porn

Hugh Hefner the image. (Photo by Flickr user Sarah Gerke)

Content warning: this post contains brief references to rape and abuse. 

Hugh Hefner died.

Of course he did. Dude was 91. When my castmate announced it after rehearsal, I didn’t feel shock at the news. Hefner may as well have died when he stopped being the editor of Playboy magazine. Or when The Girls Next Door tried selling us on twincest. Or when the magazine stopped publishing nudes. He was a go-to pop culture joke about debauchery and smoking jackets, but he’s hardly been relevant for years.

Still, I had some mixed feelings. I never much cared for Hefner or his image, having been introduced to him as a doddering grandpa on reality TV, but Playboy the brand had been in my life since I was a child. It molded my early ideas of what it meant to be attractive. It introduced me to the idea that sexiness could be playful or serious. When I turned 18, I bought an issue just because I could and delighted at the articles and interviews just as much as the pictorials. This, I thought, was the intersection of brains and beauty. By thumbing through the pages at my grandma’s house I was somehow becoming a well-rounded adult.

To say nothing of the accidental connection between Playboy and queerness. For generations, Dad’s secret stash (or in my case, my mother’s boyfriend Chad’s collection that he just left out in the open in his office) was a gateway not just for teenage boys but also girls. It felt like fate that my first issue featured a spread with Adrienne Curry, the first out bisexual I had ever seen. Since Playboy could also be “for the articles”, I was able to hide my queerness even from myself. Perhaps even more than the cool girls I had met in high school, Playboy gave me the most intense stirrings of looking at a woman and not being sure if I wanted to be her or be with her. As I grew I realized, hell, why not both?

When I went to college I found vintage issues and hung the centerfolds in my kitchen, aspiring to their fresh-faced, breezy beauty. I copied the makeup, teased my hair higher, and then rebelled against the streamlined pin-ups in favor of some Hustler-esque trashiness. Those styles helped me experiment and come into my own again and again as I rolled through my early 20s. Even now, I’ll sometimes look at them and imagine living in a dreamy world of sheer babydolls and fur rugs. It’s a world I realize I now have the means to create for myself at any point. Several photographer friends are just a Facebook message away, and within the week I’ll have a pin-up of myself to tuck away. In them, I’m eternally 19, 21, 24, and these versions of me seem younger and younger every year. They’re my own digital flashbacks that I wish I could share with my younger self. “Look,” I’d say. “You’re pretty too.”

But none of that was Hefner. It was the women I idolized—women who were paid peanuts to be immortalized in soft focus.

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Bellesa CEO Michelle Shnaidman.

How can you talk about ethics when your company is posting stolen content from producers and sex workers?

A tube site aimed at women did just that this month. Recently launched, Bellesa claimed it created a safe atmosphere for its users, which, unlike other tube sites, was supposedly free of “degrading” porn. However, like all tube sites, their collection of videos was largely acquired through piracy. While boasting “safe space” and “ethical porn for women,” Bellesa perpetuated the same exploitative practices the sleaziest tube sites do.

Their hypocrisy caused a stir in the porn industry. The site claimed to be empowering while simultaneously exploiting people’s sexual labor. At least some other tube sites let performers upload their content and get paid for it—it’s a way to make your money back on already pirated content. Bellesa also perpetuated sex positive feminism’s voyeuristic and conditional obsession with sex work, that is, the idea that it is only valid as long as it’s empowering—a standard other jobs are not held to. What this attitude ultimately demonstrates is a complete disregard for those who work in the sex industry.

To add insult to injury, Bellesa’s marketing campaign used Twitter to blast videos full of this kind of rhetoric, feeding a  liberal sex positive audience hungry for it. Feminist sex writer Suzannah Wess profiled their CEO Michelle Shnaidman at Bustle, opening her piece with, “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.”

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The creators of Hot Girls Wanted and Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On— Jill Bauer, Rashida Jones, and Ronna Gradus. (Still from Youtube)

I first heard that a sequel to Hot Girls Wanted was being made about three months ago. A performer I followed posted about being approached for filming. He rejected the offer immediately. I shared his discomfort.

The first Hot Girls Wanted was a documentary film carefully designed to manipulate the viewer into feeling disgust towards the porn industry. It followed a household of porn models, predominantly new to the industry, for several months as they journeyed into what Hot Girls Wanted creator Rashida Jones referred to as “pro-amateur porn.” While the filmmakers claimed a totally unbiased approach, I watched the documentary taking note of each carefully placed, mid-sentence cut designed to de-contextualize industry critiques; each depressing tone played at low volumes creating emotionally charged responses to a comment; each unsourced statistic and each citation from disreputable websites.

