Everyday Semiotics

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

How porn means

[The topic of pornography will be once more heatedly hashed over later this week in my fair city, which fact reminded me of a "treatise" (or so I called it then) I assembled on the form more than a year ago. Below is an abridged version of the document, which is organized into seven compartments that describe the elementary semiotic functions carried out in any piece of hardcore porn. -- Ed.]


I. THE FRAME
The woman or women are usually in full view, sometimes dismembered, but almost never decapitated. Men, on the other hand, are frequently decapitated, often dismembered and only sometimes in full view.

II. THE GAZE
Almost never is the man allowed to make eye contact with the camera. Most often his gaze is averted elsewhere or his eyes are closed.
Series of stills or films tend to have a unity of the gaze where the woman is concerned. She either focuses solely on her partner(s) or on the camera, which is to say the viewer.

III. WHERE THE SEMEN GOES
Even when a condom is used for the vaginal or anal intercourse portion of the sequence, it is inevitably removed before orgasm so that the semen can be allowed to make contact with the woman’s body (and so much the better if the condom can be made to break prior to that point).
Rarely is the woman allowed to spit out semen after she has received it in her mouth. She may gargle it, some of it may be permitted to ooze onto her chin, but she is not to deliberatively reject it. She is required to accept it, even appear to enjoy its taste.
It seems that for whatever arbitrarily, socially coded reasons, the emission of any bodily fluid onto another’s body is demeaning and disrespectful. Is it always necessarily contemptuous? Spitting on someone’s face apparently is. Spitting on the ground at someone’s feet is meant to convey dislike, as though that person leaves a bad taste in the spitter’s mouth. Spitting on someone’s face is less obviously meaningful in the metaphorical sense. To defecate or urinate on someone would be the utmost expression of disrespect. But unlike urine and feces, saliva can be swallowed by its producer without repugnance or ill effect. Men never spit on women in porn, though they may slobber on them. Women, on the other hand, sometimes spit on the man’s penis and use the saliva as lubricant. It appears that saliva, among all bodily fluids, has the widest semiotic range and therefore the most unstable series of connotations. How it relates to the transmission of semen onto the female body is uncertain, though the connection is apparent, intuitively at least.

IV. PERFORMATIVITY/PRESENCE
In general terms, porn straddles the line between drama and reality TV. In most cases readily available through the Internet, there is no clear distinction between whether the woman is acting or whether she actually enjoys the acts (perhaps this explains part of the appeal of “amateur” porn). In higher-budget, higher-production value porn, with those actresses most readily identified as “porn stars,” the performance is at its most apparent -- this is none of the fumbling, false starts, irregular tempi, and most importantly none of the verbal communication that are the hallmarks of actual, private, sexual intercourse.
But beneath this blurred distinction there is always an assurance of the actors’ performance. Even if they are not following a script per se, they have undoubtedly been given directions prior to filming or are given directions as the scene progresses. The woman is told to emphasize her pleasure, to look at the camera or at her partner; the man is told to be inexpressive and never to look at the camera. The reasons for this are simple -- the viewer (assuming his is heterosexual and male) is allowed to achieve the highest satisfaction when he becomes the object of the woman’s desire, but can do this only when the man is passive enough, removed enough from the frame, as to allow the viewer to superimpose himself onto the scene. Here, it comes down to a question of taste in where the woman’s gaze is directed. The viewer may be able to enter the scene only if she is looking at him directly -- that is, into the camera. But it may also be possible for the viewer to superimpose himself so thoroughly that the woman’s gaze, directed at her on-screen partner, is satisfying.
But perhaps the (hetero male) viewer doesn’t so much superimpose his own body over that of the male player’s as inject himself into it. The male player’s body, in other words, is a receptacle for the viewer’s subjectivity, a sort of avatar or virtual body. This is why it matters what the male looks like, at least below the chin. He must be lean and muscular. He must, in fact, adhere to certain ancient Greek standards of masculinity. His mind is of no concern to the viewer, but he must be of corpore sano.
Could we then draw a connection between the ancient Greek ideal and the modern Greek -- which is to say fraternal, the societies of Greek letters -- ideal? When we think of frat-boys, naturally we think of men who spend a lot of time at the gym pumping iron. The male body ideal, in other words, is highly similar from antiquity to modern fraternity. Now perhaps the connections and parallels come too quickly, and need to be explored less superficially, but nonetheless -- Fraternities have their own underbelly of homoeroticism, concealed beneath their homosociality, typified by their hazing rituals.
The dynamic of fraternity initiation parallels that of the more primal sort of sexuality, in which power relationships are most apparent. And isn’t it true that, like primitive sexuality, fraternity initiations are first and foremost a mode of reproduction? Cavemen mated out of an instinctive need to preserve their race, frat-boys initiate new frat-boys out of a need to maintain the house past their own graduation. Cavemen dragged their mates by the hair, while frat-boys paddle pledges’ rear ends. In both cases the reproductive act is coupled with domination and humiliation.

