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In the Raw: “Home-Made” Porn and Reality Genres

Abstract: This paper is an exploration of the growing taste for amateur or “reality” pornography, situating it within the larger context of the rise of reality genres more generally. It sees such a preference as one possible response to the onslaught of images of perfection and the cult of the body beautiful, and thus as a mode of resistance to consumer culture. A “taste for the ordinary” must be understood not only as an erotic preference but also as a part of complex shifts in the very idea of ordinariness. This paper draws on interviews with people working in the image industries, including a maker of homemade porn, to explore the paradoxes of this interest in the mundane.

“… I am tangled in a web of seeing”
James Elkins, The Object Stares Back 74

“Everyone likes to see the average guy and girl next door getting it on.”
Photographic editor for an Australian magazine publishing house

In his well-known reading of striptease, semiotician Roland Barthes claimed that striptease was, ultimately, a chaste affair, since the stripper’s nudity was so ritualised as to negate its erotic value. Professional performance turns the stripper’s nakedness into something “unreal, smooth and enclosed like a beautiful slippery object” (92). Barthes argued that there was far more eroticism in the “weakness and timorousness” of the amateur than in the “miraculous ease” of the professional (93). In a conceptual move that anticipated post-structuralism, Barthes saw the professional stripper’s nudity as artifice rather than authenticity. His implied preference for the rawness of the amateur over the slickness of the professional has been viewed with some suspicion. Jennifer Blessing suggests that Barthes’ preference for the less proficient amateur over the masterful professional might amount to a sexist preference for a woman evidently “in lack.” Be that as it may, it’s interesting to note that Barthes, writing in 1957, anticipated a wave of popular taste that was to come several decades later. His implied preference for raw beginners anticipates the development of an erotics/aesthetics that gained great momentum in the 1990s – that is, a growing interest in watching “real people” rather than the glamorous bodies and stilted scripts of traditional commercial porn.

This essay is a study of that erotic preference for “ordinary” people rather than the glamorised bodies of commercial porn, using different kinds of “home-made” heterosexual porn as examples.1 Rather than focussing on sexual politics or censorship, it centres on questions to do with subject formation and identity work in the digital age.2 I believe that discussions about the contexts in which we develop as people in late modernity have a lot to offer debates on pornography. This paper is a preliminary study only. It is an invitation to consider a particular question of sexual taste – the growing preference for ‘authentic’ porn – within the context of the rise of reality and confessional genres more generally.

In the postmodern world, many of the pictures we live with are sexualised images of youth and perfection. They have become part of the air we breathe. Like them or not, we cannot ignore them and we constantly respond to them in both conscious and unconscious ways. Sometimes we choose to emulate the images we see; at other times, we may reject them as ideals. Several decades of extremely intense pressure on ordinary people to emulate the increasingly fabricated images they see around them are beginning to produce a backlash. The taste for the ordinary can be seen as a reaction to the glut of glamour media images with which we are all constantly bombarded, and reality genres are, at least in part, bound up in this.

The last couple of decades have seen an exponential rise in reality genres of many kinds. Since the 1990s, mainstream television has become saturated with these genres, from the recycled footage genres (à la Greatest Car Crashes), to lifestyle programs (cooking and gardening shows, including those with a game element, like Changing Rooms or Backyard Blitz), to the more dramatic games such as Big Brother and Survivor. New televisual forms have rapidly evolved and they will no doubt continue to do so in order to keep pace with viewer sophistication. Jon Dovey has identified four categories within televisual camcorder genres alone: happenstance amateur video, surveillance-derived programs, covert investigative films, and self-made diary projects (58). TV networks have been keen on such genres because they are cheap (minimising the costs of scriptwriters and actors), and because they tap into voyeuristic impulses that prove popular with audiences. The 1990s wasn’t the birth of a desire for authentic. It was, however, the decade of its institutionalisation as a major televisual form (Dovey 55).

It was also the decade in which reality genres boomed within pornography, after the “early murmurings” of the amateur phenomenon in the mid-80s (O’Toole 181). Technological changes have been rapid over the last few decades, and have impacted on both the economics of porn production and the cultures of porn viewing. The invention of the VCR, for example, was responsible for the downturn in the so-called “golden age” of porn – when pornography was shot on film, watched in cinemas, and often had high production values (O’Toole 75-76). The VCR helped fuel the advent of commercially made video porn as a major mass industry, by making porn cheaper, more widely available and more easily consumed at home than either cinematic porn or early domestic forms like home-made photographs or Super-8 movies. O’Toole names 1986-1990 as the peak era for low-grade pornographic videos (180). The recent explosion of “real”3 porn corresponds to the Internet and other digital technologies (like scanners and digital cameras), which allow people to post images of themselves to the world rapidly and anonymously. Home-made porn existed well before the Internet. Three things, however, seem to me to be distinctive about the kind of technological explosion made possible by digital technologies and the Internet: first, the sheer scale, reach and quantity of pornographic images it makes available; second, the increased visibility of pornographic practices (in the sense that many different kinds of porn become available, or known about, to any home in which there is a computer connected to the Internet); and third, changes to the experience of privacy itself, owing to the ambiguously public/private nature of the Internet.4 As a technology, the Internet helps fuel moral change – since it encourages both anonymity (and hence experimentation) and community (which encourages both the sharing of interests and a consequent push towards moral normalisation).

