by Pat Kirkham and Beverley Skeggs
Cut, no. 40, March 1996, pp. 106-113
We are currently witnessing a significant paradigm shift in feminist discourses on pornography in the United Kingdom. There is a shift away from focusing on censorship and legislation to approaching in a less censorious way issues of visual representation, sexual excitement and sexual practice. Old orthodoxies have come under challenge and are being examined in print, seminars, conferences and undergraduate courses as well as in the practices of pornographic film and video making. Given that we actually know very little in historical, cultural or psychic terms about the origins, impulses, gendering or trajectories of individual or collective sexual desires, drives, fantasies and responses to explicitly sexual visual imagery, we need a full and open debate. But the issues are complex as well as highly charged. Many feminists have contradictory and confusing feelings on these issues.
Because the questions involved have developed at a different pace in the U.K. and the U.S., as British scholars we have especially sought to learn about U.S. experiences. We initiated a discussion with U.S. feminist scholars in this area to help clarify our own positions on what, in film and video terms, persists as an extremely popular genre within our popular culture. In this light, we spoke to three U.S. women active in "pro-sex, anti-censorship work," all of whom teach or have taught courses on film and pornography. Extracts from our discussions with them follow below, and we will try to place these new developments in a broader context.
A key marker of the new, non-censorious approach with which feminists approach pornography is Linda Williams' Hardcore: Power, Pleasure and the Frenzy of the Visible (1989-USA; 1990-GB). This book emphasizes issues of representation, context and audience; it also calls for detailed studies, such as those in Caught Looking: Feminism, Pornography and Censorship (1988-USA), to illuminate the many differences between individual products. Gillian Rodgerson's and Elizabeth Wilson's Pornography and Feminism: The Case against Censorship (1991), which hammered home the complexities of representation within the British debate, and Sex Exposed: Sexuality and the Pornography Debates (1992), edited by Lynn Segal and Mary McIntosh, set forth clear expositions of the anti-censorship position. These books establish pornography as a complex and unpredictable regime of representation. Feminist scholars can no longer be categoric about what pornography is.
British critic Linda Ruth Williams has pointed to the blurred boundaries between mainstream films' depictions of violence and sexual violence against women and so-called trash or porn movies' depictions of "deviant" sexual behavior. Mainstream popular music video has used sadomasochistic imagery to such an extent that such imagery is now considered passé. In terms of genres, the category of "snuff" movies shifts from porn to exploitation to honor, and there has long been an instability between the categorization of "art" movies (especially European ones) and porn. The relation between the cultural significance attached to certain representational forms and the shifting boundaries between art and pornography is well illustrated by Lynda Nead, one of thirteen authors in the recently published in Dirty Looks: Women, Pornography, Power (edited by Pamela Church Gibson and Roma Gibson, 1993-GB). This collection aims to show that issues around pornography are "more complex and more interesting than the censorship lobby allows," and it takes more seriously than many the question of arousal. We do not wish to deny the contributions of those who have argued "pro-sex, anti-censorship" positions since the mid to late 1970's, when feminist debates polarized into two broad camps, each unheedful of the other. Rather, we note the contributions of Linda Williams and others since 1989 in order to focus on a recent qualitative change.
Among feminists, there is a growing challenge to the idea that censorship or legislation relating to pornography is the best way forward for women. This position is still a minority one amongst feminists, particularly academic feminists in the United States, where for the last decade and a half, the feminist censorship lobby (a somewhat misleading term since its aims also include legislation) has been not only strong but also effective. That very success explains something of the urgency expressed by the three women to whom we spoke as well as by others opposed to the anti-pornography, pro-censorship position. Such a position has come to be known as the Dworkin/ MacKinnon orthodoxy, because of its two leading protagonists: Andrea Dworkin (Pornography: Men Hating Women) and Catherine MacKinnon (Just Words).
We should not forget the positive impulses which drew so many good women to the Dworkin/ MacKinnon camp — a concern to do something, to act, to put an end to sexism and to violence against women. In the early 1970s women realized in a dramatic way the deep roots of the sexist attitudes that work on many levels — political, social and psychic levels — but they also had optimism that women could do something to change the world. Many feminists espoused the Dworkin/ MacKinnon "line" because libertarian attitudes had not done anything to halt degrading representations of women. The women who supported that position were not fools but committed feminists, and we need to remember this if the new debates are to be inclusive as well as expansive.
