For Immediate Release: June 15, 2009
SAN FRANCISCO – (June 15, 2009): Sarah Wheeler, a senior at University of California at Riverside shared her Senior Thesis Project with Pink & White Productions, granting the company permission to publish her project here on our website.
and Aesthetics in Queer Pornography
By Sarah Wheeler
Senior Thesis Project
Thesis Advisor: Dr. Jane Ward
Completed for a Bachelor of Arts degree
from the Women’s Studies Department
of the University of California at Riverside
on June 11, 2009.
“It is often assumed that it is the explicitness of porn that titillates [sic], whereas in fact it is the possibilities evoked that arouse. . .” Sara Dunn, p.166
It is Andrea Dworkin’s 1 worst nightmare: a naked woman writhing onscreen. She is seemingly unaware of any objectification perpetrated by the camera lens that is sweeping voyeuristically across the expanse of her sweaty body. She moans out of lips painted a bright pink, offering no resistance as she and her partner rearrange themselves into a plethora of positions. Though she is certainly the more feminine of the pair, there is no doubt that she is in complete control, regardless of the fact that the leather harness of a strap-on dildo is fitted snugly around the hips of her female partner, and not her own. Her eyelids flutter closed, her hoop earrings bounce with every gyration, and the soles of her four-inch heels point toward the ceiling. She seems so swept up in her own eager, enthusiastic passion that she does not appear to notice when the bedroom door suddenly swings open, revealing the surprised but intrigued faces of a second couple. One of them makes a move to leave, but the other grabs her arm, shaking her head. But our heroine must not be quite as oblivious to their presence as her demeanor initially suggested: her eyes lock onto the second couple without shame nor shock, and the naked woman, now on all fours, beckons for one of them to join while the other happily remains a voyeur.
Though it wouldn’t make much difference to Dworkin, this scene is not one pulled from any standard porn film, but the opening scene from what would become the poster child of all lesbian-queer porn: Shine Louise Houston’s The Crash Pad. Aided by increasingly accessible technologies that encourage amateur creations, the “democratization” of pornography in the last ten years (Hardy 61-62) has made it possible for members of the queer community to escape obscurity and develop their own representations of sexuality and gender through pornography.
As I searched for representations of queer sexual culture in porn, there are two companies in particular whose names came up over and over again, both in interpersonal discussions about available queer porn, and during informal surveys of industry blogs, news feeds, and discussion boards. Pink and White Productions and NoFauxxx.com have played particularly pivotal roles in providing foundational works of queer pornography. According to Alexa.com, a website that tracks the statistics and traffic of other sites, both
of these companies received the most traffic via searches for phrases like “queer porn” and “queer pornography.”2 For these qualitative and quantitative reasons, I will be using the materials of NoFauxxx and Pink and White Productions as my primary examples of the intentions, endeavors, successes, and potential failings of queer porn.
According to interviews and website manifestos, both companies were born out of a perceived lack of “authentic” porn made for the queer community (No Fauxxx; “Dyke Porn and Trans Porn”). In early 2005, Shine Louise Houston was working at Good Vibrations, a woman-positive San Francisco-based adult bookstore, when she first noticed the situation:
. . . We had a lot of women and straight couples come in looking for lesbian porn. And they were looking for good lesbian porn. We didn’t have a whole lot of selection. There’s not a lot of queer-made, lesbian porn out there, it’s very limited. So, I had a film degree, I was interested in making porn, and I was also interested in making money. But you know, believe it or not there’s not as much money as you would think in pussy. So this whole project is more a labor of love than a get rich scheme. I’m really in it for my artistic purposes. (Feministe)
By the end of 2005, Houston had directed and released The Crash Pad, her first adult film. Its premise was intriguing: somewhere in San Francisco, there is an apartment where lucky queer women can meet for sex, but only if they are lucky enough to have the key passed to them. There is, of course, a catch: they can only use the apartment seven times, and after that their key will no longer work. What they don’t know is that the anonymous “Keymaster” watches their escapades from a safe distance via hidden cameras installed throughout the apartment. The charismatic performers, combined with Houston’s laissez-faire directing style (meaning that she does relatively little dictating and interfering, preferring instead to let the actors do what they enjoy doing), made the film an instant local success. After partnering with a distributor, Blowfish Video, Houston went on to make 3 additional adult films, Superfreak (2006), In Search of the Wild Kingdom (2007; sometimes referred to as The Wild Search), and Champion (2009), as well as to develop The Crash Pad into both a DVD series and a website series.
However, Houston was not the first person to notice the lack of queer pornography. In 2003, Courtney Trouble, a young activist for fat positivity and amateur photographer from Olympia, Washington, started a “small personal project” that eventually became NoFauxxx.com (NoFauxxx; Doll). Claiming to be the Internet’s oldest queer porn website, as well as the only one to “mix alt, gay, lesbian, straight, trans, kink, [and] bbw3 genres,” the site has grown to include over 130 photosets, 15 videos, and released its first DVD, Roulette, in April 2009 (No Fauxxx).
Though both companies profess rather straightforward motivations for creating queer pornography—namely, to provide a queer audience with more “authentic,” selfrepresentative images to get off to—I will argue that their media actually takes on several other ambitious projects, though not all necessarily imply a conscious intention on the part of the directors. Besides the obvious mission of inciting viewer arousal, this new wave of queer pornography also serves to 1) approach the creation of pornography through a feminist perspective, 2) re-imagine and “queer” situations and sex acts that are commonly seen in mainstream, male-oriented heterosexual porn, and 3) develop a distinctly queer erotic aesthetic through a variety of methods. I will also discuss the problems and complications inherent in creating an aesthetic that specifically markets itself as “queer” in nature.
