Tag Archives: Tristan Taormino

Feminist Porn Visits Goucher College

by Rich Moreland, November 2014

 

Renewing acquaintances is a reminder that as we move forward, our wisdom and perspectives hopefully travel with us. In the commercial world of adult film where careers are short and movies are churned out with unrelenting rapidity, change is slow, but it does happen. On Tuesday November 11 at Goucher College in Baltimore, I had the opportunity to check in with a feminist filmmaker I first met almost six years ago, Tristan Taormino. Sponsored by the college’s Feminist Collective, Tristan’s speaking engagement filled an on-campus lecture hall.

Tristan Taormino Photo source unknown

Tristan Taormino
Photo courtesy of tristantaormino.com

I wanted an update on feminist porn and Tristan did not disappoint.

After chatting about how she broke into the business through shopping a proposal to make an educational film on anal sex for women, Tristan’s main purpose was to familiarize her young audience with feminist pornography. Indeed, I started researching my book on the subject years ago and realize that today’s college students may be unaware of the genre’s existence.

Tristan considers herself to be a third wave feminist because, as feminist performers and directors in the business today affirm, the second wave was heavily anti-porn. In the post-1980s when the third wave gave every woman sexual options denied her a generation ago, attitudes began to change. Today young women perceive adult film to be a choice and building a career porn is more normal than ever before.

The “Cinema Verite” of Porn

Explaining that performers get into porn for a variety of reasons, among the most obvious a love of sex, money, and a portal to another career, Tristan added one that may have surprised the audience, the combination of pain and pleasure performers get from certain types of shoots. Having written that feminism and BDSM porn often walk hand-in-hand down the adult film Yellow Brick Road, I could not agree more. It is, however, further affirmation that today’s adult film woman is in control of her image on-screen and if being sexually submissive or dominant is her preference, she feels emboldened to go that route without shame.

To emphasize that today’s porn girl can get down and dirty on her own terms, Tristan reminded the audience that she resumed her directing career in 2005 with the notion that she could remake gonzo, the “cinema verite” of porn, into a female-friendlier genre. The owner of Smart Ass Productions stated that in its earliest form, gonzo was “mean sex with a jackass feel,” really nothing more than a “circus.”

Tristan as Sex Educator Photo courtesy of Tristantaormino.com

Tristan as Sex Educator
Photo courtesy of tristantaormino.com

There are minimal production values in gonzo and the performers often look directly at the camera, bringing the viewer into the scene. One of the most popular gonzo takes is the girl on her knees in an oral scene, eyes staring up into the camera. In the overly predictable formula, lots of choking and gagging with the pop shot leading to the inevitable facial is the standard fare.

How to make that more female acceptable and honor the choices of women who like to perform in gonzo shoots became part of Tristan’s mission. And, she has been more than successful, leading a vanguard of women filmmakers who have scored adult film awards in what Tristan describes as “the best-selling genre in porn.”

Tristan honored Candida Royalle as the first feminist pornographer who “proved that women do like porn.” No argument from anyone on that. But expectations were limited. In the 1980s, Candida’s FEMME Productions held on to the belief that women wanted to see sex embedded with a storyline, what porn calls a “feature.” Today, feminist views have expanded.

A fan of “reality porn” where the plot line is vacated (check out her “Chemistry” series), Tristan believes that adult film is closer to the audience now because of the behind-the-scenes interviews, frequently added to DVDs under the title “extras.” Porn performers have “fascinating stories to tell,” she said, and “anything is on the table” in her BTS segments.

Cast of the "Chemistry" series Photo courtesy of puckerup.com

Cast of the “Chemistry” series
Photo courtesy of puckerup.com

From an on-screen perspective, porn is a woman’s world and Tristan reinforced that notion with the typical porn mantra that “women are the stars, men are disposable.” In fact, men are traditionally regarded as mere “props.” To expand their larger reality for the viewer, the feminist director also interviews them. Feminist porn works to change how men are perceived and today the “disposable” image is fading.

Reiterating that porn performers love to have sex, Tristan’s filmmaking devotes some attention to maledom rough sex. However, she points out that female performers choose what they want to do, often influenced by their personal fantasies. In this context, combining pain and sex is honored, but only if it is consensual for everyone.

Consent and Respect

In wrapping up her presentation, Tristan updated the feminist porn definition. It has expanded in the last few years. Here are some of the newest considerations.

Tristan's signature film Photo courtesy of Puckerup.com

Tristan’s signature film
Photo courtesy of Puckerup.com

Consent, respect, and a safe working environment, long-standing feminist traits, are more important today than ever before. This standard has reached beyond the feminist model into porn studios that may not necessarily think of themselves as feminist in that regard. Though feminist filmmakers take the next step by actively seeking the “participation and collaboration of the performers,” Tristan said, most Porn Valley cinematographers have not come on board with that.

Today feminist porn also emphasizes consent when delving into the power exchange that shows up in BDSM and rough sex filming. Though such images may be misconstrued as humiliating and demeaning to female performers, Tristan admits that she cannot control the way her filming is interpreted. The viewer needs to remember that every woman in feminist porn is calling her own shots, especially in the dominant/submissive scenes she may prefer.

Addressing social imbalances is more evident in feminist porn than ever before. Racism is one example. Tristan “rejects the way it [casting and shooting non-whites] is done in the porn industry,” she says, emphasizing that she welcomes “performers of color” on her set and puts them on-screen where they “have the power to represent themselves.”

By the way, a college speaking engagement inevitably bring ups one question from students: “How do I get into the business?” Referencing the runaway popularity of Duke University’s Belle Knox who is just nineteen, Tristan stressed that she does not hire performers under twenty-one because teenagers do not have a mature understanding of their own sexuality to perform sex acts in front of a camera. Belle is the exception. Tristan suggested that any potentially interested young person wait a few years and investigate the industry before plunging in.

