Anything Goes?

[WARNING: This post regards some things which should be disturbing to many readers. Please proceed at your discretion.]

If you’re involved in this community for long enough, whether as a creator, a participant, or even just a simple voyeur, you will invariably come across some things that will shock you, and some that will even trouble and disturb you in a real and serious way. Things that challenge and things that truly offend. Or, as such things are known more popularly, “some real fucked up shit.”

It’s simply a function of how lumped together people of all tastes and persuasions are under the umbrella terms of “kink” and “BDSM”; there may be real distinctions between people and groups within those categories, but in a lot of ways we weirdos are stuck having to associate with each other, with even the ones to whose beliefs and behaviors we object. It’s a lot like being American, actually. A New York liberal and an Alabama good ole boy may repulse each other but they are, at least in one sense, countrymen. And believe me, the commonality is often a good deal less comfortable, and less familiar, than that.

In many cases, it’s a question of what else there is to call one thing or the other when they are most overtly joined in not being “vanilla”, which is to say, not being what can safely be called normal or usual for the majority. What do a foot fetishist and a furry have in common? Not a great deal in substance I should imagine, but they both can freak out the squares.

So unique to this “community”, to this landscape of strange and unusual sexualities, is the need to negotiate the territory with a little functional pluralism. There’s a bit of the Golden Rule in this, in a form that asserts, “Judge not the persuasions of others in the way that you would like not to be judged for your own.” I’ll return to this point in a minute, but for now it is enough to say that this sentiment is widely held among those who, by one standard or other, either are weird themselves or participate in the weirdness of others. It’s a good deal of “live and let live” with a dash of “hey, I don’t get it but good on you for being yourself.”

It’s a somewhat noble sentiment, laudable at least for its friendliness and its affability, and there’s a measure of solidarity in it too. It’s a reasonably good attitude to have, and it functions well enough in terms of preserving the dignity and humanity of our fellow human beings, at least for most of the time. Unfortunately, however, there are occasions when this sentiment is applied to a fault, and it is that which I intend to explore today.

As a kinky person you are uniquely challenged by the question of where you “draw the line”, both for yourself, in terms of what you are willing to welcome into your own sexual experience and fantasies, and, yes, though some would balk heartily at the notion, for others. What is good for people? What is safe? What is healthy? These are moral considerations, and ones which I think a great many people, despite their compassion and their sympathy, think very seriously about.

And before I get too much further into the exploration of these questions and these ideas, I should state very clearly that I believe that this moral calculus is indeed the sacred right and province of every thinking person. While I don’t believe in judgment for judgment’s sake, or in judging unfairly or unsympathetically, I do think it is important that we are willing to call some things wrong, when we are able to see true harm and exploitation. Without that, I feel that we would be every bit as lost and debauched as they say we are.

I have written before about the need to separate, in the popular imagination, what is kinky from what is pathological (such as authentic sexual sadism that conscripts the unwilling and the ineligible), but as I reflect on what I have seen this week, and what I have encountered not altogether rarely in the past, I feel compelled to illustrate this same need for those within the community to do likewise.

The case in point involves a young man [for discretion’s sake, all parties involved will be kept anonymous] whose kink seems to revolve around being a “homework slave” for young women in college; he writes their essays, does their assignments, and so on, for which he asks nothing in return.

The academic dishonesty of it aside, let’s suppose that this much is reasonably harmless, at least as affects himself. Let’s say he feels good about this role and enjoys seeking out the means to fulfill it, and in so doing he provides some measure of benefit to the “partner” with whom he engages. Even this much is certainly more complicated than that, but the purpose of bringing up this young man is not to analyze him or to put him and his desires under the microscope. What matters, is to look at what happened next.

[NOTE: The details here are a little fuzzy, due to their discovery revolving around an exchange of messages and Tweets on Twitter, some of which were deleted. The parties involved either could not be reached or declined to clarify.]

Apparently, the young man was unable to complete a particular assignment for a particular young woman and, overcome by shame at this, he decided he was deserving of some form of punishment. For a BDSM submissive, this in itself is not particularly unusual; punishment and so-called “funishment” often play a significant role in a healthy D/s relationship.

