Aug 172011

Cinema Sewer 34, Danny Hellman, Cmm3C

Well, sooner or later, somebody had to make an image like the one above.

Danny Hellman created this for cover of the 24th issue of the Cinema Sewer zine, published out of Vancouver, BC by Robin Bougie.

It’s not the only Hellman that satirizes the Iraq and Afghanistan war, viewing those conflicts through the lenses of comic books and exploitation magazines (e.g. 1). This is an obvious take on the previously discussed Israeli stalag novels and the later men’s adventure magazines, referencing the notorious Abu Ghraib pictures. The brunette woman in the background represents Lynndie England, for instance.

The Abu Ghraib pictures put Americans in a quandary. The scenario was familiar, but the ones inflicting the suffering were “us”, not “them”. How could this be? This is what Other people do. It’s telling that England, a female soldier, became the most recognizable name and face associated with this scandal, linking political deviance with female sexual deviance.

I feel somewhat disappointed that this image is too knowing, too ironic to be a genuine expression of fantasy. Maybe we need to wait a few years before the psychosocial impact of the War on Terrorism percolates up from the collective subconscious. Or perhaps the torture porn film genre previously discussed is part of that response. Maybe in North America the feared Other is not the Muslim terrorist, but the out-of-control, paranoid police state. That at any second, for no apparent reason, we can find ourselves strapped to something in a windowless room where we are utterly helpless before an unknown person. Network television is already crawling with surveillance and confinement and competition. Somewhere out there, Room 101 is ready for you.

Jul 142011

Cover of 'Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk', showing nude woman praying and monk about to beat her with whip

Anti-Catholicism has always been the pornography of the Puritan. Whereas the anti-Masons had envisaged drinking bouts and had entertained themselves with sado-masochistic fantasies about the actual enforcement of grisly Masonic oaths,* the anti-Catholics invented an immense lore about libertine priests, the confessional as an opportunity for seduction, licentious convents and monasteries. Probably the most widely read contemporary book in the United States before Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a work supposedly written by one Maria Monk, entitled Awful Disclosures, which appeared in 1836. The author, who purported to have escaped from the Hotel Dieu nunnery in Montreal after five years there as novice and nun, reported her convent life in elaborate and circumstantial detail. She reported having been told by the Mother Superior that she must “obey the priests in all things”; to her “utter astonishment and horror,” she soon found what the nature of such obedience was. Infants born of convent liaisons were baptized and then killed, she said, so that they might ascend at once to heaven. Her book, hotly attacked and defended , continued to be read and believed even after her mother gave testimony that Maria had been somewhat addled ever since childhood after she had rammed a pencil into her head. Maria died in prison in 1849, after having been arrested in a brothel as a pickpocket.

Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics

Brian Busby also has some posts on Maria Monk, alleged author of the anti-Catholic classic Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, calling it “the best-selling work of fiction ever set in Montreal”. More likely it was written by American anti-Catholics who knew how to appeal to a nation steeped in Gothic/sentimental literature.

This book used common Gothic tropes: virtue in distress, murdered children, imprisonment, underground passages and chambers, arbitrary authority, cruelty and claustrophobia. It didn’t stint on describing and depicting the abuse of the nuns:

Most 19th century editions feature the same 38 engravings, all depicting characters and scenes in the book. There is, for example, the ‘inhuman priest’ Bonin in action pose. According to the book, it is he who, with an undisclosed number of nuns, trampled Sister St. Frances to death. Many of the images feature tormented nuns, women who have endured rape and torture, such as the ‘melancholy’ Sister St. Martin and ‘Mad Jane Ray’. In the illustration below we see Maria herself, recovering from ‘the cap’, an instrument of punishment described as ‘small, made of a reddish looking leather, fitted closely to the head, and fastened under the chin with a kind of buckle.’ The reader is told that it was ‘common practice to tie the nun’s hands behind, and gag her before the cap was put on, to prevent noise and resistance.’

Bondage, flogging, branding… it’s no wonder that the ‘awful disclosures’ found readers amongst those attracted to the works of Sacher-Masoch, Sade and Mirbeau. Indeed, the book has at times been packaged to attract just such an audience.

The book had a long life, with many legitimate and pirated editions. More than a century later, Monk’s book was still being used, turning up in leaflets opposing John F. Kennedy’s US presidential campaign. It still turns up cited on anti-Catholic kook websites.

