Two book covers of a German and an English version of Memoirs of Josephine Mutzenbacher(1906), the allegedly autobiographical story of a Viennese prostitute, one of the few classics of erotic literature, possibly written by the author of Bambi, Felix Salten.

A DVD cover of Debbie Does Dallas (1978), a classic of golden-age porn cinema, starring Bambi Woods.

An experimental cum-shot scene from the porn movie Behind the Green Door (1972), imitating the Pop-Art style of an Andy Warhol painting.

A scene from Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006), in which Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) and Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) have a secretive meeting in a Boston porn house ...

The Departed: Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon, on the right) meets his boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) in a Boston porn theater. On the far left of the frame, Costello can be seen wearing the stereotypical outfit of the porn movie patron: a bulky raincoat and a hat.

Scene from Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001), an adaptation of a novel by Austrian Nobel Prize laureate Elfriede Jelinek. The masochistic piano teacher Erika Kohut (Isabell Huppert) likes to go to porn arcades where she sniffles discarded tissues filled with male sperm.


Clips, clicks and climax:
notes on the relocation and remediation of pornography

by Julian Hanich

Introduction: a critique of
Magnus Ullén’s theory of masturbation 

Masturbation[1][open endnotes in new window] is in vogue. After a long period of tacit denial, porn studies has begun to acknowledge that pornography strongly affects the consumer’s body. In fact, some porn scholars admit that it often leads to the kind of action that Woody Allen in Annie Hall (1977) famously described as “sex with someone I love.”

In a recent programmatic article for Jump Cut Magnus Ullén, for one, defined pornography as nothing more and nothing less than “a form of sex: masturbation.”[2] Ullén forcefully argues that in order to get a better picture of what pornography is about we need to move from text to viewer, from interpretation to reception, from intellectual distance to rapt involvement. We cannot identify the pornographic with a specific content like sexually explicit words or images. Rather the “pornographicity of porn” lies in that famous consumptive, pleasurable medium interaction which involves first and foremost the viewer’s hand:

“A theory of pornography must […] be a theory of the mode of reading which the consumption of pornography habitually involves, which is to say that it needs to be a theory of masturbation. […] To enjoy pornography, mere intellectual processing of the discourse is not enough: it calls for a mode of reading which involves the physical activity of one’s body as well.”

For Ullén this is true regardless of the medium — no matter if we interact with a book, watch a film in a theater or download digital clips from the Internet. “Does pornography really change when it is mediated by new media?” he asks rhetorically. His answer is a clear-cut no:

“[T]he most important factor is not the medium as such, but rather the way we relate to it: it is not the medium that accounts for the specificity of pornography, but the way pornography is read. The fact that the original Josephine Mutzenbacher […] is a book while Debbie Does Dallas is a film certainly affects the way we relate to these pornographic discourses. But the difference is insignificant compared to the fact that the typical consumer of these discourses is too busy masturbating to ask what they mean as narratives.”

Ullén’s polemic intervention is laudable. But it is also problematic. On the one hand, he sheds light on that unspeakable aspect feminist, Foucauldian, media-effects and other approaches to pornography have largely left in the shade. But in his fervor to establish the importance of masturbation for porn studies Ullén clearly throws the baby out with the bathwater. Just because people masturbate when reading Josephine Mutzenbacher and watching Debbie Does Dallas does not mean that both experiences are alike, let alone identical.

To every ear trained in phenomenology and reception aesthetics his claim that the differences in medium are insignificant must sound flat-out wrong. Concentrating on moving-image pornography (as I will do in this essay) one could even argue that Ullén’s stress on masturbation is precisely an outgrowth of recent medium changes and the subsequent transformations of how people experience moving-image pornography.

This will be, at any rate, my point in this essay: through processes of relocation and remediation the consumption of moving-image pornography has focused more strongly on the masturbatory experience than before. Or, to be more precise, while other functions of moving-image porn have lost importance, recent developments have both facilitated and intensified masturbation due to a double tendency toward privatization and individualization. (By ‘intensification’ I do not suggest that masturbation became qualitatively better, but rather that it is now part of a denser decision-making process that distinguishes the experience of Internet porn from earlier types of moving-image pornography.)

