The Politics of Amateurism in Online Pornography

Feona Attwood

The histories of both photography and pornography are intertwined with a belief that the realities of bodies and sex can be captured by media and a deep suspicion of the falsity and fakery of image-making. Today, when digital cameras make it possible for more people to produce their own erotic images, to do so instantly and to share them widely, concerns about the authenticity of representational practices are magnified. The amateur is a key figure in discussions of new forms of public image-making – whether these take the form of citizen journalism or the proliferation of social networking sites – and is often a troubling one. This is particularly so where the images in question are sexual: as evidenced by the public preoccupation with lurking predators on Facebook, sexting teens, and the porn star as a role model within a broader ‘raunch culture’. In this article I will talk about the amateur in relation to online pornography, consider how the rise of the amateur and the public display of sexual imagery impacts on established ideas about seeing and being seen, discuss the debates around whether the amateur is representative of a new democratisation of sexually explicit photography, and consider how amateur photography and what has been called the pornification of mainstream culture might be understood within a broader culture of public visibility.

Porn ‘Amateurs’

The figure of the porn ‘amateur’ is not especially new; soft core porn magazines of the 1970s and 1980s such as Hustler and Fiesta were well-known for their use of ‘ordinary’ models (in ‘Reader’s Wives’ and ‘Beaver Hunt’ sections), a practice employed by men’s magazines such as FHM in their ‘High Street Honeys’ features. The amateur is also a character in some forms of hardcore porn film: in series such as Rocco’s Initiations and Dirty Debutantes with their focus on ‘brand new girls’. More recently, reality porn sites which use paid performers but have an amateur feel have become popular; one of the most well-known of these being Bang Bus which claims to feature ‘real girls banged really silly’.

The popularity of amateur style and performance has meant that amateurism has become more and more important to the adult entertainment industries.[1] At the same time, technological developments have made it increasingly easy to set up as a producer of porn. Internet newsgroups, the availability of digital photography, free web space, blogs, cams and more recently tube sites like YouTube which make it possible to share videos have been especially important in opening up opportunities for new forms of porn production and distribution. Homegrown Video was established in 1982, was bought up by one of its amateur contributors in 1992 and now claims to be ‘the world’s largest library of XXX amateurs’.[2] Danni Ashe, a model and exotic dancer who has been called ‘one of the downloaded women in the history of the Internet’set up Danni’s Hard Drive (now on her own and with no previous experience in 1995 – it is now owned by Penthouse.[3] A number of sites such as Voyeurweb (launched 1997) are devoted entirely to amateur images while tube sites such as XTube (launched 2006) provide a place where professionally produced and amateur offerings – both paid and unpaid – can be shared.

As a result of these shifts the term amateur now has a range of meanings, and as Susanna Paasonen has remarked, ‘a new vocabulary is needed for addressing the complex meanings of amateur and commercial porn’.[4] While the amateur is an established character in porn narratives, interest in the reality of both celebrity and ordinary sex lives has given rise to the circulation of celebrity sex tapes and sites which feature couples having sex in domestic interiors. Amateurism also acts as a guarantor of authenticity in new online alternative pornographies where performers achieve a kind of ‘micro-celebrity’ for their select audiences [5]. The term ‘amateur’ may also indicate a particular kind of aesthetic though this takes a variety of visual forms. One is what Sergio Messina calls ‘realcore’, [6] signified by wide angle shots, long unedited segments, and often, the presence of the camera ‘inside the action’. Realcore features photographs of ‘real people with real desires, having real sex in real places’, and originated in the late 1990s in BDSM and fetish communities, making visible many more types of sexual practice than had previously been represented. Similarly, alternative kinds of porn sites such as Abby Winters (launched 2000), Suicide Girls (launched 2001) and (launched 2002) have used a ‘a rhetoric of the authentic’[7] but whereas Suicide Girls relies on the signs of youth subcultures such as tattoos and piercings to establish its authenticity, Abby Winters prefers an unadorned look as suggested by its tagline, ‘all natural flavours’, while foregrounds its display of queer diversity, with ‘all-inclusive casting, ethical and authentic representation, and empowering pornographer/performer collaboration’.

