before I was an artist, I was an art student, and and art student with next to no interest in art history classes; and I wasn’t going to be able to graduate because I didn’t have enough art history credits. (I was too busy taking physics and chemistry and math and music to be bothered with reading and writing about art.) Partly because of the sort of work I was making at the time, and partly because I’m an argumentative smart ass, during my BFA year I was allow to enroll in a graduate art history seminar on post modernism, even though it was on the second art history course I had taken.

I didn’t enjoy it very much and spent most of my time in class making angry cartoon doodles in my notebook (before and since my doodles have always been geometric). I did little of the reading and none of the writing, and at the end of term I told the professor, “I really need the art history credits for my degree, but I think I’d shoot myself before writing a paper about this stuff.” He gave me an A for 3 credits 500 level independent study.

The point is, I’ve never been particularly comfortable with the study of art, especially by people who don’t make it. Although I’ve been making sexually explicit images for more than 20 years, and selling sexually explicit images for more than 10 years, I’ve only recently begun to write about my own work (sometimes helpful), and you may be disappointed to learn I’ve never read any academic critiques of porn (well at least not past the first page while browsing in a bookstore, or an excerpt in a magazine.)

I think a reason for this is people who don’t make art often have wild fantasies about the process, and no where is this more evident than in porn. This why between the ballyhooing our good reviews, and bitching about labels, I make posts that are about the nuts and bolts of the process.

For an example of a what I’m talking about, we need look no further than Virgin-Slut’s recent dissection in “The Top Stays in the Picture”. VS gets so close, but when she realizes that the top that won’t go away might be concealing something, she jumps to liposuction – a costly vanity surgery that allows those with means to push the standards of beauty beyond the reach of the rest of us. In fact, what’s being concealed is a c-section scar (no guarantee, but I’ll be dollars to navy beans). Look at the poses and coverage. In all four images, the one part of the model’s body that is always hidden is her belly just above her pubes.

Now please don’t think I’m holding VS as a fool, that’s not my intention. What I’m trying to say is that we’re willing to believe almost anything about porn, even something as ridiculous as the idea that it’s a $52 billion/year industry. And if we’ll believe that, or course we’ll believe that the model had liposuction rather than a difficult delivery. Of course we’ll believe that porn is more mainstream than ever, when in fact it has become more and more marginalized for the past 30 years. But just because we’re willing to believe these things, it doesn’t mean porn is important or powerful. It means our doubts, fears, and desires are important and powerful.

No more speculation, no more sophistry. Some facts:

  • Deep Throat was produced in 1972 on a budget of about $25K. Adjusted for inflation that’s about $125K. You can probably count the number of porn videos that will be produced this year with similar budgets on one hand.
  • 99% of porn is shot on video cameras that cost about $3.5K on cassettes that cost about $3. Nearly all other forms of shot on video entertainment use camera costing $35K-$100K. Film cameras cost as much or more, and film costs about $1/second. There’s a reason that mainstream entertainment can afford this expense and porn can’t, and it’s not because they’re putting the difference up their noses.
  • Jenna Jameson is regarded as the most mainstream and successful porn actress ever; the pinnacle of success in her business. How does her financial success and respectability compare with someone at the pinnacle of success in any other area of the entertainment industry. In other word, how many pornstars have mansions in The Hamptons?
  • It’s easy to get confused. Porn comes in the same amaray case as Master and Commander, and if you want to get an idea how powerful that is, buy a dozen cases, make up a mock cover, and then stack them up so all you see is the spine. The effect is remarkable. (Just think how ligit I feel when pallet-loads of my titles arrive by truck.)

    When you buy a porn video you peel off the wrapper and put it in the same machine you use to play back the deluxe edition of Terminator III, and it comes up on the same screen as the nightly news. It can’t help but seem important. (You’d be impressed if I told you I sang at Carnegie Hall – until I told you how I got there.)

    So when I say that Ms. Kipnis over-estimates porn when she says “Porn grabs us and doesn’t let go,”, what I mean is that she’s found and become fascinated with a remora, and then gone on to confuse it with the shark. She’s guessed lipo, when it’s really a c-section. She’s seen a huge shadow cast on the back wall of the stage at Carnegie Hall, but hasn’t realized it’s only a mouse passing in front of the footlights.

    -TC

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    11 Comments

    1. Posted July 1, 2005 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

      For those of us not in the industry this post offers a little bit of bad news and quite a lot of good. Naturally it also raises a million questions. Thanks.

      Good news elements: There’s a lot of room for improvement. Bad news elements: it’s going to take a lot of work to get any improvements to percolate.

      More good news: The financial barrier to entry for the budding Cassaventes is relatively slight. More bad news: the critical barriers to entry aren’t financial.

