Dr. Anna B. Volk: Scholar, reviewer, writer, Brazilian.
A couple of days ago Anna B. Volk wrote a blog post about how she no longer could call herself a feminist “15 top reasons why I don’t want to be a feminist anymore” http://darlinghouse.net/beta/annabvolk/2012/04/07/feminist
Now if there’s one thing Story-Lab loves, it’s controversy (and Brazilians, and beautiful smart women). So of course there was only one thing to do; sit our ass down with Dr Anna B. Volk and pick her mind about subjects such as Brazil, media, feminism, pornography, sex, gender and almost everything else between heaven and Rio.
Honestly, we just love to hear her talk, so we kept asking her questions until she told us to shut up and get out!
The following interview is long, but amazing. So grab yourself a cup of coffee, a glass of wine, light a smoke and sit back.
Story-Lab: How did you come to study and emerge yourself into the world of pornography? How did you come to write about it from an academic point of view?
Anna B. Volk: While still an undergrad, I got involved with research on Feminism and AIDS; throughout my Masters, I broadened my research to LGBT literature, feminist history, and female madness. Yet, something was always missing: the feeling was that I was after what was always veiled and unspoken, and in the academic world a lot of what is done is “for shows”, so it was really frustrating not to be able to dig deeper into taboo issues. It took me nearly 15 years to establish myself and be able to keep myself distant enough from the all the lobby and political correctness to really get involved with something I like writing about, something which is this massive unmentioned presence when it comes to gender relations and economic issues. So basically now I can write – and publish, and present – research I have been doing for a long, long time, but in a more independent and non-affiliated way.
Story-Lab:Recently you became a part of the Darling House collective, how did that come to happen?
Anna B. Volk: It all started with a personal blog where I used to publish material I was producing about the porn industry – independently, and mostly movie reviews and articles which were close to the way I am used to writing when I need to present something for the academic world. I was just writing things, publishing them, and “advertising” on Twitter. Joshua Darling and Sovereign Syre read some of that material, and invited me to be part of Darling House – which stoked me beyond words because it was a project I had fallen in love with already, as spectator, and to be able to become part of it instantly validated all I have been doing in terms of research and production.
Story-Lab:You’ve taken an academy approach to pornography and sex. Especially concerning pornography, some people would say this doesn’t even deserve to be considered an academy/intellectual subject of discussion, unless other than maybe for the sole purpose of condemnation?
Anna B. Volk:There will always be people who condemn pornography: it has been fought so badly throughout ages that it will always carry some sort of stigma. Any depiction of sex, in reality, is still received with discomfort and disbelief – and the idea that it might contain any political message is just too much for some people to handle. When it comes to pornography and the academic world, people tend to be quite black or white: there are those who condemn it vehemently – and for this I can see a lot of feminist bitterness and pornography condemning still lingering in the air – and there are those who just ignore it. Of course there are scholars who have been dealing with pornography academically for some time now, but those are cast aside even by their colleagues.
The academic world – at least in Brazil, because this is the one I belong to – is one of the most prejudiced, racist, homophobic, and segregationist spaces I have ever encountered. To openly deal with pornography is to fight constant battles by having to justify myself and my work on daily basis. I have to fight the conservatives, the feminists, the more traditional scholars, the race based theorists, the prude, the pseudo-intellectual: basically it is a one woman’s fight. The only solace rests with the queer sphere, and even there I have to be careful not to find myself justifying what I do with every article written.
My approach to pornography is open and direct: I refuse to hide it behind metaphors or figures of speech, and I see it as the only possible space for real gender and sex discussions in a society that is still averting eyes to some topics such as queer rights and marginal sexualities, while pretending to accept it. And this is too harsh on people – especially scholars, who think of themselves as so avant-garde and open-headed, but who are confronted with their own limitations when something like my research is posed in front of their eyes.
Story-Lab:What genre of pornography turns you on, what kind do you find yourself drawn to the most?
Anna B. Volk: This is as fluid as water. When I started watching porn it was gay porn that was appealing to me – the raw, strong, violent desire that cannot be faked or mimicked. Later, lesbian pornography caught my eye – and by lesbian porn I mean movies produced exclusively with women. Nowadays, I have been experimenting with watching parodies and new releases which present the audience with a new proposal, be it in terms of plot, structure, casting. And there is also the non-professional porn that is blooming in streaming sites: the amateur category, as it might be called. I surround myself with all sort of pornography, so it is impossible to be drawn to only one specific kind.
Story-Lab:What performers in adult do feel yourself being turned on by – not just physically, but also mentally – which ones plays as much to your body, as your intellect?
