This week supposed Feminist porn paradise Bellesa got in trouble with Adult content creators because, despite billing themselves as an ethical, forward thinking, and (importantly) grassroots platform for sex positive, pro-woman pornography, and despite being steeped in self-congratulatory media fanfare, it was found that a great deal of its content, particularly its featured content, was actually pirated content from studios. Moreover it was reported by some that the site failed to properly credit those involved, and it also appears that the company had failed to avail themselves of affiliate programs that would enable the original content producers to share in the benefits of the traffic to that content via Bellesa’s platform.
The site is, albeit with more pomp and branding, a glorified tube site, and you don’t have to look far to find Adult content creators emphatically decrying the existence and popularity of the Web 2.0 model’s salacious extension. They cry “exploitation!”, they cry “violation!”, they cry “theft!”, and it’s easy to see where they’re coming from. Too often they have to remind people that their efforts aren’t just a means for getting people off, it’s how they actually make their living.
It should be said immediately that yes, creative professionals in the Adult industry deserve to profit from their endeavors, they deserve to profit solely (excepting those with whom they have entered into formal agreements), and they are entitled to reap the benefits of engagement with their content, even if those benefits are not directly monetized. Bellesa for example does not include ads on their pages and they do not offer paid subscriptions, so it’s a mystery to me how they’re currently making their money, but there’s nothing stopping them from doing either of those things and, in this modern age where traffic and engagement equal business viability, if they were to enter into any other profitable arrangement to monetize their platform they would have a bargaining position that rightfully belongs with the creators.
In a well-articulated article from 2015, Queer producer and performer Jiz Lee (who has helped spearhead the backlash against Bellesa on Twitter) spoke for much of the industry when they laid out the case against “free” porn or, rather, free access to paid porn, and it’s a valid one. In summary, paid studios rely on the money they make not only to remain profitable and to continue producing content, but also to treat their performers ethically and to comply with laws that govern their industry; paperwork regarding STD and STI testing, age certification, and so on.
But unfortunately, while the case has merit, and while there are plenty of stand-up, independent, hard working studios that are worthy of support and yes, even reward, for the content they produce, I believe that little will change for a long while regarding the consumption of erotic content, for several reasons which have nothing whatever to do with piracy and its supposedly compromised ethics:
For starters, we live in a culture that is so abhorrently, pathetically ashamed of our relationship to erotic media (you only have to hear the tired old joke about clearing one’s browser history for the umpteenth time) that it promotes a furtive, skeevy, back-alley way of dealing with the content in the first place. The prevailing attitudes toward an engagement with sex and sexual media turn such a great many of us into scavengers, lurking on the periphery, trying to sneak in, get off, and get out as quickly as possible. How likely is someone to make a wise and ethical purchase of any kind when the overarching goal is to make sure that no one knew they were ever there in the first place? How likely are they to tie something like their credit card to the experience, however discreetly the charges may appear on their statements, when they couldn’t bear to have themselves associated with it at all?
The second major obstacle is related to the first, and while I agree it’s one of attitude I don’t think it’s quite the one I’ve seen presented; I think the prevailing relationship that most people have toward pornography, when they can bear thinking of themselves as having a relationship to it at all, is an abstract one. Essentially, when most people browse and engage with erotic material, especially with the breadth and variety on offer, the only things they’re conscious of are 1) whether or not they respond to it and 2) whether there’s something within a few clicks that they will respond to more, and then by the time it’s over they’re moving on to something else. Content creators are asking them to have a more practical relationship with the media they engage with, a relationship that recognizes it as something that is as involved in the fabric of their lives as any other media, which I agree would be a good thing but which I also think is unlikely due the compartmentalized nature of most people’s relationship to sexuality in general, let alone porn.
I think these two points are sufficient to indicate that the problem is not that we live in a freeloading culture that is determined to exploit anyone in a sexual role, it’s that we live in a society that is hell-bent on making sure that no one think of erotic content as a part of their real and regular lives.
It’s a long shot, I know, to the point of being laughable, but what if we lived in a world where we were able to relate to this material as candidly and as avidly as we relate to music, books, movies, and TV shows? What if we celebrated and benefited its creators? What if we criticized, analyzed, and shared our thoughts and feelings about it openly? What if we could actually call ourselves fans of it and of the people involved, in the unashamed way that people do with almost anything else? It may seem like this attitude is impossible, and that may very well be the case, but the distance between the world I’ve just described and the one that pornography exists in now should tell you a lot about why people don’t spend the money they should to support it.
But another reason I don’t think much will change without a considerable shift in attitudes and perspective, and I’m sure it’s one that most Adult content creators will be reluctant to hear, is that painfully often, for most people, the cost is simply too high. Personally, I have paid and I was happy to, but it was to a site that offered a quite significant amount in return for my yearly subscription. Many of the creators who groan most loudly about tube sites, and those most susceptible to being ripped off by them, are the ones who are still married to the $1/minute Clips4Sale model that prevailed 15 years ago. Why, in this age when one of the most popular and profitable media companies on the planet offers unlimited streaming of literally thousands of titles for, at most, $12/month, should porn producers think that many people will pay $1/minute for anything? I know that not every content creator is capable of running their business the way Netflix does, but that ratio of cost to benefit is what has come to prevail, and I can say categorically that the age of tiny little studios churning out 15 minute clips for $15 a pop is over.
Furthermore, the average consumer who gives their money to the likes of Spotify and Netflix has an existing relationship to the content to which those services enable access that many porn producers seem to do everything in their power to prevent. Simply enough, people already know they like the movies, TV shows, and music on offer, and they are willing to pay for a service that streamlines their ability to interact with them. But another antiquated attitude that so many porn studios have toward their customers is that they can hide everything away and charge a fee at the door before their customers have been able to make up their minds about what the studios have to offer. The most successful media business models today don’t force people to take their word for it that the content they provide is worth anything, they let them make those judgments separately and then get paid after that has been established.
There is also a short-sighted mentality that declares, “If it’s not inside my paywall it does me no good.” But one only needs to look at the success of a real sex positive, pro-woman, Feminist platform, Suicide Girls, to see that that is far from the case. They would be nowhere if they had pulled out the DMCA takedown requests every time someone outside of their domain posted their content, and if anything it has drawn enormous amounts of traffic (paying traffic I’ll add) to where it ought to be going. What’s more, when that traffic landed on their site there was a good offer waiting, and between that attitude and their production of books and other media objects, their merchandising, their touring Burlesque show, I would say that Suicide Girls is an exceptional example of how a smutty business should run in the 21st century.
Ultimately, I think the world will continue to be a difficult place for Adult content creators until we and society can find common ground, and I think expanding the conversation and continuing to work towards a more open, sex positive society is the first step towards that, but maybe if at the same time we were more realistic about the way our culture relates to the frankly massive amount of media in general, and who knows, maybe even tried to be more creative about how we carve out a niche within that, we wouldn’t have to talk about our audience like they were miserable pariahs, or thieves.
FOR THE RECORD: As I was finishing this article I found that Bellesa has announced a complete redesign of their video section and is vowing to partner with studios whose content they feature from here on out. You can read their CEO’s entire statement here.