May 2013

Danielle Sherrod


Inside Linda Lovelace's Deep Throat: Degradation, Porno Chic, and the Rise of Feminism by Darwin Porter

"Women challenge the status quo, because we are never it... Porn hasn't even begun to leverage the female experience of desire, arousal and sex, through the female lens."
-- Cindy Gallop,

"Feminist porn acknowledges that identities are socially situated and that sexuality has the power to discipline, punish, and subjugate, that unruliness may involve producing images that seem oppressive, degrading, or violent. Feminist porn does not shy away from the darker shades of women's fantasies. It creates a space for realizing the contradictory ways in which our fantasies do not always line up with our politics or ideas of who we think we are."
-- The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure

"I haven't been able to escape Linda Lovelace, but I have been able to make peace with her. I understand her and what happened to her."
-- Linda Lovelace, Ordeal

Everyone seems to be on expert on Linda Lovelace, the porn actress-feminist icon-victim-whore-sex goddess-girl from the Bronx-star of the phenomenal Deep Throat. Lovelace is the woman who redefined women's sexuality, who was the face of the anti-porn feminist movement, a woman both loved and reviled, turncoat and crusader. Of course, this all depends on the people you talk to and what belief they subscribe to at that moment.

Everyone has an opinion, and everyone is an authority; that is, everyone but Lovelace herself. This theory only seemed to confirm itself when Lovelace finally spoke out on her experience and defied the small boxes that the general public had made about sex work, whether by the wrath of those who claimed she "loved" all the times she was raped, and thus was being "overdramatic," "hysterical," or just "lying," or those in feminist circles who claimed she was "always" a victim. Lovelace was a trailblazer in sex work activism. She was one of the first to say that like all jobs, sex work is complicated. Incredibly, vastly complicated.

Which brings us to the book that attempts to rekindle that conversation: Inside Linda Lovelace's Deep Throat: Degradation, Porno Chic, and the Rise of Feminism. The book tags itself as "the most comprehensive biography of an Adult Entertainment Star ever published," a tagline I don't disagree with. The book is duly researched. It devotes 640 pages to Lovelace's history, the way Deep Throat changed America's view of pornography and allowed more freedom for sexuality, the split of feminism, and how porn chic has influenced everything from style to advertising. The book's author, Darwin Porter, writes in the style of a celebrity tell-all biography. Let's not be elitist here -- there is nothing inherently wrong with a celebrity tell-all. The reason these books do so well is that they cater in fantasy. Even as certain facts are in plain sight in Inside Linda Lovelace's Deep Throat, it is also very much the stuff of fantasy.

And yet, despite this, I can't help being angry. The author writes about Lovelace's sexual abuses and rapes in a way that is nothing short of glamorizing, if not written in the same porno-chic style that the book aims to dissect. Each and every sexual scene is based on this same style of writing, but it is the way that sexual violence is written about that gives me the most pause. It is in these scenes that Lovelace again becomes a one-dimensional sexual object, existing only for someone else's sexual gain, but the reader is also involved in the scenario at hand as a spectator to this same process, as masturbatory witness to sexual violence. This disturbs me more than several other issues within the book: the fact that the book caters only to celebrity culture insofar as "history," the fact that the movie's real impact on American culture is relegated as secondary to celebrity tell-all, and the fact that Harry Reems, Linda's partner in Deep Throat, the only actor on the film who ended up in receiving prison time for his role in the film, is mentioned on only a few pages. Reems passed away in March, just short of this book coming to the public. It would have been interesting to hear what Reems would have said about all of this.

What can I say? I believe a book like this would have been better suited to be written by a woman. Perhaps that is one-dimensional, a generalization that somehow women are more sensitive than men, or that the author did not write the book he intended. But I certainly am not alone, as even in the prologue, the book's publisher, Danforth Prince, notes that in the initial pushes to get Lovelace to tell her story that "based on a subjective quirk, Linda refused to be interviewed by Garon's all-male research team." Lovelace's will to testify and speak her own truth about the sexual misdeeds done to her, is reduced to a "subjective quirk," as if a woman who has spent her life working in sex is somehow being difficult by not recounting her life to a group of men. But alas, "subjective quirk."