Anna B. Volk: I find Zoey Holloway to be one of the most interesting performers nowadays. I have written an article on the female gaze and cinema spectatorship, and she is the best example of the power of the gaze when it comes to pornography. Ela Darling, Dylan Ryan, Katsuni are performers who present me with refined discussions on pornography and art and exquisite performances.
But Sovereign Syre is my personal puzzle – the more I get to know her the more dazzled I am by her. Sovereign is like a visit to Alice’s wonderland on the best acid you can find: philosophy.
Story-Lab: When you review an adult movie, what are the things you look for, the criteria of which you judge it?
Anna B. Volk: I wish I could say I am drawn to how sexuality – and mostly female sexuality – is portrayed, or how plausible a situation looks, but the reality is: I want it to be well done. To my eyes, this means how much the movie was cared for. I am tired of pornography being made on a second-rate basis: if you want recognition on whatever it is you do, you have to do it well. The idea of getting two girls and a guy in a hotel room and shooting it is over: audience now wants to see more than “just” the sex.
And this is what I focus on when I am watching a movie for a review: how well constructed the whole feature is. This includes lighting, camera work, setting, soundtrack, basically the same categories a non-porn reviewer would pay attention to, but at the same time this is not what I should be reviewing, because the “pornographic” part of the film is normally what people are after.
So what differentiates a porn reviewer from a non-porn one is that the elements that should serve as springboard for evaluation on a porn film cannot be associated only with form and no function! A true review would easily happen fostered not by content per se, but by technical elements (plot, lighting, camera, performances, etc) which should please the spectator’s eye without taking the leading role in the perception and experiencing of the film, but it is difficult to differentiate between what is physiologically pleasing to me and what meets certain standards when it comes to the recognition of quality in a porn production. So this becomes a harder task than I had ever imagined it would be – and this is what makes it so incredible to me.
Story-Lab:Is there a danger of intellectualizing sex and porn too much, talking the passion, danger and lust into boredom, into a point of where it’s not interesting anymore, where it becomes too civilized?
Anna B. Volk: Sex is instinct. It is survival. It is inherent. If it comes to a point where it is being too tamed to fit niches or market expectations, it will find a way to escape. If pornography bounds sexualities into stiff armoires, if too much politics starts shaping pornographic scenes, or if too much intellectualization is done, sex will rebel and transmute somewhere else. There is no possibility sex – in its essence – will ever become civilized. That would go against sex’s nature in itself.
Story-Lab:Do you consider yourself a feminist? And do you think it is possible to enjoy mainstream pornography as a feminist?
Anna B. Volk: Had you asked me this questions around 10 years ago, I would have said “YES!” loud and proud, and shaken flags and slogans at you. But in the past five years the feminist dialog has bored me beyond tears. It keeps on repeating that same chant from the 70s, that women are oppressed and are not given opportunities to blossom and, at the same time, I do not see any changes simply because the women who are worried about it are just sitting in auditoriums speaking to upper middle class white college girls, instead of actually doing something about it. Of course I am talking in terms of Brazil – this is the reality I have contact with – but the dissatisfaction with feminist theory is something which is starting to emerge worldwide simply because we are just fed up with a lot of talking and not enough changing.
I have been inside the academic world for nearly 20 years now, and a good part of those years I spent over feminist theory books, and I can tell you that, in their majority, they are segregationist, class based, race based, and are unable to see the world as a unit, choosing to fragmenting it, and this – nowadays, with globalization and all, is just not plausible anymore.
When the issue is pornography, for example, feminists tend to either condemn it or to approve of it as an empowering tool for women, but not once did those same feminist owed up to watching porn. In other words, feminism approaches pornography with a ten feet long pole, and is unable to recognize that some women do like it. This is precisely the kind of contradiction that has pulled me away from feminism, and that is keeping me so distant from feminism as political position.
Story-Lab: There has been a growing criticism directed towards porn, stripping and prostitution for some time now around the world – both from religious, conservative and feminist groups – it’s almost as if we’re seeing the sexual revolution being turned backwards, why do you think that is?
Anna B. Volk: Honestly? I think people need to come up with real issues to tackle soon, otherwise they just keep on beating the deadest of horses. I refuse to debate on any religious positioning about sex workers because it is an obvious and outdated issue – if people still want to wonder whether any church has the rights to dictate over things outside their perimeter, they can debate that without me. When it comes to conservative issues, and right now we have the whole debate in America about Rick Santorum and the porn industry, for example, it is just a matter of eliminating any religious content in those people’s ideology to understand it is an empty and shallow discussion. Feminist groups have to stop protesting and start watching porn before they fight it, because most of the time they don’t even know what they are talking about. So until real issues take shape things are bound to go in circles and nauseate whoever is watching.
