So, you might have seen: I was featured in the Guardian. I’m really pleased with the article (kind of a relief, because if I hadn’t I’d have had to lump it), but then I wouldn’t have given Zoe Williams an interview if I didn’t trust and respect her as a journalist.
I think the piece is intelligent and balanced, and I’m not just saying that because she says nice things about my work. (She also says the acting is like a school play, which made me chuckle.) She’s not preaching to the converted (unlike, say, this blog), but she doesn’t set out to persuade the anti-porn camp either. Instead the article is aimed at the sort of educated well-meaning lefty who reads the Guardian and doesn’t really watch porn. With her trademark self-deprecating wit, Zoe positions herself in that category before describing how she became convinced that porn was not, in fact, a monolith of misogynistic degradation – and that a lot of it is not only ethical, but watchable.
It’s so good to see it in a mainstream paper – particularly one that has given lots of column space to anti-sex feminists in the past.
I wrote this post the day after, which gives you the backstory to the interview, and a few links fleshing out some of the issues touched upon in the article. With respect to Zoe, who did a superb job, I want to add a few more comments.
What Blake does could never be generated by a computer. The film she’s making – a futuristic dystopia in which men have been abolished – sounds a bit muesli on paper; but the landscape of bondage, fetish and futurism is incredibly unmuesli.
I’m intrigued by this language of “muesli”. It’s the same language that characterises feminist porn or ethical porn as “vegan”, “sandal-wearing”, “long-haired”. I understand it’s a dry-humoured nod to the stereotype – I think the stereotype is one which is used to dismiss and trivialise activism in a variety of contexts. I find the conflation of these categories fascinating. Feminist = idealistic = earnest = worthy = muesli. Does that mean it’s unappetising?
(And a futuristic dystopia in which men has been abolished would critique the abolition of men – right?)
But the weirdest thing is that I haven’t made a film like that, and never intended to. (It’s a cute idea, though.) Maybe I was talking about The Clone’s Training as an example of how I strive for originality and creativity in my films? It hadn’t been produced in December 2013 when I gave the interview, but it was already in my script bank.
It is incredibly confronting to watch, in the sense that you do feel as though you’re watching an actual sexual moment between one person and another. [...] You can say what you like about mainstream porn, but you cannot say that it looks real. [...] Confusingly, you can see real human beings in Blake’s films.
This is partly a comment on the body diversity of my casting, the way I don’t only shoot people with glamour-model looks, but hire based on enthusiasm, acting ability and charisma instead. (And nice bums, of course, which thankfully are found on a wide range of different bodies.)
But it’s interesting to see “realness” held up as a virtue of “ethical porn” – especially when my site specifically sets out to produce fantasy fiction.
Some of the scenes are true to life, showing how I play for real, with no character acting – and showing live negotiation, real reactions, explicit consent and so on. But the clue’s in the name: for the most part, Dreams of Spanking expresses my fantasies. Imagined narratives, roleplays, that sort of thing. Stuff that doesn’t happen in real life. Stuff I wouldn’t want to happen in real life.
On Dreams of Spanking I explore themes of non-consent through fiction – and the fictional narrative is very much contrasted with the real experience of the real humans on set. In the story someone might be being treated horribly and there might be no happy ending. In reality, everyone was consulted on what they wanted to do, we took regular breaks during filming, everyone was fed and paid and felt safe and went home happy. (I generally cast myself as the spankee in my edgiest non-consent fantasies, because that simplifies my ethical responsibilities considerably. And also because it’s hot.) Making explicit this relationship between fictional non-consent and real consent could, in fact, be said to be the entire point of the whole endeavour. So it’s interesting to see “realness” picked out as the thing that makes my porn better than mainstream porn.
Porn is fantasy, as well as being a recording of a real interaction between two people – and fantasy porn can be produced ethically too.
Feminist vs ethical
Feminism is not a prerequisite when it comes to making ethical porn, Blake says. “Feminist porn is explicitly focused on women’s desires and sexuality. So, for example, the belt-whipping scene where I got the life thrashed out of me, that I would say is feminist, because it’s about my journey and my sexuality. Whereas I think it’s possible to produce male-gaze porn in an ethical and fair trade way. That means complete respect for performers, for their boundaries and consent. If someone says no, you don’t ask again, you don’t ask last minute in the middle of a scene. You don’t trick them into doing stuff. You pay them. It’s not only all of those principles, but also communicating that to your audience.”
