This article forwards a new way of thinking about pornography, based on the changing work practices of web-based and film/video amateur porn producers and their spectators. Their efforts are not to be confused with individuals who pose for porn sites and simulate sex as glossy “amateurs” – bored housewives, horny freshmen, nasty teen virgins, battered Russian migrants, pregnant mommies, crude aunts or rapist uncles, etc. In most types of commercial porn, amateur roles are scripted, filmed and edited by producers who direct and pay models to enter their stage setups and sex scenes. Different from those are sexually driven media practitioners who make sex scenes to explore personal desires and respond to those of others. They use a variety of recording devices to capture moments, screen scenes privately or in small groups, or upload them on the web through webcams, live journals and web logs. Looking at the website of “pornblogger” Carly, for instance, we can see how the sexual body is revealed through daily online writing modes and feedback from other web users. Moreover, Carly masters the discourses of eroticism and porn theory as overlapping knowledge regimes of sexual representation. In an entry uploaded on March 26, 2004, she writes about Internet porn debates and the plight of children and parents. Moreover, in the same entry, she shows pictures of her collection of dildos and how she uses them on her anal region.
One could think of Carly’s body as inhabiting “performance strata” of porn cultures as they mediate real-life contexts. As explained by performance theorist Jon McKenzie in Perform or Else: From Discipline to Performance, strata are layers of forces and intensities that give form to matter by organizing small molecular entities into aggregations. The performance strata bundle a variety of cultural, organizational and technological performances as discursive and normative working methods. McKenzie explains that the agents of the performance strata harbor new forms of normativity, while they may also recognize cracks, fissures and “outside” discourses as agents in their force fields (176). The strata are solidified and disrupted by an attentiveness to the active-performative nature of language and bodily gestures, as we develop creativity in our dealings with art and technology, or new attitudes towards social-sexual networking and cultural vitality. Work ethics, the use of technological languages, social and intellectual curiosities, intermingle and intersect to become strata of power and knowledge. Whereas nation-state governments and capitalist porn industries are arguably organized by an older “discipline or punish” maxim (as consolidated empires decide to “push-down” content onto consumers, or punish consumers who access porn in surveilled places), amateur pornography thrives on a different type of exhibitionism and voyeurism. Pornographers and voyeurs communicate with each other and learn how to articulate fluctuating sexual scenarios and pornographic roles. This new trend towards mutual communication and bonding is currently developed in two types of pornography, in web-based platforms for alternative pornography, where the exchanges can be complex and partly private; and in community theaters where the exchange is raw and carried out in public.
A good example of the first type would be web sites where individuals collaborate in scripting, shooting, and responding to pornographic portraits. www.spread.com (note: no longer available online) is a good example such of such a porn site. The site was set up by Barbara DeGenevieve, Professor at the School of the Art Institute Chicago, in collaboration with Terry Pirtle, the web master and manager of the site. As the announcement read, the site is “… committed to the queer community, to serve a segment of that community that is under-represented in web pornography.” The ssspread.com site encourages queer and transgender people to submit porn scripts and organize film-shoots to act out scenarios. The outcome of this collaboration process is filmed and still-images are uploaded on the site on a weekly basis. For instance, in the “Road Side Service” slide-show, posted on October 30, 2003, Chicago-based singer Nomy Lamm acts out a macho-redneck scenario as a “male trucker” who receives a blowjob from a “transman” partner, then penetrates the partner anally with a dildo on the hood of the vehicle, only to finally reveal her cock to be in the form of an amputated leg.
De Genevieve explains the collaboration process with participants in an interview:
I usually collaborate with the people that I am filming, and I ask them ahead of time to carefully consider what they want to do in the session. Very often, I just leave the scene up them, or they come up with a scenario that we have discussed beforehand. I will add something to it or ask them to do something slightly different. But, of course, I myself could never come up with the variety of scenarios that they come up with. A lot of people I shoot are young and into punk aesthetics. The environments they live in are definitely not mainstream, and this becomes part of the ambience of a shoot. Yesterday, I shot in a model’s kitchen. It was a pretty chaotic environment with dishes in the sink, food remnants on the countertops and floors, and stuff all over the place. There was another shoot a couple months ago in a room where I literally couldn’t see the floor for the clothes, CDs, magazines, over-flowing ashtrays, sex toys, pillows… But I find these living spaces really fascinating because these are the places where people really have sex. ” (DeGenevieve, 2002)
www.spread.com also encourages social activities between members. Moreover, the site contains links to pornographic stories in the “Story Lounge” area. The “Articles and Interviews” area has interviews with sex scholars and activists such as Shannon Bell and Annie Sprinkle. The members also give feedback to weekly still-images by writing messages on the messageboard.