Story-Lab:Being Brazilian, could you tell us your feelings and thoughts on how the country of Brazil – the people of Brazil – are being portrayed in European and North American media, is it a accurate or a false depiction?
Anna B. Volk: Brazil is so plural it is difficult to get to a common denominator in terms of identity and characteristics. It is always amusing to see Brazilian people portrayed in foreign media, because they are always extremely stereotypical and so far-fetched. From Sonia Braga as Theo’s teacher in The Cosby Show up to Xavier Barden’s character in Eat, Pray, Love, the way Brazilians are portrayed is so far from reality it is hysterically funny.
One of the closest depictions of the people and the country I have seen was Rio, the animation – and although that was over simplified, because it was made for kids, of course, it is still the closest anyone could get of a Brazilian national identity. In the end I guess we Brazilians might be oversimplifications, because we are just so many and so different that it is impossible to group us in any ways – so it is easier to just mix us all up and present an audience with whatever comes out of it.
Story-Lab:Is there a lack of stories based around the Brazilian middle class and everyday life from foreign media and entertainment?
Anna B. Volk: The Brazilian middle class has been parroting the American middle class for so long they have only recently been able to understand they lack their own identity – and this is coming to light through the work of some artists who belong to the same middle class they are questioning. I have seen in Brazilian television and in movies a growing trend towards accepting that fact and building national identity from it, instead of fighting it as a form of politic protest against imperialism or any other thing like it.
If there aren’t enough stories around the Brazilian middle class in foreign media, trust me, there aren’t enough stories about us on our own screens either. We need to build our own tradition of portraying Brazilian middle class before we can blame our invisibility in foreign media. And that would worry me if this was not changing: we have more films being produced now than in any other period of Brazilian cinematography, and they are focused on Brazilian issues and being accessible to people abroad.
Story-Lab: What is your opinion on the stereotype of Brazilians (especially women) being oversexed and hyper flirtatious? A stereotype that is often being pushed by media and entertainment in Europe and North America.
Anna B. Volk: The feminine body that needs to be colonized by the white supremacy, its mysteries and hidden lures, and how it seduces precisely because it is different and unknown, all this justifies the type of stereotyping that Brazilian women go through: it is still about the colonization of people and how white, phallocentric cultures perceive distant lands. For Europeans and North Americans, the Brazilian woman is still Brazilian forest: dark, moist, inciting, dangerous: and it needs to be discovered and conquered and ravished and explored.
My first instinct is to say there is nothing wrong with stereotypes. Then I think about the characteristics which are attributed to Brazilian women and it enrages me a little bit because in some circumstances it might put women’s safety in jeopardy: I myself have faced some quite uncomfortable situations in Europe because somebody found out I was Brazilian and immediately thought I was available for sex. On the other hand, this happens within Brazil: Brazilian men tend to perceive women as being both Eve, the snake, and the apple. And I refuse to see this as detrimental to Brazilian women at all, because if dealt with the correct way this can be quite empowering.
Story-Lab: Many men around the world praise the Brazilian woman as the perfect woman – both their mentality and looks – what is it that makes Brazilian women so special and desirable to the men of the world outside of Brazil?
Anna B. Volk: They do? Which Brazilian woman are they desiring and praising? It amuses me when I see generalizations like these, because I myself cannot come to a conclusion about what the Brazilian woman looks like. Is she like Giselle Bündchen, Alice Braga, Thais Araujo?
There is no doubt Brazilian women are highly regarded around the world, but to be honest with you I do not know what all the fuss is about. No, I am not being humble… [Laughing].
Story-Lab:Brazil seems to be going through a lot of changes these days, what is it like living in Rio de Janeiro now, as oppose to living there 5 years ago?
Anna B. Volk: There is no doubt that economically Brazil has grown tremendously in the last 10 years. Not many foreigners are aware of this, but we lived under a dictatorship until 1989, and only then we regained the right to vote – and it took some years of practice in order to be able to understand that oligarchies were not the way to go. Differently from the rest of the world, in Brazil politics are divided not into republicans vs. democrats or conservatives vs. progressives, but into upper class vs. lower class parties, something which is hard on a good fraction of the population who still perceives power and money as belonging exclusively to an aristocracy. We come from a structure of farmers and slaves, and this dichotomy is still explicit in our politics.
The growth in the economy has improved tremendously our daily lives, because it just makes life more comfortable, of course. In terms of politics things are more left based right now, so more polemic discussions (such as gay rights, abortion, etc) are taking place more often, and with more positive outcome. The general atmosphere in the country is very optimistic, but I will not deny it: we still have a long ways to go before we can say the ship is sailing smooth.
