As the video begins, the frame encompasses a large silver frying pan sitting on the coil of an electric stove. In the pan are at least a dozen pieces of bacon, laying stretched along side each other, and sizzling in their own juices. The soundtrack consists of the bacon’s wet splatterings, amplified. The camera zooms in on the pan, closing in on the glistening slices of meat, the grease bubbling between their layers, causing the bacon to undulate. The camera then pulls back on the image, and the video ends where it started — 48 seconds of YouTube bliss known as “Sizzling Hot Bacon Porn,”[Figure one]
Yes, I will admit that my description for this video works to sexualize this bacon, and many vegetarians would probably not have the same impression of this imagery. Reading the comments, I am not the only one “getting off” on bacon sizzling in a pan. Yet I cannot possibly find a way to sexualize my next “porn” excursion — a whirlwind tour through “kitty porn” or “cute porn” as I click away through the videos on “Cute Roulette”[Figure two] — the cute animal version of “Chat Roulette” — a site renowned for male participants flashing their penises.
On this “porn” site, I first watch a tiny kitten, curled up, asleep in a teacup, with a caption — “so tired!” Clicking “next cuteness,” I see a kitten riding on the back of a turtle for 25 seconds. “Next cuteness,” click, and a sleepy baby bear cannot stay awake. Awwwww! The cuteness of these baby, sleepy creatures washes over me in wave after wave, a never ending variety of excessive cuteness, all at the click of my mouse.
In Magnus Ullén’s discussion of Linda Williams’s edited anthology Porn Studies for the spring 2009 issue of Jump Cut, he finds fault with its collection of authors, finding
He rightly asks what a “satisfactory definition of the concept of pornography” might be? Yet, he dismisses Williams’ “common sense definition”: that
While this definition may seem rather tautological, it really resonates with a term that has become increasingly banal, detached from its resoundingly sexual moorings and floating like a lost signifier no longer connected to its referent. Ullén thinks scholars do porn a disservice by linking it to a “specific kind of content,” and he’s right in part because porn is no longer quite as “specific.”
Ullén purposely shifts the discussion away from content or medium to the type of reading strategy elicited by porn — a one-handed strategy that is less discursive than embodied, where all porn is filtered through a masturbatory lens. His approach generalizes too broadly in assuming porn’s connection to masturbation for porn is not just about sex anymore. Porn’s “definition” has evolved to include many kinds of potentially non-sexual subject matter, with so many niche areas that it becomes near to impossible to generalize about one’s experience. Porn is now ubiquitous and borderline banal. The charged nature of pornography seems unendingly diluted by its attachment to any and all things, sexual or non-sexual. “Porn” is now a word repeatedly linked to excess or to things that might be perceived as “bad for you” if you consume too much of them. So reveling in everything from torture to bacon to kittens is now linked to and labeled “porn.”
Julian Hanich in “Clips, Clicks, and Climax” counters Ullén’s article by carefully tracing the shift in pornographic exhibition practices. He discusses how historical shifts in the experience of seeing porn in different sites affects the “reading strategy” of masturbation that Ullén discusses, connecting historical understandings of spectatorship with feelings of shame and acknowledging that not all pornography is necessarily so tied to masturbation:
Hanich contends that porn is most definitely medium-specific. The availability of porn, sexual and otherwise, at the click of a computer button makes it much more available on an individualized basis to a wider range of people, unobserved, in the privacy of their homes. Hanich connects this increase in private consumption to a loss of “shame” and “disgust” formerly attributed to the consumption of porn, suggesting that
What I argue here is that this loss of “disgust,” has not only undermined porn’s stigma — expanding its definition outward exponentially and expanding the labeling of non-sexual excesses “porn” — but simultaneously it has created a desire in some consumers to encounter “disgust” through shocking content, even if the viral consumption of that content quickly renders it banal.