Queer pornography, despite being a niche genre with relatively low distribution, actually offers an impressively broad spectrum of sexualities, identities, and practices to its viewers. Given this range of possibilities, it would be impossible to adequately explore all of them within the confines of this paper. Therefore, I have limited my examination only to those scenes that feature female-bodied performers; however, it is critical to note that the gender inclusivity characteristic of queer politics is also evident in queer erotica. Transmen, transwomen, queer men, and even the occasional heterosexual couple are featured within the films and websites I will examine. Within scenes featuring female- bodied performers, I focus mainly on those that can be explicitly read and interpreted as lesbian, though I also give attention to several solo masturbation scenes.
I must take a brief pause here in order to further elaborate on some of the terminology I will be using throughout this paper. I use the word “lesbian” not to make a declaration or presumption about the identities of the casts and crews involved in the production of the media I’m reviewing, but instead as a way of descriptively identifying a set of practices and bodies that exist within the broader, less definitive context of “queer.” Because the performers and models themselves represent a wide spectrum of gendered identities, any other definition would oversimplify the complications that exist between terms of sexual orientation and their gender-dependent origins.
A New Position: Combining Feminism and Pornography
To say that mainstream feminism has had a conflicted relationship with pornography is a gross understatement. Prominent anti-pornography activists and writers such as Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin dominated conversations regarding visual representations of sexuality during the 1970s and 1980s, claiming that sexuality itself inherently puts women in a submissive and exploitative position (MacKinnon 258-259). The rise of sex-positive feminism argued against such a stance, claiming that a woman’s sexual freedom was a key part of her overall liberation from patriarchal oppression. Pro-sex feminism fell under many attacks, being frequently criticized for depoliticizing sex too much, and for offering a “shallow” version of feminism with limited applicability; some even accused it of representing women’s complete internalization of the dominant culture’s message that women exist simply “to be fucked” (MacKinnon 265; Radicalesbians 173).
For queer women, the seeming incompatibility of feminism and the celebration of sexuality had polarizing effects, resulting in what has been dubbed the “the Sex Wars” or “the Porn Wars” (Duggan and Hunter). While some lesbians argued that sex and the “goal-oriented” orgasm were products of patriarchal and male-identified culture, others felt that lesbian sexuality was free from such power relations (Faderman 230-235). However, a burgeoning queer culture further complicated these arguments by resolutely promoting sex radicalism and defending the right to view and engage in pornography, sadomasochism, and a host of other controversial activities. Gayle Rubin’s influential essay, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” bolstered this position by arguing that all ideas regarding sexual behavior were socially constructed and existed on tenuous hierarchies of good/bad, moral/immoral, acceptable/unacceptable (Rubin).
To entangle my arguments within this messy minefield of politics is far too great a task to attempt with one paper; rather, I instead use this history to emphasize what a brazen and difficult task it is to try and reconfigure pornography within a feminist framework, particularly from a queer perspective. However, in examining how queer women have commenced new relationships with pornography both in the past and present, I believe a new way of discussing feminism and pornography emerges. Rather than being content to condemn pornography as sexist and exploitative by nature, many queer women have viewed it as what it is: a social product, one that has the potential to be stripped of its failings and altered in order to align with diverse perspectives. This is what anti-pornography feminists often failed to acknowledge during the height of the Porn Wars; in seeing pornography as an entirely and unalterably male enterprise, they have forfeited their own ability to affect changes within it.
What queer porn has attempted to do, however, is to reconstruct pornography as a medium through which feminist principles—which call for the respect and equal status of all women in society—can be exercised and promoted. The earliest example of this is perhaps also the most famous and influential example of lesbian pornography, On Our Backs magazine. Lisa Henderson aptly situates and describes the magazine:
So, in 1984—at the height of both Reaganism and the feminist sex debates in the USA—a group of uppity women with few resources devote what they have to launching a declaration of sexual independence, appropriating, in the process, sexual stances and strategies rooted in San Francisco’s gay men’s community. . . On Our Backs came out celebrating a range of lesbian sexual roles, practices and fantasies . . . [providing] an inventory of anti-repressive lesbian sexual portrayals, which is not to say ‘doing what comes naturally’ so much as ‘doing what comes pleasurably’. Envisioning a deeply sexual world among women, these images trade at once on liberatory imagination and subcultural cachet. (Henderson 176-177)
The recent wave of queer porn I am discussing has modeled its creations after the foundational work done by On Our Backs, which itself constituted a new approach to lesbian sexuality and eroticism. After rejecting both feminist calls for censorship and the heteronormative pornography that catered lesbianism to a straight male audience, sex radical lesbians had to invent new ways of their combining feminist principles with their
desire for erotic material that felt authentic to their community. The main ways through which they achieved this delicate balance—by eradicating beauty standards, centralizing female pleasure, and avoiding the dehumanization of women through their sexuality—are now being evoked by queer pornographers for their similar endeavors.
Avoiding female dehumanization
At the center of most feminist porn debates is the female actor, or porn star—the extent of her consent, her awareness of potential consequences, and her silence through objectification have all been issues used to question the ethics and legitimacy of her participation. Obviously, her consent is required by law, but the seeming straightforwardness of this fact becomes complicated under the feminist gaze. Did she ever experience doubts about participating, or feel pressured to perform acts she didn’t want to do? Did she feel she had input and a voice onset? To begin to answer these questions and emphasize the performer’s absolute consent and self-awareness to the viewers, both Shine Louise Houston and Courtney Trouble have found a variety of ways of conveying their respect for the women they film and photograph.