However, in his desire to correct the balance of his transgression, he elected a very extreme behavior which he wanted to be induced to perform: his suggestion was to boil a portion of oatmeal and pour the mixture over his face.

Now, I am not a squeamish man. But it seems it should be apparent to anyone that this is something which any person who wants to should in all attempts be prevented from doing, and that the motives to do so must be investigated because they imply a serious degree of mental pathology. If you yourself are unconvinced, let’s take another moment with it shall we?

Boiling water, so employed, would be bad enough, and certain to cause burns. The mixture, however, would render the substance not only gooey, but sticky, and this means that instead of the majority of it mercifully splashing away it would cling, almost certainly causing serious and permanent damage. This, again, could be bad enough if it were done to an appendage or some less fragile part of the body, but applied to the face we are now talking about disfigurement, and if it were to affect the eyes could potentially cause blindness. [TO BE PERFECTLY CLEAR, this is highly extreme behavior which would fail to dismay only a small proportion of those who practice kink and D/s.]

So we must, to begin with, try to see his perspective, and ask ourselves what it would take in order for that punishment to fit the crime. In any case, no matter what we might think of that would cause us to think of this as appropriate for anything, the things that would, in any world, balance that scale are orders of magnitude more grave than failing to give a coed the means to skate through her education. In short, this person’s means to evaluate these things were so distorted that they contributed the worst thing they could think of in order to square what they could only have imagined to be the worst possible thing they could have done.

It certainly qualifies as cruel and unusual, and if it had been at someone else’s behest we could safely consider them a psychopath. To go so far beyond the pale, to so exceed any reasonable boundaries with regard for safety and wellbeing, and to inflict such a terrible degree of harm is self-evidently pathological, and if it were done to someone else it would be abhorrent. But sadly, the tale of a dangerous desire is not where this story ends.

Apparently, out of contact with and unable to receive the reprisal of his choice from the young woman to whom he had given this perceived injustice, he went in search of someone willing to administer the same. Imagine it; again, so out of whack and so distorted was this person’s reality that he was approaching strangers (online) in order to get them to induce him to commit this grievous act of harm against himself. And, I am sorry to say, he found one, who reportedly was willing to pocket $100 of his money for her troubles.

Now, personally, I am deeply dismayed and disheartened by this. It reflects poorly on sex workers and their clients, it reflects poorly on the kinky, it reflects poorly on young women… It troubles and sickens me that such a thing would take place, that this person would be unable to get the psychiatric help that they need and would find not only a venue for a terrible extension of their illness but would be indulged in it by someone who took time enough to profit from it before laughing all the way to the bank. It is nasty, it is twisted, it is wicked, it is evil. But I’m sorry to say, ladies and gentlemen, it does get worse from there.

What is supposed to have happened next is that, among those in this woman’s circle, another young woman in the community objected to this, it made the rounds with many who felt likewise, a backlash ensued from friends and supporters of the first one and then…?

We don’t know. At the time of this writing the young man’s account has been silent since before the incident. We have backtracking and apologies from the whistleblower to the profiteer, and after a bit of gloating from the latter party both of their feeds have gone back to normal. And now what? Now I sit, writing this article.

Barring the even more twisted possibility that all of this is an elaborate “mindfuck” on us all, a hoax of some kind, presumably the young man is in a burn ward or (hopefully, at least) a psych ward right now, having to explain how he got this way, as he probably will have to for the rest of his life. The profiteer is back to being her usual self and not only feeling good but smug about it. The whistleblower has been embarassed into silence. And the catalyzing tweets were deleted, sweeping the whole thing under the rug.

So, supposing that nothing new comes to light, where does that leave us? What do we make of all this? What can we learn?

The first thing that must be said in response is that, as in the rest of society, mental illness, and in particular untreated or extreme mental illness, has to be addressed more clearly in the kink community. For all the dreck that you hear about kink being like or better than therapy, and for all that it is authentically therapeutic for the right people, the entire world of BDSM is not a substitute for mental health treatment and care. If anything, this example illustrates clearly how dangerous these things can be in the wrong hands, and when explored without conscious care and support, in isolation, without the connection to and engagement with loving and protective partners, all of which are conditions that apply in spades to those who are profoundly mentally ill. They are uniquely subject and vulnerable to versions of these things which are not just unhealthy or strange but which will cause them serious harm. You may as well send someone who is crippled and drunk to run with the bulls.

