Is Sex: The Annabel Chong Story (Gough Lewis, 1998) a celebration of sex and female sexuality? Is it a character study of a porn idol? And, considering the presence of a great many porn luminaries, is it possible that the documentary is a pro-porn polemic?
It is all of the above and none. Primarily, what is most memorable about Sex is that it is a saddening tale about a vulnerable and unstable young woman, who becomes embroiled in a world she does not fully comprehend, despite her claims to the contrary.
Grace Quek, alias Annabel Chong, starred in the best-selling porno video, The World’s Biggest Gang Bang (John T. Bone, 1995), in which she accommodated 251 men over 10 hours. In Gough Lewis’s documentary about the event, she is presented as a woman with an insatiable appetite for a cornucopia of carnal pleasures; a woman who goes for it with vigour and enthusiasm before internal bleeding puts a stop to the marathon.
In the early stages of the documentary, it was heartening to see Quek create the appearance of enjoying and even revelling in the role of porn rebel. For a brief moment, pro-sex feminists and porn adherents dared hope that they might have found another worthy spokes-woman firing from the trenches, someone who would follow in the footsteps of Marilyn Chambers and Annie Sprinkle. But then Quek throws on the breaks with the first of her many delusional remarks, namely: “I just want my parents to be proud of me.”
So, who is Grace Quek? Although she was born and raised in Singapore, Quek was educated at an English private school. Her further education at Cambridge University, at a time when post-modernism and women’s studies dominated, may partly explain why she uses feminism to justify her work in pornography.
During the course of the documentary, Quek claims that she did not appear in the notorious video for money (she’s still owed the $10,000 promised her), but to “explore” her sexuality, to “reclaim” her body and “empower” herself. She says she wanted to show that women could be “studs like men” and have consequence-free sex. All very admirable and salutary, but this turns out to be the second of her delusions.
When Grace Quek first appears in Lewis’s documentary, it is through footage from television’s “The Jerry Springer Show”. She is highly strung, manic, and surprisingly inarticulate for a university graduate. Unfortunately, she also plays the part of the giggly, girlie, breathy women stuck in Lolita overdrive only too well – hardly the model of self-empowerment and sober level-headedness that is needed to carry the message of pro-sex feminism to the world. When Springer announced to his audience that the woman sitting before them had had sex with 251 men, they were agog, speechless, before erupting into the simian hooting which characterises that proletariat show. Chong read their response as some kind of support and acts accordingly, but close-ups of the audience reveal another less digestible fact.
Later in the documentary, a warmer and more generous Grace Quek begins to emerge. She presents herself as a bright young woman, who is drawn to the edges of society, even though the path has been very obviously laid before her for a more conventional life, should she have chosen to take it. Perhaps due to her middle-class, Christian background she delights in provocation and flaunting convention. She is highly sexed, perhaps even a nymphomaniac, which would explain her more manic displays and lack of self-control at certain points.
What becomes evident very quickly is that, despite her outwardly unconventional lifestyle, Grace Quek remains the product of her middle-class background. Furthermore, she mouths self-empowerment clichés without really understanding their deeper meaning and implications for her as a woman. Inwardly, she continues to believe that her elite education and class will shield her from life’s rougher side; and that mummy and daddy will always be there should she fall. All of which may have led her to commit her worst crimes: not accepting responsibility for her own actions, and not having the courage of her own convictions.
If the three great monotheistic religions of the world hadn’t spent so much time moralising sex, we might not see anything intrinsically wrong with a life of pornography. However, such is not the case in the world today. And since we hold highly ambivalent attitudes towards all matters sexual, we have demonised the people who choose to make their livelihood via the flesh. Consequently, as the documentary demonstrates, if one chooses to live in that milieu, then one must also accept the consequences born of such a life. You need backbone and stamina to survive not only the harsher aspects of the industry itself, but also the judgement of the world.
