Adventures At The Erotic Screen And Sound Conference

Well folks, I did it. I successfully gave my presentation “Girly Smut: A History Of Porn For Women” at the Erotic Screen and Sound Conference on the 17th. While I was pleased that my voice didn’t get quavery, I did end up turning it into a bit of a shambles because I went waaaay over time. I knew the talk was 22 minutes to begin with but I thought I’d speak quickly due to nerves. Nope. Apparently it’s the other way around. You should only write a 15 minute presentation for a 20 minute slot.

Porn for Women slideIn any case, about 20 people were there (not bad for 4.30pm in the smallest room) and I made them laugh. That’s enough to make me happy. I didn’t get enough time for a proper discussion about the complexities of the idea of “porn for women” – they only got a super fast and brief rundown of the various viewpoints and criticisms of it.

Part of the problem with time was my decision to include clips from several feminist porn films. I was originally going to leave that up to Anna Brownfield who was going to discuss them but she pulled out of the conference. So it didn’t seem right to talk about female-friendly porn films and not actually show any. Thus I included short and relatively softcore clips from 4 Candida Royalle films and:

    Ecstatic Moments (by Marianna Beck and Jack Hafferkamp)
    Man of My Dreams (by Mimi Balfour)
    The Band (by Anna Brownfield)
    The Good Girl (by Erika Lust)
    Rough Sex (by Tristan Taormino)
    Matinee (by Jennifer Lyon Bell)
    Feeling It! (by Petra Joy)

I got the vague feeling that I made some people uncomfortable by doing so. There seemed to be a bit of squirming in the room. It was probably just because no-one is used to watching dirty movies in the company of strangers like that. Or perhaps it was because I was happily showing porn without deconstructing it in any serious way.


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Still, I was pleased to be given the chance to present my version of girly smut. If you consider that I was up at 2am the night before suffering food poisoning, it went well.

The conference was very intimidating on the first day, mainly because it was laden with academic presentations rife with jargon and obscure art references. It’s been over ten years since I last attended a university lecture so the intense intellectualism was a shock to my dumbed-down system. Later I discovered I wasn’t the only one feeling a little overwhelmed by the experience. I spoke to one lady who was pleased that she got to snooze without slumping in her lecture seat.

Eventually I tuned in to the various buzz words; this was a conference thick with references to heteronormativities, hegemonies, discourses, texts, the gaze and various isms. This cartoon sums it up, I suspect. It had a distinctly queer flavour and a lot of presentations had plenty of criticism for the usual suspects: the patriarchy, colonialism, conservatism, monogamy and the mainstream media. There’s a blog post coming about all of that.

Beyond that, though, it was good to be challenged. I heard some really interesting ideas that I hadn’t encountered before. The Porn Report‘s Professor Alan McKee (who is a young and funky guy, not a bearded Dumbledore as I imagined) spoke about the idea that popular entertainment (e.g. Big Brother) shouldn’t be so derided because it’s an end in itself and is necessarily vulgar and over the top by definition. A PhD student called David Gizzi discussed the phenomenon of “war porn” – a huge online community of people who watch violent real videos from war. Leonarda Kovacic showed us historic nude “noble savage” photos of aboriginal women and challenged us to read them differently to the usual victim/oppressor narrative.

Performance ArtI also had the unexpected experience of witnessing some extreme performance art. Rebecca Clunn projected her discussion of art onto a screen while silently threading roses onto a string. She then placed the rose necklace around her neck along with a circle of razor wire. For the next 10 minutes or so, she knelt and rocked back and forth while the razor wire scratched her skin to pieces, causing her to bleed. I ran the gamut of emotions from a panicked urge to run away (ack! blood!), to curiosity, to almost indifference because it got repetitive. Quite a strange place to be. Afterwards she sat casually on the stage and we all had a nice chat. It certainly made a change from the standard situation of sitting up the back and comfortably hearing a presenter speak.

I also got to meet some of – dare I say it – “my people”: pornographers, porn stars, strippers, performers and various kinky people. I think this was one of the strengths of the conference: it was willing to hear the voices of those on the front line of erotic screen and sound. It meant there was a balance between intense theory and real-life experiences. This also resulted in a few interesting clashes such as when stripper Zarha Stardust questioned the assumptions made about porn stars in a traditional feminist reading of mainstream porn.

BDSM presentationIn the end, the best part of the conference for me was the chance to network. I got chatting to various lovely people during the meal breaks and have made some good friends. I was interviewed by Clarissa Smith who wrote One For The Girls, a book studying porn for women. I also introduced her to the bearded dragons living in the university gardens and there was a bit of squealing.

I had drinks with Fiona Patten and Anne Frances Watson from the Sex Party and talked to Dean Beck who hosts a radio show about gay sexuality in Melbourne. I met the lovely Angela White who not only makes a living as a porn star but is also a PhD student, and Zahra Stardust who is a stripper, politician and Masters student.

I talked women’s porn with Maureen who runs Bliss for Women in Melbourne. I talked to Rupert Owen (who appears in Anna Brownfield’s film The Band) about ways in which people uploading amateur porn can keep control of their videos through open source principles. And then there was all the fun of Tiara The Merch Girl and her exuberant, very smart presence.

One of the recurring themes of the conference was a lack of space and permission to explore sexuality and the erotic. I think there’s potential for this conference to spin into a broader event, possibly like the Berlin Porn Film Festival. Unfortunately, the law will get in the way. It’s one thing for the “elite” academics to gather and discuss fisting and BDSM, watch videos of facial cumshots and discuss their meaning or analyse photos of objects shoved into the anus. It’s another to be allowed to have a festival where the general public are invited. Showing any kind of adult film is still prohibited in Australia. Gathering to discuss and enjoy sexuality is really only limited to the commercial sphere of Sexpo.

It would be nice to try and I believe the general public would be up for it but I think our “moral guardians” would step in and make it unviable. You can discuss porn in an academic way but you’re not allow to enjoy it.

Still, perhaps this conference is an important first step in created a dialogue about sex, porn, art and censorship in Australia. I’m glad I went.

I’d like to direct you to the presentation by Tiara The Merch Girl. She’s kindly uploaded the whole thing onto Vimeo. In it she discusses the idea that erotic represenations, even when they’re labelled “alternative” still adhere to a very narrow aesthetic. She gives details of her own sexual journey and finishes with a superb burlesque/poetry piece.

Tiara the Merch Girl - Erotic Screen and Sound Conference 2011 Presentation - Not Your Ex/Rotic from Tiara The Merch Girl on Vimeo.

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