Exerting Power through Porn: “Smutty Little Movies” Book Review

“If it exists, there is a porn of it,” claims the infamous internet meme. This simple statement provides a lot more value than perhaps its intended shocking effect, which we can see in Peter Alilunas’s Smutty Little Movies when adult content disseminates into any new avenue of technology or thought. The academic monograph examines both the adult video and the societal struggle to regulate and contain pleasure as pornography transitioned from the public to private sphere, new technologies developed, and capitalism and the traditional family model confronted sexual pleasure and a lack of social control. Alilunas gathers research and evidence from a wide spectrum of sources, mostly non-academic in nature, to analyze the codependency of the home video industry and adult film.

Alilunas introduces Smutty Little Movies with several key themes and questions surrounding the movement of explicit material from the public to the private spheres (especially from the big screen and the 1970s Golden Age of adult film to private adult video) and how pornography could be defined as an thought structure, allowing dominant classes to exert power in controlling what was considered “pornographic” and off-limits or inappropriate in any way to other classes or groups. The book is structured into four distinct parts that are tied together through the pornography-as-power ideology. Alilunas first chronologically examines changing technological, cultural, and industrial perspectives, beginning with the invention of the Panoram, a visual jukebox found in public places like bars and drugstores, that eventually turned into a “Solo-Vue” with curtains or walls and displayed images of female nudity. As the Panoram provided more privacy in public, motels, in realizing the economic potential of showing adult films, became the liminal space between the public theater and the private home. The underground film piracy economy was key to this transition since adult content was still made for the big screen only, though some motel owners did start filming their own content. Peep-show booths like the Panoram and motel viewing were outdone by George Atkinson who eventually became known as the father of home video rental after he realized that he could provide adult videos in the security of the home for a major profit. At this point, quantity of adult content became much more important than the quality, and so Alilunas argues that capitalism became one of the driving factors for the quiet and private spread of pornography.

Magazines were also a major marketing arm for the adult video industry. Alilunas looks at a variety of publications. Initially the content was the product, meaning magazines focused on sampling of still images and stories. When Adult Video News (AVN) entered the industry, a strategy for quality and taste further pushed pornography into the private sphere. Rather than sampling, AVN acted almost as newsletter foreplay for the actual videos and presented the idea and context rather than the content. This push for seeking out quality content also further reinforces the problematic gender narrative in which women must be “protected” but also might only be interested in “tasteful” pornography. Alilunas goes on to describe two key women in the rise of the adult video industry, though he acknowledges that neither received the credit they truly deserved, which proves how it is “a male-dominated industry built on women’s bodies” (130). Ginger Lynn made her mark as an adventurous girl-next-door actress around whom the Vivid Video company’s marketing strategy was built, though the male owners did not later acknowledge their combined effort. Candida Royalle stepped behind the camera in order produce real change for women and focused on reestablishing female control rather than submission in sexual pleasure. However, even Royalle’s own production company was backed by male investment. Further, she reinforced the pleasure-in-quality narrative, falling into the same categorical traps that places value on individual pleasure. Finally, Alilunas explores external regulation of adult video, which he claims as being rooted in a fear of changing societal morals and the disruption of the traditional family unit. Regulation took place both legally (e.g. investigations, trials, governmental studies) and through grassroots movements (e.g. religious groups, antiporn feminist groups, and corporate video rental companies refusal to stock adult content).

Alilunas ultimately concludes that although adult video saved the adult film industry, it is only one player in the ongoing discourses of power and controlling pleasure. Whether explicit external regulation or decentralized and constantly shifting discourses around what pornography should be, there will always be something new to discuss, reconcile, and push beyond, such as the Internet, which viewers of the Panoram would not have been able to fathom.  

Peter Alilunas, an Assistant Professor of Media Studies at the University of Oregon, grew up in America in the 1970s and 80s, a time when pornography seemed to be taking over the nation. He explains though that his memories of pornographic images and encounters were fleeting and confusing, which is reflective of his later discovery that academia surrounding the dissemination of pornography is severely lacking. Alilunas’s background in Media Studies is especially relevant since he argues that pornography was a crucial part of the home video’s history (and vice versa) rather than just a consequence of the home video. He received the Society for cinema and Media Studies Dissertation Award of Distinction for Smutty Little Movies in 2014.