Reality genres will undoubtedly impact on both the experience and the conceptualisation of personal identity. To understand this, it’s useful to recap the argument of French philosopher Michel Foucault, who claimed that modernity gave rise to a new form of identity formation – one based on the internalisation of disciplinary power rather than subjection to external, spectacular power. By this he meant that social control has come to take place via internalised self-surveillance as much if not more so than by visible external force. Foucault pointed out that new forms of identity work have been made possible – indeed mandated – by the rise of psychology as a discipline and the related widespread focus on “selfhood” and interiority. Foucault argued that modern subjects are constantly engaged in a process of self-making, which he called “the labour of the self on the self,” and he was particularly interested in the way sexual practices have come to be at the foreground of modern people’s idea of their own identity. Digital technologies both extend and transform such identity work, by making possible new forms of images and new circuits of exchange.

Visual images play a major role in identity work. Images have always had great cultural and psychological power, but especially so in the late-modern world, in which they constitute a major technology of the self. As James Elkins puts it, “We want to be pictures, not just to be in them, and so when I look at a picture I am also looking at myself, at a way that I might be” (85). This is especially the case with sexual images, since we have come to see sex (including, for example, sexual preference, sexual taste and sex appeal) as at the core of both our public persona and our deepest sense of self.

Despite their intimacy, sexual images circulate fairly freely in modern societies. Sex has, as Ken Plummer puts it bluntly, “become the Big Story,” transforming the public sphere into what he calls a “veritable erotopian landscape” (4). It has leaked out of the private sphere, to help produce a society with quite contradictory relations to sex and privacy. The public sphere has become highly sexualised and yet as a society we have also in many ways become physically more private.5 For the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, the inner and the outer worlds have been turned inside out, in a process he calls the “forced extroversion of all interiority, the[e] forced injection of all exteriority” (“Ecstasy” 132). For Baudrillard, the explosion of private matters into the public sphere is a paradox – it has brought about “the end of interiority and intimacy” (133). In other words, for Baudrillard, postmodernity involves the death of the distinction between the public and private spheres, since that which was once considered private is now manifest in the public sphere, and the public sphere enters even our most intimate of moments, whether we want it to or not. Of course, it’s more accurate to say that postmodernity has brought about complex changes to the meanings and experience of intimacy and disclosure rather than saying that the distinction between public and private no longer exists.

Foucault has analysed this process rather less apocalyptically, charting the rise of what he calls confessional technologies. These are forms of self-scrutiny that need not be performed in public but that inevitably have a public dimension, in that modern people come to conceive of themselves as an individual interiority that expresses itself. That is, we conceive of our “true self” as locked within, and we seek ways to discover and express it. (This is in contrast with pre-modern conceptions of the self, which focus less on individuality and interiority than on identity as formed out of social roles and kinship structures.) In postmodern times, these forms of self-making have become increasingly public, in two senses: first, we rely on public images to a large extent in determining who we are; and second, there is an increasing encouragement to describe our personal identity in public. In the words of Jon Dovey, intimate revelation has become “a key part of the public performance of identity” (1).

This has inevitably changed not only our private selves, but also the very idea of a private self. Over recent years, longstanding democratic discourses celebrating “ordinary people” (“unsung heroes,” “little people,” “battlers”) have begun to change flavour a little, in ways that suggest that the classic dynamics of the celebrity system are beginning to change. In the face of celebrity overkill, the idea of “ordinariness” is receiving a lot of attention, at least in Australia (where championing the underdog has always been an important part of the national character). Ordinariness continues to work in two directions. On the one hand, the celebrity dynamic continues to remind us that even stars are ‘ordinary people,” via interviews, unauthorised biographies, paparazzi shots and so on. On the other hand, a democratic (and occasionally rambunctious) celebration of “ordinary people” has been given new weight by the technological changes that have democratised access to image-making technologies and to circuits of both amateur and commercial exchange of images. Celebrating the ordinary can be not only a rejection of celebrity culture but also a paradoxical expansion of it – to include us all! And home-made genres can form part of both of these moves – democratising celebrity by allowing everyone to participate in highly prized image-making practices, or rejecting celebrity culture altogether, and bypassing the controls of commercial producers.

This, then, is the complex technological, economic and aesthetic climate within which the contemporary taste for erotic authentica is growing.

Reality Porn

There are many phenomena that could be grouped under the heading of “reality porn” – from older forms like amateur erotic photographs and snapshots, to the Home Girls and Blokes pages of soft-porn magazines (where readers send in photos of themselves naked for cash),6 to exhibitionistic Internet sites like JenniCam (www.boudoir.org), to sexy reality TV shows like Loft Story. While this essay focuses on video porn (with some occasional comparisons with still photos), the trend towards “rawness” is evident in other erotic forms, from explicit snapshots, to the Home Girls pages of tabloid magazines, to “live” phone sex lines and chat rooms. While all these forms are important, video is a major pornographic medium.7 Moreover, it is, according to Jon Dovey, “the form that represents better than any other the shifting perimeters of the public and the private” (55).

There has always been some sort of parallel system between public and private sexual images. Before the advent of video, there existed a minor home practice of erotic still photography and Super 8 film. While this latter format has been superseded, home-made erotic photography still exists, using both Polaroid cameras and commercially developed photographs.8 It is likely that the popularity of home-made images may have receded a little during the high era of commercially produced pornography on a mass scale (with the exception of images catering to minority and criminal sexual tastes). Regardless, the dominance of the mainstream industry has in any case now produced its own saturation effect, which has helped give rise to the current twin system, in which commercially produced porn vies with the increasing popularity of “real” porn made both by amateurs and professionals. According to a director of home-made porn, “Keith,”9 around 70% of Internet porn is amateur. Whether or not this is so, the figure for video rather than Internet porn is significantly lower, though not insubstantial; Jon Dovey cites one assertion that amateur porn might constitute 25% of all the hard-core videotapes in circulation (67).