Hanich implies that “the relocation and privatization of moving-image pornography” serves to eradicate some of the stigma of consuming porn, allowing women to encounter porn without shame, a point I have explored frequently in my own work on soft and hardcore porn. This increased access to sexual imagery, coupled with the industry’s interest in catering to specifically gendered consumers, in the last 25 years has created an entire cottage industry of both cable fare and feminist scholarship. Yet my pursuit of these issues has shifted a bit, even in the last five years, from the personal and political, to the more pedagogical.
As someone who formerly taught graduate students at a large private Southern university and now teaches only undergraduates at a small New England liberal arts college, my relation to teaching and talking about porn has changed dramatically. Unlike some of my more daring colleagues, I rarely venture into waters that would have me show hard-core pornographic examples to my students. Those types of screenings are relegated to “experimental film” discussions or classes that explore “excess” and “transgression,” such as my senior seminar “Studies in Cult and Camp.” The self-selected groups of students who take such courses have already expressed an interest in films that push the boundaries of what is acceptable, and they are usually more open to challenging representations.
While my encounters with pornography beginning in the 80s were strictly confined to cable, VHS, and DVD — all home-viewing technologies, my students’ experiences with porn are even more pointedly private, albeit sometimes mobile, with the technologies available to them now. Moving image pornography via film, television, or the Internet does not seem to faze my students, as they feel the stuff is everywhere, “in the water,” similar to the way some postfeminists feel about feminism. They have also been “schooled” in various classrooms, including my own, on some of the available discourses in representational politics especially in regard to issues of gender and race.
These students are sensitive to links of sex with violence, and they are especially cognizant of any representation of sex that has the slightest whiff of force attached. For example, their responses to a screening of Doris Wishman’s roughies such as Bad Girls Go to Hell and Another Day, Another Man were characteristically critical. They were rather offended by the victimization Wishman’s heroines experienced, even when the films were coupled with articles from three savvy feminist scholars.
They also tend to think that sex work, including porn, is just one in a plethora of different “choices,” and they are rather non-judgmental toward women who “choose their choice” by participating in variations of the sex industry. My students are fairly used to the blurring between public and private when it comes to sex, and they are so familiar with the performativity of “reality” programming and “documentary footage” that explicit sex rarely shocks them. (Note: one cannot say the same thing for their parents, who are footing the bill for their education.)
Taking my Cult and Camp students as an example, they were a bit shocked and grossed-out by some of the scenes in John Waters’ Pink Flamingos even though they found the film hilarious. My students were slightly more discomfited by the “singing asshole” and Divine’s final “shit-eating grin” than any of the sex scenes—involving chickens, toe-sucking, or drag queen on son incest. Why? Well, they’ve seen these things all before. They were the ones that introduced me, their porn-published professor, to the viral experience of Two Girls, One Cup.
My cluelessness disappeared quickly as I investigated further. But how “shocking” are these viral videos when they become appropriated by Muppet characters, such as Kermit and Rowlf (the dog) [Figure 3]
or love songs are written about them on comedy website “Funny or Die?”
Hanich points out:
These so-called multiple variations, endlessly proliferated, have the same effect as those images and videos that suddenly go “viral.” In one instance, a viewer looking for porn can find anything he/she desires. In the other, “viral videos” seem to take the “edge” off the porn experience — everyone sees them. Images of celebrities sans underwear, caught in some sex act on video, or in nude pictures sent to ex-boyfriends barely create a cultural ripple for more than a moment. Even celebrities now make fun of supposed sex tapes — Eva Mendes on Funny of Die
and Jennifer Aniston’s new commercial for “Smart Water.” [Figure 4]
Instead of WTF (what the fuck), these types of representations spur BFD (big fucking deal). The challenge now, for porn scholars and professors, is to get students to take seriously the ways in which sexual representations powerfully intersect with their experiences of gender, race, class, age or nationality, so that their encounters with “porn” in any manifestation might elicit thoughtful intellectual questions instead of the indifferent shrug.