Has this particularly anti-Catholic brand of pornography been rendered obsolete as fantasy material by the assimilation of Catholics in North American society, the diminishing power of the Catholic church and the general secularization of society? A cursory search of Imagefap revealed a fair number of “nun” galleries, and searching for “nun” on Literotica produced one page of stories, so perhaps this particular kink still has some life in it.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Awful Disclosures bear a lot of similarities: highly political works which used the language of Gothic sentiment to make their point and involved audiences who might not have been involved in other discourses. One was progressive and humanitarian, the other was xenophobic and bigoted. One was inspired by truth, the other by paranoid fantasy. It indicates just how powerful a discourse this is.

May 312011 has a review of Michael Bronski’s A Queer History of the United States. It’s been said that America was founded by people looking for the freedom to be more repressive, but there’s a revolutionary utopian streak in the American character too.

The Puritans aspired to build instead a pure theocratic homeland in America. As the research of historian Jonathan Ned Katz shows, they meant it: Many people were executed for sodomy. Yet he also uncovered cases that suggest this isn’t the whole story. From the start, there were Americans who dissented from the Puritanism–often in the most blatant way—and it is these dissenters who interest Bronski most. In 1624, a large group of people led by a man named Thomas Morton decided to found a town based on very different principles, in an area that is now Quincy, near Boston. They called the town Merrymount—popular slang at the time for illicit forms of sex—and built an 80-foot phallic symbol in the town center. They freed any indentured servants who joined them, befriended the local Native American tribe, and began to intermarry with them, suggesting many of their members were heterosexuals sick of Puritan strictures and open to other ways.

Merrymount sounds as quintessentially American as Salem—and a lot more fun. But the conflict that runs through American history—between fundamentalism and sexual freedom—mowed down Merrymount. In 1629, after a five-year-long prefiguring of life in South Beach or West Hollywood, the local Puritans invaded the town and dismantled it brick by brick. (History doesn’t record what they did with the phallus.) Morton was deported back to London, where he became one of the most eloquent critics of the genocide of the Native Americans in all of Europe.

From the review, Bronski argues that queers (and I would say this includes kinky people) have a mission in American society: to revolutionize ideas about sexuality, gender, family and expression. The struggle over gay marriage is a betrayal of that mission, in favour of assimilation.

This is where my comparison between gays and kinksters breaks down. For the past 120 years or so, most people (gay and straight) argue that homosexuality is a fixed quality of individual character and a certain number of people will always have it. (A minority on both sides of the debate take the “homosexuality is a choice” position.) The “gay issue” is about identities, not acts.

Kinky people are so diverse and their interests so complicated and varied that it is very difficult to consider them a fixed identity. Our identities is based around interests and acts, not identities, and the historical trajectory of kinky people in America follows a different arc. In a way, kinky people can’t assimilate, without disappearing. There’s a movie (can’t remember the name) in which a Jewish-born man loathes his people so much he joins anti-Semetic organizations. In one meeting, he proposes “the final solution” to the Jewish problem: love. Embrace them and assimilate them. The tragedy here is that the historical choice seems to be, to be Jewish is to be despised and threatened with extinction and non-existence. But if that hatred ends, Jews would assimilate into other cultures and become non-existence.

Thus, kink carries with it a certain potential of revolution that means it cannot ever be completely, 100% be assimilated into the mainstream, because nobody really wants it to.

Like it or not, same-sex marriage has become a referendum on gay rights in general in America. (We’ve had it here in Canada for years, by the way.)

May 172011

Bountiful BC is a community of about 1000 people near Creston BC, home to a Mormon splinter group that practices polygyny, one man with multiple wives. The shortage of women has driven the age of marriage and child birth down to the early teens, and there’s been reports of young women being moved across the border to similar communities in the US. There are also problems stemming from a lack of places for younger men in this community.

The BC Attorney General hasn’t been able to prosecute the community’s leaders, because of claims of religious freedom and the difficulty of getting people in a tight-knit community to come forward and testify. The AG has turned to an old, rarely used law, Section 293 of the Criminal Code, which criminalizes any form of polygamy or any kind of conjugal union with more than one person. It hasn’t been used in decades, when it was used against First Nations.

Right now, the BC Supreme Court is conducing a reference to determine the constitutionality of S.293. Critics say that the law is overly broad and vague, and intrudes on people’s personal lives, and could apply to people who practise polyamory or even live together as roommates. Supporters say the law can be “read down” to apply only to cases where exploitation is clear.

Apart from the many kinky people who are also poly, this case is relevant to kinky people in general.

