Touring a Few Porn Utopias

“In the not-too-distant future, sex will be illegal… but there will be rollerbabies.”

Pornography has often tended to have a utopian dimension to it. This can be seen in at least two divergent ways, one experiential and the other symbolic.

The first is the notion common to porn studies of pornotopia, which Steven Marcus described as the timeless and largely subjectless world of the endless interchange of bodily fluids and body parts that is basic to pornographic imaginings.

The other is a more direct embrace of utopian models of society, allowing the pornographer to explore a variety of sexual encounters with a readymade, parodically anthropological justification that self-consciously mocks film pornography’s intimate relationship with the history of documentary while paying homage to the tradition of imaginative worlds of ambitious literary pornography, such as those of Pietro Aretino, Restif de la Bretonne and the Marquis de Sade. Like those literary models, cinematic porn utopias operate largely through an appropriation and parody of models of sexuality, pushing them to absurd extremes and presenting imaginary societies as something like fables. In this, they often overlap with science-fiction.

One of the most famous American hardcore films, and one which has been read as symbolically ending the so-called golden age of porn and ushered in a more pessimistic model of sexual consumerism coinciding with the early days of a new venereal panic, was Rinse Dream’s Café Flesh (1982). Through a string of tableaus that fused new objectivism to new wave, it offered a cabaret filtered vision of a dystopian future where, thanks to a disease that has left most of the population sterile and impotent, a handful of people are left to perform sex acts for them on stage. The film’s less impressive sequels – Café Flesh 2 and 3 (Antonio Passolini, 1997 and 2003) – were ambitious enough to explore the logic further, pushing it toward a superficial examination of changes in the porn industry. However, Café Flesh was part of a broader tradition of hardcore films which, while perhaps not as aesthetically ambitious, remain fascinating in their investigation of many of the same ideas.

The rape and revenge genre dominated sexploitation cinema for a fair amount of the 1970s and early 80s. Although it predated hardcore feature films with roughies in the 60s (and earlier), it really came into its own after the boom in unsimulated sex began, relying on the spectacle of violence to attract the customers it was losing to meat shots. The period also saw the first serious anti-porn films, such as Not A Love Story (Bonnie Sherr Klein, 1981), a dystopian documentary that treated the world of dark sex, prostitution and public pornography as a kind of horrifying hell in our midst. It would become a feminist talking point to conflate pornography and rape.

Such propaganda films directly drew on a model of erotic horror found in fiction films. One of the most famous of these films – which effectively exploited many aspects of the psycho-sex fiend found in sexploitation movies like those of Roberta Findlay – was Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) about a mentally unbalanced Vietnam vet who, frustrated with women and bored by pornography, becomes desperate to white knight for a child prostitute in his quest to rid the world of corruption. Scorsese’s film has a fascinating, if never acknowledged, negative relationship with the utopian teen porn from the same period, blossoming to quasi-mainstream status with the likes of David Hamilton, and it was directly parodied by members of the 42nd Street milieu that gave it its setting.

Water Power [The Enema Bandit] (Warren Evans, 1977) was the hardcore reimagining of Taxi Driver. Starring Jamie Gillis in the De Niro role, it repeats the story of an alienated man who desperately wants to cleanse society. The difference is, rather than killing pimps, johns or politicians, he gives women forced enemas while raping them, a strategy embraced thanks to the haphazard discovery of enema porn. The film is held together largely by voiceovers that parody those of the Scorsese film, complete with accompanying Bernard Hermann music. It’s a film about a man’s comically misguided lust for a better world, for the unleashing of human potential through its cleansing, synthesizing porn and evangelism.

Water Power’s protagonist rehearses many of the themes more carefully developed in Leonard Cohen’s pop-porn novel satirizing the emerging counter-culture, Beautiful Losers (1966), about a ‘doctor of shit’ who obsesses over history and longs for bisexual utopia, only to be severely traumatized by his bisexual lover, a merchant of scatological liberation and extreme nationalism. While Cohen’s novel, culminating in a gangrape and a nationalist gangbang, deliberately highlights the intersection between the most puritanical and authoritarian tendencies of the sexual revolution, Water Power does it more by accident. Generally effective in terms of mood and atmosphere, the film still seems like a parodic sketch stretched out too long and without going as far as it needs to in order to sustain it. The tidal wave of shit that it promises as the way to utopia, and which Taxi Driver sublimated into bloodshed, never comes.

Surprisingly, the only film I can think of to successfully realize the tsunami of cum that porn promised was the softcore Québécois film, La Pomme, la queue et les pépins (Claude Fournier, 1974), about a liberal lothario and dog breeder who becomes impotent after turning his back on nationalism. Eventually, after symbolically turning his back on liberalism, and with the help of a parody of Wilhelm Reich, he gets hard (David Cronenberg was the ‘puppeteer’ operating his fake cock) and has an orgasm that fills an operating theatre with semen.

Water Power has received a revival of interest in recent years, but a much more extreme and ambitious film trades on its themes in a very different way and has remained mostly unknown. Probably the most radical and fully-realized of American utopian porn films from the 1970s was Harley Mansfield’s Joy [The Female Rapists] (1977), released two years after Susan Brownmiller’s seminal anti-rape book, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape.

In a NYC where no one locks their doors, Joy’s (Sharon Mitchell) high school boyfriend dumps her for refusing sex before marriage. She goes home to eat garlic before being randomly raped by a pair of Latinos. About a minute into the attack, she begins to enjoy it and demands more. The men can’t handle more and run away in terror. She has enjoyed it so much, in a gesture that would be at home in a sitcom’s opening credits sequence, she leans out the window to scream to the city that she needs more.

