Pornography and Larry Sultan


According to Foucault, “power is everywhere… because it comes from everywhere.” Power is diffused throughout discourse, knowledge and regimes of truth; it produces reality and creates its subject (that is, you or I). Our self determination, our personal narratives and our innermost desires and fantasies are formed through the interpellation of societal forces and we ourselves are the site upon which power battles are fought. If we look to Nietzsche, the body “is the inscribed surface of events, the locus of a dissociated self.” Through examining the body and its depiction, we can begin to understand these power structures that construe its meanings. No medium offers a more fascinating example than pornography, which often provides an illusion of freedom – both physically and psychologically – whilst producing the power structures that define us.

It is scarcely a jump from Foucault to pornography: his seminal text, ‘The History of Sexuality’, is an exploration of how our subjectivity has become inextricably linked with our sexual selves. If this is true, and power is everywhere, then sex and sexuality are the dominant site upon which our identities are formed and, in a world that increasingly offers a ‘bare-all’ approach to selfhood, issues arise. The history of erotic depictions is deep; it traverses through Greek and Roman pottery, the Hindu Kama Sutra, the Egyptian Turin Erotic Papyrus. It is, by no stretch of the imagination, a modern phenomenon and yet pornography as we understand it now was conceptualised in the Victorian era. Linguistically, the word was first used in 1857, stemming from Ancient Greek roots: porne(whore) and graphos (to write about or depict) and, to give an accurate translation, it is important to be aware that the pornaiwere a specific type of whores: those which were kept captive as slaves in brothels by pimps. Whilst the meaning of language ebbs and flows in accordance with the fluctuation of power structures and so etymology is never a concrete truth, it is not without relevance that, when it was conceptualised 150 years ago, pornography literally meant “the graphic depiction of the lowest whores”.

So, rather than assuming that that the linguistic history of pornography will assert a universal and eternal truth, we can turn to the AVN Awards 2014 – the porn Oscars, if you will. This year’s winners include: The Submission of Emma Marx, No Warning, Butthole Barrio Bitches 2, Mandingo Massacre, Show No Mercy, Give Me Strength and Get My Belt. If these titles existed in a socio-political vacuum or were merely a fragment of the industry’s output, perhaps one could ignore the relevance of such misogyny (and racism) appearing even before we press play. However, as Derrida says, “there is nothing outside the text” and these films do not exist in a vacuum, they exist as part of a reality that is produced by power, and depict structures that dominate our subjectivity. In a world where one is not born, but becomes a woman, what does it mean to become one when our truest depiction of our collective sexual desires (that depicted by a capitalist mechanism: supply and demand) is one in which women are bitches shown no mercy, given no warning and commanded to get ‘his’ belt?

The women who perform in these films are actresses, they are (hopefully) giving full consent and (hopefully) protected by the myriad of new safety strictures that have been applied to the industry over recent years. They are the starlets of pornography, the Belladonnas and Jesse Janes, in the films with the highest budgets and strictest safety rules. These women account for an incredibly small percentage of an industry that has been de-centralised by the internet, which has allowed the continued proliferation of snuff films, rape films and paedophilia even outside of the Tor network. Their beatings and rapes are simulated and subject to strictures ensuring consent. Looking at how pornography interacts with societal power structures is not a case of applying a ban or blanket censorship because the problem lies not in the media itself, but in how it interacts with and represents a society that demands it with an ever-increasing voracity.

Larry Sultan’s series The Valley is a fascinating and beautiful exploration of the complex interrelations between the lofty heights of the pornographic industry (the high-budget films made in the San Fernando Valley) and the domestic world they inhabit – not just literally, but metaphorically, too. The Valley itself is where Sultan grew up and the homes of residents are often used as sets for XXX movies, their dirty dishes and floral curtains the ideal backdrop for films that simulate a fantastical reality of lasciviousness. The scenes are not staged by a prop designer: the cuddly toys that sit above a bed laden with vibrators and anal douches belong to the child who lives there, the vase that just-obscures a woman’s spread legs was not purchased to simulate authenticity. These are people’s homes and they are the ideal stage for an industry that profits from hyper-reality; albeit a reality which constructs female sexuality in a very specific way. Sultan’s work is particularly interesting with its portrayal of this artificial intimacy. With the depictions of mangy-looking backdrops scarcely concealing bleak-looking garages or electrical cords trailing through a melancholic kitchen scene, it is clear that the domesticity of the photographs isn’t staged, however, it is equally clear that something is – we have the desire to see everything, but not quite everything.