      A bit of bad news: Tony didn’t take his BFA art history assignments very seriously. The good news: Neither did most of the serious artists I know personally. :-)

      Regarding VS’s naive-but-not-dumb speculation about liposuction, and the interesting assertion that the porn industry takes in $52 billion a year, I think it might be useful to review the definition of porn again to exclude a) Las Vegas-style strip shows (not really porn at all but subconsciously very influential) and b) Victoria’s Secrets and Abercrombe & Fitch-type advertising. Production of those sorts of things might approach $1000/minute, but they’re not even outliers. Subtract those out and the next biggest operation grosses, and probably nets, no more than a mid-sized automobile dealership. Most of the rest gross, and net, at the level of small to midsized used-car dealerships… and have roughly the same relationship with their customers and contractors.

      Again, the bad news is you and the customers who would very much like to find your product are trying to find each other in an industry overwhelmingly operated by used car dealers. The odds against finding someone like you in a sea of Cal Worthingtons and Crazy Harry’s are overwhelming, and if we do our last encounter with Crazy Harry is inevitably going to make it hard to treat you with confidence and respect.

      You may already be tired of my harping on forging a new category but here I go again. As long as I’m using a car-dealership analogy I’ll point to the synergy those guys get with “Auto Mile” developments where, if competing dealers cooperate just enough to compete next to each other, they attract customers combined than they would from competing across town from each other because suddenly customers know where to look.

      I can’t say how much I’m appreciating your insights into the industry. I know it’s considered bad form among pundits to have the least clue what your talking about (and what is blogging if not micro-punditry?) but now that I’d actually like to stop whining and *do* something (or at least *suggest* it) what you have to say is invaluable.

    2. Posted July 1, 2005 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

      “….it doesn’t mean porn is important or powerful. It means our doubts, fears, and desires are important and powerful.”

      Yes yes yes. TC, this is what I have been trying to say but went all around it. I think it’s also what Laura Kipnis and Sallie Tisdale are saying, too.

      The thing about porn is that it **reflects** our doubts, fears, and desires. The logical corollary is that “fixing” porn by changing the image on the screen won’t necessarily change the reality that the screen reflects, the dark reality that resides in the human heart.

      OTOH: changing the image on the screen, as you do with Xana and Dax, widens the range of reality that DOES get reflected. It provides other models and other perspectives for action—-which can only be good.

      DTG xxoo

    3. Posted July 1, 2005 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

      RE: $1000/minute

      I know it’s hard to to conceive, but $1000/minute for primetime television spot is off by about three orders of magnitude, which coincidentally, is about the difference between Jenna Jameson’s last video and an average Hollywood movie.

      Mouse in front of the foot lights, mouse in front of the foot lights.

      RE: $52B/year

      google Time Magazine Tony Comstock

      RE: new catagory/auto mile

      But what if you’re not selling cars?

      RE: doubts fears desires/dark reality

      What about when a woman sucking a man’s cock reflects our joy, passion and love?

      RE: Pornoroticamantica

      As long as I don’t have to make films to fit the label, and as long as I can pay my lab bills…

      Thanks for your feedback! Sometimes I feel like I’m alone on a boat in the middle of the ocean howling at the wind!

      -TC

    4. Posted July 1, 2005 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

      I won’t pretend I understand much of what is being said here because I don’t. I’ve also been reading the ideas on the other blogs, but much of that flies over my head too (though I’ve enjoyed trying to keep up). But that’s kind of my point. If porn is ‘grabbing me and not letting go’, why have I never felt more than the slightest touch from it?
      I experienced a similar displeasure as the one you mention in art history, while majoring in English Lit. It came to the point where I thought I’d poke out my eyes if I heard one more person (myself included) try and analyze and make/presume to make linear sense of a great piece of writing, instead of just really reading the damn thing (and losing oneself in it) for the absolute pleasure of it. To me, art (including great writing) grabs hold and doesn’t let go, but never more than a few people in the same way at the same time, but perhaps many in various ways. It’s that intangible relationship between the grabber and the grabbee. And that’s the beauty of it. Porn might have that power for me if and when I ever find it crossing into what feels like art to me (attracting and moving me). Until then, it’s not grabbing any part of me: it’s just porn. Like golf. Only naked.
      I look foward to seeing what you write next.

    5. Posted July 2, 2005 at 6:19 am | Permalink

      In case I wasn’t clear, a Comstock film doesn’t fall into the porn category for me. It’s the first thing I’ve seen where sex and art meet. That’s a very good thing.

    6. Posted July 2, 2005 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

      I can count on one hand the number of times that video porn has “grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.” My experience of porn is that, rather than setting a standard that my own real life experience of sex could never match, I found that porn could never match, and very seldom enhance my own (mostly pedestrian) sex life.

      Whatever what label they’re given, my films are made on the hope that, like me, there are many people, both women and men, who find that the moving images of sex they’ve seen rarely rise even to the point of being offensive, and more often such depictions are merely boring; and that if I’m going to ask these people to sit for an hour, I’m going to have to remember that not everyone will desparately endure any sort of cinematic travisty just to see a little fucking. (In fact, I think many, pehaps most people won’t.)

