Porn Studies, Kink Studies, and the Politics of the Erotic Imaginary, Part I: From Linda Williams to Kink.com

Let’s face it. Most of us look at porn at some point or other. And most of us know very little about where it comes from, how it is made, who makes it, the lives of the people involved, the labor conditions, the safety issues involved, the political economy and power dynamics, etc.

What can be done about this? And what’s the stakes?

Porn Studies?

Porn studies is still a relatively young field. After the decline of influence of anti-pornography feminists like Dworkin and McKinnon, and largely in response to the reevaluation of porn prompted by queer studies, the pathbreaking work of Linda Williams in her work Hardcore: Power, Pleasure, and the Frenzy of the Visible (1991), and her more recent collection of essays Porn Studies (2004), really set the agenda in this field. While Hardcore almost exclusively focuses on hetero porn, the second collection makes great strides in examining various forms of lgbtq porn, bdsm, cybersex, issues of race and class, etc. Williams also does a great job explaining the difficulties she personally went through teaching porn studies in her classes at UC Berkeley, and how after several years of having undergrads sign tons of legal forms and waivers, she just finally gave up on teaching porn film in class to undergrads.

As someone who teaches gender, sexuality, and queer studies on a semi-frequent basis, I often teach Williams work, as well as the essays in her very useful anthology. In particularly, I find two essays extremely useful: Heather Butler’s “What Do You Call A Lesbian With Long Fingers?: The Development of Lesbian and Dyke Pornography,” particularly for its discussion of genre conventions which help differentiate lesbian/dyke porn made for women-loving-women from that made for heterosexual men, and Nguyen Tan-Hoang’s “The Resurrection of Brandon Lee: The Making of a Gay Asian Porn Star,” for the way it shows the often overdetermined nature of race, class, language, sexuality, and economics at work in gay porn. I don’t, however, show porn film clips in class, nor assign them, for all the reasons Williams described. Williams essays do a pretty good job of getting the necessary issues into our discussion.

Despite the work done by Williams and a few others, the field of porn studies is still relatively new, and there’s still a degree of stigma attached to those who work in the field. Very often this stigma follows the logic most sex-panics: “If you teach this stuff, does that mean you’re into it?” As many critics have argued, this is the general logic of homo-panic or sex-panic, in this case, porn-panic.

Kink Studies? Kink.com and Beyond

During the last year I’ve twice given a talk, once at NYU and once at Pratt, called Visible Pleasure and Bodily Cinema: Queer Spectatorship and Femdom Internet Porn. In preparing for this set of presentations, I did a standard literature search to see what new scholarship there had been on BDSM related topics, particularly in a queer context and in relation to film/video/spectatorship, in the last few years. What I found really surprised me. While there was a lot written about these issues in the 1970’s, by the time queer studies came on the scene in the early 1990’s, it seemed new scholarship stopped being produced on these topics.

Which is odd. For what was originally just the leather community has now mutated into its more contemporary form, often simply called kink. People who are into kink often aren’t constrained by the identity based models of the first generation of lgbt advocates, there is much more of a queer, post-identity sensibility to things. But why hasn’t there been a new kink studies? If I wasn’t already working to get two book manuscripts to press, this is something I’d work on trying to deal with.

The Ambiguity of Address: Femdom Porn and ‘Men in Pain’

But it was with this in mind that I set to getting together my presentation on Femdom porn. I’ll perhaps explain much of what I found interesting on this topic in a post of its own. But a lot of it describes the relations between the website Kink.com, its work to buy the Armory from the city of San Francisco for its new production studio, the discourse produced in public hearings about this transaction, the educational goals and mission of Kink.com, the archive of behind the scenes semi-educational materials produced by the site, and of course, the new approach to kink porn they produce.

Femdom in particular is a type of sexual practice in which women dominate men. In particular, I examined the site on Kink.com in which women tied up men, engaged in various forms of bondage, and then the women fucked the men with strap-on dildos at the end of each video. That’s Femdom.

In relation to the pathbreaking work by Laura Mulvey on the notion of the ‘male gaze’ in film and spectatorship in general, these videos are particularly interesting. Very rarely in the history of film do you see a clothed female bossing around a naked male, the camera looking through her viewpoint at him as an object. The man is then penetrated by the woman’s phallus (if that is even the right name any more!), just as he has already been visually penetrated by the gaze of the woman, and indirectly, the viewer. While there are perhaps examples of some similar things in film (the particular scene in which a ‘female’ gaze emerges in Peter Greenaway’s masterful 1979 film The Draughtsman’s Contract stands out as one particular example), nowhere do we see anything of the power and consistency of these videos.

We are seeing a shift in the spectatorial politics of the gaze.  What’s more, there’s something polymorphously queer about these videos. For the videos posted at the Kink.com site Men in Pain seem fundamentally ambiguous in their address. Are these videos intended for gay men, lesbians, hetero men, hetero women? Its hard to say, and in fact, all these different groups can find spectatorial positions from which it might be possible to ‘slot oneself’ into the fantasy scenario present in these videos. And the fact that none of these are specified as the intended audience leaves things up for grabs.

Kink.com always has ‘before’ and ‘after’ interviews, so that everyone knows that what they see is consensual, contractual, sane, safe, etc. And in none of these interviews in Men in Pain do either the male subs or the female doms say a word about how they relate to the issue of sexual orientation. Rather, this notion is left out, its moot.

Welcome to shift from leather to kink, from lgbt to queer.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, this is part of a larger shift within culture. Then again, it sees that, at least in terms of Kink.com, this shift was not to last. Kink.com has always been a largely heterosexually oriented production company, and Men in Pain was their first and only site which had ‘ambiguous address’ in the manner described above. While Men in Pain lasted about two years, after this Kink.com started a KinkMen division, which put out its own gay bondage sites, a naked gay wrestling site, etc. And immediately thereafter, they rebranded Men in Pain as Divine Bitches. They scaled back the emphasis on naked men in the previews, emphasized the women, and tried to use male models that fit the general gay porn stereotypes (boyish yet muscled, carefully groomed body hair, etc.) less well. The experiment in ambiguity had come to an end.

That said, there are other femdom sites that continue to have ambiguous address, just none with the high profile, production values, semi-educational mission/values, etc. In particular, the CFNM genre of porn, or Clothed Female Naked Male, really does turn the tables on the traditional male gaze.

Kink.com still remains extremely interesting, and its values are a large part of this. The site itself is a scholarly archive, and I highly recommend examining the ‘behind the scenes’ semi-educational videos that are available here for free. Many of the models, producers, and staff have really fascinating insights into why BDSM can be so liberating for so many, potentially therapeutic, and not something as threatening as many people may think. The interviews with Lorelei Lee’s views on third-wave feminism, Stigma’s views on how kink is less self-destructive than other ways he dealt with previous anger issues (its more productive to get erotically bound than breaking your hands hitting walls), or Kink.com’s president’s mom’s sculptures when she visits her son’s company. The fact that full-time employees get health insurance is just a nice touch, not to mention the fact that models, at least it seems, get safe work conditions.

As anyone who has studied the field knows, removing the stigma from sex work always creates safer working conditions for all those involved. Kink.com I think is trying to do its part.

More to come soon on this topic, because there’s a lot more to say. Needless to say, as a first step, it seems essential to me that we stop stigmatizing the safe and consensual.

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~ by chris on October 28, 2010.

One Response to “Porn Studies, Kink Studies, and the Politics of the Erotic Imaginary, Part I: From Linda Williams to Kink.com”

  1. Reblogged this on thebeewriter.

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