And those of us who struggle with mental health issues as a disability, who have the upper hand when it comes to managing it, we need to call it like we see it and encourage others into care when we see someone who is unwell, who is hurting themselves. We can’t let these social media tools become just television, with nothing but advertising, programming, and self-congratulation. Imagine the kinky social media universe being your only point of connection to other people and ask yourself what it would be like if no one just treated you like a real human being, and looked out for you when you were ill and confused.

The second thing to say is that we have to stop perpetuating the idea that this is all just a game, by which I mean that’s it’s just amoral playtime that exists in a vacuum. Kink affects people very deeply and very seriously at all kinds of levels and in all different ways, and you are playing with fire if you don’t have respect for that. We have to start saying that, along with consent and aftercare and all the other things we preach about so endlessly, what is inherent and indispensable in kink is at the very least a decent human respect and care for those with whom you engage.

And the third is to recognize that the InstaDomme mentality, which neglects in its entirety the whole of what I’ve just said, is more than just the offensive nuisance we’ve all come to live with it as. It used to be that a prostitute (because that used to be the only kind of sex worker there was) had to live in a town or a city and had to cultivate relationships with the people she worked with and with the environment in which she lived. It used to be we had to live with each other, and those who provided a service had to see and interact with their clients as human beings.

The good ones still do this today– they provide their services, they build a reputation, they participate in the community, they contribute to the welfare and the ecology of their worlds; they are upstanding people who care about what they do and what they put out there, and about how that reflects and feeds back on them as professionals and as people. But this modern incarnation, which is only achievable through the distance and disposability made possible by the Internet, is opportunistic, it’s shallow, and it treats the world like fast food customers; like hunger, that is just waiting to be turned into dollars.

And by the way, if you’re thinking that what they do doesn’t really have anything to do with the so-called “Real Thing” and that it’s not important enough for you to worry about, you’re wrong. Content creators and sex workers, whether you like it or employ them or not, are at the center of kinky identity and culture, and if you don’t think that feeds back on real people and especially the younger generation, you’re wrong.

What’s at stake isn’t just the fate of the lost ones, like the young man in this story. It isn’t just the “paypigs” and their money. The risk is that kink moves from this generation into the next as nothing more than another way to make a quick and dirty buck, that people use like a bad drug, with an attitude that makes it all just masturbation.

Please, whether you’re a creator, a provider, a consumer, or just a participant, please take kink and your kinky practice seriously. Don’t take it as a license to stop asking yourself if what you’re doing is good, or ethical, or real. Don’t use it as an excuse to stop being human, and to stop letting others be it too. If we don’t remember that what we do as kinky people matters, and if we don’t remind each other, then we’ll never be able to reconcile what we do with who we are, and we’ll never become what we’re truly meant to be.


[UPDATE: Apparently a third domme has been implicated and much of the confusion has revolved around the involvement of the domme who was originally blamed. Further bulletins as events warrant.]


© 2018

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On Gynocentrism and the “Male Gaze” in Erotic Fiction and Pornography

Yesterday I was in conversation with a domme about putting some work towards a project of hers, one that in principal I support, which revolves around providing erotic artwork and literature that caters specifically to the pleasures of dominant women.  It’s a noble effort, and one that I am considering being involved with, but our conversation raised some interesting points that I think are worth exploring further here.

She intoned that such a great deal of femdom’s representation is inauthentic, a sentiment with which I heartily agree, and she expressed the need for works that would address her desires and pleasures as a dominant heterosexual woman, specifically things that would focus on her foil and counterpart, the male sub.  She indicated that the audience she represents was deeply underserved at the moment, often relying on gay romance and porn because stories from within her genre have so little to offer in terms of this perspective.

