Principled Pornography: How Queer/Indie Sites Are Reframing the Industry

Is pornographic material inherently harmful to women and encouraging of violent behaviour in men? Or is it possible to be a socially conscious individual and still make, perform in, and consume pornography? I say yes.
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As the one who organizes the international chapter of the Ladies High Tea and Pornography Society, and as a feminist sex worker generally, I am often asked how I can support pornography when it is clearly and inherently violence of men toward women -- as Gail Dines says, "To think that so many men hate women to the degree that they can get aroused by such vile images is quite profound." The idea that porn is harmful pops up in the news here and there, usually when a politician is caught with his pants down as a consumer, or when a serial killer or rapist is arrested and a search of his house reveals some nudie mags or adult DVDs. Some feminists and evangelical Christians alike have linked arms to rail against the social harms of X-rated material, with many studies either supporting and challenging that idea.

Of course, we can't forget the cultural bias within which we live. Even the way the media frames the studies tends to focus on the harms of pornography, the negative, rather than the neutral effects of porn, or, a step further, the potential benefits.

I was particularly interested in a study of what a country's porn said about its gender equality; typically, the more equal the rights of men and women, the more variety of pornographic imagery was available, from depictions of female pleasure to different body types. According to UWire, "Women in mainstream Norwegian porn were not only varied in body type, but represented more natural features and poses. In the U.S. and Japan however, young women with thin, surgically modified bodies and flawless skin represented societal ideals of perfection."

This leads to the question: is pornographic material inherently harmful to women and encouraging of violent behaviour in men? Or is it possible to be a socially conscious individual and still make, perform in, and consume pornography?

I say yes. In a capitalist world, granted, any consumption has multiple points of issue to be addressed and paid attention to, from sweatshop labour in clothing factories to migrant farmer rights, but I do believe that porn can be ethically produced.

When I've personally been called upon to describe what the phrase "ethical porn" means to me, I've talked about pornography produced with the pleasure of the participants in mind; porn that does not depend on male-gaze shooting techniques; porn that shows diversity in body types, gender identities, and sexual orientation; porn that allows the performers to have a say in how the action progresses and what happens. How is the porn shot? Are the performers seen as people needing to be aroused, or just as permanently ready genitals? Is safer sex used? Do you see barriers put into place on camera, or negotiation/consent discussed? Is there use of sex toys that are high-quality, body-safe, and sterile? Does the sexual interaction end with the "money shot," or do they keep going or snuggle or kiss?

Granted, I'm really, really academic about my porn consumption. So I wanted to ask some other people in the business what their thoughts were on ethical pornography: if it is possible, and if so, what are the hallmarks. I got some fantastic answers that I hope will begin to expose the complexities of the issues around filmed smut.

As a curvy woman myself, one of the things that I pay attention to when screening smut are depictions of various body types, and whether those body types are othered or objectified. In an effort to curb child pornography, for example, Australia decided to ban porn with small-chested women. Of course, this means that women with small chests are unable to work in the adult industry unless they get surgery, something that seems pretty obviously problematic. (UPDATE: I have been corrected regarding the "small breast ban" in Australia. Although I got my information from what I thought was an academically sound, reliable source, friends in Australia, one of whom will be commenting here, say it's an urban legend perpetuated by the Australian Sex Party.) Fat bodies, too, are reframed to fit within a social context that sees fat women as desperate and humiliated, as Kelly Shibari, who runs Padded Kink, knows all too well:

I create my own content due to two main reasons: 1) there are not many BBW companies shooting porn these days, and 2) there are no fetish companies out there that feature plus-size performers. The benefits? The fact that I can work with talented fetish and kink performers who happen to be plus-sized. The downside, though, is that it's all self-funded, which means that quality (especially in the beginning) may be lacking. But the great thing is that as the site grows in size and popularity, there are some absolutely amazing collaborators that have stepped forward to help create better and better content for the site. The learning curve is there, but it's definitely curving upwards.

Maggie Mayhem, from self-run site Meet the Mayhems (which she maintains with partner Ned Mayhem), also notes that the way race is often portrayed within erotic works is hugely problematic:

It bothers me that interracial means "white" plus "anyone who is not white." In porn there is whiteness, and there is other. That has always pissed me off something awful. People of color are often paid less, on top of getting fewer bookings. A lot of things are brushed off with people saying, "I'm not racist, it just doesn't sell." I think this has something to do with the fact that people who are white own the content and market it. The industry is essentially what sex looks like from the gaze of the cis, het, white male, and those who are the most "successful" in the mainstream industry are those who create content through that same lens. It's one of the reasons I left the mainstream industry. I want to see people be in charge of their own erotic representation.

