Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Other Sexual Storytelling

I was surprised this morning to see myself name-checked on Tony Comstock's blog, (one image on link not safe for work, however the post is interesting so check it out!). The post regards the history of the MPAA - those folks who make the movie ratings and the progression of the X rating through the NC-17 rating. I responded again with a consideration about sexuality in narrative, stories where graphic depiction of sexuality is warranted, at least where I believe it to be warranted.

For those not familiar with Comstock Films, they produce award-winning, sexually graphic documentaries featuring couples discussing their relationships and sex lives, intercut with footage of their lovemaking. I've only seen Matt and Khym, but I'm curious to see more.

Here's a portion of my response, with included links:

On the whole though, doesn’t the cinema’s barren approach to sexuality reflect the lack of discussion that society has put into it? That we feel that sex is a “dangerous topic,” means that we associate it with darkness. It seems to me that many folks feel the need to talk about sexuality in hushed tones and thanks to you for endorsing a more open view.

Perhaps strangely, I find the occasional joyful sex trip in comics more than cinema. Even though I grow tired of the industry on the whole, it does seem to have room for folks who couldn’t (or don’t want to) get their stories told anywhere else. A couple of light-hearted porn strips like Xxxenophile (NSFW) or Small Favors makes the porn comics world worthwhile. I still want to see serious discussion of Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls.

The last link brings up the interview I did with Melinda Gebbie a couple of years back. Part two of that interview can be read here: Lost Girl Found. I'm really proud of that interview, so I'd love for more people to read it.

This whole discussion brings up some thoughts to me. For purposes of discussion, I generally think of the label of "Porn" as pertaining to stories told in order to help get someone off, or to inspire its audience to touch themselves or others. More often than not it's the narrative version of a lap-dance or a virtual brothel. It's a very profitable market and has always been, as far as I know.

The question I'm considering at the moment is about that line between Porn and other sexually graphic storytelling (see, I don't even have a word for it yet!). One significant difference is that Porn more often than not has not much to it in a literate sense; the goals of the characters are simple and predictable and it seems that there is really no potential for growth or evolution, those elements of story that make us relate to stories in emotional, intellectual or spiritual ways. I'm reminded of Victorian porn ("I'm spending! I'm spending!") though the formula probably goes back a bit further.

Perhaps it works differently in pornographic novels. Pornucopia, by Piers Anthony is probably the first that I read and for an obscure book which I only read once, I want to assume that it was wholly influential to my sexual worldview, or at least the way I view sex in fiction. It is self-proclaimedly pornographic, but I remember relating to and caring about the characters, especially the main character, Prior Gross. Maybe other porn novels are better, but I haven't read many. This was wild for me, back in my Xanth-reading days. Maybe what made it fun was its airy quality, like reading those pun-tastic fantasy stories.

It seems to me that the other sexual storytelling (would anyone like to suggest a phrase?) is more often than not quite bleak, as Tony Comstock suggested. When an art-house director approaches graphic sex, the results are often depressing. That might have more to do with art-house directors than the notions of narrative sexuality, but what are you gonna do?

Going back to the Fight or Fuck post, I think that these impulses are generally exclusive, and I still endorse an inclusive worldview by far. However, now and then I have a new conversation and realize that the sex and violence aren't mutually exclusive. I would hope that the two activities were separate, but life is occasionally more complex than the way I would wish. Sexuality can be joyful, but it can also be traumatic.

Maybe it's that last that brings out the navel-gazing in the bulk of film-makers. I believe that sexually graphic storytelling has a potential to be much more than that; healing, uplifting, inspiring, revelatory. I wonder if these kinds of stories will grow out of the porn world or out of projects like Shortbus or Comstock Films. All I can hope is that those stories come eventually and that the world is less afraid when they do.


Coach Christine Elowitt said...

What do you see as the difference between "erotica" and "porn" when it comes to books and stories?

The Hobo said...

