Sex Is The City
   The Many Faces Of Porn
   by Timothy Dugdale

She was the kind of girl who liked to spring things on you. We had stopped in a small, dusty town somewhere in the outback of Brazil to switch buses. While I nipped into a bar for a quick brew and a slash, she poked around the market square. Back on the bus, she showed me her purchases -- a two beaded bracelets and a porn magazine. The bracelets were pretty. The mag was anything but. This was 1988, two years after the generals had decided they had enough of running the country into the turf. Brazil was caught in that no-man’s land between the Cold War powers, no much of interest to either one of them and thus left to do business with fellow orphans.

Like Romania. The minute she turned the first page of the magazine and I saw a young woman in ratty fur coat being ogled in a snowy park by two mustachioed dudes all gotten up in equally worn outfits of mod contrivance, I knew. After all Nicolae Ceaucescu, Romania’s terminally crackpot dictator, was said to possess a huge collection of pornography. Why would he begrudge his citizens the opportunity to indulge themselves, especially he could export the fruit of their labors.

Two pages later, the trio had retired to an apartment that made the interiors of Goodbye Lenin look like the Waldorf Astoria. Everyone quickly disrobed, revealing pale lean flesh and undergarments in even worse condition than their clothes. We looked at one another, not in lust but in sheepishness. There was something a bit too anthropological to the pictures. It was one thing to see Eastern Europeans on the news bravely striking against corrupt apparatchnicks in a rusting shipyard; it was quite another to watch them get in on in a crumbling cement box perched on the outskirts of a icy, crepuscular city terrorized by a madman with a silver pompadour. As the bus rambled into yet another small town of misery, we tossed the magazine into the trash, our libidos cooled and chastised.

The Brazilian director/writer Arnaldo Jabor (Eu Te Amo) once suggested that if you wanted to know Brazil, you only had to watch its pornography. “Brazilian porn,” he writes, "speaks of hunger in the sad faces and bodies; American porn presents supermarkets and health clubs. American porn actors work out of perverse pleasure, Brazilians for a plate of food. Brazilian porn is political. American porn is existential.”

I took this little trip down memory lane the other day while strolling through the aisles of an adult video boutique across the river in Windsor. I used to live just around the corner from it. They had a 2-for-1 Sunday night special(?!) that brought cretins and pillars of the community alike scurrying to load up on video filth. More often than not by the time I arrived, the shelves had been picked clean and I was faced with the unhappy prospect of vetting the section showcasing the talents of naughty midgets. Fortuitously, there was also a section marked "Foreign". No Fellini here. But once I started taking a closer look at the video cassette boxes, I noticed that something was very interesting was going on.

After a few more Sunday investigations, I surmised that after the Fall of the Wall, Eastern Europe was no longer an eyesore in or out of its clothes. Directors like legendary Italian sleazemeister Joe D'Amato (Marco Polo) and Frenchman Marc Dorcel (Le Parfum de Matilde) were taking advantage of the shockingly low rental on old aristocrats' estates and mansions in Hungary and Romania to stage high gloss 35mm pornography. Slavic hussies who only a few short years before knew nothing of Ferrari or Cristal were bent over the former while sipping the latter as young bucks with MTV frosting in their hair had at them. During the 90's, American porno grew more raunchy in its embrace of the reality-TV aesthetic during the 90's; the Europeans went up-market. Superstud Rocco Siffredi even made a crossover appearance in French feminist Catherine Breillat's Romance.

And yet, as a recent CNN report noted in horrific detail, the economic disparity between Western and Eastern Europe emboldens sexual predators on the make for young boys and girls. The internet may foster democracy in some parts of the world but in others, it also facilitates a chimeric commerce. Brokers have created large stables of kids that are sold and traded amongst pedophiles with some handy dosh and a EU passport. Porn means money if only for deep discounts on the downtrodden flesh of those left behind in The End of History.


What happens here stays here. That’s the new slogan of Las Vegas. During the early 90’s, the city undertook a middling experiment in family values. As Robert deNiro’s character in Casino laments in voice-over, the city was turned over to junk bond merchants financing vacations with amusement park attractions to keep the kids busy while their parents fed their college tuition into slot machine. Gambling without glamour has a name: bingo. And you can do that right down the street. So why bother flying out to the godforsaken desert?

