Though his name is dropped often in the promotional hype for TPoP, Evil Angel’s founding producer John Stagliano makes a single, brief appearance in the film, caught at his vendor booth on the convention floor.
John, as anyone who knows him will attest, is a complex and intelligent man with wide-ranging interests and many unexpected and unconventional opinions. He has plenty to say about plenty of things, but this is all we get from him:
“Have you been watching these movies lately? There’s a lot of hard stuff – S&M mixed with sex, S&M fetish of all kinds. That’s where people are going with it.”
Does he think this is a bad thing? A good thing? A thing with broader implications? John is one person who could, and I presume did, give a detailed and analytical response to whatever question elicited the sharply-cut clip we’re offered here, but through the magic of video editing, he serves only the producers’ purpose of validating, as an industry insider, a allegation they’re about to ram down our throats with a hydraulic jack.
Full disclosure: I couldn’t possibly claim any objectivity regarding the next segment of this film, not only because I appear in it, but because it concerns a subject about which I care passionately in both my personal and professional lives. If I treat what follows as singularly despicable, you’re welcome to take that into account.
But I won’t be alone in taking offense at the egregious and slanderous distortion of reality to which TPoP audiences will be subjected. There are tens of thousands of ethical, consensual BDSM players out there who would share my revulsion if confronted with the same vile smear.
And like my lunch, it’s coming right up.
First, we get a quick glimpse of the kink.com homepage, with its teaser image of a bound girl wearing a ball-gag. Tacky Twilight-Zone-style spooky music swells in the background as we’re shown the ominous interior of a subterranean-looking dungeon studio used for kink.com’s associated site, device bondage.
A naked female performer sits bound on a concrete block with her ankles raised and some kind of dildo gizmo presumably penetrating her, although the penetration itself is blurred, contrary to previous practice, which suggests that a stolen prevue was the source material. The performer is also gagged, but sounds of whipping and screaming are laid over the soundtrack. Another naked female performer is shown locked into a vertical pillory. Nothing is happening to either, but the whipping and screaming continue.
We finally get a half-second glimpse of the noise source, a third female performer, bent over a bar-frame, her nipples decorated with weighted clamps and a dude in a black T-shirt whipping her from behind. Her expression is distressed and she squawks out a tormented “oh shit!” before we jump to the next image, lasting maybe two seconds, of yet another girl restrained in a seated in some other elaborate bondage contraption.
Now, I well understand the power of such images taken out of context, and so do the operators of kink.com, devicebondage.com and all the other sites from which this, and more content to come, has been excised. Would they appear to be anything other than horrific abuse when shown in a swirl of jump cuts? To an observer utterly unfamiliar with consensual BDSM activities, likely not, which is why we don’t get to see the performer interviews that are among the most conspicuous features of all kink.com’s presentations.
Performers talk at length, both before and after their scenes, about their individual responses to BDSM activity, their prior explorations of it, their views and feelings while engaging in it on this particular occasion and the reasons they find it enjoyable. If, as I have no doubt, the producers would claim, these interviews are faked (while all the pain and torture and shit is completely real, of course), and are utterly without credibility, why are we not allowed to see even a moment of one?
Why, once again, are the performers in these acts denied any voice other than a scream? Why are they once again depersonalized by these filmmakers in a way that pornographers would hesitate to do?
Pornographers understand something that these … humans … do not. The audience is genuinely curious about sex performers of all sorts. They want to know more about them. They want to hear them speak, to see them goofing around on the set in behind-the-scenes footage.
Yes, there are porn viewers who say hateful things to and about performers, and who undoubtedly despise them projectively for the conflicted feelings of shame and arousal they inspire. But most regular porn viewers, viewers of BDSM porn who invest a great deal in their own fantasy lives especially, consider themselves fans of performers. They do not hate them. They do not wish them harm. They want to feel they know and share something intimate, even if the intimacy is artificially created, with the individual they’re watching.
No manipulation among all this mendacious parade of trashy agit-prop, is more libelous of pornographers, porn performers and porn viewers than the systematic exclusion of any and all hints of empathy that might be part of the “pleasure” referenced in the title. It is that quality of empathy that the filmmakers, to put over their bullshit hypothesis, must relentlessly deny where pornography is concerned, as empathy and objectification are mutually exclusive in the primitively wired brains of professional porn-bashers. The very concept of such things co-existing in the minds of human beings is just altogether to complex for them to grasp.
