14 DECEMBER 1991, Page 42

The bare people behind the bare facts

Lucy Hughes-Hallett


Happy first got the idea of modelling for pornographic magazines when she was 12 or 13. The pose in which she fancied herself was a hackneyed one — the girl in a wet white dress lying on some moss- covered rocks by a stream. The reality was not so pretty. Her first part was in a B & D (bondage and discipline) video. She was tied up with electrical cord, gagged with masking tape, rolled around in motor-oil and then apparently transformed into a mini-bike. Reification, you might think, can go no further. You'd bd wrong. In Happy's next role two cannibals washed her all over then pretended to chop her up into edible joints. So much for Robert Stoller's sugges- tion that

Complex fantasies held en masse (that is 'cul- ture') can be discovered by inquiring into what the people who make pornography are thinking of.

Pornographic performers may hope to act out their own desires in their work: they end up playing in the fantasy games of others.

Stoller is a psychoanalyst, a professor of psychiatry and the author of a r umber of influential works on sexuality. In this book, the body of which is a series of baldly pre- sented interviews with performers in, and producers of, hard-core films and videos, his approach to his subject is cool to the point of perversity. His introduction takes the form of a leisurely discussion of ethno- graphic methodology, with reminiscences of a field trip to Papua New Guinea and a couple of swipes at structuralism. In his conclusion he confesses to some compunc- tion — 'What am I doing treating these to me strange behaviours as if they were as inconsequential as autumn leaves?' — but perseveres regardless. He is not making a case for or against freedom of expression, censorship, regulation or anything else. He is simply presenting some data.

That data relates to a relatively unfamil- iar aspect of the subject. It has become commmonplace to discuss pornography made by and for heterosexual men in terms of what it does to, or reveals about, its con- sumers. It has been read as an index of everyman's desire for, or hatred of, every- woman, as an incitement to rape, and as a repressive prescription for women wishing to acquire the feminine mystique. The models and actors, unless they are under age or subjected to real violence, are usual- ly ignored. Stoller's essay in oral history may not bear out his hunch that his inter- viewees 'must intuitively understand the dynamics of the erotic lives of their audiences', but in a more modest way it is compellingly interesting. These people are outcasts, in some cases outlaws. Their stories are by turn pathetic, aggravating, self-evidently untrue, sentimental and lurid. But, like them or loathe them, they illuminate an obscure but significant corner of our culture.

Bill, who calls himself a sexual machine, and who claims that his penis and his emotions are equally numb — 'I'm just leather' — always wanted to get killed on camera. Stoller's aim in offering his data is to render simplistic generalisation more difficult. But everyone he talked to for this book seems to be engaged in some kind of battle, whether offensive or defensive, and Bill is not the only one whose prime antag- onist is himself. Nina, a sex superstar, is confident and successful in the studio. At home, where she goes under another name, she is the weakest party to a menage a trots, the one who does all the cooking for her husband and their 'wife'. Happy does her best to live up to her (assumed) name but her history is dire — a violent alcoholic father who abused her sexually, a teenage suicide attempt, a failed early marriage. The sorry talc goes on. Several of the porn- people see themselves as rebels against a hypocritical and loveless society, but their politics have desperately personal origins. 'I'm not sure everyone in the X-rated industry was molested,' says one performer. `Not all of them.' Judging from Stoller's findings there are mighty few who weren't.

After Bill was released from the reform- atory in which he spent most of his teens he returned to work there — it was the nearest thing he knew to a home. Now he lauds the porn industry as being 'one big family'. Happy, whose agent he is, calls him `Papa Bear'. Stoller takes all this cosiness with a pinch of salt (so do I). The world is full of people contentedly trading sex for affection and security, but when the trade is being made with a man who confesses to being emotionally 'just leather', the other party is making a very bad bargain.