Thus, Vegas was reborn as Sin City, give or take a glitzy shopping arcade featuring a new overwrought, overhyped and darest I say it, overpriced restaurant helmed by a celebrity chef. We watch, with a certain amount of envy, greasy thugs turned hoteliers “comp” everybody who’s somebody. The New Vegas learned that everybody wants to be somebody and they’re willing pay for it.

Films such as Swingers and Ocean’s Eleven offer a buffed and re-tooled version of the Rat Pack Vegas that is now the central trope of the enterprise. But this is hardly the picture offered in some profiles of the city. The New York Times spent a week exploring the city and the verdict was less than glowing. Tens of thousands of people from all over America, many of whom have fallen on hard times through bad decisions or bad luck, arrive looking for a second act to their lives. Indeed, Vegas is the place that adamantly refuses F. Scott Fitzgerald’s maxim that there are no second acts in American life. The problem is that many of these poor souls want to raise children but how do you that in purgatory. Every day a new horde of swingers, swindlers and sad-sacks arrives to satisfy appetites for everything except family values.

In the past, cutting of loose often required doing it out of sight from the people you know. That’s why every year, thousands of Brazilians travel hundreds of miles from their home towns to le their freak flag fly during Carnival. Anonymity helps the drink go down and the libido go up. But Vegas is the surveillance capital of America. Every inch of every casino is under watch. Then factor in the number of visitors who bring their own cameras to record their (mis)adventures. One wonders how many of them actually watch the tape when they return home. Or is it that we have become so accustomed to the idea of being watched and recorded that we have taken on a Cartesian zest for the camera -- I am seen, therefore I am.

Vegas embraces these second nature dialectics between voyeurism and exhibitionism, the public and the private. In the Times profile, a scholar noted that Vegas is at the forefront of the “pornografication” of America. It’s not just the city is crammed with strip clubs and billboards advertising them in no uncertain terms of modesty. Vegas promises the glamour of excess, the instant celebrity of transgression. It’s no accident that the producers of Girls Gone Wild and now, Boys Gone Wild, send their agents to Vegas (after trolling Panama City Beach and New Orleans of course). People are ready to reveal all to anyone willing to watch. The purloined x-rated videos of Paris Hilton and Pamela Anderson Lee attest to the fact that celebrities are not immune to this strange vanity. To the contrary: they show us the way.

The porn industry of America has gone one better. They have taken the Vegas fantasy of glamour and wealth and married it to hard-core sex. A five-star shag with a volcanic tramp is the glorious apogee of conspicuous consumption.


I nipped downtown to do a bit of research in the library of a large research university. On the first floor, they have a number of public computer terminals for people who could never afford or never have access to the internet. As I was passing by, I noticed a gent slumped down in a chair in front of one of the terminals. One of Snoop Dogg's more snarling ditties bled out of the earphones clammed to his head. On the computer screen was a streaming video of a pallid blond choking herself on a massive black schlong with rote ferocity. The gent was immobile. When I arrived at the help desk to update my library account, I asked the guy behind the counter if what I just saw was par for the course. "Oh yes," he said, his brow cresting to the edge of his turban."We can do nothing. This is America. Free speech you know."

Half an hour later, the man was still there, still lost in the onslaught of raw sight and sound. What a way to spend a Saturday afternoon... unless of course you have ulterior motives. Perhaps this was a piece of radical performance art to discomfort the bookish and the staid. Then again, perhaps our man was merely realizing the true potential of the popular culture. Reality TV, shock jocks, WWF, videogames, hiphop, MTV have all fused into a cult of youth characterized by peevish callowness and shameless obsession with the body as commodity. Porn has tapped into this vibe, crystallized it and then let it seep back into the popular culture.

The web is the perfect medium for porn. It's always on; it's like water. It is an integral part of the "supersizing" of popular culture. I've always thought that porn was something, to paraphrase James Brown, "you hit it and quit." Not anymore. Anytime you're ready, it's ready. Serial Killer Ted Bundy, on the eve of his execution, gave an interview to a priest in which he admitted an addiction to porn. Indeed, what happens when you can't stop watching, when you can't say, "I'm full."

Academics like to talk about the web as a powerful tool for the archiving of important historical data. Pornographers know all it about. Now you can visit Excalibur Films ( and watch over 10,000 trailers from classic porn films of the 80's and 90's. Some of these trailers no doubt were shown before the main feature at the fading grindhouses of America, barely hanging on with the advent of the videocassette. It's amazing to look at these things now. The actors were lean but not buff. Very few tattoos or piercings. Bombshells were all natural and the ladies with less up top made up for it with enthusiasm.

