The Ethics of Making Sex-Positive Porn

Alternet posted a really great article the other day: Why I Had to Stop Making Hardcore Porn. It’s a rather thoughtful reflection piece by Sam Benjamin, a guy who worked behind the camera for both heterosexual gonzo porn and gay porn. He doesn’t pull his punches when it comes to describing what he did. For example:

[M]y overt task at hand was to make sure that the girls got naked, my true responsibility as director was to make sure the girls got punished. Scenes that stuck out, and hence made more money, were those in which the female “targets were verbally degraded and sometimes physically humiliated.

and

My various superiors across the years saw the issue from a businessman’s perspective, reminding me quite openly of the need to keep up with our competition.

He’s also quite honest about his journey down the slippery slope, in terms that remind me of the Stanford Prison Experiment:

What surprised me most though, was the fact that I found within myself a happy willingness to be violent, a willingness to degrade. Though my bosses may have ordered me to organize and record the scenes of degradation, I followed their orders, and not without pleasure. Something cowardly within me, an internal space, suffused with a weak kind of anger, felt satisfied when I saw a woman “take her punishment.

This is a pattern I’ve been seeing in gonzo porn for a while now. It’s a genre that focuses on pushing the edge but the things that used to shock people no longer do, so gonzo has become more extreme. In many ways, it has evolved into rebellion simply for rebellion’s sake without asking whether the boundaries are a result of sex-negative and erotophobic attitudes or a valuable, protective mechanism.

Boundaries are like the skin that protects us and an organism that has no skin will quickly get sick and die. While I’ve written a lot about the unnecessary, overly rigid, and sex-negative boundaries that are woven into US culture, I still think that mindful, deliberate boundaries are important and unfortunately, gonzo porn is based on the idea of crossing all boundaries, even the ones that serve us.

I also found Benjamin’s description of his work in gay porn quite compelling:

Gay porn, in fact, was so goddamn simple that it approached a type of Zen beauty. I mean, this was guys taking on guys, in every shape and form imaginable, for the most part in good humor and absent-minded lust. They may have stuck to roles of “tops and “bottoms, but in the dressing room, we all seemed equals, on the same team. Everyone laughed at me for being a straight guy shooting gay porn. Some tried to entice me to jump in front of the camera for kicks. But we all laughed about it. We all seemed like friends. The sadness and the degradation I had come to associate with my job, with videotaped sex for money, was suddenly absent.

Now, I don’t want make it sound like gay porn is free of the many problems that plague straight porn. Rather, I think that gay porn has different problems but Benjamin’s experience highlights some of the challenges of talking about porn. In almost all of the debates, when people talk about porn, they’re talking about straight porn. Yet, using the term “porn” when we really mean “straight porn” we reinforces and reifies heterosexism because it recreates the idea that heterosexuality is the norm and anything else gets a qualifier to separate it out.

It seems to me that one of the root causes of the things that many people find problematic about a lot of porn is the business model. Benjamin talks about that when he discusses his supervisors’ focus on outdoing the competition. As porn has become more widely available, and as both free amateur porn and pirated movies proliferate on the internet, the industry has become more competitive than ever. And in any business, that’s going to create pressure.

One of the ways that shows up is in the drive to produce as much as possible in the minimum time. That has many consequences, such as focusing on formulaic sex. Five minutes of fellatio, a few minutes (if any) of cunnilingus, intercourse in four or five different positions, possibly some anal sex, and an ejaculation shot (usually on the face). In most movies, even the ones with more of a storyline, there’s no way to tell from the sex what movie you’re watching. Most of the exceptions are the movies that feature/fetishize a specific sexual act.

Another way that financial pressure influences things is by making everything fit the demands of the camera and post-production. Scenes have to get started on time, which means that the pleasure of the people in front of the camera often takes a backseat. There’s almost no warm-up and sexual positions (for both oral sex as well as intercourse) are chosen to provide maximum visibility of penetration rather than the comfort or enjoyment of the people doing it.

