Film Review: Graphic Sexual Horror
Last night, I attended a screening of "Graphic Sexual Horror", directed by Barbara Bell and Anna Lorentzon. The venue was the Leather Museum & Archives (LAM), who also sponsored the event along with The Jane Addams Hull-House Museum as part of the Sex+++ Documentary Film Series. The event was presented by Dr. Jennifer Tyburczy, Ph.D. Director of Programming for the LAM and Clarisse Thorn. Present for the showing and taking questions afterward, was Barbara Bell herself. I was joined in the audience by blogger Rabbit White and her husband Ned.
So, the warning and disclaimer: This could easily trigger you. I'm not even kidding.
This is a documentary about the creation of a website that produced media of women being tortured for people to watch as they masturbate. BDSM porn...torture porn...whatever you may call it.
This is striking stuff and I found it difficult to separate my thoughts about the porn from my thoughts about what I thought of the film. Which, I suppose is a nod toward the directors for presenting the subject without overtly interjecting themselves into the process.
The film is about 120min long and covers the story of how this website insex.com was conceived, launched, operated and finally shut down. It starts right out off with a grainy film titled "worm" being shown. The narrator, "pd" - is describing that this is his wife at the time, wrapped in vinyl, bound and laying on the floor. The film then continues on through a series of interviews done recently, with staff members of insex.com relating their experiences on the site.
Worm, Super 8, 1980. Art film by Brent Scott (AKA PD) that prompted an FBI investigation.
The film includes interviews with many of the models used in the website content, the metalsmith, "KGB", "pd" and many other staff members or others that had been in some way involved in the site.
Judging the film as a documentary, I must say that the directors didn't proselytize in either direction: for or against. They presented the words, thoughts and experiences of the people at insex.com in their own words and deeds, leaving it up to the audience to choose our own opinions. With this subject's potential for volatile response and objection, there could easily be a temptation for a filmaker to guide the audience along to some conclusion. This film does not provide the any such easy conclusions or safety nets. We are left to choose for ourselves, just what we think of all of this. As testament to this, I really had no thoughts about the film. I was completely absorbed by my thoughts about the website, its creator, the models and the rest of the staff.
I had several trains of thought throughout the film. Going into the film I didn't have any preconceived notions about the film itself. I deliberately avoided learning anything about the film or its subject matter in advance. Knowing that the subject matter was going to be extreme, I chose to see it with little foreknowledge. I wanted to avoid forming my conclusions ahead of time.
I did have one fear: namely that in the Q & A afterward, I'd be subjected to a bunch of pontificating, suck-ups trying to sound intelligent and flattering in the nervous energy that follows such an extreme spectacle of emotion and intimacy. I've probably been to one too many sci-fi conventions.
So, anyway. I was watching these scenes of torture, interviews and erotica intersplliced, overlayed and discussed. I had an assortment of thoughts that went through my head. I'll list them here, in no particular order.
Brent Scott,(AKA PD) and 912 discussing videography during a shoot with Star (model) in the barn at the farm.
Consent: the models came to the job because of money and not for any love of BDSM. The film covers the viewpoints of the models and the site's filmakers and it opened up several questions about where consent is given. The film creates or rather, illuminates the subtlety around consent; the dynamic tension that comes with the insertion of money into the equation.
One of the models actually approached pd for a session, believing initially that she would be paying him for the torture session. She not only stayed on as a paid model, but moved behind the camera and into a relationship with pd. So, this is not a black & white topic by any means.
Hydrophobia, Live feed, 2005. Caged 922 about to be submerged in The Tank.
Money: the film's trailer has a line about greed, but in considering consent I kept asking myself about whether there was still consent if the girls felt "need" instead of "greed". In other words, if they were being tortured and didn't need the money or could get the same money elsewhere - then it is pretty much a freely given consent. If the girls did not feel that they could get that money in any other way, then I question whether the consent is in some way coerced. I can't tell of course because I'm second-guessing these women and doing so in the face of their own admission that they were fully aware of their own choices.
