First ten pages (with some commentary)

These are the first ten pages of my honours thesis. They are pretty much useless, and when I met with Professor Sullivan (who has agreed to have her name on the blog, never fear! I won’t put any names in here without explicit consent) she said (and I agreed) that I really need a better theoretical framework to work within. Which is… yeah. Clear from the pages, which will follow this commentary. Basically, I had been picturing a certain type of project (which I talked about in my impassioned introductory speech to my seminar class) but that’s not the project I’m going to be doing. See post before this one for what I’m actually going to be doing.

It will be a hermeneutics of feminist pornography. I’m still wrapping my head around what that means, exactly. It’s still exciting… it’s just different.I’ll tackle the first idea later on in my career, when I’m not dealing with health issues and huge traumatic upheaval in my personal life. BUT! Even though this new project is meant to be ‘easier’ it is also one that I have minimal theoretical grounding for so I have a lot of catch-up to do. Catch-up that I am not very effectively doing. It’s dragging, right now. However, I’ll be up to speed soon, I hope. I’ll post here as I read. Given the lack of posting, you can guess how much reading I’ve been doing. Ha! *headdesk* But, actually, I have been reading quite a lot and having thoughts. I just haven’t got them organized enough to go here.

And now, without further ado, my first (mostly useless) ten pages! After the break, ’cause it’s long.

Section From: Contentious Cartography: Defining and Exploring Feminist Pornography 

NOTE: This section comprises a somewhat detailed synopsis of the first two stories in Cabaret Desire, initial thoughts on these scenes and their tropes, many questions raised by these scenes, as well as some engagement with director Erika Lust’s written work in relation to feminist pornography.  It is an incomplete section, and requires further research.

Cabaret Desire is set in the Poetry Brothel, a real-world space in Barcelona (Lust Poetry Brothel) where clients of multiple genders can come, drink, listen to music, and pay poets to tell them erotic stories. The film, directed by Erika Lust of Lust Films, won the 2012 Feminist Porn Awards for Best Movie. Additionally, Cabaret Desire has received significant attention from the blogosphere[1].

Like many of the Feminist Porn Award winners, the film does not claim an explicit feminist label for itself. However, director Erika Lust does explicitly refer to her work as feminist. In response to Twilight she states in her blog that, “This gender stereotyping is seriously what’s wrong in our society and having to suffer this kind of old-minded product makes me want to make as much feminist porn as I can!” (Lust Twilight, emphasis hers). This public self-identification with feminism and feminist pornography, in addition to the Feminist Porn Award, positions Cabaret Desire as a film that offers an opportunity to examine feminist pornography both in terms of self-identification and external validation of the label[2].

A few key questions arise from the poetry brothel setting. First, what is the significance of the explicit exchange of money for erotic stories. This setting also frames the viewer as part of the audience, implicated in the economic exchange. Additionally, how does the blending of “real” and “fictional” in both the text itself and in its production problematize the binary of real/fictional? And does the association between the viewers and the poetry brothel patrons complicate the divide between audience and performer? What power dynamics are enacted in the brothel setting – who has agency, and who does not?


Cabaret Desire opens with multiple characters smoking and drinking in a bar-like setting (the Poetry Brothel). A male pole dancer is performing, and this represents the first significant subversion of expectations. There are no female pole dancers evident. The camera jumps from the front-end of the bar to the backrooms where corsets and jewelry are being donned, mustaches being waved, and hair coiffed. The film title appears on a purple and pink screen beside a large, old-fashioned microphone.

The viewer is invited into the “very special evening” of the cabaret by the off-screen address of the Madame to “each and every one of you” (Cabaret Desire). This scene sets the pornography within a frame of fiction or fantasy – the stories are situated as erotica being conveyed to the viewer by the poets. However, a later statement that they will “reveal their most provocative persona for your ears only. Tonight, they are all for sale” (Cabaret Desire) complicates the frame of fiction[3].

The Two Alexes

The first substantial interaction is between two women, one flipping through a book of music with erotica pasted onto the pages. Payment is explicitly exchanged before the reading begins. She starts, “I’m tired of having to define myself. Sweet or savoury, black or white, friend or lover, man or woman, dominating or submissive, saint or whore. Fuck everything having to be labeled or classified” (Cabaret Desire). The story is about the as-yet-unnamed narrator and Alex and Alex, her two lovers, people of opposite sexes who share the same name.

