Aroused: New Female Porn Star Documentary Brings Up Same Old Stereotypes

In the opening of Aroused, photographer Deborah Anderson promises great things: "This is not a movie about porn," she says in her opening narration. "This is a story about women. Their dreams, their desires, and their lives." The film is a part of a larger multimedia project, showing conversations between Anderson and sixteen female porn stars who modeled for her latest fine-art book. Her goal, she says, was to "strip away the porn star mask, allowing for their true essence to shine through, as the exaggerated image of a porn star has stuck with us for so long. As an artist, I felt the need to change the way we view these women visually."

A lot of Aroused's problems are writ large in those first few words. The sense that Anderson is positioning herself as savior pervades the film. While she does seem to genuinely respect the women that she's interviewing, she doesn't seem to have the same respect for their work. Only a few minutes later, when talking to adult star Misty Stone, Anderson says that she avoided seeing Stone's movies, so that she could meet the person, not the porn star. Unintentionally, that speaks to the way that we shame anyone who gets naked for a living; is it so impossible to see someone as a porn star and a person? Does watching someone fuck immediately invalidate the possibility of talking to the person?

Throughout the film, Anderson's answer seems to be "yes." While she may respect the women she interviews and photographs, it's clear that she thinks that what they do for a living is kind of icky, and bad for society. Her statement to Stone is an excellent example. But one of the themes of Anderson's narration is sensuality vs. sexuality, as if the two things were mutually exclusive. On her website, the project is subtitled "the lost sensuality of a woman," something which Anderson attributes to the overt sexualization of culture, including porn. Over a montage of sexual advertisements and fashion photos, Anderson asks, "How far are willing to go to forget who we really are, as we are letting go of our innate sensuality for our obsession with sexuality?"

It's not an invalid question. I've posed variations of it myself. Media portrayals of sexuality often feel very dehumanizing, even designed to alienate us from our own sexualities and sell us one that's prefabricated and marketable. The message that we usually get from mass media is not "Sex is great; you should try some." More often, it teases us with images of hot sex that we can't have. It's for people who are better than us: richer, slimmer, younger, less queer, less pervy, etc. It arouses our sense of our own inadequacies more than our libidos.

But the way that Anderson frames the question in her movie makes it troubling rather than insightful. When talking to Fran Amidor, an adult industry talent agent, Anderson's questions come from the most stigmatized perceptions of sex work, and Amidor seems willing to enable them, as when they talk about the state of the girls' souls:

Anderson: Do you think these girls have lost their sense of who they really are as women when they come into that office?

Amidor: Not as women, but they become the person they are on screen. They lose a sense of themselves.

Anderson: Do you think they're leaving their soul at the door when they walk in?

Amidor: I think every time someone does a scene in front of the camera, that a tiny bit of their soul disappears.

I know from experience how tricky it is to write about sex work communities from the outside. If you're not paying attention, it is far too easy to let yourself fall into narratives and moralities that either stigmatize or romanticize sex workers. If you are an outsider who is covering sex workers, the first rule is to shut up and listen. We talk a lot about porn and the people who make it, but even now, they are very rarely taken seriously when they speak for themselves. When they do talk to you, their voices must take precedence over the ones in your head. Focusing on sensational fantasies of fallen women losing their souls to the camera does no one any good. There are clear problems with the various sex industries, as SF Weekly's own coverage of has shown. But they are real problems of consent, of payment, of health; they have to be talked about in the same concrete terms as any other labor issue, not mystical abstractions.

It's important to note that the actresses describe their personas as being much less destructive than Amidor and Anderson do. Katsuni compares creating a porn persona to being a superhero, and says that "When you build a character, you give yourself another chance to have a second life." Asphyxia Noir says that "In a lot of ways, Asphyxia saved my life because she's helped me come out of my shell."

The other rule that outsiders should remember is that respecting someone who gets naked for a living doesn't count if you can't respect their work as well. In a way, this comes back to the first rule: shut up and listen. There are a million reasons that anyone might decide to fuck for money; there are just as many that they might decide to stop. If you can't treat someone as a "real person" after seeing them fuck on screen, then you're probably ignoring the story that they're telling in favor of the neat and clean narratives of pop culture.

As can be expected, Aroused's best moments come when Anderson stands back and lets the porn stars just speak for themselves. But unfortunately, those are brief and sparse moments. Even when the camera isn't on Anderson, she is very present in the heavily-stylized visuals. Her background in the fashion and art worlds is very apparent. The photography is excellent and precise in its technique: crisp black-and-white for the sections where the stars are being prepared for the shoot, and muted color during the photo session. No one can say that this isn't a beautiful-looking film.

Yet it's a very familiar kind of beauty; you know it if you've ever looked at a Calvin Klein ad or watched a commercial for expensive perfume. It's a style that does indeed evoke sensuality, but avoids intimacy. The artful precision holds the women at arm's length, even when they begin to say things that could be revelatory. The camera spends much of the time in extreme close-up, scrutinizing a woman's eye or mouth as she speaks. Such narrow focus obscures the women's expression, hiding them from the viewer. In a way, it feels more fake than most well-made porn.

Had Anderson done more research on the industry and studied the work of the stars she photographs, she might have realized that her vision is not so very different from those found in porn. The idea behind the book that's coming out with this movie is to photograph each of these women wearing nothing but a pair of bright orange Jimmy Choo heels. Most of the women are white, all of them are conventionally attractive, and they're being photographed with trappings of affluence and high fashion. The shoot could, in fact, fit very neatly either into a fashion magazine or a glamour porn site.

Anderson promised great things from this shoot: she would show the real women and "change the way we view these women visually." That never happens. Had she learned to look at their work and listen to their words from the beginning, there might have been a chance.

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