1. The Watched
God was the first voyeur. What was He up to anyway, rustling around in the bushes there in the Garden, when Adam was getting together with Eve? Was the Snake the first surveillance hardware, recording the moment for the YouTube of eternity, with every forbidden liaison to come a variation on the First? We’re talking not about sex here but watching and being watched, which may be as sexual as sex itself and without which sex may be unfulfilled, coitus incompletus. The eyes and that cranial mechanism behind them that rattles like a snake are the ultimate sexual organs.
Watching and being watched have been going on since the beginning. Maybe Roman aristocrats having sex in front of their slaves was an expression of power more than anything—a pointed message to the slaves that they might as well be chairs; but power has its own sexuality, and surely there was more to it, the thrill of exhibitionism. If there wasn’t a tape of the act to circulate, then the rumor mill did the job of a tape, perhaps better, the rumor conspiring more vividly with the sexual imagination of those who heard it. But for better or worse, the sexual imagination ran up against the 20th century, the most lethal invention of which was not the atomic bomb but mass media, which rendered part of the imagination obsolete even as another part exploded in its new literalism. We didn’t have to imagine anymore what sex was like with Clara Bow, Marilyn Monroe. Somewhere, there was a tape.
2. The Lovers
Or so muttered the rumor mill, which survived the Romans after all. The tape of Clara Bow—with the USC football team, wasn’t it?, one of whom was Marion Morrison, eventually to become John Wayne—is the stuff of urban legend until someone produces it, along with the Marilyn tape while they’re at it. That’s the thing about the YouTube age. It demands proof of everything, because we live in a time when there’s nothing that can’t be proved. This is the new reality: If the tree falling in the forest isn’t on YouTube, not only didn’t it fall, not only wasn’t there a tree, but there wasn’t a forest; and nobody has ever had sex with anybody if it isn’t documented.
A more thorough history of the sex tape would include the following: movie star Colin Farrell, TV star Kelsey Grammer, TV barely-anybody Dustin Diamond, rap metal wild man Fred Durst, “rapper”-“singer” Kid Rock, sportscaster Jayne Kennedy, female wrestler Chyna, ice-skating terrorist Tonya Harding, Liverpool footballer Stan Collymore, Brit tabloid amazon Keeley Hazell, limey model/erotic novelist/TV-porn hostess Abi Titmuss, Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover girl Carolyn Murphy, American Idol contender (tenth place) Jessica Sierra, Survivor contender (eighth place, first season; third place, eighth season) Jenna Lewis, Croatian singer Severina Vuckovic, Korean pop star Baek Ji Young, Taiwanese news talking head Chu Mei-feng, Malaysian health minister Dr. Chua Soi Lek, and Mini-Me from the Austin Powers movies, Verne Troyer. All of their exploits are on someone’s film somewhere. But if, like me, you’re not sure what gender half these people are, let alone who they are, allow us to bypass the minor figures altogether and move on to the Mount Rushmore of sex tapes: Pam, Tommy, Paris, Kim.
Year Zero in modern sex tapes was 1997, when a home movie by newlyweds Pamela Anderson and Mötley Crüe cofounder and drummer Tommy Lee made its way onto the Internet. It’s the response of the couple, and the response to the response, that makes the tape a landmark. Until this time such tapes decimated careers, revealing the subjects as perverts unfit for cultural consumption, barely a deviant facial tic removed from the showbiz likes of infamous and doomed silent-film comic Fatty Arbuckle raping a starlet with a champagne bottle, which, we might mention in passing, Arbuckle almost certainly never did. (Where was a tape exonerating him when he needed one?) By all accounts Bob Crane, star of the popular ’60s sitcom Hogan’s Heroes, sank into a sex-tape addiction after his show was canceled, an object lesson in what sordidness a Hollywood life could descend to, and chronicled by writer-director Paul Schrader with his usual mix of queasiness and gusto in 2002’s Auto Focus. During this political season we also might pause to remember Rob Lowe 20 years ago at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, who spent at least one night in his hotel room not poring over the Constitution. (In fairness, it was awfully hot that summer in Atlanta; I was there.) It didn’t help that one of the girls with whom Lowe taped his frolics was underage, but be that as it may, his career, which had its limitations to begin with, was never the same again. A decade after, the opening moments of the first episode of The West Wing, in which Lowe played a young presidential aide, felt compelled to wink at his past with a scene involving a hooker.