Technological developments such as the Polaroid, VCRs, spy cameras and mics, hand-held video cameras, and the Internet have helped to create new occasions and opportunities for the staging of the self.10 In a claim that might be seen to support Foucault’s argument about the increasingly intense, varied and intimate nature of late-modern identity work, Keith sees the boom in home sex videos as part of the psychological turn: “I think people want to relate to people.” While he didn’t explicitly theorise a connection between the widespread interest in psychology and the audience’s increasing aesthetic sophistication, the two flow together in his explanation:

All of a sudden [in the 1970s] there was this availability of people having sex [on video] and it didn’t really matter whether you related to it because it’s the first time you’ve actually seen people have sex. Now that you’ve seen it for ten or fifteen years, …all of a sudden I think… “I don’t relate to the people that are on these films.” . . . . I think people want to relate. . . The late 90s saw a huge, huge popularity of the Ricky Lakes etc, where you see the pseudo-real tragedy on television. I think that holds a big part in people’s desire to watch real people be naked or have sex. To answer your question in a nutshell, I think people want to relate, I think people want to see people like themselves.

In other words, psychology and genre go hand in hand. “Reality” has become a “style,” able to be borrowed in advertising, music clips and mainstream movies (Dovey 58). This style brings with it a powerful trio of viewer associations and expectations – the expectation of truth, the sense of intimacy, and the mobilisation of voyeurism. This powerful cluster is, according to Dovey, fundamental to all uses of video footage on TV (70-71). Dovey argues for the connection between the different forms of voyeurism engaged by the different kinds of reality and confessional genres: “I [i.e. we] take voyeuristic pleasure in seeing other people’s ‘real’ beatings, crimes, medical traumas, emotional confessions, exposures and so on “(70). This interpretation has the merit of locating reality porn within the larger context of other forms of screened reality and of confessional genres more generally. This helps focus attention on the conjunction of authenticity, privacy and voyeurism as key elements in an understanding of the phenomenon, as well as locating it within the domain of identity work.

With that in mind, I’d like to turn now to three related practices of erotic video photography that use “ordinary” people: home-made sex videos for private use; professionally made sex videos for private use; and professionally made porn using ordinary people, sold on the open market. The major distinction here is between two forms of production – professional and amateur – but even these categories become blurred, as amateurs swap, exchange and sell such products over the Internet. These practices blur traditional distinctions between the commercial and the non-commercial.

Much of the discussion that follows is drawn from an interview with the director Keith. It opens up a number of questions that have not, it seems, been widely studied either by those interested in pornography or in reality genres more generally.11 Keith is intelligent, articulate, and has a coherent philosophy of pornography. There is no reason to believe, though, that his practice and his philosophy are typical. The following discussion, then, makes no claims to representativeness, but it does aim to open up some ideas about the taste for rawness.

I. Privately-made sex videos

The practice of making sex videos at home for personal use is a covert one, and difficult to track both statistically and qualitatively. It presumably began as soon as video cameras became available to the public. The home-made phenomenon initially threatened the dominance of commercially made video porn. Production companies responded by distributing such videos, making them themselves, or mimicking them (O’Toole 181). O’Toole, however, claims that the novelty has palled and that the threat has receded. He claims that amateur porn is now “just another subgenre” (181). This claim differs from those cited above; clearly, such phenomena are difficult to track.

Home-made sex videos can be domestic objects (destined for private use) and/or part of an amateur swap-or-sell network. Laurence O’Toole claims that in the mid 80s, when the first glimmerings of the amateur phenomenon appeared, the production values of commercially made porn were often very low anyway, and so consumers didn’t experience much sense of quality loss (181). But now, as with camcorder forms more generally, the stylistic “naturalness” of the home-made sex video has become an aesthetic unto itself. Its technical features (e.g. graininess, blurriness, and poor lighting) would often be considered flaws in public genres, but in private they function as values in themselves, signs of indexicality and authenticity. It should be no surprise that authenticity itself should have become an erotic stimulant. After all, it functions as an enticement (and a commercial value) in a range of cultural systems, from advertising to high art to tourism. Authentic objects, places and images resonate with what Walter Benjamin famously described as an “aura,” and this aura has economic as well as cultural value.

While authenticity remains as forceful a cultural value as ever, it operates as part of a complex dynamic. In a world in which visual reproductions proliferate, two opposite relations to authenticity can be observed – on the one hand, the desire for and fetishisation of the real, and on the other, the enjoyment of fakery, role-play and performance. This dynamic goes hand in hand with the rapid evolution, mutation and hybridisation of genres that is a feature of contemporary visual culture. As Baudrillard put it, “relations of contagion and unspoken analogy” bring different forms of image-making into conjunction (Evil Demon 20). So, too, with the home-made sex video, one of whose generic cousins is the celebrity sex video or photographs, a mini-genre that is itself quite multiple.

Both the quest for reality and the joy in fakery drive this genre, which has quite a vigorous semi-underground market. In 1997, model Elle MacPherson, for example, was blackmailed for $US 60,000 after eight graphic nude photos of her were allegedly stolen from her boyfriend’s wallet, the blackmailers threatening to publish them on the Internet. Australian singer Debra Byrne also suffered a famous loss. Her house was burgled (by an acquaintance, it transpired) and a video of Byrne and her lover was stolen. The police caught the burglar and returned Byrne’s possessions but kept the tape for some time, ostensibly for fingerprinting purposes. Eight months later, Byrne discovered that her tape had been copied (seemingly by police) and was doing the rounds of masculine coteries – detectives, football clubs, media outlets and fire brigades. The reach and the rapidity of circulation of pirated images is enormous. A Sydney Morning Herald article claimed that an estimated 50% of Americans saw a bootleg copy of a video of actor Rob Lowe having sex with two young women (Williams).