Alilunas, despite the lack of literature in pornographic studies and the adult film industry, works to fill in at least some of those gaps on a broad scale, which is also his greatest strength in creating Smutty Little Movies. Rather than pulling together academic content, Alilunas investigates history of the adult video industry and the context surrounding the proliferation of pornography over the years. He is not so media-heavy that he analyzes specific pieces of media but rather pulls from a variety of contextual sources to understand the motivation, process, and outcome of technological, cultural, and industrial changes. More specifically, he pulls from catalogues, magazines, brochures, advertisements, autobiographies, blog posts, fan websites, newspapers, zoning laws, court rulings, etc. to form his own understanding of how society affected pornography and vice versa.

Smutty Little Movies acknowledges many areas in which it could go into more depth, such as queer and race dynamics or even further criticism of problematic gender narratives, but as Alilunas notes at the beginning, his “decision is an effort to limit the scope and scale of the research to a particular industrial history that has not yet received much scholarly interest while simultaneously occupying a massive historical footprint” (31). Having said that though, his ultimate arguments about the power of pornography and societal control could be further grounded in theory, such as Foucault’s thought on the relationship between power and oppression.

As intended, Smutty Little Movies fills in a wide gap in the vast pornographic history, though it’s important to keep in mind that it’s only one gap of many. Observing cultural thought through technology and industry provides a fascinating view of how we are able to both gain control and lose control of our own individual identities. This book is especially relevant for those who grew up in the so-called Golden Age of adult film in the 1970s and the rise of the home video in the 1980s. This study is also important for current college-level students as gender and sexuality disciplines expand and open us up to hidden narratives in our past.

Works Cited:

Alilunas, Peter. Smutty Little Movies. Oakland: University of California, 2016. Print.

Flirting with Danger

Every day, every single interaction, whether conscious or unconscious, shapes our identity and perception of the world. From the time we wake up in the morning until the time we go to bed at night, we are taking in information, processing it, and shifting our awareness of society based on the viewpoints we perceive. This impact of interactions and social cues has evolved over time into the hegemonic countercultures in different places around the globe. In her book Flirting with Danger, Lynn N. Phillips explores the ideology of power and choice within hetero-relationships formed by Western Culture through an in-depth analysis of the personal stories from young women.

Lynn N. Phillips coined the phrase “flirting with danger” in order to summarize women’s approach toward hetero-relations as established by previous interactions and media influence. In common situations of hetero-relations, the boundaries between “seduction and domination, pleasure and danger, responsibility and exploitation, agency and objectification, and consent and coercion” often become variable and murky (Phillips 3). However, women interpret this risky behavior as a “part of the ‘normal’ experience of their daily hetero-relational lives” (Phillips 3).  Through her research and analysis of women’s personal reflections of their relational experiences, Phillips successfully explores how women’s view of hetero-relations has evolved into the “need to flirt with danger” (Phillips 206).

Lynn N. Phillips draws on previous literature from feminist theorists in order to analyze her qualitative data. In doing so, she successfully creates a framework to guide our understanding of how society has shaped the subjectivity of power, choice, and desire within hetero-relations. In writing this book, Phillips aims to stimulate discourse regarding aspects of hetero-relations that are often excluded from feminist and social science literature. She specifically highlights the absence of conversation promoting “male accountability” and “female pleasure without penalties” (Phillips 77). While women do have the same sexual desires as men, “structural, ideological, and interpersonal barriers” created by Western Culture often prevent women from expressing these desires (Phillips 77).  Further, she hopes to gain a greater understanding of how women’s judgments, specifically regarding the meanings of male domination and sexualized power in their lives, have been shaped by personal experiences and outside influences. These subjectivities, formed from popular media and past hetero-relational experiences, are exemplified through four common themes of discourse: (1) “how to be a ‘good woman’,” (2) “what constitutes ‘normal’ male behavior,” (3) “what counts as ‘real victimization’,” and (4) “what should be expected from men and hetero-relationships” (Phillips 38, 52, 61, 69).  Through her comprehensive investigation of power and desire from personal narratives about hetero-sexual relations, Phillips successfully sets up a foundation for institutional change and further research surrounding “how issues of power and aggression might filter through same-sex relations” (Phillips 205).

