Saturday, 01 October 2016 11:50

Can These Pornographers End ‘MILFs,’ ‘Teens,’ and ‘Thugs’?


In a satirical essay, writer Sam Kriss analyzed the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), as a work of dystopian fiction. Kriss describes the DSM-5 as a grim landscape, populated by sufferers “interrogated by a pitiless system of categorizations with no ability to speak back.” In the psychopharmacological world of the DSM-5, human experiences are transformed into categories of disorder—the antisocial, the defiant, the dysphoric, and thousands more.

A similar reading could well apply to the categorized world of mainstream porn. To consume online porn often entails playing a rough and reductive language game. We navigate a discomforting gauntlet of search terms: a jumble of body parts (pussy, cock, ass, tits), body types (tiny, huge, skinny, curvy), sexual and gender identities (gay, bi, lesbian, trans), sex acts (anal, squirting, pissing, gang bang, bukkake, bondage) all woven into a lattice of racist, sexist, transphobic, ageist, and ableist tropes (big black, Asian teen, thug, schoolgirl, MILF, shemale, and so on).

Behemoth sites like YouPorn, PornHub, and RedTube are among the worst offenders; these categories are the building blocks of their porn empires. One company, the content-delivery giant MindGeek (formerly Manwin), monopolizes the porn-provider market, owning all three major “tube sites” listed above and attracting tens of millions of unique users daily. With such ubiquity, this massive company is responsible for creating categories that we learn to use, no matter how ridiculous they are, in order to access porn.

“Think about the MILF/teen dichotomy,” pornographer and writer Stoya told me earlier this year. “There’s no third or other option for female age. The system demands the impossible—that you’re either a MILF or a teen. And sometimes, because of SEO [Search Engine Optimization], you get tagged as both in the same scene. It’s absurd!… And don’t get me started on a category like ‘interracial.’”

In 2015, Stoya launched the porn site TrenchcoatX.com with fellow adult-film star Kayden Kross. The site’s first iteration sought to avoid traditional porn’s arcane and problematic search tags by forgoing them. “At first, when the site launched we put up descriptions of the movie, and each scene. There were no labels on any of it, which was nice and utopian,” Stoya explained.

But the seeming utopia ran into a challenge: How could users tailor the site’s content to their preferences, and (more crucial to the founders) how could the site enable customers to prevent content from popping up that they might find traumatizing?

In the weeks and months that followed, Trenchcoat began to roll out a novel search interface to cater to users’ smut preferences and revulsions. The Squee Enhancement and Squick Protection system allows any logged-in user to browse and click on a list of tags relating to the content of Trenchcoat’s videos. Scenes containing chosen squees (things a user positively wants to see) are highlighted, and scenes containing selected squicks (personal dislikes) can either be completely hidden from the site for that user, or accompanied with a warning, depending on the given consumer’s inputs. For viewers who find certain sex acts or scenarios (say, staged depictions of non-consensual sex) not only unappealing but potentially traumatizing, the negative-search capability is especially valuable.

But in order for users to choose their squicks and squees, and for the site to organize content accordingly, there had to be a tagging system. To organize the site, as to organize anything in the universe at all, Stoya says she and Kross realized, “We’re going to start having to deal with words.”


For days, Stoya holed up in her apartment tagging every video on the site with everything could think of that might be a potential squick or a squee. “Armpit hair, anal, analingus, breasts: augmented or natural, scenes depicting non-consent.” Even “foot in anus” made the list, which continues to grow to over 260 tags. But the project is not a simple exercise in ostensive definition. It is an attempt to recode a landscape of commodified sexuality that promotes retrograde categories as titillating transgressions.

But with the racist, sexist, ageist, ableist tropes thrown out, the question of how best to name and tag porn scenes is a wide-open and ethically taxing one, posing manifold challenges. Can a new taxonomy of porn be established and spread? If so, what might this mean for the porn industry, and the landscape of human sexual desire?