In conclusion, Tristan Taormino stated that “the lines between mainstream [porn] and feminist porn are more blurred and movable” than any time in the history of the industry. Indeed, feminist porn is now “a movement, genre, and an industry,” she said, not to mention a career.

To contact Tristan, go to her website here.

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Deeper into Their Fantasies

By Rich Moreland, December 2012

“I’ve failed miserably,” Christian Mann says with a smile. He’s referring to his lack of success in predicting what his boss, John Stagliano, will like in a project. That may be so, I don’t doubt, but Christian’s name in the porn universe is almost as well-known as his that of his employer. He’s the general manager of Evil Angel Productions, one of the dynamic names in adult entertainment.

Christian Mann Photo by Bill Knight

Christian Mann
Photo by Bill Knight

We’re in his office in Van Nuys, part of the greater Los Angeles area. The space is nicely appointed and part of a small facility tucked away among identical storefronts common in today’s ubiquitous industrial parks. “E.A. Productions” is printed over the glass enclosed entrance. The casual visitor is hard-pressed to recognize that this unassuming location houses an industry mover and shaker.

Inside there’s a small waiting area; a receptionist sits behind a window-like opening equipped with a sliding glass front. Typical office waiting room, all that is missing is a clipboard so I could check ‘new patient’ since this is my first visit.

A couple of perky young women are busy around the receptionist’s seat on this day. My guess is they probably shoot a few scenes for the studio and pick up steadier bucks answering the phone and greeting visitors. If not, it’s an entertaining thought.

Unlike most professionals I know, Christian is prompt, coming into the waiting room to greet Bill, my photographer, and me. Very cool. Visits to financial gurus and lawyers often involve secretaries leading the way; for doctors, it’s always a nurse. No third party here. Porn people are hands on and laid back, all puns intended.

Folk Appeal

Evil Angel is the brainchild of John Stagliano who, some twenty plus years ago, patented an artistic and innovative style of filmed pornography called gonzo, a topic I’ve written about previously. John is a genius and highly respected in the business.

A note on gonzo is in order here. It’s an adult film genre in which a movie is a series of somewhat disconnected scenes focused on the sex taking place before the camera. In a sense, it’s a modernized version of the old loop. A storyline is essentially vacant, though some of John’s signature “Buttman” series have a loose narrative base. In gonzo, the sex is the reason for the shoot unlike other approaches that work the sex into the narrative. For Evil Angel, the sex is never an “add on,” to quote Christian. Though this concept may appear overly simplistic, it has made the company into a recognized brand name.

Christian elaborates on the Stagliano philosophy. The sex is greater than “the storyline or the production values,” he says. That is not to say Evil Angel eschews these components, they just aren’t starting points. Two movies in a feature film format, The Fashionistas and Voracious, are “very intense when it comes to those elements,” Christian points out. For example, Voracious is episodic, centers on a vampire theme, and is shot in Europe where the sex is edgier than the American consumer is accustomed to seeing. Stateside, a degree of prudery still reigns. Using a serial format, Voracious turns the soil (always pleasing to vampire lovers) for a new and interesting approach to filmed pornography.

Courtesy of Evil Angel Proudctions

Courtesy of Evil Angel Productions

Courtesy Evil Angel Productions

Courtesy of Evil Angel Productions

Christian emphasizes the heart of the matter once again, hammering home the stake of truth that keeps the Evil Angel model moving forward. “Our movies always start with the sex because that’s what people [the consumers] are first and foremost wanting,” he says.

In defining the Evil Angel operation, Christian emphasizes that the company welcomes diversity. John Stagliano does not “mandate a certain point of view” though the “common thread” of sex first remains. Company directors have a free hand, Christian says, but “John has to like it” which means that boring sex dies on the cutting room floor.

Within a few minutes of talking with Christian Mann, two words jump out: charm and intelligence. He’s no stranger to adult entertainment having been involved in the business for over thirty years. Video, production, sales, marketing, he’s had a hand in all aspects of the pornographer’s trade. Christian got his start working a summer job for his father who was in the print segment of adult entertainment. Eventually Christian’s psychology major paid off as his early years in the business were in marketing. Owning an adult film company was down the road as was a bout with the government over obscenity. But like many of adult film’s historically important people, Christian Mann is stilling trucking.

Along with his current position, Christian sits on the board of the Free Speech Coalition, the industry’s political wing. He has a libertarian heart like his boss. Both have fought censorship battles in the courts.

I’m interested in Christian’s view on the popularity of the Fifty Shades of Grey literary trilogy. Now that the bondage fetish is collecting devotees, is the company jumping on the BDSM bandwagon as it journeys through the market bizarre of porn? He is definitive: Evil Angel prefers not to respond to the market.

Once again, Christian returns to the company mantra. It’s unlikely John will react enthusiastically to a project if he’s simply told “it’s going to sell,” Christian states. (He’s personally made that mistake a couple of times. That’s where the prediction failures add up.)  Rather, it is John’s personal belief in the product’s quality that establishes the company’s image. Attaching a well-known name (performer or director) to a project’s sales pitch, for example, is no guarantee it will gain traction with the boss.

Of course, if a product with the Evil Angel name generates a profit, all the better. In that case, “the market just happens to agree with him,” Christian says. But there is an underlying secret at work. John has “folk appeal,” Christian reveals, an intuitive understanding of what people want.

I have no doubt that is true. The company’s red logo shouts quality and tradition. But I also contend that John Stagliano shapes the market. Like Vivid Entertainment’s Steve Hirsch, Wicked Pictures’ Steve Orenstein, and Kink.com’s Peter Acworth, the Stagliano name creates sales. In a pensive moment, Christian concludes, “John is the market.” I could not agree more.