Younger feminists in colleges have grown up with the Dworkin-MacKinnon orthodoxy, consolidated by feminist writings on the "male gaze" as well as knowledge of international sexual divisions of labor. But a substantial minority of young women scholars now share and increasingly articulate the dilemmas we ourselves have experienced in positioning ourselves between the polarized responses to pornography. At one extreme an uncritical, all-embracing engagement with pornography ignores the violence, misogyny and racism evident within particular forms of pornography. Pornography can be used to signify to women their powerlessness. In some cases men use it to sexually harass and abuse women in situations where the women have no or little control. Pornography does form part of the everyday symbolic violence against women. However, censorship and censorious attitudes deny us the increasing diversities of representation which pornography offers as well as the possibility of more expansive and liberating expressions of female fantasy and desire. Hopefully, new feminist knowledges which deconstruct pornography's power to demean, humiliate and objectify will help destroy the ability of pornography to generate fear and to control women. To re-organize the power/ knowledge relation of pornography's "regime" may begin to take away its capacity to control.
It is not our purpose here to consider the pros and cons of the porn/ anti-porn debates since the late 1970s but rather to explore further the ideas expounded by the "pro-sex/ anticensorship" grouping. However, given that pornography is a central feature of popular culture, it is important to note just how much popular support there has been for the anti-porn campaigns in the USA. Anti-porn positions have also had considerable currency in Britain, particularly those expounded by Campaign Against Pornography (CAP) and the Campaign Against Pornography and Censorship (CPC). While these groups are strong, they arguably have enjoyed less popular support in Britain. In the United States the campaigns' bedrock lies in the discursive alliances between the purity campaigns and the New Right Christian Fundamentalist groups, which speak to the need for protection of vulnerable groups. It is a popular kind of protectionism, articulated through the concept of child protection, which speaks to general anxieties women may have about violence and abuse.
However, some feminists who feel drawn to discourses of protection increasingly find themselves unable to reconcile themselves to the fact that "protection" rhetoric also implies the suppression of expressions of female desire. Whereas calls for protection may still have validity when addressing issues surrounding child pornography, concepts such as difference, resistance, opposition and strategy may provide more appropriate terms for addressing issues of women in pornography and women viewers. Protectionism does not always appeal to those with a voice, a group which has become increasingly used to dealing with situations in which the odds are stacked against them. Pro-sex, anti-censorship campaigners effectively make this point.
The three U.S. women we talked to were well aware of the nuances and subtle differences between the various anti-porn positions. They felt that those arguments had been exhausted — that the particular debates around censorship and legislation faced an impasse. The three teachers' sense of frustration came not just from attacks on their courses and their films and videos but also from their concern about what successful legislation might mean in terms of clamping down on creative activity and curtailing an important vehicle for women's sexual exploration and development. They were also concerned to reach those younger working and middle-class U.S. women who have as many, if not more, prejudices against feminists than against pornography. Constance Penley noted that in her work with women Star Trek fans who produce homoerotic pornography based on the Star Trek fictional universe that she was struck by how often she heard the fans say, "I'm not a feminist, but…" These fans reject an identification with feminism on class grounds and also because they perceive all feminists to be moralistically anti-pornography, which the fans take to mean anti-sex and anti-men as well. This often-repeated attitude led Penley to feel that the time had come to challenge a culturally popular anti-feminist position.
It is unfortunate, but perhaps no coincidence, that these discussions are taking place in the U.S. during a time when there is a broader questioning of political correctness. The extremity of the anti-porn orthodoxy of the last decade was phrased in its commonly stated stance that pornography not only caused violence against women but is violence against women and that every heterosexual act of sex is an act of rape.
Feminist scholars' and artists' new opposition to this position surfaced partly in response to the threat of impending censorship legislation and the realization that so many of the assertions of causal connections between the consumption of pornography and violence against women remain unproven. Opposition hardened with the attempts to censure the work of Robert Mapplethorpe and other less well-known lesbian and gay artists. In the 90s many lesbians who had been active in the U.S. censorship campaigns against pornography have begun to re-think their positions because of attacks on works exploring lesbian sexuality. We cannot overemphasize the contribution to the widening debate on sexuality by lesbian and gay writers artists and activists who destabilize notions of heterosexuality, and we need to acknowledge the degree to which pornography has been an enabling element in the articulation of "oppositional sexualities."