Where have all the great ones gone? Ebony Ayes? Keisha? Peter North? The latter two, to my surprise, are still at it. On the web. Keisha is now fairly long in the tooth by porn standards. Her website is simple but sleek, much like her in her heyday. The streaming video tour reveals just how much times have changed -- we move quickly from rather tasteful oral sex into fisting! Peter North has a more involved website but the content is anything but. North started out in gay porn as Matt Ramsey and his look -- hairless and buff body -- is ironically now all the rage in America amongst the straights. Mark Wahlberg was perfect for the film, Boogie Nights, because he personified the mainstreaming of the North aesthetic into straight male world. I can't understand how "Marky Mark" could have been shocked that his ads for Calvin Klein underwear were a hit in the gay community. North's claim to fame was his massive and powerful ejaculations. His website features hundreds of facials; young girls with plucked brows and smiling sneers look up at the camera, waiting for the special delivery. The old adage that porn actors are really life support systems for a penis is never more true on the North site. If porn dehumanizes women, it also doesn't do men any favors.

Against better judgment, I gave Howard Stern's television show another try. He had on one of his favorite kinds of guest, a uber-blond Playboy playmate in a skimpy t-shirt. Invariably the conversation focused on her breasts. Stern is both cruel and ingenuous. First he teases the woman mercilessly until she admits that she's had implants. Then he infantalizes the whole thing by asking if they're soft. When she replies they are, Stern purrs, "Yeah, they're soft. They're fun." What's it going to be, Howard? You want to see big tits but you mock the women who get them for you?


The People vs. Larry Flynt isn’t the best of films. Woody Harrelson eats a lot of scenery. Courtney Love tries to insinuate through her character that she may be a hellcat kook but she has a heart of gold. What I like about the film is the story and the way Milos Foreman presents it. Flynt appears not as a sleazy lecher who got lucky but an honest Horatio Alger. Indeed, for a kid who started out peddling moonshine in the hollows of Eastern Kentucky, Flynt’s done pretty well for himself. When he opened a chain of peep shows and strip clubs in Cincinnati, he wisely decided to create a small magazine to promote them, evolving (or devolving depending on your perspective) into the now famous rag, Hustler.

Flynt is a success because he never lost touch with his roots. Unlike Hugh Hefner (Playboy) or Bob Guccione (Penthouse), Flynt had no pretenses about the business he was in. He was peddling smut to the guy in the dilapidated ranch house with a pick-up truck on blocks who wanted to see naked women and lots of them. At a key moment in the film, we see Flynt (Harrelson) instructing a model to spread her legs and the photographer to move in for a close-up. Fuck Hef’s airbrush and soft-focus trickery! The feminist scholar Laura Kipnis celebrated Flynt for exactly this reason. Hefner and Guccione tried to mask the fact that they were pornographers by camouflaging their rags as how-to-manuals for the up-coming executive gent who could always say he read the things “for the articles”. Flynt would have none of this. He was out in the trenches of Middle America, in Cincinnati for Christ’s sake, championing porn for the common man. And in doing so, he laid bare the class prejudices of a society that liked its sex as clean as its money. Time and again, the conservative scolds of the city, including that disgraced colossus of the savings and loan scandal, Charles Keating, tried to shut him down. Time and again, Flynt emerged triumphant. Even after a religious zealot tried to assassinate Flynt during one of his trials, the man soldiered on.

The People vs. Larry Flynt concludes on a high note with Flynt victorious over Jerry Falwell. Flynt had printed a mock advertisement for whiskey, insinuating that Falwell and his mother had been intimate in an outhouse. Falwell sued and the case reached the Supreme Court. Again, we revel in Flynt’s triumph because he is so out front about his mission -- sticking to the straights who don’t just want to ban porn but unpopular speech, particularly speech that comes from people who hitherto had no power to make their voices heard.

Flynt has accomplished something else. He was prescient in his move to hard-core imagery. He pushed Hefner and Guccione into an “arms” race of explicitness which has reached its zenith on the web. Playboy and Penthouse have only been able to retain their aesthetic gloss because the American public has come along for the ride into the blue. Men’s magazines such as Details and FHM are in many ways what Playboy and Penthouse started out as -- vehicles for selling men stuff, including the fantasy of the perfect chick who likes sex with the right man, namely you.

