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Where are the Protests Against James Franco’s “Feel-Good” Torture Porn?

Celebrities have been speaking out against the movie Zero Dark Thirty because of its favorable portrayal of torture used in pursuit of Osama Bin Laden. Some have even risked their membership in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I wish these celebrities were equally outraged by a documentary that just premiered at Sundance that celebrates the actual—not simulated—torture of women. Past experience tells me not to hold my breath.

When Acme Andersson wrote in XBIZ in 2009 (the porn business online website) that small porn companies need a lot of “good luck” to mainstream their products, he couldn’t have imagined just what good luck was coming the way of Kink.com, a somewhat niche company that specializes in the type of porn that would be right at home in Abu Ghraib. That good luck came in the form of A-list actor James Franco, a 2010 Oscar nominee for the movie 127 Hours. It seems Franco has a somewhat robust interest in porn, because he is a producer of a new documentary called Kink that premiered at Sundance just last week. According to the promotional copy on the Sundance website, “Kink tells the true story of sex, submission, and big business as seen through the eyes of the unlikely pornographers whose nine-to-five workdays are spent within the confines of the San Francisco Armory building, home to the sprawling production facilities of Kink.com.” To reassure the potentially squeamish among us, the copy declares that this “feel good” documentary features a “charming band of outsiders full of humor and insight working in a fantasyland of graphic sexual imagery.”

A bit of fantasy never hurt anyone, because fantasy happens in the head, not the real world, right? Tell this to the women (and a few men) on the Kink.com website whose bodies are displayed in agonizing contortions that would not be out of place in the Spanish Inquisition: stretched out on racks, hogtied, urine squirting in their mouths, and suspended from the ceiling while attached to electrodes, including ones inserted into their vaginas. Finally, taking a cue from Dick Cheney’s playbook, women are submerged into a tank of water until they start to cough and choke. As I watched the scenes, the term “feel good” couldn’t have been further from my mind.

Kink.com is in violation of the United Nations Convention Against Torture. The International Council for Rehabilitation for Torture Victims states: “Some of the most common methods of physical torture include beating, electric shocks, stretching, submersion, suffocation, burns, rape and sexual assault.” These are the very acts showcased on the Kink.com website. They are not mere simulations: the women are clearly bound and in contorted positions, and many are grimacing. This is not a fun, fantasy place run by a charming band of outsiders, but a group of savvy businessmen who missed their calling at Abu Ghraib.

The usual defense of Kink.com is that the women signed a contract and hence agreed to the acts. But as attorney Wendy Murphy of the New England School of Law argues, “torture doctrine is not hampered by concerns about consent because, as a matter of law and policy, one cannot consent to torture.” And anyway, what does meaningful and informed consent mean to the women subjected to these degrading and painful tortures, which are designed to break the body and the spirit? Even the intelligence services acknowledge that information gained from coercive methods is unreliable. The women, like others who enter porn, are young and often don’t know the full extent of what will happen on the set, and cannot anticipate the lasting psychological and emotional effects. The ultimate lie of Kink.com is that it claims to do candid interviews with the women at the end of the scene so they can show how much they enjoyed the “sex.” This is like asking sweatshop laborers to talk about how happy they are to be working for some multinational corporation as the CEO films the interview.

If Sundance were premiering a film about Iraqis, African Americans, Jews, or any group other than women being tortured, would they be able to call it a “feel good” documentary? If you want to understand how the pornographers, and in this case Sundance and James Franco, get away with this travesty, then you need to look no further than Andrew Edmond, himself a pornographer, but one who tells the truth. In a 2000 interview with Brandweek, Edmond, President and CEO of Flying Crocodile, a $20-million Internet pornography business, stated that those outside the industry don’t understand how porn works because “a lot of people get distracted … by [the sex]. To that he could add that they also get distracted from the pain and anguish on the women’s faces as they are being debased, abused, and dehumanized. Where are the celebrities speaking out against this?

GAIL DINES is a professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College in Boston. Her latest book is Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked our Sexuality (Beacon Press). She a founding member of Stop Porn Culture (stoppornculture.org).

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