Thursday, 6 November 2008

Sex and the Slutmaster

As one of my regular Heretics remarked, Manuelgate encapsulates so many of the themes this blog has been pursuing this past year and a bit that I might have orchestrated it myself. Apart from the tittle-tattle, and the debate around the role of the BBC in shaping national standards of taste and decency, the workings of the media industry, the Goth scene that James was exploring (in a quite different context) the other day, the "blasphemy" implied in the name Satanic Sluts, even a bizarre and improbable connection with the Max Mosley saga that occupied the Heresiarch so much earlier this year, the story also brings to mind the present government's attitude to porn and, more broadly, to sexuality as evidenced in its Extreme Porn Ban.

I was first alerted to this (courtesy of CAAN's indefatigable Clair Lewis) by the borderline extreme nature of some of the photographs in which Miss Baillie appears, one of which briefly appeared on the Daily Mail website. Possibly the strongest of these (it wasn't in the Mail) featured Georgie in a bath of fake blood, naked, her carotid artery apparently severed by a kitchen knife held by another naked woman lying in the same bath. She didn't look particularly dead, though: so it might pass the "explicit and realistic" test set out in the Act. Be that as it may, the links between Manuelgate and the current porn debate are deep and fascinating yet have been relatively little explored.

The mastermind and impressario behind the Satanic Sluts is the avant-garde filmmaker and erotic horror importer Nigel Wingrove. Wingrove in fact has a long history of involvement in censorship controversies of one sort or another. His 1989 short Visions of Ecstasy was the last work to be banned by the BBFC on the grounds of potential blasphemy - a ban upheld in a famous test case by the European Court of Human Rights in 1996, but now presumably consigned to history along with the law of blasphemy. A later production of his, Sacred Flesh (1998) was described by Dr Linda Williams (a.k.a. Mrs Mark Kermode) as being "replete with deranged nymphets tearing off their habits and lasciviously mounting giant crosses, its overwrought screenplay fleshed out by a range of underwrought acting styles."

In 2000, The Independent called Wingrove "an unlikely champion of liberal causes". By contrast, Stephen Green of Christian Voice urged his followers earlier this year to pray "that his troubled soul will find rest in the Lord Jesus Christ." Don't make the mistake of visiting his website, Green warned: "This is truly another world which should not exist in a civilised nation."

In the mid 1990s, Wingrove was one of the first importers to take advantage of Michael Howard's new liberal approach to hardcore porn (yes, you read that right) after the Tory Home Secretary gave the green light to the BBFC to pass scenes of basic intercourse uncut. The theory, as the former BBFC director James Ferman told Panorama, was to "draw the line between sexual portrayals which are simply within the range of normal sexual practice and sexual portrayals which are degrading particularly bestiality or lavatorial practices or whatever, or force, or violence or restraint". Ban everthing, he argued, and you just drive it underground where "inevitably it will be mixed up with other criminal kinds of representations which involve torture and degradation."

John Ware, the presenter of that 1998 edition of Panorama, entitled Porn Wars (here's a full transcript), described the relaxation of the previous ban on all hardcore porn as "one of the last Tory government's best-kept secrets". They didn't even tell the police, who raided Wingrove's distribution centre while he was promoting his wares at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival. When he protested that the material they had seized was fine by the BBFC the vice squad retorted that in that case they'd have to raid the censors. It all came down to how you interpreted the 1959 Obscene Publications Act, which outlaws anything tending to deprave and corrupt. As the great John Mortimer QC told the programme, prosecutions have not always been trouble-free since "it’s very difficult to find anyone who's actually come forward and said they’ve been depraved and corrupted".

The incoming Labour Home Secretary, in an early indication of the new government's moralising tone, was outraged when he found out what the BBFC had been up to, describing Ferman's attempt to distinguish standard porn fare from the extreme variety as "circular and risible". Which is an interesting statement, given the legislative contortions recently perfomed by the government as it tried to do precisely that. He claimed and suggested that allowing any hardcore pornography would lead to "a much greater likelihood that more extreme material would take its place."

What finally did for the attempt to keep out porn, of course, was the Web. The Home Office finally gave up the fight under David Blunkett, and today the BBFC scrutinises hundreds of porn videos each year. Their guidelines ban, besides the obvious no-nos of child porn and bestiality, depictions of rape and sexual violence, the infliction of pain (with the possible exception of "mild consensual activity"), "penetration by any object likely to cause actual harm or associated with violence", and "any sexual threats, humiliation or abuse" - which is "likely" to be cut even if clearly consensual. To take an example, Anna Span's 2006 film Hug a Hoodie - a satirical work which consisted of sexual scenes filmed on a housing estate - was cut (says the BBFC) "to remove vaginal penetration with a hand and a foot."