Gender Blind

Among the reasons I’ve come to Evil Angel is to talk feminism in porn. We quickly agree that Fifty Shades of Grey and BDSM have opened another door into the female empowerment arena.

E.A. has a stable of directors who own their content and distribute through the company. Among the team are two active legends, Belladonna and Bobbi Starr. John Stagliano is “gender blind” in his hiring practices and some of Evil Angel’s “hardest stuff” comes from these women, Christian says.

Though I’ve never had the opportunity to converse with Belladonna, I know Bobbi. She’s talked about her struggle to become a director. John gave her that opportunity, as he did with another well-known feminist filmmaker named Tristan Taormino, who refers to him as the Steven Spielberg of porn. Bobbi has not disappointed the company, she is hard core to the core in what she likes to put on film. Incidentally, the 2013 Adult Video News Awards in Las Vegas are close at hand and Bobbi Starr is among the nominees for both Female Performer of the Year and Best Director, a result of hard work and a personal belief in her own creativity.

Christian comments about projects both women have to their credit. “If you didn’t know it was a female directing it, you would think it’s a guy” casting women in a submissive role, he says. Belladonna and Bobbi deliberately capture the male gonzo point of view and then contradictorily take possession of it, a characteristic of what I call pornography feminism.

But is this feminism in Christian’s view? Yes, he affirms, and goes on to suggest that E.A. directors “who are interested in dominance and role-play” reflect a modern porn POV that puts women in charge of the on screen sex. He mentions one male director who often shoots “high art bondage” and though the viewer might get the impression that he dislikes women, female performers “love working for him.”  In fact, it is often the women who “push the envelope;” in other words, female subjugation on film is often driven by the women themselves.

The upshot is a “new prototype of performer,” Christian asserts, who relishes working for female directors “trying to out hard core each other.” There is a downside to this scenario, he concedes, the sex can deteriorate into “acrobatics” that are devoid of creativity.  Finding balance is not always easy.

Christian understands the erotic perspectives of new century women. They are claiming ownership of their sexuality, refusing “to be told how they’re supposed to behave sexually,” he says. They’re insisting that their boundaries be expanded; they want to go “deeper” into their fantasies and this adventure includes the submissive and dominant sides of the role play.

In short, BDSM is now an “equal opportunity” playing field, Christian asserts, that gives women choices with an added benefit: accessorizing. In his analysis, that may be Fifty Shades’ real attraction. The story shines a light on “something that has existed for a while now,” he points out, the fascination with fetishes and role-play that gives permission to have fun with the attire, the leather, and the bondage gear. For reference, take a peek at a trailer for The Fashionistas or Voracious. Once again, Evil Angel is a step ahead of this curve.

Christian reviews what everyone secretly knows but few outside of the porn world act out. “A lot of sex fantasy is about power, role-reversal,” he says, emphasizing that men can be submissive to female dominance. Something, I might add, that many anti-porn people don’t take time to consider because they are lost in their monomaniacal vision that porn is violence against women.

“Part of a woman’s empowerment,” Christian explains, “and part of the modern woman owning her own sexuality includes the right to express herself”‘ in any role she might want. In relating the Fifty Shades phenomenon, Christian postulates, “When modern women are given the right to choose, they are frequently choosing to be submissive.”

A Final Shot Before We Head OutPhoto by Bill Knight

A Final Shot Before We Head Out
Photo by Bill Knight

Christian Mann’s conversational intensity is speeding the time away and before long his agenda demands attention. We’ve gone way over the time he allowed for me, I’m sure. But I can’t leave without a final inquiry. I ask Christian for a personal vision.

He sees himself as moving Evil Angel through changing times. Most important is keeping the erotic experience for the consumer at its highest level and the best way to do that is to market a quality product.

The philosophy of John Stagliano is everywhere inside this inconspicuous storefront.

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A Re-Visioned Pornography: A Woman’s “Right to Be Horny”

by Rich Moreland, September, 2012

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In her introduction to Pornified: How Pornography is Transforming our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families, Pamela Paul writes that pornography is “seamlessly integrated into popular culture,” creating an “all-pornography, all-the-time mentally” that is literally “everywhere.” Sweeping generalizations rarely take into account personal tastes, cultural and political variances, or in this case, alternative views on sexuality. There is little doubt that sex is commodified; in fact, it is ubiquitous in advertising and popular culture. But continued presence does not translate into unrelenting offensiveness. In fact, sexuality can be enlightening, educational, and a tool for women’s equality, especially when reconfigured to celebrate a female “gaze.” Feminist pornography is doing just that and Anne G. Sabo’s newest study is a welcome addition to the debate

In After Pornified: How Women are Transforming Pornography and Why It Really Matters, Sabo amplifies feminist scholar Linda Williams’ concept of re-vision and explores a reconfigured porn for women. Sabo’s book is a montage of female filmmakers with samplings of their work embedded in summary reviews. Following the trail of American film visionary Candida Royalle, these new century women are not merely playing on the edges of a man’s world. They have a message for society’s “neo-Victorianism,” a cultural condition the late feminist Ellen Willis insists circumscribes female sexual expression. A reworked feminist pornography is symbolic liberation for all women.

Re-vision does not mean revision, Sabo explains. It is not a cleaning up process, but a radical rewrite. For clarification, she quotes German-born director Petra Joy who asserts that “erotic and pornographic images” are not exclusive to men. “Why should women not create and enjoy films that express their sexual desires . . . ?” Why not, indeed? Joy wants women to target men as “objects of desire” who focus their sexual expression on pleasuring their female lovers. Joy believes feminist adult film captures authentic sex in a way that creates a different entity, “transformed porn,” an alternative to the established male product that carries a female objectifying label.

