A Conversation between Whitney Strub and Jeffrey Escoffier

Whitney Strub: We’re here to talk about Jeffrey Escoffier’s new book, Sex, Society, and the Making of Pornography: the Pornographic Object of Knowledge, which was recently published by Rutgers university Press.

You’ve witnessed and participated in the development of the field of porn studies, going from its beginning into the internet era. And you’re familiar with the different kinds of analytical frameworks and methods and topics that people have used. I wonder if you could talk about your sense of porn studies as a field and how you see this book intervening into it—and generally how the book came together.

Jeffrey Escoffier: The book brings together many of the essays I’ve written on pornography in the last twenty years. In the first part of the book I explore the history of sexuality in the last 50 years of the twentieth century and the role of pornography has played in it. And the second part is a series of essays on the production of pornography.

I started writing about pornographic film in 2001 before the field of porn studies officially emerged with the launch of an academic journal in 2014.The feminist sex wars of the 1970s focused politically on whether or not pornographic movies served as instruments of women’s oppression and film studies scholars like Linda Williams and Tom Waugh sought to understand the medium and its cultural context. Their work defined the academic field. But scholars from cultural studies and history also encouraged research on pornographic videos and films. For example, in 1999, Regina Kunzel, who’s now a Professor of History at Princeton, was working on her book about sexuality in prison and asked me to write about “situational homosexuality.” Situational homosexuality was a concept used widely in the 1950s to talk about men who had sex with a man in places like prisons, on ships and in other all-male environments where women were not available as sexual partners. It is no longer used. But at the time, I was working at the NYC Health Department and we were dealing regularly with what we called “men who have sex with men” (MSM) which were men who didn’t identify as gay, but who had sex with one another. And it was an issue for HIV prevention, because when men didn’t think of themselves as gay, they would have sex with men and fail to realize that they could be infected with HIV. So I was doing research about “men who have sex with men” at the Health Department, and I thought, well, I know a population like this, and these were the “gay for pay” performers, the professedly heterosexual men who engage in sex with men in gay porn. The gay for pay piece that’s in this book is the first essay that I wrote on porn.

One of my interests from the very beginning was related to “the how”—how do people make it? The gay-for-pay performers posed a certain challenge to our ideas of sexual orientation and sexual performance—were they really straight or were they gay men who weren’t comfortable acknowledging their homosexuality. The theory of sexual scripts offered a plausible answer and suggested that people in the porn industry didn’t necessarily perform according to their sexual desires. How do they do it? How do they feel about doing it? It became clear that the production process and the making of porn movies was a complicated process. I was good friends with John Gagnon and William Simon, who had pioneered the social constructionist approach to sexuality and had formulated that perspective as a general theory of sexual scripts. Their theory helped me to make sense of the production process that creates a context in which sexual activity is expected to take place, according to a ‘script’ which draws partially on the performers’ fantasies, cultural norms, stereotypes, and everyday patterns of interaction. Performing in a pornographic video is a form of acting but it also requires some ‘real’ signifiers of sexual behavior such as erections and ejaculations – much the same as tears might be a “reality effect” in a melodrama.

When porn studies emerged as an academic field, it emerged as an offshoot of film studies and cultural studies. There didn’t seem to be the same kind of interest that I had about the production aspects, but it was more about interpretation, symbolism, reception, and so on. I had basically an historical and social scientific perspective.

Strub: That makes a lot of sense. I know that you were formally trained in economic history and sociology. I’ve always considered you as simultaneously both an insider and an outsider, but you are also a foundational figure, active in this field, more or less since it began. And yet at the same time, methodologically, you certainly don’t come out of film studies. My own sense of porn studies as a field is pretty similar. I think, there’s been a shift over time toward a more historical perspective. Linda Williams had an historical consciousness when she wrote Hardcore. And the first wave of gay porn scholars, like Tom Waugh, was very archivally driven. And yet I think you’re absolutely right that film studies was the dominant framework, and textual analysis initially occupied center stage of a lot of porn studies until fairly recently when the more historical contingent really asserted itself. I’m thinking, especially of like Mireille Miller-Young‘s book about black women in porn, A Taste for Brown Sugar: The History of Black Women in American Pornography or Peter Alilunas‘s book Smutty Little Movies: The Creation and Regulation of Adult Video. I wonder, before moving into the specifics of the book, can you say a little about how economic history and sociology as fields, how they position you within porn studies in a way that is unique?

Escoffier: I was trained as an economic historian, specifically in cliometrics, which is the kind of economic history that stresses quantitative economic history and hypothesis testing. But I was also by influenced by Max Weber, Antonio Gramsci and Stuart Hall, all of whom explored interactions between cultural and economic factors. That’s one reason I am always attentive to economic factors, culture and sexual performance in pornography, and have paid attention to the labor process and issues of compensation.

I focused on these issues in the essay “The Wages for Wood,” which is about the earnings differential between women and men in the straight porn industry. That is my economic history essay in this book. And what I love about it is that it starts off from the fact that in the porn industry women are paid more per scene than the male performers. But in fact, if you compare the income of the top earners in the straight porn industry, although men are often paid less per scene, on the average they earn more than women do because of various structural issues–especially the so-called ‘reliable’ male performers, who are able to get wood and ejaculate at will who are a very small group, and because they make more scenes in more movies and are often more likely to direct movies as well. Another consideration for me is that porn is a business. A few people in porn studies have focused on the business aspects of the porn industry, but most people have not. I’ve frequently tried to incorporate that aspect in my writing.