The Kalashnikov is the narrator’s “infallible strategy” – vodka with lemon, coffee and sugar. Although this is a small moment, it situates the narrator as someone who has experience picking up new sexual partners, and the line is delivered without any shame or apology. In terms of who holds the power in this situation, the narrator seems to be equally in control of her relation with the female Alex and the male Alex.

The scenes cut back and forth quickly – although the Alexes are never in the same scene, it appears that they could be. The lighting, the camera angle and the music stay consistent, with quick jumps between the narrator and the female Alex and the narrator with the male Alex. Phone numbers, emails, and Facebook information are exchanged.

They each have a second date “during daytime hours” (Cabaret Desire) with the narrator. Again, there is the same quick cutting between scenes, the parallel positioning, and the narrator references repeating scenarios and moments as one of the benefits of dating these two people. She describes, “two lovers, two flavours, two smells” (Cabaret Desire). The visual aesthetic remains consistent throughout this story, relying primarily on quick cuts between scenes. Though the quick cutting back and forth continues in the sex scene, the parallel positioning doesn’t. With the female Alex, the narrator starts on top, while with the male Alex she does not. Unlike in the bar scene, which gave the impression that the two Alexes could have been in the same space at the same time, here the lighting changes between the scenes and it’s clear that these are two distinct, separate relationships. Despite the positions not paralleling, there are still more parallels than not – with the narrator giving oral sex in one, then the other. With female Alex, the narrator wears a strap-on, potentially embodying the refusal to inhabit one side of the binary, pointing back to the opening line.

The scene at 12:30, during which the male Alex slaps the narrator’s hip and she slaps his hand is particularly interesting and raises two issues. The scene can be read as non-verbal consent negotiation that puts the narrator in the deciding position. It is a brief interaction, no words are exchanged, and the voiceover is silent during the sex scene so there is no verbal insight into the narrator’s motivations or experience. However, the fact that there is no hip slapping during the rest of the sex scene with the male Alex, as well as the body language during this scene, both seem to indicate that this is a consent negotiation. In any consent negotiation, power dynamics must be examined. Here, it appears that they are somewhat equal. Whether this is a demonstration of a successful consent negotiation is potentially important in understanding the film in terms of feminist pornography. If, as Lust states, “porn [is] a tool for excitement, education and pleasure. It’s not only an entertainment product, but also a powerful way to influence future generations’ vision of human sexuality” (Lust Filament), then using porn as an educational tool for negotiating consent may be an important element.

Once penetration is introduced into the scenes, the parallel positioning is used again, but inverted – the narrator takes the same position as the male Alex in her interactions with the female Alex. Condom use is evident in the penetration involving a bio-cock, though the viewer does not see the condom being put on.

The sexual activities that the narrator engages in with the two Alexes differ based on their sex, which is somewhat to be expected but may require further unpacking. With the female Alex, penetration is followed by oral sex, with the narrator performing cunnilingus on Alex. There is kissing, touching and breast-stroking in this scene. Alex then rubs the narrator’s clit. After what seems to indicate an orgasm for the narrator, they cuddle.

With the male Alex, penetration continues through most of the scene, and includes some mouth to mouth kissing. They switch positions so that he is behind her, grabbing her breasts and shoulders. Significantly, and in another subversion of expectation, there is no cum shot, and they cuddle for quite a while. It is unclear when the orgasms happen in this scene for any of the characters, with the possible exception of the narrator in the scene with the female Alex. Orgasm is not presented as the end goal, and it does not end the intimacy of the scene.

After the sex, the relationships fall apart. The narrator says, “spontaneity, they said. Controlling, I thought” (Cabaret Desire). The three of them are shown in the same room, for the first time, in the break-up scene. The story is situated as “real life” in opposition to a “French indie film” (Cabaret Desire) where they would have a threesome. Since it is “real life”, a threesome is not possible.

Referring back to the first line, the Alexes ask, “Are you gay or are you straight, make up your damn mind, Sofia” (Cabaret Desire). Sofia, now named, refuses. She ends the scene with a dog named Alex.