A Swede now living in Spain, Erika Lust is part of this new breed of filmmaker. “I see porn as a tool for excitement, education, and pleasure,” she says, and a very powerful one at that. I agree and share Sabo’s delight for Lust’s short film, “The Good Girl” which takes one of the oldest stag film formulas, the delivery boy, and turns it around. When the pizza is delivered and the sex ensues (not without some doubt at first) the female protagonist captures the standard male “gaze” and alters the outcome. By seizing the action to get what she wants, our heroine moves from object to subject, possessing her own “gaze.” The story can stand by itself, but Lust has more in mind. She artistically infuses her film work with an urban MTV flavor that is a tasteful delight of energy and sex, in this case swirling around a pizza box!

The opening chapter on Candida Royalle is a must read for any novice to feminist pornography/erotica. If nothing else, Sabo’s review of Royalle’s professional standards from safer sex to “content and style” is an educational primer. Royalle is unique. As a filmmaker she weathered the political storms of feminism’s second wave “sex wars” when anti-porn feminists excoriated adult film. Her political efforts fighting censorship in Feminists for Free Expression and her classic film on oppression, Revelations, preserve for the New Yorker a seat among the liberal icons of our age.

Modern sex-positive feminists package adult film into a fast-paced, music dominated product. The short vignette is their cinematic bread and butter. Of particular interest is the “cell phone art porn” of another Swede, Mia Engberg. Her question, posed in the Dirty Diaries collection, is central to feminist pornography: how do women “liberate” their “sexual fantasies” to escape the commercialization of porn that Paul sees around us everyday? Offering takes on that question, Sabo deconstructs film narratives, casting a light on the message of all the filmmakers she presents. This process is particularly informative in the Dirty Diaries series. Incidentally, I commend Sabo’s emphasis on the Dirty Diaries manifesto, an enumeration of the elements composing the mission of feminist porn. Here are a few that stand out. “[B]eauty ideals” are of no consequence in feminist porn, it is a sexual collage of any body and every body. The genre confronts “narrow gender categories,” encouraging “gender plurality.” And, best of all, the practice of safer sex is foremost because feminist porn supports a woman’s “right to be horny.”

Sabo raises a contentious question that is still a work in progress among feminists. The chapter on Puzzy Power films hints at this conundrum. The Puzzy Power credo prohibits scenes “where women are subjected to violence or coercion,” though “rape or assault” passes muster if the woman is “living out her fantasy” with someone she can trust to accommodate her desires. Sabo references second wave feminist Robin Morgan whose fantasies of sexual stimulation via domination presented difficulties for her though she apparently got off on her mental images. Likewise, Sabo mentions third wave journalist Martine Aurdal who frequently “caught herself in a role-play right before orgasm” that centered on “power relations.” This was vexing for Aurdal because it represented “gender roles” locked in a Paleolithic mentality. But one suspects she liked it. The question then becomes: Can women enjoy role-play if it means they are submissive and dominated? Take a look at Erika Lust’s two short films, “Handcuffs” and “Love Me Like You Hate Me” to get a spin on this question. Later when reviewing the work of feminist directors Anna Span and Tristan Taormino, Sabo brings up a another issue that is also divisive among feminists: gonzo porn, a method of filming often condemned for degrading women. Sabo lets us know that both Span and Taormino shoot in a gonzo style: the camera and director participate in the action. Character portrayal is abandoned and performers play themselves for the pleasure of the sex alone.

Can women like rough BDSM oriented sex if it suits their fantasy and they are equal participants in it? Can they actively support close-ups of piston shots, oral sex, and external ejaculations that might be deposited on the eyes rather than the belly? Tricky issues for a female cinematographer because gonzo has a male reputation dating to the early work of Evil Angel’s John Stagliano’s Buttman series. Sabo’s suggests that gonzo female-style is more about legitimating the voyeur in all of us; and those who are watched are there by “mutual agreement.” Fair enough. I’ve always believed women can have sex for its pure raw fun. Now that feminist porn is inching closer to the longstanding male gaze, gonzo represents a long awaited evolution for women. Like Sabo, I believe that it works if it is framed from a female POV, represents the director’s artistic vision, and is a legitimate turn on for both performer and viewer.

My interviews with feminist director Bobbi Starr (who as a performer is noted for her BDSM, rough edged gangbangs, and anal shoots) reveal that gonzo is her filming taste. Starr is open about how she does things her way and being male-identified, should that criticism be raised, is not a concern. Queer feminist performers Dylan Ryan and Madison Young (who sits in director’s chair on occasion) also relish the submissive role and are no strangers to anal scenes and facials. So, what does this tell us today about feminist re-visioned porn? Are women directors succumbing to an ensconced filming that appeals to a male fan base? Or have women, mainly through their indie companies, seized ownership of the very thing that anti-porn feminists insist is their source of oppression? Sabo introduces this question and for that alone, After Pornified is worth a read.

The organization of the chapters merits comment. Sabo reviews various movies to give the reader a feel for her thesis. I am a social scientist/historian, not a film studies scholar, so I appreciate her in-depth look at the narrative and stylistic format of film. Sabo sets off her movie analysis in gray print to distinguish it from the rest of the text. I found this to be an effective tool that enabled me to get a complete picture of her message. It is a boon for any reader who, like yours truly, is largely unfamiliar with the intricacies of film study techniques.

Sex-positive feminist porn filmmakers are making a difference in how a “pornified” society looks at modern adult film. Anti-porn acolytes in the manner of Pamela Paul will continue to fire salvos at pornography as intrusive on society and debasing to women. Give them their due and move on. Take porn, re-vision it, and in the process pay close attention to Anne G. Sabo’s newest book.

 

 

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Only After They Get Power

by Rich Moreland, June 2012

The following excerpt is from my unpublished manuscript on feminism in adult film. Citations have been removed.

