Feminist Pornography and the Stakes of Sex

September 21, 2011 by So to Speak
Filed under: Interview 

Jennifer Lyon Bell is a Harvard-educated, sex-positive feminist who loves watching great sex. Tired of the emotional detachment inherent in most traditional pornographic movies, Bell created Blue Artichoke Films. With a premium on cinematic artistry, Bell directs emotionally realistic, sexually authentic films. The result: complex characters and hot sex.

In advance of the U.S. format release of her newest film, Skin. Like Sun., I spoke to Jennifer about the “stakes of sex.”

What do you mean by “the stakes of sex?”

Any intense experience balances a strong desire to do something with a reason—or many reasons—not to do it. Parachute jumping is exhilarating for most people because they overcome their fear in order to embrace the fun of jumping. A sex scene is sexier to me if I understand the reasons pulling the character away from sex as well as towards it. Is the character worried about rejection (even a little)? Nervous about being caught by third parties? Concerned about this being a kind of sex that he/she wouldn’t normally have because of their sexual orientation? Wrestling with infidelity (even if only emotional infidelity)? I’m mildly interested in watching someone enjoy the hell out of eating a delicious lobster, but I’d be even more interested if I knew that that expensive lobster cost the person their last dime, or that the person actually identified as a vegetarian and was so tempted that they put their ethics on hold for the night to enjoy the lobster.

How do you capture the stakes in your films?

This is primarily a narrative issue—it’s built into the story. In Matinee, Mariah wants to hold herself to professional acting standards of behavior—which rather goes against the idea of having sex on stage—but she also believes in the creative process that involves letting your preconceived notions go. That first issue is one of the main things at stake for her in choosing to have sex. So is risking her professional relationship with a co-worker she trusts. In Headshot, Chris’s nervousness about hooking up with a stranger, and his desire to seem cool and confident, both have to be overcome in order for him to have a satisfying sexual encounter with Katinka. All that being said, for fiction films, capturing the stakes also affects my directing choices—when to use close-ups, what emotions people are expressing on their faces, and so on. If I don’t make the right choices, the stakes won’t come to life in the film.

Do men and women respond differently to your films?

It’s hard to say for sure. I have to gather the answer based on the occasions I’ve showed my films publicly, and on the private correspondence I receive. Women, particularly straight-identified women, are eager for something that reflects their sexual and emotional approach in life, and they come up to me extremely enthusiastic to talk about what I’ve done. But I’ve been surprised at how much e-mail I get from men too. I get the strong sense that many men feel distanced by the way porn portrays sex. I do know also that many men are looking for something to enjoy with their female partners, and are ecstatic to find something that might fit the bill. Of course that’s a reflection of not just the fun they are hoping to have while watching the film with their partner, but presumably also their high hopes for emotionally and physically reconnecting with their partner sexually.

Psychologically (and perhaps subconsciously), how do men and women interpret the stakes of sex differently?

I think both men and women respond sexually to overcoming psychological barriers. However, different people are pitched differently as to how much excitement is ideal for them, versus how much safety. Excitement and safety both need to be there in some measure for sex to be great. (Or for cinema-sex to be enjoyable to watch.) It might be that women need for reassurance of safety around certain issues—for example, I know that I personally like to see safer sex practices so I feel safe about STDs and pregnancy—but women are quite different from one another. I think that people in real-life long-term relationships often lose the high stakes, and that depresses their love life. That’s why you have to try new things with your partner, to bring some of the emotional risk back in.

Do you think that most audiences prefer gratuitous sex in erotic film, and thus the porn industry has developed around these preferences, or has the porn industry manipulated our expectations to such a degree that most viewers think they want gratuitous sex scenes?

I think that most porn viewers want the most bang for their buck, which means the most hot sex possible. That’s why compilations (and downloads of individual hardcore partial scenes) have become so popular.  However, savvy viewers have noted that quantity of sex doesn’t necessarily equal hotness.  High-budget stories with plots continue to be very successful (e.g. Jenna Jameson’s The Masseuse), and that’s one reason why TV-show porn parodies have become so hugely successful:  Since they’re based on characters you already know in detail, you already have an emotional connection to the characters (however silly that sounds), and the sex can be hotter for you with less setup.

 

What direction do you anticipate erotic film taking in the next ten years? Do you think emotionally realistic films will grab a larger share of the market?

Absolutely. I think that in the future more porn directors will incorporate cinema technique and narrative structure, and more art film directors will take risks with sexual content. I think all us directors also hope that the Internet is going to help with this, because our biggest problem by far is distribution. My dream is that more third party services will start up, like VOD [Video on Demand] platforms that embrace the crossover between these two worlds and let us distribute our explicit material in a way that showcases the quality.

Jennifer’s films are available on her website: http://blueartichokefilms.com/

 

-Posted by Warren C

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  1. Men’s Feminist Voices : So to Speak on Wed, 20th Mar 2013 6:29 pm
  2. [...] Feminist Pornography and the Stakes of Sex by Warren Ciabattoni [...]






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