Continue reading »

Nov 232010

Mahdavi, Pardis. Passionate Uprisings: Iran’s Sexual Revolution Standford University Press, 2009 Google books

Iranian woman - Tehran

This fascinating book is based on a series of Mahdavi’s visits from America to Iran between 2000 and 2007, which gave her an interesting longitudinal perspective of social change in Iran.

Mahdavi’s book explores a particular “thin slice” of Iranian society: young, urban, secular-minded, middle-class (or wishing to appear so), over-educated, under-employed, mobile (via cars and mobile phones), and exposed to the developed world via Internet and satellite TV. The men go clean-shaven and hair-gelled. The women wear tight-fighting mantos (coats) and headscarves that show their streaked hair, plus multiple layers of makeup. It’s a particular style of dress that has developed by dancing on the edge of Iran’s sartorial laws, under which a bare ankle, a three-quarter sleeve or a few centimetres of exposed hair could result in harassment, arrest or being whipped. Its also a statement against identifying with the ascetic look of morality police. They drive to house parties (no night clubs or other public venues), drink imported liquor, dance (completely forbidden) to Iranian-American hip-hop, and screw around, all the while looking over their shoulders.

Continue reading »

Nov 202010

Sociological Images has a post on Race and Gender themes of “Sheikh Romances”, a popular subgenre of mass market romance.

Sheikh romances are generally set in fictional countries in the Middle East, with a male character described as a “sheikh,” “sultan,” or something along the lines of “king of the desert.” He is, of course, invariably rich and powerful. The female protagonist, on the other hand, is a White woman, usually from the U.S.

For more examples, go to Amazon and search “sheikh romance.” Seriously, there are tons of them — Traded to the Sheikh, Stolen by the Sheikh, The Desert Prince’s Mistress, The Sheikh’s Virgin, Love-Slave to the Sheikh, The Sheikh’s Ransomed Bride (notice the recurring economic transaction theme?), and my new personal favorite book title ever, Hired: The Sheikh’s Secretary Mistress

This subgenre is, of course, a descendant of Edith Maude Hull’s 1919 novel The Sheik (filmed in 1921 with Rudolph Valentino in the lead), and also the harem pornographic novel typified by The Lustful Turk (1828).

I’d be interested to know if there’s been an upsurge in this particular subgenre over the past ten years, with the West’s increased involvement in the Middle East and the Islamic world since 9/11.

The comments are pretty interesting, suggesting that romance novels follow the same basic pattern of resolving gender conflicts while varying the setting.

Oct 312010

Slate has a short piece on why Hallowe’en costumes are so sexed up, attributing it to a “rogue holiday” partially appropriated by gays, kind of Pride in the fall.

The Victorians enjoyed a good costume ball on Halloween, and some daring get-ups, like Gypsy outfits, were popular. But risqué costumes were not pervasive until right around Gerald Ford’s presidency, when homosexual communities in the United States adopted Halloween as an occasion for revealing, over-the-top attire.

The Halloween parade in New York City’s Greenwich Village began in 1973 as a family-and-friends promenade from house-to-house organized by a local puppeteer and mask-maker. It quickly became a neighborhoodwide party, however, and since the Village was New York’s de facto gay district, the gay community cottoned to it. The event, with its drag outfits and otherwise rebellious costuming, became famous in New York and across the country, as did similarly bawdy Halloween parties in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood and in West Hollywood.

Over on, an article points out that “One Woman’s Costume Is Another Woman’s Nightmare“, and asks about appropriations of native American dress as sexy costumes.

…the “sexy squaw” stereotype and subsequent appropriations are dangerous for non-fictional Native women, considering that “1 in 3 Native women will be raped in their lifetime,” and “70% of sexual violence against Native women is committed by non-Natives.” Compare that figure to the 1 in 6 overall American female population who is a victim of rape.


Consider the “Chiquita Banana” stereotypes of Latinas, oversexed black Jezebels, or the seemingly pliant and sexually subversive Japanese geisha. All of those stereotypical costumes correlate with a tame, sexually pure image of white women, like the European colonist with her full-length skirt, the Scarlett O’Hara on the plantation.

(The Scarlett O’Hara comparison is a bit off, as Scarlett was definitely not the Southern white feminine ideal, just as Rhett was a rogue and a scoundrel.)

A cursory examination of the costume section of the Wicked Temptations online catalog reveals a lot of less-than-progressive language and imagery. There are “Gypsy” costumes, “Native” costumes (“Our Natives set of costumes and accessories will prove why everyone decided to move to and settle on your land.”), “Nuns” (a classic), “Alpine Maidens” and “Schoolgirls.”