Taking control her body and determining how it will be displayed on screen is the premier feminist trait in adult film. Feminist empowerment shows up each time a performer negotiates her pay, calls her own shots for the camera, and exercises choice. For the handful of feminist directors, giving performers input concerning co-stars, yes and no lists, hard and soft limits, and safer sex precautions are upfront and part of the package. This is not to say that male directors ignore these offerings, some are as assiduous in satisfying them as are women cinematographers. Yet, this scenario is not universal in the industry and women who are persuasive of their own needs are not the norm. The patriarchal hand of porn is firmly in place; respect for the female performer and director remains a matter of opinion.

An overarching view comes from feminist writer Wendy McElroy who years ago observed that industry males insist they value the women who are penetrated for the camera’s delight, though it is “a form of acknowledgement,” she asserts, “not a form of respect.” McElroy concludes, “women in porn will probably get respect only after they get power.” The genesis of McElroy’s statement came from a dinner conversation she had with John Stagliano and the late John Leslie at the AVN convention in the early 1990’s. I brought up her comments in an interview with Stagliano during the AVN gala in 2012. He assured me McElroy was referring to remarks Leslie made concerning a particular performer and should not be misread as an indictment of the industry.

“John Leslie was talking ‘off the cuff’ about his interaction with some women and the fact that he was sexually aroused by some women under certain circumstances,” Stagliano said, clearing up any misconceptions about his late friend. “In the case of that dinner, John was talking about some girl with a big ass that he was really interested in.” Stagliano believes McElroy misinterpreted Leslie’s words. They were not intended to objectify the girl and McElroy’s conclusion that Leslie had no interest in the performer’s personality was a misinterpretation of the conversation. Staglino backs off a little, however, to clarify the scene. McElroy believed Leslie did not demonstrate “enough of a feminist outlook,” he explains, and her criticism of Leslie’s words in that instance had some validity. But Stagliano adds that McElroy generalized Leslie’s remarks to account for the portrayal of women in all his films. “John had a huge amount of respect for women,” Stagliano insists, “just look at his movies.”

Among industry people John Stagliano is highly regarded. He is feminist-oriented in his outlook and actions, though he may not understand it that way. Stagliano’s support for women he believes are creative in their work, such as directors Belladonna, Tristan Taormino, and Bobbi Starr, bear witness to his respect for women. Stagliano endeavors to produce a top notch product and people are the vital cogs in his machinery. He understands the importance of creativity and teamwork in an industry that is easy to malign. “I think that human beings sometimes don’t appreciate the people that they work with,” Stagliano says, and he personally wants to find value in people. “I try to see what’s good, what it is they have to offer and treat them with a certain respect as human beings. . . . that’s the way I prefer to do business.” Stagliano knows that his way of interacting with people is not the industry norm. Undeterred, he holds to the belief that “in the long run I prove that it works to do it my way because you build bridges” in an environment that is stoked with “competitive pressure.”

The moguls of porn believe they respect the women they hire and I have no reason to doubt them. But female performers do not universally share that view. There is a disconnect between the traditional industry patriarchy and the women who toil to create the profits. Yet this separation may be more a reflection of society in general and not so much porn in particular.

Nina Hartley has a feminist perspective that is not far from McElroy’s point of view. She believes women are “valued for their ‘hotness’” but this does not necessarily translate into respect. Nina talks of female directors who must cope with male egos in the boardroom, men “who don’t want to deal with women” and who have “issues with women.” Nina indicates that for some men in the business it is challenging to connect emotionally with women, but such a claim can be made about broader society as well.

Veronica Hart supports Nina’s interpretation of respect. With a few exceptions, Hart does not believe that women as a whole are influencing the business of pornography. “I don’t see many women affecting the business that much.” She notes a few, particularly mentioning director Nica Noelle and Club 90’s Candida Royalle. Noelle’s “new spin” on shooting sex more realistically and Royalle’s “couples porn” are notable achievements in Hart’s eye, but their real business success is measured in selling movies, not the artistic accomplishments within them. Hart generalizes porn to other aspects of the corporate world where profit dictates a product’s success. “Business is business,” Hart begins. “It doesn’t respect anyone. The only thing it has respect for is the ability to make money.” True, no argument on that fact. But Hart adds that respect has another connotation that is closely aligned with John Stagliano: it is very personal and built on relationships. Respect depends on “the people you are working with,” she says, suggesting that it is a viable commodity shared among those on both sides of the camera. Hart remembers that as a director, she held her performers in high esteem, though there were a few who challenged her efforts in that regard. “I realized, ‘Thank God they were fucking because they couldn’t do anything else!’” “This is coming from a feminist,” she amusingly adds, “but I realized that people have certain abilities and just because they are in the porn business doesn’t mean they get my respect. You earn respect.” Hart elaborates on her point. Respect comes from a “pattern of being responsible, of standing up for other people, kind of doing and saying the right thing. That’s what gets you respect in life.”

I revisited for a moment McElroy’s assessment and asked Hart for her thoughts. “I think that is more a reflection on society than it is the porn business,” she says.

The adult film industry is not a business that labors daily in Middle America’s towns and villages and people are quick to pass judgment on women who have sex for money. Yet, they don’t always think of males the same way. In the public’s eye, Hart says, it is still “commonplace” to demonize women in porn as “sluts,” though she believes the term “has lost a lot of the stigma” it once had. She contrasts the word derogatory term with opinions voiced about men. “A gentleman who does it [performs in porn] is a stud,” she adds, “a guy is a conqueror.” Hart sees these definitions as a “connotation of who we are” as sex workers, of how performers are evaluated and presently situated in the industry. On the other hand, she repeats the old standby that “it’s great if you can fuck her [a porn girl], but you wouldn’t want your mom or your daughter to be one” still holds true. But she wraps the porn business in broader cloth when she states that, like it or not, the smut industry is a “part of society” and cannot be separated from it.