Genuine images pander to both our voyeurism and our fetishisation of authenticity. But fake images can also generate both excitement and money. Video footage purporting to be of Mimi MacPherson (sister of the more famous Elle) and her boyfriend was quite openly being sold by hawkers in Sydney in 1997. MacPherson strenuously denied that the video was of her, but denials can be useless or even counter-productive, serving only to fuel the speculation. As McKenzie Wark says in his discussion of this incident, “The denial cannot countermand the will to suspend disbelief” (59). It doesn’t actually matter whether the blurry image is genuine or not; people enjoy either the possibility or the brazenness of the fakery.12 Thus, even if they’re not widely believed to be authentic, such images are still auratic, in Benjamin’s sense. The images themselves have something of celebrity about them, especially if they become well known through scandal. Authentic images, successful fabrications, and even fabrications never intended to be successful are all part of the story. There is a place in the “public fable” (Wark 59) for them all.13

Celebrity sex videos are evidence of the mutually “contaminating” exchanges that constitute visual culture. For example, such robberies themselves occasion other commodities – for example, discussions in popular magazines about the phenomenon. The home sex video appears as a motif within the image industries themselves, in the form of magazine articles about stolen videos, or films or sitcom episodes about missing or switched tapes. It’s probable that the popularity of home-made tapes has perversely been fuelled by sex video scandals of celebrities which, while they construct such tapes as dangerous objects, also publicise the practice and help make it enticing. The home-made sex video, whether made by ordinary people, celebrities, or forgers, is the archetypally dangerous postmodern object, bringing a range of seeming opposites into close conjunction – the intimate and the public, the commercial and the non-commercial, the authentic and the fake, celebrity and ordinariness. Its classic combination of “intimacy and indexicality” is high-modern; its conjunction of “domesticity and surveillance” (Dovey 67) confirms postmodern theorisations of the transformation of the private sphere.

II. Professional Authentica

The amateur is so prized that it has been professionalised via the paradoxical phenomenon of the professionally made home sex video. Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of such videos: one, where a couple has a video made of themselves for their own use, and the second, where a professional hires “real people” to “star” in videos that are scripted and staged to varying degree depending on the filmmaker, and which are sold to the public.

a) Commercially Made, For Home Use

“Apart from the cameraman it’s a private and personal business.”
(Advertisement for a video service, qtd. in Hepworth & Featherstone: 153)

Professionally made sex videos for personal use arose before the widespread introduction of the camcorder. Mike Hepworth and Mike Featherstone cite an advertisement for such a service in the early 80s in Britain:

Many folk like to see themselves making love, but until now the only way has been to produce a home movie. Often the results aren’t very good. We think it best to shoot the action in video. Customers get an instant replay and mistakes can be put right. To try to make things really interesting we work out some sort of script for the couple beforehand – give the thing a storyline like TV. Apart from the cameraman it’s a private and personal business. And the customer has the only copy of the film. We’re sure it will give a lot of happy memories. Who knows, couples might want to look at themselves in later years when all the passion has gone. (Qtd. in Hepworth & Featherstone: 153).

This text is very rich, bearing witness to many late-modern circumstances (the cult of youth, the redefinition of the public and the private, the narcissism encouraged by consumer culture, the commodification of sex and intimacy) and voicing many of the preoccupations of late-modern subjects (the desire for glamour, the fear of ageing, and the desire to preserve aspects of one’s life on film). Because of the intimacy of the professional encounter, the status of the filmmakers is uneasy – they are both insiders and outsiders. Potential clients are described as “folk” and “couples” as well as “customers.” Throughout, there is a conjunction of a cosy, homey lexicon (“folk,” “home movie,” “making love,” “happy memories”) with a gentle paternalism (“we think it best”). The idea of giving over one’s privacy to an external authority raises its own spectres, which are evoked and dispelled in one discreet sentence: “And the customer has the only copy of the film.” The ad is a little dated now, and you can see the discursive work that was going on at the time – particularly the redefining of boundaries between the public and private, the authentic and the fabricated. Unlike real life, mistakes can be corrected, so that, one’s imitation of the imitation can be as realistic as possible. Real life can be just like TV, and “the thing,” at last, gets the storyline it deserves. This aesthetic, then, is the very opposite of the grainy, unscripted tapes made at home.

It appears that the phenomenon of professionals filming couples to produce a video for their own private use is relatively minor. We might imagine that the cheapness and availability of camcorders will keep it so or indeed will render it obsolete. This form does, however, do something slightly different from either commercially made porn or the self-made video. First, it allows the subjects to participate in the glamour aesthetic, and to combine glamour and intimacy. Glamorising practices have an important role in a world where intense pressure is put on us to look good and where ongoing sexual fulfilment and novelty are widely shared ideals. Imitation is one way of gaining (or celebrating) a sense of sexual agency.

