by Chris R. Morgan


In coming to comprehend the act of thinking about culture, it is perhaps easier to give it the same attention and seriousness one would give leisure athletics, and then to assign each of its extremities a corresponding sport. Music, for instance, is tennis. Film is tee-ball. Television is tetherball. Literature is Russian roulette. Leisure athletics is croquet. And so on. These are fairly simple and uncontroversial approximations, all giving aid and comfort to those who don’t expend anywhere near the amount of effort the self-anointed vanguard enthusiasts do in pursuing and propounding on these things. Yet when one reaches pornography, as one inevitably does, one finds a palpable sensory shift. The stakes, it seems, are higher; the ground beneath one’s feet is softer and thinner. The warmth of earth tones gives way to the quick burning streaks of red across a more climactically uncertain block of black. It seems obvious to some that pornography’s kinship is in the octagon, though jai alai would be more fitting. It is alien to many and dangerous to those who play cavalierly, its intensity is rarely rivaled.

Yet to say that anyone has been particularly, or even generally, correct when thinking about pornography would be committing an error right out of the gate at best, lending weight to a grand deception at worst.

It’s very easy to look upon pornography and all that it has wrought as though it was a culture like anything else. This is one of those many little lies we like to tell ourselves in order to make the next day seem less unforeseeable. It is a lot like milk in a way, doing us good through methods and to ends that are not quite clear. But it doesn’t really heed to logic outside of this context. More than culture, or even industry, pornography is a frontier. To say that it was something sewn together out of co-interested fabrics is to overlook its preexisting state. It was not articulated, it was happened upon. It was not built, but built upon. Its boundaries were not created from within civilization, but laid against it. It is not subject to the same dictates as culture is, it has cultures of its own. No mere activity, it is an environment that responds to rather than provokes those who walk within it.

Moreover, pornography is a man’s frontier. It is, indeed, the remaining domain in which a man can claim himself absolute sovereign over its contours and final arbiter of its character. It is like an oasis amidst an otherwise arid social plain. The man’s voice and what it demands come primary above all other needs. Man fashions pornography in his image, accentuates it to his tastes, and synchronizes it with his energies. All of it, provided he can sustain it through the resources pornography provides.

It does not seem certain just how women came to be discovered in pornography. Whether its pioneers came in search of them or if they had been found by chance or happy miracle, no one can positively confirm. It is only clear that a steady supply of the resource is needed for pornography’s animation to remain constant, integral to it much in the same way that oil is integral to the life or our cars or to conflict in the Middle East. They come as if freshly mined from the soil itself. There are no dry spells and there are no rushes. Refinement is simple; conversion to energy is immediate and brilliant. When energy is spent, often quickly, it is replenished without effort. This is a system running smoothly. But an energy dependent frontier is subject to risks. Though pornography has never properly busted, the intensity of its demands have sometimes wrought sources of such power as to be as much reactive as active, backfiring against institution and ecosystem alike.

In the pantheon of famous porn performers, Stacey Donovan’s name does not immediately register to anyone other than the most hardened enthusiast of pornography’s “golden age.” But from her brief time in the industry, starting in 1983 at the age of 18, it was clear she embodied the ideal of the era. Described by porn commentator Luke Ford as a “Christy Brinkley lookalike” with a background in modeling, Donovan’s blond hair and perky persona exemplified Reaganomic beauty in sex cinema much in the same way Lea Thompson and Kelly Preston had done in teen cinema. Indeed, it is conceivable that chivalrous young men in the suburbs and on college campuses found her a near-perfect masturbatory understudy for the questionably requited crushes she may well have resembled. In her four year career she performed in hundreds of films. Her most well-known performance is 1986’s Convenience Store Girls, a lampoon of the Meese Commission’s attempts to curb the sale of pornographic magazines. The film paints a bleak portrait of contemporary life in which the “Thought Police” lurk in stores waiting to nab buyers on trumped up charges. As a store owner, Donovan takes it upon herself to right these wrongs by (spoiler alert) screwing the busybodies and Bible thumpers into compliance with her business needs. Though it has a compelling civil libertarian message, the film is, in typical fashion, bereft of even competent acting or writing, and, in light of recent changes in the industry, it is perhaps the most laughable porn plot in its history, rivaled only by the surrealistic Deep Throat. It is also the most ironic.

