Sunday, February 5, 2006

Immersed in pornographic history

I watched the documentary Inside Deep Throat this week, which describes the history of the film Deep Throat, and it was fascinating, on a number of levels. First of all, I've also been reading a book called Grindhouse, which details the history of "adult-only" film in the U.S., and seeing Inside Deep Throat in that context was illuminating, both in terms of its similarities and differences with previous adult-only films. The documentary did an excellent job of framing the film in its cultural context and had very good interview and footage material from the major players in the film's history and relevant academic commentary. Plus, it had extensive, interesting bonus material. The directors clearly got really immersed in the topic and couldn't fit all the great material into the film. I highly recommend the documentary for those interested in the topic. Note: it is rated NC-17, since it includes sexually explicit scenes from the original film.

Some interesting facts:
  • The Miller test for obscenity (as handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court, and still the legal standard today) states that, in order for some material to be obscene, it must (among other things) be without any socially redeeming value. In one of the obscenity cases against Deep Throat, the defense case included a pitch for the film's having value in part through its message that women are entitled to sexual satisfaction, in that the female lead is questing for an orgasmic experience of her own. The prosecution rejoinder was that the film's emphasis on clitoral stimulation for the woman to reach orgasm emphasized the wrong kind of orgasm for women -- that the film encouraged women to believe that it was ok to have an orgasm through clitoral stimulation, and that belief was incorrect, in that women should strive for the vaginal orgasm (as was originally promulgated by Sigmund Freud). This debate was occurring in front of a judge who didn't know what the clitoris was and had to be educated on basic female anatomy. This was in the 1970s. (Dr. Ruth's comment to that in the documentary was that the judge and prosecution should have been in her classes, where she would have taught them the importance of the clitoris in women's orgasm.)
  • The obscenity case against Deep Throat produced the first federal prosecution of an actor (the male actor in the film) on obscenity charges; although he was found guilty, the charge was later overturned on appeal.
  • Deep Throat was produced and distributed through one of the prominent NY organized crime families.
  • Deep Throat was not the first sexually explicit film to be produced or shown in the U.S., nor was it the first to be shown in mainstream theaters -- although the inclusion of X-rated films in mainstream theaters was very new in the U.S. But it was probably the first in the mainstream theaters to be primarily about sex (as opposed to I Am Curious (Yellow), which was really a political polemic which included explicit sexuality), as well as being unapologetic/nonmoralistic in its depiction of erotic and explicit sex, and attempting to be funny. It was probably a combination of factors (including a positive article about "porno chic" in the NYT) which thrust it into the national spotlight (pardon the pun). It was one of the few sexually explicit films which drew a mainstream audience, not just the raincoat brigade. This was additionally fueled by the government's effort to ban it (thanks to Nixon's War on Smut) -- there have been several adult-only films which gained increasing success once there was an effort to censor them. (I'm not sure what that says about human nature.)
  • Although the film grossed huge sums of money and cost very little to produce, very few of those involved made any significant amount of money (apart from the producers).
  • The federal prosecutor for the obscenity case, when interviewed in the film, essentially stated that he thought more obscenity cases should be brought in today's society, and that if we could just get rid of the terrorist distraction, he and his staff would be on the forefront of the war on obscenity.

Interesting stuff. Makes me curious to see the original film!

I was also really struck by pornography's complex messages regarding women's sexuality. At one level, modern pornography holds a liberatory message for women, in that it embraces the notion that women want sex and that it ok for women to enjoy sex (even outside of marriage) and to seek sexual satisfaction. This overturns the Victorian notion of the asexual woman and the double standard which brands any woman who engages in sex with multiple partners or strangers a "slut." At another level, pornography continues to frame women's sexuality in terms of male definitions and fantasies -- in Deep Throat for example, the device of her having a clitoris in her throat creates a context in which fellatio is just as satisfying to her as it is for her male partner, playing into the fantasy that male satisfaction and female satisfaction derive from the same sources. Pornography promotes a number of harmful myths about sexuality; anyone who learns about sex through pornography will have a skewed and inaccurate understanding of female (and male!) sexuality. So at one level, I can see the positive power of demystifying sex through pornography, as well as the usefulness of erotica and pornography for personal sexual exploration and arousal -- it can serve a number of useful purposes. On the other hand, it continues to promote unrealistic and harmful ideas about sexuality, and in a cultural context which provides inconsistent and incomplete sex education, I worry about the role of pornography in people's beliefs and understandings of real sexuality.

What do you think: Pornography good or bad?

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