Once you have been sucked into the porn vortex, you can rarely ever go back. Most pornographers who have made a name and reputation for themselves, forfeited a ‘normal’ life for that of the social outcast, and even sacrificed the love and support of family relationships in order to fulfil their chosen destinies. But Grace Quek wanted to be a pornographer and still have the approval of her parents. She quickly discovered that such is not always the way of world, even in an age when sex saturates the airwaves.
The porn actress and stripper Megan Leigh recently spoke out about the close relationship she enjoys with her in-the-know mother. It still holds true; however, that only the most enlightened and sophisticated of parents would be proud of a child who is a pornographer. And Mr and Mrs Quek are hardly that. They are a Christian Singaporean family, who live in blissful ignorance of their daughter’s fame until the final minutes of this documentary. Interestingly, Quek and her mother keep the ailing father in the dark about his daughter’s occupation – a good example of how women often collude to protect men.
The scenes of Mrs Quek slowly packing her daughter’s suitcase as she tearfully asks her to not return home until she has restored her mother’s ‘dignity’ is the emotional core of Lewis’s film. It contains a nugget of truth and humanity that seems to be lacking in Grace Quek’s world of dizzy friends and lubricous acquaintances. As we discreetly watch her mother’s concept of the daughter she bore, raised and loved crumble, the documentary also uncovers the real victims of pornography.
The true victims of porn are not those who dedicate their lives to it (Grace Quek was emotionally and psychologically damaged before she entered porn); nor are they the consumers; or even rapists and their victims. The real victims of pornography are the virtuous, moral men and women who live all of their lives with blinkers on, denying the unstoppable force of nature that is sex, and the often brutal realities of life that exist outside their safe suburban homes. As we see here, when they are confronted with the truth, they often fall apart.
On the surface, there is nothing about the Quek family that alerts us to the destiny awaiting their daughter. We see no history of abuse or violence, emotional or otherwise. (Though the images of Quek’s distant and withdrawn father, who seemed to be frozen rigid, did leave a lingering feeling of unease.)
However, most viewers will very quickly come to the conclusion that the feminist rhetoric is a salve for that which truly ails Grace Quek, an ailment which may be manifesting itself in her pornographic work and self-mutilation. Long after the documentary was over, the questions linger. Why did she find it necessary to slash her arms with a knife in order to “feel alive”? What emptiness did the blade fill with pain? What had died inside her that only the cut of a knife and the impact of 251 cocks could revive? And what was that skittish uncertainty behind her eyes?
Spiros Markou, the Greek writer and critic, summed up Chong’s dilemma when he recently said to me “emptiness, she seems to be filled with emptiness, and therefore tries to get fulfilled through the body.” While pondering his remark, an early scene from the documentary kept coming back. It is of Mrs Quek reminiscing of happier times, when her daughter was very young. She fondly remembers her daughter’s independence from a young age, and tells of leaving her alone while she and her husband were away. She used to pin a handkerchief to little Grace’s clothes, she says, and instruct her daughter that if anything went wrong, or if she wanted to cry, to use it.
It doesn’t seem to occur to the well-meaning woman that leaving a child with a handkerchief as baby sitter is cold comfort, indeed. Or that this might have repercussions later in life.
Viewers will very quickly realise that this documentary is not a pro-porn polemic. Rather, it is a cautionary tale in a long line of red-light cautionary tales; the most recent of which were Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997) and 8 MM (Joel Schumacher, 1999).
For all its in-your-face tactics and bravado Sex: The Annabel Chong Story is a timid sexual tourist looking for instant gratification and a quick getaway without any telltale stains on his person. I kept hoping against hope that it would rise to the level of psychological complexity of Monika Treut’s Female Misbehavior (1992), Sex is Sex: Conversations with Male Prostitutes (Brian Bergen and Jennifer Milici, 1995) or the various documentaries about Annie Sprinkle.