Here's a thought, though: maybe a woman writer would have been able to discern the hot and sexy from the sexual violence. Maybe the book wouldn't have been so directly rooted in "the male gaze." Maybe the eroticization of rape and coercion wouldn't have been so prevalent. Maybe there could be a larger discussion on how Deep Throat broke open the conversation and still to this day begs people to go beyond the basic dichotomy of porn and women who do porn (or any sex work for that matter) existing in only one of two categories: "empowered" or "victimized." Maybe when Lovelace was, in her words, describing being coerced into group sex by a death threat where they "treated me like an inflatable plastic doll," the author wouldn't have used a literal photo of a blowup doll that says "Hello, my name is Linda!" surrounded by men's crotch shots. Maybe the prologue, which talks about Linda being orally gang-raped by a bunch of teenagers who recognize her, even as she denies she is in fact Lovelace, wouldn't consist of talk about how big some guys' cocks are and how she "ran her tongue back and forth along the length of it... she sucked on it until it became ramrod straight and hard." If the author wanted you to forget that this is indeed a description of Linda Lovelace being orally gang-raped, and instead think of it as a sexy romper, than he has succeeded.

Part of me would like to say that I have the capability to be shocked these things that exist in equal parts fuck fantasy and sexual trauma. Yet in a world where people went after the young woman who spoke out on her rape in Steubenville -- classifying her as a "whore" who "liked it" or "deserved it," I am really not. Women's sexuality is acceptable only when it fits into the confines of someone's box -- that someone usually being male. It is when women start to talk about their own sexual experiences -- good, bad, horrible, abusive, coercive, wonderful, exciting, freeing, confusing, pleasure, work -- that the box becomes split open and the resentment of those who have for so long spoken on us becomes thicker and thicker. I am not shocked. But I am forever and continually disappointed.

My takeaway from this book is that it is often those who decide to speak for others that end up doing the most damage. It is something that stayed in place in mind, page after page of Porter's book, all while I kept telling myself, "Keep an open mind." But in the end, I was only trying to convince myself that somehow, this book would transcend from the quasi-pornographic tale to what I expected from the title, including dissection of degradation, porno chic, and the rise of feminism. It is not that the discussion of the influence of Deep Throat is unimportant, or that Lovelace really changed so much, only that the author uses Linda's experience itself, whether consciously or not, as a type of porn. But the difference here is that porn is intended to present fantasy, whereas this book is supposed to be a biography. It sheds light on the importance of the storyteller, and it is even more upsetting if you have read Linda's own book, Ordeal. When Lovelace tells the story of her own life in Ordeal, it is deeply complex -- a story of abuse, sexual violence, sexual pleasure, and ultimately how hard Lovelace had to fight to get people to hear her experience from her and her alone. When the story is told in Porter's version, it is tediously accurate details, subjected to a provocative male gaze that sexualizes without even knowing. Or worse, maybe it does know -- it just isn't important.

So the real question here is, would you prefer a firsthand account -- Linda's own voice (hell, you could watch the documentary Inside Deep Throat) -- or do you want to read a sensationalist biography? Inside Linda Lovelace's Deep Throat absolutely drew me in. How could it not? It just didn't keep me. Porter's book claims to not have the same restraint that Linda did when publishing her own book, stating that her heavily censored allegations are published in his version for the very first time. But again, what does that say other than that a lot of people seem to think themselves an expert on Lovelace, more so than Lovelace herself?

Inside Linda Lovelace's Deep Throat: Degradation, Porno Chic, and the Rise of Feminism by Darwin Porter
Blood Moon Productions
ISBN: 978-1936003334
640 pages