Please note that the artist's statement is not included here.
The Dao of Sex
Sex: The Annabel Chong Story Response Paper
Watching the documentary about Grace’s participation in the world’s largest gang bang was shocking at first, and became tragic as the film makers followed Grace’s personal life and chronicled the degree to which the sex industry had taken its tole on her. Throughout the film, Grace Queck, more widely known as Annabel Chong, was trying to use pornography as a medium to express her own personal ideas about sexuality. Grace believed that through making the world’s largest gang bang video she could play the part of a ‘stud,’ a role typically ascribed to a sexually potent man, in order to demonstrate that she and other women are in control of their own sexuality instead of being passive sex objects at men’s disposal.
Unfortunately for Grace, the radical political gesture she tries to make through her pornography is lost because of the fact that the porn industry is a terrible medium for her to try and express herself. Grace loses sight of the fact that the industry has its own standards for female sexuality which are identical to, or maybe even worse, than society’s gendered norms that she is attempting to respond to. Within the minds of the producers, directors, and her fellow actors in the industry, Grace is an object, a slut, and a sexual commodity that is captured and distributed for financial gain. Although her participation in the gang bang is well-intentioned, Grace’s statement about female sexuality is lost because her message is mediated through the porn industry. Both production and consumption of the content within the business is dominated by men with definitions of sexuality that challenge Grace’s own views. Because of this disconnect, Grace’s film is viewed as ‘a slap in the face’ to other film makers in the business.
Grace’s definitions of sexual freedom and agency are centered on the idea of control. She wants to challenge the belief that women are passive sex objects by taking charge over the selection of her sexual partners. In her eyes, having consensual sex with 251 men is the ultimate expression of her sexual power and agency. However, I believe that the film does a good job of exposing the fact that the porn industry does a good job of limiting her agency despite her best intentions. The most obvious expression of her lack of agency within the porn business is the fact that she has a ‘porn name,’ Annabel Chong, which is not really hers. Although as Grace Quek she is a politicized, articulate gender student at UCLA, she becomes just another girl in a porn video when she assumes the role of Annabel Chong on stage. Despite the fact that Annabel’s actions may be motivated by Grace’s ideology, there is a disconnect between the two versions of herself that she presents and ultimately the changing of her name diminishes her agency.
Another way the documentary focuses on her lack of control is the issue of money that is exchanged for sex, or in this case for the making of a porn film. Grace argues that her making of the gang bang movie was never about the money and that she would have done it for free to give the viewer the impression that she is ‘above’ the money and only doing this for its value as a statement. The idea that she is in total control hinges on the fact that she would do it out of her own volition, and not as part of an exchange. Grace needs to present herself as indifferent to the money in order to preserve her political statement about independence and control. However, the film does a good job of revealing that money is always an issue in the porn industry when it shows her debating her salary for a film with one of the directors. The brief phone conversation displays women’s loss of agency in an industry that commodifies and thus controls women’s sexuality.
The Annabel Chong Story: Questions of Agency and Power
Questions of sex and sexuality ultimately lead to questions of power, agency, and choice. Sex: The Annabel Chong Story similarly raises these and other queries as a function of the director’s perspective. Any film, even a seemingly irrefutable documentary, is not neutral. This particular portrait of Grace Quek is subsequently imbued with Gough Lewis’s personal take on her life, personality, and reasons for engaging in what most people, based on the audience’s response to Grace’s story on the Jerry Springer show, might consider a basic act of promiscuity. Thus the crucial element of self-representation is already an element of Grace’s existence that is out of her control.
Agency is something that feminist theory necessarily considers in matters of the feminine sexual experience. Some consider all acts of sex, in their very existence in a patriarchal society, to be simulated versions of rape. Others consider the sexual sphere to be a woman’s limited space for empowerment. Grace’s story intersects with both. Her participation in the “world’s biggest gang bang” thus becomes a neatly visual analogy for her overall sexual experience as a young woman.
There is no doubting the authenticity of Grace’s conscious desire to counter mainstream social meanings of female sexuality. Her academic work with sexology and gender studies further substantiates a powerful dissatisfaction with feminism. As such, she does begin this process by being in control of her objectives and methods. This stage of her thought process is exemplified by the opening scenes of the gang bang itself, in which she proclaims that she “needs more dick” and that having intercourse with this many men is “an ego trip.”
Yet regardless of the most genuine intentions, expectations ultimately fall short of reality. Pornography is ultimately an industry in which the desires of individuals are sacrificed for those of the industry at large. This stage is exemplified by the moment in which Annabel gets injured by a stray fingernail and, despite being in visible pain, continues to have sex fifty more times, the 51st being the host of the event, Ron Jeremy. Her continuation is perhaps less about genuine enjoyment of intercourse but rather the need to satisfy the expectations of the media, industry representatives, and so on.
An integral component in any form of agency is psychical freedom. A limited amount of attention is paid to Grace’s psychological wellbeing, especially in regards to her adolescent gang rape, implicit depression, wrist cutting, drug use, and rejection of her family’s seemingly censored Singaporean culture. Once revealed, her sexual acts are instinctually regarded as reactions to an unsatisfying existence that are beyond her control. At one point Grace admits to her need “to feel,” be it pain, pleasure, or anger. As a result, sex is characterized as a means of regaining, rather than regulating, control over her life in general.
The possession and implementation of authority does not answer exclusively to individual decisions. Agency is also determined by social norms, racial and gender roles, and cultural, economic or political obstructions. Furthermore, Grace’s actions unfairly affect women beyond the porn industry. Women other than Annabel were expected to behave in the same way, despite the fact that most might not necessarily choose to pursue the same (or similar) path. The most ‘feminist’ aspect of sexuality is, after all, the availability of choice. Despite Grace’s feminist intentions, her actions were ultimately not regarded as such. While on one hand Grace has rightly shown that women are sexually powerful and aggressive, the film also implicitly suggests that such power can only be manifested in one particular way. Moreover, Grace’s sexual vitality is ultimately associated with psychological instability, implying that in order to “live up” to Grace’s vision of sexual liberation, women must either be in the porn industry or “willing to die” for sex itself (in short, either professionals or insane).
In setting out to prove the authenticity and expanse of female sexual desire, Grace thus ends up affirming the opposite.