Graphic Sexual Horror and the Ambiguity of Consent
Last Friday I too had the chance to see the documentary Graphic Sexual Horror at the Leather Archives and Museum. The film explores the story behind the now-defunct hardcore BDSM pornography website InSex.com, with an impressive lack (or mix) of glorification or condemnation. I'd like to thank Arvan for the detailed review he's already posted - as well as of course Barbara Bell and Anna Lorentzon for making the film, and Clarisse Thorn and the Leather Archives' Jennifer Tyburczy for hosting.
While Arvan's post touches on many fascinating aspects of InSex and of Graphic Sexual Horror, the one that I left the museum discussing was the ambiguity of consent. InSex's trademark was hyper-realistically torturing women to the very edge of their limits. The documentary asked whether these women had given fully-informed, empowered consent, and left the audience with the answer, "Some of them, some of the time." Which is almost more unsettling than "No," because it calls into question our sacred differentiations between sadomasochism and exploitation. But then, any strong differentiation has to withstand occasional questioning.
And when I make these ethical judgments, it's important for me to be aware how automatically and irrationally I judge pornography as "hot" vs. "squicking" by my own kinks. The clips of a women being dunked in water and gasping for breath make me want to masturbate, because personally I love playing with breath in my bath-tub. But the clips of women with eggplant-colored breasts from long-term tight bondage, while less dangerous, do not look fun by my own admittedly quirky standards.
That being said, Bell and Lorentzon captured moments and gathered interviews with both models who enjoyed performing for InSex and with models who believe that they were exploited.
I connected happily to what one voice-over called "the money shot": the masochist after she's been released from a spectacular scene, high on endorphins, giggling, enraptured by her own tenacity. It's a happy state I like to call subspace or "fuzzy." Regardless of whether their specific kinks are my specific kinks, and regardless of the appearance to the casual observer, some of us really are wired to find some kinds of physical pain euphoric.
But then came the story of model S4, who, like many of InSex's performers, came to the site not because she was a masochist but because she wanted the generous paycheck. S4 had told the site's owner, PD, that one of her hard limits was face-slapping. During a live feed to the internet, PD forgot and slapped S4's face while she was tied to a chair. Graphic Sexual Horror shows that moment and the minutes following, when S4 reacts first in shock: "You weren't supposed to do that." PD maintains his dominant persona and mocks her. He does ask if she wants to use her safe-word, but clearly implies that saying yes will make her a weakling. S4 does not use the safe-word, but emotionally collapses.
I understand that S4 and PD both felt the extra pressures of PD paying S4 large amounts of money and of thousands of viewers watching live on the internet. But I feel awfully strongly that S4 needed to be untied and sent home with someone she trusted. The line between adrenaline-happy pretending not to consent and actually not consenting had been crossed.
And I can even forgive honestly forgetting a limit. We play with dangerous things, and sometimes accidents happen. But then how we handle accidents counts for a lot. I too, actually, once slapped the face of a play partner for whom I hadn't realized face-slapping was a hard limit. We were grappling, and he's significantly larger than I am, so our negotiation had been more about my limits than his. His response in the moment was to say, "That was a hard limit," and acknowledge a lack of prior communication. I apologized, and then he took the next hour away from me, and then eventually we moved on. The accident didn't end our friendship or mutual respect, but it did end the scene. What feels traumatizing in InSex's slapping debacle is how long it continues past the point of shattered trust.
So, while some of the InSex shoots are undeniably hot to me, I think I'll be sticking to their lighter (and still extant) rival Kink.com as my primary source of kinky porn. Throughout the Leather Archives talk-back, Barbara Bell and the audience discussed Kink as less extreme and more theatrical than InSex - but I love that. Kink shares InSex's reoccurring theme of non-consent, but it has more winks to the audience that everyone's just pretending. There are the occasional archetypal costumes and "stories," and camera cuts from women struggling to the same women in highly intricate shibari ties. I don't condemn InSex, but I still prefer kinky porn that less often breaks the stage-combat rule against making me stop and worry if the actors are okay.