For some people, such tapes may also form part of the battery of memorialising practices in which most of us engage. This is certainly how the service quoted above advertised itself. Was that just a coy alibi, or can glamorous erotic photography be used as an anti-ageing strategy? Hepworth and Featherstone thought so; they discuss this ad as part of their study of ageing in modernity, in which they examine the rise of preservationist attitudes towards the body. (Laurence O’Toole also hints at this when he says that video has impacted on people’s sense of time, record and memory [282]). A number of people we interviewed who work in the erotic image industries felt that preserving the memory of one’s youthful body was, in fact, a motivation behind many forms of personal image making. The photographic editor of a major magazine company, for example, whose job involves recruiting women ‘off the streets’ as photographic models, thought that self-memorialisation motivated many women to work as naked models for erotic reality genres:

Frankly, what we find with photography, is that most women like a very good image of themselves and if they can be shown as a very sexy, alluring type of person, it has a real appeal to them as they feel like they’re getting older. After children, this is what I can still look like! It’s a very good ego boost.

Michael, a photographer specialising in naked glamour photography, agreed. His experience has suggested to him that the function of these photographs, whether of individuals or couples, is, broadly speaking, more often about confirmation than escapism. For example, couples are less likely to get glamour nude photos done at the beginning of their relationship than when they have successfully passed through obstacles, or when they’re well-established, or on the verge of losing their looks. Michael says:

These are people in their late 20s-early 30s who’ve gone through a rather difficult time, and they’ve got to a point now where they’re comfortable with themselves. Their body is kind of on the verge of – let’s be really ugly about it – falling apart; it’s not what it used to be, but internally, mentally, they’re feeling much more comfortable with themselves. And so they’ve got to a point now where they’re comfortable with themselves and they want to capture this youthfulness before it dissipates and this is a way of doing it.

The director Keith, on the other hand, disagrees that the professionally-made home sex video results from a preservationist relation to the body – for he believes that contemporary Westerners tend to disavow the thought of their own eventual ageing. When I showed him the above ad, he disagreed that recording oneself while in one’s prime is much of a motivation in the home-sex video game. Rather, he believes that the self-confirmatory functions of representations are the principal source of pleasure: “I think it’s the fact that we’re told that we have to have the perfect body and we have to have the perfect look and you need confirmation that you have it.” But he does not see this as a glamorising function, or about gaining access to a mode of being that until recently belonged only in the domain of the commercial:

As a society we’re a lot more body conscious now than we ever have been and it’s a reasonably new phenomenon. I think if you are working on your body and you have a certain pride in the fact that you have achieved a certain body look, I think it’s important that you see yourself and say, mmm, that’s working. . . [P]eople want to be looked at and people want to look at themselves and the body form that they create in whatever pose they’re in.

For Keith, the professionally made home-sex video is principally neither a preservationist nor a mimetic phenomenon, but one resulting from a dynamic that he considers absolutely fundamental to humans: that between exhibitionism and voyeurism. He is one of those people who believe that there are two types of people in the world. In his case, it’s voyeurs and exhibitionists. In keeping with this theory, Keith believes that many couples who have a film made would show it to others – or post it on the Internet. To my question as to whether watching oneself is a form of voyeurism, Keith replies, “I don’t know. I can play you some tapes.”

This, then, may be the second function of the professionally made video. The presence of external people and indeed of the camera itself would serve for some people as an erotic stimulus – making the act of recording as much about role-play and performance as about privacy and authenticity. While for some people, the presence of a camera and crew in the home would be an embarrassing intrusion, for others it would constitute an erotic moment in itself. It is possible then that this minor industry will not die out despite the ascendancy of the camcorder, for it caters to a taste for a public performance of intimacy.

b) Commercially Made, For Sale on the Open Market

Keith’s work is different from the service advertised above. It involves using “ordinary” people recruited via advertisements. The tapes are sold not to the participants but to customers over the Internet. Keith calls his brand of porn “real” porn, a term he preferred to my “home-made.” He calls it real because it is unscripted, undirected, unglamorised and only very rarely involves any fakery. Unlike the British example cited above, there is no script, and “mistakes” are left in: “‘I’ve got a cramp, ‘Get off my hair’ – it’s all in there.” Noises, farts, squelches – the “sounds of sex” – are recorded. Keith explicitly tells his participants not to glamorise themselves.

From the point of view of a critique of the cult of the body beautiful, this is really quite subversive. Keith is, in fact, quite explicit about his political agenda: ” I have huge agendas that I’m not secretive about and I tell the people that are auditioning what my agendas are.” His videos are made for both men and women, and they are not about turning subjects into glamorous objects. In fact, he explicitly tells participants not to glamorise themselves:

It’s actually a charter of mine – not written down – that I want to produce pornography for men and women. So I will give equal air time to men’s face, arses, backs, legs, toes, chests as I will the woman’s bottom, chest, legs, back. . . It’s very important to me and personally I find the human face the most erotic thing in the human body, as opposed to a dick going into a cunt which is essentially what commercially available pornography focuses on. . . . . I give as much time for women as men.

Keith is interested in combining commercial incentives with social interest ones. For example, he strenuously promotes safe sex and non-drug-use, and he wants to make pornography using, for example, lesbians, disabled people, and people over forty. In all of those cases, he explains, he is wanting to provide opportunities for under-represented groups to see themselves as sexual subjects, and he is most insistent that he will sell such tapes only to the relevant groups and not to a wider market.

Keith is, clearly, an unusually progressive maker of porn. He occasionally wonders whether his social agendas will be to his commercial detriment. I was interested in finding out the limits of Keith’s inclusiveness – not in order to catch him out, as it were, but to try and get a hint of the limits of what a commercial market will accept. Surely he must have to concede some ground to the glamour market? Well, perhaps:

Keith: Basically, what I cast is personality. It’s not so much about body image and shape and size and dick size and tit size. What it’s about is vitality and vivaciousness and. . . Most of the women that I’ve cast are Rubenesque in their appearance. It’s not about waif-like bimbettes.