Setting aside the violation of privacy, and conceding for the sake of argument that Pam and Tommy’s tape was indeed stolen as they claimed, their scramble to suppress it was halfhearted. It lasted as long as it took them to figure out that in a New Voyeur Culture, the tape wasn’t doing their images any harm, given what their images were in the first place. Pam and Tommy never had pretensions to respectability, and Tommy was a rock star on the wane, his band not having had a hit in a long time, while Pam was in the middle of a run she may have been savvy enough to realize couldn’t last forever, filling out bikinis and T-shirts on Baywatch and Home Improvement, and approaching the end of a couple dozen appearances in Playboy. Moreover, Pam’s career was born of a candid-camera moment when, as a babelicious Vancouver teenager at a Canadian football game, the stadium lens caught sight of her and projected the blond vision on the towering screen overhead. Apparently, male pandemonium erupted. By the mid-’90s, Anderson also may have noticed that a younger look-alike, a onetime stripper and recent arrival on the porn scene named Jenna Jameson, was taking Pam’s sex-bomb act further than Pam was inclined and getting away with it, dragging an outlaw industry from the Chatsworth hinterlands onto The Howard Stern Show. Pam and Tommy relented to their tape’s distribution, assuming that relenting wasn’t the idea all along, and stumbled their way into 21st-century genius. Like the stripper chic of the ’80s and the porn-star chic of the ’90s, the sex tape became hip.
3. The Performers
After Pam and Tommy, Paris and Kim were inevitable. But—without protesting too loudly—can I explain something first?
Now you’re going to have to take my word for it, and I can already see the rolling eyes (“Wow! Getting paid to watch sex tapes and write about it!”), and surely there are worse ways to make a living. Cleaning up radioactive sludge, being Bill O’Reilly’s personal driver, drawing the short stick at the al-Qaeda potluck. But on my oath as a professional storyteller (i.e., liar) who therefore knows the stark truth when he sees it, watching hours of Pam and Paris and Kim sometimes having sex but mostly preening for the camera isn’t as died-and-gone-to-heaven as you think. If Paris Hilton makes one’s skin crawl whenever she’s not discussing energy policy, her eyes never leaving the camera even as her hookup of the night is going down on her, the more recent antics of Kim Kardashian, daughter of O.J. Simpson’s lawyer and, I gather, a “reality” star of some sort, are positively cold-blooded. The line between “sex tape,” an amateur production by definition, and pornography, a capitalist enterprise by which the performers make a living, has been bumped and ground into submission. On the release of her own tape, Kardashian followed the obligatory “legal action” to supposedly quash it by signing a deal with Vivid, one of porn’s leading distribution companies, to market it.
As with Crane and Lowe, the sex tape used to be the depraved pastime of men. As with Pam, Paris, and Kim, it’s become for women the sensational career move that a photo shoot for Playboy used to be. Everyone assumes Britney and Lindsay are next; Madonna must wonder why she came along too soon to be part of such a phenomenon. In contrast to Kim and Paris (once best friends until Paris made unkind remarks about Kim’s backside), the originals, Pam and Tommy, now come off as naive, goofy kids on a lark; not only does the Pam-Tommy film not live up to its reputation, with about nine minutes of fairly chaste birthday celebration and travelogue (the couple vacationing on their yacht, appraising the landscape) for every minute of hot action, but the male viewership might want to take note that there’s a lot less Pam than Tommy. Later marital misfortunes aside, it’s also clear they’re in love, still in the bliss of the three days (or four, or as some more sober-minded observers insist, even in the double digits) that the two knew each other before taking their vows, Pam famously in a white bikini. They’re in love the way teenagers are in love, which means it’s hopelessly shallow, but it’s love nonetheless. Some years after they went their separate ways, Jenna Jameson related to Howard Stern her own rendezvous with Tommy and concluded, “He’s still in love with Pam,” with the sad wisdom of someone who accepted that she was a poor if larger-breasted substitute. So in their own trailer-trash way Pam and Tommy’s cinematic production was an authentic act of debauched sweetness, a genuine rec-ord of their rituals, whatever promotional purposes attended later.