So when looking for porn, see how it's being marketed: Are larger women described as zaftig and luscious, or as desperate whales? Are women and men of colour tagged as "exotic" or with other dehumanizing racist terms? Are transgender bodies treated with respect or as some type of freak show, and do they respect gender pronouns on the copy? That can give you a bit of a clue as to what the ethics of the company are when you're choosing what to watch.

Even when you're the one shooting this stuff with awareness of the issues of identity politics, though, the mainstream porn world may not know how to handle it; it may not be that the company is lacking that awareness but that the distributers are. There's a great quotation about that from No Fauxxx's director and porn performer Courtney Trouble over at The Rumpus:

It's not easy creating a new porn genre. There are so many mainstream adult industry obstacles. For instance, my films don't fit in a "straight" or "gay" category. These separations are largely for the audience, which the industry sees as men: straight or gay. My films are made for men and women yet are usually put on the straight side under a "lesbian" category, for men who want to watch lesbians. Asking an adult company to include a "queer" or "other" category just for a handful of films is out of the question. It would require a whole reworking of the industry. Nobody knows where to put my queer fat-girl love. The existing key words are "lesbian," "fetish," "trans." I'm distributing my work, and I never know where it's going to go. I feel guilty and angry when a film about trans men and queer women is labeled "lesbian porn." The performers that I work with are invisible in society, for the most part, and I feel like they are trusting me to not let these kinds of things happen, but in order for it to change, the entire porn industry needs to make a place for us.

Additionally and entirely relating to what Trouble says above, there is often a heterocentric focus on pornographic content, which privileges M/F content over all other depictions, and regularly pays female performers more, as they're treated as the automatic sole focus of attention. This maintaining of the male gaze frustrated Pandora Blake, the director and performer from Dreams of Spanking, who decided to do things differently:

There's a worrying trend in the spanking scene that privileges M/F play at the expense of all others. Most studios are very male-gaze; I think I'm the first director to shoot male spankees for a female audience. It grates on me when people talk about M/F spanking as if it was universal, and it does make me less able to enjoy playing patriarchal punishment fantasies in that context.

It's also very normal in the spanking scene for male actors, spankers and spankees, to not be paid for their work. I think this is appalling: it's demeaning to the men, it creates a culture where male actors are expected to perform in porn "for kicks" (imagine how it feels knowing your spanker is there to get his rocks off, rather than a paid professional), and it drives talent away from the industry. You get what you pay for. I pay spankers one rate and spankees another, regardless of gender, and I've been lucky to shoot with some gorgeous, talented male actors.

Perhaps, then, ethical porn seeks to create more of a sense of equality, both in front of and behind the camera, by shooting a variety of male bodies and seeing them as equally sensual and part of the scene (deserving to be paid as such) rather than just disembodied genitalia. Companies like Filament Magazine and For the Girls seek to offer up a different way of looking at males: not just as consumers (of male or female bodies) but as the consumed -- and consumed by women eager to have material catering to their desires.

It's not just about who shoots the porn and who performs in it. Jiz Lee, a performer with experience both behind the scenes and in front of the camera, also encourages consumers to think twice about torrent sites:

If one is viewing pirated pornography through torrent sites, it becomes less possible, if not impossible, to tell what the source of the content was. Companies comply with legalities that ensure that models are of age, of sound mind and sobriety, and competent and able to give consent. This information is stripped from pirated content. If there's any confusion about whether a performance was legit or not, getting your porn right from the source is the best bet. And, it will help to ensure that the company and performers you love to watch can afford to continue.

So if you want to reduce exploitation in pornography, rather than torrenting it for free, pay for it from companies that offer a pleasant, safe work environment; encourage the performers to do what feels good for them; and show sex as mutually pleasurable. Help people who are striving for fair work practices achieve sustainability. After all, we buy organic fruit, dolphin-safe tuna, free-range eggs, and fair-trade coffee, so why not extend that to our XXX DVDs?

Also importantly, don't penalize performers for choosing to use condoms on set. Maggie Mayhem noted that her partner, also a porn performer, had that happen to him. "My partner actually lost work from a major fetish studio in San Francisco because of his request to use condoms," she said, adding, "An individual performer requesting a condom is not responsible for the collapse of a studio profit margin, and yet they will be treated as if their request to use a condom is going to cost everyone their jobs. The pressure put on performers to skip barriers is immense."

I asked the various directors what they did to maintain a more ethical set, and they had very similar answers: pay the performers equally, allow them to choose their co-star and what they want to do on camera, provide safer sex supplies of a variety of kinds, have a mission statement, and have transparency around the hiring process.

