Devil in the Flesh

From painful sex to foul-mouthed revenge fantasies, a meaner brand of pornography takes the back door to commercial success.

Jeremy cites the balmier political climate as another reason for porn's turn toward the extreme. "Max Hardcore came along in 1992, the same year the Democrats came to power," he notes, and he might have a point. Federal pursuit of obscenity prosecutions seemed to fall off with the new administration, and the mainstreaming of Max Hardcore may signal the high-water mark for media freedom in America--a mixed curse indeed. In the magazine world, Penthouse toys with penetration--formerly forbidden territory--and so does Hustler, newly emboldened by the success of The People vs. Larry Flynt. Anal sex, meanwhile, has found its way into major motion pictures like David Cronenberg's kinked-out Crash--and onto nearly every best-selling rap CD. Post-NYPD Blue television continues to let its pants down, and the Internet is not only porn's new frontier, but conquered territory.

Much as progressives are loathe to admit it, the consolidation of corporate power in the United States has had the positive side effect of freeing up the media to give consumers what they want. And what they want, from all appearances, is more ass.

But why do consumers want Max Hardcore? That's the disturbing question, one made more interesting by the widespread backlash against him among porn fans. "We're not killing girls," Max told Adult Video News. "We're not hurting them more than minor discomfort. What's the big deal? When you get a girl and give her a good working over, you take her to the extreme of pain and pleasure, and that's exciting." Maybe so, but in most of his videos, the emphasis is clearly on pain and humiliation. (As in most other porn, the women never come.) It's as if Hardcore had carefully pored over Andrea Dworkin's 1979 tome, Pornography: Men Possessing Women, and made himself over into a shining example of everything wrong in porn--he's the "sexualization of insult" personified.

And let's be honest: Just renting a title like Rectal Rodeo is enough to alienate most women. Like most pornography, Max Hardcore is meant for men alone, and men sitting alone. In the face of an increasingly feminized industry--nearly 20 percent of all pornos are rented by hetero couples, according to AVN--the director bonds with male fans by pitting "us" against "them": a "keep the cunts in their place" credo (in Max's turn of phrase) that, no matter how facetious, encourages guy-guys and loners to further dissociate their fantasies from real-life women.

Still, as Robert Rimmer has suggested in his X-Rated Videotape Guide, the director's work seems intended not for arousal but to shock and nauseate: Like much of porn's new wave, Hardcore's videos are less fantasy fuel than the basest kind of performance art. As one Internet poster recently complained, "the biggest problem with Max is that his stuff just doesn't turn me on. Sometimes, I don't even think his stuff is meant to turn people on." The director may or may not be a deranged woman-hater, but he is very definitely a shrewd and adaptable entrepreneur; he's started substituting "people" for "bitches" in interviews, although he also seems well aware that the more hated he is, the more videos he sells. (Among Hardcore's other enterprises: his Filmwest production company, a fan club, and a glib, self-promoting monthly column in the well-circulated Hustler Erotic Video Guide.)

Furthermore, anyone tempted to use this de Sade in cowboy boots as a poster boy for driving porn back into the pre-Behind the Green Door underground runs the risk of smothering the medium just as its gender politics are getting interesting. Much as amateur paved the way for all-anal videos, home-video directors are taking on a surprising new taboo: the hetero penetration of men. And the trend's influence in professional porn is starting to show: Take Joey Silvera's 1995 groundbreaker Kink, in which the director allows himself to be lovingly dildoed by a woman, or the whole baffling oeuvre of director Robert Black, who in name and sensibility owes an obvious debt to Gregory Dark, the bizarro New Wave Hookers auteur. Black's Abuse of Power (1997) flips the Hardcore script, as it were, with a scene depicting a couple of female prison guards (Annabel Chong and Donna Warner) who torture and torment a condemned rapist-murderer, played by the tattooed love-boy Jack Hammer. Yelling "Take it, bitch," they sodomize him with a cum-spewing strap-on. Call it the backlash against the backlash.

And, unsurprisingly, female directors have taken to the trend with a bit more vengeance: Bionca's Takin' It to the Limit series finds Alexis Payne gleefully reaming Comeback Pussy auteur Tom Byron in its first installment, and the motif repeats itself thereafter. By video three, the actresses have their rhetoric down: "So you've never had anything up ass before, huh?" taunts Melissa Monet to her prisoner, Jerry Styles. "Well there's always a fucking first." Even when the dominatrix remarks sarcastically, "Everybody loves anal," there's just the faintest hint of bitterness in her voice.

This angry pulp is even less a turn-on than Max Hardcore's vitriol (this time, nobody comes), but it does keep up its end of a larger conversation. If, as Susan Sontag once said, pornography drives a wedge between our existence as full human beings and our existence as sexual ones, and healthy people combine the two in everyday life, watching this stuff encourages us to recognize the split. Porn is both a tacky bulletin board for turn-ons we won't own up to and a playground for discovering things we hadn't considered before. Yet even as the playground's politics change, for now Max Hardcore remains bully supreme.

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