This year has been one of great transformation. At times it's felt as if my whole life has been thrown into the air, and I've been waiting to see which bits would land. As if all the things tying into my sense of self have been laid out on the table, and are up for examination to see whether they still serve me and whether I want to keep them. It's been a time of great positive change, and a time of loss. Healthy loss - letting go of things I was attached to which weren't working any more - but still, it's added up to a lot of upheaval.
One of the things that's been going on for me this year that I haven't talked about here is my gender.
When I started making spanking films I never once imagined that I would get a chance to screen them at the British Film Institute. Porn - especially queer porn and fetish porn, and Dreams of Spanking is firmly in both camps - is in many ways innately counter-cultural. When I launched the site I didn't expect the draconian criminalisation that would follow; but equally I didn't expect that queer porn, specifically my queer spanking films, would be considered cultural enough to be shown somewhere like the BFI.
It's a bittersweet juxtaposition, perfectly illustrated by something I noticed when I arrived at the BFI for Flare, the LGBTQ film festival, at which I was taking part in a panel discussion around how porn law affects queer porn. The banner across the Flare reception desks proclaimed the sponsors of the event; and there on the left was the legend "Supported by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport." How ironic that the very department of the civil service supporting this event is the one which introduced a statutory instrument in 2014 criminalising many forms of queer porn, including my own. It was surreal to speak about that criminalisation, to a sympathetic audience eager to learn how they can resist state oppression, at an event supported by the very public body responsible for that oppression. For me, that dissonance aptly summarised the widening gap between legislation imposed from above by those who have no clue about sexuality or sex work, and an increasingly open-minded public who mostly consider the sex lives of consenting adults to be their own damn business.
Before the panel proper, I recorded a video interview alongside queer porn icon Jiz Lee, and Chocolate Chip, who stars in Snapshot, the new "porn noir" sexy whodunnit by Shine Louise Houston, with questions asked by Flare programmer Jay Bernard. Jay is one of the curators of the festival, and they did an amazing job co-ordinating the Sexit panel and programming queer films that center people of colour. The interview was intended to be streamed via Facebook Live, but apparently the BFI is an old old building with shitty connectivity, so it was recorded instead - I'll link the video as soon as it's available.
Since I last blogged about the Sex Workers Opera it has had two years to grow and develop under the direction of Siobhan Knox and Alex Etchart. I watched it last year at the Arcola Theatre; a longer run than its two-night debut in 2014, with new scenes and polish added. Since then, they have crowd-funded the budget for a bigger, better-rehearsed, more ambitious production - and they have also, incredibly, received Arts Council Funding; a fantastic validation by mainstream culture of a marginalised community production, and a useful boost in terms of perceived respectability, as well as being practically useful in providing much-needed extra cash. The cast and crew made incredible use of their budget, and as a result the show has significantly leveled up. Who knew that with adequate funding, artists could produce their best work? It's almost as if money made things easier.
It was, more or less, watching the Sex Worker's Opera - and picking up an invitation to sex worker breakfasts in the ladies loos - that got me involved in the sex worker activist community. Since then, I've organised with the Sex Worker Open University and the English Collective of Prostitutes; I've attended breakfasts and the poledancing class run by the same community enough times to form intimate friendships, although not as much as I would like. So this time, watching the Opera was a much more personal experience. I knew almost everyone on stage (and already had crushes on nearly all of them, which were made all the more acute by watching the sheer talent exhibited during the show) and consider many of them good friends. I felt like a proud sister, beaming with pleasure at the skill of the performance. As a sex workers rights activist I felt included in the solidarity and community that we were invited to witness among the cast members - in fact a clipping of my voice is used at one point in the performance, ranting passionately about the stupidity of the UK porn laws, so I really was, literally included.
"The UK is a world leader in child online safety" (p4)
In the context of recent revelations showing how unsafe children in the UK are at the hands of exploitative individuals abusing their power within church, political and media institutions, this opening sentence is in poor taste. The Government's obsession with conjuring a demon to fight in the form of online pornography, while ignoring the real problems of child sexual exploitation, poor sex education, unsafe sex, and sexual violence faced by young people in our society, is reminiscent of the politician's syllogism: "We must do something! This is something - therefore we must do it!" Policy-makers would be far better served by devoting their energies to reducing real incidents of child sexual exploitation, that have caused provable and lasting harm, rather than going to great lengths to defeat the nebulous and unprovable harms of online pornography.
