Tonight I went to see the documentary film Hardcore at Amnesty International Human Rights Action Centre, London. Hardcore is a controversial documentary, as is the screening of the film in a feminist forum (the screening was arranged jointly by UK Feminista and Object). You can follow the arguments both against and supporting the screening.
My own reasons for wanting to see this film were simple. I had always intrinsically been against pornography. In extremely simplistic terms, that impression was reinforced when one of the boys I knew growing up, a nice chap with an unhealthy appetite for porn, went on to become a rapist and murderer.
My own views on porn were somewhat softened over time, not least of which was due to a seriously incompetent, negligent therapist recommending that I, a victim of childhood sexual abuse, watch porn with my husband. In time I came to realise just how mistaken and deluded that therapist was but I thought it time to permanently disabuse myself of the notion that the adult film industry is anything but harmful, dangerous and exploitative.
Hardcore was not initially meant to be a feminist film. It was not filmed with the intention of exposing the abuse and exploitation in the pornographic industry. The filmmakers wanted to know what made women go into porn and they wanted to know what happens in the industry.
What we see is Felicity, a 25-year-old single mother from Essex, England who goes to LA to meet agent Richard and see if she can make it in the adult film industry. It seems to be all fun and games at first, if we are to believe Felicity's nervous assertions that he is enjoying herself. Slowly, Felicity gets pressurised into doing things she is not comfortable with and, to put it bluntly, this culminates in her being raped, on screen, in front of the rolling cameras of the documentary makers.
After that experience, Felicity’s will is crushed and she works to distance herself emotionally from the reality of her circumstances and 'consents' to more and more degrading scenes involving acts which she had previously refused to do. I use the term ‘consent’ extremely loosely as, by this time, I do not feel that Felicity could properly consent to anything that was happening to her.
If it sounds like Felicity was a push-over, she most certainly was not. She fights with her agent (pimp) Richard and tells him to keep his hands off her; she screams at Max Hardcore, the sadist monster who raped her; and she tells Max's cameraman, quite plainly, that what they are doing amounts to exploitation and abuse.
On more than one occasion, she says that she feels safe because the documentary makers are there and that it is giving her the courage to say no to certain acts. We have to wonder what level of exploitation and violation she would have encountered had those cameras not been rolling.
What we witness is not unique and it happens to thousands of women every year in the porn industry. At some level though, the producers of the documentary have to accept responsibility for what happened to this woman, to Felicity. There has to be some level at which Felicity became aware of the documentary makers and became further restricted and controlled by their presence. Whether she felt that she played a role in exposing the exploitation to viewers or whether she judged certain events to be acceptable based on the crew’s failure to step in and protect her, there is no doubt that they are responsible for what happened to her.
Am I glad that I saw this film? Not really. I feel sick, angry and upset. The problem is without the existence of films like this and people working to bring attention to them, we might accept the propaganda that it is all just professional, consenting adults and that no one gets hurt. In a sense, we needed Felicity to tell us this story, to show us the horror first hand, in a way that carefully designed feminist anti-porn slideshows would not have conveyed.
As panellist Dr Rebecca Whisnant from the University of Dayton stated, Hardcore is rare in that we get to identify and sympathise with Felicity whereas usually the objectification and subjugation of women in porn is so complete that this is not usually possible.
Rebecca noted that Max Hardcore is a sociopath. He pegs her, realises her sense of self, her strength and essentially calls on her to “pull yourself together, be a winner, come back here and let me rape you some more”. Not only that, all of the key players in this documentary (documentary crew included) repeatedly appeal to her feminist socialisation. “Be a good girl, don't be a bitch, don’t let us down”.
Rebecca stated that she reject term ‘sex work’ not because it isn't work but because great evil comes from defining sex as work, as just another job. Felicity was not allowed to dislike certain parts (anal) because it is part of the job. She is ultimately forced to be raped and violated because it is part of the job. Her reputation, her professional standing depends in her doing what they ask.
Finally, Rebecca noted that we must focus on the massive consumer base of men who want to see women being hurt, abused, violated and raped. Not all men want to see that but they do want to see compliant women, women who do what they are told and who thank the men for it no matter what they do to them. But to get that, to film even non-violent, non-abusive porn films, women like Felicity will be hurt and abused. We need to break the back of this industry.
Producer Richard Sattin described how the idea for the film began with article he saw in an LA paper about a therapy group for retiring porn stars. He was interested in how they were re-assimilated into normal life. There he met Felicity’s agent Richard and thus, Felicity.
He stated that Felicity saw the finished film before it was aired and said it was fine. It has been noted repeatedly that Felicity gave her “blessing” for the film to be aired and screened but Richard admitted that the filmmakers lost contact with her five years ago and I have to wonder, once again, just how real her consent really is. Do we even have a right to see this film?
I appreciated that Richard had made an attempt during the filming, and in the years since, to understand Felicity’s actions. He placed a premium in her own understanding of her circumstances and the fact that she seemed to emphasise her father’s abandonment of her as a child. We might not want to focus on that but he said her experiences are relevant and that she draws the connection. A member of the audience noted, however, that she was tired, shattered and not given any time to rest and that by that time she would have been clutching at anything, especially painful memories, to try explain what was happening to her.
What happened to Felicity is not unique and we have to look at the massive sub-set of consumers, primarily men, who seek materials that depicts the exploitation, rape, abuse and degradation of women. Not all men watch or enjoy this material but those that do are most likely unreachable through campaigning or education. The only answer provided by the panel seems to be the removal of this industry through legislation and reform but censorship is certainly the topic for another post.