This is a start to what I think about when I buy porn, or when I perform in it. It's not as simple as "all pornography objectifies women and is evil," or "all pornography is a free expression of sex." It's complicated by social constructs around gender expectations, racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia; all the same forms of oppression we see in society are present in pornography.

There's hope, though. I've seen mainstream porn companies starting to improve their ethics according to the above list. While watching one film put out by a mainstream company, I was amazed that there was safer sex being shown on screen, suggested male bisexuality without it being hilarious or creepy, and non-heteronormative behavior from men. And of course the Internet has spawned all sorts of independent companies that maintain ethical working conditions. I've been lucky enough to work with a few of them. There are more women producing and directing porn themselves, and some are doing it from a female or a queer gaze, not a male one.

As the popularity of Ladies High Tea showed me, women are definitely more inclined to be consumers of erotic material across the board, from silly porn parodies to hardcore kink, while also caring about the ethical practices of the company involved. There's a shift happening, as can be seen with groups like the Netherlands' Dusk channel, which says "the programmes show erotic films that meet the requirements of women: realistic, explicit, with 'real' people and a well-balanced development of sexual desire, made with respect."

Saying that such a shift exists and is a positive thing has certainly put me in the position of being accused of being a "bad feminist," however, because I engage with the sex industry. There is often, particularly among some radical feminists, a conflation of "pornography" with "heterosexist, male-gaze, oppressive-body-standards pornography," which is certainly a majority of what's out there, but not exclusively, particularly with the Internet giving so many people an opportunity to create and sell their own content. It is an overly simplistic argument, says Bianca Stone, a porn performer and founder of Hairy Kink:

I think privileged women too easily take an abolitionist standpoint against the legitimacy of sexual labor and porn because they probably have access to capital without needing to use their bodies in an explicitly sexual way. What it comes down to is this: how you make your money and how fast you make your money can be critical when you have to feed yourself and others. Working-class and poor people pay higher taxes than the rich, so having a form of income off the books can be really valuable. Being a sex worker or performer is subversive to capitalism and the status quo because we are able to make autonomous incomes and may reject the coerced labor system upheld by the state. Many sex workers are off the grid within the grid -- not everyone, but still a significant amount. Some folks do survival work, and others do not. Whatever one's situation may be, feminists should respect the autonomy of others.

Most feminists want to take sex workers/performers out from the sheets, studios, and alleys and put us into the cubicle or the factory, some of the most degrading and dehumanizing locations of labor that exist today. Some feminists advocate for us to go to college despite the fact that many of us already are (including me). But why aren't they putting their time, money, and resources into fighting for free and accessible education (for everyone)? A lot of today's feminist activism is similar to what has happened in gay activism: it is whitewashed, assimilated, and even co-opted as a tool of the state to uphold oppression and capitalism. It's why I grapple with identifying as a feminist and as gay. These activists are fighting for "ideas" and not against systematic oppression. We should be fighting for public health care and reproductive justice, housing, food, shelter, ecologically safe environments, free education, ending war and all state-sanctioned violence.

It's too bad that anti-porn feminists and pro-ethical porn feminists so infrequently talk with open minds together, because I think we would be shocked at how much we agree; we just don't agree on how to deal with the issues in the industry. Perhaps one day there will be a set of working standards that could label sites and DVDs as "ethically produced," a sort of "fair trade" for the sex industry. I would love to see working conditions in sex work improved across the board, with non-judgmental access to sexual health clinics and safer sex supplies, transparency around hiring practices, and legal support if boundaries are violated or money is not paid in a timely fashion. I hope it'll happen, because that's the kind of porn I want to be in and buy, porn that celebrates sexuality rather than othering it. Shine Louise Houston of Pink and White Productions says it brilliantly:

I believe there's a lot of room and need to create adult content that's real, that's respectful and powerful. ... I think porn's the perfect place to become political. It's a place where money, sex, media, and ethics converge.

There is power in creating images, and for ... a woman of color and a queer to take that power ... I don't find it exploitative; I think it's necessary.

Can ethical porn exist? There's really no reason why it couldn't, as long as the people involved have agency and a voice. I can recognize that the industry as a whole fails in that regard more often than it succeeds, but I do not agree that it is simply because of filming sex acts. I believe quite strongly that it is because of the combination of patriarchy, capitalism, and shame/ignorance around sexuality, both within and around the porn industry. The best way to challenge that is not, in my opinion, through censorship and abolitionism but through increased awareness of a more positive, successful, enjoyable way to create this content.

I encourage you to check out the people and sites I've mentioned here, for which I imagine I will be told off for "marketing," but hey, I'll take that if it means a couple of people find representations of themselves in smut, or, even better, they get spurred into adult-industry unionization.

After all, only rights will stop the wrongs!

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