In the case of Houston’s DVDs, a multitude of revealing post-production interviews and behind-the-scenes features serve to flesh out the personalities and perspectives of the performers. Though such extras are not entirely uncommon on adult DVDs, Houston’s are notable for both their honesty and intimacy, particularly during the interviews filmed after a scene’s completion. In the extras for Superfreak, Houston asks all of the performers about what they found most challenging during their scene. They respond honestly: it was difficult for Dylan Ryan to lift Madison Young up as they were having sex standing up against a wall; Shawn and Jiz Lee’s scene, in which they sprayed each other with a sink’s extendable faucet, made the surfaces so slippery they had trouble not sliding around; and a rough, uncomfortable strap-on base made Guy Handful’s scene with Rozen a little painful. Giving her actors a forum where they could openly express what was hard about their jobs contributes to an atmosphere of transparency, where it is more important for a woman’s voice to be heard than it is to maintain the fantasy of perfect, seamless sex for the audience.
The elaboration of personal lives and personalities also helps to de-objectify the performers and re-contextualize them as intelligent, empowered women. Revealing details situate them outside of the sexual acts they are tied to onscreen. Lorelei Lee mentions that she’s a writer in addition to be a porn star, then shyly mentions that she’s writing a screenplay. When discussing the scene she had just performed with Jiz Lee, Shawn admits that both the sex and filming were quite different from the last (and first) scene she and Jiz had filmed for Houston; at that time, she explains, she and her wife had just opened up their relationship, and tensions were running high since she’d begun dating Jiz.
Such insights not only humanize the performers, but serve to credit Pink and White’s claims of queer authenticity as well. In the behind-the-scenes feature for Superfreak, Houston states, “The mission for Pink and White is to create beautiful cinema that’s representative of today’s blurred gender lines in the queer community.” This remark is later followed up by several of the performers discussing their femme, androgynous, and genderqueer identities. Jiz Lee, who is both androgynous and genderqueer, discusses how wearing a wig for her scene underscored Houston’s intentions to represent gender fluidity:
“. . . Shine wanted the character to be, um, kind of this punky, rocker chick. . . For me, being able to be femme in this porn was, um, maybe something that doesn’t seem original or new for people who are viewing it, but for me as an individual playing around with my gender within the context of Shawn and I, um, was actually, it was a really interesting experience. . . And as the scene continues, as it progresses, I end up pulling the wig off, which kind of brings our dynamics more from maybe butch and femme or androgynous and femme, to androgynousandrogynous. Shine’s work tries to, like, blur gender lines and show the fluidity that women have within their gender expression and their sexuality, so I think that, um—and the wig was my idea, to pull it off and have like, you know, the more androgynous, punky version of the haircut underneath. And I feel more comfortable in the androgynous role. So I think it was nice to, um, to be able to have that fluidity and have it expressed.”
This sort of thoughtful statement—which is not by any means a rare occurrence when these performers speak—illustrates many things. For one, it demonstrates Lee’s political awareness and familiarity with terminology frequently used within the queer community, thus distinguishing her as a “real” queer person. Secondly, it shows how Houston values the input and ideas of her performers, and how they willingly and enthusiastically involve themselves in the creative process. Their own desire to promote sex positivity and gender expression both within and outside of their scenes renders feminist concerns about exploitation and victimization unnecessary. In fact, while I conducted my research, nearly every review or blog post I found about Houston’s movies or website had been commented on by one or more of her performers in the appended comments section. The fact that they frequently sought out, responded to, and, if necessary, defended Houston’s work speaks volumes about the mutual respect they all seem to have for one other. Even so (and perhaps anticipating potential feminist anxiety), Houston has made sure to explicitly address how her performers are treated. In a recent interview with Feministe, a feminist blog, Houston said, “The core values [of Pink and White Productions] are to stay true to my ideals of sex-positivity, so both onscreen and off screen we are extremely respectful of the models. We really work with them to make them feel comfortable, we don’t ask anybody to do anything they wouldn’t otherwise do in their normal sex life” (Feministe).
Because NoFauxxx’s Courtney Trouble works mainly in a different medium—the majority of her site’s content is made up of photo galleries, rather than video—she finds other creative but similar ways to give voices to her models. Namely, she pays special attention to the setting and props she uses in a shoot, and what they are able to convey about the model:
“There’s really a personality behind the photos, and it’s not just in a model bio or a message board presence. I actually make it a goal to post content that looks personal. I use real settings, real outfits, real couples. I’ve shot porn stars like Lorelei Lee, but the difference between my photos and some other work that she’s done (even though it’s all wonderful!)—I got the chance to take intimate photographs of her in her bedroom, in her favorite outfit, surrounded by the books that have inspired her most in her life. That’s what I’m going for really, an intimacy that could never be read as fake, posed, unreal, or contrived.” (Doll)
The photoshoot Trouble refers to does exemplify her strategy. In a set of 84 photographs entitled “Smart,” Lorelei sits nestled between tall stacks of books, slowly undressing throughout the set’s progression. But at times, the covers and spines of books threaten to upstage her; it’s no wonder, given that one rarely sees a woman’s breasts sandwiched between Art Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Hence the emphasis is not so much on her nudity, but on her personality, here represented by her reading habits, and this is what gives Trouble’s erotic photographs an especially feminist gaze.
Fighting beauty norms
Besides add depth to the viewer’s understanding of and familiarity with performers, queer porn also takes on the feminist challenge of rejecting the beauty standards idealized in Western culture. Both companies take pride in featuring people whose appearance doesn’t conform to the images associated with mainstream porn; that is, blonde hair, white skin, large (enhanced) breasts, slender build, and as little body hair as possible. Instead, their inclusivity of a variety of bodies becomes a source of pride and symbolizes their resistance to mainstream culture.