Strub: One of the things you pointed out is that someone like Joey Silvera (he also gets a fleeting reference in your chapter on trans porn as well) was one of those ‘reliable’ performers and who has had an incredibly long career, compared to some of the female performers. It’s pretty fascinating in the sense that I think porn fans of the 1980s and 90s would have known this, but I don’t know that porn scholars have really attended to these kinds of questions like career longevity. There were 10 or 15 guys who were the dominant male faces of porn, the dominant male faces of the hetero porn industry for 30 years. And it’s a remarkable phenomenon that rarely gets acknowledged; Eric Edwards or Jamie Gillis or Joey Silvera were just industry staples. Their bodies helped to construct some sort of norm of porn, hetero masculinity.

Escoffier: The really big moment in the history of pornographic cinema is the shift from soft core to hardcore because it introduced a new element such as actually filming sex itself, and not just simulating it. Photographing sex is quite different from drawing a sexual scene by hand with an exaggerated penis and large overflowing breasts. Hardcore pornographic cinema as a medium of entertainment does not literally require real sex, it does involve ‘real’ ejaculations and erections—at least at this point in history, in the future it’ll be some form of virtual reality. “Reliable men” that is those performers who could get erections and ejaculate at will became a significant factor in pornographic movies. These are the “reality effects” in cinematic pornography. A murder mystery doesn’t require a real murder to generate emotion or suspense. But the credibility of a porn scene depends on such things as ‘real’ erections and ejaculation

Strub: I love the subtitle: “The Pornographic Object of Knowledge.” It’s an alluring subtitle. it makes you wonder, what are we talking about? What is this ‘object of knowledge’? And one thing I think you do, and maybe you won’t agree with this framing, I’m not sure, but you invert one of the truisms of porn studies, which is that sex in pornography is never real, it’s always mediated, right? That’s kind of a fundamental tenet of a lot of porn studies analysis that we’re, you know, we may be seeing bodies copulating, but we’re not seeing ‘real sex’ in the sense that Foucault might imagine it or, or anybody might imagine it once they get sort of ontological about it. But you sort of flip that script. Your argument is that pornography actually does lay bare the reality of sex, not necessarily in terms of the interpersonal thing going on between the performers, but in terms of the sexual scripts or the sexual imaginaries that drive it. And so I wonder if you could say a little bit more about that. What is the pornographic object of knowledge and what are the sort of truths and realities that are here rather than what can be seen through the lens of mediation?

Escoffier: In as much as porn is ‘about’ anything it is about sex and is intended to generate sexual excitement. I was very impressed by an article in New York magazine a couple of years ago by Maureen O’Connor who argued that Pornhub, the largest distributor of on the Internet was “the Kinsey Report of our time,” and that it “may have done more to expand the sexual dreamscape than Helen Gurley Brown, Masters and Johnson or Sigmund Freud.” I think she is right. As Laplanche and Pontalis argue in their classic discussion of sexual fantasy: “Even where they can be summed up in a single sentence, phantasies are still scripts (scenarios) of organized scenes which are capable of dramatization, usually in visual form….” ‘Sexual scripts’ in the broadest possible way are necessary to the process of making pornography–they help the performers to engage in sex, give the scene a narrative structure, and sexually arouse the viewers. The fact is that many of us don’t always explicitly know our sexual scripts and we often use porn videos to find them. The ‘object of knowledge’ for the viewer is a pornographic scene’s implicit sexual script.

Contemporary pornography has become a massive archive of sexual scripts. To some extent pornography has replaced sexology, psychoanalysis and sex manuals as a form of knowledge about sexuality. Pornographic movies are made and watched to stimulate sexual excitement. To some extent, real sexual behavior is part of the production process. And the representation of sexual behavior in a pornographic film can tell us something about sex—both psychologically and historically. It resembles what Foucault called, in Volume 1 of the History of Sexuality a “strategic unity,” that is, a social condensation of power and knowledge, and like ‘the perverse implantation” or “the masturbating child” moving-image porn is form of power/ knowledge. Moreover, I think that reality effects are necessary to moving-image pornography because they confirm the epistemological ‘truth’ of the sexual script.

Jeffrey Escoffier writes on the history of sexuality, LGBTQ communities and pornography. He is the author of American Homo: Community and Perversity, recently re-issued by Verso Books in its Radical Thinkers series, Bigger Than Life: Gay Porn Cinema from Beefcake to Hardcore, and the editor of Sexual Revolution, an anthology of the most influential writing on sex from the 1960s and 70s. He was one of the founders and the Publisher of the pioneering LGBTQ journal OUT/LOOK from 1989 to 1992. He is currently a Research Associate and a faculty member at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. He tweets @jeffescoffier

Whitney Strub is an Associate Professor of History at Rutgers University, Newark, where he co-directs the Queer Newark Oral History Project. He is the author of Perversion for Profit: The Politics of Pornography and the Rise of the New Right (Columbia, 2011), and Obscenity Rules: Roth v. United States and the Long Struggle over Sexual Expression, and he blogs about Newark, film, and queer history. Find him on Twitter @whitstrub  

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