Not to digress too far here, but BDSM sexuality depends on empathy for its erotic appeal. Even Sade observed that he couldn’t enjoy the things he did to others if he couldn’t imagine what those things would feel like if they happened to him. Indeed, most BDSM players switch back and forth between dominant and submissive roles situationally (no, I have no statistical evidence to support this opinion, merely four decades of personal familiarity) and not only imagine but also experience the sensations of both roles at one time or another.
But these nuances are of no moment to TPoP’s perps, because their subject isn’t BDSM, which they clearly regard as mere rationalization for what the filmmakers really think they’re showing us: sexual violence.
Lest we somehow manage to misunderstand what we are being shown, Joe Gallant returns for another fragmentary clip in which he gravely tells us that: “I hate to say it, but I feel the future of American porn is violence.” To underline this rather dubious claim, the whipping and screaming continues on the soundtrack as he speaks. Gallant likes shocking people, and sometimes I think he forgets that, with certain people, he isn’t shocking them, but rather validating precisely what they already believe.
Still, I’m sure he qualified his statement in some way, given the hard audio cuts on either side of it, but such annoying nuances aren’t to be allowed to interfere with the lip-smacking delight the producers have saved up for the visual chamber of horrors through which the audience is about to be dragged.
Back to the very, very abbreviated clips from the streaming videos ripped from devicebondage.com, and then, in the single, most heinously libelous distortion of this whole misbegotten venture, we’re immediately shown a rough sketch from a human rights report on the use of immersion torture by the military regime of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet.
As if we couldn’t make the connection ourselves, the narrator grimly informs us that: “The United Nations defines torture as any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person.” Just in case we still haven’t put it together, we get a few seconds each of several sequences of bound, naked, female performer getting quick dunkings for another kink.com site, waterbondage.com, with another sketch or two from the Pinochet material interspersed between.
“What,” asks the spooky-voiced narrator, makes a torture-treatment entertaining?” against a backdrop of more kink.com bondage, fucking and sensation-play snippets. “What makes an image of suffering sexually arousing?”
Please note the very careful parsing implicit in the term “torture-like treatment” as opposed to straight out calling what we’re being shown torture. I doubt that anyone who has experienced actual torture could be convinced that such a thing as a “torture-like treatment” could ever exist. Wouldn’t that be kind of similar to a “rape-like treatment?” Is it not insensitive and offensive in the same way?
Anyone who has known real violence, and here I speak from some direct knowledge, could never confuse it with something that might be “like” it. There is nothing remotely like violence of any kind. A sure sign of any metaphor turning to shit is the introduction of the V-word, as in “she was racked by violent orgasmic spasms.” As an editor, I’ve taken the blue pencil to plenty of copy like that in my day, because before I was an editor, I was a night police beat reporter. I’ve never much liked T.V. cop shows or the balletic slow-mo hokum that passes for the portrayal of violence in most entertainment media.
I do not for one moment dispute the gravity of the underlying issues. Torture and suffering have been entertaining human beings of all ages and both major genders since well before the beginning of what we like to call civilization, so these appetites would seem to run wide and deep among our species. However, since Gail Dines is “suspicious of arguments taken from nature,” as she told me in Las Vegas (and I’m sure for much the same reason as creationists), we needn’t hold our collective breath awaiting any attempt at a scientific explanation.
This show isn’t about science. It’s about politics. It occasionally hides its objectives behind some of what screenwriters call “relatively scientific crap,” (R.S.C. for short), but the kind of science that requires methodical verification isn’t always politically useful, and when science and politics collide, science is usually the worse for the impact.
And now, here’s Gail, back again to tell us just what we’re supposed to think of these admittedly “difficult” visions of sado-eroticism.
“Pornography takes violence against women and it sexualizes it. And when you sexualize violence against women (cut to Otto Bauer doing some rough fellatio with his wife Audrey Hollander in a non-BDSM gonzo film, ever so 2257-non-compliantly) you render the violence invisible.”
