A Call to Porn
The discussion of whether or not porn can be feminist has become a scholarly debate, and I’d really rather not go there. I’m writing this article presupposing that the women involved are there because the satisfaction they receive keeps them coming back to it. I’d also like to preface this article by stating that this is the view point of a woman who is sexually open-minded, so although I like to think that I have a good understanding of different gender identities and sexual preferences I apologize in advance if some readers see a bias. And regardless of everything that I discuss, it must be said that I really, really love porn – however, some kinds more than others.
I am confident that just as long as there has been pornography there has been some sort of alternative to the “pop-porn”. But in recent years the ease with which one can admire tattooed and pierced bodies without any mod left to the imagination has ended the hunt for the search of porn that satisfies that kink. Punks, hipsters, goths, emo kids, ravers, rockabillys, the list goes on. These people are getting naked and suggestive for cameras in alleys, in dorm rooms, in the bathrooms of bars, by themselves, with their friends, for professional photographers, for their own digital cameras, for money or just personal satisfaction – and its all ending up online and people are demanding more. This sort of porn for and by everyone who wants in is redefining what pornography is. No longer is it all fake, plastic, contrived and, honestly, kind of unattractive. Instead it looks like real people, with their real styles in their real spaces looking naked like a real person would and having sex like real people do. At least that’s the intent, right? To show that people with alternative looks and lifestyles are just as beautiful and sexy as any mainstream nude model or porn star.
I intend to criticize the validity of this claim and a few others. Is alt-porn sticking to its promise of supplementing the porn world by consistently offering diverse interpretations of beauty and contemporary sexuality? Also, I think an interesting point to consider is the implication on the people that identify in one way or another with the participants. Do they feel empowered by the varieties of looks represented – or is there even a variety at all? Does the publication of sex of this type help them to feel more comfortable with their sexuality if they have an unconventional gender identity, sexual preference or body image? Are people increasingly encouraged to express sexuality that they would generally be restraining from in their daily lives due to the suggested cohesion between alternative sexuality and indie culture?
Not all alt-porn sites are the same – some are definitely much more committed to breaking stereotypes and positively representing different looks and conceptions of sex. In my research it was rare to find a website that had diverse models. Most sites have only female models, hetero- and girl on girl sex. Therefore, with the rare exception, the target audience is still straight males or more broadly, those attracted to women. To me, this seems like a blatant inconsistency with the aims of the people who run the site. Generally, most of the sites that claim to do something “different” than what’s already out there are really just featuring the same kind of mainstream models, except that now they have tattoos and piercings and listen to obscure music. In their attempt to create porn that empowers women that are unconventionally beautiful, they are pushing it into the realm of sexual objectification. By limiting it only to female models and catering only to people attracted to women, they are still placing women in the role of satisfier of sexual desires, that kind of objectification still exists even if the model has a gnarly chest piece. As for body image, that generally ranges from curves in all the right places to really skinny, and always perfectly, ahem, groomed or hairless. So exactly what kind of popularly accepted standards of beauty is this breaking? I guess the really skinny girls sometimes look androgynous – I’ll give them that, but I think that I’m being kind. I mean not even a hairy armpit (!) I don’t know if that is a result of pressure from the website or a decision by the individual, but its only fair to assume that its some sort of rule. My fellow porn lovers, body hair is natural and to expect that a model painstakingly grooms to pre-pubescent smoothness is a lesser version of expecting a nude model to have boobs that point up regardless of the means of achieving that – its still fake. Another scruple most people have with mainstream porn is the look of the people. They look absolutely artificial, like their skin was never exposed to the elements (except for that perfect bronzed glow), they’ve never been a victim of a childhood accident, they all just happen to blessed with double-Ds and a 25 inch waist and their bodies are impervious to gravity and time. But alternative pornographers do claim that they never use any airbrushing or other techniques to serve the purpose of “perfecting” the bodies of the models. The occasional razor burn and stretch mark attests to that – so that’s good, at least the people look like they’re made of skin they’ve lived in.
Suicide Girls is pretty much a household name, Joanna Angel (creator of BurningAngels) is winning AVN awards and Vivid Video (an extremely popular mainstream porn production company that has brought you the classics All For Cum and Cum For All, Soccer Moms who Suck, Hey Mom, I’m not a Virgin Anymore and many more!) now has a branch called VividAlt. The debate over whether or not this is a good thing is tiresome and can be filed under stereotypical hipster favorite – the sell out conversation. But what can be said for sure is that these people are becoming a part of the “industry” and with that comes rules, restrictions, censors and (dramatic pause) cash flow. If you’re reading this paper you probably know what that means so don’t let me insult your intelligence by expounding on the evils of corporate money making. So even being a part of the porn industry is being subject to certain pressures. Bottom line, contracts are not empowering.