Because pornography has been popularly associated with oppressive ideas of gender and sexuality, the emergence of ‘alternative producers and activist sex workers, younger pro-porn feminists, queer porn networks, aesthetic-technical vanguards, p2p traders, radical sex/perv cultures, and free-speech activists’ as porn producers in recent years has been particularly notable.[8] Many of these remain amateurs, sharing rather than selling images in gift economies; others become professionals; many retain both roles. But amateurism also provides a new context for understanding sexual labour in a much broader sense. The notion of the ‘pro-am’ has been used to explain a number of emerging forms of cultural production. As elsewhere, in porn the pro-am is ‘a new social hybrid’ who disrupts the familiar categories of work and leisure, professional and amateur.[9] Associated with this figure is the type of work which is often understood as a ‘labour of love’ and which is found widely in the knowledge, media and cultural industries where work practices are autonomous and individually fulfilling, though frequently exhausting and self-exploitative.[10] The rise of the amateur is also part of a broader trend towards what has been called participatory culture where active engagement in cultural production[11] is undertaken by non-professionals and where the distinct roles of ‘producer’ and ‘consumer’ are joined by those of ‘prosumer’ and ‘produser’.[12] Commercial and amateur forms of production sit side-by-side, complicating the idea of a singular ‘porn industry’. Large and established multinational corporations exist alongside a much greater number of smaller and independent producers with a variety of sensibilities, business models and audiences.

Seeing and Being Seen

There is actually very little evidence for believing that concepts such as objectification and voyeurism convincingly explain older, established forms of porn viewing relations. Despite this these terms have become widely entrenched, closing down ways of understanding how porn works for those who engage with it – something we still know astonishingly little about today. In the meantime dramatic shifts in the uses of technology and ways of imaging the body have further complicated these relations, demanding new ways of thinking about photography and the display of sexual imagery. But for many writers, even those of quite different backgrounds, these developments only represent new problems. In Ariel Levy’s critique of ‘raunch culture’ she laments that real sexual relations now mimic a false kind of sexuality, embodied by porn stars who ‘aren’t even people (...) merely (...) erotic dollies from the land of make-believe’.[13] This attempt to redraw a line between reality and image and a belief in the dangerousness of allowing sex and media to mingle is echoed in Robert Jensen’s claimthat we should try to ‘transcend (…) mediated culture and explore things in more direct ways’ and that sex should involve ‘direct face to face human contact’ which in ‘this hyper-mediated culture’ is becoming harder to achieve.[14] Susan Sontag links the records of torture made by soldiers at Abu Ghraib photographs to the ‘vast repertory of pornographic imagery available on the Internet (...) which ordinary people, by sending out Webcasts of themselves, try to emulate’. For her, they are ‘part of a larger confluence of torture and pornography’, linked to an ‘increasing acceptance of brutality’ and to a ‘culture of shamelessness’ that is evident elsewhere in the ‘clamor to be invited on a television show to reveal’.[15] The problem with these kinds of far-reaching claims is that they obscure more than they reveal, particularly about the way in which the significance of photography is changing, though what they do clearly uncover is a fear and distrust of new forms of image-making and a disdain for acts of public visibility and performance.[16]

We live in an era in which ways of seeing and being seen have multiplied. The embedding of visual technologies in the everyday and a cultural preoccupation with bodies on display provide new ways of experiencing looking and being looked at and new ways of imagining and presenting the body. These include the widespread use of Photoshop and other techniques of image manipulation, the development of cosmetic surgeries and related body enhancing treatments,the importance of various forms of body work including exercise, dieting and grooming,the centrality of images in the online profiles and communication channels of social networking sites,and a fascination both with celebrity bodies and with the issue of body image. These kinds of practices indicate ‘a body-as-performance relationship’[17] and suggest that ‘what it means to be associated with a body has been altered’.[18] While older critiques of bodily display tend to equate this with objectification, the display of the body is often now associated with subjectivity and personhood. It is becoming increasingly difficult to conceptualise bodies as separate from representation; instead they are increasingly mediated and intertwined with images.[19] In this context we need much more sophisticated ways of understanding how seeing and being seen in sexual ways is experienced and what their significance is. For example, Ruth Barcan has noted a range of new ways in which various types of nudity now signify;[20] celebrity nudity is presented as ‘a sign of liberation’ in which ‘economic freedom (…) sexual liberation and freedom of choice’ coincide;[21] glamour nudity has become a practice in which ordinary people undertake the kind of ‘image-work’ associated with celebrities[22] and ‘homemade nudity’ allows real people rather than celebrities to become the focus of looking in realcore, reality TV shows and chat rooms.[23]