This story is the only one that includes an explicitly queer character, and also shows the most diversity in terms of body type. Of her target audience, Lust says, “I make my films with the modern heterosexual urban woman in mind. I have been criticized because my films are not queer and because they don’t work well with working class values, but I really don’t care – I don’t claim they’re for everyone” (Lust Filament). This will be an important analytic point – who is the target audience of feminist pornography? Can there be a universal audience for feminist pornography, and how does pornography that narrows its target audience, as Lust’s films do, maintain their feminism? This is a question that must be directed both at films that target a heterosexual audience and at films that target a queer audience. In the case of Cabaret Desire, although it is clear that the film is predominantly heterosexual in both its content and its intended audience, queer identities are not erased. Is the nod enough? This question will come up again in relation to Fuckstyles of the Queer and Famous, which gives a single-scene nod to heterosexual sex similarly to how Cabaret Desire gives a single-scene nod to queer sex.

My Mother

The second scene opens in the Poetry Brothel, where an apparently heterosexual couple approaches a man with a eye patch and mustache. They are told his story will cost two chips. This brings the viewer back to the economic exchange, and positions the male poet on the same footing as the female poet from the previous scene.

The story he tells is about his mother. He describes her as a sensual, libertine woman with a “conviction to the counter-culture” (Cabaret Desire) who chose to be a single mother. There is an uncomfortable[4] juxtaposition between the voiceover and the visual story, with the mother undressing in the visual scene but the narrator speaking off-screen about her as a mother. The narration does not match the visual in this story. The visual story reveals the mother’s role as a thief long before the narration does. The sets are full – books, electronic equipment, coaches – positioning both this story and the film itself as economically privileged.

The mother is revealed to have had a series of affairs with “important men,” including an Interpol officer on her trail. Most of these men end up with something valuable missing and rarely report the theft to the police. This positions the mother as holding significant power in the relationship, but also positions her as potentially one iteration of the stereotypical “gold-digger.”

In the visual story, the mother is in a head-to-toe black cat suit. She is wearing high stiletto heels, a purse, red lipstick, and dark eye shadow. The ‘mark’ in her favourite story is Karl Razzman a novelist and playwright who “revolutionized the entire world with his experimental work on sexuality, seduction and the equality of the sexes” (Cabaret Desire). There seem to be overtly political overtones here, similar to the overtones found in the opening line of “The Two Alexes.”

In the visual story, she sips wine, lounges in the chair, and fingers books, until it is revealed that the mark is present, sleeping on the couch. The voiceover narrates the son’s fascination with hearing the story that the viewer is watching. Once the mother wakes the mark up, and through the rest of the sex scene, the narrator is silent.

The mother/thief wakes the mark up, ties him to a lounge-style chair, and gags him. He is wearing nothing but boxers. He screams and struggles. The scene appears to be entirely non-consensual. She kisses the mark and he lays stiff in the chair. She pulls a large wartenberg wheel from her stiletto and runs it along his chest and chin. She takes scissors from the table and cuts his boxers before ripping them in half to reveal his half-erect penis. Her lipstick has vanished by the time she fellates him vigorously. Although he is not struggling at this point, he is still gagged and bound and has his eyes closed. She grinds against him and fellates him again. He begins to have a sexual response and his gag is removed during her kissing him.

This scene is particularly interesting in terms of consent, negotiation, power dynamics and what can be shown within feminist pornography. It demands an answer to the question of the possibility for the ethical representation of rape fantasies and non-consent. Unlike pornography produced by and other BDSM and fetish-specific production companies, Lust’s Cabaret Desire does not include an after-scene where the performers articulate that though it may have looked non-consensual, everyone was on the same page. However, unlike’s pornography, Lust’s film is explicitly framed as fantasy. These scenes are stories being told to an audience, including the viewer. The questions remain – is this an ethical portrayal of non-consensual sex? Is it a feminist portrayal of non-consensual sex? Bringing the focus back onto Lust’s own articulation of her goals with her pornography, the question must be asked regarding what this is meant to provide in terms of education? And, if a feminist pornographer has stated that one goal of her pornography is education, does that mean that all of the porn she produces must be educational? This is not a standard we regularly hold other film-makers to.