Now of course, naturally, I want the femdoms of the world to have just as much access to stimulating content that arouses and enthralls them as anyone else, and I agree that too often so-called “female dominance” is just a subcategory of selfish male fantasy.  In short, most of the Philistines believe that femdom means “a woman’s gonna tie you down and give you the best blowjob of your life whether you like it or not, Mister!” I’m certainly aware too, and painfully so, that most of the consideration given to femdom is some contorted caricature that too closely parallels things like schoolgirl and naughty nurse fantasies.  But what she indicated was to blame for this unfortunate circumstance was the unconscious, conditioned artistic reliance on the “male gaze”, and that is where I think our ideas and beliefs parted company.

By way of a definition, the “male gaze” is a feminist philosophical concept, first put forward in the mid-70s, that contends that female representation in arts and literature is inherently objectified, inherently contorted, and that its entire exploration stems from a prevailing masculine narcissism on the part of its creators.

It’s a fair point that deserves consideration, and it’s a functional analysis, yes, but in my estimation it’s one that is ultimatly inadequate to accurately inform one’s perspective on this topic, and I would like to address some of the things the idea carries with it:

For starters, speaking as a man with what I believe is a refined and sophisticated humanistic consideration for the opposite sex, I object to the notion that a man’s perspective on women is categorically some million candlestrength spotlight that immediately subjects her to a harsh, glaring, and specifically unnatural appraisal.  It’s just not something I’m willing to be accused of.  It implies that my perspective is inherently incapable of apprehending reality in a realistic way and it does so solely on the basis of my gender. That’s sexist and it’s wrong.

Secondly, I reject the idea that as a man my prurient interests are defined by exaggeration, bombast, and hyperbole.  There’s a sense in these discussions, tacitly accepted by all, that somehow because of my gender I am drawn inexplicably to surreal misrepresentation and overstatement.  That implies that my being is inherently incapable of relating to reality in a realistic way, and that my senses and powers of reflection are too dull and befuddled to appreciate things as they are.  I find that an abhorrent insinuation, and I’m afraid I must point out againt that such is levied against me because of my sex.

In both of these points we’re not talking about the bizarre irregularities of culture, we’re talking about my systemic dysfunction as a human being, and that needs to be stamped out immediately.

But to turn back toward the point this domme was making, the idea that most of the work out there focuses one-sidedly on the female half of femdom, the first thing I have to take issue with is the idea that it’s society driven and that it’s some version of conditioned, unconcsious bias.

The things I write aren’t uncritical streams of masturbatory consciousness that serve as some Freudian release. I’m not playing out little scenes with paper dolls in my mind. I don’t emulate what I see in other media, I don’t write out tropes, and even for the cheap smut peddler that I am I’m not a hack. I write from my own abundant and unrelenting fascination with women and with female sexuality. I don’t write stick figures or sock puppets, and I don’t just write a story and tack on incidental features to give it color. I base my characters on real women I have known or amalgams thereof. I try to give my scenes, scenarios, and interactions verisimilitude based on the specific personalities and attitudes of those women, and I listen to my characters far more often than I speak for them.

And yes, those characters and the things I describe and meditate upon are unapologetically female.

You can say it’s just a function of my staunchly heterosexual male perspective, and perhaps that’s true, but I am, for better or worse, utterly enamored of the female human being– not just physically but metaphysically, psychologically, and spiritually. I truly believe there’s something special about women that men categorically do not possess, and it’s not something that comes from having been exposed to glamorous photos and advertising, it isn’t something I’ve been led to believe by lies and half-truths I’ve been told. It’s something innate that relates to my innermost values and beliefs.

And on the question of values, as a creator I’m also faced specifically with the question of what I believe is worth glorifying and enunciating, what is worth portraying and celebrating, and the question is important to me not just in terms of the characters I create but of what they do and how they do it because of the genre in which I write, and that is something I take very seriously. That is how I address the inauthenticity of kink and fetish literature– I do my best to write from my highest and most authentic place, and that involves being true both to my earnest fascination with women and to my sincere appreciation for the female touch and the female influence on what takes place in my stories.

Which leads me to the other criticism of gynocentricity: that it diminishes the male role to such an extent that any old sleazebag can insert themselves into the story, and more seriously that it allows a male passivity which is not only burdensome but actually lazy and exploitative. This is something I take seriously as well, and I don’t believe that any erotic effort should be produced with the kind of boys’ club, big-eyed spectator mentality that characterizes so much of what’s out there today.

