Porn provocateur

Lizzy Borden, whose ultraviolent films feature women being beaten, raped and doused in vomit, insists that she is a gender pioneer whose repellent movies are morality tales.

Published June 20, 2002 7:25PM (EDT)

The most reviled woman in pornography stands before me, a 25-year-old bleached blond in tattered floral house slippers. On the cover of a catalog for Extreme Associates, the porn film company she runs with her husband, Rob Black, director Lizzy Borden wears spider-web tights and a skull-and-bones T-shirt that she accessorizes with a malicious grin and impressively pneumatic breasts. But in the privacy of her own office -- a cramped cinderblock warehouse covered with posters of naked women and autographed Hulk Hogan photographs -- she wears sweat pants and a Quiksilver T-shirt, with no visible makeup and her hair pulled back in a ponytail. Plus, the slippers.

"I'm totally bloated today," she tells me, sounding more like an awkward teen than a porn movie maven. "Don't take any photographs!"

In person, Lizzy Borden comes off as a chatty girl with a quick sense of humor, a potty mouth and a slight attitude problem. And yet, during her five-year career as an actress/director, Borden has emerged as a porn powerhouse who manages to offend, disgust and/or alienate not just feminists, politicians and most Americans with a conscience, but a great percentage of the unshockable pornography industry as well. This is a woman whose filmography includes such gems as "Fossil Fuckers" (geriatric women having sex with young men), "Cocktails" (post-coital women drinking vile concoctions of vomit and bodily fluids) and, most horrifyingly, the recent slasher-porno "Forced Entry."

In fact, Borden's films are so repugnant and evil that it's difficult to justify their existence, let alone comprehend why anyone -- especially a woman -- would want to make this kind of garbage in the first place. But Borden talks about her work with pride and a kind of twisted logic. She considers herself a moralist, an artist, a realist and a provocateur (though perhaps not in such grand vocabulary). In an industry that treats women like second-rate citizens, that considers them useful only as long as their breasts are perky and their orifices exploitable, Borden sees a route to power and respect in out-boying the boys. Furthermore, she believes she's just giving audiences the same kind of violence and vileness they've come to expect from their other entertainment outlets, like the World Wrestling Federation, "Jackass" and Eminem.

And thanks to her own abusive childhood, Borden is just screwed up enough to believe this rationalization. "As people stay in this industry they tend to get pretty twisted," explains journalist Luke Ford, a porn insider and longtime chronicler of the business. "It both attracts twisted people and then exacerbates those tendencies." No one epitomizes this more than Lizzy Borden, and none of her work manifests it so completely as the recent "Forced Entry."

The film premiered, oddly enough, as part of the Frontline documentary "American Porn," which screened on PBS this February. During their exploration of the extreme end of the porn industry, the Frontline producers visited the set of "Forced Entry" (actually, the back room of the Van Nuys, Calif., warehouse that Extreme Associates calls its office), where Borden was taping the climax of her film. The PBS producers were so disturbed by what they saw -- star Veronica Caine being "raped" and "beaten" -- that they filmed themselves walking off the set because it was too hard for them to watch.

I felt the same way when I watched the film. "Forced Entry" is purportedly the story of a serial killer and his gang who rape and murder a series of women -- an 18-year-old virgin, a pregnant woman, etc. -- before being caught and lynched by an angry mob. The actresses in the film are slapped, spit and urinated upon, and violated in every orifice, while sobbing and screaming and begging for mercy. Watching it, I was aware that it was just a movie -- that these were consensual acts taking place between actors and actresses who had already had sex with each other dozens of times in past films; and that the blood and screams were fake. The video even included an entire "blooper" reel of the actresses laughing and joking on the set. Still, I was so traumatized by the movie that it brought me to tears: It was like witnessing a real rape, seeing the nadir of man's contempt for womankind brought to life with no holds barred.

It's hard to equate this horror with the outgoing girl in slippers who walks me around the Extreme warehouse, through the spray-painted room where, in "Forced Entry," Veronica Caine is violated and stabbed to death. All the while Borden chats about her beloved bulldog and asks me questions about my career. She seems anxious to prove to me that she's not the evil, actress-beating director that Frontline depicted.

"I've fucked up on a lot of interviews, said things that people take all the wrong way," she tells me, as she sits me down in a broken office chair and puts her feet up on a big wooden desk. (I eye the desk nervously, wondering if it figured in the scenes of any of her movies.) "I'm very honest. Anything you want to know."

Despite these assurances, Borden has not always been totally honest about her past. In her early Extreme years, she pretended to have spent her youth in an insane asylum after murdering her family, à la the original Lizzy Borden. But this is the story she tells me now: Lizzy Borden was born in conservative Orange County, Calif. -- "behind the Orange Curtain" as she puts it -- to a "white trash" Italian Catholic family. Her stepfather was an abusive alcoholic, she says, who beat her mother viciously and regularly. Her mother stayed at home to raise Lizzy and her three half-siblings, and took out her own frustrations, says Lizzy, by beating her with her fists and assorted sharp objects. Lizzy moved out of her mother's house when she was 12, and finished high school while living with her conservative grandparents.