Lynn M. Phillips consults with organizations on issues of sexuality, education, and victimization. As a Professor of Psychology and Gender Studies at Eugene Lang College of the New School University, she has experience in teaching and working with young adults. She has also written several other books on the topic of gender, sexuality, and relationships. For example, she was commissioned by the National Council for Research on Women to write The Girls Report: What We Know and Need to Know About Growing Up Female, and she is the author of Planned Parenthood’s Unequal Partners: Exploring Power and Consent in Adult-Teen Relationships. Her research in the field of gender and sexuality studies has sparked further inquiry surrounding the formation of the beliefs and messages guiding hetero-relations.

Phillips wrote Flirting with Danger in order to investigate her three central research questions: (1) How do “young women conceptualize the distinctions between good relationships and bad ones, between consent and coercion, and between agency and victimization?”, (2) How do “young women make sense of the violence and manipulation that all too often invade their hetero-relationships?”, (3)  What do young women “tolerate,…resist,…or perceive as ‘normal’ or ‘inevitable’ in their own and other women’s hetero-relational encounters?” (Phillips 5). In addition to using previous literature from feminist theorists such as bell hooks, Butler, Bartky, Collins, and more, Phillips conducted her own research study by interviewing young women from a small, progressive liberal arts college in the northeastern United States (Phillips 6). She placed letters in the campus mailboxes of all female students, inviting them to be interviewed about “power and intimacy in various relationships” (Phillips 6). She had in-depth conversations with the thirty young women who responded regarding their own personal experiences within hetero-relations as well as the hetero-relations of those around them.  Surprisingly, of the thirty young women that responded, twenty-seven of them “described at least one encounter that fit legal definitions of rape, battering, or harassment” but “only two women ever used such terms to describe a personal experience” (Phillips 7). Though Phillips does not discuss the official legal reporting of rape, battering, or harassment, this fact demonstrates the challenges of under-reporting. Many women are aware of what constitutes sexual assault and abuse, but refuse to consider themselves a victim when placed in the exact context. When in this situation of victimization, women have a “tendency to downplay the severity of their experience and blame themselves for their own abuse” (Phillips 157).  However, Phillips uses this fact alone as well as the contexts in which these young women’s hetero-relational subjectivities were constructed to understand young women’s personal perceptions, decisions, and attributions within hetero-relations. By placing these perspectives within cultural contexts, Phillips is able to identify common themes which contributed to their formation.

Through exploring prevailing themes within popular discourse relating to hetero-relations, Phillips creates a structure for the contexts, formulation, and application of “flirting with danger.” She specifically outlines four dominant themes of discourse with two conflicting discourses within each. For example, one dominant theme throughout her discussions was “how to be a ‘good woman’,” which broke down into “the pleasing woman discourse” and “the together woman discourse” (Phillips 38-39, 47).  The “pleasing woman” encompasses “the desire and ability to be pleasant, feminine, and subordinate to men,” stressing “morality, sexual ‘purity,’ and service to men and children” (Phillips 39). The “together woman” is “free, sexually sophisticated, and entitled to accept nothing less than full equality and satisfaction in her sexual encounters and romantic relationships” (Phillips 47). As exemplified though “how to be a ‘good woman’ discourse,” the two discourses within each dominant theme are viewed as mutually exclusive, thus creating the need to “flirt with danger” in order to obtain a “normal” hetero-relational experience (Phillips 38). As Phillips discusses, however, these two discourses should be seen as a spectrum rather than mutually exclusive, as hetero-relations will vary within each discourse based on the situation. Through exploring, establishing, and breaking down the social constructions of these dominant discourses, Phillips hopes to stimulate discussion surrounding the promotion of young women as sexual subjects who can find pleasure and safety within their hetero-relations with the final goal being a society without a “need to flirt with danger” (Phillips 206).

