Pornography & Superstition: A Genital Manifesto
Dennis Cooper re-published a series of “Ghost Stories” on his website to mark the passing of Halloween. The stories derive from some old photos he claims were given to him from a porn collector he reconnected with. Each set of black and white photographs, which feature only men, is accompanied by a postscript about what really happened during and after each shoot.
One set shows a three-way orgy, the product of a Polish immigrant who forced his son to pose in the photos with two other men. Several months later, the son killed his father. Another shoot shows a disturbed looking young man who was, Cooper claims, induced to pose for the photographs for money even though he had no sexual interest in men. The boy went crazy mid-way through the shoot, beat up his two fellow-models, and stormed out. In the coming months he was said to have turned tricks for men in Hollywood, earning a nasty reputation for his violent tendencies, until he was found dismembered in a dumpster several months later.
Cooper has an extraordinary ability to take vague unease and focus it into alarmingly lucid accounts that, for all their objective detail, are invented. In this case, he exploits the silent consensus view that the decision to participate in pornography must come from malaise. In whatever medium pornography appears, it is always accepted, given a category of its own. Its events cannot be taken as staged recreations of a universal human behavior but must be lowered into something beneath art and exuberance. It is narcofied, something we use and not simply consider. And like anything used for momentary pleasure, it is invisibly tied to the ghosts of negative consequences later on.
“I grew up right outside of Boston and I moved to New York to go to NYU when I turned 18 ,” Annika Angel told me. “I started modeling in college. I did a few shoots just to see if I liked it and was comfortable with it. Then I discovered there was kind of this whole sector devoted to alternative girls, which I thought was amazing. That made me want to do it even more and be a part of it.”
Angel studied Psychology and Music and is currently applying for graduate programs in design. She’s an artist with a predilection for watercolor pencil drawings and, more recently, digital drawings. Angel still models and sometimes poses for what could be called pornography.
“I usually look at it as a kind of athleticism, especially if it’s video work and S&M, which I see as a physical challenge,” she said. “I don’t see my modeling as an art. I think sometimes I’m an artistic instrument in a photographer’s vision.”
When posing for sexual material Angel’s scenes include spanking, bondage, forced orgasm, and flogging. “At first I felt like I was on an endeavor as an actor but then I started to feel more like an athlete because it was so challenging,” Angel said. “I usually look at it as a kind of athleticism, especially if it’s video work and S&M, which I always see as a physical challenge. It’s definitely more in the direction of endurance.”
One of the sites that features Angel’s sexual work is BurningAngel.com, which, like other internet-based media companies that focus on sex, has several varietals under its masthead. The site describes itself as alt porn, featuring “punk rock, tattoo, goth, and emo” women. The site has a thin layer of social networking connecting the various videos, photo shoots, and non-sequitur celebrity interview.
Each model has her own hub page where they list where they were born, what sexual preferences they have, and what their favorite books are. Members of the site can create a profile of their own, send friend requests to models and other members, tag models as favorites, write blogs, and write testimonials for others. Members can also comment on photo sets and videos, which point back to their own profiles, creating an illusion of proximity between the objects of fantasy and the crotch gazer.
The model is similar to the Suicide Girls community of homemade sex celebrities, but BurningAngel is closer in tone and substance to a traditional pornography company. Their models are all young and slender, and their shoots are presented from the familiar angles and postures designed for maximum exposure to the viewer rather than maximum pleasure for the participants.
User-generated “tube” sites have also helped break down the barrier between sex actor and sex viewer, making minor stars out of weekend hobbyists. Cole Maverick and Hunter, for instance, are a Boston couple that started posting their homemade sex videos online and were eventually able to earn a full-time living form it. Elsewhere, there is a fecund network of sex-based Tumblr blogs that harvest isolated pictures from traditional porn and interspersed with literary quotes, found text, and cropped reader photos.
Destroying the prejudicial barrier between sex actors and the society they serve is an old dream. This was the liberalizing hope of Deep Throat and the people who rallied around it four decades ago. That fight was lost, pushing porn into a niche of self-replicating dross. Ironically, porn became more and more familiar, with stripper-chic proliferating in the 80s and 90s and, by the early years of the 21st century, the idea of identifying with pornography became its own kind of unapologetic form of social rebellion. A porn star ran for governor of California, Girls Gone Wild transformed into an aesthetic, and Howard Stern became an admired interviewer for his sexual confessionalism and his willingness to ask celebrities if they were open to “third input.”
