This past spring, a trilogy of kinky romance novels penned by EL James developed into a cultural phenomenon. The Fifty Shades of Grey series first became popular as ebooks that could be quickly downloaded and read on Kindles and similar devices without arousing social embarrassment. When they finally came out in print, they sold over ten million copies in just six weeks. A Hollywood movie is already in the works.
The media quickly dubbed the genre ‘mommy porn’. A thousand condescending articles were written, including a Newsweek cover story by notorious anti-feminist Katie Roiphe who theorised that the popularity of the books proved that working women, having achieved economic parity with men, wanted to submit to their male peers. Roiphe suggested that ‘the more theatrical fantasies of sexual surrender offer a release, a vacation, an escape from the dreariness and hard work of equality’. Unsurprisingly, this became the, uh, dominant media narrative.
In a bravura smackdown, journalist and blogger Laurie Penny shredded Roiphe’s analysis, pointing out that there’s no evidence that the powerful men who pay working-class dominatrixes to beat them want to submit to women socially or economically. Penny further observed the tendency of the media to fixate almost exclusively on the sexuality of young, straight, white women:
Here are some non-standard sexual trends that editors at Newsweek, Glamour and Cosmopolitan are less keen to make headlines out of: poor women fucking. Black women fucking. Queer women fucking. Old women fucking. Fat women fucking, ugly women fucking, bossy, arrogant women fucking. Women who are dominant in bed. Women who like to penetrate men with big pink strap-ons. Women who want multiple sexual partners at once or in succession. Women who just want to go to bed early with a cup of tea, an Anna Span DVD and a spiked dildo the size of an eggplant. Here are some more: sex workers who want to be treated like workers, rather than social pariahs. Men who want to get fucked. Men who are gentle and submissive in bed. Men who don’t enjoy penetrative sex. Men for whom sex is an overwhelming emotional experience. I guarantee you that all of these things go on, but any of them might actually destabilise for a second our cultural narrative of sex, gender and power, so none of them are allowed to be ‘trends’.
Penny underscored what is often missing in our discussions about sexuality – and our battles over pornography. Too often this discourse is only about young, thin, straight, white women – those found in the mainstream adult videos that drive the economy of California’s San Fernando Valley where it’s said 90 per cent of adult films originate.
What’s more rarely discussed is the astonishing diversity of pornography that is made outside of, or on the margins of, this industry. If you want to see old bodies, fat bodies, black and brown bodies, trans bodies, disabled bodies, queer sex, kinky sex and much more, you can find them in porn: in indie, amateur and, increasingly, mainstream porn.
If there is any radical potential in pornography, it exists in its power to depict bodies and sexualities that we would not encounter in more ‘respectable’ media like advertising, fashion and Hollywood. For its creators, porn can be a powerful venue for self-expression, for asserting agency in a culture with narrow, constricting ideas of beauty, sexuality and gender expression. For viewers, it can validate those of us with nonconforming bodies and non-traditional desires, filling gaps in a visual culture that all too frequently erases our experiences. If opponents of porn are right – that it teaches us what to desire and how to enjoy it – then we should listen to porn’s outsiders, those individuals who put their bodies in the frame to agitate for more diverse images and better ideas.
‘I felt much more degraded as a receptionist than I ever have in porn. That was what I was doing when I met Carlos.’ – April Flores
April Flores is 36, Latina and a native of Southern California. She’s also the most popular BBW (Big Beautiful Woman) porn actress in the world. Like most of us who grew up fat, Flores was in conflict with her body for several years. In her twenties, she lost enough weight to be thin but realised she wasn’t any happier. As the weight came back, she made a decision to accept and love her body.
It was around this time that Carlos Batts came into her life. Batts, a professional photographer newly arrived from Baltimore, approached Flores at a party and asked if she would model for him. It was the first time she ever posed topless. Batts says that in his fashion work he’d encountered plenty of thin models who weren’t confident about their bodies but April was different. The day after the shoot, Flores said she woke up feeling ‘empowered’.
The two began dating, and their work moved from photos to video. In the process, Flores shifted from being a model to a collaborator in the creative process. Flores had never even watched a porn movie when she got an offer from adult film star Belladonna to appear in her next video. It was her first role in a porn film and also the first time she would have a sexual experience with a woman. It was also the rare movie that eroticised sex between people of different sized bodies. Offers began to pour in for more work, and Flores did more films, but soon found herself looking for a purpose in her newfound career.
‘When you’re fucking on film, it’s a really honest portrayal. You’re really vulnerable. So, for me, I needed a strong reason for why I was doing this,’ she remembers.