What’s more remarkable is that this deviation from beauty norms is not accented within the materials themselves. Though Houston and Trouble both indicate their receptiveness to people of all sizes, races, etc., and encourage all who wish to apply to be performers or models to do so, they do not explicitly convey this principle within their films or photographs. On their websites, their content is not sorted in categories like “Trans” or “BBW,” partly due to their queer resistance to labeling, and partly out of respect for their models, who may fall into overlapping categories, or perhaps no categories at all (Doll). As a result, those whose appearance may depart from traditional beauty standards manage to avoid the oppressive fetishizations that are often forced upon them. Our culture’s stigmatization of fat is not what eroticizes a fat woman’s body; she isn’t sexy solely because of it, nor in spite of it. Asian women are not saddled with stereotypes that paint them as exotic or subservient, and African-American women are not shown in ways that are de-humanizing or hypersexualize their bodies4. Unlike mainstream pornography, no person is ever reduced down to their crudest or most exceptional characteristic.
In some cases, the threat of fetishization is not only avoided, but actively resisted. For instance, the final scene from Houston’s directorial debut, The Crash Pad, is a solo masturbation scene featuring Jo, a black woman. It breaks the format of all the film’s previous scenes, in which the performers were seemingly unaware of the camera’s presence. Instead, Jo maintains long, steady eye contact with the camera (and thus the audience) at regular intervals throughout the duration of the scene, breaking “the fourth wall” during the most intimate, private of scenarios. I believe her gaze can be interpreted as a direct challenge to the ways in which black women have been systematically sexualized and silenced within American media, particularly within pornography. Symbolic moments such as this one stand as powerful examples of a multicultural, antiracist feminist awareness.
Furthering this anti-racist agenda is the abundance of interracial sex that also occurs without comment or unnecessary emphasis. A large and controversial subgenre within mainstream, heterosexual pornography, interracial porn reveals just how many racial myths and stereotypes remain disturbingly close to the surface of America’s cultural memory. It predominantly focuses black men’s domination of white women,
essentially reaffirming the slavery-era belief that African-American men were rapists with an animalistic desire for white women. These violent connotations are further exaggerated by an obsession with portraying black male genitalia as huge and overpowering, especially in comparison to white female genitalia (and with titles such as Big Black Beef Stretches Little Pink Meat, such violent connotations are difficult to overlook). Queer porn, however, normalizes cross-racial desire by refusing to spotlight interracial sex as something unusual. In not addressing it as an act that breaks the taboos of dominant racial paradigms, queer porn subtly fights against such racial stereotypes and sexual segregation.
Focusing on female pleasure
Finally, the centrality and importance of female sexual pleasure inherently inscribes queer porn as a feminist project. To understand this, we must first look to the reasons why it this treatment is exceptional. In heterosexual pornography, it is, for the most part, unsurprising that female pleasure remains a marginal element, if it is indeed present at all. In addition to the viewer’s gaze being presumed as male, heterosexual sex is presented as an entirely male-oriented act. The scene only ends once the male partner has climaxed, and only begins with the phallic entrance. Lesbian porn with an intended male audience especially reinforces this; it is not uncommon for a scene to begin with two women having lesbian sex, only to have the male arrive and initiate the “real” sex, essentially rendering lesbian sex as precursive foreplay.
Given this prioritizing of male pleasure, female pleasure can only remain peripheral at best. When attempts are made to explicitly convey the female orgasm, it does not represent a pivotal point within the scene; its overall insignificance, then, merely demonstrates its function as a boost to the male ego, meant to exemplify his sexual prowess and ability to conquer or decipher the female body.
Queer porn counters this portrayal by celebrating female sexual space and autonomy. The quest for genuine female orgasms is at the crux of this feminist vision, as it represents a commitment to relaying truths about female sexuality; though there is certainly still a performative element to be considered, overall, the means by which women orgasm are displayed in their honesty and diversity through queer porn. Houston has even gone so far to say that she is on a mission to capture the “female pop shot” (Lesbian Sex and Sexuality), referring to the porn industry’s terminology for the moment of male ejaculation on screen. The difficulty of this is that the female orgasm can prove to be far more visually elusive than the male orgasm; it is often internal and hidden, and only occasionally ejaculatory. However, it is important to note that when it is ejaculatory—and the phenomenon is not too uncommon in these materials—it is naturalized, much as interracial sex is. In recent years, female ejaculation has become its own niche genre within heterosexual pornography; through these “squirters,” as they are called, the female body becomes a fetishized site of spectacle. But for the purposes of queer porn, it is but one possibility of the female body, rather than an example of some women’s exceptionality.
But because female ejaculation is not guaranteed, other methods must be used to convey the internal orgasm. Shots must closely follow the action in order to pick up on subtle facial cues, sounds, and/or body gestures. In place of close-up shots on the genitals, Houston and Trouble must capture the curl of toes, a quickening of breath, the furrow of a brow, or a sudden arch of the back to suggest the inarguable event of an orgasm. They rise quite impressively to this challenge; Trouble especially has developed a talent for managing to capture such fleeting moments in powerful, energetic photographs.
It is also worth pointing out that an orgasm does not necessarily mark the end of a scene; the capacity of the female body for multiple orgasms presents an opportunity for creating a new sexual chronology on screen. In the span of one scene, the receptive and active roles may switch back and forth between partners, each orgasming several times. In the few short movies available on NoFauxxx, further chronological experiments are conducted when, due to its brief length, a scene may not have an orgasmic culmination whatsoever. These are various ways of skewing traditional cinematic interactions with sex, signifying how lesbian sex, unlike most heterosexual sex, is not necessarily immediately over after orgasm.
Without a doubt, the pairing of feminism and pornography sounds as though it would make for strange bedfellows (pun intended). However, through the examples I’ve documented here, I think it can be concluded that there is certainly room for feminist principles in porn. It first requires a careful deconstruction of what it is about pornography that fails women, and then the tenacity needed to think through every aspect of its re-conception; but it can be done. By treating pornography as a malleable medium that has the potential to operate under the tenets of feminism, queer pornographers have entered into a dynamic process of challenging and rethinking the patriarchal presence that has permeated mainstream pornography until now.
