Our Kind of Sex

Oakland has become the epicenter of a movement to create a more realistic portrayal of queer- and female-centric sex.

Andre Shakti is a queer author, activist, and educator who began performing in mainstream and independent pornographic films about two years ago. However, she quickly became disillusioned with mainstream porn. Last fall, as she was being filmed as a bottom in a sex scene with a trans woman for a mainstream company, the director kept instructing an assistant to wipe down her legs with a towel. After the third time, her partner grew frustrated. “You don’t have to keep stopping the scene! It’s just cum,” she exclaimed. “You’re wiping away her cum.”

Shakti was embarrassed and furious. She didn’t understand why evidence of her body’s natural reaction to sex needed to be hidden. “Mainstream porn is homogenous,” she said. “There’s a lack of authenticity, particularly in the way bodies react to sex.” When working in queer porn, however, she’s been filmed on her period — “with menstrual blood,” she added.

So last spring, Shakti decided to move from her home in Baltimore, where she worked at a feminist sex store and art gallery called Sugar, to the Bay Area in order to be part of a more sex-positive community. Since August 2012, she has been working for the BDSM-heavy porn studio Kink.com, which is located in San Francisco’s Mission district. In the Bay Area, Shakti feels like she doesn’t have to hide the fact that she works in porn. “There aren’t a lot of full-time sex workers [in Baltimore] who are out,” she said. “I didn’t want to be a novelty anymore.” However, when she and her partner began looking for apartments, they realized they couldn’t afford to live in San Francisco, so they chose Oakland. It turned out to be a fortuitous decision.

“I moved to California and all of a sudden, I was working with the people who I had read about in my classes, whose lectures I had attended when they traveled to the East Coast, and whose products and books I had sold,” said Shakti, who minored in LGBT studies in college. “Everything exciting that is happening within the industry is happening here, right now.”

Shakti is among a growing number of queer and feminist sex workers who are moving to the East Bay to join a radical movement that seeks to change the way that sex is depicted on film.

These filmmakers, activists, and performers — including longtime Bay Area queer pornographers Courtney Trouble and Madison Young — are challenging norms perpetuated by the mainstream porn industry, especially those related to the depiction of queer and transgender sex. While there is no universally agreed upon definition of queer and feminist pornography (which are sometimes lumped together as “indie porn” or “alternative porn”), it can be understood that the individuals making it are queer and feminist — which, in itself, represents a radical shift from mainstream porn, which is made primarily by white heterosexual men. Generally speaking, these new pornographers prioritize the pleasure, consent, and health and safety of the performers they work with. Whereas the majority of mainstream porn is formulaic and genre-driven, queer and feminist porn seeks to depict authentic sex.

Trouble, who owns TROUBLEfilms and is the creator of QueerPorn.TV as well as IndiePornRevolution.Com, put it this way: Queer and feminist pornographers make porn for the performer, not the audience. “So much of porn caters to the box cover and how it’s going to be sold,” Trouble said. “I shoot sort of the opposite — I don’t know how I’m going to sell it, but I shoot what happens.” For Trouble, forcing a performer to do something she doesn’t want to do, with someone she’s not attracted to, would be morally wrong — and a turnoff.

In many ways, Oakland is the natural place for such a movement. While the Bay Area has long been home to queer and feminist pornographers — the first women’s porn production company was founded in San Francisco in the late 1980s, and one of the most prominent queer and feminist studios, Pink&White Productions, is located in the city — the scale and scope of what’s happening in the East Bay appears to be unprecedented. There are now dozens of queer and feminist pornographers and performers living and working here. And while the rising cost of housing has pushed many people out of San Francisco, that’s only part of the reason why the East Bay has become the epicenter for queer and feminist porn.

Oakland has been “significant to the kind of porn I make for a lot of reasons,” said Trouble. “It has always been a home for revolutionaries. It’s a very resourceful place …. Artists and queer folks have always been drawn to its warehouses, large Victorian homes, basements, and backyards — the space to collect ourselves and create things is much larger on this side of the bay …. Even when I was 24 and living a few blocks from [San Francisco lesbian bar] the Lexington, the really cool people were still over here making things happen. It’s just a far more diverse pool of performers to draw from.”