For me the role of the narrator in my stories, the vessel of the “gaze” from which I write (whether it’s 1st or 3rd person and regardless of the perspective), is to observe, describe, and most importantly articulate not just what happens but how it happens, and the art of that is deciding how best to get that across. It isn’t the same as just pointing a lens at something and saying “here it is”. Building tone, giving emphasis, changing focus, all of these are specific to the way my narrator thinks and experiences and that is what personalizes the story. In other words, what’s specific to the male in my stories (whether or not they are actually a character) isn’t the minutiae of how they are involved in the story itself, it’s the minutiae of the way they tell it and how the experience relates to them.

I understand why that might not be such a thrill for a reader whose interests and pleasure lies in the observation of the observer I’m describing, and I sympathize, but I refuse to accept the idea that the self-abdicating nature of my gaze somehow removes myself, the universal male of my stories, from the equation.

And to put it simply, I find it hard to believe that the Philistines who want a cheap, easy thrill over some garish, inarticulate presentation find themselves at home reading my stuff. I’d like to imagine that they get bored and move on to the rest of the crap made for them.

In the end, I may or may not write something for the so-called “femdom gaze”. If I can find something in my consciousness that I can offer to the musings and thrill of dominant women who want stories focused on submissives and the experience of submission then I’ll be most pleased to facilitate that. But if I never venture in that direction I hope they’ll find something worthwhile in what I do produce, and I hope they’ll get the kicks they want from someone who is more destined to write it.


© 2017

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What’s Wrong with Porn?

Last night my partner and I came home, got cozy, and settled in with our toys and our lube to watch some porn together. Sounds hot, right?

It’s a fairly normal occurrence for us; we both like to watch it, and when we watch it together we like to mutually masturbate or have intercourse with each other once something gets us going. And most of the time it’s fun and it’s exciting, and oh yeah, it’s plenty hot. But last night we ran into something that in the past has been fairly easy to navigate around: the fact that, lamentably, most porn just flat-out sucks.

It didn’t ruin our night, but afterwards we got to talking about why that is and we arrived at a number of things that I think are worth sharing here:

We started off talking about how we felt like most porn isn’t made with us in mind, that it seems to cater (and really, to pander) to those without much sexual experience or sophistication, who don’t know, for example, that touching someone’s knee isn’t likely to evoke a heavy, gasping moan, or who can’t tell when two women aren’t actually all that thrilled about having sex with each other. It also, consistent with its reputation, either goes right into the deep end or it belabors itself with aimless buildup for buildup’s sake that doesn’t resemble real foreplay in any significant way. Put simply, most of the time it doesn’t feel like watching real sexual people having a real sexual experience, it feels like watching porn people do the porn thing.

And unfortunately, there’s more wrong with that than just my partner and I not being able to get off to that sort of thing. It also lies about sex to those people who don’t know any better, and it confuses real sex for those who are just starting out. Because after all, it’s not like we live in a world where porn exists in a common, relatable context that we all understand, and that’s one of the things that promotes such poor quality as well.

Porn is far enough outside of the mainstream that there’s no culture that holds producers accountable. They get away with churning out flat, half-assed, insincere content because they know no one is talking at all, let alone critically, about their work. They know it’s a ‘get in, get off, get out’ mentality, and mediocrity thrives in that climate.

We turn our response to flavor into cuisine, our response to noise into music, our need to be clothed into fashion, our love for narrative into stories and films, but while almost every other one of our natural instincts has been developed into a rich, complex, familiar world, full of character and criticism and humanity, our sexuality has been so repressed that it’s prevented us from treating its exploration and indulgence with the same respect.

So there isn’t a culture of appreciation for porn, but the other problem is that there isn’t a culture of creation for it either. What so many pieces exhibit is an obvious lack of discipline, and it’s hard to imagine an actor or director being interviewed thoughtfully about their method or their philosophy. It’s hard to imagine some pornstar equivalent of Inside the Actor’s Studio, or art school, or a master class. It’s hard to even imagine them rehearsing. There’s a congratulatory body that gives out awards, yes, but is there any equivalent of the AFI or BFI’s 100 Best Films lists? Or 1,001 Pornos You Must See Before You Die? Is there anything that would even start making the list and truly deserve a place there?

