The Bellesa Affair: Piracy, PR and Porn For Women

It’s been an interesting week in the world of porn. In early September, online magazine Bustle wrote a gushing promo article about Bellesa, a free porn site offering erotic fiction, articles and a video section. The article started like this:

“It’s hard enough to find porn that isn’t totally degrading to women. And then, when you finally come across porn for women, it’s usually behind a paywall. There’s a good reason for this: It’s hard to produce porn ethically without charging customers. But Michelle Shnaidman, founder of Bellesa, has found a way to bring women porn they’ll actually enjoy without draining their bank accounts.”

Unfortunately, the way that Michelle Schnaidman found to bring this porn to women was by creating a free tube site that naturally ended up with a shitload of stolen videos.

Tube sites are the bane of those of us who actually make porn. They’re typically full of pirated content, uploaded by users who feel that they are entitled to share porn and watch without paying and supporting the people who make it. Pornhub and XHamster are the best known of them (and they dominate the industry) but there are thousands of them all over the web. Bellesa was a little different in that they did their best to promote themselves as “ethical” and “feminist”. They also said they were changing the industry by being the first to cater to women. The Bustle article said: “Before launching the site, Shnaidman did extensive research with one big question in mind: What would porn look like if it were built from the ground up — by and for women?”

So yeah. Clearly no actual research was done because hello, I’ve been doing this porn for women thing for 17 years and I’ve seen SO many startups claiming they’re the first, that they’re groundbreaking, that they’re going to change the industry. And if you want to know what porn looks like when it’s by and for women, I have extensive lists of directors and websites available, some of whom have been doing this much longer than I have.

I read the Bustle piece when it first came out, rolled my eyes and decided I didn’t have the energy to think or talk about it. Piracy is a fairly defeating thing and I’ve been feeling burnt out about porn in general. Also, I didn’t want to give Bellesa any publicity by tweeting or writing about it. I figured it would slowly die like the rest of them do.

Anyway, this week a social campaign by porn performers and directors drew attention to the fact that Bellesa was full of pirated content and thus the DCMAs and complaints started to roll in.

Here’s a few articles:
Bellesa: An exploitative piracy website – Ethical.Porn (the piece that appears to have got the ball rolling)
Stealing porn for women doesn’t make it ethical – AVN
Feminist porn isn’t free – Reason blog
This feminist porn site is allegedly hosting stolen porn – The Daily Dot

There was a bit of a tweetstorm; example:

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 Anyway, a couple of days later, the social media campaign worked and Bellesa apologised and completely removed their video section. Their apology letter appeared in this tweet. It was a good move by Bellesa and I’m glad they did the right thing.

 

So this week saw a victory against tube sites, albeit a small and relatively easy one. The big players like Pornhub are much harder to fight against because they control so much traffic and wield so much power within the industry. Many porn producers rely on their traffic, feeling that they have no choice but to “deal with the devil” to stay in business.

Still, it’s been good to use it as a teachable moment; if you want to be an ethical consumer, you should pay for your porn. If you want to support performers and filmmakers who ARE making different, female-friendly, feminist content, pay for it.

All that aside, the thing that has struck me about this entire shebang is the growing power of PR within porn. Specifically, that becoming successful in porn now often relies on getting yourself into mainstream media publications. And if those publications happily repeat your slogans for you and present you well, you can build a big website in a very short amount of time. If you can sucker in some startup capital with those publications, you’re off.

Also, if you’re marketing yourself as porn for women, you can also claim that you’re the first to do it, that the market is untapped, that you’re filling a niche that nobody has ever noticed before. For some reason, the media swallow these lines every time. Hell, I’ve done it myself, though I find it really hard to keep saying it now. Perhaps you can understand my eyeroll.

I did some Googling and found several promo pieces about Bellesa from its startup and early stages. Student paper The Bear and Bull did a promo piece in March 2017, perhaps because Michelle Schnaidman was a McGill University alumni. The piece said “Truly being the first of its kind, Bellesa is an innovative player in its field.”