So, it's important to remember here that my projections onto whether or not they have any agency in their own lives is a negation of their own assertions. I think that this issue is ignored a lot in discussions of consent surrounding sex work in specific, but echoed in feminism, gender identity conversations, disability conversations and personal identity as a topic. One aspect of respecting personal space and identity is to accept that one we must all be free to choose things that others would not choose or agree with. One model mentioned the process she went through as her path of learning and mistakes.
120 (model) on Rack, 2004. Insex Live Feed with Brent Scott (AKA PD) and crew.
Power/Control: The girls all had a "safe word" which they could use at any time. pd had the money and that was control. What is the power relationship between men who have money and women who do not?
Several women were encouraged or invited to "play" with pd off-camera. Sometimes that meant sex, sometimes kink. This is where the human element of the director played into the picture. The girls that played with him got paid more and the implication was that play meant pay and no play meant no pay. That is sexual harassment. Now, if sexual harassment happens between the shift manager at a convenience store and one of the clerks, it's just sexual harassment and it means nothing about the convenience store business. I happen to think the same reasoning applies here. It might be a temptation to just lay into the whole torture porn or porn business because of sexual harassment, but that is a mistake in my view. It allows the sexual harasser to shift the conversation away from the harassment. Harassment is harassment and the industry is unimportant.
Dairy, Insex, 2003. Stone wall with women in metal cages at the farm.
Sexism: I am watching this film and it's men torturing pretty women. I'm thinking: "how fucking typical is this crap?" Then I realized that this is only one site. There are sites that show men being tortured...by other men & by women.
This site takes the inequality of our sexist societies and exacerbates them for the people that can orgasm by reveling in the inequality of sexism. By playing out a gross characterization of male objectification and cruelty, this site is only one aspect of such fantasies. The sites that have men brutalized are built to please the fantasies of those who want to see the opposite portrayed to extremes.
It's easy to lash out at this site and say that it's vile, foul, sexist, misogynistic, etc. One could easily jump all over pd and the rest of the site staff. It's real tempting to start imagining what these women were thinking, what their choices were, how they felt or feel and to judge what they should do or want or feel. Doing so, is a huge negation of their right to make their own choices and a negation of their own stated experiences and views of their lives.
The fact is that I am no more qualified or entitled to judge or valuate these women for being paid to be tortured than I am to decide the worth or quality of my neighbor. In fact, the real sexism is in declaring that I know what's best for these women and obliterating their story of their own lives with my assessment.
Stimulation: Brain chemistry is everything and how we trigger our bodies to get the orgasm chemicals to the brain - is different for everyone. For some, it's 'vanilla' hetero-cis sex, for others it's ingested in the form of food or drugs and for others still, it's a complex mix of physical triggers. Some of us like to feel pain, some of us like to look at pain. Hell, some of us just like rubber balloons. It's all chemicals and the film points out that everyone here was consenting.
Hydrophobia, Live Feed, 2005. Caged 922 being repeatedly dunked in The Tank during a Live Feed.
Ritual: More than one woman discussed the experiences in terms of facing challenges and overcoming their limits of fear and endurance in terms very much like men talk about toughing out grueling sports or the military. They seemed to find that it was a rite of passage to mark their transition into a greater maturity or strength. I didn't expect that.
Art: pd really had an amazing knack for setting up amazing, striking images. Every scene was compelling in terms of color, focus and composition. He really has a knack for setting a stage.
Morality: I won't even get into what I think morality is because I think we're each entitled to our own definitions and as long as we orgasm with consenting adults or alone, then it's no one else's concern. The website was shut down by the department of homeland security using the Patriot Act. This brings up a very dangerous question of morality, namely:
If the morality police are lying in order to alter our behavior, then is the whole point negated?
"KGB", the website's metalsmith said something about their being attacked by the US Gov't for morality:
"The US Government has secret jails where they torture people that don't want to be tortured, but make it illegal for us to torture people who want to be tortured."
Incidentally, that guy - KGB was fucking hilarious. I could watch two hours of him talking and that would be totally worth my time.
So, in conclusion I will say this. This film's subject is not an easy thing to watch. The film itself is well done. It gave a clear view of the website content, its creator, the models and the site crew. I can tell you that I won't be watching the film archives of insex.com but I did come to some understanding of what I have in common with those who do. I think that's all I really could hope for with exposure to anyone's point of view that differs from my own.