Wait a minute. Why would pornographers want to make violence against women invisible if they intend to market it by sexualizing it? Not too swift on the economic analysis there, Professor. But never mind, we’ve got lots of non-2257-compliant choking and fucking to spin, so we needn’t waste our time trying sort out the jumbled logic of this pronouncement.
As a girl gets her head pushed into a toilet, the somber Professor Wolff pitches in his two cents to the effect that “pornography, with all its destructive effects, is a sign or a reflection of the failure to question an economic system that reward enterprises for profit maximizing and endlessly market expanding.”
Bad grammar aside, this chunk of wheezy Marxist dogma would seem to point to the very contradiction in Dines’ quote above. If the idea is to turn a buck off of sexualizing violence against women, why would pornographers want to make that violence invisible? If violence really was a key element in expanding the market for pornography, why would that element be minimized?
Another possible explanation, one of many not addressed in this intellectual sink hole, is that what is portrayed in BDSM pornography is not, in fact, violence.
One of the performers recognizable in the kink.com content is Lorelei Lee, a sex-worker advocate, writer and co-organizer of the sex workers’ art show that recently traveled cross country, dogged by controversy as might be expected. Like most of the kink.com regulars, Lee is also a BDSM enthusiast in her private life, and has this to say about it: “Nobody likes to stub their toe or drop something heavy on their foot. You need to understand that it is a different kind of pain. You have adrenaline going and especially if you are mixing it with sex. So then there is the pain and the pleasure happening at the same time. My experience came in that context compared to if someone were to come up to you and hit you in the face in a bar during a fight.” Seems like a clear enough distinction to me, if not to someone as well educated as Dines. But wait, there’s more.
Not long ago, I interviewed another kink.com regular, Madison Young, who performs in and directs her own line of BDSM videos, in which she usually plays submissive roles. She’s also in a full-time D/s relationship with her life-partner, also a BDSM peformer-director. Here’s what she told me: “I love to be fucked while bound. Rope bondage alone is enough to get me off, but when you add a fist or a cock up my ass or pussy, my body just tumbles into a bottomless abyss of orgasm. It's a very unique sensation to be made completely open and vulnerable to your partners and be penetrated and gifted by their domination and love at the same time.”
No talk about violence from either one of these two women. No wonder the makers of TPoP don’t want performers talking for themselves.
Now if Dines had suggested that violence were being disguised as something else in order to avoid legal complications, she would have had to acknowledge that the legal suppression of pornography does, in fact, occur, and that would blow a big hole in the film’s central conceit that pornographers enjoy free reign in all aspects of modern society.
Not one word is ever spoken by anyone on the subject of adult obscenity prosecutions in this film’s entire running time. Professor Sun’s dismissive response to an audience question at a recent showing regarding why ACLU director and long-time opponent of adult obscenity prosecutions Nadine Strossen never appears in this film, even though Sun spoke with her while making it. Apparently, Strossen wanted to talk about the legal implications of pornography and censorship, and these things were not “media critic” Sun’s concerns. I’ll have a go at that one later, but let’s get back to the business at hand.
And business it is. After this package tour of BDSM hell, we find ourselves tossed once more into the gaudy depths of the AVN awards show, where a mediocre comic M.C. tells a vulgar sex joke. BDSM I can defend. AVN’s talent choices are not my department, fortunately.
“It (meaning pornography) will explore every kind of sexual perversion, dysfunction, misery, sadness, desperation,” proclaims Dr. Wolff, as if all these things fall neatly into the same category of “icky.” Examples from Web sites selling images of rape, large women having sex, old women having sex, midgets having sex, pregnant women having sex – you know, more icky stuff – help punch up his insistence that: “if we don’t question the pornography industry, we’re allowing the producer to create the need that he can profitably meet.”
In other words, if it weren’t for porn, nobody would ever think of such things. Pornography is what capitalism substitutes for individual sexual imaginations, sort of like something out of “Attack of the Body Snatchers.”
That’s why nothing but wholesome, vanilla sex existed before the invention of pornography, right?
Not very informative stuff from Wolff here, whom I’ve come to dislike with a peculiar intensity in a film full of utterly unlikable people. At least we do finally find out where the 900 million rentals figure used way back when at the beginning of this nearly concluded waste of video stock came from. AVN Publisher Paul Fishbein himself appears onscreen to tell us. Far be it from me to doubt the veracity of anything from this source. At the very least, I can agree with him that there are a lot of consumers out there.