Meanwhile, the internet and social media have allowed local queer and feminist pornographers to reach a wider audience. These sex-positive activists are also helping to legitimize the study of porn in academia. Young and Trouble recently contributed to the inaugural issue of Porn Studies, the first peer-reviewed journal devoted to the critical exploration of “those cultural products and services designated as pornographic,” which was published online on March 21.

Although feminist and queer porn still appeals to a niche audience, it’s having an impact on the broader porn industry, evident by the fact that local queer and feminist pornographers and performers have been recognized for their work at mainstream industry award shows. (Trouble’s film Introducing Alaya Stone also won “Best Orgasm” at the Express‘ indie erotic shorts competition, BRIEFS, this year.)

Meanwhile, local pornographers continue to expand the definition of queer and feminist porn. Sam Solo, an Oakland resident who is the creator of GirlBullies.net, a fetish site that specializes in female dominance and humiliation, said that he makes porn with feminist intentions. For example, he deliberately avoids using oppressive language when he gives direction on dirty talk and how his male and female performers interact. His work could even be considered queer, he said, in that variance in gender is treated as “totally normal.” He tries to think of hot situations that don’t play on negative clichés. “I want to feel good about what I’m doing,” he said. “I want to make money and get people off, but I also want someone to watch this and not become offended. That’s my biggest goal — for any person to be able to watch my work and feel good.”

He added that the porn he makes is still fantasy — “it’s just fantasy rooted in reality.”

When Carlyle Jansen opened Good for Her, a Toronto-based store that sells sex toys and DVDs, she was disappointed by the kinds of porn available. “When we first opened in 1997, there wasn’t a lot I felt great about offering,” she said. “There were a few titles here and there, but I had many reservations about the quality of the films — more specifically, about who was getting pleasure, especially queers. The diversity and breadth of what queers like to do wasn’t being represented.”

But in the early 2000s, when the cost of film production dropped, women, queers, people of color, and trans people began getting behind the camera, and the porn they filmed was quite different from mainstream porn, said Jansen. Although the feminist porn movement began in the Eighties, she continued, the trend has grown significantly in the last six or seven years. To recognize and celebrate these emerging filmmakers Jansen created the Feminist Porn Awards in 2006. The event was received so enthusiastically that it has been held annually ever since. At this year’s show, which was held last weekend, several East Bay pornographers — including Trouble, Young, James Darling, and Nikki Silver — won awards.

Generally speaking, feminist porn can be defined as “porn made by and/or for women and/or couples (and interested men) that represents women’s agency and sexual desire, response, and power,” wrote Dr. Carol Queen — co-founder and director of San Francisco’s Center for Sex and Culture and staff sexologist and historian at Good Vibrations — in an email. Queer porn encompasses not only those who identify as LGBT, but also “people whose sexual identity and interest veer away from the heteronormative.” To Queen, feminist porn may not necessarily be queer, but there’s an argument to be made that all queer porn is feminist.

Young, a pornographer who has created, directed, and produced more than forty feature-length pornographic films since 2005, said that her identity as a queer and a feminist extends into everything she creates. “My work is always going to be feminist and queer, no matter whom I’m having sex with or how I’m directing a film, because of my gaze, my politics, and my writing,” she said. “Feminist porn is an extension of my politics.” Trouble views queer porn as a political movement that “embraces all kinds of people across the gender, race, sexuality, size, and political spectrum.”

For example, in Trouble’s award-winning film Trans Grrrls, two women have sex after meeting at San Francisco’s Dyke March. Their dialogue and actions convey mutual respect and satisfaction — they ask each other for permission before doing things to one another and look happy when the other partner verbally agrees. The scene also feels far from being staged.

Betty Blac, an Oakland resident and woman of color who has performed in Trouble’s films and is in the process of starting her own film company, PulpCore Films, with another woman of color, said she enjoys watching queer porn because it turns her on without compromising her politics. “I don’t have to worry about whether someone is stressed out or uncomfortable,” she said.

It’s not as if mainstream porn doesn’t feature plus-size women, women of color, and transgender people, Shakti explained. But mainstream porn is very invested in categories. When sex between two non-white and/or non-straight people is depicted, it’s almost always in a way that’s fetishistic and dehumanizing. “The way the mainstream porn industry sells sex is by marginalizing a group of people or a quality,” said Shakti. This is especially true of mainstream transgender porn, which is often marketed as “she-male” or “tranny” porn — terms that are considered offensive to many people in the queer community.