Although the narrator is silent during the sex scene, the camera often moves to an explicitly voyeuristic angle – viewing the sex from between shelves or behind obstacles. This implicates the viewer as both observing (and potentially enjoying) a rape and also aligns the viewer with the son, who is understood to be telling this story.

The sex continues when she unzips the crotch of her cat suit and straddles his face. He licks her clit with seeming enthusiasm. She unbinds his wrists and they have penetrative sex, which he actively engages in. This, again, raises questions for the feminist viewer. Though rape fantasies and non-consent fantasies are common[5] and as a fantasy often do include the eventual happy succumbing to the experience, the idea that the victim enjoys the experience or has an involuntary physical response to the stimulation is a problematic concept that is used to discredit victims of sexual assault. Again, the question – is this feminist?

After they both appear to orgasm, she gets off, knocks him out with chloroform on a handkerchief, packs up her tools and leaves. As she leaves, the narrator reappears, discussing a book that Razzman wrote with a narrator who “mysteriously resembles [his] mother” (Cabaret Desire). This creates a disconnect between the viewed story and the narrated story, since the viewer knows (as the listener may not) that the mother never revealed her face or hair and would be hard to describe in detail that would “resemble” anyone. The “mysterious treasure” (Cabaret Desire) that she stole is revealed to be the narrator, and this raises more questions regarding power, consent, and negative tropes of women tricking men into getting them pregnant.

This story does significantly subvert expectations in that it is the woman who holds absolute control during the sex, and it is the woman who engages in non-consensual sex with her male partner. If it is possible for non-consent pornography to be feminist[6], then perhaps the subversion of expectations is part of what can make it feminist. What responsibilities do feminist pornographers have in using pornography as a tool to disrupt rape culture? Can rape porn be a tool of social change, can it change views of consent and power? And, if so, does this specific film live up to that potential?

Works Cited

Blue, Violet. “Feminist Porn Awards, Dot-XXX and DaneJones Postmortem.” 7 May 2012. Web. 30 Sept. 2012.

Cabaret Desire. Dir. Erika Lust. Lust Films, 2011. Film.

Lust, Erika. Interview by Filament Magazine. “Erika Lust on Making Porn for Women.” Filament, May 2011. Web. 1 Oct. 2012.

—, “The Poetry Brothel.” Cabaret The Film: The Poetry Brothel, n.d. Web. 30 Sept. 2012.

—. “Twilight or 50 Years Back in Time.” Erika Blog, 30 June 2012. Web. 30 Sept. 2012.

Spector, Abby. “Life is a Cabaret: A Review of Cabaret Desire.” Tristan Taormino’s Sex-Positive Salon. N.p. 24 Aug. 2012. Web. 30 Sept. 2012.

[1] Both Tristan Taormino’s educational site and Ms. Naughty’s blog gave glowing reviews of the film. Abby Spector’s review on PuckerUp states, “Cabaret Desire is a must-see film for anyone looking for the perfect mix of porn and art.”

[2] The coherence of self-identification with feminism in addition to being publicly claimed as feminist is not true of all Feminist Porn Award winners. One of the 2012 Honourable Mentions, Dane Jones, has received sharp critique from sex columnist Violet Blue because the site is generated by a “garden variety pornographer from the UK that occasionally makes porn under a female name when it profits him to have a female directed product” (Blue Feminist Porn Awards). This calls into question the feminism that is being claimed for winners of the Feminist Porn Awards.

[3] External note – I am still trying to wrap my head around what is happening in the film regarding the framing of what is real and what is fictional. I may drop this line of inquiry if I can’t make any headway, but it is one that I have consistently come back to, particularly regarding the second story, “My Mother.”

[4] External note: Is it only uncomfortable because I have internalized ideas about the desexualized mother? I do not believe so, I think the discomfort stems from the idea of a son telling such a sexualized story about his own mother. This will definitely require further thought and research.

[5] External note: This requires a citation, but finding that citation will require some research. I know this because it is commonly discussed in the sex-positive feminist blogs and sex educator blogs that I read, but I could not quickly find an academic cite for this. I think that, because it is not necessarily common knowledge outside of certain sex-positive circles, it would need to be cited if I were going to leave it in the final paper.

[6] External note: I believe that it must be possible, because non-consent and rape fantasies are part of human sexuality and therefore they should be fair game for pornographers, even (perhaps especially) feminist pornographers.

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