Within feminist literature, Phillips specifically draws from bell hooks’s Feminist Theory from Margin to Center in order to build off of previous theories regarding sexuality. In a passage referenced by Phillips, bell hooks describes “naming and criticizing the negative aspects of sexuality” as a “simple task for women” (Phillips 190). Further, bell hooks discusses difficulty of changing the norms of sexuality for women due to cultural constraints. Though Phillips agrees with the difficult task of creating new sexual ideals, especially in the present culture, she argues that naming is not such as simple a task as bell hooks portrays. Referencing the stories of the young women she interviewed, Phillips argues that women have difficulty making “straightforward claims about their own victimization” (Phillips 190). Women were able to speak against male sexual aggression in general, but unable to identify male sexual domination as victimizing within their own experiences. Similar to the views of bell hooks, Phillips contributes the inability to identify personal experiences as victimizing and the failure to establish new sexual paradigms to the cultural constraints of society today. By analyzing and critiquing the work of bell hooks in the context of her research, Phillips contributes to the conversation regarding feminist literature, enabling further research in this field.

One of the strengths of Phillips’s book is that it is relatable to a wider audience, concerning race, socio-economic status, and religion, as she draws on stories from all of the women in order to form her analysis. She uses specific examples of situations women found themselves in or brought upon themselves through poor decisions or risky behavior as evidence for all of her claims, further aiding her argument. This detailed investigation, however, is limited only to heterosexual relations; though some of these women identify as bisexual or questioning, she limits her research to only their hetero-relational experiences, excluding all other relations since she believes that “all women regardless of sexual orientation or sexual identity, are engaged in hetero-relations of some sort” (Phillips XI). Phillips did not take into account that these women’s same-sex relations could have made an impact on the formation of their ideas surrounding hetero-relations.  Therefore, in order to expand upon her study, Phillips suggests researchers should “explore how issues of power and aggression might filter through same-sex relationships as well,” building off of her framework and findings (Phillips 205).

Overall, in her book Flirting with Danger, Lynn M. Phillips successfully analyzes the hetero-relational experiences of thirty young women in order to create a structure for the formation of the beliefs behind their actions. Other feminist theorists as well as young women and men should read Phillips’s book in order to stimulate discourse and change the culture constructing these views and beliefs surrounding power, desire, and choice within hetero-relations.

 

Works Cited

Phillips, Lynn M. Flirting with Danger: Young Women’s Reflections on Sexuality and

Domination. New York: New York University Press, 2000. Print.

The Intersection of Sex and Power in Afghanistan

The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan is a documentary by Afghan journalist Najibullah Quraishi about the tradition of bacha bazi in Afghanistan. Bacha bazi, which means, “playing with boys” in Persian, is a long-standing tradition of child prostitution and sexual slavery in Afghanistan. Many times, these boys have to dress in women’s clothing, dancing and sing at parties for men, and then are sold to the highest bidder for the night. These are young boys no older than 15 years old (usually poor and/or orphans) that are sold to rich and influential men who keep them for prestige and as status symbols. The practice is illegal under Afghan law. However, the corrupt law enforcement does not implement it, and many times they do it themselves. In this documentary, Najibullah Quraishi researches bacha bazi first-hand by talking with the boys and their owners. At the same time, Quraishi is detailing and recording how authorities in Afghanistan are accountable for preventing these crimes, but are occasionally culpable in the practice. This documentary was created because he practice of bacha bazi is largely overlooked in the West. This short film is a way to shed light on a horrible and ancient tradition and to expose it to the West.