I’ve heard some porn people, most notably veteran Bill Margold, talk about the adult business in familial terms, the “Family of X” as he calls it. I pressed Hart to expand on the role of women in adult film and how that may relate to the larger aspect of unity.

“We are a vital necessity,” she begins. “The love in the business comes from the people that make friendships in it.” That sticking together is what Margold means, I believe, and what Club 90 illustrates so well. But Hart’s honesty takes a sudden brutal turn. “This is a business. We always say ‘Oh, the porn family.’ Fuck that! It’s not a family, it’s a business and a business loves nobody, respects nobody except a person’s ability to make money. The bottom line is making money,” she repeats. “If you are a moneymaker, then the business loves you. Right?”

Hart concludes with a position unconsidered by antiporn feminists and unrealized by the general pubic, what pornography can professionally do for women. “Pornography is one of the few places where a woman, if she wants to, can excel,” Hart says, adding that adult film women are in the unique position of being “in control of their careers.” “They’ve made their own choices,” she says, and “have a lot more freedom when they work in pornography than in most other jobs.” Referencing her personal work in the industry, Hart singles out her own successes. “I’ve been given an opportunity in porn to be anything I want to be. I can hold a camera, I can write, I can direct, I can edit and all of these things are very difficult. I can make movies because of porn. I can make really good low budget movies, whether exploitative sex movies or horror movies or action movies, it’s all the same animal. I know how to do that because of this business. I’m very thankful for it.” 

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Feminist scholar Carol Queen offers that today’s porn industry woman little realizes she is a feminist until she learns from “older women” that there are “multiple feminisms,” sex-positive the most formidable example. When porn women narrowly define feminism as sex-negative and anti-porn, its goal of moving women beyond a sexual second-class citizenship is lost. Feminism in adult film is about control and choice, and many well-known performers exercise both. Nina Hartley illuminates the feminist sex-positive philosophy with “my body, my rules” which enables her to “take responsibility” for her own sexual satisfaction. It is, and will always be, her choice as to where to place her body and who her partners will be, on or off film. Many performers, particularly those who have committed to the industry long term, would agree.

In the end, success may come down to money and its reward, power, but those are not its limits. Success is also about that inner courage and determination that builds a respect that all women are capable of achieving. Wendy McElroy is correct in her conclusion that respect comes with power. We know that in the pornography empire, as it does in corporate America, politics, and social influence, money translates into power. For a porn actor, however, power also means doing it her own way. The women of Club 90 and Pink Ladies forged a path for themselves that challenged the accepted way of operating in adult film. Today adult film women who insist on choice and control in the face of a patriarchal industry traditionally built on monetizing male auto-eroticism have achieved a measure of success on both sides of the camera. Feminists in adult film are lending other elements to the money-power continuum with a philosophy that expands what it means to be a woman and express a sexuality that in and of itself commands respect.

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Recognition of the Cameraman

by Rich Moreland, March 2012
A few years ago an adult film called Pirates (2005) and its follow-up Pirates II (2008) hit the DVD market. Lots of hullabaloo expended over dropping big bucks to make pornography. There was plot, character development, adventure, everything that cloaked what it was, fun with sex in a historical setting.

In the language of the industry, Pirates is a feature. Making it required lots of props, crew, industry stars, and hype in order to turn a profit. It’s a throwback to porno chic era of the 1970’s when films like Deep Throat, Behind the Green Door, and The Devil in Miss Jones carried a plot of sorts and the female star had repeated sexual encounters to fit the storyline.

Long before the feature, the stag or loop was porn’s showpiece; a short film with no real narrative, just sex, cheap to make and easy to hustle among a gathering of males in social clubs and fraternities. That’s how the business of selling sex on film got started. The first stags go back to the early 20th century’s Great War days.

The explosion of porn created by the VCR hit America in the eighties; a time of “smut glut” as director and writer David Jennings calls it. San Fernando Valley became porn central and America had a new corporate entity in the boardroom. The challenge was money. Selling a feature is no easy task and profit margins can be especially troubling if a huge amount was expended in its making.

Circumstances brought opportunity and old traditions were challenged. A new kid on the block emerged by the 1990’s: gonzo. The word entered the porn lexicon and today industry people throw it around as if it’s been a part of the business since its inception. It hasn’t and I wanted to know exactly what it is and how it got started.

John Stagliano Talks Gonzo at the Hard Rock

John Stagliano Talks Gonzo at the Hard Rock

Not a Feature
This I did know. Gonzo is used to describe any adult film that is not a feature, which isn’t terribly informative. The word is so ubiquitous now that it has lost its identity. Current industry people bounce gonzo around like a napless tennis ball at a dog park. It rolls around the entire space and all dogs play with it.

I always assumed gonzo was John Stagliano’s creation, but my research-oriented mind had to check with him personally to clarify the genre’s history. John is an industry icon, “the Speilberg of porn” I once heard a director say, and legend has it that the old vids of his “Buttman” Series gave gonzo traction.

I remember one “Buttman” episode John did with old friend Bruce Seven. In one scene, John is sitting on the living room floor in a hillside house editing film, telling the camera about the girl in the video who is doing her thing for the viewer. The tape continues to roll and John shows the visitor/viewer around his makeshift editing set up and comments on shoots that appeared in previous “Buttmans.” This is a movie within a movie because John will become director and performer again within moments. All it takes is that knock on the door.

A cute blonde stands on the door stoop and says she just been tied up by Bruce for one of his bondage videos and she was sent to John next. Bit of a reversal of the traditional stag film formula, handyman comes to the house where the housewife is ready for sex. In this case, the girl just shows up without rhyme or reason and wants to make film. Perfect gonzo: no script, no set, no cast; just another impromptu opportunity for the camera to capture an eager and naked female for “Buttman.”

This is the Stagliano genre and the concept is widely admired in the industry.

Doing Back Flips
Granting me a few minutes at the recent adult expo in Las Vegas, John explains how the gonzo he was “alleged to have started” came about.