On a more positive note, the documentary does unwittingly bring the sleaze back to porn. In an effort to ensure its survival in the face of congressional and feminist attacks in the 1980s and 1990s, the American porn industry launched a laughable campaign to clean up its image. There was much talk about ‘legitimacy’ and ‘wholesomeness’, and how these videos were providing a ‘social service’ and a ‘marital aid’ for happy couples spending a romantic evening at home in front of the telly.
But the reality is that porn is sleazy. That’s why consumers like it and why some people aspire to be in it. It’s dirty and secretive, beyond the pale and completely unacceptable to social or Judeo-Christian norms. It is taboo, forbidden. In a world that has become increasingly commodified and sterile, sexual exploration may well be the last frontier, offering both adventure and self-knowledge. As soon as porn becomes squeaky clean and acceptable, a family pastime, it will lose its allure and significance for those who want to use it as a tool of masturbation, rebellion or self-expression.
This refusal to accept the true face of pornography, even by insiders, is nowhere better exemplified than in the hilarious scene wherein a puffed-up porn actor, Michael J. Coxx, says that he is ashamed of Annabel Chong’s gangbang video and is enraged by its makers. This Mother Teresa in disguise goes on to say that he objects to Chong’s behaviour because she makes porn ‘look sleazy’. After briefly considering what he’d just said, he looks to the camera in some confusion and mumbles, ‘But I suppose it is.’
The antiseptic nature of most modern porn, full of scrubbed, buffed and perfect Californian bodies doing mechanical things under the glare of bright studio lights and the scrutiny of perfect camera work, has taken the eroticism and salaciousness out of watching porn. In response to this sanitising process, there has been an increase in ‘amateur porn’ where ‘real people’ do it for the cameras and beam their digital selves across the world via the Internet. Some porn filmmakers have even taken to scouring the newly reopened Eastern European countries for darker, swarthier talent – a welcome respite from what Camille Paglia calls “the tyranny of the blonde”. And it seems ‘hidden cameras’ are popping up in every locker room and college dorm across the globe. Independent, rebel pornographers like Dick Wadd are also upping the stakes with some highly disreputable, politically incorrect ‘barebacking’ videos that have stirred controversy even within the porn industry itself.
With its eye-popping demonstration of a triple penetration and across-the-board proliferation of body types and age ranges, the other positive thing that can be said about Sex: The Annabel Chong Story is that it brings real people back to porn. Here for your delectation are all the distended bellies, sagging pecs, hairy backs, nerdy looks and nervous, high-anticipation men that have been censored out of pornography; the very people who take their pleasure from these entertainments.
Belying Quek’s own assertions to the contrary, the documentary goes on to suggest that it may be that feminism and pornography have to remain exclusive, unless the participating women are alert and focused on who is holding the reins. Unfortunately, from what we see here, Annabel Chong had lost control of her horses of passion long ago. At a Sexpo, we see her encircled by leering, camera-wielding men who are commanding her to strike all manner of poses. There is no joy evident as she tries to please. She simply comes across like a puppet terrified of disappointing her commandeers. There was no sign of the much-vaunted empowerment or control in her frantic displays, just someone that had sadly become less than human.
Ostensibly, Grace Quek wanted to prove that women could be ‘studs’ like men and to have sex without suffering the consequences. What she really meant was that she wanted to exorcise her personal demons through a medium, which ends up devouring her instead. Her lesson seems to be that, due to social and biological impediments, women might not be in a position to have consequence-free sex. Men have a little more leeway than women do in this area. But even they cannot indulge excessively without nature eventually knocking on their door. Just ask Marquise de Sade, Pier Paolo Pasolini, thousands of gay men, Marco Vassi and John Holmes.
The writer Anne Rice once said that pornography is a place you visit, but you do not live there. What this documentary shows is that perhaps for those who do live the pornographic life full time, there is a price to pay. Pornographers may be invited inside millions of homes across the globe daily, but it’s a temporary invitation, quickly, coldly, revoked once the hosts’ senses are sated. The reward stuffed into their glittering g-string is the world’s disdain and ostracism. And you either live with it or you don’t.
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With thanks to Sandy Webster.