This documentary not only sheds the light on the boys who are prostituted, it also exposes the men who participate in it and the culture surrounding the practice. In the first few scenes of the documentary, Quraishi meets Dastager, a prominent leader in the bacha bazi business in the Takhar province of Afghanistan. Dastager introduces Quraishi to “one of his favorite dancing boys,” 15-year old Imam. Dastager continues on to dress Imam himself and say, “You’ll really make me want to lose control.” After Imam dances and sings for the other men, Quraishi sits down and talks with Dastager. With no shame, Dastager admits that he has had 2,000-3,000 boys work with him over the years. Quraishi precedes to ask Dastager if he has ever had sex with this boys; Dastager answers by saying no but immediately smiles afterward, indicating that he actually does. This scene shows how this practice is somewhat of an open secret in Afghanistan. Even when this practice is denied, everyone knows it is happening, but it is ignored. In many situations, people will not look at Dastager and think that he is doing something wrong. Instead, they would look at the boys he has raped, and say that they are the lowly and powerful ones. These boys are then looked down on and ostracized by their communities. This attitude in Afghanistan shows why the practice of bacha bazi has persisted for this long. People look down on these young boys (because they are looked at as poor and dishonored because they let the rape happen), and the men are not punished for their abuse, so they know they can continue doing it. These little boys are victim shamed and the blame is put on them.

Furthermore, a common thread throughout this documentary is class. Many of the boys who are sold into this sexual slavery are poor and/or orphans. About 13 minutes into the documentary, Dastagar tells Quraishi the kinds of boys he is looking for. Dastagar explains that he wants an attractive boy that is around 12 or 13 years old who is poor and has nothing. The practice of bacha bazi is perpetuated by poor families who sell their sons and by men who exploit the weaknesses of the poor in their communities. Many of the young boys who enter this world do not know anything about it, and the men who buy them take advantage of that.

Additionally, about halfway through the documentary, Quraishi interviews a police chief in Takhar province. The chief precedes to say that anyone who is caught practicing bacha bazi is prosecuted no matter what class they are because it is illegal in Afghanistan. However, in the next scene, Quraishi’s cameras catch two high-ranking police officials in an illegal bacha bazi party. They were simply watching and chatting with their friends at the party. The corruption of the police is an enormous issue in the preventing of bacha bazi because these are the people that are supposed to be stopping it. Instead, many of them not only look the other way when they know bacha bazi is happening, they also participate in it and consciously commit sexual abuse.

The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan not only sheds light on what is happening to many young boys in Afghanistan, but it also portrays why this ancient practice has persisted for so long. Simply informing the West of what is happening is not going to change this practice. In Afghanistan, the society condones this form of sexual abuse and slavery of young boys. Not only do people turn a blind eye to this horrendous practice, but they also blame the boy who is being sexually abused. They look down on the abused and then praise and admire the abuser. Also, the men who own these businesses exploit poor families and orphaned children who feel like they have no other choice, and prostitute the young boys. This perpetuates the bacha bazi practice because in a way, the boys are “willingly” selling themselves. Moreover, there is no one to enforce anti-bacha bazi laws because the police themselves are overlooking it and even practicing bacha bazi themselves.

Getting rid of the tradition of bacha bazi is not going to be easy. There are certain societal changes that need to happen, like no more victim blaming, giving more choices and freedoms to the poor in the country, and changing the culture and attitude of the police. This is not something that can be done over night. It will take a lot of money, time, and progression. Bacha bazi is banned in Afghanistan; however, this step is not the only one that needed to happen. The first step is that the men who are committing these crimes need to be held accountable and most are never punished for what they do. I think that if they are, it will show other Afghans that this practice is not okay and it will start to be stigmatized (for the better).

Also, I think there needs to be a huge shift of attitude towards feminism, sex, power, and sexuality. In many situations in Afghanistan, sex is looked as another form of attaining power. This is why many women are abused, sheltered by their husbands, and raped (marital rape too), and why these young boys are raped. Women have another set of societal standards that they have to meet. However, we never talk about the set of standards that men have to meet in Afghan society, which I think contributes in large part to the vicious cycle of abuse. If a man is not married and does not have kids by a certain age, he is looked at as impotent and powerless. If he does not beat his wife when she talks back or does not do what he says, he is looked at as weak. These practices go back to the idea that women are lesser and inferior to men and that men always need to have the most power. If you look at bacha bazi, it makes sense then. These little boys are not seen as men yet, they are just another way for “actual men” to prove their power and superiority. These boys are almost seen as women: weak and inferior.