Interviewer: Would there be forms of body that you wouldn’t use, or that you know just wouldn’t sell?

Keith: It’s a commercial venture. So if you’re 120 kilograms with a one-and-a-half inch dick, then odds-on you ain’t going to sell.

As a post-structuralist, I was also interested in suggesting to Keith that the “reality” he captures must necessarily be produced in relation to the norms of visual culture, especially commercially available porn. Keith admits that the authentic is never extra-discursive, in that his participants’ erotic ideas have had to come from somewhere, and he realises that this “somewhere” is by and large commercially available porn. Thus the paradox is that in seeking to make something different from mainstream porn, he has to rely on participants whose ideas are in fact formed in relation precisely to pre-existing ideas of the erotic. Nonetheless, the sheer number of participants in any given tape – scenes range from two participants to large groups – means that his tapes are inevitably marked by at least some measure of diversity and spontaneity: “We kind of get over that formulaic approach because we each have a different view of what it’s all about.” In the classic paradox known as the “be spontaneous” paradox, Keith also instructs his participants at the moment of audition not to imitate porn!

Keith recognises that it doesn’t take much to turn ordinariness into mimetic performance. This dilemma is reflected in his own uncertainty as to what the most appropriate terminology for his participants: “I’m stuck between model, actor or talent.” He runs a constant race against the “staginess” that always threatens to contaminate the authenticity he and his clients desire:

I have a rule – which is essentially [that] after a model, an actor, a piece of talent has made three or four scenes or tapes for me then I’m not going to use them again because they’re going to assume the bravado of being a porn star.

Authenticity (itself always already discursively produced) becomes staged authenticity with remarkable rapidity. Keith describes the transformation of one of his participants in just three weeks (and four shoots):

In the three weeks, his bravado, his persona has dramatically changed. . . . You could actually produce a graph to plot his… [original ellipsis] He had body hair. He’s progressively got rid of body hair, he has shaved pubic hair, he now has the most enormous rash – shaving rash – on his arse which I can’t shoot. . . . He [has] gained a significant amount of confidence.

Given the inevitability of this phenomenon whereby the desirable ordinariness of real people gets contaminated by performance so rapidly, Keith plans to start up another branch of his company where he’ll produce more traditional porn and make use of “the people that think they’re porn stars.”

It is evident that Keith is not a typical maker of pornography. He is tertiary trained (indeed, a graduate of feminist subjects on gender and sexuality), and his aesthetics of porn is bound up very explicitly in an ethics and a politics. He considers himself a feminist (and a “masculinist”), and his ideology is liberal:

I find it really objectionable that women object to women expressing and wanting to share in sexuality. I find that so offensive. I just want to slap a woman that says “No, you can’t watch pornography!” How dare she? I find it inconceivable.

For me, brought up on a feminist distaste for porn and a deep suspicion of the economics that underlie it, it is a strange thing to even contemplate the idea that “raw” porn might be progressive. But put beside the worked-over, unblemished, white-bread perfection of glamour porn (and indeed, of standard women’s fashion magazines) the imperfect, blemished bodies of Keith’s participants were something of a relief. The process clearly has the potential to be liberating for the participants too, given the importance of image-making practices to identity, including sexual identity. Avedon Carol has suggested that amateur porn was “a woman-led development,” an extension of the (supposedly) feminine desire to record events (qtd. in O’Toole: 180). Whether or not this is so, the development of a female and couples market in pornography is a major trend. But in a consumerist society in which dislike of one’s body is increasingly being imposed on men as well as on women, it is not only women who will celebrate any moments outside of this regime. Keith described, for example, the response of one of his male participants:

I had one guy who literally had a tear in his eye auditioning for me and said, “Thank you so much for taking the time, thank you so much for allowing me” – I actually cried after he left – “Thank you so much for giving me the time. Thank you so much for allowing me to get over my phobia about doing this, allowing me to feel valid and non-dirty, etc etc. I know you’re not going to use me in these films but I just so appreciate the opportunity to get over this barrier and express myself.” A lot of people use the opportunity to do this to get over those phobias.

Whatever else it taps into, perhaps the “home” porn phenomenon also opens up possibilities for valuing the body as the home of feeling, memory, subjectivity, experience, over the emptied, perfected, universalised body of the glamorous pin-up nude.

Having said that, it must be made clear that one cannot a priori idealise the home-made as a progressive genre in itself. Anti-objectification is not, however, intrinsic to his chosen mode of the “home-made.” Rather, it is a function of beliefs and ideologies, which are reflected in the recruitment and filming strategies of the maker:

Again, I think it depends on the marketing and I think it depends on the type of audience. We as producers of stuff – not me personally but as a society – I think we’re a lot more canny about how we package stuff. I think a lot of commercial producers perhaps have the mindset of objectifying women. [They] package and market and produce stuff from perhaps the home made and amateur point of view but still follow the mindset and mode of operating of traditional porn. I think there’s a difference between the true home made and the commercial, the professional home made.

There are plenty of other porn-makers working within the home-made aesthetic who in no way share Keith’s values or ideals, and there are many truly nasty aspects to the interest in “reality” – from snuff videos to Internet sites frequented by adolescents in which one scores a photo of a real person (male or female) on a scale from one to ten and then compares one’s selections with the “norm” (www.hotornot.com). This is a reality-fantasy based entirely on objectification – not a rejection of glamour logic but an invidious extension of it. “Reality” is not neutral ethical, political or emotional territory. On the contrary, whenever things are done in the name of “reality,” we can be assured that something important is at stake.