 And it also said this:

“Many companies in the porn industry say they cater to women, but most women agree their attempts have been feeble. Michelle said that “when [Bellesa] started, we were… thinking [that] if adult entertainment were created in the vision of a woman, it would look very different than it does”, and so from the onset Michelle and her team “kept [their] heads down” to avoid being like anything already in existence.” (My bold)

This goes against the “extensive research” idea a bit. And also WTF “attempts have been feeble”?? “Most women agree”? Yeah, fuck off with your unsourced generalizations! Bright Desire turns 5 in December this year. For The Girls turned 14 in June. “Feeble” my arse! 

This April piece in The Link offers the same sort of writeup, while this piece in Montreal In Technology from May 2017 offers some concrete info.

“Since launching, the team has already grown to nine people, and the unique visits has topped 300,000, with an estimated 3 or 4 million page views at the time of the interview…
“Since porn is considered a vice, Shnaidman couldn’t go through VCs and other more traditional funding routes. Instead, she got creative and found angel and private investors to get the venture off the ground.”

Someone told me a rumour that Bellesa began with $400,000 in startup capital. I can’t find a source for this so I have no idea if it’s true. Nonetheless, if the site had 9 employees, it certainly had some money behind it. It’s just a damn shame they decided not to spend that money on actually making porn. The Bear and Bull piece mentions vague plans to make their own videos within a year but I think it’s clear that that wasn’t the main priority. Safe to say the priority would be getting PR – which gets you the traffic.

Pornhub always gets press when it releases statistics about “what women want”.

It used to be that anyone, including me, could get traffic via Google and other search engines (ah, the good old days *shakes fist at cloud*). That doesn’t happen anymore because Google’s results for porn searches turn up two things: major tube sites like Pornhub and news articles about porn. The former is the big problem: the various tentacles of tube monster Mindgeek mean that your average porn surfer types in their preferred term and is offered up a bunch of free content, accompanied by typically sexist ads and negative descriptions. The end result is that people think that all porn is free and that Pornhub is all there is.

Clearly this seems to be what Michelle Schnaidman encountered when she came up with the idea for Bellesa. She says so in the numerous articles – that she was disappointed with the sexism and male-oriented content found under the “female friendly” category. Unfortunately her main idea to combat this was to create a female Pornhub equivalent. Which is a great idea and all except, you know, that piracy thing.

In 2013 I wrote a blog post: Why are there no feminist porn tube sites?  In essence I said that those of us trying to make ethical and feminist porn weren’t going to undermine ourselves by just giving everything away for free. We’re too small to do that anyway. Unfortunately, not making tubes sites or giving all of our content to Pornhub means we miss out on traffic and exposure. It’s a frustrating reality that every day people go looking for something different like Bright Desire or Pink Label or all the other great porn out there but they don’t find it. So they think it doesn’t exist.

Hence the inevitable “Amazing New Thing: Porn For Women!” headlines that I’ve been seeing for years and years.

So if the tube sites are hogging the search results, today’s pornographers have to rely on PR to let people know they exist. The female director to most successfully do this over the last two+ years has been Erika Lust. I believe she has three PR people working for her and it has resulted in hundreds of mainstream media mentions for her. When I look at discussions around the web about porn that women will like, Erika Lust’s name is the one that comes up. Cindy Gallop of MakeLoveNotPorn is also very good with PR, especially because she was originally in advertising to begin with.

I would say that Bellesa’s PR campaign was also hugely successful. The site only launched in February 2017 and it clearly had a shirtload of traffic and recognition by the time this week’s drama happened. It’s a textbook example of the tech industry/startup culture top-down approach to porn: a flashy looking website that needs vast amounts of capital to begin, large offices, great PR, extensive “market research” and… oh maybe some porn in there somewhere. But not icky porn. NICE porn. Because you need to differentiate yourself from the mainstream and look vaguely respectable to avoid the inevitable stigma.

(By the way, I’m doing my best to keep the snark out of my tone but I suspect it’s creeping in. I’m old in porn, I’m jaded and I’m jealous. After 17 years I’m still running a porn business from my home office, doing everything myself, barely covering the bases but doing my best to create porn that I believe in, like I always have. I’ve been profitable because I stayed skinny. But If anyone wants to give me a wheelbarrow of cash or do PR for me, I’m very open to suggestions.)