The embrasure of pole dancing classes and fully shaved genitalia became a sign of the crumbling social standards of earlier generations. Bill Clinton was thrice accused of sexual assault, a sundry list of congressmen and senators have discovered the pleasures of hetero- and homosexual adultery, Anthony Wiener showed the world his penis, and celebrity sex tapes seem to appear almost monthly. Cinema meanwhile has veered back to the gauzy dreams of convergence from the Deep Throat years with Chloe Sevigny’s sentimental blowjob in The Brown Bunny, Lars von Trier’s penetration shot in Antichrist, and, Catherine Breillat’s casting of Euro porn he-man Rocco Siffredi in Romance. All of which brings up the question of whether the idea of pornography is necessary anymore.
“I’m not anti-pornography, but I definitely don’t think my work is pornographic at all,” Tony Stamolis told me. Stamolis is a photographer with two book collections, Frezno and T & T & A (Tacos & Tits & Ass). His work has also been featured in Taschen’s The Big Book of Pussy and The New Erotic Photography. “I actually enjoy reading about a lot of porn more than I enjoy watching it. I think Fleshbot is hilarious, the way it’s broken down is not dirty and pervy, it’s really campy and funny.”
Much of Stamolis’s work involves topless or naked women in simple poses. Sometimes his work is seductive and sometimes the nudity almost incidental; a living texture in contrast with the crumbling stucco and drywall of Fresno, California. At other times his use of nudity is an indulgence unto itself, a naked laugh accompanying an overstuffed taco and its glistening clumps of roasted meat and guacamole.
“Whenever I see a great location I always think that adding a naked woman would make it that much better,” Stamolis said. “I take a lot of photos of women wearing clothes, but there’s like some weird need every now and then to just shoot a naked woman.”
“When I did Frezno the designers first layout of the book only had a couple of nudes and I had to tell him to put more in, I just felt without them it would be boring. Just a book of naked women would be boring, but within a context, if there’s something else to compare them to, that’s interesting. Being naked in front of the camera is both vulnerable and powerful at the same time, and that’s just Fresno to me.”
Even still it’s tempting to project into sexual media some superstitious darkness, ghost stories echoing from one porn performer to another. In Girlvert, Oriana Small’s memoir of her years as a sex actor called Ashley Blue, she recounts a simultaneously troubled and innocent beginning. She’d been raised by a single mother with a severe addiction, and then left home for Hollywood.
She fell in love with a slinky young fairyboy called Tyler, who had an appreciation for the rough porn made by the company Anabolic, whose extremely physical scenes often climaxed with a woman vomiting on a penis after having been “throat-fucked” to a point where her body would finally revolt.
“The sex itself wasn’t what dehumanized me,” Small wrote. “It actually made me feel more of a human being, while simultaneously connecting me deeply to an animal world. The dehumanizing happened outside of the scene, at home, in the hands of the ones I loved.”
If you look carefully, you can see a glimpse of Small’s life memorialized in abstraction by her work in sex films. “I had to soar,” she wrote. “I wanted to live fully, extraordinarily, not just eking by with some weekend gang bangs from time to time. I realized I had never pursued much in my life with pure gusto, courage, and passion, and often felt caged, dull, and bored. Now, considering the far reaches sex could be pushed to, I felt free.”
The idea of throat fucking became an especially personal one for her. Small suffered from bulimia and became known for her ability to put her fist into her mouth–part kink, part performance art, and part personal signature. “Only in porn would a person’s wretched habit of shoving her hand all the way down her throat be considered a talent,” she wrote.
“I was praised and encouraged to puke and fist my mouth. It was perfect. I loved myself and my eating disorder. Every time I sucked a cock, the hand had to go in first, laying bare the darkest part of my soul.”
Such confessions can trigger pious discomfort in some people, proof positive that pornography is undergirded by emotional sickness. Yet the presumption that acting something out sexually is worse than acting it out in some other form argues against itself. One could try and tame one’s ghosts through painting, fiction, or directing an allegorical bulimia movie, but seeing sex as a medium that reflects anything other than nerve-ending exaltation is a step too far. We have created the category of art to preserve this fantasy, we cannot encounter unidealized moments of sexuality without needing to subjugate them, separating them from the more flattering euphemisms that decorate our other media.
It’s sad to think of sex as private, a word that points us back to the Latin for single or individual. Considering sex as something inappropriate for public address prolongs solipsism, preserving the imperial narrowness of shame. When we do occasionally run across the alien ghosts of pornography, people who have no more embarrassment about having sex on camera than they would crying on cue, we place it in the most thoughtless context, a thing that’s used instead of seen. To use a thing and leave it empty in our wake is to exempt ourselves from ownership of the same thrumming machines we watch on the screen, speaking in tongues and chasing tails as if they had lives separate from our own.
*Images via Tony Stamolis and Annika Angel
** “Back from the Dead: 6 Ghost Stories” via Dennis Cooper’s The Weaklings (Contains nudity)
“The Geek Kings of Smut” via New York Magazine
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