When she turned 18, Borden headed off to a local community college on a scholarship. "For the first time in my life I could actually see the world," she says, and the world she chose to see was full of drugs and partying. Frat parties led to raves; acid and Ecstasy led to speed and cocaine use, which led to a job as a stripper, assorted abusive boyfriends and her first lesbian experience.

Borden derives immense pleasure from describing how naive and introverted she once was. "I was an ugly duckling: I had a big Italian nose, the long brown hair. I never ever shaved my cunt until I started to strip! I didn't know anything," she confides, all wide-eyed astonishment. When she got her first job at a strip club, she tells me, "I didn't know how to use a tampon: When I saw someone else do it I was like, 'Oh no, Oh no. My grandma told me that once you do that, you are going to get toxic shock, you are going to die!'"

Nevertheless, Borden made quick work of losing her naiveté. After a brief career dancing at strip clubs, she met a porn star who convinced her that there was good money to be made in the business. She took her mother -- with whom she had reconciled, thanks in part to the drug problem they share and over which they had "bonded" -- to her first porn shoot and sat her outside the front door.

"I told her she had two choices: 'Either you don't go with me, and I get fucking killed and you see it on the news. Or you go with me and make sure no one kills me.' So she sat outside," says Borden. "And I was like, 'OK, my mom's out there just so you know.' I didn't know this world, I thought no one was gonna hurt me if my mom was out there."

Her mother cried over her decision, Borden says, until she saw the money that Borden was making. These days, Mom has a job at Extreme Associates. (Her mom, she says, "has her own fucked-up issues.")

After less than a dozen films, Borden got a job performing in a film for Extreme Associates, which led her to the man who would become her husband -- the porn director Rob Black, who already was gaining notoriety for his no-taboo-unexplored films. But, explains Borden, Rob "can't be with a woman who does porn, he comes from a Catholic Italian family," so she quickly gave up acting and, after assisting on Extreme sets, convinced Black to let her direct instead. It was just a matter of months before the two of them invented Lizzy Borden, the twisted mascot-slash-mistress of the most horrific films in the Extreme catalog.

Rob initially resisted Borden's desire to direct. "He said, 'Women don't make good directors,'" Borden explains. The idea that women don't make good directors is a commonly held belief in the porn industry, she says, because women "shoot all the soft stuff, all the lovey-dovey stuff that there's not a big market for. In the video stores, that's not what you go see: You want to see hardcore ass-fucking, DP [double-penetration], cum, piss, shit, whatever you can."

Borden, in turn, began to see herself as a kind of female challenge to the male-dominated industry: "I said: 'I'm fucked up! I can write something! I can be a man!' My mission after that was to prove everyone wrong."

Around her office, she says, she now acts just like a guy: She describes, with glee, how she recently peed on the chair of a co-worker and then made him sit on it, and how she and her best friend, star Veronica Caine, hid a dead fish in the office of another co-worker. She says that she farts and scratches and takes no grief, and that this means that the men of the porn industry no longer treat her like one of those "fluffy-puffy" porn queens.

"It's a power thing," she says. "These people told me I couldn't do something, and that's the only reason I wanted to do it. Because they told me I can't ... So I started to get more and more hardcore, until now no one can top me. I can get anyone to do anything because I am a woman. I think I've earned that respect."

It didn't take long for Lizzy to establish herself as a woman who went where no woman, and most men, would dare to go. The covers of the films that she has produced are difficult to even look at, covered as they are with hardcore snapshots of sex and blood. There's "Cannibalism," a horror-porno in which various internal organs are consumed after an orgiastic release. There's the "Sexually Intrusive Dysfunctional Family" series, which features such props as a decapitated pig's head. "Cocktails" features a grinning girl with a filth-smeared face and a bowl underneath her chin. ("Forced Entry," fortunately, has no cover art.)

Sex in Borden's films is almost always violent. Urine, excrement, blood and spit are prominent. Many films feature witches, Satan, robots, aliens and assorted otherworldly creatures. No orifice goes unviolated, and the more revolting the means, the better.

In fact, Borden says, she often revolts herself, but in a good kind of way. "It's disgusting but I like to watch it because it's shocking," she explains, and says that she sadistically eggs on her actresses to see how far they'll go. She's inspired by the likes of Eminem and Marilyn Manson, she says; she also compares her more nasty videos, like "Cocktails" -- in which, it seems, the sex is almost ancillary to the shock-horror-revulsion -- to shows like "Jackass," in which star Johnny Knoxville will don a face mask and go "swimming" in a porta-potty, or "Survivor," where contestants eat bugs and drink blood.

"Those reality shows, where people eat bugs and shit: That's disgusting! How can you watch it? But I watch it. It's the same with what we do: People are shocked by it, but they watch it."

And apparently enough people watch to make Borden's business profitable: "Cocktails" and "Fossil Fuckers," the films of which Borden says she is most proud, have sold so well that she has done sequels for all of them. "Forced Entry," her magnum opus, has sold 20,000 copies through mail order alone. This is the most disturbing aspect of her films: The fact that viewers watch these movies as a way of getting off. What kind of person masturbates to the sight of girls being slapped, drinking their own vomit or being raped?

