Sex & Relationships

The Power of Porn Stars: Why We Love, Hate, Fear and Want Them

Girls involved with paid sex, who gain benefit from their position as females while remaining independent, are feverishly desired, yet punished for their "transgressions."

Editor's note: The following is an excerpt fromKing Kong Theory, by Virginie Despentes, published by The Feminist Press. 

Porn is too often expected to mirror the Real. As if it weren’t cinema. For example, actresses are criticized for faking orgasms. That’s what they are here for, and paid for, and have learned how to do. We don’t expect Britney Spears to feel like dancing every time she performs. That’s what she is on stage for and we have paid to watch her, so each of us is doing our job, without anyone grumbling “I reckon she was faking it” on the way out. Porn is somehow supposed to be real—something we never expect of film, by its very nature a technique of illusion.

We expect porn to show us exactly what we dread about it: the truth of our desire. I personally have no idea why I find it so exciting to watch other people fucking and talking dirty. The fact is that it works. It’s automatic. Porn crudely reveals this other aspect of human nature: sexual desire is mechanical, and hardly complex to set in motion. And yet, my libido is complex—what it says about me isn’t necessarily what I want to hear, and doesn’t always fit with who I would like to be. But I can choose to know this, rather than to turn away and say the opposite of what I know to be true about myself in order to maintain a respectable social image.

Pornography’s detractors complain about the poor quality of X-rated films and claim that all porn is the same thing. They like to imply that the genre is not creative. This is false. The genre is divided into distinct sub-genres: 35 mm films from the 1970s are different from the amateur films made possible by video, which differ again from shorts shot on mobile phones or webcam, not to mention the various live internet performances. High-class porn, alt-porn, post-porn, gang bang, gonzo, S&M, fetish, bondage, scat, films with a distinct focus—older women, big-breasted women, women with pretty feet, sensational asses, tranny flicks, gay flicks, lesbian flicks: each type of porn has its own terms of reference, its own history, and its own aesthetics. In the same way, X-rated German films have different obsessions from Japanese, Italian or American porn—each part of the world has its pornographic specificities.

It is actually censorship that has shaped, created, and defined the history of X-rated films. Whatever is forbidden to be shown will soon turn up in the porn cinemas, which makes for an interesting exercise in transgression.

With the more or less absurd consequences one might expect: in France, the cable TV networks define what can and cannot be shown. Violent or submissive scenes are banned, for example. Making porn that doesn’t feature duress is a little like ice-skating without blades under your boots. Good luck . . . The use of objects is also prohibited: no dildos or harnesses. No real dyke porn, or scenes of men being fucked. All this ostensibly to protect female dignity.

It’s hard to see why female dignity should be particularly threatened by the use of a harness. Surely we can assume that women are smart enough to understand that watching a bit of S&M doesn’t mean they want to be whipped when they get to work, or gagged while doing the washing-up. In any case, you only have to turn on the TV to see women in humiliating positions. The prohibitions are what they are, justified politically (S&M must remain an elite sport—the masses wouldn’t be able to understand its complexity, and would hurt themselves). So “women’s dignity” is trundled out every time the state wants to limit sexual expression . . .

The conditions in which the actresses work, the degrading contracts they sign, their inability to either control images of themselves once they’ve left the profession, or earn money from their use—the censors aren’t interested in any of these aspects of female dignity. The authorities aren’t bothered that there isn’t a single specialist center where actresses can go to access the various pieces of extremely specific information pertinent to their work. one kind of dignity obsesses them, but they don’t give a damn about the other. Yet porn is made with human flesh, with the flesh of actresses. And in the end, the only moral issue it poses is the political aggressiveness with which these women are treated—offstage.

We’re talking here about women who decide to enter the profession when they are eighteen to twenty years old. That very specific age when the phrase “longterm consequences” has no more significance than ancient Greek. Middle-aged men have no shame about being turned on by girls only just out of childhood; they see nothing wrong with spanking the monkey while looking at barely pubescent asses. That’s their problem, they are the adults, and they should take responsibility for it—for example by being particularly attentive and kind to the very young girls who agree to satisfy their appetites. In fact, not at all: they are furious that these girls should have dared perform exactly what they want to see. Masculine grace and coherence in a nutshell, “Give me what I want, I beg you, so that I can spit in your face for doing it.”

These days the budding porn actress is made aware of this as soon as she enters the profession; she is told repeatedly, so she isn’t under any illusion, that there will be no way back. oh, we do like our women vulnerable. Endangered and branded, they pay a high price for having left the straight and narrow and for having done it publicly.

I experienced this first-hand when I co-directed Baise-Moi with Coralie Trinh Thi. That her amazing body left men in shock, that they remembered it with emotion, was not a problem. What was disturbing was how ferociously they then refused to believe that she could be capable of anything else. Her role as co-director could only be put down to caprice on my part. Whatever the argument put forward, she had to be dismissed as illegitimate within thirty seconds. She could not be a wicked, lustful creature, and then demonstrate creativity and intelligence. Men did not want to see the object of their fantasies step out of the frame into which they had put her; women felt threatened by her mere presence, concerned about the effect her status was having on the men.

But they all agreed on one important thing—she must be prevented from speaking, interrupted: her words must be silenced, to the extent that, in interviews, her answers were often attributed to me. And I’m not talking about a few isolated cases—this was almost a blanket response. She had to be kept out of the public space—to protect male libido, which requires that the object of desire remains in its place, which is to say virtual, and most of all mute.

In the same way that it is a political necessity to frame the visual representation of sex within well-defined ghettos—clearly separated from the rest of the film industry, so that porn remains the lumpen proletariat of the film world—it is crucial that porn actresses remain framed in disapproval, shame, and stigma. It is not that they are incapable of doing anything else, nor that they don’t want to, but that things have to be organized to make sure that they cannot.