My point will become particularly obvious through a comparison of today’s online porn with yesterday’s so-called golden age of heterosexual pornography: an era that lasted roughly from 1972 to 1985 and in which (comparatively) narrative feature films like Deep Throat (1972) or The Opening of Misty Beethoven (1976) were projected in theaters and consumed with other, mostly anonymous viewers.[3]

Two scenes from Deep Throat (1972), probably the best-known title of any film in the history of pornography, starring Linda Lovelace. In comparison to most Internet porn clips from today porn movies in the 1970s often contained some kind of narrative arc.
A poster and a film cover of The Opening of Misty Beethoven (1976), yet another classic 1970s porn film. In the 1970s porn films were still shot on celluloid, projected in movie theaters and watched with other viewers.

Two modifications are crucial. They imply what Francesco Casetti, among others, has called the “relocation” and “remediation” of film (2009, 62).[4] First, the spatial transformation from public/collective to private/individual porn consumption: relocation raises the question of how the reception changes once I watch porn alone at home and not as part of a cinematic audience. We can call this the problem of intersubjectivity. Second, the technological change from the analogue and projected celluloid film to the digital internet clip on hyperlinked sites like YouPorn: remediation raises the question of how the possibilities of jumping forward and backward and choosing between a plethora of clips alter the reception process. Call this the problem of interactivity.

The splash page of one of the most popular Internet porn sites, YouPorn, which offers numerous porn clips as downloads for free.

Contra Ullén I will show that important differences exist. Masturbating alone at home vis-à-vis a series of YouPorn clips downloaded on a PC is unlike sitting in an adult theater with other co-viewers watching a feature film like Behind the Green Door (1972).

A series of phenomenological observations will throw light on how the experience of heterosexual pornography has changed since the golden age, for better or for worse. To be sure, much of what I argue is valid for homosexual porn experiences as well, particularly in the remediation section. However, some important differences exist when it comes to the aspects of intersubjectivity and collective viewing. In contrast to heterosexual porn cinemas homosexual adult theaters often serve as places for cruising and open sex in which the film merely plays a secondary role (this is also true for nominally heterosexual theaters that were ‘appropriated’ by a gay audience, as some of the former theaters on 42nd Street in New York). What I will have to say about shame and disgust plays a significantly less important role here.[5]

The following observations will also help to elucidate a curious contradiction in Ullén’s programmatic paper. Although he reproaches Linda Williams and others for insufficiently historicizing pornography, Ullén falls into the very same trap. By claiming that pornography means masturbation regardless of the medium, he essentializes the genre and thus argues a-historically. Even if the pornographic is a transgeneric as well as transmedial mode, it may yield very different masturbatory experiences.

The spatial change: shame and disgust in the theater

Heterosexual adult theaters have all but disappeared from the urban environment. Today, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) would have a hard time finding something like the “Show and Tell” theater, a combination live of show and porn cinema. Nor could he make the grave mistake of taking his beloved Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) into a New York porno house (Taxi Driver, 1976), the “Lyric” on 42nd Street.[6]

Screenshots from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) enters the “Show and Tell”, a venue combining live strip shows and the projection of porn movies.
On their first date Travis takes his beloved Betsy (Cybill Sheperd) to the “Lyric”, a historical porn theater on 42nd Street in New York City.

And when Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) follows Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) into the public screening of a hardcore film, the sequence looks more like a strange reminiscence to a bygone era than a realistic depiction of today’s Boston (The Departed, 2006).

... in order to exchange illegal information. Some viewers are annoyed by the disturbance.

In the 21st century people consume heterosexual hardcore pornography predominantly in places that allow for privacy and prevent others from intruding: on the pay-per-view channel of the hotel room; in the sex shop booth; at home on the VCR, the DVD player and, particularly, via the Internet as streaming on a TV set or on the monitor of a personal computer, which makes the experience even more private.

In his remarkable book Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999) writer-scholar Samuel R. Delany, for one, has forcefully lamented the disappearance of hardcore porn theaters.[7] For the gay community these (often heterosexual) porn houses served a vital social function. Delany even considers these cinemas as paradigmatic sites for interclass contact and therefore important for a healthy democratic society. At any rate, whether we welcome or decry this change, we can hardly turn back the clock: the relocation of moving-image pornography has firmly taken place.

From a film theoretical point of view this development should at the very least make us sensitive to the fact that the reception of films (pornographic or otherwise) does not take place in some strange vacuum. It always involves a specific spatial setting with a potentially social environment. Yet Ullén’s essay ignores this important detail, just as more prominent work does not pay enough tribute to it. For instance, at a crucial passage in his ontological reflections on film as a succession of automatic world projections, philosopher Stanley Cavell maintains: when film reproduces the world magically, it allows us “to view it unseen.” As such, cinema fulfills an age-old “wish for invisibility“ (1979, 40). Sounding quite similar, Linda Williams claims that cinematic representation grants the viewers a “seemingly perfected form of invisibility” and allows them “to see and hear everything without being seen or heard themselves” (1989, 32).