I went on a date with Jenna Jameson once. Like writing about sex tapes, this sounds better than it was; a magazine (not this one) set it up for me. The idea was to take her to Paul Thomas Anderson’s then-released epic about the porn business, Boogie Nights, and see what she thought. This was at a time when some audaciously high-end porn—Michael Ninn’s Dark Garden, for instance, sometimes so glossily packaged you would never know it was porn until you actually watched it—was making a run at the mainstream, as the mainstream was edging toward meeting porn in the middle. In the most recently released DVD version, Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut has scenes nearly as explicit as pornography, as do European films like Sex and Lucia and Pola X. Later the pendulum in adult films would swing back from this arty stuff to “gonzo,” which was to directors like Ninn what the Ramones were to Pink Floyd, raw and amateurish and merely a penetration or two removed from Girls Gone Wild videos, and creating in the process a vast no-man’s land between the professional and nonprofessional, where Hilton’s 1 Night in Paris could outsell both.
I interviewed Jameson briefly after Boogie Nights, and at one point she said, “You know, it’s not all lights and glamour and rad sex,” and only later, with the phrase “rad sex” rattling around in my head, did the penny drop. I realized that for Jameson, the sex in her work wasn’t something she had to put up with but one of the perks of the job, which is to say that if you think the distinction between professional porn and the “amateur” tape is that sex is all business in the former and pleasure in the latter, it may not be that simple. In her hits like Flashpoint and Wicked One, Jameson is far more involved in the sex than is the star of 1 Night in Paris—so which is the “porn” anyway, and does it matter? For all the ways porn is unabashedly an enterprise, the pathology of it is no different: watching and being watched.
4. The Watcher
Just as all this is bound to lead us to narcissism, so such a conclusion is bound to be glib. Narcissism is a loaded word these days and an increasingly fashionable one, which can say as much about the people who use it as about those branded with it. Particularly as YouTube gives way to sites like YouPorn, the New Voyeur Culture may be aflame with acts of narcissism, but not so much more than the classic Friday-night bar scene: people engaged in some combination of posturing and revelation but without a camera. The sexual performance, financially compensated or not, may be an exploitation of intimacy and a betrayal of oneself for some aggrandizing purpose, but no more than the betrayal of a musician or writer or actor of his or her innermost feelings for the pursuit of artistic glory, not to mention your garden-variety money and fame. One exploitation involves the body, which by the values of our culture is debased, and the other doesn’t.
The reasons for making these movies are as personal or impersonal as are the movies themselves. They include narcissism; they include a pursuit of stimulation amid a saturation of stimulation; they include, amid a saturation of image, the need to bear witness to one’s own sexuality or to the sexuality of others. I’m sitting in a bar writing this piece and had to change tables when, the reflection of the light being just so, I could see myself in the screen of my laptop. It wasn’t only distracting but paralyzing. Do you understand what I’m saying? I can’t even watch myself write, let alone have sex. While I can view a porn film with varying degrees of interest, or even Pam and Paris and Kim with varying degrees of tedium, I’m quite sure that the one person in the world I’m least interested in watching have sex is me. So let’s acknowledge finally that this is a subject that lends itself not to sweeping analysis but to subjective deliberation. Let’s end where maybe we should have begun, with the fact that, to everyone else, everyone’s sex life is idiosyncratic at the least if not downright weird, that people whose sex lives have no weirdness at all are the weirdest of all, because nothing is weirder than sex without personality, and if we aren’t watching to bear witness to that, then we’re bearing witness to whatever it is about sex we have in common.
Photo: Tommy Lee in his home movie with then-wife Pamela Anderson