It’s a $13 billion industry, banking more than Microsoft and Google combined. As The Smoking Jacket.com illustrated in an infographic, any given second, 30,000 people are watching pornography online and every 30 minutes an adult film is produced in the US. It’s facts such as these that indicate that the stakes involved in the American porn industry have long surpassed the traditional moral debates about pornography’s effect on America’s youth or the sexual objectification of women.
Men in porn films are living the dream and beam with self-confidence, women in porn films are repressed and suffering from low self-esteem. At least, that’s what most media portrayals of pornography (especially the anti-porno ones) would like us to believe. Not that they discuss the men: narratives of sex on film are almost exclusively centered on the role of the woman, and the long-lasting negative effects that employment in the industry supposedly has on them.
Two of the most popular films that focus on the lives of ex porn stars are 2004’s The Girl Next Door and this year’s Meet Monica Velour, and both fall victim to some of the main tropes surrounding pornography. They demonstrate that mainstream representation of pornography, even in a society where sex proliferates in all segments, is still surprisingly one-sided and inconsistent with counter-narratives offered by industry insiders themselves.
The Pornification of Society
Before it’s possible to understand why the mainstream treatment of pornography is still generally negative, let’s look at the state of things in society as a whole: as Linda Kipnis observed in her critically acclaimed book, Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America, the explicitness of culture as a whole makes “the distinctions between the pornographic and the nonpornographic harder to maintain, if they were ever tenable at all” (viii). In other words, there are similarities between the mainstream and the subculture that should be of interest to cultural critics, as they reveal an underlying preoccupation with fantasies of class, gender, race, sexuality, etc, and escapism of all these markers.
In their astonishingly unscholarly- written book The Porning of America, Elizabethtown-professor Carmine Sarracino and Albany State University-professor Kevin M. Scott echo Kipnis’s sentiment, and advance that “it’s not so much that porn has become mainstream, but that the mainstream has become porned” (xii). They assert that one’s first exposure to porn is on average at 11 years old, but the existence of a thong-selection for preteens at stores such as Abercrombie & Fitch and dolls such as the Bratz who “look remarkably like prostitutes” ensure that most children are conditioned into a sexualized society long before that (vii). That is where the real problem lies: such products of culture are only one of the many, and least frequent, introductions many receive into the hypersexual environment of their culture. Sarracino and Scott are proponents of pornography, so long as it’s kept in its confined space, and credit Madonna with mainstreaming sex and what they call “slutwear:” especially after her photographic exposé, Sex (92).
Indeed, sex is everywhere in a range of mainstream cultural products, and certain types are even more bankable than others. Homosexuality, especially girl-on-girl, has made at least some sort of appearance in most major television shows (Desperate Housewives, Glee, Pretty Little Liars, House, 90210, Modern Family, The O.C., Grey’s Anatomy, numerous soap operas). Often this leads to accusations of easy profit-seeking, even critically acclaimed films such as Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan have been accused of featuring a lesbian scene with the intent to attract a male audience that might not otherwise go to see this film.
Now that sex, the act, can be seen everywhere outside of one’s private bedroom, so to speak, actors that had previously been exclusively working in porn are crossing over into mainstream media; Sasha Grey, who started filming when she was just 18 and is an ardent spokeswoman for the positive influences of pornography on young women, has starred in AMC’ Entourage and films such as The Girlfriend Experience. Jenna Jameson and Rilo Kiley have also been widely featured, albeit in more risqué films such as Zombie Strippers and Piranha.
Questions of power and control unavoidably tie into this. If Camille Paglia can hail Madonna as “finally a real feminist” in The New York Times because ‘Miss M” can appropriate sexual acts and images in order to subvert objectification and a submissive role—and this is why critics Sarracino and Scott call Madonna a “postfeminist”— then Jenna Jameson deserves this ‘title’, too. Jameson currently presides over a business empire worth millions, and has made clear her subsequent feeling of independence and autonomy. Sasha Grey also made a conscious choice to enter the business, and remains firmly in control of her own career. Jameson and Grey thus are light years away from earlier generations of adult starts, such as Deep Throat’s Linda Lovelace, who often expressed deep regret later and felt they were victims of coercion rather than agents of their careers.
The Girl Next Door
The Girl Next Door, directed by Luke Greenfield, is the epitome of (male) fantasy about the adult industry on the one hand, and a reinforcement of the stereotype of the industry’s exploitative stance towards women as objects, on the other. Roger Ebert famously bashed the movie as “a nasty piece of business, involving a romance between a teenage porn actress and a high school senior.” (“The Girl Next Door”, Chicago Sun-Times, 9 April 2004.) In fact, the relationship is completely legal, as both are of legal age for consensual adults (he is 18; she is 19).
Matthew (Emile Hirsch) is a high school senior who dreams of becoming the next JFK. He’s successful at school, but his function of student body president doesn’t exactly make him one of the popular crowd, and he’s envious of his classmates who are able to choose the beach over classes without fear of repercussion. His two best friends Klitz (Paul Dano), a groovy looking nerd, and Eli, a porn-obsessed aspiring film director, complete “the tripod”, an updated version of the three musketeers-bromance.
When Danielle (Elisha Cuthbert) moves in next door, Matt has found his way to a more exciting life. Eli is the direct expression of unrealistic expectations about sex, and he watches porn every minute of his free time. His ideas of what it means to be a man are clearly shaped by his one-sided source of information. When Matt calls him to tell about the girl next door, he responds in a rather crude way:
Eli: “So did you bang her? That’s what a man does, okay.”
Matt: “She’s so unbelievably beautiful, who is this girl?”
Eli: “How’s the rack? How’s the rack?”
Matt: “Relax man.”
Eli: “I’m not gonna relax, you be a man and go over there.”
When Matthew and his friends find out that Danielle is a porn actress, Ebert writes that “The movie seems to think, along with Matthew’s friends, that this information is in her favor.” Of course Eli’s hailing of Danielle as a dream come true is expressive of a dominant teenage male fantasy, but there’s no particular reason why these young me should have responded in a more negative way. After all, as Kipnis so poignantly put it, “Who’s to say whether performing sexual labor is a worse or more dehumanizing job than manual labor or service-industry labor or working on an assembly line or waitressing, other than the person doing it? And let’s not get too romantic about how much choice the labor market allows anyone, or how great working conditions are across the board” (xi).
Instead of an exploited victim, Danielle could simply have been doing the math by deciding that pornography was the most lucrative career choice available to her. There’s nothing inherently negative about working in the porn industry.
The final proof that Ebert’s review was colored by his own moral appraisal of the subject became clear when he wrote that “To act in porn as a teenager is not a decision freely taken by most teenage girls, and not a life to envy.” But real life examples as mentioned before have proven otherwise. There’s nothing to point to that calls for such a generalization, yet it’s exactly the line of argument that the film takes, and its portrayal of pornography is not at all as unequivocally glamorous as some reviews made it out to be. Danielle hints at her uneasiness with her own past when Matt confronts her, and says “you think it’s easy?” before choking up and ending the conversation. The viewer is left with the feeling that some sort of abuse must have pushed her into the industry, or at least that going in to that line of work wasn’t a matter of free will.