So it should come as no surprise that every time I see the leathery and reedy Mr. Hefner in his signature pajamas surrounded by pneumatic blonds of the Pamela Anderson ilk, I want to put my foot through the telly. But when I see Larry muttering in that signature raspy drawl from his wheelchair in his gaudy mansion, I watch rapt. During the Clinton Impeachment, Flynt put a bounty on the inquisitors -- a million dollars for concrete proof that any one of them had strayed from the path of righteous that they were so proudly defending. Thrice-married ex-congressman Bob Barr got caught and recently felt insult added to injury when a judge threw out his libel claim against Flynt.

Flynt won again.


A recent photo on the front page of The New York Times: Tom Ridge, the head of Homeland Security demonstrates for the media the agency’s new command control center. Looking on is Dick Cheney with his signature grimness. On the screens behind is a large color coded map of North America and the feeds of countless surveillance cameras from freeways around America.

9/11. Was it a wake-up call for America to engage the world? Or was it an opportunity for America to turn its back on the world and start watching itself? Every time I hear John Ashcroft or one of his people go on about “the heartland” or “terror in the heartland,” I wonder. For them, America should be just like a Norman Rockwell painting -- parochial, god-fearing and forever simple. Rockwell himself hated his work being turned into fodder for the toxic yet convenient snake oil of politicians.

Frank Rich of The New York Times will have none of this. For months now he's savaged the Bush administration for trying to distract Americans with moralizing platitudes and abject fear-mongering from the disaster of the war. Going after Janet Jackson and Howard Stern, however, must seem like child's play for Bush compared to trying to "re-frame" the prison abuses in Iraq. “Perhaps," wrote Rich, "he hopes we will believe that what happened at Abu Ghraib is the work of just a handful of porn-addled freaks and that by razing the prison we can shut the whole incident down the way Rudy Giuliani banished the sex emporiums.”

For further edification on this point, Rich includes a reproduction of a postcard to commemorate the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana. In 1930. Rich refers to this image and ones like it as “historical antecedents” to those of Abu Ghraib. Indeed, just as people could buy the postcards and send them to relatives (The fruit is strange; Wish you were here), so too could interested parties send pictures of the jailers taunting and fondling their captives.

Rich’s columns about the connection between the prison scandals and the “pornification” of America illuminates a problem of defining porn as just naked people engaged in sex. Porn is about the often quixotic quest for power and control. The lynching postcards and the images of Abu Ghraib speak to two moments in American history when the power of a dominant group was in crisis. Whites in the South knew segregation was only a matter of time; blacks were a mysterious, dangerous force on the cusp of liberation. The soldiers of Abu Ghraib, whether following orders or not, felt diminished enough by their Iraq experience that they had to resort to lurid humiliation of those who were humiliating them in the street.

Christopher Hitchens, the boozy and smoky columnist for Vanity Fair, wasted no time in condemning Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ as a festival of death fetishism and sado-mascochism, all delivered with a shameless anti-Semiticism. He’s right of course -- the film luxuriates in the suffering Christ almost as much as it does in the duplicity of the Jews to send one of their own to the cross. At its heart though, The Passion is a reclamation project. For too long, in many conservatives’ eyes, Jesus Christ has been emasculated into little more than a tea-head in a nightie offering riddles and beatitudes to perplexed disciples. Shock therapy was in order and Gibson delivers it. Now we have a Christ who really looks alive before he is really put to death. Again, the question is about power and control. The film demonstrates how the manufactured, explicit spectacle of the crucifixion can be used to trick large segments of the population into understanding sin and its purification as a blood sacrifice that thrills as it cleanses.

Viewers emerging from the theatre after screenings of The Passion were often seen in tears. In his ethnographic study of Spanish bullfighting, Timothy Mitchell cites the literary critic Leslie Fiedler on the morbid essence of porn. “Since the true emotion of bullfighting is the emotion of art, the spectator who gets emotional for another reason destroys it by replacing it with a kind of mortal pornography that converts him into a suicidal masochist and a sadistic assassin all at once.”

Finally, I am reminded of the climax of Almodovar’s Matador in which the lame matador and his lover consummate their burning passion during an eclipse. The explicit arts of love and bullfighting fuse in a bloody moment privileged by nature itself. The film opens with gory slasher-film imagery; the bullfighter, no longer in the ring, must satisfy his blood lust with this dreck. The images represent violence without love, an open invitation to the pornographic.

This is the true loneliness of porn. And it's ours.

-- Timothy Dugdale

Buy the films mentioned in this article [click here]

Timothy Dugdale teaches in the Department of English at University of Detroit Mercy. He is also the founder of Atomic Quill Media.

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