No discussion of pornography and its discontents should begin without some caveats. Porn is heterogeneous. When we criticize the movie industry for pushing sexist tropes and/or racist stereotypes, we don’t mean all films, or even all Hollywood films, but rather a set of industry tendencies. We assume that they can be changed, and we don’t call for the end of movies. If we accept the ubiquity of porn, and that it can be changed but not discarded, we can concede one point to the pearl-clutching anti–sex work crusaders: Online porn plays a powerful formative role in young lives (and not-so-young lives), and it can, like any other industry, oppress the people who work in it. Given this fact, the need for political and ethical critiques toward a better world of porn is obvious.

The workforce of mainstream porn is certainly not lacking in diverse bodies and popular performers of color. A survey by PornHub and news site Mic.com looking into millennials’ porn viewing habits found that “the most searched-for adult film stars had an interesting pattern: Among the top 20 are Asa Akira, Mia Khalifa, Pinky, Sunny Leone, and multiracial performer Skin Diamond—none of whom are white.” In “genre search terms favored by millennials, ‘ebony’ and ‘black’ were among the top 12.” But there’s an inherent limitation to the progressiveness of such a porn landscape if bodies are primarily sought, categorized, and thus sexualized via their race. (A study that homogenizes the category “millennial” has shortcomings of its own, of course.)

Mickey Mod, a veteran performer of eight years, whose slender physique and lighter black skin contrasts with some of porn’s most staid black-male stereotypes, told me that performers in mainstream productions often have little or no say in their own categorization, and even less say in how these materials are cut up and reposted on the tube sites. This is equally true, to be sure, of gender, sexuality, and age categories.

Mod recalls performing in scenes that were later slapped with titles, never mentioned in any paperwork, like “black man stole my daughter,” reproducing archaic racist tropes that even Shakespeare satirized. Mod recalled the story of a black female colleague who performed in a film that was later titled Black Wives Matter, much to her horror. “There are companies that would never do something like that, and an increasing number. But it’s really common practice.” It’s hard to imagine a mainstream Hollywood star being expected to arrive on set without knowing the plot, title, or ethical framing of a movie.

Nina Hartley, the grande dame of pornography who has worked as a performer, director, and sex educator for three decades, told me, “I’ve been tagged as ‘mature,’ ‘Granny,’ ‘MILF,’ ‘cougar,’ and likely more. However people want to find me.” Hartley, whose youthful appearance far belies her 57 years, noted that “the biggest challenge is that tags reflect how people think of a particular performer/activity/appearance, and those are personal things.” When Marx described worker alienation under the capitalist modes of production, he couldn’t have dreamed of an example so apotheotic as porn’s labels. The performer is alienated from the product of her labor, from much of the shaping of its production, and even from the identity that gets produced on screen, which then shapes the performer’s future job opportunities.

Categorization has practical consequences for performers, too. Pay scales and exclusivity agreements opted for by certain white female performers or, often, their agents around “interracial” scenes literally inscribe such racism into the back-end business, not only the spectacle reaching our screens. Equally, male performers who have performed in both gay porn and straight porn are rare and can face professional setbacks; the two sectors remain notably distinct, and the straight mainstream remains disturbingly nervous about men who have engaged in “gay” sex, upholding homophobic stigmas in need of disposal.

There’s not much mystery to the business model sustaining this dystopia: Mass-market production companies make the porn that they say consumers want; consumers develop viewing habits and a search language based on what is offered and available. The feedback loop produces what we have come to see as natural desires. The “conservative business model,” as Mod describes it, gives the lie to the suggestion that offensive labels perpetuated in mainstream porn could be somehow subversive, turning political correctness on its head to liberate our innate desires. The myth, as philosopher Michel Foucault long insisted, was that transgressiveness is a challenge to conservatism. Instead, the sort of transgression offered by much of modern porn leaves conservative ideas about gender and race at the center of our sexual universe, setting the fulcrums of desire.

Trenchcoat’s Squick/Squee interface does not mention Mod’s race in any tags for the scene in which he stars with Stoya and actor Wolf Hudson. Indeed, no racial categories are listed on the site. If a consumer wanted to “squick” or “squee” along racial lines, they would have to look up every performer in the videos and select the names of those they deem undesirable one by one. The removal of race and ethnicity as categories places the onus on the consumer to look at individuated performers without presorting these humans by race. The terms bi, gay, and straight don’t feature either, on the assumption that a given sexual interaction of bodies should not be taken as a portrayal of a sexual identity. Notably, the tag “lesbian” is featured, but not to categorize two females engaging in sexual acts. “We have a ‘lesbian’ tag,” Stoya explained, “because Tucky Williams’s video Girl/Girl Scene is largely about lesbian-identified people. But we don’t use that tag for just any scene with two women rubbing bits.”