We have only really just begun to identify the kinds of viewing relations associated with new technologies; Hille Koskela describes a few of these – the surveillance represented by CCTV where citizens are subjected to being watched is quite different from counter surveillance where they become active in circulating images themselves,[24] while putting the self on display may be a form of empowering exhibitionism where people experience a feeling of liberation from shame by revealing their intimate lives.[25] Looking at pornographic images is also altered as online viewers become ‘multitaskers who move between activities such as socialising, buying commodities and searching information’.[26] In her discussion of ‘camgirl’ activity Michelle White describes how female cam operators use ‘controlled forms of visibility’[27], often presenting their images as ‘unfinished and incomplete’, while the spectator is ‘too close to see’[28] in a detached or voyeuristic way. The self-produced women’s sites discussed by Danielle deVoss can be understood as ‘identity projects’[29] which are novel because of the way that they emphasise ‘putting bodies that we don’t typically see online’[30] and offering the viewer ‘an intimacy of identity’.[31] Working with images as an expression of individuality is also evident in Suicide Girls’ vision of women on display represented as ‘whole people’ rather than ‘just bodies’.[32] In alternative sites such as public exhibition is understood as an expression of the models’ ‘personal and real sexuality’.[33]

Porn Agency

Koskela argues that the crucial thing about image-making is agency; how able people are to control how and where they are photographed and how their images are circulated.[34] Of course the question of agency is also a fraught one. While there are indisputably more and increasing opportunities for people to engage in image-making and to seek new kinds of public visibility, it is often argued that the pressure on us to display is so powerful that we have little real choice in resisting it. Instead ‘agency’ becomes a demand to participate and to constantly remake ourselves in ways which accord with a predetermined set of norms, and in addition to behave as if this is an expression of our ‘choice’. While some researchers emphasise the ways that amateur porn allows for a greater diversity of representation,[35] a common criticism is that while it may signal authenticity and democracy through its accessibility and the ordinariness of the bodies it shows, it also draws on a set of conventional poses and acts derived from more established kinds of pornography and suggesting a ‘pornoscript’ or ‘pornonormativity’.[36] But this not only overlooks what is distinctive about different forms of engagement with sexual image-making, it makes a number of assumptions – that using established conventions is simply a form of repetition, that their use by a variety of performers in a variety of contexts means exactly the same thing in every instance, and that the meaning of existing conventions is perfectly clear and obvious. These are assumptions that we would be unlikely to make of other forms of cultural production.

Often in debates about the changing nature of sexual imagery, the question of agency appears to hinge on comparisons between a ‘real’ authentic sexuality and a poor copy, which is found in porn and other forms of mediated or commercial sex. In her critique of a sexualised consumer culture, Laurie Penny makes this contrast between sexuality and a type of ‘erotic drag’ and the ‘aping a robotic capitalist eroticism’ that has little to do with ‘legitimate desires’.[37] Penny cites the Beautiful Agony site, which features images of the faces of people as they orgasm, as a different kind of image-making, and ‘one of the finest modern acts of counter-culture’,presumably because of its difference in style to other forms of pornography.[38] Yet the site is just as much a part of consumer culture as any other form of image production, featuring paid amateurs and charging membership fees for audiences.[39] In fact, trying to distinguish between good, real, authentic and ‘free’ sexuality and its bad, fake, inauthentic, ‘paid for’ copy misses the point. So too do attempts to link ‘authentic’ style and amateur origins to ‘good’ sexuality. What we need are more thoughtful ways of understanding how identity and intimacy are now intertwined with image-making and with forms of work; whether this is the paid-for labour of porn performers or the immaterial and affective forms of labour that are part of all kinds of social relations and networks, professional, paid or otherwise, and which characterise our engagements with new media and digital culture.[40]

Porn Culture?

There is no doubt that the production, distribution and consumption of porn has been transformed along with developments in technology. These transformations also underpin many of the other phenomena that are often described as part of a ‘pornification’ of culture. Yet this is not so much because pornography has somehow leaked out into other areas of cultural production and consumption, as that there has been a broader shift in the visual culture of sex. Beyond questions of ‘the industry’, amateur porn production now overlaps with everyday leisure practices and ordinary sex lives, complicating the idea that representation and reality, porn and sex are distinct or that there are clear and obvious ‘boundaries between porn and sexual self-expression’.[41] Alongside the multiplication of professional and amateur practices that we might describe as pornographic, the circulation of images has become a significant part of other forms of sexual communication in the practices of sexting, the use of display/rate me sites such as Ratemynaughty or Floppy Dicks, and the creation of profiles in all kinds of swinger/dating/hookup sites such as Swingers Date Club, Gaydar, and Adult Friend Finder.Media technologies have become central to the presentation of identities in all kinds of spaces and for all kinds of purposes, providing new spaces to ‘articulate a public space of privacy’,and it is clear that we need to reconceptualise our notions of what public and private mean in these contexts.[42] The new kinds of visibility that these practices entail might be usefully understood in relation to the broader emerging forms of micro-celebrity [43], striptease culture [44] and public intimacy. In order to understand what they mean for the history and future of photography we need to look more closely at what shape they take, who is included and excluded, what limits and constraints they have, how people engage with them and what they mean to those who do so.



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