In August I was interviewed for an article in Sexual Health Magazine headlined the Top 10 Stereotype-Smashing Porn Sites For Feminists (p70). Bright Desire only made number 9 but there’s Bellesa at number 1. In the email alerting me to the article, the journo apologized for this, saying she didn’t know about the piracy thing.

The fact that Sexual Health Magazine, the Bustle article, and all the other writeups didn’t pause to wonder where the videos came from shows a collective media blindspot when it comes to porn piracy and the tube sites. Pornhub regularly gets itself into newspaper articles with their statistics about who is watching what genres and where, without a second thought about the company behind it. Mindgeek have been hugely successful in legitimizing themselves, despite the fact that their businesses still perpetuate massive content theft that is destroying the industry (see Ovidie’s Pornocracy: The New Sex Multinationals film for more info).

The concept that porn should be free has been utterly normalized. Other media industries like the Hollywood studios have politicians jumping to write anti-piracy legislation but porn piracy is ignored because we’re just, you know, porn. Stigma means our art is dismissed as not worthy of a ticket price and performers’ sexual labour is not worthy of payment. This is depressing and demoralizing. It’s no wonder everybody piled onto Bellesa this week; for once there was a tube site with a real contactable person behind it and we could actually do something other than just send out endless copyright infringement notices.

Meanwhile, those of us who are actually trying to make ethical and feminist porn films struggle along, scrounging traffic from whatever source we can. The pickings are getting slim and good PR is gold but it’s hard to get. Getting a mention in a mainstream media article relies on networking, on knowing the right people, on sending out hopeful press releases. Or else it involves spending time writing your own promo pieces and submitting them for free, hoping the editor will take notice, hoping they don’t sound too much like blatant advertising. All of this requires time away from actually making porn and having a PR person is a privilege that only some feminist porn creators can afford.

I need to remind myself that this is the old world media hierarchy establishing its order on the previously-untamed, democratized internet. PR is the meatworld version of getting in the top 10 of Google results… especially now that Google doesn’t even pretend to be a level playing field anymore. Old websites without expensive security certificates have been scrubbed from the results. Media outlets get priority. Newer sites push out older, larger, established ones. Net neutrality isn’t guaranteed. It’s a bloodbath out there and I think I’m getting too old for this shit.

In any case, Bellesa says they will rebuild their video section using authorized content and I think that’s great. I hope they use the promo videos I’ve made for Bright Desire because, frankly, I need the traffic. I also hope the whole thing has raised awareness about piracy in porn and that people might think twice before they rely on “user generated uploads” as their main source of content.

And I also hope that anyone who wants to get into the porn industry remembers that it’s the porn performers who are the most important in all of this. We rely on their labour to make porn possible and they should be paid properly for it. And that means that people need to pay for their porn.

To close, here’s a comment I posted on Reddit a while back:

By the way, a couple of years ago I made Porn For Women TV. This is a tube-style site with free videos. But I only used trailers or short promotional clips and all of them have watermarks and links back to the producers. If you’re interested in a bit of titillation and want to support ethical, feminist, female and queer porn producers (and me), go there.

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2 Replies to “The Bellesa Affair: Piracy, PR and Porn For Women”

  1. I wanted to flag up one thing in the interests of accuracy: I do absolutely zero in the way of any kind of PR and media outreach, for both MakeLoveNotPorn and myself. You’re quite right that my background is in brandbuilding, marketing and advertising. What that has enabled me to do is to build a brand in MLNP in terms of the way I’ve gone about framing and positioning it. I do no outreach whatsoever regarding PR and media coverage, not least because – we all know what this is like – I fight a huge battle to keep MLNP alive day to day in the face of the bias and prejudice we all deal with on sex-related ventures. All the PR and media coverage I and MLNP get comes to me without my doing anything to solicit it (the only upside of having a controversial startup, and quite honestly, it’s just as well given we have no resources to do anything otherwise – MLNP has only one paid employee, our amazing MadamCurator Sarah Beall; I work full-time on MLNP unpaid, and support myself alongside by doing paid consultancy and public speaking).

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