About a month ago I was interviewed by Patrick Ryan from USA Today. His piece on feminist porn, inspired by the Rashida Jones doco Hot Girls Wanted, was released today. All up, it’s a positive article.
I got a little overexcited with my replies to Patrick’s email questions; I can sometimes find it difficult to summarize my views when writing. While my mention and quote in the article only amounts to a couple of paragraphs, I wrote an awful lot in the original email interview. Rather than waste that effort, I thought I’d put it up here. Perhaps I should refer future interview questions to this post to save some time.
- How did you get started as an erotic filmmaker and what was your motivation?
I got started in porn in 2000 when I was working as a freelance journo for a Australian Women’s Forum – a feminist magazine with male centerfolds. I wrote an article about what porn there was online for women (not much). I got to know CJ, the creator of Purve, the world’s first paysite for women and started making porn online myself.
It took a while for me to move from writing and curating porn to filming it. I made my first erotic film in 2008 after doing a couple of weekend courses in filmmaking. It was something I’d always wanted to do but I hesitated, partly due to concern about the legalities and ethics of it and partly because I needed to learn how to do it. I live in a small country town so it was also logistically difficult to organize.
By 2008, porn had become about videos, not photos, so it was commercially sensible to embrace it – and it meant I could finally start putting my own vision of good porn out there.
Making my first film was a little bit terrifying. I had no idea what I was doing really and – despite seeing a vast amount of porn for work – I’d never physically seen anyone else have sex in front of me before. So it was a huge learning curve. But the important thing was creating something that was positive and feminist and beautiful. I’m so glad I did it.
- For you personally, what makes an erotic film or image “feminist?”
This is such a difficult thing to put into a sentence because the word “feminist” means different things to different people. But I think you can boil it down to three things: one, the creator of the work identifies as feminist. Two, the work is made consensually, collaboratively and ethically with good work practices – and that process is made explicit to the audience in some way. And thirdly, the work should show sex in a positive way, it should show a diversity of sexualities, bodies and perspectives, and it should make an attempt to step away from the tropes of “regular” pornography
Definition from here.
I try to meet those ideals with my work. They’ve evolved over time. When I started, my idea of feminist porn was simpler, it was more about showing something female-friendly and sex positive. I mean, simply showing an erect cock was a feminist act in 2000. Come to think of it, it still is!
- On Bright Desire, you describe your videos as “sex-positive” and “respectful.” As a director, how do you ensure your work meets that criteria? (The script, shooting angles, conversations you have with talent about the scene, etc.?)
Creating sex positive, respectful porn is both about the process and the end product. It’s an embodiment of ethical work practices (as mentioned above). In producing a film, I have conversations beforehand with prospective performers to make sure they’re on board with my ideals. We discuss what’s going to happen and what they want to do. It’s always a collaborative process, even if I’m trying to create a more story-based idea. And of course, consent is vital. When it comes to the sex, I pretty much give the performers free reign to do whatever they want for as long as they want. The main goal there is for them to have realistic sex that they enjoy. It’s still a performance, of course, but that doesn’t preclude real pleasure happening.
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If it’s story-based I may suggest they do a few things in the course of the scene – for example, with my MMF threesome scene Trinity I asked that they include a double cunnilingus moment somewhere, simply because it’s such a rare thing in porn and I wanted to film it. But everything else was up to the performers.
I don’t have a crew. It’s just me and my husband doing everything. It makes life harder from a work perspective but it also means there’s less stress for the performers, having only two people in the room. We try to be as unobtrusive as possible, I don’t direct, we just let them do their thing. If they want to take a break, we stop and sometimes leave the room. And if a performer doesn’t want to do something, that’s fine. It’s always their call. We don’t pay according to sex acts, only time and labour.
Our average scene takes around 3 hours to do, start to finish. Filming story-based intros can take a little longer but I’m super low budget, we’re filming in apartments and hotel rooms, I can’t hire proper studios here. So we are limited in what we can do with storylines.
With filming, camera angles are very important. I find the most interesting porn involves seeing people’s faces rather than their genitals. So we focus on faces and hands and then genitals if we are able to get the shot. But I don’t insist performers are “open to the camera” because those positions often aren’t comfortable and they don’t produce as much pleasure. We shoot documentary style and just do our best to see what we can capture. There’s a lot of thrashing around with cameras and it’s not fun to edit but I’m usually able to cobble it together.