Girls involved with paid sex, who gain concrete benefit out of their position as females while remaining independent, must be publicly punished. They have transgressed, have played neither the role of the good mother nor that of the good wife, still less that of the respectable woman—shooting a porn film must be one of the most radical ways of liberating oneself from these roles—and so they must be socially marginalized.

It is a class struggle. A message from our leaders to women who have wanted to ensure their social mobility through sheer determination. A political message, from one class to another. The only opportunity for social advancement for women is through marriage. The equivalent of porn for men is boxing. They have to display aggression, and risk destroying their bodies, for the entertainment of the rich. But boxers, even black boxers, are men. They have the right to that tiny slice of social mobility. Not women.

When French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing banned porn from mainstream cinemas in the 1970s, he was not responding to a public outcry—people hadn’t taken to the streets yelling, “we’ve had enough”—nor to an increase in sexual offenses. he did it because the films were too successful: the population was flocking to see them, and discovering the notion of pleasure. The president was protecting the French people from their desire to see good sex films at the cinema. From then on, porn was subject to murderous economic censorship. It was no longer possible to make ambitious films, to film sex as we try to film war, romantic love, or gangsters. The ghetto started to take shape, without the slightest political justification. What was protected was the moral notion that only the ruling classes should have access to playful sexuality. The masses, on the other hand, must be kept calm—too much lust would doubtless affect their work ethic.

It is not pornography that bothers the elite, but its democratization. When, in 2000, the Nouvel Observateur responded to the banning of Baise-Moi with the cover story, “Pornography: the right to say no,” this did not refer to prohibiting scholarly access to the writings of the Marquis de Sade, nor closing the magazine’s classified ads columns to well-heeled and randy readers. And no one would be surprised to see these virulent antiporn militants in the company of a young hooker, or at a swingers’ club. No. It was easy access to what must remain the domain of the privileged which the Nouvel Observateur was insisting upon the right to say no to. Pornography is performed sexuality, sex made ceremonial. And in a continuing conceptual sleight of hand that remains unclear, what is fine for some—here labelled libertinage—there becomes a grave danger for the masses, from which they must be protected.

One is easily lost in the meanderings of the antiporn argument: just a second, who is in fact the victim? The actresses, who surrender their dignity the moment we see them giving a blow job? or the male viewers, weak and unable to overcome their wish to watch sex, or to understand that what they are watching is merely a performance?

The notion that pornography hinges solely on the phallus is astonishing. It’s the female bodies you see. Often idealized female bodies. And what is more unsettling than a porn actress? We’re no longer in the domain of the “bunny girl,” the available, unthreatening girl next door. The porn actress is the liberated woman, the femme fatale, the one who turns heads, who always provokes a strong reaction, be it desire or rejection. So why are we so quick to pity these women, who are the epitome of the sex bomb?

Tabatha Cash, Coralie Trinh Thi, Karen Lancaume, Raffaëla Anderson, Nina Roberts: what struck me during the time I spent with them was not that men treated them like dirt, or controlled the situation. on the contrary, I had never seen men so intimidated. If, as people are always claiming, there is no higher aspiration for a woman than to appeal to men, why must we insist on pitying porn actresses? Why does society insist on casting them as victims, when they are probably the most seductive women on the planet? What taboos have been broken to justify such a feverish endeavor?

Having watched hundreds of porn films, it seems to me that the answer is simple: in these films, the actress has male-type sexuality. To put it bluntly: she behaves exactly like a gay man in a back room. She is shown in the film as always wanting sex, with anyone, in every hole. And she comes every time. As a man in a woman’s body would.

In heterosexual porn, it’s always the female body that is in the limelight, displayed, and counted upon to produce the desired effect. The same level of performance is not expected of the onscreen male—he just has to get a hard-on, do a bit of thrusting and shoot his load. The work is done by the woman. The X-rated film viewer identifies more with her than with the male protagonist.

As in any film you identify with the main character. Porn is also the method men use to imagine what they would do if they were women, how they would apply themselves to satisfying other men, what good sluts they’d be, what prick-devourers. It is often said that reality frustratingly doesn’t live up to pornographic performance; the reality where men have to fuck women who aren’t like them, or not often anyway. It is interesting to note that the “real” women who really exaggerate the feminine thing, those who repeat a dozen times in the space of one conversation how “womanly” they feel, and whose sexuality is most compatible with that of men, are often in fact the most masculine. The frustration of real life can be summarized as the necessary rejection by men (if they want to be heterosexual) of the notion of fucking men with the physical attributes of women.

Pornography, often denounced as making people uneasy about sex, is in fact a tranquilizer. Which explains why it is attacked with such ferocity. It’s crucial that sexuality should frighten people. In porn films you know that characters will “do it,” you don’t have to worry about the outcome, as you do in real life. Fucking a stranger is always a bit nerve-racking, unless you’re completely drunk. That’s even the fun part of the whole thing. With porn, you can count on the men being hard and the women climaxing. You can’t live in this performance society, crammed as it is with images of seduction, flirtation, and sex, without realizing that porn is a zone of safety. You’re not involved in the action, at ease, you can sit watching others doing it, knowing how to. here, the women are happy with the service rendered, the men get good hard-ons and produce jism in abundance, everyone speaks the same language—for once everything works out fine.

Click here to buy King Kong Theory.


Virginie Despentes is the author of Teen Spirit, Bye Bye Blondie, and Baise-Moi, the controversial rape-revenge novel that became the basis for her notorious film of the same name.
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