Reflections on Seka’s presentation: Problematic or empowering?

Last week, Seka, a pornographic actress who appeared in adult films in the 1970s and ’80s, came to Macalester College to talk to our student body about her experience in the “industry.” The talk was advertised as addressing “the politics of porn, the relationship between feminism and porn, and where today’s pornography fits into the long history of smut, pornos, beaver pictures, and stag flicks.” It was a popular presentation, and the room was filled to the brim with curious students.

I can’t say that her presentation addressed the variety of political issues that it was purported to analyze. Seka’s presentation consisted mainly of an extended Q&A session specifically relating to her own experience in the industry. Her rapport was raunchy, honest, matter-of-fact, empowering and (at times) cringe-worthy. This list of adjectives seems contradictory, but it expresses my ambivalence towards the entire presentation. I appreciated Seka’s thoughts on the shaming of porn stars, the importance of female pleasure and her refusal to apologize for her line of work. Her approach was extremely sex positive and she talked openly about often stigmatized topics like masturbation and female orgasms.

While I appreciated her honesty and lack of embarrassment about all topics related to sex and porn, her continual justification and dismissal of the problematic aspects of porn was hard to come to terms with. Granted, this wasn’t an academic presentation about rape culture, fetishization, forced prostitution, violent porn, revenge porn or the male gaze. She didn’t pretend to be an expert on the academic theory related to porn.

Still, her answers sometimes simplified the dangerous implications of some aspects of the porn industry. For example, she was unaware of the importance of featuring explicit consent in the actual film. In today’s porn industry, couples are often show having sex without any context. We never witness the simple act of an actor asking their partner if they want to have sex or inquiring if their partner is comfortable with the act in which they are engaging. Seka stressed the importance of the adult stars’ consenting to being in the films, but she did not understand a question about the lack of explicit consent demonstrated in many porn films. This concept is a topic of hot debate in America today and she has a platform to advocate the importance of showing consent in films.

Furthermore, she had little knowledge of the reality of forced prostitution or the implications of depicting violent sex in porn. She dismissed its implications with the trite statement that “everyone has their own preferences.” She went on to make the same simplifying argument to answer a question regarding the promotion of pedophilia by having adult women dress in school girl uniforms or other outfits that denote unhealthy power dynamics.

I have to concede that Seka didn’t pretend to be an expert on the porn industry, feminism or the politics of porn. She was unabashedly herself. She refused to give students the theoretical or academic answers they desired, even though they would continue to rephrase the question, looking for the “right” answer. She explained that her initial involvement in the industry and her decision to shave her pubic hair were lucky accidents, and were not the result of careful calculation or a political statement. I appreciated her plugs for condom use and female-directed films that promote female pleasure.

Most importantly, I appreciated her role as an ambassador of a taboo subject. Society quietly approves of porn while shunning its actors. We recognize that people consume porn, but no one talks about it and mainstream porn is tailored mainly to the desires of cisgender men. Seka started a more open and honest conversation at Macalester, albeit a problematic and limited one.

Seka humanized porn and made us think about the lives of the actors themselves. She attended Northwestern University and has been married for thirteen years. She still keeps in touch with her friends from the industry and she talked about how some of them have passed away from old age, instead of AIDS or suicide. Therefore, while I thought many of her statements had dangerous implications, I appreciate her candor and her bravery. She is a public face of a stigmatized and marginalized industry, which is a difficult and important role. If we look at her talk from this perspective, it becomes less disappointing.

I still have to admit that I would have enjoyed a political, inclusive and nuanced discussion about porn. Perhaps this presentation will prompt a more comprehensive dialogue about porn in Macalester classrooms. Porn has real implications in our society. It is not simply “filmed sex” as Seka intimated. It shapes the way we view sex, consent, violence against women and masculinity, among other topics. Our society also affects the porn industry. If we demand the presence of consent, condom use and respectful interactions, the industry will change to please its consumers. In order to transform our society into one that prizes consent, we have to normalize it on all fronts, including porn.