In the pre-internet era of pornography, fame outside of the frontier was almost always synonymous with notoriety and with having left or been exiled from it. It brought shame and tragedy, breaches of trust and burning of bridges. Most of us know the disaster cases, made public at the height of its chic as well as its outlaw infamy. Performers like Traci Lords and Alexandra Quinn get the most notice for pure sensation, pornographic in its own way, as in-demand actresses in the 1980s and 1990s who each had numerous films behind them—75 and 60, respectively—before they were discovered to have been 16 years old at the start of their careers. Similarly, Linda Lovelace became something of a political football amid the Deep Throat controversy, the one that launched the intellectual tradition this piece is perpetuating. By comparison, Donovan’s notoriety is minor and largely forgotten, a symptom rather than a definer of the zeitgeist. But it is worth reexamining all the same.

Donovan’s chipper persona and eager performances were in equal proportion to how much she reportedly loathed doing them. Having apparently entered the industry for purely mercenary reasons, and ignoring the warnings of modeling photographers against doing so, Donovan’s costars remember a performer who “hated sex” and sometimes cried on set. In 1987 she made these feelings known by going from indirect critic of the Meese Commission to direct participant. She was an informant for federal agencies, turning over evidence and testifying against two producers in San Fernando Municipal Court. She testified that her daily pay rate was as high as $1,000. She found herself blacklisted in short order. Her colleagues reflect on her with bitterness, though Jerry Butler’s assessment in his memoir Raw Talent that she was a “tomboy” at heart, more comfortable “climbing trees” than fucking on film can probably count as generous. Into her 50s by now, she has been entirely out of the public eye. She is rumor fodder on some message boards, a witness protection stint being one of them.

But Donovan’s and Meese’s collaboration was decidedly in vain. The frontier, like all natural wonders, alters more easily than it burns. Notoriety need not come with shame. If it does it can be battled against and repossessed as performers like Belle Knox have shown. And it need not require any kind of exit from the industry as Stoya and James Deen have shown. Donovan’s world is behind them, and apparently all for the better.

Self-improvement is the order of the industry. Or some parts of the industry. While the recent “exposé” Hot Girls Wanted, shows a pornography spiraling into “pro-am” exploitation—ostensibly the pornographic equivalent of fracking—the industry itself is eager to show its love for alternative energy sources. Perhaps its most perplexing development is “romantic porn” or “porn for couples,” or if we lift the veil higher, “porn for women.” By the logic of marketing it’s well within the realm of savvy, though the sex positive feminist might find herself shipwrecked in a nightmare of a reinforced gender binary, if not in theme or performance than certainly in style; if porn is sex on barbiturates, romantic porn is porn on Thorazine. Still, it’s a style they seem to want to play with, most notably with regards to kink and related “taboo” subject matter, projecting the idea of intimacy onto activities under threat from cold, stilted 50 Shades-ification.

Regardless of whatever became of the former Stacey Donovan, watching her now she comes off ghostlike, a specter of an era long past and cheerily forgotten. That she has not become an icon for sex negatives is surprising. Or perhaps not, if an aversion to delving deeply into the porn frontier is to be believed. But this, in the end, is preferable. So long as begrudging people continue to tell it for her, Donovan’s story, and the contradictions therein, is one that goes beyond the rigid binary of positive and negative sexuality and well past pornography’s pale. There is a separate spot of land for her, frigid and unkempt, and with minimal accommodation for light, without signage and maybe not even entirely mapped. It resists new vegetation and has nothing worth extracting. But it might be a place that could tempt travelers to overlook pornography’s homespun comforts, where only vague, half-familiar intuitions are on hand to guide them. Where uninhibited desire and repressed revulsion entangle and copulate every bit as closely as bodies. It is troubling, but compelling, and perhaps more relatable to “civilians” than the pioneers want to admit. Hers is an inadvertent effort in sexual education in the conflict between feral drives and human self-awareness, for a culture that has no proper regard for how the latter either tames or unleashes the former, whether in the pursuit of fun or profit. To the former Miss Donovan’s pleasure, it is not pornographic, perhaps it is not even sexual; it is, in a way, missionary.