Annabel Chong – Can a Porn Star be a Feminist Icon?

As I’m currently in Singapore on vacation, I thought I’d take a moment to talk about someone who is possibly the most controversial woman in Singapore’s history. Or perhaps controversial is the wrong word; after all, to qualify as being controversial, one has to have generated some difference of opinion. ‘Infamous’ might be a better word, but I’d like to make her a little more controversial today.

Though I live and work in London, I spent a good part of my youth in Singapore, and growing up we all knew who Annabel Chong was. High-achieving school girl-turned-record breaking porn star, her name was bandied about as a joke, a disappointment, a warning to young girls everywhere. To agree with her actions or attempt to discuss them was to invite shock, outrage, and ridicule (especially when talking to one’s parents, as I found out).

For those who do not know Annabel, it’s the stage name of the porn actress who set a world record by engaging in 251 sex acts with more than 70 men, within 10 hours. You can imagine the kind of things that are said about her in her conservative hometown.

But what I find fascinating about Annabel is how she entered the porn industry with a sense of – one could call it – youthful idealism. She holds a degree in Gender Studies, and in the film ‘Sex – The Annabel Chong Story’, she speaks of her motives:

“[I wanted to challenge] the notion of women as passive sex objects…We’re not wilting violets, we’re not victims, for Christ’s sake. Female sexuality is as aggressive as male sexuality. I wanted to take on the role of the stud. The more [partners], the better.”

Unfortunately, the porn industry, and her audience, did not agree. Rather than portraying it the way Annabel wanted, with her as the ‘stud’, having her way with lots of men, the film is called ‘The World’s Biggest Gang Bang’, which is defined as ‘the successive rape of one person by a group of other people.” And it did seem like a gang bang too. Protection was not ensured, and Annabel was passed around from man to man, without power or agency of her own. Far from being a woman on the prowl, she was cast as a victim, a slut, doomed to be the butt of endless jokes and ridicule. She wasn’t even paid.

Something else that complicates the idea of Annabel as a strong feminist figure is her own disturbed emotional state, which renders her actions rather more complex. A victim of an actual gang bang in her youth, she has suffered from bouts of depression, has self-harmed, and has said in an interview that she wished to feel like a piece of meat. In 2003, she turned away from the porn industry entirely, leaving a final message on her website – “Annabel is dead.” She now leads a quiet life as a web developer, and it seems that all the negative publicity, prejudice and societal condemnation has broken her already fragile fighting spirit, and she’s washed her hands of the whole business.

Annabel’s motives were admirable. Her actions led to failure and disaster because the world was not ready for them. No one seemed to understand, or if they did, they refused to acknowledge it. Certainly not the producers, directors, or the 70 men in the film. Certainly not her audience, and certainly not her countrymen. I look upon her as a brave martyr, and while she may be no Germaine Greer or Simone de Beauvoir, if she’s woken some people up to the horrific inequalities and double standards that exist in society, as well as the routine exploitation of women, then that sure as hell counts for something, doesn’t it?