The Mass Production of Taboo
How Porn Movies Embraced Incest
By Justine Smith
Reading time 11 Minutes
Spring Night, Summer Night offers a nuanced and romantic take on incest. A 1980s porn series attempted to mine incest for titilation – with mixed results.
By the end of the 1970s, the heyday of arthouse porn was coming to an end
By the end of the 1970s, the heyday of arthouse porn was coming to an end. Long gone were the days when a film like Deep Throat could hit the box-office top ten, even though it has long been established that some box-office money from Deep Throat is due to inflated box-office receipts as a form of money laundering. Still, it was still one of most seen pornographic films on the big screen, but pornography as a nearly-mainstream event still had its draw. But, those days were numbered, as home video formats would completely take over the industry in the following decade.
By 1980, VHS dominated over 60% of the North American video market, and that number would only grow over the decade. On the cusp of the arthouse era and the video store takeover, emerged one of the most successful porn films of all time: Taboo, starring Kay Parker and directed by Kirdy Stevens. Still retaining the soft-focus celluloid of the big-screen golden age, Taboo found unprecedented success in the video market.
Taboo straddles the line between these two worlds: it is a gentle, incest-themed film that launched an enduring series that stretched until 2007. It remains a classic in its own rights, a fun and surprisingly tame porno with very little conflict and a poetic collection of amazing throwaway lines (sample: “The minute they get it up, they let you down”). The film’s enduring appeal is as much sourced from its taboo subject, as well as the fact it emerged at the first big bump of the video store era.
Unlike a film like Deep Throat, that entered the popular vernacular as it screened in select cinemas, Taboo appealed and endeared itself to a much different audience. The video store market was not only wider, but it was far more private: the giggling generation brave enough to go to a porn theatre could suddenly bring the sleaze home with them, quietly and secretly if they so desired. This also meant venturing into the further reaches of fetishism and taboo-topics, an activity that suddenly became more widely hungered for. The social stigma of indulging in incest porn in public and on the big screen was gone with the privacy of home viewing.
Aaron Stewart, a filmmaker who once worked at Scarecrow Video in Seattle – a video store that offers niche arthouse choices and porn – coined the term Sandwich Men. These were “a category of customer who would always approach the counter with their porn sandwiched between two 'worthy' movies. Almost always Woody Allen or some highbrow Asian thing,” he explained. “And then, in between, would be Barely Legal 21 and Barenaked Chickenheads Taking it In the Butt.” Stewart was working there in the early 2000s, but that aura of shame and secret still lingers even today – in the early 1980s, with the rise of the gun-ho wholesomeness of the Reagan era – it must have been especially strong.
For a film that deals with a topic as sensitive as incest, Taboo is relatively gentle. The film opens with a married couple breaking up – the husband has had it with his wife’s prudish desire to make love with the lights off. He runs away with his “teeny-bopper” secretary, leaving his other half to care for their barely legal son. There is no real sense of a normal parental relationship as one of the first lines Barbara’s son, Paul, (who looks at least 30) says to her is, “I got the best looking mom in town.” A quick parent-child kiss introduces tongue within the first act.
From the onset, the film has an aura of fantastical artificiality that showcases a sex-obsessed society. After her husband leaves, Barbara (Kay Parker) calls up her best friend Gina, who is in the throes of passion with her triad of lovers, getting off and throwing off some of the best porno lines of all time. There is never any sense that the film is operating in a reality resembling our own, except in the broadest strokes that these characters have houses, jobs and desires. The film has a shallow arc, one which sees Barbara go from dependent stay at home housewife to independent woman.
From the onset, Paul is presented as a perfect son and lover
From the onset, Paul is presented as a perfect son and lover. He is loyal to his mother and willing to quit school in order to support her. He is demonstrably intelligent, rattling off countless facts about Ancient Greece to his teenage-girlfriend as they “study” and he has the physique of an athlete. As Barbara pours her heart out about her fears about taking a step into the working world to Gina, the conversation redirects to Paul – when Gina proclaims, “Now Barbara, tell me about that gorgeous son, he must be REALLY big by now.” Swift cut to a bulging, demonstrable proof of how “big” Paul has gotten stretching the thin denim of his too-tight jeans. His sexual prowess is such, that his girlfriend offers his pulsing member to an unfortunate friend of hers who never experienced an orgasm to enjoy the fruits of his generous and perfect sexual labour.