Any reading of the history of sexuality shows how censorship provides a crucial weapon in the armory of normalization; the most recent illustration of such a rule by force can be seen in current campaigns to enforce the ideology of a monogamous, heterosexual "real family" through legislation and the media and constantly to suggest that other expressions of sexuality are not legitimate. The emphasis on the constructedness of sexuality in much contemporary pornography and the widespread use of sex toys and artificial objects establish an important challenge to essentialist notions of sexuality, particularly women's supposedly "natural" sexuality. The dedication to expansive and exploratory work around the expression of female sexuality is what differentiates this particular feminist debate on pornography from others and is what makes it so important.
The paradigm shift in analyses of pornography relates to wider theoretical developments, including those in poststructuralism and psychoanalysis, which have challenged once taken-for-granted concepts of identification and have problematized what readers/ viewers actually do. (Do we, in fact, identify in any simple way with any characters in a film?) Theorists of psychoanalysis and the visual offer numerous propositions about the processes of identification. And fictional and narrative considerations further add to the complexities and contradictions involved in explaining pornography. Identification may not reside with the subject(s) of the pornographic artifact but with the different positions of desire offered. Foucault's analyses of the multiplicitous nature of power has led to widespread challenges to the one-dimensional, dominating apparatuses which are able to fill the empty vessels of human bodies with ideology. Feminist theorists of political movements have shown how a concept of resistance is central if one is to understand the many different women's responses to the sexism of the everyday. Black feminists have shown how the appeal to a homogeneous concept of womankind only conceals the power differences between women and men and between black and white women.
The emphasis in feminist audience studies and in the reexamination of the "male gaze" does not correspond to the ideological position of many anti-pornography feminists who see women as victims of male representation and violence. Pornography is a contested ground precisely because of the different contexts and subjectivities which we occupy. Pornography, or visual representation in general, elicits multiple and contradictory readings — all of which interface with the different subject positions of the viewer/ reader. Feminist research on visual representation shows a strong contingent of oppositional viewers. Audience response is extremely context-dependent. One of the few certainties is that audiences rarely behave in accordance with ideological or theoretical expectations.
Although the recent debates on pornography center on representation, our intent is not to detract from the fact that sexual violence frequently forms a part of women's lives but to shift emphasis. Pornography is only one part of far wider regimes of representation, institutionalization and economic organization, which work on an inter-textual, inter-cultural basis, being both reproductive and contradictory. Because of this complexity, the current discussion can engage a variety of feminists who assert that problems and questions around sexual representations are important. One need not personally "like" commercial pornography or even artistic, avant-garde representations of sexuality to understand that analyzing it without condemning it plays an important role in developing feminist knowledge.
The paradigm shift has also occurred because more and more women refuse to see themselves simply as passive victims. Carol Smart has shown how the language used in the anti-pornography campaigns combines with popular discourses of traditional morality, addressing some of the conservative paradigms of respectability which have historically regulated expressions of women's sexuality. The anti-pornography campaigns' assumptions also articulate fixed positions on sexuality; women are always oppressed, men always operate sex as power. Men have agency and domination; women have passivity and powerlessness. These dichotomies fit neatly into traditional notions of women's place. They reproduce women as victim, vulnerable, with no potential for change. If women display or express sexuality, according to conservative morality, they are eroticizing their own degradation.
As examples of popular culture, pornographic films and video clearly merit serious study but not necessarily indiscriminate celebration of each and every one of them. But if one accepts that there is no direct causal connection between pornographic representations and reality, between images and what people do, then only concepts of personal preference remain and the tricky area of "taste." Pornography nearly always becomes associated with low culture. Only when it can adapt for consumers a knowledge of high culture codes to create distance from the vulgar and banal does it converted into erotica and art film. Pornography's lack of distance from the immediately affective creates problems for critics, who traditionally rely on a body of specialist knowledge to understand the "text" and to demarcate the boundaries of taste. Yet, it is around these very areas that much of the debate needs to take place — dealing with preference, taste, affect, what turns you on as well, and what dominant cultural mores deem respectable and acceptable.
