Telling Stories: Annabel Chong, Instrumentality and Exploitation

by Caroline West, Dublin City University, Ireland.

Sex: The Annabel Chong Story (Gough Lewis 1999) is a documentary based on a porn film starring Annabel Chong, a woman catapulted to infamy through porn. Chong, whose real name is Grace Quek, is a 22-year-old Singaporean woman who partook in a gangbang, billed as The World’s Biggest Gangbang, in having sex with 251 men over ten hours. The film follows Chong as she discusses her motivations for taking part in the film, the buildup and promotion of the event, and the fallout.

Chong speaks often about power in the film. Referencing Messalina’s Roman orgies as inspiration, she outlines how participating in the gangbang is a way to reclaim female sexuality, to portray female sexuality as powerful and as hungry as male sexuality. Chong argues that women can be studs just as much as men and the film shows her arguing against this double standard in various press interviews. However, there are several nuances of power not as overtly discussed within the film.

Chong is depicted discussing her passions for female sexual empowerment but it is later revealed that she had been the victim of a gang rape in London some years previously. Director Gough Lewis positions her as reliving trauma; however, Chong has stated that he persistently pushed her emotionally at the scene to get a ‘money shot’. Lewis thus positions Chong as a perpetual victim instead of a survivor, forever held back by her experiences. This positioning should be questioned; the nuance between victim, survivor and thriver in sexual abuse is different for everyone, with some embodying some of these labels at some times, and sometimes never embodying any of them. With the accompanying footage of Chong self-harming, we are encouraged to pity Chong and see her as a victim. Lewis is alleged to have also self-harmed with Chong at the same time, with Chong stating ‘He was so moved by it that he joined in’. [1] Chong also alleged the two were in a relationship, stating: ‘There’s this bit in the film where I cut myself, but he cut himself too. It was the day we broke up, we were in so much pain and we used the camera – I think of it as our camera – to record it all. He just dropped this scene in there without showing he was complicit’. Neither aspect is addressed on screen, with Chong later expressing that she was ‘astonished’ at how it was portrayed out of context.

The omissions are of significant ethical concern due to the lack of objectivity and power relations contained within these deliberate concealments. Chong stated in the press tours for the film that Lewis had previous experience with drug use and felt this film was a way to redeem himself to his mother:

‘There’s a lot of projection going on there and at some point me and one of the producers, Suzanne Whitten, were saying that this is “Sex: The Gough Lewis Story, told by Gough Lewis through Annabel Chong”.’

Chong is subjected to instrumentality, where the person is used as a tool for the purposes of the objectifier- in this case for Lewis to project his own issues. Indeed, this use of a documentary subject as a vehicle for the filmmaker’s own issues raises questions of boundaries, subjectivity and the ethics of telling someone’s story that is not your own, especially when profit is a part of the process.

The issue of exploitation also features when it is highlighted that Chong was not paid for her work in the film and is owed $10,000. Chong is adamant she does not want the money. Comments made by John T Bowen, the director of the gangbang, starkly contrast Chong’s speeches about female sexual empowerment and makes it clear she is little more than a tool to use. When asked in the documentary if it was love at first sight for him, he replies ‘nah, it was money at first sight’. Bowen also does not require all participants to submit to STI tests despite this being Chong’s understanding. The lack of respect or care for Chong’s health is further highlighted when she experiences a cut from a fingernail, but filming still continues, with greater risk of STI transmission for Chong. One wonders, if Chong had contracted a disease who would pay for medical treatment.

One aspect of exploitation is not addressed quite so clearly: the exploitation of Chong through the documentary process. Chong expressed in interviews afterwards that she did not feel she was well represented in the documentary. [2] The main people who speak in the film are men, reducing Chong’s position as a speaking subject and dismissing her subjectivity. The male agents, performers, photographers, friends and so on work with the male documentary director to craft the story, leaving Chong objectified and reduced to her body, shown in graphic depictions throughout the film. Chong is less a maker of meaning in her own story than the men around her and the men are afforded expert status on her life and decisions, rather than Chong herself.

Chong was also left to promote the documentary on her own on several occasions as Lewis refused to do this. She expressed in interviews that she was tired and further traumatised by questioning that repeatedly asked her about her rape or the gangbang. Her trauma is already exposed in the documentary, in a way that she herself expressed did not feel right to her; the interview process by strangers who felt entitled to ask such personal questions exposes Chong to re-traumatisation. She is once again objectified through the violability of her boundaries and the denial of her subjectivity.

One wonders how different a documentary on Chong would have been if she had made it herself, as she has stated she would do. We might also examine the reasons why we desire a behind the scenes look, why we need Chong to explain her actions to us strangers. Foucault argued that man has become a confessing animal, and while this act of confessing used to be done in the dark confines of the church, modern confessions take place in public. [3] One venue utilised by Chong to make a public confession was the The Jerry Springer Show (1991–present), a vehicle for society to gain all the salacious details needed to judge someone as ‘lesser than’, as a ‘freak’, or a ‘deviant’. We would benefit from examining this need to examine the actions of a woman who breaks societal taboos over female sexual behaviour and how this process contributes to Othering women who explore their sexuality and use their bodies in non-traditional ways. The binaries between victim and non-victim, exploitation and empowerment need to be dismantled in favour of a nuanced approach that looks at how subjectivity and power play out in these experiences. It is an approach that also needs to consider our need to know in the battle over female sexuality and sexual behaviour.

Notes

[1] Cited in Gerrie Lim. 2011. Singapore Rebel: Searching for Annabel Chong. Singapore: Monsoon.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Michel Foucault. 1990. The History of Sexuality. New York: Vintage.

Contributor

Caroline West Profile Pic
Caroline West is a PhD researcher at Dublin City University, Ireland. Her research focuses on the experiences of women working in the American porn industry and how these experiences are discussed by the feminist movement. This also involves examining the history of pornography and the relationship between power, sex and knowledge. She also holds an MA in Sexuality Studies.

caroline.ryan67@mail.dcu.ie / @carolinewest_IE

 

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