Story-Lab: With Brazil growing and being a nation that is worth keeping one’s eye on these days, do you think Brazil could also become a major player in high-quality adult productions?
Anna B. Volk: I see Brazil in the same place of western European countries when it comes to adult productions: it is cheaper, easier, and simpler to shoot here than in America, for example, because legislation and law enforcement is just non-existent. So in one hand we have people who are not performers but sex workers who see in adult film production a chance to make a little bit more money, and on the other still a lot of social stigma in terms of the adult film industry. To sum things up: there is absolutely no chance a word like “empowering“ can be applied to any aspect of adult film productions in Brazil, and the majority of the films we produce are amateur, second-rated, and even legally questionable. As a result, I do not think Brazil will make it to the list of quality adult production anywhere in the near future.
Story-Lab:Brazil can come off to a foreigner as a very religious country, but also a very promiscuous country. If you were to generalize a bit, what are the sexual ‘morals’ of Brazilian men and women?
Anna B. Volk: Brazil is so diverse it is literally impossible to reach a common denominator when it comes to ample topics like these. In big cities, like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, for example, the moral codes are more flexible than in other capitals, like Belo Horizonte or Porto Alegre. The bigger the city the more flexible moral codes will be, of course, but even that depends on the region in Brazil the city is located. Having suffered colonization by so many different ethnicities generated a sort of schizophrenia of morals in Brazilians, and even the amount of recolonization suffered nowadays – with the internet, cable TV, etc. – will influence how men and women will perceive morals.
Ironically, I perceive Brazilian women to be less relaxed in terms of their bodies than the European woman, for example. People fail to understand that wearing skimpy clothes might have more to do with a scorching heat than with sexuality, and sometimes the Brazilian woman is perceived as flirtatious when she is just following a fashion that aims at comfort. It is actually illegal to go topless in Brazil, and I know of only one nudist beach in Rio – and only one person who has visited it… So if I were to compare Brazilian and European women in terms of how they express their sexuality and how they deal with their own body, I would have to rank the European woman over the Brazilian one in terms of less morals.
Story-Lab: The internet has broadened how people are able to interact sexually today; we can Skype, chat, email, share photos, audio and video, all with a sexual content to it. Is there a danger of forgetting the sex in the real world and cyber fucking becoming the norm, or is it just another spice to real world sex?
Anna B. Volk: Would you turn down a fuck date to stay home and wank in front of a screen? This discussion first started when the Internet came about, and people were worried that the virtual world would take over all “3D” interactions, but the truth is nothing will ever replace human contact. The Internet has made the whole screening process more thorough, if anything: a late-night bar pick up can now take place on a chat room or social media site, but I highly doubt people would exchange real sex for cyber sex.
Story-Lab: How much of the interaction and attraction, between men and women, can be summed up to biology and sociology, which plays the bigger role in how we act as genders?
Anna B. Volk: I think the relationship between men and women is so harmed right now… As consequence of part of the feminist movement, and its relentless effort to portray men as enemies, we have created a gap between men and women that makes it impossible for us to get together and communicate. It is like there is a big valley between us, and all we can hear are our own words echoing forever into the void. And as a result we, as women, are always so doubtful of men, and they are always resenting “games” we play to protect ourselves, and in the end it is more about proving the other wrong instead of experimenting the other. It saddens me that such barrier will remain insurmountable until we – as women – realize we keep on bringing up the same men we are running from.
I see human beings as essentially sexual bodies – we have sex to orgasm, which differs from most animals. On the other hand, we have been socially regulating sex since Victorian times, so all sexual interactions can be seen as plastic and fake right now, and here is where pornography takes a gigantic importance, in my opinion, because it makes this discussion explicit. No longer can we rely on nature to dictate our sex lives, and nurture is just too full of constraints to be able to be used as parameter either. What is left is a void that can only be filled by some serious discussion on sex as a personal act instead of a political one, and pornography is the best ground for such discussion to happen.
Story-Lab: Is it true that a woman decides within 3 minutes & 30 seconds of meeting a man if she’s ever gonna have sex with him? And if she decides no, then there is no way of changing her mind?
Anna B. Volk: [Laughing] I did not know there was a time span… but I guess if anyone – men or women – are not flexible to review their first impressions, they are not worth fucking at the first place.
Anna B. Volk on Twitter: http://twitter.com/AnnaBVolk
Anna B. Volk on Darling House: http://darlinghouse.net/beta/annabvolk/