At a conference we attended in the United States, we saw evidence of this new, more open approach to pornography not only in the content of some papers but also in delegates' responses. In the opening plenary of the Console-ing Passions: Feminism, Television and Video conference (USC, April 1993), Constance Penley (UC Santa Barbara) spoke on "Pedagogies of Porn." She outlined her recent experience of teaching a course on pornographic film and video as a popular U.S. genre from a "pro-sex, anti-censorship" point of view, the audience offered no great outcry, not even a critical question. Yet two or three years earlier this would have been an explosive issue for a feminist conference. Adrienne Jenik (UC Irvine), who teaches, makes and programs lesbian pornography, gave a paper, "Does It Really Turn You On? Lesbian Pornography and the Search for Visual Excitement."
Interested in following up on their perspectives, we talked at length to Constance Penley, Adrienne Jenik and Gloria-Jean Masciarotte (Notre Dame), who taught a pornography course several ago whilst at the Rhode Island School of Design, to see how the paradigm shift is being effected in the United States. All three consider the existing debates on pornography and censorship as narrow, sterile and uninformed by knowledge of what pornography actually is and means to people. They lament the fact that in the popular U.S. imagination feminism has become equated with a crude, anti-sex, anti-pornography position. They want to win back some of the discursive ground lost in the last decade and to create a better popular image for feminism by offering broader, more imaginative and expansive discourses about sexuality, particularly women's sexual practices and fantasies. They, and we, hope that the following discussion of pornography and film — both central sites of popular discourse in our culture — might do just that.
BS [Beverley Skeggs]: Many faculty and staff in Women's Studies in the United States have supported the Dworkin/ MacKinnon line, but you had the full support of your Women's Studies Department for your study of popular visual artifacts which, according to the censorship lobby, not only degrade women but pose threats to their physical safety. Is this unusual?
CP [Constance Penley]: It probably was, but my colleagues knew all about the course and felt it was scholarly. It allowed students to make up their own minds about issues. Women's Studies staff, including the Rape Crisis Counselor, sometimes sat in on the course, and they were extremely supportive when the local Campaign Against Pornography attacked it. I was also fortunate to have the support of my colleague Daniel Linz, who with Edward Donnerstein is one of the leading researchers in the United States into the effects of pornography.
PK [Pat Kirkham]: Could you tell us something about the campaign against you and the course?
CP: A local fire storm erupted over my course. The student newspaper ran a "neutral" piece, quoting my objectives and rationale for the course. Enter Santa Barbara County Citizens Against Pornography (SBCCAP). The group protested to the University in no uncertain terms and expressed astonishment to find that a) it was a woman teaching the course from a "pro-sex" position and b) a feminist. "I just don't understand," said the group's president to my departmental chair, "feminists hate pornography." I was subject to a degree of personal hassle including the SBCCAP trying to get me to deny in the local press that it had tried to get my course closed. The local paper, usually keen to trash the University, responded to the SBCCAP campaign of letter writing to the University and the newspaper with an impassioned editorial in defense of the course. The paper then assigned a reporter to attend my classes and conduct extensive interviews with me about my background, training and how this course fitted into my other work on feminist media theory, film and cultural studies. The SBCCAP hated this because their position is that there is nothing good to study about pornography except its harmful effects.
G-JM [Gloria-Jean Masciarotte]: It is important to remember the institutional context. The course I taught took place two years ago at the Rhode Island School of Design where there were no problems about courses that were liberal or radial in content. I now teach feminist theory at the Catholic University of Notre Dame but have to say that it is difficult to imagine putting on a course there such as I taught at Rhode Island. The former is a very Roman Catholic institution and that affects how one can operate.
PK: Pornography is one of the most popular forms of sexual expression within our culture, yet it remains notoriously difficult to define. Do you try to define it in your courses?
CP: I wanted to avoid definitions. The question "what is porn?" is just not interesting. You can take a basic definition and say "explicit sexual material intended to arouse." Everybody can agree on that. People talk about porn as if it's this thing that everybody knows and recognizes. They talk about it in generalities but its only interesting when you talk about specifics. By running my course as a Film Studies course rather than a Women's Studies one and by using a "Cultural Studies" approach, I could expand the student's knowledge of what pornography is and how it figures in people's lives. I wanted to avoid the done-to-death question of whether or not it should exist. That debate is at an impasse. There is very little understanding of pornography as a genre or why it is such a popular form of popular culture yet people generalize all the time when talking about it — and sensationalize issues and images by wrenching them out of context. I also wanted to introduce students to a wide range of feminist opinions on sexuality and sexual representation.
G-JM: I used a variety of articles, especially popular media articles from different historical moments, that identify items as pornographic. This was done to see precisely how it was/is being used and to explore the usefulness of the category. This approach stops judgments being made on the basis of supposedly knowing exactly what it is, of assuming there is a static category or content.