This quote has been misunderstood, so I want to clarify it.
For me “ethical porn” is a question primarily of labour rights – how workers are treated. How much power do they have to negotiate what they do, and who with? When and how are they paid? Is the working environment safe, clean and comfortable? Are boundaries respected? Is consent given freely, and is it informed consent? Is anyone sexually harassed, threatened, deceived or made to feel uncomfortable? Are the pre-agreed hours kept to? Are men and women paid the same pay for the same job? This is about worker’s rights, the stuff that mobilises labour unions. Porn performers don’t have a union, which is why I think we need a social contract; a campaign for studios to be transparent about their production ethics, and a social movement that puts pressure on producers who exploit their workers. When I attempted to define fairtrade porn two years ago, this is what I was talking about.
These concerns transcend gender politics. The issue of labour rights is separate from whether porn is feminist. Ethical production is the basics; feminism adds an additional set of standards which are, I think, optional. Porn can be ethically produced in the sense of treating its workers well, and still be sexist. Or here’s another example – male/male gay porn. A lot of it doesn’t try to be feminist, in fact feminism has nothing to do with it, but that doesn’t make it unethical unless the workers are exploited.
Ethical production is something I’m prepared to campaign about. I think the whole porn industry should be ethical. But although I identify as a feminist, and spend a lot of time and effort thinking about how to make porn in a more feminist way, I have no desire to evangelise.
I wasn’t saying I’m not a feminist and I don’t consider my porn to be feminist. (I’m not sure where that reading came from.) I was saying that although feminist and ethical overlap, they aren’t synonymous.
For me, feminist porn is a personal integrity thing. Maybe you don’t call yourself a feminist – that’s fine. If you do, and you make porn, and your porn is sexist, then okay, I’ll probably give you side-eye. But I can’t be arsed to try and convert other porn producers to feminism. I don’t really give a crap whether you’re trying to be feminist – as long as you treat your workers with respect.
Does that make sense?
Equal pay for male and female performers
(Quoting Noelle Nica) “…on the practical, economic side, men make much less per scene than women do because they’re viewed as less important. That’s another little detail that would have feminists up in arms if the situation were reversed. Yet nobody rallies to get equal pay for male performers.”
This made me grin, because guess what I’ve spent the last three years campaigning for? That’s right: equal pay for male performers! Here are some links if you don’t believe me.
Just in case there was any doubt remaining: I pay fixed rates for certain jobs, which are the same regardless of the gender of the person I’m hiring. I pay both male and female bottoms £300-£350/day depending on the length of the shoot, because that’s at the higher end of the standard day rate paid by other spanking sites I’ve worked for, and my shoots tend to be full days. Tops get the same as crew (£150-£200, again depending on shoot length and intensity.) Switches get something between the two. I usually negotiate lower day rates for multiple day shoots, which is fairly standard practice.
The pay discrepancy between tops and bottoms is because I think professional sub work should earn a higher rate than other forms of BDSM work, for a few reasons: partly the level of personal risk involved, partly because bottoming is uniquely physically demanding (healing welts and bruises has a physical energy cost beyond the duration of the shoot, and it can take a few days to fully recover from the adrenaline/seratonin spike), but mostly because if you’re welted or bruised you can’t do most other forms of erotic labour until you’ve healed, and so I think anything that leaves marks should pay more to account for the loss of earnings. But the discrepancy is between different jobs, not different genders. I pay everyone the same wage for the same work.
The age of the Crash Pad
Pandora Blake has just bought a membership to crashpadseries.com, “which is a queer radical feminist site that’s been running for 14 years.
Just a correction here: Shine Louise Houston launched her production company PinkWhite in 2005 with her film The Crash Pad. The website came in 2007. My bad – I got the dates wrong. Shine’s achievement is impressive enough without being overstated.
There was feminist porn being produced 14 years ago, though – Candida Royalle kicked things off with Femme in 1985, Purve published photos of men on a membership site for women in 1998, and Anna Span aired her first porn film on TV in 1999. Ms Naughty has a really well-researched history of porn for women which I highly recommend.