Queering mainstream heterosexual porn
For all of its imagination and rethinking, queer porn still descends from decades, if not centuries, of pornographic materials. Though it has begun to forge to new ground within the genre, it cannot completely disregard either past or current mainstream productions, and frankly, it doesn’t seem to try. Rather than rejecting the tropes of heterosexual porn and attempting to make porn that solely resonates with their own community, queer porn embarks on the much more interesting project of queering the imagery commonly found in mainstream heterosexual porn. I would like to first focus on two specific sex acts—blowjobs and threesomes—that are predominant in heterosexual porn, but have now been claimed and interpreted by queer porn; following this, I will discuss its additional implementation of drag and camp humor.
The Lesbian Blowjob
Based on biology alone, a blowjob between two female-bodied performers doesn’t just seem unlikely, but impossible. Queer pornographers are nothing if not inventive, however, and the integration of dildos and strap-on harnesses makes it possible for this activity to take place. Blowjobs have a particularly strong, symbolic visual power; generally, the partner who is performing the act is at a vertical disadvantage, often kneeling at the feet of the standing recipient. As a result, it is an act that is nearly always imbued with dominant/submissive power dynamics, and when performed between male and female bodies, the gendered distribution of power is further accentuated. Regardless of whether or not the female is enjoying the act, or who is actually in control, it nearly always results in a visual reproduction of patriarchal inequalities and female subservience.
When it is a blowjob performed between lesbians, rather than a heterosexual couple, the power dynamics shift considerably. Whereas issues of power are rarely (if ever) expressly confronted during heterosexual blowjobs, power is the central component of the lesbian blowjob, because no direct genital pleasuring necessarily occurs. Instead, its erotic effects rely on the psychological implications of desire and power, as well as the creation of an immediate power hierarchy. The lesbian who performs the blowjob on the other’s dildo is, in essence, acknowledging her partner’s dominance, only if temporarily; the erotic charge of the act comes from her symbolic willingness to please her partner not only on sexual or visceral levels, but on a psychological level via role-playing. Embracing and experimenting with the effects of power on sexual interaction queers an act that, in heterosexual porn, may only serve to reaffirm the unequal power balance of the gender binary.
Even when utilized for purposes other than blowjobs, the use of dildos and strapons can facilitate queer readings of heterosexuality. For example, the phallocentric nature of heterosexual porn specifically fixes concepts of masculinity and manliness on the penis. The presence and efficacy of phallic replacements in queer porn reveals the constructed nature of gender roles (Smyth 157). In fact, at any time either female sex partner could choose to literally take off or put on the male appendage; this goes a step beyond simply denaturalizing the gender-biology link, and instead creates a queer realization of gender fluidity.
The other queered act I wish to discuss is the infamous threesome. In the narratives of heterosexual pornography, threesomes manifest in a vast variety of ways, each a bit more unbelievable than the last. They are predominantly comprised of two women with one man, although the combination of two men with one woman has become increasingly popular in the last two decades. Both porn and popular American culture imagine the threesome as the ultimate male sexual fantasy, and a theme of ownership persists throughout the vocabulary used to discuss it; for example, no man “does” a threesome as he might “do” other sexual acts—a man “has” a threesome, and “takes” two women at once. Threesome scenes are also well-known for their exploitation of lesbian sexuality; as I previously mentioned, innumerable threesome scenes have falsely started with two women having sex, only for the scene to “really” begin when a man stumbles into the room and spontaneously joins them.
Threesome scenes in queer porn are much different. Though similar “stumble-in” scenarios are evoked—the one I detailed in the opening of this paper is but one example—their ambiance and treatment are much different. Because queer culture does not epitomize group sex as the ultimate sexual fantasy to the same extent that heteronormative culture does, it has a different currency in queer contexts. When sex is initiated between three or more queer people, the focus cannot be on achieving or conquering some perceived sexual ideal, because it either doesn’t exist or is simply irrelevant; instead, it is about sharing and seeking a pleasurable experience. Such a comparatively laid-back, fluid approach to threesome sex scenes is perhaps indicative of larger queer tendencies toward sexually radical behavior. Given the frequency of open and/or polyamorous relationships within the queer community, threesome scenes may not represent sexual fantasy at all, but rather the recognition of diverse sexual realities within the community. And so the sensationalist aspect of threesomes in heterosexual porn is lost, and substituted with queer understandings of group sex that locate it within a separate cultural cache.
Drag and Camp Humor
While NoFauxxx tends to publish more serious content that emphasizes its highly artistic sensibilities, the films of Pink and White Productions generally focus on the incorporation of a sense of humor instead. Of course, this humor is not arbitrary, but specially relevant to queer culture. In using elements of both drag and camp humor, Pink and White further queers the heterosexual domain of pornography.
There can be no doubt that drag has long been one of the most successful and unique productions of queer culture. Crossing normative boundaries by putting on the clothes, make-up, and hairstyles of another gender not only denaturalizes these imposed categories, but stresses the performative nature of all gender identities. Using drag in pornography, then, presents an interesting juxtaposition. Pornography spotlights the two things that puritanical American culture tries its best to shame and hide—sex and nudity. Nudity in particular is used as the ultimate evidence of one’s “true” gender identity: in viewing the naked body, the categorization of genitalia as either male or female is assumed to predict one’s gender. Thus, as nudity reveals supposed truths about body and identity through pornography, the contradictory presence of drag veils it.