It took a year of intense reflection for Flores to arrive at what could be called her mission statement: ‘[I want] to show the world, and use my body as a statement that fat women are sexy, and they can enjoy sex, and they can enjoy their sexuality. And they don’t have to wait to lose weight to do that.’
Flores estimates that 95 per cent of her fan mail comes from women, many of whom are struggling with their body image. One woman wrote to tell Flores that she keeps a magazine interview of the actress handy and that when she’s having a particularly low day, she reads the article and feels better. Men have written to thank her, saying their partners are now comfortable having sex with the lights on.
One of the central critiques of pornography is that it objectifies women by reducing them to specific body parts. Yet this is what happens routinely to fat people who are photographed from the neck down for moralistic news stories on the obesity epidemic. Sociologist Charlotte Cooper wrote of this phenomenon in her essay ‘Headless Fatties’:
As Headless Fatties, the body becomes symbolic: we are there but we have no voice, not even a mouth in a head, no brain, no thoughts or opinions. Instead we are reduced and dehumanised as symbols of cultural fear: the body, the belly, the arse, food. There’s a symbolism, too, in the way that the people in these photographs have been beheaded. It’s as though we have been punished for existing, our right to speak has been removed by a prurient gaze, our headless images accompany articles that assume a world without people like us would be a better world altogether.
Fat women experience erasure from popular films and television, where they are consigned to supporting roles. If their sexuality is depicted at all, it’s usually for comedic effect – as a punchline. I cannot think of a Hollywood movie, much less an independent feature film, with a fat woman as the romantic lead. (In a recent episode of HBO’s Girls, Lena Dunham’s character complains about being 13 pounds overweight, neatly summing up the acceptable deviation from the norm.)
While the media similarly shows us demonised fat bodies, Flores and Batts show us the fat body as an object of desire. We see April Flores not as a headless torso but as a whole woman. In her films, Flores is the star, and it’s her sexuality we see onscreen.
Of course, BBW porn had been a niche in the industry long before Flores appeared. These videos were often poorly lit, featured mostly blonde, white models, and were marketed under degrading titles. Batts says that the degraded aesthetics reflected negative cultural attitudes towards fat bodies. The difference with the new wave of BBW porn is the creativity and body–positivity informing the work. Batts, who is African American, compares this to the evolution of porn made by people of colour.
‘No matter what the content, people want to see themselves,’ Batts says, ‘and people want to see themselves in positive ways. If you’re a Mexican American or a Black American, you do want to watch a porno, because you like to see people having sex. But you don’t want to see yourself degraded or treated in a racist way. You want to see yourself in a very beautiful, erotic and artistic way.’ So, too, for fat people.
It’s important to note that Flores is not just a niche star. She has also achieved a degree of success within the mainstream porn industry. She has appeared in productions by major companies like Adam & Eve, Vivid and HeartCore Films. In 2011, she won ‘Crossover Star of the Year’ at the AVN Awards, the porn industry equivalent of the Oscars.
There are still pitfalls, even for Flores. In 2010, she shot a movie released under the title Whale Watching 7. Flores was disappointed to see her own image on the cover. This incident reveals the contradiction on which the ‘war on obesity’ is based. The men and women watching Flores are clearly aroused by her voluptuous body, but the marketing acts as a disavowal of this desire – or worse still, eroticises the transgression of being attracted to her body. Batts believes that there are many people who are afraid to admit that they are attracted to big women and that the industry reflects this hypocrisy in its crude marketing. Flores simply observes that the mainstream porn industry, like Hollywood, is run by older white men.
For this reason, Flores and Batts have prioritised making their own work. Batts is optimistic about using his films to show a diverse spectrum of marginalised sexualities. His most recent release is Artcore, a gritty handheld feature with a cool electronic soundtrack, neon lighting and a half-dozen sex scenes. The first depicts a three-way between Flores and two other BBW performers: Courtney Trouble and Kelly Shibari. Then it follows Flores as she dominates two masked men. The centrepiece of Artcore is an extended hotel room encounter between Flores and androgynous Canadian performer Drew Deveaux who is a trans woman. Deveaux is one of an increasing number of trans performers finding visibility in porn.
One of the most famous trans pornstars is Buck Angel. Muscular, tattooed and often seen chomping on a cigar, Buck provocatively bills himself as ‘The Man with a Pussy’.
Born a girl and raised as a tomboy, Buck always knew he was a man. Puberty came late. He got his period at fifteen. And then breasts. Buck was miserable.