And of course, you won’t find “MILFs” in the Trenchcoat lexicon, nor “teens.” These categories were expelled, while others have been translated. Kross and Stoya discussed the issue of breasts, and decided that reference to “augmented” or “natural” served a purpose, and should be applied instead of loaded terms like “fake” or “real.” Some tag inclusions are playful, too. “Blatant capitalism” is included as attached to a series starring, and riffing on the theme of, a former Wall Street intern who publicly quit banking for porn. “Dildos/toys/etc” are bracketed under the term “the help”—the tag itself thus posing a cheeky question about the childish connotation of “toy.” One scene on the site includes waterboarding (consensual), so that required a tag too. It is notably one of the most “squicked” labels yet, as of this summer, followed soon after by “portrayals of nonconsent.” The data collection is sparse—only around 500 “warning” squicks had been chosen as of last month.


Gendered language perhaps poses the biggest challenge yet, given Trenchcoat’s aim to decenter cis-gendered individuals as the assumed focus (in terms of both performer and consumer.) “Cisman” and “ciswoman” are both available tags, thus not assumed in the Squick/Squee lexicon as “the normal” or assumed.

Different individuals have different relationships to how they refer to their genitalia. There’s space for dissonance between how a performer describes their genitalia and how it might be perceived by a viewer; the challenge is to respect both. Stoya work-shopped genitalia term options on Twitter with her 242,000 followers. “Generally perceived as ‘penis’/’vulva’” was suggested, but consensus gathered around greater descriptive, rather than object-centered, specificity. As the tags stand, they read “public parts: mostly internal/mostly external.”

They are cumbersome terms, for sure, and potentially obscure, but such is the challenge of describing sex anew. “We have to build this slowly,” admits Stoya. “We can’t throw 2,000 new vocab words to, say, the guy I met at a convention last month who asked what ‘cis-gendered’ meant, because he earnestly wanted to understand.”

So far, Trenchcoat users have largely deployed the Squick and Squee options to to highlight tags they especially want to see. According to Kross, as of August, 678 users have used the system to provide warnings that a scene contains a certain tag; 47 users have opted to have these items removed from their viewing experience entirely. As Kross told The Nation, “Not accounting for performer names, our most often chosen squick is ‘foot in anus’ [an act featured in one of the site’s scenes], followed by lactating, portrayals of nonconsent, and waterboarding.” The things most of the top squicks have in common are elements of BDSM, and things involving anal. But anal also comes up as a common squee. Kross noted, “Our most often chosen squee is squirting, followed by threesomes, oral sex, and anal…. Also, there are far more squees chosen than squicks, and zero evidence of tagging for race.”

The project, at its most ambitious, seeks to create a new feedback loop of porn watched and made, unmoored from the vagaries of old, bad, lazy categories. Any suggestion that mainstream porn is simply a reflection of what “people” want is undermined by the fact that people are being steered by near-hegemonic content spewers. The model leaves no room for the fact that a vast number of porn viewers might hate typing in “interracial” or “teen,” but must navigate this lexicon to find desirable content. The uncomfortable consumer then feeds unhappily into the system that dictates how porn is made. Stoya admits that TrenchcoatX’s tagging system is a work in progress that is not and should never be complete. The aim is not simply to produce a new set of terms but to develop a more ethical way to create them over time.