The plot of Pink and White’s film Superfreak offers an opportunity for such a contrast, but instead chooses to show how nudity/pornography and drag are related. In the movie, the attendees of a house party are one-by-one possessed by the spirit of Rick James, played by director Shine Louise Houston in drag. After Rick James jumps into the bodies of partygoers, they are compelled to indulge their inner “superfreaks” and initiate passionate, impromptu sex with whomever is nearby. While the plot is certainly amusing and entertaining, it is even more fascinating when read metaphorically. Until the influence of drag—here represented by Rick James—arrives at the party, guests seem somewhat listless and bored. It is only when he intervenes that the party becomes exciting and interesting. If we interpret the drag king version of Rick James as a symbolic ambassador of queerness, we see that it is the queer spirit that induces sexual liberation, and creates pornography as a byproduct. Then, for all of its sexism and heteronormativity, the larger porn genre becomes fundamentally queer, and drag becomes the catalyst for both upsetting gender norms and convincing repressed people to succumb to their baser sexual urges.
Camp humor developed synchronously with drag, but is used with slightly different intentions for the purposes of queer porn. At the heart of any camp humor, of course, is a critique, as well as a degree of artifice, and the use of camp in this context is no exception. No film exemplifies it better than In Search of the Wild Kingdom. The premise of the film is rather complicated for porn: shot as a mockumentary, Houston’s fake camera crew is following another fake film crew as they try to document “real lesbian sex.” The documentary crew is led by the character of Georgia Mann, whose desperation to discover the reality of lesbian sex drives her to use rather unethical research methods. The film’s title alludes to way in which lesbians are treated like the animal subjects of National Geographic; much to the distaste of Mann’s crew, they are required not only to track the lesbians, but to trespass into their homes and hide while filming the lesbians’ sexual habits. At one point, they even employ a “lesbian decoy” (a mannequin wearing a short-haired blonde wig, a t-shirt that reads “I Can’t Even Think Straight,” and a flannel jacket) in order to determine if lesbians cruise like gay men do.
The element of artifice runs strong throughout the movie. Though the audience presumably realizes that everyone is an actor, the documentary crew upholds the ruse admirably, always seeming to undertake their project with the utmost seriousness. However, their somber demeanors are undermined by their unbelievable circumstances. While “secretly” filming the lesbians, their methods of hiding involve standing in plain sight, often inches away from the faces of their subjects. Even the post-scene interviews with the performers are contrived in a way that maintains the illusion; the performers stay in character the entire interview, and some even admit to never having noticed the presence of the cameras. At one point, even the crew is surprised when their inanimate lesbian decoy works, and appears later in the film next to Houston (in another cameo appearance) as she lies in bed and has a post-coital cigarette.
But the campy humor thinly veils an inevitable critique of society. The mockumentary’s underlying question is not about how lesbians have sex, but about how heterosexists mystify lesbian sex and construct queer people as “others.” A series of interviews with the intrepid Georgina Mann character, shown between sex scenes, parodies the sometimes invasive curiosity of heterosexuals who try to “figure out” queer people. She explains her mission:
If we are ever gonna know the true inner nature of ourselves, then we must move past our clear understanding of heterosexuality, and into the darkness of homosexuality. Lesbians are obviously different from women like myself. I’m straight, I like men, no doubt about it. But what I want to know is what makes them so different than [sic] me. I mean, sex between two women must be completely different than [sic] normal, heterosexual sex. By tracking their sexual behavior, I hope to get the answers I want.
At the end of movie, after finding no easy answers to her questions and being abandoned by her increasingly frustrated and morally comprised film crew, Georgia confesses to Houston’s cameras:
The project has fallen apart. My crew and I no longer see eye-to-eye, and I’m no closer to finding the essence of what makes lesbians lesbians. On the surface they seem so different, but I’ve seen them engage in the same sexual acts as heterosexuals! I mean, they have sex just like I do in a lot of ways. Maybe that’s why I find it so hot. But if I can’t make the distinction between these lesbian sexual behavior [sic] and my own, then where do I draw the line between heterosexuals and homosexuals? What could this mean? I filmed the lesbians in hiding so that I could catch them in the act of really being themselves. But in my quest to penetrate the truth and extract their secrets I’ve only come up with more questions. I’m so confused. . . I don’t know what I think anymore. I don’t think any amount of data collection or categorizing will help me come closer to answering my questions. [sighs] Maybe I’ll have more luck with the sadomasochists.
Although the character was unable to articulate it for herself, her confusion arose from the fact that there was no essential, universal difference between lesbian and straight sexual behavior. The designation of lesbians—or any queer identity, for that matter—as “others” relied only upon misperceptions. This sociopolitical critique of heterosexism may be punctuated and slightly overshadowed by the humor Houston employs throughout the movie, but her stance is made resoundingly clear and lends an edge to the film’s campy qualities.
Undoubtedly, queer porn makes numerous efforts to interject recognizable aspects of queer culture into its products. As filmmakers enter into an arena dominated by men in nearly every way imaginable, it becomes vitally important that they approach their own work with a conscientiousness that allows them to queer heterosexual influences, and apply a perspective that creates pornography that is culturally relevant to the queer community. Such a project makes queer porn a highly politicized endeavor, one that seeks to question heteronormativity and claim equal access to spaces and subjects that may have been presumed to be inherently heterosexual.
Toward the development of a queer erotic aesthetic
Up until now, I have concentrated more on interpreting the content and deciphering the messages of queer porn. At this point, I will transition to reading the aesthetics that distinguish it from other, more mainstream pornography. During the course of production, a number of decisions are made that effect the overall look of the resulting materials, and many of them contribute to a uniquely queer visual. I have identified the three main elements that I feel are most responsible for the development of a specifically queer erotic aesthetic.
The media of queer porn usually contains signifiers that indicate both its lowbudget restraints and subcultural origins. The market for queer porn is significantly smaller than that of mainstream porn—for example, in April 2009, Houston estimated that she had nearly 300 subscribers to her site CrashPadSeries.com (Feministe), while ClubJenna.com, the website of porn star Jenna Jameson, is reported to have had thousands of subscribers and an annual revenue of $30 million in 2005 alone (Forbes). Naturally, queer pornographers have far fewer financial resources with which to make their content. Undaunted, they frequently resort to a method that is rather characteristic of the queer community: the DIY, or do-it-yourself, method.