‘That’s when the shit hit the fan for me, man. I just didn’t feel in my body. People started treating me more female. My parents started calling me by my girl name instead of my boy name. I just went downhill from there. I got very depressive, started drinking alcohol, fighting all the time. Suicidal. It was pretty much from the age of sixteen to when I got sober in my late twenties. I was a mess.’
During this chaotic period, Buck found profitable work modelling in the fashion industry. ‘They wanted to make me a supermodel,’ he recalls.
Buck struggled to find answers in therapy, but didn’t have his epiphany until – ironically for the future filmmaker – he saw a movie about sex reassignment surgery. Buck began the process of transitioning. But, like many trans men, he did not opt for bottom surgery.
It would be nearly a decade, however, before Buck would come to accept his whole body. He reflects, ‘I was not comfortable with my vagina. It took me years. I wanted to have a penis like every-one else.’
Eventually Buck realised: ‘It was basically I get comfortable with my pussy or I never have sex again. Those were my two choices. And I love sex too much, I couldn’t put it on hold anymore. And once I discovered how amazing my pussy was and that I loved it, I said, “I’m sharing this with the world.”’
Buck and his partner at the time started a website and produced their own videos. He initially performed with both men and women, but soon found that he had a strong following in a surprising demographic – gay men.
Here we find a rupture in our culture’s binarist narratives about sexual orientation and gender. If gay men are attracted to Buck, whose body does not conform to the phallocentric ideal of manhood, what does this tell us about the prismatic nature of desire?
‘I think I opened up this whole new sexuality for men, especially gay men. And I gave them the freedom to try something new and not feel weird about it,’ Buck says.
Though Buck’s exotifying ‘Man with a Pussy’ pitch may warrant criticism within the FTM (female-to-male) community, he is also widely regarded as a trailblazer. Sexing the Transman, Buck’s latest movie, reveals an evolution in his work, taking the focus off the perceived novelty of his own body towards a more varied investigation of trans-male sexuality. The film features detailed interviews with four trans men about their backgrounds, their processes of transitioning and how it has affected their sex lives.
Each interview ends with an explicit scene of the men masturbating and discussing what turns them on. For trans men seeking representations of bodies and experiences like theirs, films like this fill a gap in the culture. For cisgender audiences unaccustomed to looking at trans bodies, the film is valuable as a documentary, screening experiences we do not see so frankly portrayed in other media.
It also suggests that the boundaries between documentary and porn are more porous than we assume. Anticipating this, Buck has made a less explicit documentary version of Sexing the Transman which has shown at film festivals around the world. In March, the film won a rare exemption from Australia’s Classification Board to screen at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival.
In April, Buck went to Toronto where Sexing the Transman won honours at the Feminist Porn Awards, an alternative to the mainstream industry’s AVN fete. When asked if he identifies with feminism, he doesn’t hesitate. Buck is happy to be a man, but admits that he has gained male privilege in the process of transitioning. As a man, he admits, ‘I’m treated totally different. People talk to me differently. I get much more respect than I ever did as a woman. And that pisses me off.’
No-one with a feminist consciousness can look at the vast majority of mainstream pornography and deny it is encoded with misogynist attitudes. To be blunt, most porn sucks. But while sexism may be replicated in pornography, it does not originate there.
The mainstream adult industry literally operates in the shadow of its more respectable twin to the west: Hollywood. And yet this respect has hardly been earned. The typical Hollywood rom-com is often equally if not more misogynist than the average porn feature. Hollywood’s toxic ideologies are insidious because they are less frequently challenged, their formulas normalising existing power relationships in society.
And why should we expect otherwise? A recent report by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film found that only 5 per cent of Hollywood directors are women, while men make up 77 per cent of Oscar voters. Independent and art-house cinema fares only a bit better. Some 27 per cent of this year’s Sundance line-up was directed by women, while at Cannes, none of the 22 films in competition had a female director.
Though it is difficult to find comparable statistics, it’s fair to argue that the number of women directing porn is growing, from early pioneers like Candida Royalle and Annie Sprinkle to mainstream directors like Belladonna, Kimberly Kane, Tristan Taormino, Stormy Daniels, Diana DeVoe and Suze Randall.
As the digital tools of production and promotion find their way into more hands, the diversity of directors is also increasing. In the last two decades, there has been an explosion of pornography made outside of the mainstream industry, much of it by queer women like Shine Louise Houston, Madison Young, Maria Beatty, Erika Lust, Anna Span and many more.
