Last November I attended an event at the Castro, a grand-scale, gilded
movie theater in San Francisco's gay district of the same name. The gala
affair was dubbed "Beyond Boogie Nights," and consisted of a clip show of
'70s porn films sandwiched between a champagne reception and a panel
discussion with former porn stars.
The event took a nostalgic look back at the X-rated films of the 1970s, a period affectionately referred to as the "Golden Age of Porn." As former adult star Richard Pacheco informed me during the low-key reception that preceded the show, "[The '70s] were the first time in the history of people where [sexually transmitted] life-threatening illness had been conquered." Syphilis and gonorrhea were cured with a pill or a shot, and birth control and abortion (legalized in 1973) took care of unwanted pregnancy. This new freedom, according to Pacheco, was celebrated not only in suburban bedrooms across the country but also in the large-screen theaters that were regularly showing big-budget porn for the first time.
The show's host and curator Carol Queen confirmed Pacheco's vision. "People really were making entertainment for the sexual revolution,
really felt culture was changing in a direction that would accept this
material," she explained. "And for awhile it did."
Queen is something of a legend within what's become known as the sex-positive movement -- a loose affiliation of porn stars, sex-toy vendors, academic "sexperts," prostitutes, strippers and the like. "Beyond Boogie Nights" exemplified the sex-positive movement's ongoing project of revising the history of the sex industry through rosier, politically correct lenses.
Yet the notion of the '70s as an era of pornographic glory and unfettered libido doesn't quite jibe with the facts. Although the 1970s indeed represented a loosening of sexual mores and allowed the sex industry to enjoy moments of glamour and wealth, even then the torch of sexual tolerance was carried by a minority of Americans. With the ongoing and gradual erosion of traditional sexual taboos, porn today enjoys more mainstream acceptance than ever, but the truth is that it has never really been widely accepted, anywhere, anytime. And instead of returning to a pro-porn utopia that never existed, proponents of sex positivism are instead redefining past work in the socially en vogue language of postmodern leftism, a tactic that has thus far yielded feeble results.
"Beyond Boogie Nights" was just one of many events dedicated to
bringing mainstream awareness to the pro-porn movement. Last August, Queen and others sat on a variety of panels at the Annual Pornography
Conference in Los Angeles. And earlier in '98, in San Francisco, Annie Sprinkle
performed her retrospective, "Post-Porn Modernist," which led the audience through her career in adult films, the disillusionment that accompanied the AIDS epidemic and her current work focusing on safe sex and sex-positive feminism. Like "Beyond Boogie Nights," Sprinkle's retrospective undertook a similar project: reinterpreting past work through the scrim of '90s self-consciousness.
On this particular evening, however, presenting an "acceptable" version of events was not on the agenda. "I will not be taking this show to Arkansas,"
crowed Queen, as she introduced the evening's festivities.
Clad in G-string, campy high heels and her trademark librarian glasses,
Queen embodied the bipolar spirit of the current pro-porn movement. After first bemoaning the destruction of historic porn theaters in New York's Times Square in stentorian tones, she then burst out, with unrestrained glee, that we were about to witness "cocks and cunts that are as big as Godzilla."
As the evening's entertainment unreeled in samples from 21 big-budget films, the audience munched on popcorn while feasting their eyes on
everything from public masturbation and urination, "epic sofa fucks" and
the mile-high club, to lesbian shower sex, male anal penetration and a
protracted fisting scene.
While the film clips portrayed the '70s in all its excess and lechery, the panel -- made up of sex-positive, porn-star activists Annie Sprinkle, Candida Royalle, Chris Cassidy, Richard Pacheco and Jamie Gillis -- sought to offer some judicious criticism. All discussed their efforts to introduce a much-needed feminist perspective into current film projects. Cassidy, Sprinkle and Royalle have all made porn for women; and Royalle markets her own line of vibrators and other sex products for ladies. All voiced their support for events like "Beyond Boogie Nights" as an organized effort to break pornography out of the condemned ghettos assigned to it by feminists and fundamentalists alike.
"Women [in '70s porn] were portrayed not in any real way, but they were portrayed in men's fantasies of how men wanted women to be, which can be defined somewhere between Kleenex and cum catching," Pacheco told me before the show, adding that such displays weren't necessarily wrong, just one-sided.
Unfortunately, the filmed and rhetorical results of sex-positive
feminism tend to fall between "hail the Goddess" schmaltz and sterile
"this is your clitoris" instructionals. Instead of the flippancy of "The Devil
in Miss Jones," viewers are more likely to get explicit lessons on the appropriate use of dental dams.
In the age of AIDS -- which took a devastating toll on the porn community in the '80s and '90s -- precautions are necessary, but they also serve to illustrate an important point: The "Golden Age of Porn," if it existed, isn't something that can ever be revived. Along with a slow progression toward a more sexually tolerant society have come responsibilities and obligations that undermine the essential attraction of pornography: the taboo.
In spite of its intentions, "Beyond Boogie Nights" celebrated porn that wasn't about gender equality, safe sex or deconstruction. It was, in essence, about fun, about fearlessly celebrating the sex act and all its related activities. Even the often degrading ways in which women are treated in the films have their charm: In this decade of sexual inquisitions, it's enjoyable to watch fantasies acted out without concern for political implications. Why? The same reason porn has always been appealing: It is forbidden. People love pornography for the very same reasons that people also hate it: because it tramples on our notions of social acceptability, letting us revel for a time in consequence-free sinning.
A raised-hand survey at the "Beyond Boogie Nights" events showed that approximately one-third of the audience had been born in the '70s and were probably experiencing both the films and the chance to see them in a
theater for the first time. It's among this generation, the literal offspring of the sexual revolution, that the new porn movement may find its new followers. Like the director of "Boogie Nights," Paul Thomas Anderson (born Jan 1, 1970), we have grown up in the historical shadow of sexual freedoms we never got to experience. For us, the very notion of a "golden age of porn" holds some allure.
But if the pro-porn movement wants to reach this new generation of jaded innocents, it should lose the PC jargon and flimsy academic analyses and embrace porn's inherently taboo nature. From TV shows such as "South Park" and films like "Very Bad Things" to the ever-more-mainstream hip-hop music that belts out the racial and gender stereotypes, exploiting verboten subject matter has become the mantra of youth culture lately. In this context porn might become just another side dish in young hipsters' appreciation of illicit culture.
But filling an entertainment niche for a generation whose attention span lacks stamina falls decidedly short of becoming acceptable dinner conversation. For all the pro-porn activists' enthusiasm -- "We're constantly getting more audiences as people come of age, and so pornography is just more of an accepted thing now," Royalle told me before the show -- your local cinema won't be rereleasing "Deep Throat" anytime soon.
Of course, it's hard to blame activists like Sprinkle, Queen, Pacheco and others for wanting some legitimacy for their craft. Unfortunately, slapping the label "art" on old pornos, or making great-goddess-of-the-orgasm films that would set even Andrea Dworkin to wanking, won't change a world that views their work as inherently and irrevocably dirty. If the pro-porn movement truly wants success, they're going to have to change humanity's convoluted relationship with their libidos. And that will take a lot more than gala gatherings and film clips. In fact, it may well be impossible.