As a result, the ornately designed sets seen in mainstream pornography are foregone, and in their place are the lived-in apartments, bedrooms, and even rooftops of friends and contacts, and sometimes even the models/actors’ own homes. Rather than detract from a scene or photo’s overall quality, the intimacy of these unstaged spaces make them far more believable, and thus more consistent with the companies’ aim for authenticity.
In keeping with their DIY theme, there is sometimes an amateurish element to their filming and photography styles. In viewing the works of NoFauxxx or Pink and White Productions chronologically, it is easy to see the vast technical improvements that have taken place over the last few years; the occasional bad angle or poorly lit shot decreases in frequency as one moves from the past to the present. Over the course of four films, Houston’s work has become noticeably more professional, and seems to be moving toward a more mainstream aesthetic (though her content is assuredly not). While Trouble’s photographs (as well as those taken by collaborating photographers for her site) have also increased in technical proficiency, they have tended toward a more artistic and sometimes abstract approach. For example, among NoFauxxx’s video content, the film quality is frequently grainy, and the spaces dimly lit. One movie, entitled “Gay Bar,” is partially shot sideways in the dark bathroom stall of a local nightclub, with the actions of the starring couple barely discernible in the shadows. Another movie, “Sex Tape,” is entirely lit by and filmed on a cell phone. In the photo shoots, too, the artistic merit and subversive style sometimes comes at the cost of erotic potency. In many sets of photographs, the model may only appear nude in the last few shots out of several dozen. This unconventional treatment of pornographic material—as an endeavor of aesthetics and artistic experimentation, not just titillation—is quite queer. In NoFauxxx’s refusal to conform to the traditional standards of the industry, and cultivate its own underground style instead, it has begun to tentatively map out what a queer erotic aesthetic looks like.
The main focal point of any pornographic feature is, unsurprisingly, the performers. In movies and photographs where identity is the key to credibility, performer selection becomes a particularly crucial process. When a production company markets itself as specializing in a certain “type” of person—be it goth women, hippies, or queer people—the pressure is high to maintain the stylized aesthetic that makes such groups easily identifiable to consumers. In the case of queer porn, which promotes itself as more “authentically” queer than other companies, it is then not enough to publish material that shows two (or more) same-sexed people engaging in sexual behaviors; there must be other signifiers that contextualize them as specifically queer-identified people who are participants in, or at the very least, are already familiar with the queer community. The bodies of performers become the most obvious and effective sites for the implementation of messages and cultural cues.
The majority of performers follow a very recognizable regime of style: tattoos, body and facial piercings, shaved heads, femme presentations, butch presentations, androgynous presentations, and hair dyed every color of the rainbow are all common, almost predictable in their frequency. As in other subcultures and countercultures, such alternative fashion modes are meant to fly in the face of normalcy, and place the wearer apart from mainstream culture. Some have also theorized that these postmodern body modifications carry more complex layers of meaning when applied to the female body. While writing about the popular alternative porn site SuicideGirls.com, Shoshana Magnet discusses how the presence of piercings, tattoos, and dyed hair create an image of the “female grotesque”; in the case of SuicideGirls.com, she believes they represent an eroticized rejection of traditional feminine beauty standards (Magnet 581). While I believe such characteristics can also be read as a rejection of mainstream beauty standards in the queer community, I think they serve two additional purposes: one, they also reject heteronormative expectations of feminine presentation, and two, they act as visible signifiers of queer identities. These things all interact to situate the performers’ bodies within a queer political and social network while they are on screen.
In popular culture, women’s desire is often presumed to rely on emotional connections and romance. Essentialist notions of female sexuality are characterized by the passionate lovers painted on the covers of Harlequin romance novels, the serendipitous encounters of romantic comedies, and the “will they or won’t they” dynamics of sitcom couples. Rarely does the media portray female sexual agency outside of the context of romance.
In queer porn, however, women’s sexuality is rarely this delicate or sentimental. While it is not uncommon for the actors to be affectionate and playful with each other, one would not necessarily describe the sex as loving or emotive. In addition to stripping away the pretext of romantic connection, queer porn also attempts to dispel the stereotypes created by mainstream lesbian pornography that is made by and for a predominantly male audience. In these movies, lesbian sex consists mainly of coquettish giggles, soft caresses, exaggerated kissing, and diffident licking; in other words, to the queer eye, it lacks both believability and sincerity.
The lesbian sex of queer porn, however, is intense and frenetic. Rigorous and rowdy, it seems to blurs the lines of distinction between “regular,” “vanilla” sex and sadomasochistic practices. For example, Houston’s latest release, Champion, is the plot-driven story of a mixed martial arts fighter who struggles to reconcile her sexual relationships with the homophobia that permeates her profession. There is a strong motif of conflict in both the plot and sex, with the sex scenes including aggressive behaviors such as hair-pulling, slapping, scratching, choking, biting, and fisting. This is not entirely out of line with the larger trends of pornography, where extremist sex behaviors seem to be gradually moving from niche to normalized. However, the rest of the porn industry usually prefers to carefully sort these acts into separate categories, mostly under the label of BDSM. Queer porn’s lack of differentiation between different types of sex is characteristic of the queer movement’s overall reluctance to label identities and behavior. However realistic or representative it may actually be, queer porn does challenge the preexisting images of lesbian sex that outsiders may have, and even daring to reconstruct it as a contrastingly rough and severe act.
Finally, the queer erotic aesthetic also emphatically promotes safe sex. Given how the queer movement developed during the sweeping tragedy of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, this decision is not surprising. Because some types of sex toys cannot be sterilized (namely, those made out of porous jelly rubber and PVC materials), and others may still be shared with multiple partners, condoms are almost always used on dildos. Latex gloves are sometimes worn for digital penetration, but are far less common than condom use, and dental dams are essentially non-existent. Even though the latter two items have no major presence within queer porn (at least not currently), even their intermittent use is still quite exceptional for the porn industry, where unprotected sex is highly eroticized. Such safe sex practices work as visible references to the history and health consciousness of the queer movement.
