Sex: The Annabel Chong Story (review)

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Got Porn?

You sometimes hear female porn stars and prostitutes declare that what they do for a living is an assertion of sexual independence, that it’s some kind of feminist statement about opening up the strictures placed upon women’s sexual expression. (I’ve never heard a male porn star — not that this is an industry I follow closely — offer or even be asked for a rationale for his line of work; the assumption seems to be that any man would be no more than a rutting animal, given half a chance, which I don’t think is a fair assessment. But I digress.) Scratch the surface of these women’s psyches, though, and for all their political posturing, they don’t seem terribly happy.

Now, I’m emphatically not saying that women would be any happier if we all returned to Wendy Shalit’s girdle-bound world of virtue and modesty. But you have to wonder what kind of freedom there is for a woman to find in an industry like that of pornography, in which men commodify women for the pleasure of other men. It’s like locking yourself in a cage and declaring yourself free. It’s an Orwellian thought process: War Is Peace. Slavery Is Freedom.
In 1995, Grace Quek, known to porn fans the world over as Annabel Chong, decided, as a feminist and artistic statement, that she wanted to have sex, on camera, with 300 men in one day. Why on Earth would anybody attempt such an unprecedented feat? That’s the primary question Gough Lewis’s documentary, Sex: The Annabel Chong Story, tries to answer.

A Singaporean native educated partially in England, Quek was a sexually adventurous student at the University of Southern California, sleeping her way through the enrollment roster, when she began her career in porn with appearances in movies like I Can’t Believe I Did the Whole Team! It was a form of rebellion against the image of “the good girl” of her native culture — Quek says the Singaporean attitude is to “close yourself up to the world.” As a passionate scholar of sexology highly praised by one professor, Quek talks about how misunderstood and misused female sexuality is (and she’s right) — she mentions that ancient religions often used sex as part of their rituals. Her adventures in porn are meant to help her redefine female sexuality — or at least her own sexuality — perhaps even recapturing that ancient sense of reverence.

Disturbingly, though, Sex demonstrates that Quek’s rationale for her behavior has little to do with the psychological needs she is apparently trying, probably unconsciously, to satisfy. Quek is confident only when she talks of her high intellectual ideals. More often, she is strikingly pained and insecure. A trip home to Singapore to visit her parents becomes heartbreaking when her mother — who had earlier spoken happily and proudly of her daughter as a little girl — learns of her claim to fame. Quek is dismayed at having disappointed and shamed her mother, yet she has also told of piano lessons that began at age 3, as soon as she could reach the keys. Has she been rebelling not only against the limits of traditional culture but also against high parental expectations? And in London, where Quek lived for a time, she returns with the filmmaker to the place where she was gang raped — is her “gang bang” an attempt to gain back a sense of control she must have lost then?

Most distressing, however, is the scene in which Quek cuts herself repeatedly, drawing blood with a knife to her arm, just because she needs to feel something… anything. As we watch behind the scenes at the making of The World’s Biggest Gang Bang video, the director announces that since Quek, after allowing 230 men penetrate her within a matter of hours, is now in considerable pain, she’ll only be doing another 21 before calling it quits. Is this just another way to feel something, anything?

For all of Quek’s talk of female empowerment, there’s precious little of that to be seen here. Quek never received the $10,000 salary she was promised for the gang-bang video, and the director who cheated her out of the money has the gall to say on camera what a shame that is. Worse, Quek professes not to care. But money is obviously an issue for her — on a how-do-I-pay-the-rent level — because she has to haggle with porn directors over a matter of 50 bucks for her work. Even after her video is such a huge success, she can’t make more than $1000 for appearing in a porno. And as for her record-breaking marathon, no matter how much she talks of feminism, it’s still couched — by the men producing and promoting it — as a “gang bang.” It’s still about them doing it to her. It’s all about her getting screwed… one way or another.

But the most ridiculous thing about Annabel Chong’s gang bang — and about all pornography — is how absurd and unsexy it makes sex look. Fictional depictions of the porn industry — such as Boogie Nights — can’t approach the oozy ickiness of the real thing. From Quek’s sleazy agent to Screw publisher Al Goldstein, every man on camera in Sex who makes his living in porn is a disgusting pig whom you have to imagine only gets sex from women who are paid for it. You can practically smell the rancid sweat emanating from porn superstar Ron Jeremy as he takes the place of honor in being the last of the 251 men in Annabel Chong’s gang bang. (Why anyone would want to pay money to see his fat, hairy body do anything is beyond me. I know: Guys watch pornos for the women. But The World’s Biggest Gang Bang is, according to Sex, the top-selling porno of all time. I have to wonder what it is about seeing all those naked, aroused men — and only one woman — that made this video such a hot item with the mostly male porn audience. But I digress again.)

If Quek was looking to retrieve a sense of the mystical about sex, I can’t see that she can convince herself that she has accomplished that. Dispassionate discussion, in Sex, about the mechanics of “double and triple penetration” sounds like an exercise in engineering. Behind the scenes of the gang bang, all the naked men (some, actually, wear socks and shoes) standing around with, literally, their dicks in their hands, are laughable. And when Quek says that sex is worth dying for, that she doesn’t care if she gets AIDS, it’s hard to believe her: she looks plenty scared when she goes for an HIV test.

Quek avers that having sex with 251 men in 10 hours is “no different than having sex with one guy for 10 hours.” If she can’t see the difference (though I suspect she can), then she might want to rethink her redefinition of female sexuality.

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