Graphic Sexual Horror: A Documentary
Graphic Sexual Horror (2009)
Directed by Barbara Bell and Anna Lorentzo
NC-17 Productions, 84 minutes
There are several interesting-sounding independent documentaries on the porn industry I've been wanting to see that have come out over the last year. Unfortunately, they are largely hard to find, as most of them are not in regular theatrical or DVD release, and are largely restricted to the film festival circuit. However, I recently had the good luck to catch one of the more intriguing entries to this genre, with the made-you-look title of Graphic Sexual Horror.
Graphic Sexual Horror tells the story of Brent Scott, aka PD, and the rise and fall of his pioneering BDSM porn site, Insex.com. The film presents Scott as someone with a deep, lifelong interest in BDSM, who is also a supremely talented artist with a gift for visualizing sadomasochistic fantasy. He is also clearly of the school of thought that BDSM imagery need not be restricted to depicting what's usually referred to as "safe, sane, and consensual." After many years of making BDSM films and artworks in the context of academic visual arts, Scott started Insex.com in 1997, a foray into the newly-emerging world of online BDSM porn. This was a time when big profits in web porn were still relatively easy to realize, and Scott quickly found that he was earning far more money and getting much more recognition than he ever got from his day job in the Carnegie-Mellon art faculty.
The film follows Insex through its increasingly-ambitious projects and ultimate collapse, brought on by a mixture of ego and law-enforcement puritanism. On what seems to have been a lark, he decides to pack up his entire operation, moving it out of New York City, and rebuilding it on an isolated farm upstate. Scott/PD becomes center of an operation/artistic cult that included live-in creative staff and performers (aka "interns") that stay at the farm for weeks at a time. The degree of ambition is exemplified by the attempt to create a 1000-gallon aquarium for use in "water torture videos." Built on-site by "KGB," the full-time engineer/machinist/prop-master that Scott kept on staff to make his sinister visions concrete, the tank exploded in its testing stages, nearly killing its creators.
In one of the more outrageous chapters of Bush-era censorship, federal prosecutors were able to use anti-terrorist laws to enforce their version of sexual morality. A creative strategy was used against Insex—rather than go after them for obscenity, it came up with a story that extreme porn funded terrorist networks. Lacking a case that would hold up in court, the government confronted Insex's credit card company with the allegations, and promptly got them to stop processing payments. Suddenly lacking an income stream, Insex folded very quickly. Insex still exists today, but only as an archive site.
The film distinguishes itself from many sex documentaries, in that it does not shy away from the nature of the material it is covering, showing fully unbowdlerized excerpts from Insex's movies and live performances. On one hand, I was struck by the artistry of PD's images. At the same time, as somebody who is not a BDSM aficionado, the world of "hard" BDSM was fairly new to me and managed to shock even my laissez-faire sensibilities. I can only imagine how it might strike somebody was completely unfamiliar with BDSM.
While the film does not flinch from showing the audience what might be seen as some extremely disturbing images, it nonetheless shows such images in context. A couple of behind-the-scenes shots show performers crying in terror one minute, then laughing the next or breaking character to ask for a position adjustment. Several performers describe the intense high they fall into when pushed to their limits. This is in contrast to the much-hyped anti-porn documentary The Price of Pleasure, which presents similar imagery without any such context, or even wholly distorted context, with the express aim of getting a rise out of an uninitiated audience.
Coming from a point of view that accepts the existence of commercial porn and BDSM as a given, Graphic Sexual Horror has the advantage in being able to explore the ethical issues of porn production in a nuanced and insightful way, where a moral tract like The Price of Pleasure can only wag its finger. This proves valuable where the story of Insex gets into murkier territory as some of Scott's more questionable behavior comes to light. While all activity was negotiated and performers could always safeword out, there was a great deal of pressure on performers to push limits, and a general feeling that if a performer safeworded out, they would find themselves no longer working for Insex. A few performers acknowledged that when they started out, they were doing things that were within their normal limits, but found themselves pushing beyond what they were comfortable with for the simple reason that there was some good money to be made in doing so. Particularly damning is the accusation by several performers that Scott asked them to do BDSM scenes with him on their own time, again with the insinuation that this was part of an unspoken contract. There has been much debate as to how the concept of sexual harassment applies in a sexual workplace, but Scott’s behavior here seems to be a textbook example.
In this regard, I think the documentary serves as something of a cautionary tale. Scott's vision for Insex was about pushing artistic and sexual limits. At the same time, it was a for-profit operation where both Scott and the performers were strongly motivated by the desire to increase their income. Add Scott's sometimes megalomaniacal tendencies to the mix, and it does not make for a good combination.
In the Q/A session following the film, I asked about the relationship between Insex and Kink.com, as some of the Kink videos I'd seen have a similar look. I was not surprised to learn that Kink.com inherited several former Insex creative staff members and borrowed on many ideas pioneered by PD. At the same time, Kink.com sticks to a much more structured model, with a straightforward pay structure and clear limits on what performers are asked to do. There was some insinuation that the tradeoff Kink.com makes is that it is far less artistically ambitious than Insex. However, given the problems that emerged at Insex, perhaps such self-imposed limitations are for the best.
Interview with co-director Barbara Bell
from the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal