The Pornstar, an Ideal Victim

Hello all!

I’ve been thinking about the use of Girard’s thought (both the mimetic and sacrificial aspects) around the world of pornography. The problem is very subtle and it will take time and care to address it properly. Below is a brief excerpt from a longer piece I wrote some time back. I realize, now, that it is difficult to think critically of pornography while also acknowledging and counting in its very complex and multiple facets. Perhaps one way out of this would be to ponder the presence of violence in human sexuality in general, before and beyond the particular case of pornography… Anyway, let us start a dialogue on this to see how Girard can help to understand porn…

Society cannot survive without the coming and going of increasing tensions and liberating accusations. This is the role played, according to Girard, by modern institutions. While assuming the effective performance of a set of functions in a certain socio-professional field of activity, our institutions – as ‘descendants’ of ancient rituals – also regulate the social worry inherent to human societies. They do so by being the playgrounds where tensions will grow, where arbitrary selections of culprits will take place, and where reactions or symbolic punishments will be held. The entertainment and leisure industry is one of such institutions. It is in this setting that we find pornography and the pornographic actress. More than another example of modern and allegedly mild scapegoating, the pornographic actress may actually represent the most efficient safety net of our social tension. Like other modern scapegoats, the actress (virtually) receives the remaining tension of the watcher’s day of labor, and pays the price of coming across his path through the rather inhumane treatment now boringly common in the sub-genre known as gonzo pornography. But when the scapegoat is a colleague at work or in another community, the confrontation happens in the public sphere, and if it goes out of hand, there is someone to notice the unacceptable nature of the punishment. With pornography, this is not the case. On the one side, the actress receives her treatment in the larger context of a professional sphere where it is more or less clear that it is precisely what she is there for. On the other side, the watcher enjoys a pornographic content that is increasingly violent, and since he watches it mostly alone, no external person is there to comment on what seems to be a progressive alliance of sexual excitement and pleasure with verbal and physical violence. Thus pornography could be seen as the modern exutoire par excellence, the strongest leftover of our ancient sacrifices and of their cruel ritual extension. And this, at the heart of a society that has, paradoxically, strongly rejected these very practices.

Read 4 comments

  1. Hi Sam,
    Thanks for your post! Of course, I come to this analysis from the perspective of a young(ish) woman, which for me means that I feel no empathy with the consumer of this spectacle, and quite a lot of empathy with the object of this violence. So I tend to agree that she can be characterised as a ‘victom’. I’m aware of arguments that pornography is in fact empowering of women, but I don’t find them convincing, and perhaps the Girardian analysis is one good refutation of such arguments.
    I particularly like your point about the solitude of consumption of pornograpy, and the idea that there is nobody ‘to notice the unacceptable nature of the punishment’. The internet seems to enable many kinds of extreme behaviour that would otherwise be curbed by social pressures, such as trolling and extreme bullying and hate mail. Perhaps the internet is a space where violence can run unchecked, and is therefore an ideal space for scapegoating actions…

  2. Hi Samuel and Carly,
    Thanks for your post and comment. You’ll remember that in Violence and the Sacred, Girard–like Bataille before him–suggests that cultural narratives and practices have always closely linked sexuality and violence. If I remember your longer paper Samuel, you mention that Girard associates sex and violence because of the embattled stake that sexual dominance constitutes in evolutionary biology, which developed coterminously with the hypermimetic character of our species. For this reason, violence and sex were incorporated into the first rituals. These rituals were observed by the whole community and regulated by the rules governing the ritual, but in the modern era private viewings of sexualized violence operate as a “leftover of our ancient sacrifices.” As you also note, such viewings are now an almost totally private experience, in which the increasingly violent demands of the consumer-viewer are communicated to the producers, who go to greater and greater lengths to satisfy the demands of this new market–a market based in part on the private ritual habits of certain individuals. (For instance, there are agencies that will violate the law to create films fitting the customer’s specifications. The results are horrific.) In a certain sense, this modern circumstance is more dangerous than the violent sexual rites of the past, since (as Carly notes of the internet) there is no ritually enforced limit to the violence. For the hypermimetic subject (ie. all of us) escalation of desire is inevitable, since he or she emulously repeats past experiences, accelerating and escalating individual ritual acts of relationality and self-formation. Samuel, your reflections presents some troubling problems that are worth serious consideration. Recently, I’ve found James Alison’s chapter entitled “Contemplation in a World of Violence” in On Being Liked usefully instructive…

  3. Glad we proceeded to open Pandora’s Box quickly!

    As someone who works with both male and female sex workers and consumes and produces a fair bit of pornography – I think I may have an opinion or two to share here.. This is a core area of my own research and I think cuts to the core of some of the most difficult existential questions we face as embodied, rational, political, animals.

    I don’t want to gloss over anything or oversimplify a position here but I would strongly take issue with the framing of the investigation here. It presumes that actors in pornography (male, female, or transvestite, or whatever!) are necessarily undergoing some kind of malevolent sacrificial process (I think we need to be very careful about what labels we throw around in terms of understanding the meaning and severity of the thing in question – free market transactions and money are sacrificial institutions but we’re not going to be scandalized by a trip to the corner store to purchase a candy bar)

    More to come on this from my end for sure – thanks for starting the conversation

  4. Craig, great to have you join the conversation!
    I’m not sure that Sam’s enquiry, or this discussion, presumes that actors in pornography are *necessarily* undergoing malevolent sacrificial violence. Rather, that such violence *may* be present and that, particularly in the arena of the internet, we have few mechanisms to control it.?
    Your comparison with money may be apt here. To move away from value judgements about pornography as scandal, if for argument’s sake we take it to be (like money) morally neutral, we would probably still agree that (like money) it requires quite complex systems to keep it from becoming a force of oppression and sacrificial violence. We have many, albeit terribly flawed and poorly applied, such systems as regards money. But the world of internet pornography is outside our systems, in many ways. And without rituals and systems, Girard suggests that violence will run riot and victims will multiply…

Leave a Reply