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II)D) “Do you want to be put in the same category as Alfred Kinsey, Max Hardcore, or  Catherine Briellat?”: The limits of sexual expression in an algorithmic world.


Production still from Jennifer Lyon Bell’s short “Matinee”

Just this last week, Australia’s Office of Film and Literature Classification has refused to grant Jennifer Lyon Bell’s erotic short Matinee a festival exemption to screen at the upcoming edition of the Melbourne Underground Film Festival. By refusing to grant this exemption the OFLC has effectively banned Matinee from being screened in Australia, and banned DVDs of the film from being sold in nearly all states in the antipodal continent.

Matinee is the story of two actors, male and female, in a theater production that is not quite finding its voice, due in large measure to a failure of the two leads to find chemistry in a crucial love scene. I won’t reveal more of the plot than that, but I will say that the sex in this film is consensual (both within the context of the narrative and the context of the production) and is undertaken with concern and safeguards for the physical and emotional safety of the actors—again, both within the narrative and the production. The result is a sexual encounter that leaves both the characters and the actors playing those characters satisfied that they have chosen to have sex with each other for the right reasons, and under conditions sufficiently cautious against the reality that sex is a consequential act.

The reason given by the OFLC for its decision is that Matinee contains actual depictions of sexuality. But in nearly the same week, the OFLC has chosen to grant a festival exemption to Antichrist, a film that also features actual sexual intercourse, but with a very different (and I would argue, in the cinematic tradition, hyper-normative) contex.

I have had my own run-ins with this sort of double standard for the treatment of sexuality in cinema. On the night the OFLC dispatched police to the 2008 Melbourne Underground Film Festival to stop the screening of Ashley and Kisha, the notoriously sexually explicit Destricted was playing (with the OFLC’s blessing) on the other side of Melbourne, at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image.

One film claimed to be an exploration of the (purported) boundary between art and pornography. The other celebrated a loving relationship between two women.

One film contained (among other things) a depiction of utterly mercenary anal sex between two strangers orchestrated by the film’s director. The other film contained footage of consensual, mutually pleasurable lovemaking between partners in a long-standing relationship.

One film found itself on the acceptable side of the Kinsey (medical)/Hardcore (pornography)/Briellat (art) taxonomy, and one film did not. 

And now Jennifer Lyon Bell’s film Matinee finds itself in similar contrasting relationship with Lars von Teir’s Antichrist. (I do hope Lars, who has long fashioned himself a rebel, is suitably embarrassed to find himself in this instance on the side of The Man, and a tool of the status quo in Australia.)

There is nothing new about this medical/pornography/art taxonomy. My own namesake, Anthony Comstock, ultimately overreached in trying (and sometimes succeeding) in having medical textbooks with anatomical drawings of reproductive organs seized and destroyed. But out of this overreach, the idea that exploring and depicting sexuality in a medical context was, in fact, protected speech was born.

Neither is the idea that “art” is also sufficient justification for what would otherwise not be protected speech new, with Justice Woolsey’s “intent to arouse” standing as a now nearly 80 year old dividing line between “art” and obscenity—observed with full legal force in some countries (UK, Australia) or with quasi-legal force in the the US (“Penetration is illegal in Utah.”) See the previous TITA post: US vs. Ulysses: The origin of  ”intent to arouse” as legal doctrine.

What is new, is that where this taxonomy used to be enforced by human beings, and was subject to revision and modification, the medical/porn/art taxonomy is now increasingly becoming hard-coded into the algorithms that shape our digital world.

What that means is with the flick of a digital switch (errant or intentional) LGBT-oriented books with no sexually explicit content can virtually disappear off Amazon, as happened back in March of this year.

What that means that is that as far as Google is concerned, [clitoris] is not a “safe” search term; that “clitoris” is always a pornographic word, no matter what the context, along with “nude” and “bastard”.

What it means is that anything that’s categorized with words like “adult” or “NSFW” is algorithmically indistinguishable from the works of Max Hardcore (aka Paul Little, currently serving 10 years on obscenity charges.)

This “algorithmic indistinguishability” promotes a culture around sexuality that is at once more pranksterish (How much can we get away with and still be on YouTube?) and at the same time more cautious (Oprah’s favorite “vajayjay” is a Google-friendly word, but clitoris is not.)

And whereas 10 years ago the internet offered the opportunity to skirt around bodies like the OFLC, today, Australia is undertaking a great experiment in nationwide, government enforced “content filtering”—which is simply a euphemism for algorithmic and complaint-driven censorship.

But it’s not just the anti-erotic bias lurking in our culture driving this. Ask any IT professionals what their biggest headaches are, and on any given day it’s likely that porn-spammers and CEO’s who don’t understand technology will be trading the number one and number two spots on their most-hated list. I regularly have important, non-erotic correspondences sucked into my spam folder (the last was from an eminent constitutional scholar on the history of blasphemy laws and symbolic speech in the US.) Without resorting to words like “vajayjay” and other coded language, even scholarly correspendence free from slang is frequently algorithmically indistinguishable from porn-spam.

Next up: Porn spammers: No shame about sex-or anything else.

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3 Responses

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  1. Very interesting, and raises a lot of interesting questions. I wonder, in a world that seems to compulsively categorize, what might be a solution? It sounds like you deem your films to be different from “pornography,” but I’m not sure how we can go about making these distinctions. I totally understand, and empathize, with your frustrations regarding having your films condemned – does this make you feel aligned with “porn” and consequently frustrate you? Or do you extend the same artistic freedom to “porn” also? I always seem to go round in circles regarding these issues, particularly when you consider class-based notions of art etc. I feel like I’m caught between two intersecting ideologies…

  2. Ultimately, the exclusion of a film of this kind brings up two issues. One is the definition of pornography. For me, as a writer, I firmly reject the stance that all mediated representations of explicit sex are – de facto – pornography. Nor to I accept the ‘intent to arouse’ premise, since it is well known that different people are aroused by vastly different stimulus. For me, it’s simply about whether a) the sex is contextually sound within the narrative and b)if the sole purpose of the piece is as a masturbatory aid. This is the rule I use for myself in writing erotica (as opposed to writing pornography) and I don’t see why film should be any different.

    Sadly, I think the reason why Antichrist was screened was due to the fame of both the director and the leading actors. And that, in my view, is unforgivable. Antichrist is a breathtakingly shot, beautifully scored film, with a brilliant narrative premise. It is also possibly one of the most anti-humanistic and misogynist pieces of film I’ve ever seen.

    It saddens me that, as a society, we are still so willing to accept unbelievable levels of violence (both real and fictional), while still being reticent to publically witness explicit sex. We give Pulitzer prizes to photojournalists who capture the moment someone having their head blown off.

    But as a culture, we still won’t tolerate the mediated depiction of someone sucking a cock.

    What can I say? We’re fucked up.

  3. Tony Comstock said

    Hello Remittance Girl, thanks so much for stopping by.

    Your comment about fame gets to the heart of it. Whatever one rejects or accepts, how ever one defines pornography or erotica, it only really matters in contexts where you have power.

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