NSFW (But Then Again, Safety is Overrated)

by Tony Comstock

In the post "Sex, Law, and Cinema: 1934-1968," we looked at the legal and cinematic events that led to the creation of an unrestricted, mainstream, adults-only cinematic space. The creation of the X-rating meant that after nearly 70 years, the content of mainstream cinema was relatively free of legal and self-imposed restrictions.

In the post "1968-1975: How "X-Rated" Become Synonymous with "Porn": The Death of Moviemaking for Grown-ups," we looked at films made during the brief, confusing period when the X-rating had some measure of mainstream socioeconomic currency and saw how the seemingly well-intentioned decision by the MPAA to leave its new adults-only rating, the X-rating, as a non-trademarked, self-applicable, "open-source" content rating led to the abandonment of the X-rating by all parties.

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My special area of concern in looking at the films of this period is that for this brief window it seemed possible that cinema would finally be able to explore sexuality with same detail and candor found in literature, and with the same vigor that Hollywood had now begun to explore language and violence.

But without a thriving adults-only rating, this promise would go unfulfilled.

Coming up will be a post entitled "Sex, Law and Cinema in the Digital Age: 1989-2010." Like the previous "Sex, Law, and Cinema" post, it's going to be a timeline.

Unlike the previous "SLC" posts, I don't have the benefit of 30 to 80 years' distance to help me sort out what's important from what's important to me (sadly, not always the same thing!).

Adding to that lack of distance, it's during this time period that I've been making and marketing my films, films that my family depends upon to give us food and shelter. I hope the intensity of that that experience gives me some insight, but I also know that it has built in some bias.

But before we get this recounting, I'd like to frame the remainder of my time here at The Atlantic with a screen grab of a Google search:

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What is represented by this rising graph is use of the acronym "NSFW" on the Internet. And it's data like this, and other information gathered from various ways I've poked at the Internet, that I had in mind when I first began to think about Climax Ecology as a metaphor for what I had experienced as a filmmaker during this period. From my 2009 post "'Do you want to be put in the same category as Alfred Kinsey, Max Hardcore, or  Catherine Briellat?': The limits of sexual expression in an algorithmic world":

But it's not just the anti-erotic bias lurking in our culture driving this [the re-marginalizatin of sex]. Ask any IT professionals what their biggest headaches are, and on any given day it's likely that porn-spammers are on their most-hated list. I regularly have important, non-erotic correspondences sucked into my spam folder (the last was from an eminent constitutional scholar on the history of blasphemy laws and symbolic speech in the US.) Without resorting to words like "vajayjay" and other coded language, even scholarly correspondence free from slang is frequently algorithmically indistinguishable from porn-spam.

The arrival of digital technology created a "clearing event" much like the social upheaval of the 1960s, and in the wake of that clearing event there would once again be an opportunity for the exploration of explicit sexuality in cinema.

But this time, the opportunity would not be driven by the laissez-faire policies of the MPAA, or new legal freedoms. This time it would be driven by technology that affected everything from how people engaged with the camera in their own personal lives, to the economics of scale for production, marketing, and distribution of media.

Once again this "clearing event" would create new opportunities and optimism that the cinematic language used to present sexuality could finally evolve, and once again there would be a brief flowering of experimentalism.

But as in the period of 1969 to 1975, this new openness and experimentalism wouldn't last. In fact, by the end of the decade, the Internet had adopted a culture around sexuality that in some ways is arguably more conservative than anything found in traditional media.

The next post is going to take up the always-fun-to-argue topic of gun-control, which I hope to use as a bridge to further musings about the role of personal responsibility in the making and consuming of entertainment.

Tony Comstock is a documentary filmmaker whose company, Comstock Films, specializes in erotic documentaries. Follow him on Twitter at @TonyComstock.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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