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  • In the Flesh: Space and Embodiment in the Pornographic Peep Show Arcade
  • Amy Herzog

Within cluttered media landscapes, littered with an infinite variety of screens, the pornographic peep show arcade is a singular and ubiquitous format. Clustered in tenderloin districts in virtually every metropolitan area, peep show “movie machines” can also be found in suburban porn shops and the truck-stop adult markets that skirt highways throughout rural North America. Peep show arcades provide a motion-picture viewing experience unlike any other contemporary medium, one in which the distinction between public and private is inverted on a number of different registers. The filmed body on-screen lays bare its most private attributes, yet it does so in a self-conscious, formulaic, and exhibitionist manner. The apparatus of the peep show subjects the body of the patron to a highly individualized and intimate mode of address, compelling in return an active and equally intimate corporeal response. At the same time, this exchange takes place in public, with the patron’s own body rendered visible as it circulates through the arcade (to greater or lesser degrees, depending on the architecture of the venue and the booths). The peep show’s voyeuristic, personalized viewing mechanism presents a further historical anomaly, its coin-operated interface and selection of exotic novelties harking back to the earliest Kinetoscope parlors. Despite this unusual and somewhat anachronistic exhibition format, peep arcades have provided a consistent revenue stream for the adult film industry. Peeps are historically one of the most profitable outlets for adult retail businesses, and they have survived the seismic shift from film to video with relatively few changes in their basic design.

Given the prevalence of peep arcades in both urban and rural areas, their historical longevity, and their unique mode of exhibition, it seems strange that the format has not received more critical attention. In the 1970s several studies were conducted on the sociology of adult bookstores and peep shows, providing thick, if at times suspect, descriptions of these spaces (see Karp; Kornblum; McNamara; Nawy; Sundholm). More recently, a number of scholars have pointed to the political and social significance of porn theaters and arcades, particularly in relation to queer culture and the policing of public sex (see Berlant and Warner; Cante and Restivo; Capino; Champagne; Chauncey; Warner). Yet the peep show arcade has remained relatively marginalized within the larger field of porn studies, and the content of peep show films is almost never discussed.1

This lack of attention may be a result of the inherent difficulties involved in the study of peep show films. As is the case with the pornography industry in general, peep show producers and distributors were unlikely to maintain archival records, particularly when their businesses existed on the margins of legal acceptability. Because peep machines brought in large quantities of small, hard change, it was easy for owners to mask the precise amount of revenue earned. Peep parlors would rarely advertise themselves, and the films shown in the machines were short and often regionally produced. It is thus nearly impossible to estimate the size and structure of the peep industry, and there are few printed advertisements or reviews to provide a sense of the content of films in different regions or at different historical moments. The ephemeral status of the format makes it equally challenging to determine which films might or might not have been run in the arcades. While a number of producers created films expressly for use in peep machines, these loops might later be sold over (or under) the counter after they were removed from circulation, often being edited or reprinted in the process. Loops produced for home use would also be loaded into peep machines in bookstores as a means of marketing those films to patrons. For a contemporary researcher searching [End Page 29] through private collections or uncataloged caches within film archives there are few clues as to where a loop might have originated or whether it was ever shown in a peep machine.

The difficulties associated with studying the peep show might also result from the highly situated status of the format. Peep arcades are social spaces defined by their apparatus and architecture...


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