Cavell and Williams’ observations are both right and wrong. They are correct when we consider the film experience in splendid isolation. Yes, the characters/performers beyond the ontological boundary separating real world and filmic world can never reach us. Even when they look straight into the camera, they won’t be able to see the audience — hence the viewers always remain unseen.

While this might sound trivial, it points to an important difference between filmic pornography and live striptease or sex on stage. The ontological distance relieves the invisible viewer from the unpleasant burden of being seen by the one he sees — a fact that could be experienced quite vividly in places that offered both live striptease and porn films (like the “Show and Tell” in Taxi Driver with its combination of “live show” and “xxtra rated movies”, as it says on the marquee).[8] Film satisfies the viewer’s wish for invisibility and thus stands as an exemplary “expression of modern privacy or anonymity,” in the words of Stanley Cavell (1979, 40).

However, what might be correct from a film ontological perspective becomes questionable when considered from the vantage point of an actual phenomenological experience inside a theater. Only if we artificially separate film from theatrical experience can we overlook the fact that the viewer in the auditorium is never unnoticed. Invisible for the characters/performers he or she is right in front of the eyes of the other spectators.

To be sure, what one could call the cinema’s hiding effect belongs to the key features of the movie theater. The darkness of the auditorium, the unidirectional seating position, the focus of attention aimed at the film et cetera allow the viewer to partially hide from the presence of the others. Nevertheless we are always part of a collective situation in which we might have to carry heavy intersubjective burdens (Hanich 2010b).

For many, possibly most heterosexual men the viewing position in the porn theaters of the 1970s and 80s was a particularly precarious one. Shame and disgust contributed negatively to their cinematic experience.[9] How unfulfilled the wish for invisibility remained at the time can be read vividly from Scott MacDonald’s 1983 essay “Confessions of a Feminist Porn Watcher.“ In this illuminating essay the author describes with almost painful openness his fear of being seen, his yearning for privacy, his shameful insecurity:

“For me […] — and, I’m guessing, for many men who have visited porn arcades or film houses — these periodic visits are always minor traumas. While there is an erotic excitement involved in the decision to attend and in the experience itself, this is mixed with considerable amounts of fear and embarrassment. From the instant my car is carrying me toward pornography, I feel painfully visible, as if everyone who sees me knows from my expression, my body language, whatever, precisely where I’m going. The walk from the car to the door — and later, from the door to the car — is especially difficult: will someone drive by and see me? […] As a result, I try and look at ease during the walk to the door: any evident discomfiture on my part, I warn myself, will only fuel whatever laughter my presence has provoked. Once inside an arcade or theater, this anxiety about being seen continues, though with a different slant: will I run smack into someone I know?” (1983, 11).[10]

The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre talks about the “immediate and burning presence of the Other’s look” that comes with the emotion of shame (1969, 270). A person in shame wants to get rid of the actual — or imagined! — look of the others and disappear from the earth as quickly as possible. MacDonald therefore describes the strong “desire for privacy and anonymity” many viewers feel as the “most fundamental dimension of going to a porn arcade or a movie house” (2009, 332).

Small wonder that in the past popular discourse often described porn theater patrons as men who wanted to remain invisible and anonymous from the start and therefore sported raincoats and hats pulled deeply into their faces upon entering a porn house. Again, director Martin Scorsese helps to illustrate this point: In The Departed the Jack Nicholson character sits in the cinema precisely with a hat and a large raincoat. The potential shame of the porn cinema was closely bound to the rather conspicuous affective response of the male erection. Hat and raincoat both served to cover it and therefore to avoid shame. Feona Attwood even goes so far as to claim,

“The ‘raincoater’ has become [… ] perhaps the clearest stereotype of audience member to have emerged in the history of media consumption.“[11]

Raincoater or not, the stereotype describes the proclivity of many patrons to wear a kind of body armor that protected themselves from the penetrating force of the gaze. Like the sword of Damocles the fear of shame often dangled closely over their heads — and sometimes full-blown shame hit them forcefully. This clearly effected their inclination to masturbate openly (if at all). Again, Scott MacDonald’s confession is illustrative:

“Even though most men seem to look rigorously frontward in porn theaters [...], the idea of being seen masturbating has always seemed so frightening to me [...] that I’ve never felt free to get deeply involved in the act the way I can when I have real privacy“ (1983, 12, my emphasis).