If you look at many of the porn sites I list at the end an interesting characteristic that they share is that they all contain various facets of their target subculture(s). They have music, movie and book reviews, party pictures, links to fashion and lifestyle blogs (many of which also include a nudey pic here and there), politics and even support their favorite charities with some of their profits. When I first did a side by side comparison of an alt site and a mainstream one, this was most startling. It really appears as though mainstream porn is all about keeping one’s interests discreet and oneself anonymous. Are they implying that there is something to be ashamed of, or that their members are people who keep their sexuality secret? Um, I kinda think they are. Mainstream sites are just sex and money, literally. Alternative sites show that there is something behind the sex, some motivation or reaction or just the fact that the people involved are real and come with things to say (no puns, I’ll forgive you for having your mind in the gutter). Also they create online communities by having the models keep blogs and members can have profile pages. This part of alternaporn I really enjoy, it is truly an effort at breaking stereotypes. These people can show that they are not just interested in sex and exhibitionism and are totally void otherwise. The people are given an opportunity to describe their experiences as erotic models and express how they feel about their lifestyles and identities. I think that this creates a positive destigmatization of sexuality; I mean sex is everywhere, and people are constantly thinking about it and doing things to get more of it. This just helps us finally admit that to ourselves and be OK with expressing the different ways in which we understand what sexuality is.
Many alternative pornographers insist that their work is art, not just an appeal to instinctual sexual arousal. This is a hard thing to critique because the definition of art is so subjective and broad. While this can be argued for soft-core stills with flattering lighting and unique angles; it is hard to be convincing that the work in question is more than raunchy porn when it is a photograph of a gaping orifice with a penetrating phallic object. There’s nothing wrong with porn being porn and its pretentious when people try to label it as some piece of high art. So really, if you’re signed up to be on either side of the camera let me lay it out for you… porn is porn is porn. Its first going to be porn, and then you can go convincing yourself and others that its erotica or art.
Living in Boston I consider myself lucky to be the birthplace of Boink magazine. That thing is great. Its got interesting articles, pictures that ranges from creative to sexy to shocking, diverse models, and hilarious advertisements (I’m thinking about the back cover of the first issue). What I like most about this magazine is that it seems like the models are doing this to have a liberating experience, not as a spring board into the porn world – that gives it a real, DIY dimension that the websites in my research were lacking. And also, one of my closest friends has a very sexy, very suggestive, very naked spread in this mag. It’s really fucking hot, mostly because she and the male model she is partnered with are both very hot people. I figured I would ask her some questions about her experience to add a first hand account to my critique. What follows is the paraphrase of our conversation…
I began by asking her why she did it at all. “This sounds kind of silly but I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. That I could pose for a porn magazine and take everything that comes with that.” “What do you mean by everything that comes with it?”, I asked. “Well it hasn’t been the best experience I’ve ever had, I mean it comes with some down sides – all of which I was expecting. I definitely felt some of the judgment and objectification felt by women in the industry. I think that by the virtue that I am a woman and women are always kind of the focus in porn, it made my experience after the publication different than my partners.” This led me to my next question: During the actual shoot do you think you had a different experience than you partner? “Well, we had just met earlier that day for breakfast, so it is kind of uncomfortable suggesting sex with a stranger of the opposite sex. I initially wanted to do the shoot with another woman. But once I thought about it and committed to posing with a man, I knew I had to do it and like I said, I wanted to prove to myself that I could. At the shoot itself, I don’t think our experience was that different because we were in the same starting point. Except the fact that he was gay, so obviously that made it a different experience for him to be with a woman in that kind of situation, but I think that’s the only exception.” “I’m sorry I’m laughing but that’s kind of funny… anyway, how did you choose Boink?” “Well honestly, the opportunity presented itself and I just did it. It was the easiest place for me to pose in and I wasn’t going to go out of my way to do it. I’m not trying to be a porn star or erotic model. Also, I think the editors are really doing something right, they’re filling a really unique niche that there is a demand for. Its really varied and I appreciate that about it, its not just conventionally beautiful people.” “So I know you love porn, what’s your favorite?” “I really like alternative porn because its more attractive. The people look real and its not just plastic balloon boobs bouncing around.” “Do you think that porn is art?” “It is what it is, and its porn. Calling something art is a difficult thing to do, I mean I know of an artist in the 80s whose whole thing was to take erotic pictures and asked the viewers to decide if its art or porn. I know that I was in a porn magazine and that’s that. I think its porn because its suggestive of sex.”
So like I said, I love porn. I prefer alternative porn that I most ideologically agree with, but if I can’t afford that, I would be lying if I said that I avoid mainstream porn. I guess I wrote this article because I wanted to call some people out. If you’re a business person being a pornographer to make money, that’s fine but don’t preach and don’t try to operate based on some sort of principles. Alternative porn really needs to be something different – a reaction to what is established. Just featuring girls with body mods does not make it an alternative site, it makes it a fetish site. So people who like to be naked in front of other people, get out there and photograph it because we want it, especially if you’ve got something going on that hasn’t been seen yet.
(I’m taking a break from the word “alternative” for a while; I think I’ve now surpassed my quota. Damn, this took me a long time to write. I guess the research was really, uh… gripping. I need a smoke.)
Boink, Burning Angel, EroticBPM, Supercult, Deviant Nation, RazorDolls, Perverse Fixation, NoFauxxx, IThinkThatsHot, Fleshbot, IndieNudes, Veg Porn, FatalBeauty, Suicide Girls, Gods Girls.
Other articles by Masha.