On pornographic cinema
by Gertrud Koch

page 2

from Jump Cut, no. 35, April 1990, pp. 17-29
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1990, 2006

The secret of the invisible penis and woman's other place

Criticism of pornographic cinema was originally founded on conservative moral criticism. Today, after the great liberalization, it is being expressed in actions and analysis by feminists. However, feminist criticism of pornography basically has a different intent from that of conservative moralists. Feminists protest because pornographic cinema expresses and confirms existing norms rather than undermine them. Porn reduces sexuality to a male perspective, involving patriarchal myths regarding female sex and the phallus. In short, pornographic cinema is sexist. Feminists understand that sexism prevents the emancipation of sexuality, an emancipation which would liberate women's sexual fantasies and bring to a deserved end the phallocentric primacy of ruling class sexual structures. Feminist arguments thus do not strive for a conservative preservation of old values but for revolutionary change, and the arguments often arise from women's sexual and political liberation strategies.

In the face of the dominant sexual misery, it is difficult to object to the intentions which form the basis of feminist criticism against pornography. One can however object to strategies and arguments which make a direct connection between viewing pornographic films and sex acts according to the following pattern: that whoever views sadistic blue movies sees these as behavioral possibilities and as an invitation to rape and sadistically torture women; that whoever sees phallic omnipotence fantasies confirmed in wide-screen will hardly be able to act differently in reality.

The direct effect of filmic action on human behavior has never been proven. In my opinion, we can make the connection only in a social context and not directly in terms of behavioral psychology. In contrast to the above argument, I assume that pornography does not so much express dominant male sexual practice as it expresses its deficiencies, restructuring damaged fantasies. Although legislative and executive prosecution and punishment is no longer widespread, pornographic subculture still maintains an aura of the secret and forbidden, the sensational and the never-before-seen. It advertises the extra-ordinary rather than the everyday. The exceptional rather than the common. A porn house in London dreamt up the following text, displayed in front of the theater:


"This cinema is showing pornographic films depicting close-ups of sexual intercourse, oral sex, and male and female masturbation and is not for the easily shocked." (Ellis, p. 103)

The shock, the fright used warningly to advertise recalls Kracauer's "phenomena overwhelming consciousness." For pornographic cinema, this shock seems to be a component of voyeuristic lust. But what's so terrible? Are sex organs and copulating couples really terrifying? Where does the fright leading to fascination come from? Feminist arguments overlap with psychoanalytical ones in analyzing this question because both assume the primary of male sexuality in pornographic films.

According to Freud's analysis, there is close connection between Schaulust and castration fears: a male child, seeing a woman's sex organ for the first time in his life, is surprised because a penis is not attached. Disturbed by the fact that such an important item for him is missing from the female organ, he imagines a number of equally fear-arousing possibilities: (a) the female organ is the result of castration or (b) women hide their penises. The second possibility (b) is already a working out of the fears induced by possibility of (a). Out of this aspect of the castration complex there arises a indefatigable voyeuristic mania to inspect a woman's sex continuously and exactly in order to uncover the secret of the missing penis. The mature viewer of pornographic films searches for a confirmation of his childish sex theory involving phallic mythology about the female sex. Since his mania is the product of a castration complex, the viewing of numerous penises confirms their functional efficiency and intactness.

Furthermore, seeing many penises eases this primal male fear through the feeling of phallic omnipotence. The indefatigable search for that which cannot be found, namely a woman's penis, is accompanied by a parallel, compensatory pacification of fears through the exhibition of erections and potency.

The endless merry-go-around of sex orgies; the reduction of persons to sex organs; the mechanical and compulsive repetition of action in pornographic films-these thus originate in male sexual structures rather than in a lack of imagination. Following a secret rite, a naked body awaits at every corner and in every moment is conjured up by the imagination. It happens as fantasy does in the magical and archaic world of a child, where space and time have been freed from the net of the physical world. As if following a magical order, the everyday place becomes a secret site of sexuality. The world of pornographic films creates its pyramids of gymnasts on an archaic ground: on a child-like, archaic theory of sex.