      When I can find them, I do like photos of women in poses that suggested a certain kind of sexual wantoness and joy. Sadly, these sorts of photos seem to be becoming increasingly rare, or at least difficult to find. From my point of view this too, is mostly a product of economic considerations, most notably low returns for producers. (Google: “does it bother you that you have to do stuff for real porn mags?”

      -TC

    7. Posted July 2, 2005 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

      Housewyfe, you asked, if porn grabs us, why have you never felt the slightest touch from it?

      Probably because nearly all porn is made by men for men and plays to male desires, fantasies, and fears.

      DTG xxoo

    8. Posted July 3, 2005 at 9:51 am | Permalink

      While the other comments are in the deep end of the pool, mine is in the shallow end, but I think still relevent to the original post.

      So many folks complain about porn performers leaving their clothes on or only taking off one shoe. I know I did before I started making the stuff. Sometime you leave one shoe on to show one bare foot and one shoe wearing foot. Sometimes you just forget to take off the other because you are busy having sex.

      And as for the the top up, I do that all the time. I have tens of thousands of photos of me on my site. The clothes and the setting help keep them looking a wee bit different. I also find a little colour is flattering and distictive. As for the top rolled down, sometimes I am feeling bloated and given my physique it gives me some defintion to my curves. Hardly lipo contraversy, but there you have it.

    9. Posted July 4, 2005 at 4:08 am | Permalink

      I hate those mices (meeses) to pieces.

    10. Posted July 5, 2005 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

      Tony,

      I can’t blame you for not wanting to write a paper on post-modernism, but while you may have disliked art history in your student days, the fact that you mention that you are now writing about your process shows that you appreciate its importance. You are right; art historians are for the most part clueless about the actual creative process because, unlike art students, art history students are not required to take art classes as part of their degree.

      As an artist, your concern is with the process, but inevitably, whatever the circumstances under which you produced the work, it is the work itself that takes precedence. What I am trying to say is that people who buy your films probably don’t care about what camera you used, or even if you bagged a good chunk of that “$52 million”. However, they will hold you responsible for the product that you put out and its content. Not fair, but that is how it is.

      This brings me to my “The Top Stays in the Picture” post …. As a viewer, I don’t actually know/care if these girls have had lipo, or a c–section (frankly both those assumptions are presumptuous), but my enjoyment of the picture is ruined by the odd, unsightly piece of clothing. I was surprised that some of the people who commented on the post said that they didn’t even notice the top, so I think the experience is different for everyone.

      The other point I was trying to make with that post is that porn has a very formulaic feel to it. If there were just a few “The Top Stays in the Picture” type photos, it could very well be that the piece of clothing was used to conceal a scar (why not just airbrush it?), but in my limited experience with viewing webporn, I have come across enough of these images to notice a trend.

      None of what I have said so far solves any of the problems what you have highlighted. Personally, I don’t think that porn can ever be mainstream because it is the taboo aspects which make it appealing to the consumer. However, as it was discussed on Freya’s blog, we do see certain trends from porn culture even when we drive down the road.

      I can understand why it is now more difficult to fund anything with pornographic content (even if it is a film made in Hollywood), and it seems to be getting more difficult by the minute. I think that you can blame politicians and whoever pays for their campaigns for that.

    11. Caitlyn
      Posted April 7, 2006 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

      How exactly are strip shows fundamentally different from porn? Like porn in general, they sexually arouse and titillate.

      It’s one thing to acknowledge that porn thrives partly on taboo. But it’s silly to pretend that this is ALL of its appeal. That is reductionist nonsense. On top of taboos, you have factors like simple voyeurism, arousal from degradation and objectification, the desire to see things that may not be available from one’s significant other (if any), etc. While taboo can add flavor to these things (i.e., that which is taboo may also be degrading, and vice versa), porn’s appeal is clearly more complicated than just “because it’s taboo.” BTW, people also watch porn for amusement value, to get ideas for things to try, and various other reasons, none of which are mutually exclusive with sexual titillation. I find many of the arguments on this page to be misleadingly reductionist.

      Regardless of exactly how much money commercial porn brings in, it’s clear that human sexuality is powerful and commercially important. Porn, strip joints, sex clubs, S&M bars, prostitution, illegal sex slavery, sex toys, etc., put them together and one would have to be blind and dumb to ignore the economic importance of sex.

      BTW, if porn is so marginalized today, why do mainstream figures like Howard Stern advertise it on their shows, give interviews to porn stars, talk about it often etc.? Why are Hugh Hefner and co. wealthy celebrities? (And before you say Playboy isn’t porn, think again. It’s about T&A, baby.) I don’t doubt for a second that there are taboos and stigmas around porn, but it’s popular at the same time. The same is true for marijuana, for example.

      Also, if you think porn is boring, could it be that you are looking at the wrong porn? Lots of porn online is totally devoid of plots, or for that matter, “normal” fucking. There is a ton of nasty perverted stuff online that certainly isn’t boring, even if you may find it disgusting. Personally I often find it both disgusting and arousing, but I digress…

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