Pornography sells best when one can place oneself within it: the proliferation of gonzo and amateur genres far surpasses high-budget videos on websites such as dedicated porn-hub XVideos (which ranks even above PayPal in terms of its popularity on Alexa). It doesn’t require the same suspension of disbelief to imagine that the ‘exploited teens’ and ‘hidden public toilet cams’ on offer are real as it does to figure oneself in Show No Mercy’s ‘galaxy of Lord Zuru’. Where the divide between fantasy and reality becomes particularly blurry is through the services offered by online ‘camgirls’. In the past few years, the popularity of websites like LiveJasmin and MyFreeCams have risen to lofty heights by offering chatroom services where women host open sessions and members can watch them strip, dance or sometimes just watch television in a webcam live-stream. Usually hosted in the woman’s bedroom, there is a bizarre sense of intimacy; models (who hustle for tips in exchange for specific sex acts) can read and respond to the audience’s text-messages. Often when they don’t get the tokens they request (“1990till NAKED&PLAY / 40=seeASS / 50=flashPUSSY / 70=lotion on ASS / 100=showPUSS AND SPREAD / #25 if you like”), they make banal conversation to an audience who, whilst paying for “naked&play”, often seem as engaged in typing about The XX track playing in the background or the model’s favourite Netflix series as they do with the bared breasts on show. 

For free, you can watch Angel_leBlanc in an old t-shirt talk about the problems she’s having with her iPhone over a background soundtrack of Pink Floyd and, for 50 tokens, she’ll “flashPUSSY”. The exchange is explicitly defined – there is a constant, italicised reminder of what she will perform and for what price – but the colloquial, non-sexual interactions muddy the waters. Flicking through MyFreeCams’ most popular models, I ‘meet’ more fully-clothed women (with audiences of over 100 people) than those in the positions I’d expect. It seems as though the eroticism isn’t only in the low-resolution live sex shows, but also in the power one has to instantly appear in an attractive young woman’s bedroom and potentially command her to perform to your specifications.

The internet has effected a kind of democratisation of the pornography industry and, in the era of social networks, consumption of the intimacy of strangers has become the norm. It is what is demanded of sex performance and therefore duly provided and the impact this then has on how we construct ourselves as sexual subjects is great. Foucault talks about the ‘repressive hypothesis’ – the notion that western society was sexually suppressed from the 17th until the mid-20th century – dispelling it to indicate that discourse on sexuality was as broad then as it is now, but merely employed an ‘authorised vocabulary’ and regulation on the sites of discussion. Today, there is a constant illusion of intimacy with strangers: you can see what they had for lunch on Instagram, read what they are thinking on Twitter, peer into Angel_leBlanc’s bedroom or watch women go to the bathroom via ‘hidden toilet cams’ on XVideos. Conventions of conversation and privacy have flown out the window and, rather than offering us any form of liberation, they merely regulate our behaviours.  

By speaking about sex, our bodies and our selves so ‘truthfully’ and with so much ‘intimacy,’ [CW1] we engage in a systematic blindness to ultimate truths: we codify ourselves within the power structures to which our modes of thought are confined. As we become further ‘liberated’ by constantly bringing the truths of our lives, both sexual and otherwise, into the public sphere, we offer those with the capacity to oppress a greater power (see: Cameron’s proposed internet censorship and the misogyny that dictates pornography[CW2] ). We are not breaking the mould with these empty gestures toward freedom of self-expression, we are further cementing it: sexism and racism are as present as they ever have been – both within the realm of pornography (Mandingo Massacre and Butthole Bario Bitches? Really?) and outside (the Trayvon Martin murder, any number of sexual assault or wage statistics). In a world of Snowden, the NSA and Wikileaks, where we are afforded less personal privacy and the powers-that-be afford us less transparency than ever before, we are clinging onto the ‘truth’ of sex as our salvation whilst subjecting ourselves to a carefully constructed discourse around it. What are the implications of this stringent codification on how we understand our selfhood? 

Our supposed freedom both produces and consumes capitalist patriarchy. We are living for show and our lives are becoming delicately manipulated for mass-consumption through Instagram or Twitter; we are more dissatisfied and easier to market to, we readily devour the images of celebrity holidays, funeral selfies and the lunches of our work colleagues in a constant live-feed. Our phones are tapped and those who orchestrated illegal invasions of privacy are dining with our world leaders. We are the perfect consumers: whilst Facebook catalogues our likes and dislikes to sell to marketing giants, Google targets the adverts that appear on our e-mail clients in accordance with whatever messages we have sent our friends and family. In light of the economic crash and the constant developments revealing our lack of privacy and autonomy, we are seeking truth precisely where it cannot be found: in the realm of sexuality. As Foucault says, the West has placed a never-ending demand for truth: it is up to us to extract the truth of sex, since this truth is beyond its grasp; it is up to sex to tell us our truth, since sex is what holds it in darkness.

We see our approach to sexuality as a peak of liberation: you can have what you want, when you want it and what we want is the appearance of truth: women performing their sexuality on cue in their bedrooms and in kitchens amongst their evenings dinner of Rice-A-Roni and low-salt kidney beans. Our preoccupation with discovering and determining intimate truths of sexuality serves only to distance us from independent liberation: by ignoring the male silhouette that looms over the production of these images, we are blindly buying into a powerful series of mechanisms that dictates how we understand ourselves, our bodies and our sexuality whilst believing we are freer than we have ever been.