“In the eighties,” he said, “all we did was try to imitate a TV show or regular movie. We’d cast parts, write dialogue and do the best we could to find somebody to fit into that role.”

Script writing was the challenge. It was like “doing back flips,” he said, “to try to have a story with a beginning, middle, and end with characters!”

He often had one girl to showcase, but in today’s porn, unlike the old days of the golden age, she’s not going to do all the scenes in the finished product. As a result, John points out, it was “not necessary to have all the scenes build up into a feature.”

Variety drives the porn dollar. The viewer wants a collection of fresh faces to feed what internet entrepreneur Danni Ashe refers to as a male’s “harem fantasy.”

John recognized that to have  more girls is always desirable but to integrate them into a storyline was unneeded. In other words, gonzo reintroduces porn to its old stag roots, ten  minute loops of different girls strung together independent of script and casting with one caveat, the girl will often have sex with the director/cameraman. The camera is a participant because the sex is shot from the director’s POV (point of view), especially when he gets involved with the model.

Other performers may be in the scene, but Stagliano does not leave the stage to them. He is arranging people, talking with them while he is filming, and might choose to shoot through the mirror in a hotel room so that the viewer can see the performers and the director at work; the action becomes a scene within a scene.

Setting aside creativity as a driving force in adult film, porn is about money. Stagliano collapsed the always prohibitive financial hurdle by stringing together his POV version of the old loop into a few hours of sexual variety and sold it all for the same dollars the feature guys were making.

Despite John’s downplaying of plot, characters, and the like, the “Buttman” series always had a loose “man on the street” theme, such as “Buttman goes to Europe” or “Buttman v. Buttwoman,” which highlights an exclusively female version of gonzo. The shtick was always “let’s see what’s going on over here.” To follow “Buttman” around on his adventures was like chatting with your pal at a club while checking out the partygoers. It had the flavor of a hunt.

Some of the individual shoots within a “Buttman” film reflect a feature. Characteristically, the final episode in the overall package might be a sexcapade that focuses on one guy and two girls. It has a loose narrative and can last up to a half hour, surpassing the time limitations of stags.

No matter its nuances, gonzo became profitable.

“I proved that I could be successful and sell them (gonzo shoots) for the same price” as features, John pointed out. “So people started imitating me and that made the business much more creative and interesting.”

First Person Reaction

In our conversation, John remembered that gonzo came from a specific form of journalism.

“It did,” I said, mentioning Hunter Thompson of San Francisco literary fame.

“It was a first person reaction to events,” John said, explaining that from a film perspective, gonzo means “there isn’t a wall between the performers” and the director. John puts the director/cameraman in the scene; his personality is deliberately part of the shoot. He emphasizes that gonzo is “a recognition of the cameraman” in which his “ideas” as composer/arranger of the action are driving the scene. The viewer and performer acknowledge the camera, John notes, the girl is encouraged “to look directly into it and be sexy.”

Most important, he reiterates, the shoot is “not a regular story” that touts script and requires a filming crew.

How does this differ from other directors? Some feminist filmmakers like Tristan Taormino hand the cast the basic theme of the shoot and stand back, letting them do what comes naturally. She likens her product to reality TV and invests time in filming mundane activities and chatting with performers, leaving the sex to find its own way.

A more traditional feminist producer and director is Candida Royalle, whose films have a more erotica flavor, and are based on the feature model.

Well-known directors like Michael Ninn, Axel Braun, and Andrew Blake work with cast and script, producing a mainstream product noted for spectacular visuals.

But John has created a different type of film with notable success. He emphasizes that gonzo has replaced the feature in today’s business environment. There is a drawback. Success has encouraged popular usage of the term to broaden its definition to include anything that is not scripted. “But that’s not really accurate,” Stagliano concludes, offering that authentic gonzo revolves around the cameraman and the creative ideas he’s putting into the scene.

I returned with a final question.

“Can a woman do a gonzo film?” I said.

“Yeah,” John replied, “from her point of view it would be different ideas and different reactions and different feelings.”

He notes directors Bobbi Starr and Belladonna, both work for his Evil Angel Productions, as doing gonzo from a female POV and doing it well.

Before we wrapped up, John mentioned Paul Fishbein and Gene Ross of Adult Video News as part of the story. I made a mental note the give Fishbein a call.

I didn’t have to. He contacted me. John is one of the good guys in the business.

Indescribable New Style.

“While it’s true that AVN coined the term gonzo, I will not take personal credit for it,” Fishbein’s email began. He pointed out that Gene Ross, who worked at AVN for 17 years, was the originator of the word.

Here’s the story from Paul’s perspective. The eighties saw the development of what would be called “reality porn if it had it occurred today,” he said. Accommodating that reality concept, everyone participates in gonzo. Stagliano began this idea when he talked with performers on camera and interacted with them as characters “playing themselves,” Fishbein explained.
The technique broke a barrier, “the fourth wall, but these movies were clearly no documentaries,” he added.

It was an “indescribable new style”and AVN searched for a way “to distinguish this new form of erotica from traditional movies or just collections of sex scenes,” Paul said.

The AVN staff, all trained journalists, brainstormed ideas. Finally, Gene Ross, an editorial staff member, offered up the term “gonzo” as a tribute to Hunter Thompson, a legendary writer admired by everyone in the room. (For the record, Thompson’s “gonzo journalism” heralded first person narratives with an upfront “tell it like it is” manner that ignores the polished effect of editing.)

“It became the industry standard,” Fishbein said, “and AVN absolutely deserves credit for it.”

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What has this investigation revealed about the state of gonzo now?

“Gonzo has come to mean more than I really think it should,” John says. “It’s not useful if it describes everything that isn’t a feature.” Pausing for a moment to reemphasize his point, John adds, “It’s not so broad as to include anything that isn’t a feature” which has happened in his opinion because “words get their definition from how they’re used by people.”