I like to film an interview with the performers afterwards and give them an opportunity to talk about themselves and give their thoughts on things like working in porn and feminism. It’s important to personalize the performers so they’re not just a body. I include all the interviews at Bright Desire.
With the final product, I think it’s important to present the performers respectfully. I don’t use derogatory terms like “slut” or “whore” (unless the performer prefers that). I use preferred pronouns. I emphasize the joy and pleasure and connection of the scene and celebrate the performers for putting themselves out there like that. I can’t do it so I think they’re all wonderfully brave for sharing this private part of themselves with the world.
Language is so important in how we present sex and the performers. For me, it’s a huge part of what’s wrong with mainstream porn. So often, the description is “Stupid whore gets anally destroyed” or similar and I find that so offputting and disturbing. Why the need to put the performer down? Why the need to depict sex as a battle? You can still have super hot, passionate, animalistic sex on film without the need to label it negatively. You can have a scene where someone’s head goes into a toilet but if you know there’s consent and care involved, then that’s OK (see this post from 2010: How Sex With Your Head In A Toilet Bowl Can Be OK).
“Sex positive” and “respectful” porn shows all kinds of sex and kink and desire from a compassionate perspective – an understanding that we’re all sexual, we all have different needs, desires and tastes and as long as its safe, sane and consensual, it’s all good.
Editing can make a difference to how a scene appears. Thanks to the website, I’m able to offer scenes in almost real time, so you don’t miss the good stuff. But I also edit short film versions. It’s nice to have that versatility. I do find myself confronted with decisions about what to leave out. Things like undressing, putting on condoms, awkward moments, queefs. Leaving them in is more realistic but they can also be a bit boring or less flattering for the performers. It’s a balancing act. I do make sure that dialogue between performers is left in, especially if they are having ongoing consent/checking in discussions within the scene. This is a vital way of showing that the scene is consensual.
I wrote that in late 2015 after the James Deen / Stoya rape allegations had come out. I realized I needed to properly articulate all the things I was doing to try to make my porn ethical and make them explicit. I think that many companies in the porn industry could benefit from creating and following this kind of statement. And of course, things will improve if the performers are able to unionize and standardize working conditions and pay. Although I suspect that will be difficult to achieve because of the diverse nature of the industry and the way that piracy has undermined the profitability of it.
- How important is it for you to cast “real” people in your shoots, of different ages, body types, skin colors, etc.?
From the start, I’ve always given priority to performers who are in a relationship or who know each other in some way. There’s two advantages to this; one, there’s a big audience for “real life couple” porn. People are keen to see sex that’s a bit more realistic, between people who already have a connection. I think that’s a reaction to the often sterile and perfunctory mainstream porn featuring performers who aren’t all that interested in what they’re doing. Realism sells. The second advantage is that the sex is often more pleasurable and enjoyable for the performers, it’s easier for them to be comfortable in the situation and the end result is more realistic, believable and good to watch.
That said, I’ve worked with experienced porn performers and they’re just as real as the next person. If you give them the opportunity to have sex how they want, the end result can be astonishingly good. And because they’re professionals, they’re easier to work with.
In Berlin last year I worked with Jiz Lee and Bishop Black. They’d met but hadn’t had sex before. The scene captures their nervousness but also the fact that they were crushing on each other so hard, it was intense.
With regard to casting, my first priority is finding suitable people to work with. Because I’m in Australia, our performer pool is very small. There’s not a lot of everyday people putting up their hands to make porn and often their ideas don’t fit with mine, they may think I’m making standard porn, or they don’t want to show their face, or whatever. So finding the right performers is the first priority. What they look like or who they are is less important to whether I can get a good scene and whether I think we can work together well.
The interesting thing is, this modus operandi has meant I’ve worked with a large variety of people of different body types, ages, colour, orientation, gender… The only time I’ve deliberately set out to make a “diverse” film is “See Me”, which stars Mel Lou, a woman with cerebral palsy. And that was because I really liked Mel and wanted to help her make porn that represented her. well We need to show disabled people as sexual and that film is my contribution to that.