D and I have just got back from a lovely holiday in Barcelona, which is just as beautiful as everyone says it is. While we were there I made certain we had a look round the Museu de L'Eròtica on La Rambla. It's a small museum with an exhibition on sex through the ages, mostly dedicated to historical erotic art. The section on BDSM was disappointingly tiny, but the entry price included a free glass of champagne so I didn't mind too much. I particularly enjoyed the collection of 18th century European (mostly French, Italian and English) erotic art. Forgive the crappy cameraphone photos, but there were some images I just had to share...
I was struck by this drawing of two lovers engaged in acrobatic sex - one for ballet lovers everywhere. I like the way the woman is being lifted off the floor, gravity held at bay merely by the strength of an erect cock and one dainty hand. But most of all I'm intrigued by the feminine appearance of her lover. I don't think the concept of a trans woman (which was my first instinctive interpretation) existed in the same way back then, but there were definitely some gender-benders - is this intended to depict a male cross-dresser or drag queen, I wonder? Or is this sort of feminine appearance perfectly standard for a male ballet dancer of the time?
On Monday a Guardian article entitled "Porn belongs in the classroom" made waves in the UK. I got home on Monday afternoon to several journalist interview requests, and an invitation to discuss the topic on BBC Newsnight (which I politely declined because seven hours notice really isn't enough for that sort of thing, although apparently it's standard). This idea has clearly made waves.
Prof Christian Graugaard of Aalborg University has called for pornography to be shown to older teens in schools to kickstart discussion and education that will help them become "more conscientious and critical consumers".
“My proposal is to critically discuss pornography with 8th and 9th graders [age 15 – the legal age of consent in Denmark – and 16 respectively] as part of a sensible didactic strategy, carried out by trained teachers,” he told the Guardian.
The week before it went out, I dreaded an unsympathetic edit. The debate audience had been dominated by members of feminist groups such as Object and Stop Porn Culture, who are vehemently opposed to the existence of pornography and consider any woman who willingly participates in it to be either an abused victim or a gender traitor. Sitting on the stage, I was all too aware that the first few rows of audience members were very hostile towards me - not only towards my political position, but towards me personally. There was a lot of jeering, heckling and yelling, and from where we were sitting the atmosphere in the room felt very tense. When the debate opened to the audience members, individuals from these groups seemed to spend twice as long on the mic as the rest - and some even started preaching, delivering emotive impassioned rhetoric which felt very out of place.
Last Sunday I participated in a debate at the Women of the World festival entitled "Can porn empower women?" In my three minutes I didn't have time to go into the full complexities of that question - so I'm going to do so here.
Debating "porn" is difficult because the word means different things to different people. Some people use it to mean "sexy media I don't like", and the word "erotica" to mean "sexy media I do like". So I want to start out with a definition: porn is media that is intended to sexually stimulate the viewer. It doesn't necessarily have to involve nudity, or sex (whatever THAT means).
You have all probably seen this already, but I haven't mentioned it here yet - on 12th December after the facesitting protest outside Parliament against the new UK porn laws, I was invited to debate the issue on Newsnight. This was my first proper TV appearance and it was a big deal for me.
One of the things I love about working with Nimue is that she always opens my mind to new kinks. She is, hands down, the most interestingly filthiest person I know, which given the company I keep is quite an accolade. I love her mind, her acceptance of the darkest facets of her kinky psyche, and the way her fetishes and play personas combine strength and vulnerability in such fascinating ways.
On our most recent shoot she wanted to shoot a scene that was new to me - a point of view humiliation scene with me providing instructions and verbal abuse from behind the camera. This wasn't something I would normally consider, but I always feel very open to new ideas when I'm working with Nimue. She showed me the props she'd brought - a cheap blonde wig, make-up, high heels - and we discussed what she wanted, particularly the language.
Nimue is one of the few people I know who fetishises abusive language relating to her size. "Piggy" is her pet name from her top, and she enjoys "fat pig" humiliation play that criticises her body. As a submissive, this is a huge no for me - just as food control and starvation is another hard limit, another thing Nimue enjoys toying with. I admire the strength of character in someone who can choose to reclaim fatphobic slurs as a form of kinky play, thereby stripping them of their real-world power to hurt. Nimue described the mentality to me as follows - "I know I'm fat, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that. Call me fat, and you aren't insulting me, just stating a fact." She is no more immune to insecurity about her looks than the rest of us, and it takes a real strength of mind to resist and subvert the body-shaming messages we are bombarded with in media and advertising by turning them on their head, and using them as tools for kinky head games of her own devising.