Nobody talks about Snuff the movie these days. The tempest it generated has been forgotten. The assumption seems to be that everybody—especially feminists— knows what went down. Yet for the generations who came of age post-Snuff, and who feel the subject of pornography is important, most of them don’t know. This film was a turning point in the feminist debates about pornography and sexuality. It galvanized the anti-porn feminist faction and led to the identification of pornography as the principal cause of women’s oppression. The controversy reaffirmed porn’s status as dangerous, low culture and supported the belief that bad images cause bad behavior, that pornography causes men to commit acts of sexual violence. It was a landslide moment in the history of sexual politics when anti-porn groups, both feminist and religious, became obsessed with demonizing pornography—the effects of which we are still confronting today.
The Power of Myth
While most people ask me about snuff films out of simple curiosity, a few wield the question like a weapon and they’re looking for a fight. Go ahead, Little Miss Porn Cheerleader, let’s hear you defend snuff films! Look, if someone presented me with a genuine snuff film there’d be nothing to defend. I would be horrified and sickened. But no one ever has and no one ever will because snuff films, as some kind of readily available, black-market commercial enterprise, don’t exist. They’re an urban myth.
Don’t underestimate the power of myth, though. Myths link us together socially; they influence our moral choices, our political choices; they showcase human nature, bright and dark. They give us reason to believe, which is why the myth of snuff films has survived for so long, despite all the evidence to the contrary. We want to believe in snuff films because we have a collective need to believe in sexual monsters. Throughout history, monsters have reflected our cultural anxieties and fears about sex. Jews, blacks, women, homosexuals—they’ve all played the demon. The monster, the Other, is born out of social crisis, a threat to the status quo. Belief in monsters unites us against a common enemy, reinforces the rules of sexual conduct, and allows us to justify some of our most extreme actions.
Pornography Is Powerful
Take witches, for example. They fit the profile of a sexual monster to a T. From the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, thousands of European women were tortured and then burned alive for allegedly practicing witchcraft. The fear? Female sexuality. The monstrous allegation was that witches fornicated with the devil, thereby bringing evil into the world. In reality, they were healers, herbalists and midwives who revered the power of nature. And more often than not, a witch was simply whatever poor soul the mob chose to persecute. Witches gave everyone, Catholic and Protestant alike, a scapegoat for the evils of the day—poverty, disease, violence, mental illness, sexual desire, bad crops, bad luck. Plus, the threat of being marked as a witch kept everyone in line. Even the slightest display of nonconformity, sexual or otherwise, could mean a trip to the fire. Ultimately, the monster justified the massacre.
Protecting the Sexual Status Quo
In much the same way, snuff films meet the requirements of a sexual monster. A belief in snuff films goes hand in hand with the belief that pornography is evil, and that the sexual impulse itself is basically evil and needs to be controlled.
Snuff films are a constant reminder of just how bad things can get if left unchecked: women getting fucked up and chopped up, men degenerating into sperm-spurting killing machines. The snuff film panic came at a time when the sexual status quo was being challenged from every cultural corner. Pornography had become chic, even attaining a level of respectability among the middle class. By 1973, the X-rated film Deep Throat was playing at theaters around the country, and images of explicit sex were no longer “obscene” in and of themselves; a work now had to be proven to lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.
So what new bold strategy could be used to tighten up those loose morals? Linking pornography with murder. Snuff films united two groups who would never have been seen in the same room together—right-wing Christians and radical feminists. The monster gave us a new reason to quash our erotic impulses—snuff or be snuffed—and justified attacks on the First Amendment. By 1985, the Meese Commission recommended greater restrictions of sexually explicit material based on the unconfirmed theory that pornography causes harm. Beginning in the mid-1980s and continuing well into the 1990s, writer Andrea Dworkin and attorney Catharine MacKinnon proposed anti-porn ordinances in Minneapolis, Indianapolis and Cambridge, Massachusetts, that would allow women to sue for damages for the harm caused by pornography. All three were ultimately voted down, but were a big success at stirring up fear. Censorship continues to be promoted as a necessary defense against the monsters who lurk somewhere out there.
The Allure of Sexual Monsters
But even for those of us who don’t believe in the existence of devils or snuff films, there’s no denying a universal fascination with sexual monsters. The success of horrifying movies, the stamina of gross-out urban legends, even the gruesome details of monstrous true crimes printed in the daily paper—they’re all testaments to the fact that we’re simultaneously attracted and repelled by the forbidden. As much as they frighten us, monsters appeal to us because they reflect our own desires to cross the lines we’ve drawn, to poke around in the darkest parts of our psyche, to know the Other side of ourselves. At the same time, we don’t want to get too close. Monsters hand us a convenient yardstick to measure the distance between Us and Them (which is often frighteningly small) so we can feel secure, “normal” and even superior about our own sexual tastes—I’m not a monster, you are!
I also think sexual monsters and the fear they bring are an antidote to erotic boredom. We scare ourselves on purpose with all sorts of stories because feeling frightened makes us feel alive, utterly conscious of our own existence. Sex will always be exciting as long as there are lines to cross, monsters to confront and questions about just how close we are to the bottom of that slippery slope.
Let’s remember what Nina Hartley wrote:
Pornography is not ugly; our society’s attitudes about sex are ugly. Pornography does not degrade the people in it; our society degrades people for desiring sex. Pornography is not shameful to enjoy; our society says we do not deserve the exquisite pleasure and joy that come from “coming”. Pornography is powerful because it dares. Dares to shamelessly expose that which has been kept hidden, dares to give form to nameless desires. Shows life after the sharing of pleasure; shows men and women as equal sexual partners.
(“Pornography at the Millennium,” Gauntlet, 1997.)