Such a policy would seem in line with Ferman's stated aims of more than a decade ago. Then, to judge by the Panorama film, the authorities were as alarmed as they are today by the more extreme end of the market, although in those days the concern was with under-the-counter material stuffed into plain brown envelopes and sold in (often) illegal and unlicensed sex shops. Despite Straw's objections, the police rarely bothered prosecuting videos showing consensual sex. The programme interviewed Chief Inspector Martin Jauch of the Met's Clubs and Vice department - based in Charing Cross - who summed up the cops' priorities:

For most people pornography is..tits and bums and it’s not, the material that we deal with is an ocean away from that. It includes the most revolting sorts of torture, of coercion, of exploitation of both sexes. It’s material that I think most people haven’t got the remotest idea even exists.

Yet even "extreme" material didn't always make the grade. Jauch described his frustration with the OPA and the way some juries interpreted it. One particular tape he had seen involved the insertion of a fire extinguisher into a body orifice. In his view,

It was quite outrageous, it was degrading, it was really beyond anybody’s experience and that was found to be not obscene, it makes you wonder if they’ll find some of this material to be not obscene, then what will they find to be obscene.

Fast forward a decade, and you don't need to bother with underground networks or even pay-per-view websites. Today Fleshbot, a site owned by, and openly linked to from, the popular New York-based political and media gossip blog Gawker, offers hardcore porn without even the interposition of an age-confirmation screen. Just last week it offered online readers "Extreme Halloween with Belladonna". Said the none-too-explicit text:

Have you picked out your Halloween costume yet? We're still working out the details on ours, but we think we're going to go as Belladonna. It's a pretty easy costume—just get a black wig, paint on some tattoos, and carry around a baseball bat... wait, you didn't get that last part? Um, maybe you should just watch this video then. (And Happy Halloween!)

This playful introduction led into video footage in which a full-sized baseball bat was inserted (big end first) some distance up the rectal passage of a young female performer (presumably "Belladonna"). It's most unlikely that such a scene would have been passed by the BBFC, and it seems certain to fall foul of the CJIA ban on depictions of "injury or threat of injury to the anus." Yet here it is for ten or twelve year-olds to look at.

There are signs that even the sybaritic Nigel Wingrove - who deals in (and produces) some pretty hardcore stuff himself - has concerns about the current easy availability of extreme porn. Writing on his blog a few days before Manuelgate brought the Satanic Sluts to wider public attention, he described a typical day at the office. His muse Kelly Lyne (nom de slut: Sabrina Sixx - she can be seen romping with Georgina Baillie in a clip from the cable "reality show" Slut House, courtesy of the News of the World) was busy uploading trailers for a new internet shop.

She commented on the extreme grossness of some of the footage, possibly a gaping arsehole oozing cum or something equally delightful had caught her attention. This was not inspired by prudery or timidity on Kelly's part and neither were these titles 'extreme' in the porn sense of the word as they were all in fact trailers for titles produced by the highly regarded and mainstream UK adult company Harmony.

Wingrove took this incident as a starting point for a meditation of the changing nature of porn, and the ratchet effect whereby what is at first outrageously far out soon becomes commonplace:

For now, gaping arseholes sell so gaping is good, so is seeing women's faces covered in spunk as umpteen men stand around her and masturbate, their aim to get as much spunk as possible onto her face, for extra effect her eyes and mouth are often held open to increase her discomfort, in some films the men piss on her and into her mouth just in case the film's misogynistic fervor was in danger of passing the viewer by. Also popular in the current new wave of porn is the introduction of vomit, this is favoured by the likes of Max Hardcore and his ilk and is where men force their cocks or hands so far down a women's throat that she throws up! This is highly erotic of course, as is shoving lit cigars and various large objects into women's vaginas and anuses, double vaginal penetration, double anal and spitting into their eyes are also popular modern seduction techniques.