Conclusion: Reality Genres, Reality Fetish

One of the most common feminist arguments about pornography has been that it objectifies women. This continues to be, however, a vexed question, both politically and conceptually, even among those critical of porn. Susan Bordo, for example, rejects the idea that objectification is at the base of pornography. Rather, she sees non-violent heterosexual porn as structured around a particular form of subjectivity, albeit highly a circumscribed one – that of the utterly available, utterly welcoming, woman. Bordo claims that pornography has at its heart a kind of vulnerability, since its underlying fantasy is not so much the objectification of woman as the “fantasy-land in which male desire is always welcomed and the male body never rejected, no matter what it looks like or what it does” (706).14 Perhaps porn is best seen to rely on a tension between fantasies of availability and unavailability. This is, in fact, one of the dominant dynamics structuring the public sphere more generally; it is, as Richard Dyer has argued for many years now, the fundamental dynamic underpinning the celebrity system. Jon Dovey likewise points out that even standard commercial porn, no matter how corny, always needs the “realistic” starting point for the fantasy to work (68). Pornographic narratives have, he claims, always relied on “a semblance of realism” to engage the viewer.

So is the reality in reality porn simply different in degree but not in kind from the semblance of realism that arguably structures all porn fantasies? Dovey here usefully introduces the concept of fetish into his discussion. Writing about the use of video footage within the conventional documentary, he says that “actuality footage” is generally used for its evidential status. That is, it is used to support an argument or narrative (59). By contrast, he argues, in the new camcorder genres actuality is the raison d’être of the entire program. These genres, he claims, make a fetish of reality itself, with video evidence “replayed over and over, slowed down, grabbed, processed, de- and re-constructed for our entertainment and horror” (59). A fetish is a stand-in for something we aren’t able to grasp whole. Dovey’s argument is that reality footage might give us the illusion that we have got a handle on ungraspable reality; reality porn, then, would eroticise the idea of reality itself.

This seems to accord with Keith’s reading of the phenomenon. According to Keith, the proliferation of sexualised images has meant that the fantasy of unattainability has lost its power:

I would imagine a het guy sitting on a het couch with his het wife watching porn. He’s probably going to say [of a “real” video], “That’s possibly a woman that I could have sex with. The silicon blonde bimbo with the fishnets and stilettos I’m never going to get, but I can actually relate to that woman. I could possibly get to fuck her, so therefore it’s more appealing to me.

In other words, this filmmaker sees the shift as one from fantasies of unattainability to fantasies of attainability:

You see, pornography’s no longer a fantasy because it’s so available. We see it on billboards, we see it on TV, we see it certainly in the availability of X-rated porn, we see it in magazines… I think the [new] fantasy is that attainability.

So how does that tally with the idea that all desire involves a deferral of the possibilities of its own satisfaction? To answer this, Keith makes a distinction between sexual desire, need and fantasy:

I think there’s a difference between fantasy and sexual need and sexual fulfillment. I think the amateur and the home-made – the real – serves the desire and the need side of the market, and I think the stripper, and the removed-from-proximity represents the fantasy side of things.

I don’t agree with him that fantasy and reality can be so neatly separated. “Rawness” itself can function as a fantasy, as Keith himself attested when he alluded to the new fantasy of attainability. Keith’s own examples make it clear that even spontaneous “authenticity” is not unmediated, whether it be the obviously staged video made by professionals in your home, or the less obviously staged home-sex video. In all cases, the “authentic” is produced within unofficial genres whose codes are established in tacit relation to those of more public genres, ranging from pornography, to pin-up photography, nudist magazines, photographic manuals, cartoons, tabloid magazines, boudoir photography and fine art.

In this regard, I think sociologist Dean MacCannell’s concept of “staged authenticity” is of use, even though one of its key arguments – that we encounter reality not as a raw plenitude but as a series of staged encounters – is by now a well-established theoretical precept. MacCannell coined this term as part of his analysis of the experiences of Western tourists visiting “exotic” locations. He argued that these visits were structured by a discontent with Western modernity and a longing to temporarily reclaim the perceived authenticity and naturalness of non-Western cultures. Modernity is characterised by elegies about progress and development, but these are always underpinned by ambivalence, if not downright discontent, at that which modernity has destroyed along the way. In other words, MacCannell diagnosed modernity as a state of lament, loss and fantasy.

Many years have passed since MacCannell’s book first appeared, and some would say that the tourist – desperately seeking the real – has been well and truly replaced by the post-tourist, happily (or at least resignedly) enjoying the fakery (Feifer, see Urry: 110). And yet, I believe that MacCannell still hits the mark in two crucial ways: first, his insight that we haven’t lost our desire for authenticity holds good, more than ever. In a world in which we are all encouraged to perform our subjectivity in public, “the private” becomes even more strongly fetishised as it disappears. We long for a glimpse of private things, knowing full well that we help change or destroy the realm of privacy the more we consume it. Of course, this desire for the ever-receding real is matched by an awareness of, and often a joy in, performance itself. Postmodern culture is thus characterised less by a simple desire for and romanticisation of authenticity (although this still very much exists) as by a complex mixture of attitudes – desire for the real, fetishisation of the real, resignation to the fact that the real is always elusive, fun in fakery, and celebration of the delights of role-play and performance. In the case of reality porn, both these impulses are evident – it is popular because of its “truthfulness,” and yet no participant could be unaware of the performative dimensions (indeed, for some, this is the pleasurable part of the process). In that sense, the product itself and the process of its making call up different relations to reality, and the various forms of reality porn offer up different forms of participation.