On the other side, there’s also a financial pressure on the performers, especially female performers in straight porn. The decisions regarding how much performers are paid are often based, in part, on how “extreme” the acts are. I understand that certain activities, like anal sex, require more prep time and/or cleanup time and I believe that people’s work should be fairly compensated. At the same time, this also creates a dynamic in which performers can feel pressured to go beyond their comfort zones in order to make more money. This also combines with the focus on “fresh, new faces” to pressure women who have been performers for a while to go further and further in order to compete with newer performers.

I suspect that these financial pressures are part of why a lot of porn shows so little creativity. On the rare occasions that someone comes up with a new idea, it will quickly get copied and taken to as extreme a degree as possible in an attempt to make movie X different from movie Y. But there’s little room for real creativity when there’s so much focus on making a dollar.

And yet, many of these sorts of situations, which a lot of people find problematic, aren’t inherent in sexually-explicit media. They emerge from the interplay of the nature of the industry and the business model, as well as the overarching cultural attitudes towards sex, women, and youth. Fortunately, there are companies trying to do something different.

Good Releasing is our very own production company and it’s not like most other porn companies. Our movies feature people doing what they genuinely enjoy. Sometimes, that might look like the sex you’ve seen in other movies. Or it might not. It might look like the sex you like to have. Or it might not. And that unpredictability makes our movies really hot.

That unpredictability isn’t always easy to capture on camera. Sometimes, the entire schedule gets tossed out the window and that’s ok. We know that good sex isn’t always predictable and that trying to make sex predictable takes away its potential. It takes a lot more skill on the parts of the director, camera folks and editors to bring it all together and, to be honest, sometimes it doesn’t quite gel. But it works well the vast majority of the time and there are a lot of truly amazing moments, which more than makes up for the occasional missteps. It’s a lot like sex, in that way.

Another difference in our movies is that most of the performers aren’t full-time porn folks. They’re making these movies because they want to, and the fact that they have other projects or jobs means they don’t feel that same pressure to go beyond their comfort zones that some folks in the mainstream porn experience.

I think it’s really wonderful to see porn in which you know that everyone is doing what they want to be doing. Sometimes, that means that you’ll see something unfamiliar, or different, or that you don’t find arousing. And that’s a really great thing. It’s easy to intellectually understand that sexual diversity exists. It’s something else to see someone enjoying sex in a way that you don’t. If you’ve ever been to a sex party or BDSM club, you’ve probably had that experience. And if not, here’s a great way to do it. Plus, you might discover some new turn ons!

Rather than trying to do more of the same-old, same-old or trying to push boundaries simply to be edgy or different, we’re going in a whole new direction. Our goal is to create truly sex-positive porn. Instead of focusing on making more of the same old thing, we strive for authentic pleasure, genuine orgasms, and enthusiastic performances. That means that we treat the cast and crew with respect. We make room for a lot of different sexual preferences and desires. We choose performers who can get behind that. And we use a business model that supports it. A lot of that doesn’t show up on the screen in an obvious way, but I think you can tell that there’s something different.

There are three Good Releasing lines:

  • Reel Queer: documenting authentic, edgy, queer sex and culture with relevant, intelligent films inclusive of the many sexualities that identify as queer.
  • Heartcore: offering artistic alternatives to formulaic features with films by independent artists with fresh, diverse content.
  • Pleasure Ed: explicit educational films includes a wide range of informational and instructional content to inspire and enhance your sex life.

You can find them all here, of course. I hope you check them out. Please let us know what you think- we’re always happy to hear from you!

Dr. Charlie Glickman

Charlie Glickman is the Education Program Manager at Good Vibrations. He also writes, blogs, teaches workshops and university courses, presents at conferences, and trains sexuality educators. He’s certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, and loves geeking out about sex, relationships, sex-positivity, love and shame, communities of erotic affiliation, and sexual practices and techniques of all varieties. Follow him online, on Twitter at @charlieglickman, or on Facebook.

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