He personalizes gonzo in his final remark. There isn’t a name “for how I describe it,” John declares. His gonzo is “a personal reaction” to his craft, a type of expression that he sees in Hunter Thompson’s literary style.

Gonzo may be a personal application in shooting porn, but it is now global in its use. It is a recognized success story because like John Stagliano’s politics, gonzo is a true libertarian artistic method that has an “everyman” feel.

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A Triumph Over an Adolescent Male Mind

by Rich Moreland August 29, 2011

When I discovered there were feminists making adult film I was astounded. Not your mother’s feminism, I assure you. In my limited experience with the women’s movement a feminist was, when it comes to sex, not exactly ready to take on all comers.

My interaction with adult film was equally as limited. My adolescent male mind was focused on the action, not the value of the people who created it, their intelligence, their politics, and their art.

With little prompting, intellectual curiosity got the better of me as it often does. I decided to seriously investigate the adult film business. Rather than living with myths, or what others told me, I wanted to know the people who work in the industry because I suspected they were pretty interesting. This decision was the beginning of the end of my adolescent male mind.

Shortly after beginning my research, I discovered performers who identify as feminists—Nina Hartley, Madison Young, Bobbi Starr, Dylan Ryan, April Flores, Jiz Lee, and Lorilei Lee, to name a few—who are staking out their space in a male-dominated business. And the roll call includes innovative directors like Shine Louise Houston, Courtney Trouble, Tristan Taormino, Nica Noelle, and Carlos Batts, all artists in their own right.

Further investigation revealed I had only scratched the surface because no current feminist in adult film can celebrate her/his craft without paying homage to the past. The pioneers of feminism in adult film, actresses like Annie Sprinkle, Candida Royalle and their sisters from the 1980’s known collectively as Club 90, set the standard for today’s feminism in the industry. They surpassed all expectations of women who made their reputations in adult film. Annie with her performance art, Candida with FEMME productions, Gloria Leonard with her political activism, and the two Veronicas—Vera and Hart—deserve icon status.

So, where did this leave me? I realized how wrong I was in broad brushing feminism. Chalk up a feminist victory over the adolescent male mind.

In truth, I admire the traditional feminist movement for its political and social contributions in changing America’s cultural landscape. Unfortunately, a few decades ago the anti-pornography faction of the broader movement seized the media limelight, preaching an anti-sex, pro-censorship message while decrying the evils of porn. Thus a feminist reputation was created and shaped my reference point on the movement.

I was not alone. My conversations with Candida Royalle revealed that she struggled with reconciling feminism and her on screen career in adult film. She drifted away from the movement when demonizing pornography was feminism’s popular mantra before returning under a pro-sex feminist banner.

As with all movements feminism was not monolithic; factions developed over all sorts of issues. Some feminists disaffected with the movement’s anti-sex direction encouraged a woman’s ownership of her sexuality. They identified as sex-positive feminists and countered the movement’s popular belief that porn promoted harm and degradation toward women. These feminists supported a woman’s right to buy, watch, perform in, and get off on porn if that was her desire. In time, sex-positive feminism gained a foothold in academia and spread to adult film.

Though the earliest of the sex-positive crowd wasn’t real thrilled with Linda Lovelace’s talents in Deep Throat (1972), the film actually celebrates her sexual pleasure. Remember, she is seeking orgasm. But feminists wanted to see the narrative from a woman’s point of view and felt short-changed. Some were not opposed to Lovelace’s performance; they just thought porn/erotica could be made better and more appealing to women.

Beginning in the mid-1980’s that demand became reality and feminism found its place in the pornography industry. Today, the space they own is home to a variety of expressions. To give you an idea, consider the following samples: the erotica of FEMME Productions and Girlfriends Films, the mainstream films of “Porn Valley’s” Tristan Taormino and Belladonna, the edgy genderqueer performances of San Francisco’s Queer Porn Mafia, and the BDSM internet offerings of Kink.com.

Remember, it is all about choice. Everyone’s sexual expression is legitimate and never deserves to be stifled by anyone. So watch an erotic movie if you wish or a hard edge bondage scene if that is your thing. It’s choice and feminist porn celebrates that.

An addendum. Embedded in this venture is a celebration of women’s sexuality that has endorsed each woman’s individual pleasure, regardless of her interest in porn. Businesses like Good Vibrations in San Francisco and Good For Her in Toronto have given women the permission and privacy needed to explore their individual desires. And, no venture into sex-positive feminism is legitimate without mentioning the innovative art space in San Francisco known as Femina Potens.

So, I decided to tell the story of sex-positive feminism in adult film, seeking to discover how modern day feminists in the business got to their present state. In other words, how did veterans like Royalle, Sprinkle—and their close friend, Nina Hartley—spawn the likes of Madison, Bobbi, Jiz, Courtney, and the others listed above? The most effective way to handle that mission was to ask them personally and then tie their stories together with scholarly writings on the subject and the actual history that took place.

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I’m happy to report that my adolescent male mind has morphed into a more mature state and is now feminist oriented, at least the sex-positive kind and its vital connections to adult film. I credit feminist scholar Linda Williams with the academic insight I needed to figure it out. By the way, if you have any inclination to read a brilliant work on the ways to view pornography check out Williams’ books, especially her classic, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the ‘Frenzy of the Visible.’” (University of California Press: 1999).

In the meantime, I’ll keep plugging away and just maybe get all this finished so the story is recorded for America’s cultural history.

A final and honest word is in order here. For all you out there who excoriate the adult film business, I understand your views. However as you moralize, criticize, and vilify, consider taking a moment or two to actually sit down and talk with people who work in the business. As a group, they are well-educated, articulate, and very middle class. People very much like you and me.

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