I come from a very conservative background, where people just don't talk about (let alone watch or read about) sex. That being said, I appreciate sexual narrative (will that phrase work for you?) as one of the many human narratives worth exploring. However, in that sense, porn becomes a road block for outsiders taking a sexual narrative seriously. When the emphasis is on the act of sex rather than the experience (emotional and physical) of sexuality (awakening, exploration, manipulation, etc), it is seen as cheap, base, even depraved. It becomes sex as a tool (to get off) versus sex as a story. It IS a story, but it is often reduced to a tool and so it's hard for people to create, or enjoy, sexual narrative without feeling like they are doing something wrong. On the flip side, there is also this weird relationship we have with voyeurism, what we want to see, and what we feel okay about seeing. In some ways, porn is easier to watch than a true sexual narrative because it feels so impersonal. True intimacy can be scary to both have in real life, and watch/read about. Porn is used as much to separate ourselves from intimacy as to titillate us. Basically, in terms of narrative, porn is the easy sex story to tell (and the least interesting), thus the most accessible--and easiest to dismiss. An actual sexual narrative is much more challenging, both for creators and viewers. And culturally, it's just that much harder to "go there."

Fad23 said...


Erotica is just a fancy name for porn, used to sell it to an upper-class market. I find no other distinctions between the two terms. The trend seems to be that Erotica has a softer touch than porn, but that's meaningless to me. It' either is porn, or it ain't.


I feel there is value to lewdness, that not every story needs to have depth to be meaningful. Even if it's just enough to inspire some people to touch themselves, that has meaning on some level. It's got much more meaning to some that a still life. I mean, other than the lighting and brush-strokes, who cares about a bowl of fruit? What story does that tell?

(I might be a bit disingenuous here, as I find every bit of creative effort moving at some level. See my future posts on knitting for a look at that topic)

With regard your comment about intimacy, do you remember what FDR said about fear? Yes, I admit that many folks are afraid to get close to other folks (and that includes me sometimes, too) but that's no way to live!

I love the way that Vonnegut described pornography as viewed by an alien race. He said they were viewed as some kind of gymnastics show and wondered why it was titillating. I'm probably misquoting, because I can't find the quote anywhere.

An adjustment to that is that I feel pornography could be viewed as a record of mutual massage, ignoring the fact that the performers might occasionally go over the top. If we view the act as mutually pleasurable, what's not to enjoy? Why can't that be enlightening?

Coach Christine Elowitt said...

Hmm. I always assumed that the term erotica was usually used to try to entice women who don't like porn into buying books. When I have browsed that section of Borders, it has seemed that the books with more plot and characters than sexual action were labeled "erotica" on the cover. The ones where there is more sex action than story line were not under that label. I have also been told that women generally prefer to have more of a story (applied to movies as well as books). I am not at all sure that it is true or just a generalization.

Fad23 said...

That sounds more like a generalization to me. Erotica and Pornography, to me at least, are different labels for the same product. Kind of like a soda in cans and soda in bottles, same thing with a different package.

One person's porn is another person's erotica, I suppose.

The Hobo said...

So, I had a writing teacher call horror movies a kind of porn. Pleasure, he preached, comes from tension relief, and the purpose of horror movies is to create, and then release, tension. They come in about the same spectrum that porn does--character and story often take a back seat to the money shots. Sometimes you want a deep story--sometimes you want to see blood and guts (or whatever).

Just another perspective :-P

Looked up the Vonnegut quote and couldn't find it either, but did find this:
Joint interview he and Joe Heller did with Playboy...

Seemed appropriate for the conversation. :-P

Fad23 said...

I think people are less likely to say that people are being exploited when they watch torture-porn. Is it that watching someone be beheaded as a fiction is different than watching a stylized portrayal of folks pleasuring themselves?

But I think there are also provocative horror films, the ones that get under your skin and leave you with thoughts afterward.

And combining those two notions, I remember the week after I saw The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover back in college and being erotically, horrifyingly, culinary challenged. It was days before I found my equilibrium.

I don't see why pornography must also be seen as disposable fiction.