I watch pornography. I like pornography.
My public school had abstinence-only sex education and I honestly would’ve had no idea what went where if not for the Internet’s movin’ pictures of naked hot people. As weird and arguably problematic as porn can be, I still appreciate it. Reconciling the sexy parts and exploitative aspects is tricky business though. Can something like double penetration be empowering?
My Oberlin class on the adult films of the 1970s (because of course Oberlin would have that) taught me a little about how porn was made back then, aside from the hilarious facial hair. Life could be less-than-stellar for performers. Linda Lovelace was forced at gunpoint by her abusive husband to make "Deep Throat." The process of recruiting participants was several varieties of sketchy, there was no industry standard for STD testing and the social stigma of pornography prevented many porn stars from speaking out if they were involved against their will.
Gloria Steinem and Andrea Dworkin famously argued that no women willingly made pornography, and they were mentally unstable or traumatized by childhood sexual abuse if they thought otherwise. Apparently Steinem and Dworkin were off base though, and porn’s sleaze factor had gone way the hell down since the 1970s (as did the sweet mustache-to-person ratio, sadly).
The Feminist Porn Network, Kink.com and their ilk had come up in conversations as being ethical pornographers -- their performers do what they do because they want to.
Feminist Porn Network’s A Woman’s POV runs amateur movies of self-identified women getting it on with other self-identified women in whatever ways they find sexy. Kink.com stresses that their models are enthusiastic about their kinky pursuits on-camera and off. The companies claim that they go out of their way to respect model’s boundaries and ensure their safety during performances. All this performer agency sounded great.
I couldn’t help wondering though -- was this was just marketing meant to prey on my liberal guilt and need for visual stimulation while doing the masturbation thing? Kink.com has a lot of the same anal shenanigans and semen spraying as other “less enlightened” sites, with the added presence of BDSM and rape-y stuff. How could it possibly be so empowering? I live near their San Francisco headquarters, so I decided to find out firsthand.
Their model application was just like a job application (albeit one that wanted detailed info about my man-parts). Because of how extremely scrawny I am, my girlfriend Allison thought they’d only want me for gay-for-pay movies. To my surprise, they asked me to be on a shoot for Public Disgrace, their fetish site devoted to women being violently ravaged in front of a large group of complete strangers in a semi-public setting. This was by no means a situation I ever expected to be in.
I had a fairly conservative view of sex in high school -- it took my first few relationships and a semester at Oberlin to adopt a more non-traditional view of sexy times. These days, I believe people should be able to explore their sexuality in whatever way they want as long as things stay safe, sane and consensual.
I’m in an open relationship; I co-habitate with my primary partner (Allison), and we’re both dating the same sexy lady (Kate). None of us thought I’d get an offer from Kink.com when they helped me come up with my porn name. As liberal as everyone involved was, I had no idea how they would respond to me actually being in a porn.
When I broke the news, I could tell Allison and Kate weren’t really sure how to react. Both of them were some combination of enthusiastic and apprehensive. Allison wasn’t too into the non-consensual plots on some of Kink.com’s shoots. Although industry testing procedures are fairly strict, Kate wanted my penis be-condomed at all times just in case they missed anything.
Allison decided to bar people we knew from the shoot -- she had felt a little uncomfortable when Kate’s whole house said they were going to come cheer me on. My relationships with them were more important than being in a porn shoot -- I made sure they knew I’d call the whole thing off if they wanted me to. I got the OK.
Kink.com had me start my first round of STD testing and join a national registry of adult performers. Anyone in my shoot could ask to see my results at any time, and I could do the same. All the STD testing for Kink.com models happens at the same tiny clinic in the Castro. I scanned the faces in the waiting room, nervously wondering if I’d see any of them again during my shoot.
I got progressively more worried as the filming date came closer. Having sex on camera was a scary enough thought without adding the kink and live studio audience. Dirty talking seemed like it’d be the hardest part -- I never really felt comfortable calling folks the expected nasty names and my attempts usually ended in one or both parties laughing. To try and get ready, I read through some of the free dirty talk books for Kindle -- they were not at all helpful, but it was kind of hilarious how terrible they all were.