I guess the short version is: I try to find like-minded people for my porn and the diversity seems to follow. The trick is being open minded. I want to show good sex and real pleasure and if that’s the goal, it doesn’t matter who it is that you’re filming, as long as they’re having good sex.
It’s something I’ve learned as I’ve gone along. At the start I was keen to show heterosexual sex because that’s my orientation and I wanted to offer an alternative to “straight” porn. But I’ve diversified as time’s gone by and that’s partly because I realized I love showing good, connected, beautiful sex. Doesn’t matter who’s having it.
There’s always a moment when I’m filming a scene that I forget about the work and just admire what’s happening. When I see a spark, a smile, a huge orgasm, tears. I’m capturing a vital part of human experience, something that is too often stigmatized or dismissed and I think that’s such a shame. When people fuck, it can just be so beautiful, it transcends the everyday. That’s the thing that keeps me here.
- Along with cunnilingus and couples sex, your work also features naked men and solo masturbation. Do you feel that a lot of women aren’t comfortable admitting that they “objectify” men or get turned on by the male body? Why is that, and how do you hope to break down some of those barriers?
There’s still a cultural trope that insists that male bodies aren’t sexy, that penises are ugly and that only women’s bodies are worth looking at. It’s really an embedded way of thinking and it’s backed up by popular culture. Think about the vast amount of full frontal female nudity on Game of Thrones compared to the very rare male nudes. Think about how masculinity prizes admiring the female form via centerfolds and pinups, advertisements and film, but women are trained to be looked at, rather than to look. So I think there’s plenty of social conditioning that prevents women from openly admiring naked men.
For me, it was always a feminist act to show an erect penis. In Australia, censorship rules say you can’t publish or broadcast an image of anything other than a vaguely turgid penis (at Australian Women’s Forum they often had to measure the “angle of the dangle” to keep ahead of the censors). With the advent of the internet, I realized I could put up photos of naked men with hard cocks and there was nothing the government could do about it. That was a radical act for me. And since then I’ve done my best to show male bodies as beautiful things worth admiring. Because hetero women love men; we shouldn’t be afraid to say so or to say that their bodies turn us on. Also, male masturbation is a beautiful thing. It’s a chance to see a man at a vulnerable, private moment. Our society typically doesn’t allow women to see that in media so it’s important to break that taboo.
I think the millennials are more open about it than the women of my (gen X) generation. Which is a good thing. I’m keen for equality in perving.
- You also include erotic fiction on your site. Do you feel that sector of porn has gained popularity in recent years thanks to Tumblr and “fan fiction” by young women?
Erotic fiction has long been considered the more respectable version of porn for women, it’s an extension of raunchy romance novels. Erotic fiction series like 1993’s Herotica were so important in giving permission to women to enjoy sexual fantasy. The internet has certainly been a gift for erotic fiction because it allows so much self publishing and I think the growth of fan fiction and Tumblr stories are part of that. But I also see it as part of a wider acceptance of sexuality and sexual exploration among younger people, thanks to the privacy afforded by the web. Fiction is one part of a wider cultural change that’s going on. I’m 44. I can remember the shame involved in buying my first Australia Women’s Forum mag and buying my first dirty VHS. Today’s young women don’t have to encounter that when it comes to sexual media and they’re much more open to talking about it with each other. That’s great.
- How can erotic fiction empower women or tap into a different part of female sexuality? (Does it offer something that a video or photo can’t provide?)
Erotic fiction allows a great amount of freedom when it comes to exploring sexual fantasies. You’re not constrained by visual constructs or other people’s ideas of what looks sexy, nor are there pesky issues like bad acting or dodgy lighting. And reading erotic fiction has more social respectability than watching porn so it removes any shame or guilt involved – I’ve seen women online say they’d never watch porn as they find it sexist or offputting but erotic fiction doesn’t have that negativity so they adore it.
Erotic fiction often has female writers and female protagonists which means there’s more focus on a woman’s pleasure and fantasy – exactly the kind of thing that doesn’t happen in typical mainstream porn where the guy’s head is cut out of the frame and it ends with a facial cumshot and no female orgasm. Fiction also allows a greater exploration of emotion and personality, important aspects that can enhance a sexual encounter and make it more meaningful.
