Bruises, blood and welts

A screen-shot of an electronic waiver is displayed. It allows a viewer to state, with a click of a mouse, that he or she is of legal age and consents to viewing whatever material is presented. In this case it is described as “graphic sexual horror.” After the waiver, very realistic, severe and frightening sadomasochistic scenes quickly fill the screen. Images of women bound and gagged, housed in elaborate contraptions, screaming with tears running down their face and makeup smudged. One image shows needles piercing through a woman’s nipples, another shows a model’s breasts bound with rope, her pale skin purple due to lack of circulation. Plastic bags
cover a model’s face. Bruises, blood and purple welts are all part of the spectacle.

These scenes are all part of Graphic Sexual Horror, a documentary about the notorious website, for which all of this footage was made. Insex was one of the largest and most extreme BDSM pornographic websites and was eventually shut down by the U.S. Government’s anti-terrorist Patriot Act. Directors Anna Lorenzton and Barbara Bell carefully combined graphic video footage and interviews they conducted with female models, videographer and website founder Brent Scott — known as “pd” — to give a behind-the-scenes look.

Lorenzton and Bell’s documentary raises much larger issues of manipulation, safety, consent and greed within the world that they were a part of. Both women were employed with Insex as photographers and screenwriters, respectively, and when discussing ideas for a project together, “kept coming back to all the crazy things that happened at Insex,” Lorenzton explained in a recent interview.

Bell further explained, “As a writer, the characters that came through the studio were better than I can make up. It was a great stew of human beings, sometimes making very clear the dilemmas of being alive.”

One of these dilemmas is that of safety. In one scene filmed for the website a model is inside of a large metal cage being forcefully submerged into a tank of water. As a viewer, one has a visceral reaction of fearing for this woman’s life. We do learn, however, that there are things such a “safe word.” The model can say the safe word at any time to stop the scene. But this issue of safety is raised in terms of contradictions: we know that there is this word, yet the word is “ugh huh.” which could be a fairly difficult sound to discern considering the situation. Moreover, at some points the models are completely covered in hoods or gagged, and, as a viewer, I assumed that this would make the safe word very hard to audibly communicate.

Lorenzton disagrees, “The safe word used is actually the easiest to say that I have come across, you can even say it with the mouth fully gagged.” Bell continued, “If a model safe worded, even with a hood on and gagged, it was generally very clear and the response was instantaneous.”
Safety was very important to “pd,” who would continually check on models during live shoots, Bell explained, and people were always on set as spotters, waiting to move into a scene if there was a problem.

“But during the water scene, the model did actually safe word, and nobody heard it,” Lorenzton said. “I was filming the scene and didn’t hear it until editing afterward. That is the only time during my five years with Insex that I, to my knowledge, missed a safe word.”
Similar contradictions are associated with the hard limits the models agree to, and the terms and boundaries that they consent to before beginning a scene. In interviews, models say that they completely consented to these scenes, however some admit that they felt ashamed using the safe word during live feeds.

Live feeds were something this website invented; they would stream live video to paying viewers via the website. At one point they had 35,000 members paying $60 a month each to view content. During live feeds, viewers could type comments or suggestions, and their text was projected on a wall beside the model. In one particular scene — called the “S4 scene” — a member asks for the model to be slapped in the face. The result, she her hard limit are completely disregarded. She wants to continue with the scene so she can earn more money but she wants to make sure her limit isn’t crossed again. However, “pd” wants to give the paying customer what he wants. The monetary success of this site affected these already murky issues of safety, control and personal limits.

Bell explains the significance of this scene.

“We wanted to explore the way in which employers (in just about every job) use their authority and control of the paycheck to pressure people to do things they are not comfortable doing, thus blurring ‘consent’ in our daily lives,” she said. “We all accept the fact that our employers push the limits of our job description, but it looks so much worse when you see it in connection with this kind of sexual/torture porn footage. In some ways, the models have less at stake. They are working for one week. In our jobs, we can lose a regular paycheck and possibly medical benefits and pension.”

“The S4 piece was, to me, the perfect example of an employer trying to use the threat of stopping the money. And we are then trapped by our desire for the money. In many jobs the question becomes, ‘What will I do for how much money?’” Bell remarks.

Winnipeg audiences will have the opportunity to experience Graphic Sexual Horror for themselves this Saturday in a one-time only screening at Aqua Books. Organized by local promoter Big Smash! Productions, the film will be preceded by a written message from Bell and followed by a video commentary prepared especially for the occasion. Such screenings are often followed by a discussion period where viewers can discuss what they have seen. Common points of discussion include consent, allowing other people to make decisions we personally object to, the possible objectification of women and the world of fetish and manipulation. Indeed, according to Bell, the extreme situations in Graphic Sexual Horror only “illuminate certain profound problems of being human, and the complexity inherent in all of life becomes clearer.”

Graphic Sexual Horror screens Saturday, Feb. 27 at 7 pm at Aqua Books. Admission is by donation.