Gore for Porn: Sex, Death and Technology

The culture of mankind has from its earliest stirrings been dominated by the interplay between sex and death, creating representations ridiculous and sublime, determined by the cultural fancies and technological limits of the time. And the web has intertwined Eros and Thanatos in ways that cater for any proclivity, with hardcore porn becoming so niche and fetishistic that every whim is catered for, just for jolly, from the bathetic to the criminal. The intersection of sex and death in popular culture was highlighted in the ‘Gore for Porn’ media circus that grew up around the DIY porn site www.nowthatsfuckedup.com (known as NTFU for brevity from this point) that ended in the prosecution of the web master and Internet pornographer Chris Wilson.

 
“Bad Day for this dude” posted Oct. 28, 2004 by “chris”
 

The ‘Gore for Porn’ controversy that surfaced in September 2005 testified to the commodity value of the ruined body, and also its power to exert fascination. In its heady mix of sex, death and technology it soon became apparent that a complicated relationship between social and technological currents was determining how the ruined and the sexual body had become in a sense interchangeable. Most importantly, the ‘Gore for Porn’ swaps emphasised that while a lot of media filtering from Iraq was selective with news unfavourable to the coalition suppressed or uncovered, the conflict was ‘open’ in that the everyday use of digital cameras and the Internet meant that U.S. military personnel were absent-mindedly indicting themselves in order to secure free access to DIY porn. For almost a year before the story became international news, American soldiers posted in Afghanistan and Iraq had been sending photographs of dead bodies to the web site administrator of the amateur porn site NTFU. Wilson had created the hard porn site in 2004 as an Internet financial venture: users posted DIY porn pictures, ostensibly of their wives and girlfriends, and for a $10 dollar fee others could scrutinise the pictures. At its peak Wilson claimed his site had 150,000 registered users, 45,000 of whom were military personnel.  Wilson estimated that of the 130,000 unique visitors to the site daily, 39,000 users were U.S. military personnel. 

 
 

The ‘Gore for Porn’ swaps were born out of difficulties U.S. soldiers encountered when trying to access the site in Afghanistan and Iraq, with credit card companies refusing to approve the soldiers’ purchases because they were based in high risk countries.  Wilson, espousing patriotic fervour, offered free memberships to soldiers on the condition they sent a picture validating that they were serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. For a souvenir photo, they could have all the free porn they desired. Wilson received a deluge of disparate imagery, from the banal to the grisly, but dedicated a special site to the goriest pictures.  Mutilated and disfigured Iraqi corpses had a hard currency value to buy pornography. Aside from the obvious moral and ethical complications of framing death as a spectacle in this way, the quasi-humorous context the pictures were presented in was also contentious, with photographs of Iraqi corpses accompanied by chan board humour and a general air of frivolity, for the lulz, as always.

Civil rights groups demanded the military intervened to prevent display of the photographs online. At first, there was confusion about the legality of the photographs and whether they were censurable or protected.  Wilson’s website was hosted on servers based in the Netherlands and was consequently bound by the law of the Netherlands. The council of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee said the photographs possibly violated the international laws of war established in the Geneva Convention, while Wilson himself was sure that the fact he was not serving in the military himself meant he hadn’t actually perpetrated a prosecutable offence.  

 
‘Cooked Iraqi’ posted by ‘Sideburnz’ April 15, 2005

 

The Internet has presented bloggers with a powerful medium to communicate outside of mainstream media, allowing soldiers in any conflict, such as American forces in Iraq, the potential to relate their experiences in a manner that is rawer and arguably more truthful than that offered by mainstream media sources.  Again, the context the images were presented in was as contentious as the actual body horror imagery itself. Yet, while the contextualisation of the photographs at NTFU was unsettling, the unsophisticated clearing house could be seen as attesting to the damage inflicted on the soldiers’ psyche by the barbarity of war. The media attention Wilson courted granted him dubious minor celebrity status in the U.S. and the roll-on effect of the media coverage saw visitors to the site rise from 100,000 to 180,000 a day.  Critics of Wilson regarded him as an active participant in desensitizing violence rather than an impartial moderator, attracting death threats as his notoriety grew.  Yet in some quarters Wilson was regarded as an idiot savant who had unwittingly dispersed the fog of war, and the dialogue engendered by the meeting of sex and death imagery failed to address the obvious message the body horror media conveyed, that if Vietnam was the first televised war, the Iraq occupation was the inaugural war of the cyber age.

Pressured by Civil Rights groups, the U.S. Defence Dept. claimed the law was ambiguous about the gore for porn swaps, with Chris Wilson innocent of any offence.  Wilson ran his site out of the ultra-conservative Polk County, Florida, whose sheriff’s office had a reputation for aggressively prosecuting adult-orientated businesses, and he found himself arrested and faced with hundreds of obscenity related charges.  Jailed for peddling hardcore pornography, Wilson’s lawyer argued that the prosecution was a cover to close down the site and suppress the American soldier. Wilson became an unlikely figurehead in a public debate about freedom of information and visual images on the Internet, actually spending months inside jail after having his bail revoked because he continued to operate his website despite warnings from the legal authorities.  His trial was anticipated as being a stirring debate on constitutional rights and freedom of speech, but Wilson never stood trial after pleading no contest to charges of possessing obscene materials. Wilson closed his website down in 2006 and was sentenced to five years’ probation, not allowing him to run a site again until 2011, when he became site administrator for the one of the better reality gore sites Documenting Reality. After the site was taken down visitors to nowthatsfuckedup.com were now greeted by a missive from the Polk County Sheriff’s Office telling the visitor the sheriff’s office has control of the URL. Now a visit to the address presents you with a form to fill in if you wish you wish to inquire about purchasing the domain name, showing that even as it is relegated to the footnotes of popular culture it still retains a modest commodity vale.

   
 

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Mark Astley

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