Of the dozen performers interviewed for this story, nearly all described getting involved in the industry for the same reason — because they didn’t see people who looked like them and fucked like them on screen. In that way, queer pornography is very much about the politics of representation. “I didn’t see the kind of sex I like to have or the people I like to have it with,” said Siouxsie Q, creator and host of The Whorecast, a weekly podcast about sex work, and author of The Whore Next Door, a new weekly column in SF Weekly. “Which is not to say that I don’t jerk off to mainstream porn, but [lack of] inclusion and representation inspired me to start performing.”

Shakti got into sex work as a means of accepting her own body. She has large inner labia, and when she was younger, she was unable to find images of women with similar anatomy in magazines, on the Internet, or in porn. “I was convinced I was deformed — that there was something wrong with me,” she said.

James Darling, a trans man who is the creator of FTMFucker.com and one of the East Bay’s rising queer porn stars, said that because queer porn pays so much less than mainstream porn, the people who are making it are personally invested for various reasons. “Queer porn attracts a certain kind of person who has other reasons for wanting to do it, whether they’re political, for empowerment, validation, for love, or visibility.” For many, it’s a form of activism in addition to work they may already do surrounding sex and culture — such as lecturing at colleges, hosting workshops, and writing.

Queer porn is radical because queer sex isn’t yet culturally accepted, Queen said. “There is so much homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny left to deal with …. Queer sex, depicted explicitly, makes space for queer people to exist.”

There’s also a case to be made that queer porn makes space for more equality in traditional porn as well. Oakland resident Nikki Silver, creator of NaughtyNatural.com, a website that features women who are unshaven, considers herself an “ethical” or “fair trade” pornographer. To her, that means paying models well and in a timely manner, being honest with them, and not pushing them to do things they don’t want to do. She said she knows her fan base (which is admittedly a niche audience) cares about buying ethical porn because she regularly receives emails from men asking how the models are treated and if they are enjoying themselves.

However, the most profound impact queer porn has had on mainstream porn thus far is in the realm of transgender porn, which is the fourth most searched-for type of porn, according to the 2012 book A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the Internet Tells Us About Sexual Relationships. In March, after pressure from queer performers, the Tranny Awards announced it was changing its name to the “Transgender Erotica Awards.” (Some transgender performers don’t take issue with the word “tranny,” but most of those in the queer community do.) For Chelsea Poe, a trans woman porn performer who recently moved to the East Bay from Michigan, the name change was a victory. Poe said part of the reason she first got into porn was “to influence mainstream trans porn away from using offensive terms.”

“Queer porn actually shows real representations of real bodies and of transpeople,” said Poe. “I get emails from trans women who say, ‘When I saw your porn, it made me realize, oh, my sexuality is normal. My body is normal,’ whereas mainstream trans porn is all about this overall fake look and faking sexual acts. Women have to take multiple hormones at a time, like Viagra, for months in order to perform.” (In mainstream porn, trans women who have penises are expected to be able to get hard — which is difficult if they’re on hormone replacement therapy.) When Poe performs in queer porn, directors ask her questions like, “What do you want to do? What is your sexuality?” She also gets to pick whom she performs with. Poe said she feels so passionately about the goals of queer porn that she would continue to perform whether she got paid to or not.

Darling said that part of the reason he makes transgender porn is to provide younger trans men with a “model of healthy consensual sex.” He grew up in the South, where sex education for trans people was nonexistent. “There was nothing. When I was figuring out how to have sex and what my sexuality was, I was on my own,” he said. “I’m lucky nothing worse happened to me, frankly, given the kind of risks I was taking.”

Mainstream pornography rarely features trans men. Darling said when he moved to the Bay Area and began performing primarily in indie porn in 2009, he was lucky to be offered two shoots a year, but attitudes toward trans men in the porn industry have “changed astronomically” since then. The success of his website has encouraged other trans men to start performing, and he said he knows of at least two new queer trans production companies (one in San Francisco and another in Las Vegas) that are forming.

