Inside the world of “beautifully shot, ethically made, and sexy smut.”
The answer to bad porn isn’t no porn,” the feminist sexologist, editor, and porn actress Annie Sprinkle once said. “It’s to try and make porn better.” Pornography is now a $97 billion global industry—the Pornhub website averages 92 million visitors daily. Much of what appears on popular porn sites is stolen content or films that were produced in unhygienic, unethical, and unsafe circumstances. But there’s also better porn out there.
Feminist and ethical adult-film production houses want to provide porn that’s professional, empowering, political, and consensual, and disrupts the usual representation of heteronormative sex in adult films. Ethical porn means fair wages, fair labor practices, no sex trafficking, no pressure, and safe sex for everyone. Feminist porn pushes these ideas further by including the representation of diversity in bodies, gender identity, ability, race, and sexual interests. Power in pleasure is at its core.
Eden Newmar, a Chicago-based pro domme, porn actor, and occasional escort, came into the adult film industry when they were 18 and homeless. “Safe porn is oriented towards depicting sexual acts where all parties are giving enthusiastic consent the entire time,” they explain. “It recognizes the validity of the labor of the people who act in and produce the films/photos/etc.” Newmar works with the Lust Garden, a Minneapolis-based independent project that, in the words of its website, aims to produce and distribute “beautifully shot, ethically made, and sexy smut.”
Run by performer Rococo Royalle, the collective uses contracts that are negotiable based on how the actor prefers to be paid (either through up-front payment, royalties, or content-sharing options) and charges its viewers on a sliding scale (between $6 and $10 for 30 minutes) in order to make porn more accessible; people of color, LGBTQI folks, people with disabilities, and sex workers can pay what they can afford. Newmar and other performers have the chance to approve both the footage and ad copy and request edits. Other websites such as XConfessions, the Crash Pad Series, Bellesa, Indie Porn Revolution, and Lady Cheeky offer DVDs, subscriptions, Patreon support, or online tips. Feminist porn is still a niche market, though, and many smaller production companies are only breaking even.
But the loss of income is worth escaping the exploitation that’s common on mainstream porn sets. Many actors have horror stories of being forced to perform sexual acts that they found uncomfortable or painful; this is a disturbing reality of the adult film industry. Newmar finds that mainstream porn has created a great divide between content creators and consumers. “It is compulsory heterosexuality at its worst,” Newmar says, “even when the scenes are lesbian or cuckold scenes.” The goal of the Lust Garden and other producers of ethical and feminist films is to depict realistic and consensual safe sex.
Renowned feminist porn directors such as Erika Lust and Tristan Taormino get to know their performers and foster relationships between scene partners in order to capture genuine sexual desire on camera. This approach is revolutionary in the sense that the actors’ pleasure is integral to the film. A common goal for many feminist porn production houses is to dismantle the male gaze, a term coined by Laura Mulvey in the 1970s that describes women, or femme-identifying people, being put on display solely for male pleasure. In mainstream porn, the cis male climax is king, and the cum shot is the moneymaker. In feminist pornography, the antiquated idea of cis male pleasure is being abandoned to depict more genuine and authentic femme orgasms, pleasure, and control.
The filmmakers also aim to create films with intersectional and body-positive imagery that portrays wide spectrums of sexuality and identity. There’s an emphasis on natural body types: body hair, the application of lube, and plus-sized performers are all depicted and celebrated.
That respect for performers extends off camera. Many directors allow actors to negotiate their pay rates and support them choosing their own partners for a scene. Many are also femmes who want to create a more inviting environment on set and pay attention to food and hygiene: basic human needs, basic human rights.
Feminist pornography isn’t a new concept, by any means; it’s been around since 1984 when retired porn actress Candida Vadala (also known as Candida Royalle) founded Femme Productions. She went on to create movies with fulfilling plots, elaborate sets, and what she called “positive sexual role modeling.” (Of course, feminist pornography has also had its opposition. Anti-porn activist Gail Dines told the Daily Beast in 2012 that “anyone willing to feed off women’s bodies and use them as raw materials to make a profit has no right to call themselves feminists.” More recently, a three-day queer and feminist porn festival in London was forced to relocate after protests.)
There is no denying that porn plays a significant role in shaping our cultural values as well as cultural trends. Many feminist porn producers seek to create content that will positively impact viewers, to give them something more artfully libidinous than your average smut.