One last thing.
Violent fantasy and moral responsibility
There is a chasm here, between people who think that all violence in sex is the result of a patriarchal culture and will lead to violence in real life, and should be stamped out; and people who think that all fantasy is legitimate, and almost all of it can be legitimately met by porn.
AJ, Blake’s assistant, says: “When people chase after paedophilic fantasies, it’s very hard to satisfy them in a way that isn’t damaging someone. But it’s perfectly possible to seek out rape fantasies in a way that isn’t.”
Julie Bindel, feminist and activist, is scathing about this. “Put it this way, if I had a fantasy about having a black woman on her hands and knees scrubbing my kitchen floor and saying, ‘Yes madam, no madam’, yes, I would quash it.”
AJ is talking about consensual roleplay, in case it wasn’t clear, and Bindel’s quote is disingenuous to say the least. I’ve gone on long enough, so I’ll try to keep this brief. Fantasy is fantasy. Fantasy exists in your head. If it stays in your head and the only person who ever knows about it is you, you have no responsibility to anyone else. You can fantasise about whatever the hell you want. The only moral boundaries are your own.
As it happens, yes, if I was excited by that fantasy, as a white woman, I would not nurture it. I have, in fact, had fantasies which I was morally uncomfortable with, and I have refused them. (“Quash” isn’t the right word. If you try to suppress a sexual impulse, you strengthen it. Guilt, shame and anxiety can all be powerful arousal amplifiers. But you can turn away.) I have, mid-wank, become uncomfortable with the images rising up in my hindbrain, and I have refused those images and consciously summoned others. Or if that hasn’t worked, I’ve stopped entirely.
But the point is that I would never tell anyone else where their own comfort zone should be; what images, in their own private theatre of the mind, they should nurture, and what they should refuse. It’s private. It’s up to you.
Porn is not private. Porn is a public actualisation of something private, and different rules apply. That’s where the whole methodology of Dreams of Spanking comes into play, that differentiation between fantasy and reality I mentioned earlier. I think that as an ethical, sex-positive feminist pornographer, I do have a moral responsibility not to seem to condone sexist, racist, ableist, transphobic, homophobic, slut-shaming, patriarchal ideas. If those themes play a part in a nuanced fictional narrative, I take the time to establish what is fantasy and what is reality. It’s complex. You can’t reduce it to a simple soundbite. This is where the whole idea of “consensual non-consent” comes in (and oh, it’s lovely to be able to use that phrase here, even though I can’t on Dreams of Spanking – thanks for the censorship, CCBill!)
And yes, there are certain themes I won’t use. Race play, as it happens, is one of them. I’m not even sure if this is a feminist porn issue – to me it seems to be an issue of cultural appropriation. I am white, and therefore I do not appropriate Black history for fun or profit. A producer of colour like Mollena Williams has more right than I or Julie Bindel do to explore racial themes in the sexual fantasies we make public.
Valery North has sensible things to say about this:
While I don’t think the Shadow Self is the sole explanation of dark sexual fantasies, I think there is a lot of evidence that for some people anyway, it is a powerful way of engaging with and rehabilitating the shadow self and sexual fantasies and desires are influenced by the negated or rejected elements of our own psyches.
I’m reluctant to try to engage too much with the racial politics of Bindel’s remark (one might be tempted to suggest it’s not her place, as a White middle-class woman, to use that as her particular example, either). Suffice to say, I’ve read some Black women who are into BDSM and it seems from their views that it is possible to produce that porn in an ethical/fair trade way, too.
The Bindel quote wasn’t about porn. Porn is fantasy-made-reality, the actualisation of fantasy. If the fantasy differs from the reality, ethical producers have a responsibility to show both, and to make the distinction clear. This, in a nutshell, is exactly what the Dreams of Spanking project is all about.
Porn is media, it’s entertainment, and it contributes to cultural trends. I wouldn’t tell a racist joke if I was a TV scriptwriter or a stand-up comic, and I won’t make racist porn, either.
But when fantasy is just fantasy, when it exists purely within the privacy of your own imagination – well, that’s your business, and it’s a matter for you and your own conscience. Unless you choose to make them public, far be it from me – or Bindel – to tell you what your fantasies should look like.