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Everyday Pornographies: Pornification and Commercial Sex

There is a prevailing trend in both popular and academic writing on


pornography to map what has been labelled the “pornification” or
“pornographication” of the mainstream – that is, the ways in which
the aesthetics and explicitness of pornography infiltrate mainstream
culture. At its most useful (such as in the work of Gail Dines and
colleagues) such work enables us to identify and understand a
pornographic continuum and examine how mainstream stories
about sex are being filtered through a pornographic lens. However, I
have been thinking recently about what is lost – politically and
intellectually – in this emphasis on the ubiquity rather than
specificity of porn.

In reflecting on ‘everyday’ pornography in this paper, I want to think


about the ‘everyday’ in two distinct - but I hope, politically and
intellectually connected – ways. First, I will argue that framing
pornography’s ‘everyday” or dominant form as a form of
commercial sex is a useful political strategy that allows us to re-
engage with feminist analyses of porn as a practice rather than
simply a text. Second, I want to think about pornography as a
represented object within the mainstream, specifically in factual
television. In doing so, I am not concerned with how such
representations blur boundaries but rather with the kinds of stories
about porn as a distinct category that emerge in these “everyday”
(ie non-subscription, non-specialist) contexts. This is consistent with
an approach to pornography as a form of commercial sex in ways I
will discuss.

Pornography as commercial sex

Talking about pornography as commercial sex is somewhat at odds


with the widespread academic interest in pornification. Linda
Williams’ 2004 volume Porn Studies, like many other contemporary
accounts of pornography, is interested in its boundaries and the
ways in which the pornographic infiltrates non-pornographic
spaces.1 As such, the objects of analysis in this book are not
necessarily made, sold or consumed as pornography and a wide
range of texts are discussed as pornography in this context and
porn’s relationships to more (or less) ‘legitimate’ modes of popular
culture (comics, avant-garde films, current affairs reporting) are
detailed. As a result, we might be left wondering what, if anything, is
distinct about pornography.

Further, there is little consideration in this volume of porn’s own


‘mainstream’ (that is, commercially produced sexually explicit

1
A more detailed critique of Linda Williams’ Porn Studies can be found in my
article “The Boundaries of Porn Studies.” New Review of Film & Television Studies,
4 (1), pp.1-16 (2006).
material aimed at heterosexual men). Yet, in her introduction
Williams makes the case for taking pornography seriously by
focusing on the scale and reach of a defined commercial porn
industry:

“To me, the most eye-opening statistic is the following:


Hollywood makes approximately 400 films a year, while the porn
industry now makes from 10,000 to 11,000. Seven hundred
million porn videos or DVDs are rented each year. Even allowing
for the fact that fewer viewers see any single work and that these
videos repeat themselves even more shamelessly than
Hollywood […] this is a mind boggling figure. Pornography
revenues— which can broadly be construed to include
magazines, Internet Web sites, cable, in-room hotel movies, and
sex toys—total between 10 and 14 billion dollars annually. This
figure as New York Times critic Frank Rich has noted, is not only
bigger than movie revenues; it is bigger than professional
football, basketball and baseball put together. With figures like
these, Rich argues, pornography is no longer a ‘sideshow’ but
‘the main event’.” (Williams, 2004: 12)

This is inconsistent with the book’s emphasis on porn’s more


marginal forms and its traces within non-pornographic culture.
Taking Porn Studies as an example of contemporary ‘porn studies,
the ‘soft’ or the ‘marginal’ has taken centre stage in academic
accounts. As I have argued elsewhere, this makes it fairly
straightforward for Williams to argue that debates about sexual
politics and inequality are no longer key.

Partly, this is an issue of methodology. Despite the frequent use of


statistics which map the scale and reach of the commercial sex
industry, much recent work on pornography and the “pornification”
of mainstream culture has been text-based. From Linda Williams’
Hard Core onwards, porn studies began to find a disciplinary home
in film studies (albeit, largely in select and liberal US universities)
and as part of the film studies’ list of major publishers. What is often
lost with this move is any analysis of pornography’s existence in the
world – its production and consumption contexts, the laws governing
its distribution and exhibition, its role in sexual inequality.

Which is why I want to argue against the prevailing trend for the
importance of maintaining the distinction between hard core
pornography and its mainstream referents, citations and copies and
I have found it most useful to do this by considering pornography as
a form of commercial sex. In commercial sex, sexual acts are
performed by real human beings for the (usually sexual) pleasure of
a paying third party. It depends upon a sexual transaction, on there
being a group of people who are willing to buy access to the bodies
of another group of people for their own sexual gratification. In
pornography, customer and performer do not necessarily interact,
but the performer’s body is still real and (like the body of the
prostitute) is really involved in the sexual acts constructed for the
sexual pleasure of this third party (which is not to argue that they
‘really’ experience those acts as shown on screen). If we locate our
study of pornography within a broader study of the sexualisation of
culture then the danger is that the specifics of this transaction are
obscured. To give one further example of this from Porn Studies, in
Williams’ description of pornographic revenue, she tags “sex toys”
on at the end of a list of pornographic products. Sex toys may well
be profitable business for porn companies, but they function here as
a kind of alibi which diverts our attention away from the specifics of
the pornographic transaction. Buying or using a vibrator is not the
same thing as buying or consuming pornography. One activity
depends upon the use of the bodies of other human beings, the
other does not. The casual equation of these activities seems to me
to be a way of making commercial sex appear less misogynistic by
suggesting that women are also consumers, ignoring the fact that
what is being sold to women – whether in the form of sex toys or
pole-dance classes – is something for their own bodies and not
sexual access to the bodies of others.