“I really want to focus on sex and power,” says Alejandra Guerrero, a Colombian-born fetish and erotic artist who has experience in the mainstream adult industry. After working closely with actors in the adult film industry in LA, she understands the significance of having a woman behind the camera. “A lot of people who contact me like that I am a woman. It makes them more comfortable. I don’t want to objectify women, I want to make the subject feel at ease.” Though she’s no longer in film, she stages elaborate fetish parties around the city where she has projected some of her moving- image work.
Multidisciplinary artist Chelsea Ross, like Guerrero and many other ethical porn directors, seeks to eradicate exploitation. Her first independent erotic film, Spin, premiered at this year’s Hump! Film Festival, Dan Savage’s touring fest of dirty shorts. It exemplifies the kind of work she and other feminist and ethical porn directors are trying to create.
Spin begins with a scene of a trans man scrolling through his phone. He picks up a vibrator and begins to masturbate. Then the film takes us into his fantasy: a group of people of various body types and identities dressed in glitter, bondage gear, and lingerie playing a game of spin the bottle that evolves into group sex. “Consent and communication are key,” is the first line of dialogue we hear from one character; this person has a purple mustache, pink eyeglasses, and glitter scattered across their chest and cheekbones.
Using split screens, Ross interjects scenes of various characters engaging in a variety of acts that range from oral sex to simply kissing in an experimental way. Eventually, the music slows, the lights dim, and a plethora of strap-ons, harnesses, and chokers come out. We see the main character having sex on the couch with a partner who is wearing a strap-on. He closes his eyes, and when he opens them again, he’s back on his bed. The film ends with a shot of a small smile crossing his face—an affirmation of satisfaction.
Ross met several times with her actors before shooting began in order to discuss consent, dislikes, desires, and boundaries so that the actual sex scenes would be lightly directed. “We also made sure there was space and time for aftercare,” she says. (The scene before the credits shows the actors kissing and caressing one another.) Unlike the director of a mainstream video, who would conclude with an explosive and dramatic orgasm, Ross cuts the film before the money shot. She understands that a facial isn’t the happy ending all of us are seeking when watching porn.
Performers find their own happy ending. Premier African dominatrix Mistress Velvet, who requires her clients to read Black feminist theory, has starred in a few Lust Garden films. Her experience, she says, was a “healing alternative to the mainstream pornography that I often don’t feel connected to.” She says that the safety factors included in her experience with the independent production house were “absolutely refreshing.”
Mistress Velvet has built her community online and in Chicago. Because she finds her white male clients exhausting, feminist literature serves as her “rule book to pass on to them.” She says, “It’s been really cathartic to build these kinds of teachable moments into power play. It’s my big ‘fuck you, I ain’t the one!’ to the lazy, racist, traumatic interpersonal dynamics that make up most of my experiences with white men.” Her video work provides a similar catharsis.
For many actors and sex workers, creating their own content provides a safe way to have full agency over their bodies and sexual partners—and their own visions and fantasies. “Sex work can be a microcosm of larger problematic societal structures,” explains Mistress Velvet. The violence that occurs outside of work has the dismal potential to be replicated within a sex worker’s community. “Creating indie content with other queer workers and artists of color is a deliberate choice,” says Mistress Velvet. “It provides me with safety, community, and agency.”
“I wish porn would be treated with the same respect we give our coffee—which incidentally costs about the same as a clip,” says Newmar. “We should want to know and pay for porn that is ethically made and sourced, fairly compensated, done with passion, and focused on an enjoyable experience for providers as well as consumers.”
Real sex is full of fumbling, condoms, body hair, and laughing at mistakes. It’s gooey and messy. It isn’t all of the glamour and glitz we see coming out of production houses in LA or NYC. Feminist porn shows sex that two (or more) people are reveling in together, not just another notch on a cis male belt. More importantly, alternative porn introduces options to the mainstream that are easily accessible. As Chelsea Ross says, “Consumers can make informed choices that align with their values, and also their libidos.”
S. Nicole Lane is a sex and women’s health journalist based in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in Playboy, Rewire News, HelloFlo, Broadly, Metro UK, and other corners of the internet. She’s also a practicing visual artist who works with new media, assemblage, and latex. Follow her on Twitter.