This is the only question that gives Borden pause. "That's the one thing that we deal with every day," she says, and quickly meets the eyes of Veronica Caine, whom she has hauled into our interview in order to assure me that the actress wasn't really beaten and murdered in "Forced Entry." There is a momentary silence.

But Borden quickly brushes off this concern by insisting that, really, those creeps who get turned on by the violence in her films are actually being taught a lesson. She argues that many of her films are moral tales, based on "real" stories you might read in the news, in which the bad guy or girl gets caught in the end. A bad alcoholic mother runs over her babysitter and her son, and ends up slashing her wrists (after having sex with assorted strangers first); the rapist in "Forced Entry" is murdered by a vigilante mob; a woman with a cheating husband leaves him in the end.

"If you watch it and don't fast-forward it, and if you think about it, you'll see there's a moral to it!" Borden argues. "Most of this is awareness. I try to show what could happen to you. Do this [violent act] and you are going to get fucked up." Instead of believing, as some do, that linking sex and violence encourages rape, she points out that people get turned on by violence against women in movies like "Halloween" or "The Accused" all the time -- the only difference being that they don't actually see the sex.

Caine, a freckle-faced 32-year-old who is as calm as Borden is hyperactive, chimes in. She was shunned for performing in "Forced Entry," Caine says, and she admits there are moral concerns about the film. But, she adds, "There's nothing wrong with what I'm doing. The one thing that people want to pick out that makes it wrong is the fact that there is hardcore sex in it. Everything else is completely acceptable on a daily basis. I simply performed something that involved sex with a completely mainstream kind of entertainment. And porn is mainstream to me."

I can vaguely understand the argument that Eminem's "Kim," in which we hear a woman being raped and murdered, is no more socially acceptable than "Forced Entry," in which we see it. Except "Forced Entry," of course, is also a porno flick intended to sexually arouse us. Perhaps the juxtaposition that shocks me has simply been normalized in the porn industry, in which sex can be as banal an act as eating cornflakes -- even when it is embellished with a beating.

Still, it's difficult for me to comprehend how these women can calmly talk about performing acts that make me shudder with horror when I see them on tape. Maybe, I think, Borden's a sadist who reenacts violence in order to purge the violence of her own past; maybe this is a game to prove herself to her extreme husband; maybe it's a way of rising above helplessness and futility.

I find one thing striking, though: Borden admits that she isn't actually aroused by her own movies. I ask her what turns her on in porn, and she says it's "when two people have a connection ... Not so much lovey-dovey, but when they are like, yeah, fuck me harder, fuck me harder! Well, I guess you could say it's lovey-dovey, but with more of a hardcore edge to it."

Borden vows that she isn't a feminist, but she sees herself as kind of a gender pioneer. Her films, she says, have powerful messages for women: "For the most part I hope women will look at [my movies] and say, 'A woman made this, she directed it.' I'm saying, you can get your revenge, maybe not the way I did, but in your own way you can rise above it. You got to reach within yourself and apply it."

But the respect that Borden says she has earned is dubious: There are women, she admits, who no longer meet her eyes when they see her, and men who think she's a freak. In general, porn insiders say that Extreme fare is generally considered too gross by the more elitist hierarchies of the industry, and that Borden is considered an anomaly. But Borden also extols the fact that men on the sets no longer ask her to "fluff" them or demand blow jobs; she's sometimes even approached by female porn stars who admire what she does.

She's happy, she insists: Messed in the head, maybe, but happy. She's off drugs and alcohol -- the only thing she does now is drink too much coffee and take Zoloft. She's not sure if she wants children, but says that her porn friends are her family: All she needs is her husband Rob, whom she describes as "my savior, the love of my life," and her best friend Veronica, "a saint ... she completes me.

"We're like the land of misfit toys," she giggles.

Borden's not sure where she wants to be in 10 years; maybe on a beach in Florida, she says. She recently launched a second career as a wrestler, as part of Extreme Associates' new foray into WWF-style entertainment (more violent, of course, including accessories like barbed wire and thumbtacks). She's also thinking of going back to college with Caine, to learn how to do movie makeup, or set design, or maybe nursing.

When she talks like this, she sounds like an average young adult, unsure what she wants with the world but confident that she can conquer anything if she just sets her mind to it and has her best friend at her side.

Borden tells me that she is seeing a therapist. When I ask her what her therapist thinks of what she does, she tells me, "She thinks I'm interacting with the world, which is good. I accomplish goals instead of being 'Poor me, I was abused as a child so I'm going to sit on the couch and be depressed and eat dum-dums and watch Oprah and commiserate with every woman and man in the world that feels like that.' No, I'm going out there and doing my own thing."

She looks me in the eyes and puts on a challenging face that flickers between blasé and bravado. "Yeah, I'm fucked up," she says, shrugging. "I can admit it. People say they are sorry for me, and I'm like, why? It's made me a better person. I don't want to be a pansy."

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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