MacCannell’s second relevant insight is his insistence that reality is experienced via genres, and that the attempt to escape genre produces only another genre. Clearly, even such intimate genres as reality porn are produced in relation to erotic ideas, staging conventions, narrative conventions, ideas of character that come from elsewhere – not only from classically produced porn, but also from a range of other genres, from Hollywood movies to high art paintings.

Put together, these two insights – the never-ending quest for a reality that always eludes the searcher, and the genre-savviness of the questor – suggest that reality porn can never be an endpoint. The desire for authentica will continue and will eventually make the current genres seem stale and artificial. In the case of television reality genres, it is clear that audiences are already savvy. Certainly, the reaction of my students to programs like Big Brother and Survivor shows that they are well aware how such naturalness is staged and produced. This is why these genres evolve so fast. One of the questions that reality porn poses, then, is what lies beyond it? When this “authentic” porn no longer feels authentic, where will porn go? What will prove to be more authentic than reality? We will have to wait and see.

With thanks to Kath Albury, Jean Burgess, Alan McKee and the anonymous readers for JMB for their helpful comments.

Notes

1 Although this study describes only heterosexual porn, it is clear that gay porn, whatever its own specificity, also takes place within the broader rise of confessional and reality genres. The principal interviewee in this study, Keith, intends to make porn with and for lesbians, using the same principles and methods of his current work.

2 For the most part, I’m avoiding questions of sexual politics, although I do discuss the question a little. One needs to be wary, though, of speaking generally, since there is nothing inherently oppressive or liberating about reality genres. Questions of politics rely, at least in part, on textual and contextual matters – like where the money goes, who’s holding the camera, who’s doing the watching, how the film is shot, how participants were recruited and treated, as well as the nature of the sexual acts depicted.

3 My use of inverted commas around “real” and “authentic” signals my post-structuralist conviction that these genres do not capture an unmediated reality. In the interests of readability, I do not always use inverted commas, but they should be taken as an unwritten part of the argument. Recognising that even “reality” genres are discursively produced does not mean, of course, that they are to be understood as simply the same as more stylised genres.

4 Cf Jane Juffer: “On the one hand, computer consumption of porn is intensely private, occurring not only in the privacy of one’s home (or cubicle/office at work) but also in the isolated, ephemeral interaction of user and screen. On the other hand, the consumption is intensely public, in that information proliferates and spreads to numerous sites, transgressing the physical boundaries that make other kinds of porn outlets, such as bookstores and theaters, much more easily identifiable and regulatable” (51).

5 In making this claim, I am drawing on Norbert Elias’ sociology of manners, The Civilizing Process. Elias’ main argument is that modernisation was characterised by an advance in what he calls the “embarrassment threshold.” Bodily functions (e.g. excretion, sex, or nudity) were increasingly privatised in social life, and in psychological life they were rendered shameful, via the installation and internalisation of new taboos.

6 I have made a detailed study of this phenomenon elsewhere. See Ruth Barcan, “Home on the Rage.” See also Kath Albury, “Homie-Erotica.”

7 Laurence O’Toole claims that the pornographic magazine has become “a rather stagnant form,” valued mainly because of its portability and its relative discreetness (xiv).

8 The Polaroid used to be popular because it avoided the public nature of commercial photo development. According to one of our interviewees who worked in a suburban photo-lab, plenty of explicit material now comes through for commercial processing, and is treated liberally by most processors, unless acts involving children are depicted.

9 The research for this paper forms part of a much larger project on the meanings of nudity in contemporary Australia. Interviews for this project were carried out as part of two studies funded by the University of Western Sydney: the first, an F.G. Swain New Researcher Award, and the second, an Internal Research Grant. All participants’ names are pseudonyms. I would like to thank all participants for their time and insight. Many thanks, too, to the research assistants who gave their time and expertise to this project. In the case of the interviews cited here, thanks are due to Linda Barcan.

10 Pornography is also a major driver of technological advances (see O’Toole 369).

11 There does not appear to be a large-scale study of this phenomenon. Jon Dovey’s excellent book on reality TV contains a few pages’ discussion of reality porn; Katherine Albury’s forthcoming book, Yes Means Yes, contains a chapter on home-made porn.

12 O’Toole follows his comments on the obvious playfulness of many of these videos with a reminder that many of us exhibit a strong will to believe: “The yearning is such, the gullibility of some porners so huge, that spoof ‘ads’ for such far-out materials [i.e. outrageously faked pictures – for example of Julia Roberts having sex with a team of huskies] nearly always find eager takers mailing back saying, ‘Gimme, gimme, gimme, I’m in!'” (279).

13 There are, for example, Web sites dedicated precisely to good and bad celebrity fakes (O’Toole 280).

14 More recently still, the very idea of objectification has come in for some criticism, both in relation to porn and more generally. Gail Weiss, for example, is sceptical of the Cartesian opposition between transcendence and immanence on which the concept of objectification relies (46). In Weiss’ account, being looked at by another is a corporeal experience, in which each person’s body image(s) help constitute the nature of the interchange and may themselves be modified in the process. This represents a reworking of classic models of subject/object relations in favour of a (political) model of mutual constitution, relying on an understanding of the body image(s) as always multiple, culturally learned, dynamic and intercorporeally produced and experienced.

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Author: Ruth Barcan is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Humanities at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. She has been engaged in a cultural study of the meanings and experiences of nudity in the modern West. This paper draws on ethnographic researched carried out as part of that larger project.

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