Never is a traditional power dynamic between parent and child drawn up. Paul is independent from the start and presented as far more in control than his delicate mother. Kay Parker gives a remarkably nuanced performance for such a thinly written role, playing an older woman uncomfortable with sex. She is hampered by a lack of reshoots, as in one sequence she starts to say “fuck” – a word off-limit in Kirdy Stevens productions – and she corrects herself, but the take remains. The more confident and aggressive Paul is the one who instigates this subversive relationship, willing to take care of his mother in more ways than one.
There is the fetishistic voyeur sequence where Paul watches his mother shower and dress. Completely unaware of his watchful eyes, she caresses her body and slowly pulls on stockings that she fastens to a garter belt. Slowly paced, the scene feels interminable, and far more dirty than the more hardcore segments. It is a moment where the artificiality breaks, giving way to desire beyond school-play line readings. This sequence feels more at home in the realm of Erich von Stroheim or Luis Buñuel than it does a hardcore porn film. It’s a sequence representing a hidden and forbidden yearning in explicitly non-explicit terms.
Mother and son only consummate their relationship in Taboo during the final act. After coming home from a (failed) swingers orgy, Barbara is fired up. She starts touching herself, and just so happens to wander by her son’s bedroom, where he is sleeping naked. He is fully erect. The pair end up engaging in two love scenes together, both are marked by a sort of insatiable lust that makes all the other scenes feel pale by comparison. The sex scenes are good, backed up by a strong sense of “we know you know this is fake, but isn’t it fun to imagine something so forbidden could be real?”
Surprisingly and, controversially, the film’s depiction of Barbara is rooted in a real sense of anxiety and fear. It presents her as a woman set adrift in a man’s world and throw into the comfort of the past. After they make love she says, “It was lovely, holding my darling boy in my arms again – just like when you were little.” Not discounting how problematic it is, the film structures the incest as symptomatic of a woman who yearns to return to a time in her life that seemed uncomplicated, when she was loved unconditionally.
Taboo succeeds on this level as much as horror and torture cinema can, that the veil of unreality keeps the audience at a distance. No one really wants to see someone dismembered, just as most people don’t really want to indulge in or even witness real incest. As George Batailles’ explains in his famous essay on eroticism, desire is born by the transgression of taboo - without taboo eroticism no longer exists.
This nature of transgression related to Taboo was no doubt related to the new immediacy audiences were able to have to pornography. It was no longer the Playboy in the woods, it was a very real tape showing very naughty things. Filmmaker, Eduardo Lucatero remembers when he was growing up, the film was the subject of “locker room talk.” “I heard about it from other kids in school. If anyone had a copy they would pass it around (which instantly made him a 'cool' kid),” he explained. “I think it was assumed by everyone that it wasn’t real.” More than anything, it was the forbidden nature of it that caught the attention of people - Lucatero likening it to Faces of Death, the mondo horror documentary featuring (mostly) recreated death scenes from around the world.
Remarkably, Taboo has endured over the decades. From 1980 to 2007, there have been 23 volumes in the series - all featuring incest. It was the winner of the inaugural Homer Award from the prestigious Video Software Dealers Association in the category of Best Adult Tape in 1983, testifying to its impact in the video market. Ironically though, the medium that helped launch Taboo’s impact would also be the nail in the coffin for the first Golden Age of Pornography. Video meant a wider audience and higher profits, but it also meant mass-production and shrinking budgets. This coupled with the rising AIDS crisis meant a lot of the actors, like Kay Parker, did not make the transition to the new world of video store marked homogeneous artlessness.
Taboo has endured and while it suffers for time and depth, it has a level of sophistication that makes it endearing rather than uncomfortable. It is also one of the last remnants in a period where porn aspired to be art - an all-too-brief decade where ambition for good filmmaking met with financial desires. As much as nostalgia swirls for an era of porn with sensual and loving sex, a movie like Taboo harkens back to an era of pornography built around secrecy. When we traded porn video stores for incognito windows, something was lost: a tangible sense of danger, a forbidden sense of transgression that might never be regained.
Justine Smith is a freelance writer based in Montreal, QC. She likes transgressive eroticism and rom-coms.
Art by Jason Ngai