As Carlos Batts remarked, everyone wants to see themselves and their desires portrayed with dignity in porn. In order for this to happen, there must be filmmakers willing to make interesting work, but also consumers savvy enough to find it.
The pioneering feminist sex shop Good Vibrations has developed a taxonomical guide to help connect customers with quality porn that speaks to their desires. It’s cheering to note that there’s enough good work to warrant the effort. Their classification system rates films on a broad range of characteristics.
This is just one example of how we can become more engaged consumers of pornography. It also reminds us that people look at porn to meet very specific erotic needs which may change over the course of our lives.
Last year, while interviewing porn legend Nina Hartley, I made the embarrassing mistake of referring to her career in the past tense. Hartley, who is 53, informed me that she continues to have a vital career in pornography.
‘Boomers are not giving up their sexuality any time soon. We expect to have vital sexual activity til the end of our days,’ she said.
Hartley said that the recent explosion in MILF porn is a reflection that older consumers of pornography are seeking out representations they can relate to. By contrast, the popularity of Helen Mirren notwithstanding, there is very little space in contemporary American cinema for depictions of middle-aged and senior women’s sexuality.
The desire to be validated is rarely discussed in arguments about porn. But it is one of the main reasons that we seek out erotic images, especially if we are perceived to be a sexual minority.
Maymay is 28 years old, a born and bred New Yorker who is currently homeless but seems to live online on multiple platforms. He’s a prolific writer and a passionate advocate for his cause. Maymay is submissive and he’s on a mission to challenge the way we look at men like him – particularly in straight pornography.
‘In a nutshell,’ he says, ‘straight porn does not make room for people who society perceives as male to be objects of a gaze. Male-perceived people in straight porn are disposable and often visually decapitated. Only societally-coded signals of femininity are permitted to be arousing or viewed as desirable. In gay porn, a certain kind of male-perceived body can be lusted-after objects, they can be wanted and their masculinity, itself, is sexualised. This is not what happens in straight porn because the heterosexist stranglehold on desirability dictates that women are lusted after and men are unattractive. That’s busted, it’s bullshit and it’s oppressive; it results in most (straight) male-identified people living a life in which they have never experienced their bodies as attractive, or their selves as something that can be intrinsically desirous to a partner.’
Depictions of submissive men in popular culture largely support maymay’s critique. Think of all the films in which male masochists – usually authority figures caught in comical scenarios with hypsersexualised dominatrixes – are reduced to caricature. Just like fat women, old women and trans people, submissive men are often used as punchlines.
Maymay’s critique illuminates why the media promoted the ‘feminists just want to submit’ narrative used to hype Fifty Shades of Grey while conversely ignoring the millions of men who also have fantasies of submission. This is sexist ideology at work: the normalisation of female submission and the erasure of the male masochist.
But maymay’s efforts aren’t just rhetorical. He’s also a curator of porn. In the fall of 2008, maymay began work on Male Submission Art, a crowdsourced site, focused on collecting empowering, erotic images of male submission.
It’s an unusual and thought-provoking website in which each image is studied closely and subjected to a kind of semiotic analysis. An example:
A woman holds a muscular, shirtless man’s head at her genitals with both her hands as she stands over him, naked … Naturally, I like the assertive hold this woman has on the man’s head. Even more so, however, I like the fact that the man’s pants are low enough to reveal a peek at his ass, which is what added that last touch of female gaze that made me want to post this.
This is one of the shorter captions, as maymay is equally likely to analyse an image through a feminist, queer or art historical lens. He also engages with the site’s fans, some of them dominant women, who submit images that they enjoy. There are only a couple of hundred images on maymay’s site. In a sense, this is the best evidence of the problem he argues so passionately to correct.
Like maymay, most of us know that mainstream porn often promotes and replicates oppressive ideas. For this reason, outsider porn – with its mixture of exhibitionism and activism – offers an alternative. We’re often told that illegal downloading and amateur porn are killing the profitability of the adult industry. Whether or not this is true, it’s interesting to note that with this technological revolution, we’re seeing a concurrent explosion in the diversity of images. It’s true that those who make compromises with the mainstream often find themselves commodified in fetishistic niches, like BBW, MILF and FTM. It’s too soon to tell whether performers like April Flores and Buck Angel will break out of these categories and change the mainstream industry for the better or, by increments, supplant it with independently produced work.
I find hope, however, in maymay’s sense of purpose, and respond to the anger and passion which so clearly drives it. We all want to see our sexuality validated by our culture. No-one wants to feel broken, undesirable or ashamed. Perhaps outsider porn can show us a way out. A way to feel whole.