Scenes from a Porn Expo

It seemed like a good idea at the time.  10:00 Sunday night.  Kids abed.  Papers graded.  And, hey, there was this DVD I’d been meaning to get to for some time, The Price of Pleasure, a documentary by Miguel Picker and Chyng Sun that I’d purchased for the Communication Arts Department.  The only thing I knew about it was that it was a documentary addressing the money and the power of the pornography industry.  Because I was teaching a mass media and society course this semester, exploring the back-and-forth influence of media and culture, I thought it might make a good case study.

It was not such a good idea.  At least, it was not a good idea to start the week viewing these searing images and stomaching these devastating rationalizations.  (“You know what?” said one congenial man early in the film, his arm around the neck of his significant other. “If it’s between two people, and two people are comfortable with it—that’s all that matters.  It’s not anything anybody else has to say about it.”)  But the worst thing, the thing I couldn’t shake the next day, was something I saw in scenes from a pornography convention.

Isn’t that a strange one? There are actually conferences of people who gather to promulgate, produce, and distribute erotica.  In the film, it looked like the brightly lit book fair at the National Communication Association: people strolling down convention aisles, wearing name tags, carrying plastic conference bags, talking with that impersonal avidity so characteristic of convention-attenders.  The whole thing evoked Hannah Arendt’s phrase, the banality of evil.  The camera followed them as they stopped at booths, where various products were being marketed or performers were demonstrating sundry techniques.  In one particularly bothersome image, the camera looked over the shoulder of an erotic dancer at five men clustered around the booth.  They were staring at the woman’s movements with a kind of flat fixity: not leering or cat-calling.  They looked simply, quietly attentive, wholly concentrated. Their interestedness evoked a car aficionado staring under the hood of a late model hotrod.  I’ve never seen a more troubling enactment of what feminists refer to as the male gaze.

The film kept me awake late Sunday night with a kind of dread.  For my daughters.  For my students.  For those nameless women.  But as I’ve continued to mull over the documentary–and discuss it with students–I’ve come to take heart that that dread is directly addressed by the Cross.

All these images and words from the film came to mind–actually could not be gotten out of mind–Monday morning as I prepared for Communication Ethics class, in which we were discussing Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace.  Volf locates the scandal of the gospel in a place every bit as unexpected as a porn expo.  A good number of theologians, he points out, have said that in the Cross we see God identifying with the oppressed.  I can’t help thinking of women for whom some aspect of the sex trade somehow makes capitalistic sense.  Even the brash ones who claim to be liberated and loving it are oppressed, and no mistake.  But the real scandal, Volf points out, is that God also identifies with the oppressor.  When I think of the deadening curiosity of those four or five fellows standing around that booth, I feel that scandal viscerally.  I feel the appalling reach of mercy.

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