Dr. Sam Ben-Meir
In Burbank, California, amidst the famed New York Street sets at Warner Bros, filmmakers are shooting a new film entitled “The Latin from Manhattan”, about the wildly vivacious and roller-coaster life of Vanessa Del Rio – the world’s first Latina adult star. The film is set in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a period when both organized crime controlled Times Square, and when the city and country’s social mores were shifting towards the conservatism of the Reagan era. There is a gritty, visceral edge to the scenes, conveying the strong sense this film has the potential to upend many of our assumptions about adult stars, in particularly the female performers, as it addresses the adult industry’s place in our social history.
Indeed, the movie offers perspective on some of the fundamental debates of our time: namely, the relationship between pornography and violence, and between feminist politics and sexual freedom. Even now before the film is finished, there is no doubt where this film will make its stand – it is clearly on the side of its strong, lead protagonist, legendary Latina adult star Vanessa del Rio. For the writer and director, Thomas Mignone – who spent many months talking with del Rio to get a real sense of her life and personality before writing a single word of the screenplay or shooting a frame of the film – she is a true feminist. For anti-porn feminists, such a view is indefensible: pornography is the expression of our historically patriarchal culture through which women are commodified and exploited. All pornography, according to this view, is by its very nature an act of sexual violence.
By no means does the film shy away from the difficult issues surrounding pornography – specifically the adult film industry – and violence. During the late 70s and 80s, most of Times Square was under mob control in industries like construction, sanitation, drugs, and prostitution. The adult industry was a perfect vehicle to launder money derived from these illicit businesses, and the federal authorities had their hands full in trying to figure out how they were laundering – turning the cash registers on and off during the day, not reporting the actual numbers, and the shells within shells of corporate names. Given the nature of the environment, violence was everywhere.
The film’s head-on confrontation with violence – both on and off camera – is exemplified in various edifying scenes – such as one in which del Rio rejects the proposed use of a samurai sword by her male counterpart; and chooses instead to confront a mobster and ask if she can imply such violence towards the male performer’s privates. She demonstrates her unwillingness to be subjected to this kind of depraved and dehumanizing behavior, in a way that is both funny and serious – lending a certain poignancy to the film, especially in its reflection on del Rio’s insistence that she, and her female colleagues, be treated with respect.
Performers, and especially women, in the adult industry are generally stigmatized and denigrated for allowing themselves to be objectified and exploited. This film attempts to counter this and convey a very different tone and emotion. The film openly challenges the conventional depiction of women who work in the sex industry as victims, broken human beings who were abused, molested, having drug and alcohol problems; such that they are invariably looked down upon by society, including anti-pornography feminists.
Vanessa Del Rio (played by new and utterly fearless actress Vivian Lamolli) differentiated herself from colleagues like Linda Lovelace in that she did not allow herself to be victimized or exploited: she was proud of her sexuality and confident in her abilities to bring pleasure to not only herself, but more importantly others as well. This was a significant thing at the time. Let us not forget that in 1981, Andrea Dworkin’s Pornography: Men Possessing Women appeared – still the single most influential text in anti-pornography feminism – a book which argued for the view that pornography was essentially linked with male violence against women; that pornography provides “the blueprint of male supremacy,” and that no one who defends pornography can be a feminist.
We might pause here to consider the question whether pornography does in fact incite men to sexual violence – as it remains one of the chief accusations hurled against pornography. Indeed, a cause-and-effect relationship is often drawn between men consuming pornographic material and men violently attacking women, particularly in the form of rape. Studies and experts, however, disagree as to whether there is any such relationship between pornography and violence. It is certainly remarkable that in Japan, where extremely graphic and brutal pornography is widely available, the incidence of rape is much lower per capita than in the United States, where violence in pornography is severely restricted. Statistics show that rape occurs in the United States roughly 27 times more often than in Japan.
It is a noteworthy aspect of the film that it examines the contested issue of what studies conducted in the 1970s and 80s by the feds actually demonstrated. Thousands of male college students were subjected to hundreds of hours of adult films and images depicting rapes, gang bangs, etc., and then asked questions like “If you saw a woman being raped would it bother you?” – of course the responses and data were heavily manipulated to depict a causal correlation between pornography and violence. Many experts did not agree with the manipulated conclusions and findings. In fact, despite repeated exposure to slides showing highly ‘deviant’ sexual activity, subjects did not reveal any tendency to act out such practices, nor exhibit any change in their own customary sexual practices.
Another frequent accusation against pornography is that women who work in the industry are coerced into doing so; and that if they appear to be willing it can only be because these women have “fallen in love with their own oppression.” What seems to be a common characteristic among women in the adult film industry is a ‘love of exhibitionism’ – and certainly this was true of the film’s star, Vanessa del Rio: she was proud of her sexuality, striving to bring pleasure to herself and others, while refusing to be treated misogynistically. She was also smart and educated, pursuing the nascent computer programming curriculum, as well as other business classes.
When VHS was invented, it suddenly allowed a whole new class of entrepreneurs to, rather amateurishly, start exploring and producing many subgenres of adult materials – including fetish videos, slasher and rape videos, bestiality videos, and all sorts of depraved subgenres; this is something that the film’s lead protagonist, Vanessa del Rio, completely abhorred. It is important to underscore that the film shows her rejecting these types of misogynistic behavior.
The debates surrounding pornography, women’s sexual freedom and feminist politics are still fiercely contested and likely to remain so. Where this film is significant is not so much in providing answers to these issues, but in contributing to the discussion by offering an unflinching yet nuanced perspective that is simply dismissed by the moral right and anti-pornography feminists. While we have to face the reality that abuse does occur in the adult industry – which Mignone’s film certainly recognizes – nevertheless the film also suggests that we cannot afford to be dismissive of the view that pornography can and does in fact benefit women in ways that are personal, professional and even political. This kind of feminism, personified in the film by the powerfully raw depiction of del Rio by Lamolli, recognizes that pornography can positively serve both women and men in a number of ways – by increasing awareness of sexual possibilities, providing a source of sexual enlightenment and satisfying a healthy curiosity about sex; and by knocking down socio-political stereotypes – all of which can provide a therapeutic outlet for those who, for whatever reason, either have no sexual partner or have sexual partners stymied by societal and religious repressions. Equally riveting performances by accomplished actors Esai Morales (Ozark) as del Rio’s womanizing Papi, Drea De Matteo (Sopranos’ “Adriana”) as the Madam who employs del Rio at her peep emporium, Taryn Manning (Orange Is The New Black) as del Rio’s fatalistic bff, and Jesse Metcalfe, David Proval, and Elizabeth Rodriguez, all depict characters and couples tangentially related to ways in which sexism and even pornography can be helpful in communicating about sex or experiencing variety without having recourse to adultery.
While it is probably unwise to overly praise a movie that is yet to be released, it is safe to say that this film has the potential to change people’s minds about the adult industry and those who are part of it.
Sam Ben-Meir is a professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy College in New York City.