John Ellis has shown that in the voyeuristic circle of pornographic films, the invisible female penis must be transformed into a visible fetish, so that lust can overcome castration fears:

"The fetish offered by these representations is no longer a fragment of clothing, or even the deceptively smooth body of the phallic woman, it is now the woman's sexual pleasure. The woman nevertheless has the phallus in sexual pleasure; the woman's lack of a phallus is disavowed in her orgasm…In orgasm woman no longer is the phallus, she has the phallus. Films currently produced within the pornographic sector gain their impulsion from the repetition of instances of female sexual pleasure, and male pleasure is perfunctory in most cases. The films (and photographs) are concerned with the 'mise-en-scene' of the female orgasm; they constantly circle around it, trying to find it, to abolish the spectator's separation from it."[2][open notes in new window]

The transformation of the empirical penis into a mythic, symbolic phallus, becoming a fetishistic image, a sign for the existence of female orgasm, signifies the transformation process, whereby something invisible becomes visible in the fetish. It is true that many pornographic films give particular weight to the mise-en-scene of codes signifying female orgasm. Yet the next problem arises here, regarding the relationship between the visible and invisible. For the place where a woman is supposed to have a penis and orgasm is just as invisible as the phantom phallus men search for.

Naturalistic pornographic film's lack of expressiveness necessarily reaches its limit literally "ante portas," before achieving its goal of seeing the secret place of woman's pleasure. Dennis Giles describes the same in a psychoanalytic essay on pornographic films:

"The interior space she encloses (identified as the woman in essence) is an invisible place…it cannot be possessed by visual knowledge. In order to emphasize its separation from the known space of the pornographic film, I call this central interior the Other place." (Giles)

The invisible, other place, affirmed by pornographic films without showing it, can be made visible through pornographic language. Steven Marcus impressively affirms it in a description of the female body as a landscape, found in his Max Weberian construction of an ideal "Pornotopia":

"Farther down, the scene narrows and changes in perspective. Off to the right and left jut two smooth snowy ridges. Between them, at their point of juncture, is a dark wood — we are now at the middle of our journey. This dark wood — sometimes it is called a thicket — is triangular in shape. It is also like a cedar cover, and in its midst is a dark romantic chasm. In this chasm the wonders of nature abound. From its top there depends a large, pink stalactite, which changes shape, size, and color in accord with the movement of the tides below and within. Within the chasm — which is roughly pearshaped — there are caverns measureless to man, grottoes, hermits' caves, underground streams — a whole internal and subterranean landscape. The climate is warm but wet. Thunder storms are frequent in this region, as are tremors and quakings of the earth. The walls of the cavern often heave and contract in rhythmic violence, and when they do the salty streams that run through it double their flow. The whole place is dark yet visible. This is the center of the earth and the home of man." (Marcus, pp. 274-75)

In film this literary utopian other place remains invisible. A woman's carnal pleasure is simulated by exterior signs; only the penis is visible in pornographic films, and on it falls the burden of carnal proof. Hardly ever do we see a coition that doesn't end with a penis ejaculating on a woman. The abundance of sperm once again becomes a sign of deficiency, a deficiency of depiction. Still, the sight of an ejaculating penis seems to be erotic for the male viewer because it is a sign of intactness, an assurance that the vagina, imagined to be insatiable and dangerous, has released its victim unharmed into the world of light. The choice of naturalistic forms of depiction in blue movies is thus also made in order to guarantee sensual certainty in regards to uncastratedness. In this way, the visual depiction by convention sacrifices the woman's pleasure; the actress must simulate orgasm when the penis is already outside her.

The psychic codification of sexuality can be seen even in the naturalistic habits of pornographic films. In fact, films are never pure images but always symbolic structurings of that which is portrayed. We can now expand the definition formulated in Part II. I identified pornographic cinema with cognition, as an instrument of people's drive for knowledge. Now I'll include an inner psychic level: pornographic cinema is the night school of childish sexual theory. Finally, though, such definitions remain inadequate. If our analysis measures pornographic film with the yardstick of psychopathology, we come to the conclusion that infantile, perverse male sex fantasies are at work. In a clinical diagnostic sense, this is certainly correct. Feminist criticism against pornographic films here can find its most valid objections.