V. SHOES
More often than anything else, the woman’s shoes are the only article of clothing she is permitted to leave on throughout a sequence. And in the majority of these cases, they are high-heeled shoes, sometimes with platforms. The phallic connotation of stiletto heels is the most obvious (and boring). There is a saying that partial nudity is usually more exciting than complete nudity, because so long as some article of clothing remains in place there still exists the possibility of removing it. And so desire is perpetuated -- the final removal comes only in the spectator’s imagination, but is therefore never complete.

VI. GRATIFICATION vs. ORGASM
It is usually the case that the woman must appear to be in the absolute throes of passion from the moment of genital contact (even from the moment the male genitals are exposed, in some cases) until after the man has come to orgasm. But it is only the male’s orgasm that is empirically provable -- since it is always accompanied by the transmission of semen. The female orgasm remains "the great mystery," at least in this context. In porn, the mystery need only stay in circulation until the time of the male orgasm. It is necessary for the woman to appear to be enjoying herself only until the male’s orgasm has subsided. So much the better if she screams and appears to have an orgasm or two of her own. The gratification of the male from his pleasing the female exists as a necessary support to his own pleasure (and by extension that of the viewer). But once orgasm is achieved, the floor has already dropped away and that support is no longer necessary.
Occasionally the woman’s range of expression includes pain -- for in some instances it may be gratifying to inflict pain on one’s partner by the sheer force of one’s thrusts or length and caliber of one’s penis. This undoubtedly has some relation to the fascination with claiming female virginity.
Certainly it is possible to reduce the infliction of various demeaning acts upon the woman in porn to simple gratification. But what is the quality of this particular gratification? Surely it is different from the type of gratification yielded by making a woman (at least appear to) have an orgasm. Could it be more akin to the type of gratification present in fraternity hazing, in which the hazer derives satisfaction from hearing the hazee say “Thank you, may I have another?”

VII. GENRES
A chart of genres will at some point be useful, though never comprehensive enough. Suffice it that there are many and that their number is increasing all the time (remember how Foucault writes about the production of new perversions), but they are nonetheless extremely specific.
Notably, the names that have stuck to the major genres are never specific and even less accurate as labels or identifying tags. The genre called “lesbian” porn is almost certainly directed at heterosexual males. It never includes the stereotypical body types of lesbianism, which is to say it never features butchies or bull dykes (perhaps it features what might be called femmes). What it does feature is females easily transposable to “hardcore” porn. Often in “lesbian” porn there is a dildo allowed to enter the sequence (a sort of synecdoche, perhaps, for the male viewer).
“MFF” and “MMF” porn tends to be oriented at hetero males also, and seems to leave the boundaries of heterosexuality for men intact while, in empirical terms, it smears them. Meanwhile it assumes an unproblematic bisexuality for women. Whether it is MFF or MMF, the woman or women are the only ones getting fucked while only the male(s) are doing the fucking. The two females are permitted to fuck each other, but their fucking is always subordinate to the man’s. The introduction of two males into porn with an ostensibly heterosexual male audience is already problematic, hence the necessity of maintaining the two males’ (performative) heterosexuality. Part and parcel to this is the fact that, even beyond the fact their bodies do not touch unless the touching is absolutely unavoidable, they never look at each other.

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1 Comments:

At 11:33 AM, Blogger M.H.F. said...

Some of the more thoughtful paragraphs from a recent Utne Reader edition (Sept.-Oct. 2006) on porn and its place in and influence on society:

"Even as antiporn and public decency coalitions tru to maintain the distinction by pushing adult establishments into the periphery, the culture of pornography is present. We gobble up illicit video clips of the latest scandals; cooking show cameras lazily linger on lucious ingredients before making the baking appear seamless; video games nod to a class porn format: a little bit of plot followed by action-action-action. There's lifestyle porn, disaster porn, food porn and more."
-- Julie Hanus, "The XXX Factor"

"Sexual desire is not an animal process. Animals do not have fetishes or need to act out sexual scripts. These are distinctively human activities. They reveal the creative potential of the human mind. For that reason, they have a dignity of their own. If people are entitled to respect, then their sexual desires are entitled to respect."
--Andrew Koppelman, "That's Obscene!"

 

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