I couldn’t stop wondering if I was a horrible person. Not only did I enjoy Kink.com, I’d be in one of their films! Sure, their fetish models honestly enjoyed those fetishes. If the fetish was objectifying, would I be participating in that objectification? Am I some manner of misogynist dude bro? I would feel 14 kinds of terrible if some mansplainer wanked off while feeling validated by my shoot. Public Disgrace’s host, porn star/director/BDSM educator/generally awesome person Princess Donna (SO VERY NOT SFW) helped make sure this wasn’t the case.
I think the pre and post-show interviews Princess Donna runs with the models are absolutely important to humanizing Public Disgrace. They establish context for the shoot and show the models as real people and not sex objects (even if they get used as such in the movies).
“You are about to watch someone’s sex fantasy acted out in a safe and controlled setting,” they tell the viewer. Just because these women have a fetish for getting violently fucked in front of a group of strangers doesn’t mean they’re any less in control of their bodies.
The two women headlining that night’s Public Disgrace shoot had filled out checklists saying exactly what they were and weren’t cool with happening during the shoot. Condoms weren’t required, but they could be introduced the second a model wanted them. Calling the house safeword stopped the shoot immediately. Models could re-start the scene at a more comfortable rate, or end it entirely if they felt like it.
It really seemed like the subs were the ones ultimately controlling what happened in the film -- they set the rules, and the audience and the doms obeyed them. They told me the pay rates for the shoot ($75 if I get an erection on camera, $150 if I have sex on camera, $200 if I “pop shot” on somebody, for a maximum of $200 for the whole four-hour session).
I had an hour or two to kill after I finished all my paperwork. Waiting took place in the porn dorm (it’s looks like any freshman dorm you can think of, but visiting porn stars stay there). A quiet, buff dude was hanging out there, too. I’d find out later he was my shoot’s main male talent, but we didn’t say a word to each other. A bathrobe-clad James Deen furtively poked his head in, grabbed his leftovers from the fridge and scurried away. I just sort of sat there worrying about what came next.
Would I need to forget every sex position I knew to learn more camera-friendly poses? What if someone said the safeword and I didn’t hear them over the audience? The crowd is encouraged to get handsy, and we had to make sure they followed whatever rules the models had set. One of the models, for example, preferred water-based lube (I was on lube duty), didn’t want anyone touching her back and had another shoot in a few days so we had to try not to leave too many obvious bruises. Princess Donna made sure everything went off without a hitch.
Mingling with the crowd was a little awkward. The open bar made them more outgoing, but performers weren’t allowed to drink before shoots. Most attendees were in formal wear; some of them even had masquerade ball masks. I felt like I was in "Eyes Wide Shut" or something. People kept trying to high-five me for being in the shoot until a production assistant called me for a pre-shoot meet-and-greet with the porn stars. The models were really friendly and encouraging when they heard it was my first-ever time. After some pleasantries and healthy vegetable snacks, we got ready to start.
Princess Donna ripped the clothing off the models and encouraged the audience to do all sorts of nasty things to them. Her commands carried over the crowd as she busted out all manner of kinky sex devices. Fairly close attention was paid to the models’ well-being, but the check-ins were so subtle that I doubt the audience even noticed. Whenever either woman approached her breaking point, Donna carved a path toward the exit and let them go on break.
I was in total awe because she did all of these things AND directed the movie at the same time. The main male porn star was basically a walking erection. By comparison, most of my time was spent running around the room changing condoms on sex toys, strategically deploying lube and gently reminding patrons about the rules. Maneuvering corded vibrators through the crowds made me feel an awkwardness that was assuredly the stuff of legend.
During the break, the models put on tall boots and corsets; Donna put an intense mask over one woman and an unholy fusion of horse-bit and orthodontic headgear on the other. I did some light bondage and comparatively tame sexy stuff; a camera person reminded me to watch my angles. I got kind of uncomfortable when Princess Donna told me to “use” the fluffer to get ready. And then the shoot was over before I knew it. Some members of the crowd lingered to thank the performers and take pictures; Allison picked me up (I had my office job early the next morning).
I don’t have any regrets about participating in Public Disgrace. Because it showed me that ethical pornography is a real thing that can empower its participants. And because it let me see that porn stars are just, well, people -- people who enjoy getting naked and having sex who just so happen to get paid for it.
Even with all my nervousness leading up to the shoot, Public Disgrace was still an unforgettable experience and I’d probably do it again. Things are fine with Allison and Kate (they’re kind of the best), and I’m happy to know what it’s like to be a porn star. (OK, maybe I was more like a porn extra.)