Erotic monopolies and the dilemma of queer authenticity
Both NoFauxxx and Pink and White Productions actively work to make their content readable and relevant to their intended queer audience. However, it is precisely this queer readability that must be critiqued. If part of the project of queer politics is to encourage fluidity and non-specificity, creating an identifiable queer erotic aesthetic seems somewhat counterproductive. Any discernible aesthetic is, by its nature, one that is also predictable; quite conversely, queerness is about resisting easy assumptions and generalizations. Though this incompatibility is more theoretical than practical, it is nonetheless important to consider the potential hypocrisy of such a position.
There is also the companies’ problematic and recurring use of the word “authentic” in the promotion of their products. How can something be touted as “authentically” queer, when queerness inherently delimits space and removes the confines of labels? Rather than unite people through their shared identities, such terminology more often becomes a tool used to police members of a community, forcing them to align with the dominant opinions of the group. It is impossible to concern oneself with authenticity without also implementing a measuring strategy; this then instigates unnecessary conflict and accusations, as some find that they are suddenly not queer enough. This is not solely the responsibility of these companies; after all, they are only trying to convey their own place in and commitment to queer politics. However, the
community as a whole must question such potentially divisive terms of qualification, and avoid their evocation if solidarity is to be sustained.
One must also be aware of the standardization that may occur when monopolies exist within the genre. This is the reality of the situation: erotic queer media is currently being produced by very few companies that frequently share the same set of rotating performers between them. Nearly all of these performers conform to a very youthful, trendy, and punky way of being queer. Part of this, of course, is due to local availability, travel limitations, and the companies’ scarce financial resources. Certainly, public representations of non-heteronormative identities and sexual practices are a positive step toward the recognition of sexual diversity, and we should absolutely applaud the courage that these performers, models, directors, photographers and companies have to take on the taboo and publicly assert their queerness. But even so, can the queer community risk the possibility of standardization? Or perhaps even the normalization of its sexual outsiderness? We must carefully consider how images of an ideal or average queerness are being produced, what it is that they are saying, and whether they are able to accurately represent the greater politics of the queer community. Queer porn provides an excellent opportunity for queer perspectives to be heard; but it shouldn’t delegitimize the lived realities of queer people whose bodies, styles, abilities, and sex lives don’t resemble what’s on screen before them.
The resolution of such a dilemma is complicated. It is easy enough to encourage queer pornographers to hire an even wider range of performers, to avoid predictability by constantly experimenting with style, or to invite more people to make queer porn from their perspectives—but none of these strategies are simple, or even feasible, to implement. What can be encouraged, and more easily implemented, is self-reflexivity. As the pioneers of queer porn, NoFauxxx and Pink and White Productions must closely examine their work and the latent messages it may be sending. Small-scale communities are easily susceptible to the influences of well-known insiders, and these companies must consider the consequences that their influence could have on future queer politics.
If we are to build more insightful epistemologies within the fields of both queer studies and women’s studies, we must be willing to examine, analyze, and critique all the facets of a given culture, even those as stigmatized as pornography. In the case of queer culture, where sexuality and sexual expression exist at the crux of personal and community identity, pornography becomes even more significant as a byproduct of cultural beliefs and perspectives. Through the films and photographs I’ve discussed here, a great deal can be learned about how queer people are confronting and re-imagining the media being produced by a heterosexist society. Sex acts previously associated only with certain bodies and genders are now being reclaimed for all, and existing stereotypes are being challenged in fundamental ways. Even so, a critical gaze must still be adopted in order to avoid reproducing new stereotypes with new confines, or compromising the very principles that set the queer movement apart.
We must also support an integrative approach that seeks to unify feminism and queerness both in research and personal creative endeavors. Instead of citing irreconcilable differences as the reason for a lack of cooperative spirit between the two, we must pay more attention to the solutions people are finding outside of academia and theory. In the face of great criticism and failure, queer feminists like Shine Louise Houston and Courtney Trouble are demanding a right to rework pornography, one of the last strongholds of sexism and racism that exists today. They are challenging traditional representations and devaluations of female sexuality, resisting beauty norms, endorsing principles of anti-racism and anti-sizism, and representing the multi-faceted personalities of their performers. Their project not only increases the visibility and agency of queer individuals, but also tries to promote the status of all women and gender-variants. Through their example, we can see that pornography need not be static; but like any other social text, it must first be softened through in-depth reading and critical analysis before it can be made malleable, and thus receptive to new themes of equality and inclusivity.
1 – Andrea Dworkin was a well-known as a radical anti-pornographer feminist. In addition to being one of the founders of the group Women Against Pornography, she worked with feminist lawyer Catherine MacKinnon to develop the Antipornography Civil Rights Ordinance, several pieces of local legislation that redefined pornography as a violation of women’s rights.
2 – While I acknowledge that other sites rank above them in the traffic results for these same searches, I have chosen to discount them for the time being. My intent is to explore how queerness is being translated into a new approach to pornography that is distinguishable from other, more mainstream pornographic images. The sites I have excluded all replicated the standardized images of muscled, white gay youth, a conformity which queerness seeks to reject. While both employ the word “queer” to signify their non-heterosexual content, the sites I have left out did not use it to describe their developing aesthetic or political stance as NoFauxxx and Pink and White Productions do.
3 – Acronym for “big beautiful woman.” It is used to refer to plus-size women; in a pornographic context, it refers to the sexualization, and often fetishization, of fat bodies.
4 – See Jean Kilbourne’s studies of female representations in advertising for other insightful readings of American media.
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