Jensen agrees as well, citing this as evidence that pornography no longer represents a deviant sexuality, but in fact expresses a very conventional sexuality. “That road,” he says, delivering the Big Message, “takes us not just into the valley in California where this material is produced. It takes us into our own lives and into our own bedrooms.”
Back for one more visit to that anonymous flat-block exterior, and another chat with Eric the student, who talks about the excitement of watching pornography in the moment, but if you continue watching after you’ve had an orgasm “it’s kind of just foul.”
Deep. Very deep. And about as subtle as the visual closer of a kneeling girl getting her face splattered with semen. I’ve lost count of the number of non-compliant images long ago, but I think there are more than enough of them in this show to get any actual pornographer sent up for about a hundred years. We slowly pull out of this, amid the gasping and grunting of an unseen male masturbator, until the frame freezes, signaling the merciful conclusion of our own immersion in disingenuous bullshit.
There are some illuminating items in the closing credits, however, that we shouldn’t overlook, although the mournful dirge sung over them makes me want to eject this disk and put it right into the shredder.
It should be noted that Rebecca Whisnant, anti-porn activist and editor of the anthology “Not for Sale” served as a narration editor/consultant and that Dines and Jensen are credited as “senior consultants.”
I know these are the first people I’d consult for an unbiased and non-judgmental overview of the porn industry. While I was at it, I’d give James Dobson a call if I wanted a balanced perspective for a documentary about reproductive freedom.
Also noteworthy are the interview subjects who didn’t make the final cut. Catherine MacKinnon gets her credit first, with Noam Chomsky down a bit further (actually, he’s credited twice, which tells you a lot about the technical quality of TPoP overall, which is sloppy). Poor Neil Malamuth, the UCLA professor who has probably done the best, most objective research on the behavioral effects of porn viewing is listed as well, but having read his work, which concludes that there is no demonstrable connection between porn consumption and anti-social behavior, I’m not surprised he didn’t make it into the film. And I must express gratitude where it’s due that we were also delivered from having to endure Melissa Farley Dianna Russell.
But then, neither do we hear from some articulate individuals who might disagree with the producers’ conclusions. We don’t get to hear from photographer/author Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, or women directors Skye Blue, Candida Royalle and Kelly Holland, or writers Mark Kernes, Bruce David and Mark Cromer.
Any of these individuals might have introduced some measure of rationality to the proceedings and thus spoiling the whole project.
Okay, so there it all is. I don’t claim my interpretation of The Price of Pleasure is unbiased and non-judgmental. As a pornographer, I am merely unsympathetic to its point of view, but I don’t think it’s much of a threat, as it preaches to the converted and is unlikely, in its ham-handed literalness, to convince anyone else. As a filmmaker, I dislike its ineptitude too much to even enjoy it as an exercise in camp. Unlike something Ed Wood might have made, it’s not so bad it’s funny. It’s just plain bad.
But personally, I loathe it. I despise the lies it tells about me and about what I do and about my friends. I disdain it for its hypocritical hand-wringing over the fates of female porn performers who are never allowed to speak for themselves on any of the serious themes the film claims to address. I hate it for silencing them while assuming the martyr’s mantle of speaking up for views that have been silenced, when those are the views heard most often in mainstream media, on college campuses and from pulpits all over America.
The very worst thing about this film as that it denigrates the women in porn far worse than porn itself could ever manage to. It treats them the way a film made by PETA would treat farm animals: as faceless, voiceless, mindless, anonymous victims too pathetic to be regarded as individuals.
Just as the filmmakers wrongly allege porn does, The Price of Pleasure treats women in pornography as nothing more or less than meat. And for that it deserves a kind of infamy that time cannot erase. Unlike Reefer Madness, this film will never become funny, no matter how much time passes, because real human beings were harmed in the making of it.
As an epilogue, I’ll describe my own meeting with Chyng Sun and her jolly crew in an expensive room at The Venetian that someone else undoubtedly paid for, but that can wait a minute.
I think we’ve spent quite enough time with these noble humanitarians for now