AJ [Adrienne Jenik]: This expansive use of different definitions is useful because the current categories of porn and erotica don't make much sense, despite being used for legislative purposes. Often the differences lie in what is considered "tasteful" or artistic and the difference between erotica and pornography is best considered as a history of taste culture.
G-JM: Porn can also be seen as a history of legislation and child protection is the new specific issue through which porn is legislated in the United States.
CP: Child protection was the ostensible reason for the orchestrated letter campaign against my course. Using a definition based on "people without reason," the SBCCAP tried to construe my students as mindless impressionable children, as a category to be protected. You can imagine what the students thought of that. Becoming the target of the moral protest, which depended on their being construed as in need of protection, was an important learning experience.
AJ: Similar attacks have been made on sex education films and videos for young people. These can have drastic implications, even fatal, if people do not adequately protect themselves against HIV/AIDS.
BS: Your talk referred to the fear of pornography. Fear of the unknown is one of the barriers that people who study it may have to overcome, but how do you deal with the possibility that fear may also be part of the excitement of pornography?
CP: There are great fears of the unknown. I had students who came in spite of their fears or because they felt pornography was something they ought to know about, When I walked into the class of seventy students on the first day, what I saw was seventy terrified faces. I didn't know exactly what they thought they were going to see, but "common knowledge" told them it would be gory slasher films with explicit and violent sex.
BS: Presumably they believed, via knowledge of anti-pornography campaigns, that they were going to see women's bodies being damaged, objectified and exploited?
CP: Yes I also think they thought that somehow pornography is different from other films/videos and that they would automatically identify with "abused" woman. In fact, pornography is far more complex than that. It is able to play around with power possibly more than mainstream films. The students were surprised by the wide range of representations available of women.
AJ: As a programmer watching people view pornography, especially lesbians, I see a great deal of fear, and it is a real barrier. There is also an expectancy of something awful or embarrassing, and there is also the experience of fear and arousal together. It's the most complicated reading of an audience I've ever had. Fears get replaced by other feelings as the movie or video progresses. People get bored, excited, embarrassed, self-conscious and aroused — and all these get mixed up together. It is a very complicated parcel, one that is rarely unpacked in analysis. Confronting these mixed and often contradictory responses can be a way to deconstruct our fears and desires.
CP: The students began with a fear of the unknown, believing that they may be harmed by watching pornography; but by the end of the class they felt pornography just wasn't the bogeyman anymore. I felt it was similar to the climate of fear that children are made to live in. When I was doing research on the Challenger explosion and responses to it, I explored children's fears and looked at how they incorporated these into their everyday fantasies and nightmares. They were terrified that they were going to get kidnapped. Fear campaigns are so socially coercive. In whose interests is it to have children so afraid? In whose interests is it to have us so afraid of pornography?
PK: People express fears but what do they actually fear?
CP: Fear of finding out what their fantasies are. So many of the students have been taught that to have impure thoughts, even to touch their own bodies, is a sin. They have institutionalized guilt.
G-JM: Another fear is that of seeing lots of naked bodies and also dealing with your own in relation to them. These fears differ according to how confident you are about your own body. The other apprehensions are about seeing lots of sex up on a big screen-and again responses to that differ. The students do not necessarily make a link to their own bodies, as with other bodily genres such as horror they are able to divorce fantasy from reality, film from the everyday. It is fascinating to see what happens when the issues related to porn are brought into the classroom, an institution which creates its own semantic responses. As a class, we were doing as a group in public what most people do individually or in couples, in private. Showing porn videos at 7.30 a.m. in a group certainly changes the whole experience of porn.
AP: The fears that surround pornographic consumption are very different for women than for men. It's almost impossible as a women to go to a porn theatre by yourself. If you do, after a few minutes, angry men will come and basically assault you. When I go into stores to buy porn, there's an invisible fence around me. My presence increases the awareness of guys about why they are there, and I become increasingly aware that I am a woman. I become very aware of my body, I feel uncomfortable and have to leave. My being there challenges what porn is for men, and they have to ask what am I, a woman, getting out of it?
TABOOS: THE NATURAL, THE ARTIFICIAL AND THE AUTHENTIC
PK: If fears relate to the forbidden and/or the unknown, what are the taboos? Are there particular things which seem particularly difficult to accept?
