Snuffing Out and Getting Off

In Defense of “Torture Porn” — the Term and (Some of) the Genre’s Practitioners

'Hostel: Part II': Are we having fun yet?With its dismal first-weekend performance at the box office, Captivity offers an opportunity to bemoan (or cheer) the diminished commercial prospects for that genre we’re no longer allowed to call “torture porn.”

At The Exploding Kinetoscope, Chris Stangl recently argued (in the context of Hostel: Part II) that labeling something “torture porn”

“is a non-position that allows a critic not to engage the work. It’s critical name-calling.”

(Full disclosure: I’ve written the phrase “torture porn” two times at Culture Snob, and the words “gore porn” on three occasions.)

Stangl claims:

“[T]here’s no such thing as torture porn.

“The defining genre identifiers of pornography are that it explicitly depicts actual sex acts. That is the spectacle promised, fulfilled, and required for the genre designation. [...]

“If everyone agrees to play nice, we might agree that no one in the audience is literally masturbating during the torture scenes. There is torture in Hostel, and that is the spectacle promised, and fulfilled. [...] [B]ut Hostel does not depict real human bodies being subjected to real torture in the throws [sic] of real agony and death. That it is fiction does not negate its possible power, but disqualifies it from the spectacle of real bodies in unsimulated physical acts which identifies pornography. If this is torture porn, it’s softcore at worst (best?). Equating titillation with pornography is short-sighted, because it turns the experience of all aesthetic pleasure into ‘pornography’; e.g. Van Gough [sic] paintings are color and texture porn.”

There are some interesting but problematic arguments here.

First, let’s dispense with his understanding of “pornography.” One dictionary says the word means

“writings or pictures or films etc. that are intended to stimulate erotic feelings by description or portrayal of sexual activity.”

Another dictionary defines it as

“the depiction of erotic behavior (as in pictures or writing) intended to cause sexual excitement”

or (more appropriately)

“the depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction (the pornography of violence).”

So “torture porn” wouldn’t require genuine torture, merely its “description” or “portrayal” or “depiction.” (And to further knock down Stangl’s argument, while pornographic movies do include “actual sex acts” [e.g., penetration and ejaculation], the pleasure depicted is almost always simulated. You only need to see a few male porn stars frenziedly jerking off to recognize that they’re not aroused in any meaningful way. I’m betting the discomfort involved in filming faux torture more closely approximates real torture than pornography approximates sexual satisfaction.)

In other words, that which we call “torture porn” fulfills the “portrayal” requirement.

And, obviously, the movies in the genre fit the third cited definition, a non-literal use of the word “pornography” (etymologically: “writing about prostitutes”) to describe “the depiction of [nonsexual] acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction.” (Hence, that van Gogh analogy doesn’t really work.)

But there’s a place between that metaphoric definition and the literal meaning of the word “pornography” that seems to be of the most interest to Stangl: He says that it’s wrong to ascribe to these movies an audience getting something akin to sexual pleasure from the depiction of torture, or the intent on the part of the filmmakers to stimulate “erotic feelings” with torture. As he put it: “[N]o one in the audience is literally masturbating during the torture scenes.”

I’m hoping that he doesn’t take such a limited view of the term “porn” that he requires a semen sample, but to claim that there’s no ecstasy derived from cinematic scenes of physical or mental torment is just silly.

These movies might tap into deep anxiety, but why would we watch them if we didn’t also anticipate that they’d provide some sort of twisted delight? If it’s not the same as sexual satisfaction, the rush of fear is similarly intense and exhilarating.

Just as importantly, torture porn also meets a need for release. One of the appeals of grisly horror movies is their transgressive pleasure, the implicit license to enjoy the pain and suffering of others. As ugly as it is, there is a sadistic streak in all of us, and these films can offer a safe outlet for it. Of course, some movies about agony are clearly designed to force the audience to question their motives for consuming movie violence, but Saw and Wolf Creek (and, I’m guessing, Hostel) aren’t among them.

Yet calling those works “torture porn” is not necessarily dismissive. I liked Wolf Creek, but it’s still torture porn. I disliked Saw, but not because it’s torture porn.

That brings me to Stangl’s core (and most compelling) argument:

“[T]he problem of the day is that the phrase ‘torture porn’ is passive-aggressive non-engagement with a film. [...] [W]ho bothers with textual analysis of pornography?”

Well, there’s porn with costumes and stories and soft lighting, and there’s porn with 23 guys serially stroking off on a woman’s face. Only one can be meaningfully analyzed. (Anal-ized is, of course, another matter entirely.) Yet even the most artful porn is designed with one primary purpose: to get you off.

Similarly, there’s torture porn that’s made with care and social or political context and (horrors!) maybe even an idea or a developed character. Some works are provocative and resonant and leave deep scars and bear further discussion. And then there’s Saw.

