Exploitation, or Explanation?: Graphic Sexual Horror

The word “pornography” is such a lightning rod, a phrase, facet, and concept open to mis- and reinterpretation that it’s almost impossible to talk about in a calm and considered manner. From the Puritanical point of view that argues for our status as “One Nation Under God” to the complicated questions of exploitation, compensation, and criminality, one has to tread tenuously less their intention be seen as outrageous or adding fuel to an already raging inferno. So when documentary filmmakers Anna Lorentzon and Barbara Bell decided to examine the extreme bondage website Insex.com, they understood the inherent contradictions in their story – and their source. Focusing on a former Carnegie-Mellon University professor who took his fascination with all things fetish to mesmerizing, nauseating heights, they wanted to show the art, and atrocity, of mixing pleasure and pain – sometimes, violently.

Thus we come to Graphic Sexual Horror (the title taken from the intro/warning page of the former web locale) expecting both shock and sensibility. We anticipate being repulsed but at the same time reassured that what we are seeing is a situation between consenting adults well paid for their participation – and for a while, Lorentzon and Bell make the case brilliantly. They introduce us to Brent Scott (aka “pd”), the various models who ‘posed’ for his erotic experiments, and learn a lot about how a college-minded bit of ‘performance art’ and a fascination with the dark side of desire was turned into a 35,000 member adult entertainment outpost. In between all the philosophizing and blame gaming, assurances and assumptions, we see extended glimpses of what Insex offered, and it’s at these moments where the film loses its legitimate meaning and turns tacky.

It’s one thing to suggest the surreal conceits that Scott uses to explain away his fevered dreams. A memory from his childhood involving a friend, Wonder Woman, and her lasso is very telling. Elsewhere, when former associates and co-workers argue for abuses above and beyond what the paying customers we getting, this confusing collection of rationales and reasons seems to take some blame for his extremely bad behavior. It’s all part of a game, he extols, it’s all about playing a part. As a source, as a main focus for a film on how the Internet transformed smut into something saleable and almost mainstream, Graphic Sexual Horror indeed found a goldmine. Scott is not only secure in his “sickness”, he’s got an internal library of literary and metaphysical allusions and parallels to draw from. He’s no saint, and aside from the “I’m an artist” angle he tosses out there time and time again, he’s not shirking responsibility.

But it seems odd that Lorentzon and Bell would then spend so much time illustrating, in disturbing detail, what Scott and his site were all about. Granted, one does have to deal with this element less you lose your core objective, but to linger over it, allowing disquieting moments of human agony (and in some cases, actual physiological harm) to play out in ‘pay per view’ like detailed violations of decency does not help fine tune or define your intentions. Instead, it stands in direct contradiction to everything your thesis infers. If you want to argue that Scott used models to work through his various miscreant ideas, that’s fine. To show the results – nay, showcase them in an X-rated manner – mars your message, especially when some aspects of the image are “blurred” to avoid a XXX tag.

It happens a lot in this otherwise intriguing documentary. We hear from the various “stars” of Scott’s enterprise, some using the numerical ‘name’ he gave them (itself, an absorbing subtext to the story) in order to stay “in character”. We also hear from various associates who saw what this maverick was up to and wanted to join in. The sex for sale element is hinted out but never really argued over, the viewers who paid their $60 memberships to be part of Scott’s web world having little input here. Instead, Lorentzon and Bell overload the viewer with more and more painful images and experiences. Even when the examples are spellbinding (the post-torture “euphoria” described by the models is actually shown and is indeed palpable), they feel foul and unclean.

To argue that it’s counterproductive or counter-intuitive is one thing. But Graphic Sexual Horror has so many other intriguing ideas going for it that there really was no need to concentrate almost exclusively on the prurience. Scott’s instructional history, including a classic confrontation with an administrator which ended in the line “if I can’t education your children, I will corrupt them”, is a great untapped source. So is the way in which the government finally undermined Insex, using the post-9/11 Patriot Act to squelch Scott’s ability to process credit card payments. Even among the cast, struggling survivors like “resident” model 101 feel like a fount of valuable insight merely glazed over.

In fact, instead of showing the terrors these women went through, Graphic Sexual Horror should have simply let them explain how it made them feel. There are moments where clear, concise justifications are offered, and many of the ladies are so eloquent and intelligent that they (by their own admission) contradict the slut/slave cliches. But when reduced to a nauseating tableau of gags and chains, when taken out of their communicative comfort zones and hoisted by their private parts in some high minded madman’s idea of a sex aide, the filmmakers foil their personal purpose. No doubt that many here want to clear their name, so to speak, to clarify their participation as part of an enlightenment, fiscal, or maturing process. Nothing resoundingly defeats said sentiments more quickly than a fully clothed male bloodying your backside with a belt.

Lorentzon and Bell will argue that, at its core, Graphic Sexual Horror is about consent. It’s about the misconception that anyone, even the most clever person on the planet, cannot give their full permission when piles of money are involved. Several of the models mention that cash kept them coming back, and more than a few argue that they allowed scenes to play out much further than they normally would under the promise of a bigger payday. Scott suggests that many of these girls were merely working out their own complicated fantasies in a commercially viable way. But when we see a poor gal being pushed to the edge, face tear-streaked, body bruised and bleeding, her “safe word” being saved so that she can earn a better place on the call back page, such an inference seems ludicrous.

For its part, Graphic Sexual Horror is indeed instructive. It lifts the veil of violation on a realm many would never even consider and cracks the code on why anyone would want to participate. But by playing voyeur itself, by probing far too deeply into the questionable and controversial content on display, it falls into the same trap. It taints the otherwise effective overview and sensationalizes a subject that didn’t need such grandstanding to have impact. The filmmakers would probably argue with such an assessment, suggesting that the material needed such shocking illustrations to both cater to, and criticize, Scott’s arguable acumen. In their mind, the serial killer like tableaus he crafted smack of the artisan. For those outside the scene however, Graphic Sexual Horror will be incendiary, and inexcusable.

RATING 6 / 10