CP: It was during the second part of my course — which dealt with contemporary uses, transformations and appropriations of pornography — that there were lots of gasps, especially from the men and especially at the first cock ring. Also at scenes of anal penetration, to say nothing of two men using an eighteen-inch double dildo. The Gay Men's Health Crisis videos try to break down taboos, they show every possible practice — every organ, every orifice, everything.
G-JM: The student's lack of knowledge about so many things related to sex is a major problem for anyone teaching a course on pornography and film because you can so easily slip into basic sex education. I was not at all prepared for the students' levels of inexperience, or lack of knowledge, of sex, sexual practices and sexuality. Yet it was crucial to talk about that.
CP: The women were generally less "squeamish" about taboo areas than men, though when we studied some videos from Blush Entertainment, some were surprised to see lesbians strapping on dildos. The rock song "Detachable Penis" and this scene brought together the realization that here is an instrument of pleasure that you can just strap on and have fun with.
BS: And as Linda Williams notes, the interesting thing about dildos is not that women put them on but that they can take them off.
G-JM: My students had similar responses, tending to get most uneasy when objects or "artificial things" like dildos or cock rings, appeared and disrupted sex's "naturalness." But this was useful as it helped us deconstruct notions of what sex is or should be.
AJ: It all shows the extent to which our desires are policed, both internally and externally. It is illegal to show fisting in a public place — actually the reference is to penetration with/by an inorganic object which, believe it or not, your finger or hand is legally construed to be.
CP: I used two versions of an Annie Sprinkle video — one the original, the other after a section was cut by order of the FBI — to raise questions of censorship, to ask, "Does the FBI really say we can't do this?"
AJ: Using the old inorganic finger again, I suppose.
PK: Do you deal with the question of whether or not there is such a thing as an authentic sexuality?
CP: Yes. This can be done by discussing Candida Royale's Femme Production videos. Royale produces sexually explicit videos for women and heterosexual couples. We also showed the Fatale videos, produced by Blush Entertainment, the production arm of On Our Backs. SUBURBAN DYKES, THE HUNGRY HEART and CLIT are interesting because they appropriate all the images and icons of mainstream pornography and in no way attempt to find an "authentic" lesbian pornography. I personally like the "let's take over all the mainstream codes and turn them around and use them how we will" attitude.
AJ: But remember that "nature" and erotica often go hand in hand in lesbian porn. There is a strong strand of filmmaking where you get lots of action in woods and tons of natural motifs.
CP: You're right. We did contrast the Fatale videos with some "softer," more romantic, and supposedly more "authentic" pieces
BS: Did the students feel comfortable watching porn videos in mixed sex groups?
CP: I had no idea what would happen. I expected a lot of discipline problems, but I have never seen such well-behaved students. They were so sensitive and accommodating of each other's ambivalences. I know from their course logs, which they had to keep, that some people felt uncomfortable and embarrassed about feeling aroused. There were some students who wished they could talk about arousal in class.
BS: The classroom brings with it myths of mastery of reason and control, the showing of pornography must make quite a challenge to those myths, how do you deal with arousal?
AJ: People will often talk about every response but sexual arousal. There are so many assumptions about what will arouse people, but the only consistent thing is that responses are not consistent. Amazing differences arise. It's one area that is totally unpredictable. Interesting things happen when I show my own work to students. It can bring to the surface new levels of embarrassment, not only because I made the films but because they are sometimes very personal. It challenges all the code of objectivist, rationalist pedagogic practice. It's hard for students to look at the tapes without thinking, "Hey that's my professor's pussy on the screen."
CP: Students came out with astonishing bits of misinformation. So many men in the class saw blow jobs as an act of sacrifice that women hated. They could not believe it could be a site for sexual fantasy and pleasure. Several men also wrote from the presumption that male sexuality is predominantly murderous to women, a position which I challenged. I told them that I didn't believe it and that there must be possibilities for change. The men also wanted to wallow in what they perceived as guilt. I found that pornographic media is the ultimate test case for all issues of sexuality and the popular. Following a discussion of SUBURBAN DYKES and HUNGRY HEARTS, one of my students noted that we go to pornographic films not to see our fantasies matched by the images on screen but to find out what our fantasies are.
BS: At a recent meeting in Britain, black feminists protested about the wearing of leather-studded collars because they represented slavery. In fact, colonialism operates as an erotic project through the commodification, and the racist hyper-sexualizing myths of black women's and men's bodies. Can you say more about the race, sexuality, gender axis that intervenes in these debates?