But psychopathological analysis, based exclusively on a reconstruction of the male sexual perspective, cannot explain women's response. Many women also make the journey to "Pornotopia" (Hans and Lapouge, p. 204) with "disgusted and fascinated gaze,"[3] in spite of warranted moral and critical indignation. The pleasure of looking, as an exploration of both the unknown and one's own sex, certainly is a common pleasure. Not only men experience the desire to return to the womb as well as have narcissistic fusion and exchange fantasies. The idea of promiscuous abundance, saturating the images in pornographic films, is not only present at the level of symbolic abstraction. All those visible, concrete penises and vulvas do not just represent a symbolic phallus. Although always caught in a symbolic and social discourse, film images never quite free themselves from the resistance of the concrete world of objects, which they then transfer visually to a symbolic world.[4]

Even if all these genitalia and individual bodies are symbolically and unequivocally part of male sexual fantasy, and even if they really are experienced by the abstract, generalizing mania of male perception within the systematic context of the symbolic organization of a phallically centered world, they also still exist as images of details. Their depth is real and empirical, as the naturalistic pornographic film never tires of telling us. Female perception is thus possibly not really integrated into a phallic discourse which can never be woman's own. Maybe women have enough imagination, in the face of an abstract male organization of perception, to move about outside the inscribed symbolic discourse.

"Pornotopia" would then become a fragmented world, the schism of the sexes running through it, the phallus disavowing it fearfully. "Pornotopia" then becomes the empire of a phallic ruler, who is powerless against the female view of details; they partition his empire according to their own taste. The woman's view of pornographic films, "disgusted and fascinated" as it were, does not have to search and find a phallus behind every penis.

That women react ambivalently to pornographic films, torn between fascination and disappointment, maybe occurs not only because of a prudish upbringing, which forbids an open view and results in a defensive and loathsome stance. Maybe women still have the possibility of taking a utopian view of "Pornotopia," despite their criticism — i.e., if they can recognize that utopian abundance is not to be found in phallic generalization, but rather in the details of a flickering world of objects; their gaze creates flesh and blood out of a shadow world of bodies. The concrete criticism and reception of pornographic cinema, as demonstrated in interviews conducted with women by Marie-Françoise Hans and Gilles Lapouge[5], illustrate more than just women's insufficient understanding of porn's objective content, they also illustrate another kind of appropriation, a kind of reflection in fragments. Even when women smash pornographic cinema into pieces, they bring more light into these fragments than the whole can possibly offer: a different sexuality is as much a part of radical-feminist, negative criticism of pornographic movies as it is of the uncritical, appropriating gaze of its male patrons.


1. In connection with these problems compare Volkmar Sigusch's summary of the Pornography Report. Quoted in Gorsen, p. 108110.

2. Ellis, p. 103. Ellis' analysis takes its cue from Laura Mulvey's study, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema."

3. If one strictly defines pornographic cinema as a medium oriented solely toward the depiction of male sexuality, then one still has to explain why women are not necessarily turned off by such depictions. They will hardly find an image of their own sexuality, unless we accept Freud's assumption of penis envy, which presupposes that the heterosexual, phallically-oriented female identifies with the penis and its lust. The penis envy thesis, so vehemently opposed by feminist theoreticians, will not be discussed here further, although I'm inclined to accept its historical, if not its universal, anthropological validity.

It might be helpful to look at Freud's assumption regarding a basic bisexuality, which characterizes not only men but also women. In his late works Freud went so far as to state the biological bisexuality might contradict his penis envy theory. If we imagine that the strict schism between male/female, phallus/vulva is actually a relation, whereby each sex incorporates repressed elements of the other, then we might have an explanation of why women can discover at least a portion of themselves in "pornotopia." Viewing a penis would then also imply a degree of lust for women, and it would not only mean subjugation in the face of phallic power of identification with the oppressor. This would, of course, mean that we women have to free ourselves from such constructs as "evil," "destructive," and "misogynist" perversions, while at the same time attempting to study the utopian and anti-establishment contents of these perversions before clinically disqualifying them.

4. Compare Kracauer, p. 57-58. Kracauer's essentialist film theory, oriented as it were on phenomenology, is centrally concerned with the idea of film as a redemption of physical reality, as found in the "flow of life." Even if one doesn't agree with Kracauer's philosophical precepts, one can hardly disregard the fact that Kracauer has defined one of the basic tenants of film aesthetics: the preservation of the physical representation of objects which film captures as a physical image and not just as an imaginary image the way the painting might. Film according to Kracauer was — and this definition seems to me to hid true for porn — "the trembling upper world in a dirty puddle."

5. See Note 39. Compare Gertrud Koch, 1979, pp. 116-38. Koch's theoretical essays on women's responses to film have been published in English in JUMP CUT (Koch, 1982 and 1989).

Works cited

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