Max Hardcore, a notorious American pornographer (real name Paul Little), was recently convicted by a court in Florida for distributing obscene material and sentenced to almost four years in jail. During his trial, many of his regular performers turned up in court to testify as to the thoroughly consensual nature of the film-making process. Others, though, have described very young girls - barely 18 - being "persuaded" to participate in extreme and disgusting acts. The popularity of his product certainly demonstrates the jading nature of much contemporary porn whose consumers, like junkies, need progressively greater fixes. As Wingrove puts it, "constant exposure to something one desires necessitates constantly upping the ante." The internet sex shop, he writes, is "the Disneyland of pornography" where "every perversion, every possible function of the human body and every fetish ever conceived or imagined can now be accessed in minutes, day in, day out." And by children and teenagers as well as by adults.

The pursuit of pornographic extremes recalls the Roman Colosseum, where audiences fed up with watching the usual gladiators slugging it out were offered women, or dwarves, or blind men fighting ostriches. It also mirrors the descent into an abyss of tastelessness of more mainstream culture, where each series of Big Brother introduces more uninhibited or damaged personalities and the contestants on I'm A Celebrity... are subjected in the name of mass entertainment to a theatre of cruelty. And submit, because the exposure helps their careers. An interesting question thus emerges: is porn becoming ever more extreme because that tendency is in the nature of porn, or because that tendency is in the nature of modern society?

Porn can of course be a valuable educational tool for teenagers, who now come to sex far more knowledgeable and proficient than they ever used to. For adults in committed relationships it can provide an enriching source of fantasy and inspiration, opening previously unimagined horizons and enabling communication between partners. It can even save marriages. But it has a distorting effect. It can encourage premature sexual experimentation. It projects unattainable ideals (or unnatural norms) of bodily perfection, pubic topiary and (for boys) penis size. Girls feel the need to perform deep-throating or submit to anal sex: boys come to think that the natural conclusion to a bout of lovemaking is to ejaculate in their partner's face. It is deforming, perhaps dehumanising. Long term, the social and sexual effects of a generation reared on hardcore porn are difficult to gauge. This is an experiment that has escaped the laboratory.

I have previously criticised the current government's decision to ban possession of extreme pornography, which strikes me as being ill-judged and badly-drafted. It is based on the dubious proposition that a taste for violent or sadomasochistic porn indicates a propensity for violence, or encourages its viewers to commit acts of violence. Often, the opposite is true. Individuals attracted to the darker or more unconventional side of human sexuality are typically seeking fantasy, exploring their desires in a safe and controlled environment. In their day to day lives they tend to be well-balanced and successful. Whether by accident or design, the new measures target - and may jeopardise the livelihood or even liberty of - an entirely inoffensive and law-abiding part of the community.

The government, moreover, seems determined to return to the days of pre-internet border control, when Britain stood unique in the western world in its aversion to even the mildest porn. It appears driven by a combination of neo-Victorian religious moralism (can it be a coincidence that New Labour has also presided over a rapid expansion of faith schools and various "faith-based" initiatives?) and feminist dogma which sees all pornography as inherently exploitative and degrading to (and objectifying of) women. Jack Straw's instinctive revulsion at the very idea even of adults being able to watch consensual and no-frills intercourse suggests that the ban on "extreme porn" is only the beginning.

Yet there's a big difference, surely, between permitting informed adults, whose tastes tend that way, to receive and enjoy material which the majority would consider extreme or outrageous, and a situation in which such disturbing material can be accessed anywhere, at any time, by anyone, sometimes without any warning. The problem has only just begun to attract the serious attention of lawmakers, but in this area as in others the days of the internet free-for-all may well be numbered. History moves in cycles, as the licence of one era provokes a reaction in the direction of repression and moralistic control. I sense such a flipover may be upon us.


Anonny Mouse said...

Hmm. This question needs to be faced with another question: How much pain and suffering that is caused by consensual acts of pornography is the freedom to act in a non-violent way, in the watching of such porn, worth?

I can understand banning the production of such pornography. I wouldn't necessarily agree or disagree with it, but I can understand it. I am worried that there is an instinctive reaction to bring the legislature to bear on any question. I am worried that judgment is being exercised based on feelings, rather than logic. I am worried that, slowly, freedom is being eroded, all for the best possible cause, resulting in a stale, stagnant society that lacks the warmth that friction brings. Monocultures are dangerous, hideous things, and we slowly seem to be moving towards one, riding a wave of revulsion.

My gut instinct, therefore, has to be that the very act of banning something is wrong. My problem with your articles is that I need to think about the point before replying, and so rarely do! But here, I think that it is hard to justify calling for a ban, without first attempting to quantify just how much people's behaviour is determined by the things that they watch, often in secret.

valdemar said...