CP: I used as one of my texts the book Men Confront Pornography, in which men talk about their own consumption practices, how it figures in their lives, and how it affects their politics. It's not a great collection of essays but useful. The least forthcoming are the Marxists; the most engaging and poignant are the gay men who say they would not have had a sexuality had it not been for porn. There is only one essay by a black man, and he does not discuss his own consumption practices. He argues that the black community has far too many pressing problems to be bothered with pornography. The problems referred to are undoubtedly serious, but the essay, in the end, is an evasion. The problem is that there is so little written and made. I used the book How Do I Look? which includes Richard Fung's essay on Asian gay men, but I had to go into adult video stores to pick out material on inter-racial couples in order to raise certain issues about race, gender and sexuality.
BS: One of the central problems with the traditional view of pornography, as Pratibha Parmar has pointed out, is that it assumes that all women's experiences of pornography will be the same. One only needs to look at the work of Angela Davis to show how the term "rape" was mobilized in very different ways by black and white men. She also demonstrates how black female sexuality is constructed from far more than pornography.
AJ: The hyper-sexualization of black women is a big issue for me as a maker. It's a huge problem in pornography. When I watch mainstream commercial porn, I deal with the images of black women by fast-forwarding past the sections on black women because I know the images will raise problems for me. I made WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A YAM AND A SWEET POTATO (with J. Evans Dunlop) in an attempt to deal with the problematic representation of black women but also to deal with black-white desire and my own feelings about that. There's a black lesbian 'zine called Black Lace which attempts through writing, photography etc. to deal with this — but they get a lot of heat from the African American community and from white lesbians.
PK: Did you and the various students share a common language with which you could discuss sex and sexuality?
CP: We spent the first week moving between colloquial and medicalized discourse, uncertain of what fit in the academic situation. After a week we all used colloquial language.
G-JM: After we were comfortable with each other, we used the colloquial. If students feel safe in a classroom, the issue of terminology can be openly discussed. In real life nobody ever calls things by their Latin or anatomical names. Some words were common across groups, others very culture, age, gender, race specific.
BS: By teaching the courses have you given women a greater ability to speak about their sexuality? If so, how do they articulate that? Some Black female rappers have been criticized for using what is said to be pornographic language. As the argument goes, that language has been constructed by men for men and therefore does not allow women to express their sexuality.
AJ: The discussion of pornography is one of the few places where such questions can be addressed. Debates about discourses of sexuality take place when one is making, screening or programming pornography, and these debates become both more specific and more expansive because there are objects and images to be looked at and considered. We need to admit that such detailed discussions of sexuality, of fantasies and desires, do not just pop-up "naturally" amongst women and that feminists talk about sexuality much less readily than is assumed. Pornographic films lead women to think in completely different ways about what they like and what they don't like.
Making pornographic films, or thinking about making one, is a tremendous instrument for change. Porn language, especially in straight lesbian porn (as opposed to sadomasochistic porn), is expanding and expansive at the moment it makes you think about your body and its pasts in new ways and through new terms. Terms like hot pink love button, pussages or cunt flick might seem silly or might seem great, but they stir you to think of your own terms. We too often accept given terms and have no place or space to find others.
PK: You've reminded me of the pleasures of discovering the term "button" in The Color Purple. There is a strong connection between word and image, between image and fantasy. Button was such a different word from clitoris that it immediately brought forth a host of new images, new practices and new fantasies.
AJ: Like "pushing the pebble" now. What you say about the connection with the visual is so important. In SCREAM BOX we put out a call for a "better, more expansive" vocabulary and received some amazing responses. Cunt and other words are so heavy in sound and feel, as well as so loaded, that we need other terms, then we can see other images.
G-JM: As creative artists and designers, all members of my class were interested in producing images and objects. But it was only the women who felt confident within that context to play with pornographic images and produce pornographic videos, paintings and other art forms. One produced a brilliant porn puppet show.
CP: That point brings us back nicely to the popular. There is some exciting work at present around comic book aesthetics and pornography. Another revelation when studying porn is the amount of humor — from terrible bad punning to more complicated stuff. It is another important part of pornographic film which is often ignored. Linda William's research suggests that rather than becoming more violent, contemporary pornography is becoming more knowing, ironic and humorous.