I’m happy to talk about the subtext of the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre, with its exploration of the effects of isolation and industrialized agriculture and the lack of a social safety net; and the contrast between the self-centered young adults and an almost nostalgic depiction of a seriously fucked-up nuclear family; and the barbaric things that happen in the absence of a soothing female presence.

I can make a case for all those themes in the movie, but it doesn’t change what The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is. It remains — and I don’t mean it as a put-down — torture porn.

Interesting discussion. CS, I agree that Stangl’s working definition of “pornography” is too questionable to support his arguments.

But it’s not completely clear to me why you dismiss his Van Gogh analogy. True, it’s not about a “quick emotional reaction.” But Stangl’s analogy was made on the very general level of aesthetic pleasure: a Van Gogh produces pleasure in color and texture for it’s own sake, just as porn produces sexual pleasure for it’s own sake.

If that’s what he meant, then he might be correct to find an analogy between pornography and at least art of the “art for art’s sake variety” (though Van Gogh is surely an inappropriate example: we appreciate more than color-and-texture-pleasure in his work). But I don’t find this consequence implausible, so his reductio ad absurdum fails. Sure, anything, including painting, that is reducible to the production of pleasure for its own sake could be reasonably compared to porn.

I also wonder about your response to the last argument:
“Well, there’s porn with costumes and stories and soft lighting, and there’s porn with 23 guys serially stroking off on a woman’s face. Only one can be meaningfully analyzed.”

Wouldn’t the former be, to stretch the analogy, “torture erotica”? In which case, you might be implicitly accepting his argument that “torture porn” deserves non-engagement. To my mind, this isn’t always a bad thing, either. Assuming one can (_sometimes_) correctly identify torture porn prior to close analysis (and I think we can), then maybe it’s true that such films deserve non-engagement and dismissal.

A final thought. Since many thing there’s nothing intrinsically problematic about porn, we might follow the analogy and suggest, as both your post and Stangl’s post do, that there is “good” “torture porn.” I’m not sure the analogy holds. Taking pleasure for its own sake from the presentation of sex can indeed be innocuous, but I’m skeptical that taking pleasure for its sake in the presentation of another’s suffering can be innocuous.

CK,

Lots of good points. To address some of the things you mention:

1) The reason I found fault with the van Gogh analogy was indeed the “quick intense emotional reaction” part.

2) I do believe there’s torture porn that welcomes and deserves critical engagement, and there’s torture porn that deserves to be dismissed. (I’m speaking of specific works; I don’t believe that the phenomenon of torture porn ought to be dismissed.)

3) Your suggestion about “innocuous” porn and the impossibility of “innocuous” torture porn is interesting, and I agree with it in the sense that we should question why we derive pleasure from the suffering of others. But to reverse your argument, we understand with feature films that nobody is being seriously hurt in reality, while many people believe that porn performers are sexually and/or financially exploited. So if those assumptions are true, should we be troubled by the fiction (what is being portrayed) or the reality?

I’m more troubled by gun-heavy action movies that invoke the “poetry of violence” and therefore turn something ugly into something cinematically beautiful. At least torture porn makes people squirm and doesn’t pretend there’s anything “beautiful” about its violations.

“But to reverse your argument, we understand with feature films that nobody is being seriously hurt in reality, while many people believe that porn performers are sexually and/or financially exploited. So if those assumptions are true, should we be troubled by the fiction (what is being portrayed) or the reality?”

Good point. I think we should be _more_ troubled by the reality, but there may be good cause to be troubled by the fiction, as well.

This is of course a view that subject to reasonable debate, but there is a moral tradition (“virtue ethics”) that suggests that psychological attitudes and dispositions are created and reinforced through practiced behavior. A practiced aversion to the sight of others’ suffering, on this view, would encourage a disposition against allowing or participating in harm to others, while a practiced tolerance toward the sight of another’s suffering might work against such a disposition. So, it’s at least possible that the fiction might do real harm.

“At least torture porn makes people squirm and doesn’t pretend there’s anything ‘beautiful’ about its violations.”

I actually think that there are cases of torture porn that do precisely that. Whenever a film--and this is thoroughly common even among widely respected films--sets up a bad guy to get his comeuppance, so that the audience can righteously feel delight in seeing him suffer, I’d consider it “torture porn,” since we’re supposed to take delight in his suffering. (One example that comes immediately to mind is Pan’s Labyrinth.) In these cases, we’re supposed to cheer instead of squirm, and even worse, even find it morally beautiful.

I also wonder if the standard cases: the film that makes us squirm to see an innocent or a protagonist be tortured really work on that level. It’s a difficult question: why would we, in a sense, “enjoy” this experience, if we’re identifying the victim? I think it’s possible that these sorts of film are a kind of sublimated sadism: we actually enjoy an unconscious identification with the torturer, but the narrative explicit condemnation of the torturer as the bad guy, and our belief that we identify with the victim, allows us to enjoy our sadism with a clear conscience.

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