The Pornographic Imagination

Pornography seems to always provoke a reaction in most people. Not the same reaction, because people have such different ideas about it – some look horrified while others get a peculiar gleam in their eyes. There are those who think it should be banned outright, others who think it should only be viewed by people like themselves (and not by the great unwashed masses because who knows what might result), and yet others who say ‘What’s the big deal? Let those who want to watch it, watch it. People have a right to see what they want and to express themselves’.

So it was very useful to listen to what Richard Fung had to say about pornography at Films of Desire. Richard is Associate Professor in the Integrated Media program at the Ontario College of Art and Design. He is a world renowned video artist, writer and public intellectual. He has received the Bell Canada Award for Video as well as the Toronto Arts Award for Media Art. He lives in Toronto, Canada. Of Chinese origin, his family comes from Trinidad in the Caribbean.

Because pornography is such a contentious issue, Richard preferred to focus on his own work and his relationship with pornography, instead of talking about theories. He did this by offering three ways of locating the issue: What is porn? What is the context? What is the difference between gay porn and heterosexual porn?

The first question is much tossed around in arguments about pornography and erotica. Richard said the answer is quite simple, according to Richard Dyer, a British film scholar, who defines it as ‘pornography is work whose principle purpose is to incite sexual arousal’. Now as it so happens, films arouse all sorts of bodily reactions – we laugh, we cry, we get excited, but in the body-mind split, the body is always relegated to some lower status, and so, it’s important to keep that in mind when we think about porn films.

It is also important to think about context because in each of our locales we have different histories, ways of understanding terms, and political debates. At the same time there is an intermingling of the local with the global. Globalisation is not something happening ‘elsewhere’ but is happening here, wherever one is.

Richard’s work on porn has been mainly on gay pornography and the kinds of depictions in gay porn and the debates around them are very different from those around heterosexual pornography. The issues of spectatorship in these two kinds of porn are also quite different. In the mid 1990s when Richard was organising gay Asian men in Canada who were immigrants, he found that their relationship to gay porn was ambivalent. For many of them gay porn was the only place where they found an affirmation of their sexual desire. At the same time, the images were only of white men. So in a way the Asian men were being undermined by not being seen as worthy of sexual desire. At the same time, if you criticised gay porn or gay male culture, it was seen as homophobia. Looking more carefully, Richard did find porn with images of Asian men, but they were placed in an oriental context, again for the white male viewer. In video stores, porn videos were to be found on the Asian shelf, Latino shelf, Black shelf, etc. Today there is no such categorisation.

Richard pointed out that there is very little inter-racial sex in gay pornography. Today, there are many sites for porn on the Internet, including sites Asian sites, Latino sites etc. It shows that Asians or Latinos are being eroticised but that is like making it equivalent to having a sort of sexualised taste, it is not really about addressing questions of race or culture. Multiculturalism has still not come to porn.

Richard also spoke about using pornography as pedagogy, especially now that AIDS has made it critical to talk about sexuality and safer sex. He gave the example of how he made a safer sex porn tape for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), a major AIDS organisation in New York, to make condoms ‘sexy’. In this film, an East Asian man, a Chinese Canadian man and a South Asian man have sex together using safer sex practices. What was interesting was that in discussions with gay Asian men about how they use porn, Richard discovered that just because they demanded to be included in porn, did not mean that they were turned on by seeing people who looked like them. A film does not exist just by itself – it is what we bring to viewing it and how we interpret it that gives it a certain meaning. He gave the example of his lesbian room-mate who looked at gay male porn while having sex with her girlfriend. Because there were no power relationship issues involved for her in her viewing gay male porn, it turned her on. People use porn in different ways and one of the things that gets lost in debates about censorship, is that porn is about fantasy. It exists in a space of fantasy and fantasy positions that people take on, that may have nothing to do with one’s life. And that is why, without suggesting that is the ideal, porn offers a certain kind of freedom.

Currently there is very little debate about porn in Canada, probably because of three main reasons. There is a strong anti-censorship movement led by artists, film makers and intellectuals. Toronto is also home to the Toronto International Film Festival which is a big tourist attraction, and the film festival director managed to ensure that the films to be screened did not need censorship certificates as long as everyone in the audience was over 18 years old, because he made a case that one did not need a license to show films to artists. The third reason was quite ironic. Under the Butler Decision, the government could not ban material for being sexually explicit, but could ban material that could cause harm, primarily with a view to protect women and children. The very first thing the government banned was a lesbian magazine called ‘On Our Backs’. It was ironic because lesbians are not usually regarded as a danger to women and children. This act by the government revealed how it follows its own internal logic and cannot really be trusted.

Richard’s final point was about the term ‘onscenity’ coined by Linda Williams, a major scholar of anthropology. She made up this term in relation to ‘obscenity’. Obscenity, is about things one is not supposed to speak about – so it has a sense of being ‘off-stage’. Onscenity refers to those acts or expressions of sexuality that are forced out into the open by the popular media, like the sexual escapades of celebrities or political leaders; they are willy-nilly brought on-scene. Thus the unspeakable and the speakable come to meet, albeit with varying degrees of tension, which is what we are seeing is happening in many public discussions about sexuality in contemporary society.

It was enlightening to hear Richard speak. Most talks about pornography are usually about whether it should or should not be banned. Rarely do they discuss pornography as a genre or type of film that belongs to a family with shared characteristics (like action films, or horror films or comedy). Therefore they do not raise questions about how race is depicted or whether viewers identify with the content or not, or even how porn may be used as an educational tool.

As Shohini Ghosh, another major film scholar summed it up, ‘If you like to watch action films, comedy, detective films, pornography, or you like to see spiritual discourses then you go with certain kinds of expectations. You are getting something out of it whether it is spiritual upliftment or an erection. It depends on what you are really looking for. But if you are going to look at pornography thinking that you are going to get spiritual upliftment, that’s really where the problem begins.’ Need one say more?