Here the bulky garment of the raincoat had a further hiding function insofar as it helped its wearer to cover his lap while masturbating secretively and somewhat embarrassedly during the film.

Obviously, not every porn theater was alike. Some porn houses in the US, mostly on the lower social scale, allowed or even encouraged masturbation. Particularly the nominally heterosexual porn theaters ‘appropriated’ by the gay community and turned into cruising places were quite the opposite of shameful. In the first of the two essays in his book Samuel R. Delany reports numerous graphic scenes of open masturbation, fellatio and intercourse (he also recalls a heterosexual man masturbating in front of the mostly gay men).

However, in other theaters masturbation was actively discouraged, particularly those places that were frequented by couples. Monitors would watch the audience and ask anyone to leave who was caught in the act. In some cases even policemen patrolled the cinemas, as evidenced by the famous case of Pee Wee Herman (actor Paul Reubens), who was caught masturbating and subsequently got prosecuted. Hence one must not overgeneralize. What I describe here is merely a tendency: for those men who actually felt the intersubjective threat of shame, the relocation of moving-image pornography to the private sphere implied a greater freedom (and hence possibility) to masturbate openly.

In this context we should not forget the repulsive side effects of the public porn experience. As if shame was not enough, the adult theater was always also a potential source of disgust for many a viewer. Here I do not so much refer to the moral disgust elicited by one’s own ‘inappropriate’ desires (this can certainly play a role as well); I am thinking more about the bodily disgust that heterosexual men might derive from visual, auditory, olfactory and tactile encounters with other men’s actions and fluid leftovers. Again, one must not essentialize experiences her: I do not rule out that for some people this was precisely a strong stimulus — just think of Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert) in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001), who likes to sniff the sperm-filled tissues taken from the garbage cans of sex store porn booths. For many others, however, the potential confrontation with other men’s semen in particular could initiate a strong disgust response.

Hence one might speculate whether the popularity of private porn consumption does not also derive, in part, from the possibility to avoid the emotion of disgust. In this respect the relocation of pornography would resemble a very different kind of relocation: the move from the dirty and sticky shoebox theaters of the 1970s and 80s to the multi- or megaplex cinemas of the 1990s with their strict hygiene policy. Drawing on Mary Douglas’ concept of purity, Phil Hubbard has argued that deep-seated anxieties about the despoilment of body and self through dirt drew viewers to the multiplex. Its clean space allowed audiences “to develop a clear sense of ontological security, knowing that they can enjoy an evening out without the boundaries of their body being brought into question by potential pollutants” (Hubbard, 261).

Porn theaters sometimes were actually dirty. More often viewers might have simply considered them a potentially ‘contaminated’ place. In a series of interesting experiments the psychologist Paul Rozin (1986) has shown how the contact with something disgusting can almost magically contaminate an object or place. Rozin calls this transformation “magical” because it lasts long after the disgusting object has been thoroughly removed. Just think of eating from a sterilized toilet floor.

As a consequence, in a potentially contaminated cinema the disgusted viewer tends to protect the outer boundaries of his (or her) body from despoilment. Here, again, the raincoat might serve the particular function of protection. And again, the metaphor of the ‘body armor’ is not fully out of place. In analogy to the ‘fear of shame’ mentioned above we could speak of a ‘fear of disgust’ that makes the adult theater a rather unattractive place for many viewers.

Seen from this perspective, pornography has an anti-social tendency, at least for many heterosexual viewers. Since in their case the anonymous co-viewers with their smells and body fluids do not constitute potential subjects of pleasure, the other audience members are not experienced as part of a collective We, but come across as antagonists in an I-you relationship whose gazes, odors and body fluids one wishes to avoid.[12] Hence in contrast to the centripetal experience of collective laughter or shared fear that bounds the audience of a comedy or a horror film momentarily together, a centrifugal tendency away from the anonymous rest can dominate the heterosexual porn theater experience due to shame and disgust.[13]

Under these circumstances it is not surprising that MacDonald admits,

“I’ve never masturbated in a theater (though on rare occasions I’ve seen others do so), but only later, outside the theater, in the privacy of a car or a men’s room“ (1983, 12).

In his — and many other men’s — case the pornographic experience was a precondition or cause for masturbation, but it did not coincide with it, nor was it identical with it. At this point the a-historical slant of Ullén’s “theory of masturbation” becomes particularly obvious: pornography was not identical with masturbation. Moreover, a brief look at an even earlier period could have shown Ullén that porn films often had other functions than exclusively masturbatory ones.

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