Unlike the only occasionally edited DSM-5, the constituents of the Squick/Squee porn taxonomy are far from static. Stoya has compiled a Squeepedia, which is constantly growing. It expands on each tag, explaining words that remain somewhat fraught, and defining potentially confusing terms and the impetus behind choosing them. Future changes and edits to tags will be tracked, with dates and explanations, on the living, breathing Squeepedia. Take, for example, the current putative definition for the “Genderqueer” tag:

Genderqueer 1) Features a performer who identifies as genderqueer. Specifically, Jiz Lee who writes eloquently on the subject here: http://jizlee.com/what-is-genderqueer/ 2) A story that features specific engagement with and upending of traditional western gender expectations. 29 Feb 2016 collapsed gender fluid 11 squicks, 24 squees, gender-neutral 7 squicks, 17 squees, and queer 10 squicks, 20 squees into genderqueer.

Porn is part of the ecosystem that tells us what sex and sexuality are. Porn terms are, to use Foucault’s language, part of a network of technologies creating truths about our sexuality. Efforts like those at Trenchcoat would also create a regime of truth of sexuality, but, with hope and care, a more ethical one. Foucault might argue that no system of categories can be liberating if it affixes us to specific sexualities and identities. TrenchcoatX’s response is to keep moving.

Trenchcoat is not alone in challenging porn’s entrenched taxonomies. Pornographers and platform providers like Erika Lust, Jiz Lee, Annie Sprinkle, and Cindy Gallop have expanded their reach far beyond porn’s fringe. Jiz Lee, a celebrated gender-queer porn performer who works behind the scenes with director Shine Louise Houston at the San Francisco–based queer adult company Pink & White Productions, has spent the span of their career eschewing the constraints of mainstream porn and its cisnormativity. “In many ways, the porn that I became involved with [in the Bay Area’s queer community], which later influenced my career and involvement within the porn industry, was born from filmmakers’ interest in creating porn that filled a void created by porn limited to categories,” they explained.

One popular project with which Lee is involved as a producer through Pink & White is the Crashpad Series, which uses the plot device of a landlord who has given out keys so that “queers can access the ‘pad to have sex, that she can then voyeur.’” Lee explains, “It’s a loose enough device that it allows for an element of discovery and surprise, in that people can show up who may or may not be expected within a queer women’s community (including the occasional cisgender man).” As with Trenchcoat, they chose not to categorize people by race or size or gender or age. Unlike Stoya’s desire for and abundant and growing list of conscientious tags, the Crashpad tags are “marginal categories created by common search terms (such as strap-on or anal) and ones people sometimes seek or avoid (rough sex or BDSM).” The project, noted Lee, is primarily artistic rather than profit-driven. While needing to make “slight profits…[the] business goal is to balance profit and art; we’re less interested in making money (satisfying the needs of the majority) [than] we are about making the product (exploring sexuality with cinematic craft).” Lee’s statement implies that to bend to the mainstream porn market inevitably means aligning with its categories.

Even Burning Angel, porn star Joanna Angel’s successful “punk porn” production company, known for ethical, caring working conditions and distinguished by its glossed rockabilly, tattooed aesthetic, carries the category “interracial.” Business Insider estimated the company’s monthly run rate around an impressive $300k.

Which brings us back to the question of industry. Would-be ethical consumers place a great deal of responsibility on the growing cadre of socially conscious porn companies. We look to figures like Stoya, Joanna Angel, and Jiz Lee to “fix” the industry, while also demanding that they—as marginalized and stigmatized workers—defend it from arcane moralists. Suffice it to say that it should not be assumed to be the role of a few committed pornographers to slay the corporate beast and undo the worst vagaries of mainstream porn. Trenchcoat’s lexicographical efforts are, however, crucial in highlighting how no less than a new taxonomy of porn might be in order.

Whether TrenchcoatX and its others can intervene in the prevailing mainstream with its stubborn taxonomies is, however, not so clear. According to Hartley, who has seen many years of shifts in the industry firsthand, “The old [categories] will be here for decades to come, as consumers age out of the market and younger ones shift their focus.” The new terms may represent nothing more than a marketing shift. But Hartley stressed: “The working conditions, more than the content, of porn is where we, as feminists, need to put our primary focus.… We must protect workers by ensuring they have agency over their working conditions.” All revolutions require solidarity. In order to help change porn for the better, taxonomical interventions will have to respect this principle. For performers to undo the categories they have been funneled into means more than questioning labels; it means workers’ challenging the means of their industry’s production.

Source : https://www.thenation.com/


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