Women in Pornography: Annabel & Grace

I was first introduced to Sex: The Annabel Chong Story in the second year of my Film Studies degree in a week titled The Pornography Debates, part of the segment on gender representation. Now that I choose to write about gender in culture I regret not plunging myself into full engagement with the course; but despite my mental absence, I remember this documentary with trepidation.

Grace Quek is a Singaporean woman, better known under her porn star alias Annabel Chong, who gained notoriety for breaking the record for having sex with the most men at one time (251 in 10 hours) in The World’s Biggest Gang Bang. Her story caught the attention of student filmmaker Gough Lewis (who I recently learned was her then boyfriend,) who directed the ‘Annabel Chong story’, a story in fact about Grace Quek, sexual politics, the pornography industry, exploitation and emotional instability.

Quek’s story is both mesmerizing and frightening, and as a character she evokes immense respect, frustration and pity. I distinctly recall troubling, hugely ambivalent feelings of anger vs excitement, and dismissal vs curiosity; on first viewing, I had no idea how I felt about the story of Annabel Chong: a plastic, often embarrassing character that essentially never existed. I now see that Quek’s story is “where it’s at” (one of Chong’s favourite phrases), and it raises fascinating questions. The Pornography Debate’s place in gender theory is as frustrating as it is appropriate, and this film delineates the complexity of this regrettable dynamic.

Perhaps the most obvious question could be phrased as “is being a porn star a feminist act?” This reductive question has a longer answer. Quek went about being a porn star in the name of equality and expression and it could be convincingly argued that her venture was a feminist act. (Though Quek never uses the word ‘feminism’ specifically she often espouses feminist rhetoric.) Definitions of ‘feminist’ are often very disparate, and pornography debates illustrate this. Her claim that attempting to sleep with 300 men was a piss-take of the masculine notion of ‘stud’ is a legitimate concept found in both academic and everyday discussions of sexual politics. A student at USC during production, Quek’s academic excellence is evident in footage of her contributions in class and her teachers’ testimonies to the fact; she clearly and purposely conflates her academic work with that of her chosen career.

I don’t see Quek’s actions as ‘feminist’ ones, regardless of having faith in her stated intentions. The most solid insight that the film gives is that the pornography industry operates on a strong current of violence and sadism and systematically engages in exploitation. Much of this is directed at women, whether genuinely or just for show, and women participate either knowingly or with a view to ‘liberating themselves’. Quek’s claims that she wants to change views on female sexuality from stereotypes of passivity to aggression, and that she really enjoys sex, are just fine. Yet these claims are somewhat eclipsed by other revelations, and the insight provided into the industry she participates in. Participating in something on its own terms and claiming it as your own does not equate to subverting or defeating it.

Some of the most telling scenes are those in which Quek is at work; in an interview discussing her upcoming record attempt, John Bowen, director of the World’s Biggest Gang Bang, who speaks either for or over her, matter-of-factly informs the interviewer that “Little Annabel” is going to “take them orally, anally, vaginally, any way you can do it” for “as long as it takes”. After continuing “right now, we’ve got a nationwide search for 300 guys who wanna come in and fuck ‘er”, she is eventually addressed directly, with a pat on the head: “Why don’t you stand up, sweetheart, and take your clothes off and let the people see what they’re gonna fuck.” Quek giggles, smiles and agrees throughout, constantly glancing towards and deferring to Bowen and jumping up to strip meekly at his word. Later we are introduced to the notorious Rob Black (Porn Director of the Year 1998, who made his name with rape fantasy films), who, in discussing the commoditization and legislation of sex work angrily asks why you can’t “have a guy fuck a girl, and while he’s fuckin’ her, have another guy come over with an axe and cut off her fuckin’ head?” This regulation on “our sex”, he believes, is “bullshit.”

It is, of course, wholly possible to be a ‘feminist’ porn star (though an indistinct, nebulous concept), yet in the 90s porn industry Quek needed to do more than turn up for work, have sex and inform us she likes it to be advancing her agenda of destroying the cultural limitations on female sexuality. Other than a phone call with Black in which Quek sternly demands more money than her co-stars, she is rarely seen challenging anything of the ideology or systemic exploitation of the industry. In an admirable though contradictory statement, she also claims that she doesn’t care that she never received the $10,000 that she is owed from Bowen for the record she set, because she didn’t do it for the money.

As the film progresses, the more we learn about Quek, and the more her self-exploitation/liberation becomes unbearable. After discussing being gang-raped as a teenager, and subsequently addicted to drugs, we see her self-harming while tearfully admitting that “life makes you numb” and this is a way to feel her pain. I don’t feel it right to speculate on the exact link that all of these elements of her life have, but on seeing her advertising the gang bang, uncomfortably and monotonously inviting us to have “intercourse” with her while batting fake ‘come-to-bed’ eyes into the camera, it is all the more upsetting to know that a vulnerable and victimized individual is actively pursuing a venture which requires her to be an object for others’ pleasure, in a potentially masochistic process of hyperbolic de-ja-vu. Quek’s face during the gang bang scenes displays immense pain; we learn that the reason she stopped at 251 men instead of the intended 300 was due to tearing in her vagina.

The original ambivalence that I felt after seeing the film reflects the ambivalence and complexity borne from the issue of female sexuality and its exploitation under patriarchy, specifically as a commodity. Long misunderstood as sinful, shameful, and worst of all, commodifiable objects in themselves, many women continue to understand their sexuality and bodies on these terms. It then follows that choosing to sell one’s own body and sex equates to liberation from the sinful, shameful, externally-owned scenario. In fact, it ensures the perpetuation of a cultural climate that understands the owning, selling and availability of women for others’ pleasure as commonplace and inevitable. Feminism is about improving the lives of women, away from violence, disrespect and wider inequality and under-representation. To promote equality in the porn industry, the violence, degradation and dehumanization of women must be attacked. Quek bravely and determinedly participated in the porn industry for her own complex reasons, but hardly on progressive terms. She has since retired, and I sincerely hope she has spent time healing.

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