Representations of commercial sex 2


The work I have been doing most recently on television
representations of pornography and other forms of commercial sex
may seem to sit rather uneasily with my insistence on the
importance of maintaining a distinction between ‘pornography’ (as a
practice of commercial sex) and other sexualised representations
and practices. So it’s important to reiterate that I am not interested
in programmes such as Porno Valley, Porn: A Family Business,
Cathouse, The Girls of the Playboy Mansion or Personal Services as
examples of the proliferation and transformation of commercial sex,
rather I am interested in what these programmes have to say about
pornography (and, relatedly, prostitution) as a distinct category. By
thinking about pornography at one remove – as represented rather
than as a representation – it is possible to get beyond the textual
impasse of much contemporary academic work on pornography as
what is being represented is not the text of pornography (which
cannot be shown on British television) but, more commonly, aspects
of its industrial practice.

2
A more detailed account of this research can be found in my “Courting
Consumers and Legitimating Exploitation: The Representation of Commercial Sex
in Television Documentaries.” Feminist Media Studies, 8 (1), pp.35-50 (2008); and
“The Dark Side of Hard Core: Critical Documentaries on the Sex Industry”. In: Kerr,
D. & Hines, C. (eds) Hard to Swallow: Reading Pornography on Screen, London:
Wallflower (2008/09 forthcoming).
The first thing that is apparent about representations of commercial
sex on television is that the focus is almost exclusively on the
women who “sell” sex. While women’s testimony was indeed an
important aspect of early feminist work, more recently testimonies
of individual women who are pro- or anti-commercial sex have
tended to be pitted against one another and the women themselves
judged as in/authentic. This is where engaging with these
arguments at one remove – by focusing on television representation
– can be useful. Examining these testimonies in the context of an
analysis of television, allows us to unpick their generic qualities and
highlight how they function. That is, it’s not about accepting or
questioning the truth of individual women (or men), but of thinking
about how their stories are used in particular ways. This is also why I
am leaning towards the term “commercial sex” rather than
“commercial sexual exploitation”, as my experience has been that
the term ‘exploitation’ seems to invite questions/ comments that
further scrutinise the woman and not the industry. In contrast – and
in line with recent feminist campaigns around prostitution in
particular – my analysis is less concerned with the women as
individuals or even as a “class” but rather with pornography as an
industry which depends upon its male consumers and on gendered
inequality.

To be clear, the television programmes I’ve been looking at do not


themselves present such a feminist analysis, but they do provide a
space for the porn industry to talk about itself and we can learn a lot
about what the industry thinks its public wants through what its
representatives are prepared to say in public. And what is
immediately striking about this for anyone versed in the arguments
of the anti-porn movement is the extent to which there is an explicit
acknowledgement of the harm of pornography. Porn personnel often
delight in detailing the degrading content of their product (including
in scenes of sexual violence), and it is frequently acknowledged that
the repeated performance of sexual scenes can be painful, difficult
or damaging for the performers. The short shelf-life of performers
within the industry is openly acknowledged and it is accepted that
this leads many performers into more and more extreme acts.

What distinguishes these accounts from those most often cited in


radical feminist writing of the 1980s is that these are from people
who are still connected with the industry. The candid comments of
contemporary porn personnel suggest that in the contemporary
landscape tales of abuse do nothing to damage the “product” and
may even enhance its value. There is a disturbing pornographic
doublespeak at play here - male producers describe time and time
again how dirty, filthy, disgusting women are degraded, abused,
humiliated and hurt in their films: but they call it sex. This
pornographic doublespeak makes critiques of the industry extremely
difficult as there is no language that has not been colonised and
rebranded as sex (something Andrea Dworkin well understood).

Obviously, we have to be cautious about accepting any of these


accounts at face value and that is not my point. Rather, I focus on
the way that violence, degradation and abuse of women is part of
the story of commercial sex as it is told to present and future
consumers. This isn’t the extreme, the unusual but part of porn’s
everyday and its marketing strategy. And it is in this way that I want
to argue that studying pornography’s crossover into the mainstream
can be part and parcel of the project of studying pornography’s
everyday.

Dr Karen Boyle, Senior Lecturer in Film & Television Studies,


University of Glasgow, Gilmorehill Centre, G12 8QQ.
K.Boyle@tfts.arts.gla.ac.uk