Darling said that trans performers are activists “whether they are intentional about it or not” because porn is one of the only media in which trans people see images of themselves. “It’s really great for younger trans guys to see examples in the media, even if it is porn,” he said. The role of performers as sex educators isn’t really acknowledged, Darling said, but he thinks it should be. On his Tumblr page, commenters frequently thank him for being a positive role model. “I am glad trans men have such an aware person like yourself to look up to,” one reads.

Oakland’s queer porn community is a tight-knit and familial group — they share skills (like film editing and website design), appear in scenes with one another, and tweet photos of themselves at brunch together. When Trouble, a petite, warm, curvy blonde, invited me to meet some local performers, I was struck by how much they laughed, hugged, and told jokes. On the whole, the performers seemed very down-to-earth — even though they take their work very seriously.

Feminist pornographer Madison Young, who moved to Berkeley a year and a half ago after living all over the Bay Area (but primarily in San Francisco) for more than a decade, said living in the East Bay puts her closer to the people working in her industry. “I feel like the same people who used to live in the Mission and the Haight, the people who I would have been casting, now live in Oakland. There are a lot more awesome warehouse and artist spaces in Oakland to shoot in. That’s been a great resource, as far as location is concerned.”

The number of women willing to perform in porn in the East Bay made it possible for Silver to start her own website after years of filming for other porn production companies. “There are infinitely more people here interested in modeling,” she said. “I moved here hoping it would work and it really has.” When she had to look for models in other cities, she would post ads online with little success. “Here, between friends of friends and acquaintances, I’ve hardly had to do any active model searching,” she said. “People come to me pretty constantly. It’s not like there’s an endless supply, but it works.”

Nenna Joiner — the owner of Feelmore510, an adult store and gallery in Uptown Oakland that caters to people of color, and a queer pornographer who has also been recognized by the mainstream industry — said people are coming from all over the country to the East Bay to perform in porn. “I get calls all the time from people who want to shoot,” she said. “A lot of people are moving here from places like Portland, Baltimore, Colorado … from everywhere, really.” Siouxsie Q jokingly said she calls her Oakland neighborhood “Ho-Oakland” because so many of her sex-worker friends live nearby, after having moved from San Francisco. As queer and feminist pornography continues to infiltrate the mainstream industry, more people are likely to gravitate toward the East Bay scene, where they know they can find work and support from like-minded peers.

But despite having a growing community and audience, queer and feminist pornographers still face challenges in the East Bay. The Bay Area may have a reputation as a bastion of sex positivity, but it’s still lacking venues that are willing to host conferences on sexually explicit topics such as BDSM or porn — events that would further legitimize indie pornographers’ presence in the mainstream porn industry — said Kitty Stryker, a queer performer and writer who also manages social media and public relations for TROUBLEfilms. That’s partially because queer and feminist porn isn’t yet as lucrative as mainstream porn. Furthermore, the East Bay also lacks a community center for queer and feminist pornographers — the kinds of places that have helped San Francisco dyke and queer culture thrive, said Trouble. “We don’t have a Lexington Club, we don’t have a [LGBT health services provider such as] Lyon-Martin or a [strip club such as the recently shuttered] Lusty Lady. We don’t have a Center for Sex and Culture. But I hope to help create some of those spaces in the next few years as the queer center of the Bay Area shifts over to the East Bay.”

Earlier this year, Trouble was kicked out of a space after renting it for only three days — apparently because other tenants found out that porn was being filmed there. For the time being, Trouble is filming in an apartment bedroom and is in the process of trying to locate a warehouse or space that would also be open to the public for queer and sex-positive events.

Queer and feminist porn may not yet be fully accepted by the mainstream, but there’s no arguing that porn is an enormously influential industry that deserves more study and research. According to the porn website Paint Bottle, 30 percent of all data transferred across the Internet is pornographic in nature. What we view onscreen affects many aspects of our sexuality, such as what we can reasonably expect from our partners, how we understand and learn about our own sexuality, and what we perceive as “normal,” healthy, consensual sex. Perhaps no one takes this responsibility as seriously as queer and feminist pornographers. Their work may not yet be considered culturally acceptable, but perhaps one day, it — and the various expressions of their sexuality — will be.

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