Porn performers responded harshly yet appropriately to the documentary. They aimed their critiques primarily at the film’s producer, actress Rashida Jones. With the announcement of a sequel came promises of an improved, non-stigmatizing, and nuanced discussion of the porn industry.

It was not delivered.

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(Courtesy of Instagram user local_._honey)

(Courtesy of Instagram user local_._honey)

Sit down. I have news for you. If you’re trying to date or hook up with someone you know from their work in escorting or porn, without paying them, your chances of success are close to zero. This is true even if we favorite your adoring comments on Twitter.

It may come as a shock to hear this. You may feel like sexual attraction is only part of the connection you have with this worker, and that paying would deny the authenticity of that. Or maybe you think that you are a really good (looking) person and only creepy or unattractive people pay. Maybe both you and the sex worker are queer and/or have similar politics. You know sex workers and are down with decriminalization. There are many reasons you may feel you are exceptional.

You are operating under a basic misunderstanding of who we are and what we are doing. Which is this:

1. Portraying an inviting version of ourselves, one with genuine elements but oriented to be pleasing to as many people as possible.
2. …because we are trying to make a fucking living.

I am not writing this to make you feel foolish. I am writing this because in the last week I’ve had multiple experiences of people approaching me in person, calling me on the phone, and hitting me up on social media trying to have unpaid sex with me. It’s been hard to turn people down, because as both an escort and a porn performer, I am not trying to get a reputation as a “mean person”. When I do turn people down directly, they don’t listen or they’re patronizing as fuck. An anonymous internet post telling you how it makes me feel is really the best I (and tons of other sex workers) can do in the hope you get the message.

I feel devalued and strung along. When people contact me by way of my ad or social media I assume they are interested in seeing me as an escort. I’m excited and open in response. I like my job, I like meeting people, and most importantly, I like making the money I need to survive. When I realize that you’ve called me to jerk off or that you want to take me out to dinner and try to woo me into unpaid sex, I go through an emotional arc from excitement to confusion to pure rage. That is not the start of a good relationship.

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juliette1

“Modern industry, in overturning the economical foundation on which was based the traditional family, and the family labour corresponding to it, had also unloosened all traditional ties.” – Karl Marx, Capital

I open up my browser and type “pornhub.com” into the search bar. Once the page loads, I hover my cursor over “videos” and click on “most viewed.” This is a type of occupational research for a sex worker like me. The ad on the right side of the page says “small, tiny, teens gettin’ fucked!” It’s an animated .gif: the male performer wraps his hands completely around the circumference of the female performer’s torso, demonstrating just how small and tiny this teen getting fucked is.

Of the four videos displayed at the top, only two of them feature third-person cinematography showing the whole body of both performers. One of them is a lesbian incest fantasy video, the other is an interracial video, the title of which refers to the white male performer as “innocent” and the black female performer as “his First African Princess.” The other two videos feature a mix of first person, or “POV,” shots and third person shots which barely show more of the male actor than his dick. One of these videos is an internal ejaculation, or “creampie,” video; the other is an incest fantasy video. Both feature an all-white cast and heterosexual sex. Naturally, the white man is the absolute Subject, and everyone else is the Other.

According to a study featured in an early 2016 issue of sexology publication The Journal of Sex Research, porn viewers have more egalitarian views about gender than non-viewers. The specific metrics used by the study to assess whether participants have “gender egalitarian views” are a series of questions which gauge the extent to which they agree with contemporary liberal status quo with respect to gender and the family. The study shows that porn viewership is positively correlated with the beliefs that abortion should be legal, and that women should be allowed to work outside of the home and hold positions of power in society. Other studies have shown that pornography exposure is correlated with positive attitudes about premarital sex among younger adults and that women who view pornography are more likely to hold sexually liberal attitudes as well as have engaged in sex work. A plurality of Pornhub.com viewers support Bernie Sanders; most support marijuana legalization and federal funding for Planned Parenthood.

Porn is a form of media which typically delivers images of women’s sexual objectification – the camera focuses on the woman’s body and her affective performance while the male performer seldom exists more than a few inches above his navel or below his knees – and where genres commonly cater to exploitative sexual proclivities (incest, “barely legal” teens, gangbangs, exploitation of domestic laborers such as maids and babysitters, and so on). It might seem counterintuitive that consumption of this media would correlate to liberal ideas.

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