Joy races across town to have sex with the boyfriend who dumped her. She can’t understand that erections can end after ejaculation so leaves to find more of them. Her first is a man who can no longer come with his wife. Joy takes him to an alley and shows him how. The newspapers soon report a female rapist on the loose as men stumble the city semi-stooped. Cops jerk off to the headlines. She seduces a female friend to pass the time and then a man on the subway while he is reading a PUA manual.

A Cronkite parody newscaster talks about how the rape epidemic is not a crime wave, but a way of bringing love into the open. Most men, he claims, wish they were being raped like this. He adds that all other crimes have plummeted since the raping began. In one notable sequence, the camera pulls back as couple after couple falls into the street having sex. The police captain heads home stepping over people having sex on the sidewalk and catches his wife having sex with another man inside. Although the cops trap Joy and try to rape her into giving up rape, this fails. The captain can’t even resist her. She gets him to fuck her with his gun before using his penis. Deciding there is nothing else to be done, the cops order her to leave town and she starts orgies before she has even left the airport, the wave of rape she has unleashed spreading across the globe.

Despite the cartoonish quality it possesses, perhaps the most remarkable thing about the film is how quiet the sex scenes are. Always short and without either significant buildup or climax, they rarely have music or much groaning. Orgasm is not the end but the interruption of fucking. The subway sex scene is notable for the delicacy of its background sound and the almost poetic way her panties are crumpled up to reveal her name like a monogrammed doily on a plastic-covered couch.

While most of these films are like looking at an MFA thesis show that’s more one-liner than a coherent body of work, Joy has a consistency that lets it move beyond a reliance on double-entendres after the gag of the premise has stopped being interesting.

Joy suggests the utopia of a world where rape is meaningless and so sex is finally liberated and, in a reductio ad absurdum of the sort of argument Havelock Ellis used to make, deviancy and crime ends. This vision is largely inverted a few years later in Chuck Vincent’s Sex 2084 (1985). The 1985 film has a decent set-up. Pudenda laws forbid celibacy. BDSM was used as a stop-gap to allow retention of virginity, but the state is now cracking down on it and all refusals to constant sexual gratification. Cops use humor to interrogate and torture the chaste. Unsurprisingly, Vincent is rumored to have been the real director of Joy.

The two main cops in Sex 2084 are a play on the partners from Miami Vice and their dialogue is full of camp gay clichés. The first punishment of virginity that they perform demands that they dress as clowns to fulfill a sexual fantasy of the criminal. But the cops get tired of being the fetish objects of criminals. What they crave is something more meaningful, which they assume must have existed when sex was awkward and non-compulsory. The search for sacred sex leads to them time traveling to the 1980s, where they track down a set of subjects from a list they’ve generated and abruptly seduce them, one by one. As abruptly, the film ends, winding down like the clock for Cinderella. But before that happens, it engages in one of its more successful instances of satire, mocking the culture of therapy and talk shows.

It put me in mind of a later porn dystopia, Bisexual Nation (Thor Stevens, 1999). Here, the United States has elected the Bisexual and Indestructible Government, who have set up a totalitarian regime that has legalized drugs and is gradually enforcing compulsory bisexuality. All those who resist, are tagged with electronic collars.

In a lot of ways Sex 2084 was a direct inversion of Rollerbabies (Carter Stevens, 1976), which was set in a future where the government used technology to create new forms of birth control, suppress the sex drive and limit population growth to ward off apocalypse. Complete suppression was impossible, so masturbation was promoted, and pornography became a respectable industry supported by the government. Only the licensed were legally permitted to engage in sex as performers. The success of a performer depends on their gimmick because in a world where all sex is spectacle, eroticization is predicated on constructing new forms of difference, like telepathic blowjobs (deep thought).

When the protagonist is pushed out of the TV industry, he goes into the sex android business, hopeful that this will replace porn and masturbation. Unfortunately, the mad scientist in charge of the operation is incompetent and the android gets pregnant. Making things worse, a female agent of the Carnal Intelligence Agency is after him. Keeping with the genre’s liberatory symbolism, he anally rapes her with the help of his black bald assistant Mz. Kojack. The agent is converted to his cause and betrays the CIA. He’s inspired to launch a new program, a kind of game show where celebrities on roller skates compete in the Patty Hearst Memorial Stadium to create the most impressive sex positions. The production design clearly pays tribute to the sci-fi eugenics dystopia Logan’s Run (Michael Anderson, 1976) and the film quickly becomes a self-conscious satire of the history of American hardcore, played out through a winking set of homages to sex hygiene films, b-movies and sitcoms.

There had been an awkward, usually repressed, recognition by feminists that feminism was ultimately reliant on forming what amounts to a polycule with the expansion of the state, and forces committed to (depending on how you felt about it) cultural genocide or liberation, the medicalization of sex and industrialization. As we’ve seen, porn narratives around the same time were ambivalent about the possibilities this offered but not shy about constructing parodies of such themes. The irony was that while Joy explored the utopian promise of sexual liberation, it did so by mocking the accelerating rape taboo using the liberatory logic of an earlier generation – and still persistent in romance literature – just as feminist theory increasingly codified the taboo as a primary tenet, culminating in the long and bitter porn wars of the 80s and 90s.

— PFG is an art historian, photographer, curator and soap opera enthusiast. He has a Twitter account.

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