Of course, plenty of women enjoy watching a quick five minutes of porn and getting off. But erotic fiction can be a more engaged way to explore fantasies. And it doesn’t have to be one or the other.
- How do you feel the porn landscape has changed since you first started Grandma Scrotum’s Sex Tips in 2000? Are you encouraged by the number of feminist porn alternatives now, or is it still a very small sector?
Internet porn is so very different now. It’s been quite a journey watching it change. I started with a dial up modem and a site with 20 small photos of naked men. I used to hang out on adult message boards and talk about porn for women with a group of fellow female webmasters, discussing ideas and definitions. I remember chatting with an adult webmaster in 2006 saying “Do you think this Youtube thing will go anywhere?” Tiny photos became larger, photos were exchanged for videos. The Russians came in and ruined the free site model, giving away too much hardcore for free. I’ve seen the steady collapse of the paysite model under the onslaught of tube sites and relentless piracy and I’ve seen consumers routinely expressing disbelief that anyone would actually PAY for porn. It’s a bit depressing really.
At the same time I’ve seen a small, steady growth of feminist and alternative porn sites. It’s never become big enough to become mainstream, we’ve always been at the fringes. But I think that’s part of what’s helped us stay afloat in a depressed porn market. Feminist porn has always offered a positive alternative to the sexism, racism and negativity of the mainstream. There are always people who want something better than that. And they are aware enough to pay for this alternative. So I feel positive about the future of feminist / ethical porn. People do want to see something positive. The audience exists and they’re worth listening to.
The Feminist Porn Awards began in 2006 and helped to broaden the conversation beyond “porn for women” and to include queer porn and other perspectives. They’ve also been helpful in creating awareness of alternatives and encouraging the creation of a different kind of porn. The Berlin Porn Film Festival has also been hugely influential in this sphere.
Since 2010 a few major porn companies have been trying to cater to women, usually with romance/couples/story-based titles. The sex is still pretty standard fare. More recently the tube sites have tried to get on board with “female friendly” categories, although they don’t offer anything particularly different and the ads are still offensive and sexist. They do get a lot of press coverage when they release stats about what their female audience is looking at or searching for but I would argue their data is flawed due to the very nature of what they’re offering. Another rant for another day, perhaps.
In any case, at least now there is acceptance of the idea that women watch and like porn. When I started in 2000, I was routinely dismissed – “women don’t watch or pay for porn” said all the male webmasters – but I’m still here. And I think that many more women will watch porn when they know there are alternatives available. The problem, of course, is that it’s still hard to find. Pornhub dominates the search results and people’s surfing habits. Too many women think the sexist mainstream stuff is all there is. Hopefully they will look a little deeper and see all the amazing porn that is being made.
And men too. I should add – half of the subscribers at Bright Desire are male. There are a lot of men looking for positive alternatives as well. Feminist porn isn’t just about catering to women. It’s about offering everybody a more positive vision of sexuality.
- Is there anyone else you recommend I reach out to?
I would absolutely recommend you speak to Shine Louise Houston who runs CrashPadSeries.com and PinkLabel.tv – a site that distributes a variety of feminist/alt porn from indie producers. Shine has been making queer porn since 2003 and she will give an important POC queer perspective. Also Jiz Lee, a genderqueer performer who works with Shine. There needs to be a performer perspective and Jiz is so articulate and generally fantastic. They edited the book Coming Out Like A Porn Star. There’s also Tristan Taormino, one of the pioneers of feminist porn. She is a co-editor of The Feminist Porn Book and has directed a bunch of films dating back to the late 90s. She’s working as a sex educator and motivational speaker now
Here’s what that boiled down to in the USA Today piece:
Key characteristics of feminist porn include clear verbal consent, sex positivity and inclusive casting of women that encompasses different ages, body types, races and ethnicities. Australian pornographer Ms. Naughty creates erotica that is “smart, sensual” and “fun” for her site Bright Desire, which highlights intimacy between partners and doesn’t use derogatory terms in video descriptions.
“I find the most interesting porn involves seeing people’s faces rather than their genitals, so we focus on faces and hands, and then genitals if we are able to get the shot,” she says. “I don’t insist performers are ‘open to the camera’ because those positions often aren’t comfortable and don’t produce as much pleasure.”