I think that when people talk about ethnic costumes as sexual fetishes and compare them to real-life sexual violence, there’s the implication that if you somehow got rid of the sexy costumes, the violence would stop, or at least be diminished. I’m not convinced it would. I’m not even convinced that if you somehow got rid of the underlying attitudes and fantasies that make a costume sexy, some of which goes back centuries, it would affect the violence. Don’t confuse a symptom for a cause.

Jun 162010

“Alejandro” is the second time Lady Gaga has visually referenced The Night Porter (dir. Liliana Cavani, 1974) in her videos.

The first time was in the “Love Game” video, in which she wore the dark pants, suspenders and officer’s cap look Lucia wore in that iconic scene. This seemed to be gesturing towards the early 70s, post-Stonewall/pre-AIDS downtown New York City scene as an image of sexual freedom and adventure. However, the video doesn’t engage with the implications of the source image. It’s just a bit of early 70s nostalgia, bereft of any particular meaning for Gaga’s primary audience who wasn’t even born when The Night Porter came out.

The video for “Alejandro” does address the themes of the source material: the militarism, the eroticism, etc. There’s a problematic connection drawn between fascism/militarism and homoeroticism. The nun imagery at the end seems to suggest that the only way Gaga’s character can be acceptable to a fascist man is to become an asexual image of virtue, nun-like.

There’s something a bit paint-by-numbers in this, particularly considering the similarities to Madonna’s videos. Homoeroticism? Check. Fascism? Check. Bra with gun barrels? Check. Swallowing rosary? Check. Latex nun uniform? Check. It’s pretty easy to generate 15-minutes of controversy with this kind of material, without sparking any particular debate or getting people to change their minds about anything. There’s certainly a long (if not always noble) history of anti-clerical agitprop, but whether that has actually made any difference is another question.

It put me in mind of MIA’s notorious “Born free” video. (Not currently on Mia’s video employs the simple strategy of depicting pogroms and ethnic cleansing, but targeting red haired men. It’s a simple inversion strategy, one that generates shock, but doesn’t necessarily spark any deeper understanding or change attitudes. This is what the philosophers and poets in the late 1700s/early 1800s did when they tried to imagine themselves into slave bodies. I don’t know if this had any direct impact on the debate over slavery, but it did eventually contribute to the evolving form of BDSM porn.

Jun 132010

Inspired by Lady Gaga’s video for “Alejandro” (more on that later), Slate provides a run-down of nunsploitation books and films.

It includes a link to a Hermenaut article, “Convent Erotica“, that goes deeper into the nunsploitation genre, including its similarities to the “women in prison” genre.

The nun movie is the mirror of another disreputable genre, the women-in-prison movie. Both deal with women’s bodies in confined spaces, with innocence abused, with microsocieties, with the forms and channels of power. The women’s prison and the convent are sexual laboratories, the prisoners/nuns experimental subjects. Thus the emphasis on surveillance. If two people are having sex in one of these movies, chances are a third character is there to watch. Concealment and revelation, crucial issues in all pornography, take on special importance in nun movies because the convent, or more precisely the cloister, is designated as a space of invisibility. But it’s really the other way around: It’s this designation that makes the cloister so apt a set for eroticism. Just as it’s because the nun is supposed to deny her body and become invisible that she compels attention on the screen.

I wonder if nuns have fallen out of favor as fetish objects in the past few decades, as society becomes increasingly secular, and few women choose to renounce the world or are forced into convents.

I think the “torture porn” genre has stepped in to fill the gap of nunsploitation and women-in-prison films. This genre has a similarly ambivalent attitude towards women, unsteadily moving back and forth between victim, heroine and villain. There are similar elements of confinement, voyeurism, exploitation and the sense that this nastiness is happening in a hidden part of our own society.

From an interview with Thomas Fahy, editor of the essay collection The Philosophy of Horror:

I think we’ve been talking about torture in this culture a great deal recently and these films raise a very clear question: Is it ever permissible to torture someone? It’s a hell of a lot different thinking about that when you’re watching somebody torture somebody, in all of its ugliness, on-screen than when you’re watching the nightly news.

What I find interesting about them is that they’re not films about mutilating and torturing women — in the “Last House on the Left” remake, one of the torturers actually is a woman. And “Hostel” was raising a lot of really provocative questions. The protagonist who is able to escape the torture facility — in which rich people pay to torture European backpackers — had a different price charged for people from different countries and the most expensive people to torture are Americans. That speaks to anxieties that we have as a country.

However, with only a slight “shift in optic”, these stories are the basis for BDSM fantasies.