This is an important development in the history of pornography, as spectators may be increasingly interested in giving feedback to producers to complement their habits of voyeuristic specatorship and masturbation. The model of amateur porn is thus an important challenge for the commercial porn industries, which for the most part construct an imagined audience of quietly masturbating and orgasmic voyeurs. This is the normative impulse in commercial pornography, exemplified in the tendency to show extreme close-ups of human intercourse or sex with underage models. These normative elements are contested by the growing masses of alternative pornographers, who crack the system while marking symbolically varied porn movies and diverse body types as “ordinary”.
A parallel development to web-based producers would be amateur pornographers screening their works in community centers or arthouse theaters, where voyeurs once again are invited to watch and share responses. This development has started to gain attention in the US mass media with TV and film critics expressing both revulsion and propulsion towards this trend (Dana 2002). In the Boston area, for instance, Kim Airs and the arthouse theater Coolidge Corner Cinema have started to organize annual screenings of amateur porn movies. The event, entitled You Oughta Be in Pictures, brings together home-made porn movies and low-budget movies made by artists and filmmakers. The appeal of the event lies exactly in the communication between makers and viewers, the untrained screen-performers and filmmakers, whose movies cause exhilarating responses in the audiences. Audiences in this screening are large and loud, at times shouting out their reactions, or laughing at how the filmmakers conceive of sexual positions and camera angles. In some movies, the scenes fail to be explicit or dynamic at all. For example, a female masturbation scene shows a moving hand on a hidden vagina, where the soundtrack consists of quiet and camera-shy moaning. This is amateur porn, a bundle of an “ordinary” person’s sexual efforts and their representation.
As the above example demonstrates, amateur porn does not always cater to arousal or masturbation, but can nevertheless trigger fulfilling reactions in audiences, as screenings give producers an opportunity to interact with spectators and get immersed in changing feedback loops. One man in the audience of the 2002 screening of You Oughta Be in Pictures described his confused reaction: “I have seen pornography before. I’ve seen quite a bit of it. But this was unlike any of those experiences. I am not exactly sure what is different about it. But the response that it generated made me feel asexual” (Syme 2002). A female respondent emphasized the importance of humor in the implicit communication between the filmmakers and the viewers. She writes: “But I think it was the humor part that I really enjoyed. It allows you to step back from all the taboo-ness of sex. There is a give and take in the sense that some filmmakers will poke fun at audience response by deliberately putting extreme images on screen, while audience members will at points poke fun at the filmmaker’s attempt at ‘sexiness’ at certain intervals” (Yu, 2002).
Amateur pornographers and their respondents are the everyday agents of mediated sex, exploring acts of media making and porn debates. Amateur pornographers assert their bodies as sexually active entities negotiating power structures through performative modes of awareness within media communities. Amateur pornographers live the era of Internet porn, indie media and globalization, inventing “peer-to-peer” languages of eroticism and small-scale economies as pockets of sexual health and experimentation.
This is perhaps the long-awaited schooling of pornography, its rapid democratization, its turn to more diversified expressions of sexual-aesthetic lust. As was reported in a recent New York Times article, more women and queer producers are entering small-scale sex sites and industries, and making attempts to promote better working conditions for sex workers and media art” (Navarro, 2004). McKenzie predicts that there will be no “good schools” of performance to replace the “bad“ ones. There are only pockets of activism that assert a need to perform and be performed, as communication technologies are rapidly modifying the way we share knowledge and nurture the body.
This article was first published as ‘the New Media Schooling of the Amateur Pornographer’ in Spectator 24:1 (Spring 2004). An excerpt was also published in Freecooperation (SUNY Buffalo, April 2004).