A well-balanced post on an issue that sends our supposed moral guardians off the deep end. A lot of stuff is indeed shocking - I recoil from it whenever I stumble across extreme material looking for, well, never you mind, I'm perfectly normal etc. But I've never felt the urge to ban the sort of porn that I wish didn't exist. I try to forget it's there, to be honest, until my next 'misclick' occurs. Does that make me depraved? Stupid? Amoral? All of the above? Or just liberal enough to recognise that it takes all sorts?

I've noticed on some 'classier' porn sites concern among commenters about unprotected sex, especially when it features women from poorer countries like Thailand. Basically, they make good money for risking HIV infection. That seems to me a more serious moral concern than fake mutilations or, ahem, maximum insertions.

septicisle said...

valdemar: That wouldn't presumably involve the American pornography industry, where if you don't have a clean HIV test you simply don't work. This has only failed once since it was implemented, and further reforms were then put in place. The American industry is for the most part remarkably self-regulating; Max Hardcore for his part was mostly hated within it, not because he broke the rules but because of how he stretched them, and most of his material is deeply unpleasant, although there certainly are those that enjoy it.

The Heresiarch said...

"Mr Mouse" asks an interesting question. And I'm not too sure about the answer, which is why this article didn't draw any firm conclusions. Instinctively I'm opposed to censorship of any kind; but I can't help thinking that people who for perfectly legitimate reasons want to watch pornographic material of an "extreme", or even perhaps of a "normal" kind, ought to be put to some trouble and expense in the process. The ready availability of hardcore material is cheapening and coarsening the whole of society, and its long-term effects on children exposed to it are unquantifiable and frightening. The Fleshbot example is telling. I found it, not because I was looking for porn (even for research purposes) but because I read Gawker for the US political gossip, and just clicked on the permanent link. There was no warning that the site was explicit: and in the sidebar there's a small message that says "If you are under 18, leave this site now!", which is hardly likely to deter anyone.

The porn industry likes to project an image of guilt-free, happy, well-adjusted successful pornstars; and in some cases, that may be true. But anyone who has explored the subject in any detail knows, or ought to know, that the Jenna Jamesons and Nina Hartleys sit at the summit of a fiercely Darwinian, amoral industry littered with the corpses (literally, sometimes) of trashed lives, drug addiction, misery, women (and men) with appalling self-esteem, often from backgrounds of abuse. For every successful "contract star" there will be hundreds of wannabes who end up working with Max Hardcore out of sheer desperation.

Then there is the social impact of all this porn. To say, as the feminists do, that it objectifies or degrades women, or appeals to misogyny, misses the point spectacularly: what it objectifies and degrades is humanity, sexuality, relationships. Its performers are reduced to their body parts and a limited repertoire of clich├ęd actions and responses. It projects a fantasy world in which any action performed on a (usually female) body, however bizarre or in theory hazardous, produces oohs and aahs of orgasmic bliss. There's also the circus element to which I alluded. Watching a girl having a baseball bat inserted up her bum is hardly an erotically arousing experience: but there's a definite freakshow wonderment that such a thing is even possible.

Porn is, as I said, "savagely Darwinian", in that the industry is brutally competitive. It's also "Darwinianly" Darwinian: it produces almost infinite variations, any possible niche will be found, colonised and produce its own struggle for survival. Perhaps there will be a whole new genre of baseball-bat porn. Perhaps there is already. It reminds me of the diabolical ingenuity of which nature is capable, as evidenced in the life-cycle of one of those nasty parasitic wasps.

Anonymous said...

Slightly OT for this thread, but if i put it on an earlier one, it would get missed. I have just about choked with rage on reading this....

The sheer hypocrisy gave me a bilious attack. We are sliding into a totalitarianism and wave of personal repression that will exceed that of anything Eastern Europe had to offer, and these people are dragging us there at breakneck speed. I never ever thought that I would see a Labour Government, tacitly working hand in glove with a reactionary edifice like the DM, to so rapidly destroy the liberal social fabric that this country has built up over decades.

I can't wait to see what they print when Harridan's 'men paying for sex' legislation hits the streets. Another victory for equality, that will should go a long way to increasing the reported number of sexless men to match that of the number of women

I had hoped that Max M's European case might put these people in their place, but I fear that all it will do is provide the nomenklatura, because that's what these swine have become, with a nice layer of protection, and the rest of us will be left to rot

Please forgive me if my irritation is showing.

The Heresiarch said...

Not at all, but it would be nice to have some sort of name/pseudonym/assumed identity.

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