I’ve written before about the artificial distinction we make between art and porn, and about our willingness to settle for such substandard fare, but what’s salient about that to me is that nothing and no one enforces the current state of things; there’s no mandate in any form saying it must be this way.

Call me crazy, but I see the potential for a bright and glorious future for the pornographic form, and I’ve said before that I believe that the only way for that future to become a reality is for our attitudes and our level of esteem towards it to change. The only way we’ll have great porn that both shows us and validates us as human beings is for us to start treating it as an extension of our humanity. But the point is that that’s true for all of those it involves, from its creators to its audience to all of those who care one way or the other.

Failing that, we’ll be stuck not only with this hollow, inauthentic drivel, but also everything that it feeds back to our society. We’ll continue to have men, both young and old, to whom sex is something between a foreign language and garbled gibberish. We’ll continue having women who have to deal with those men, romantically or otherwise. And we’ll continue not being able to talk about sex because the image we promote shows something no one in their right minds would ever admit to participating in.

Erotic stimulation deserves a much fairer shake than we give it, and we deserve an awful lot more from it in return. For too long we’ve perpetuated an arms race between its denigration and its misrepresentation, and it’s time for both of those things to stop.


© 2017

Click here for more insightful essays from The SMUT Project!

Art “versus” Porn?

This week there is controversy in the Adult Content world regarding changes to the crowd-funding platform Patreon’s terms of service, which include restricting the creators from offering certain kinds of rewards (webcam sessions, Snapchat access, subscriptions to other services) and from funding certain efforts (website creation/maintenance, erotic video). The new TOS also omits a paragraph from the previous iteration which affirmed the value of erotic expression in an artistic context, and which explicitly declared such content an acceptable use of the platform, and it is that perennially prickly distinction which I should like to address in this essay.

[In an effort at full disclosure, I should submit that The SMUT Project has a page on Patreon, that we are a signatory to a circulating open letter that responds to these moves, and that the content we produce may or may not be subject to Patreon’s self-censorship depending on how that process is conducted.]

It seems that Patreon is the latest in a long line of those who would undertake the role of chaperoning eroticism in the arts, and while the effort is certainly nothing new in itself the modern twist is that its role is one of facilitation; they are not a governmental body dictating how people can be punished for what they produce, and they are not a publishing entity determined to curate a specific cultural brand, they are simply a means of connecting creators with patrons, which puts them in the unique position of being able to dictate both what people are able to support and what content is able to be supported through their platform. (This is, of course, their privilege. While the internet is a public utility, its services are not, and Patreon remains a private organization that can do what it wants to manage its affairs.)

Let’s take as read that I am not arguing for the facilitation of what anyone in their right mind would consider authentically obscene. To my mind the emphasis on strengthening the language against depictions of sexualized violence and the victimization of children and animals is some combination of low hanging fruit, red herring, and pushing the open door. What’s more it’s a tired cop out, which always prefaces these discussions, the assumption that that sort of bilge somehow comes with the territory of respectable pornography.

What we’re really talking about is a matter of taste– what is art, and what is porn? — and my question is: Why does it have to be one or the other?

We all know that there’s a difference. If you imagine one scene with soft lighting and violin music and another with platform heels and constamoaning you probably would assign them to different categories. But the aesthetics of it aren’t what I’m talking about; David LaChapelle’s photography is more garish and tacky than most porn and he’s still considered an artist.

What I mean to say is that something specifically designed for arousal, something meant to push one’s buttons, shouldn’t be written off as being without appreciable artistic merit. The point of art is to affect and stimulate the human soul, and I don’t think we should demand that sexuality be separate from that. Our response to the erotic is part of our humanity, and so is the way we address that response in others.

We have to stop pretending that a thoughtful, enlightened, sophisticated approach to life and to human expression is necessarily a chaste one. It’s bad for art, it’s bad for sex, and yes, it’s bad for society.

Video porn isn’t the same as cinema, erotic writing isn’t the same as literature, and I don’t know that either of them need to be indistinguishable from their more accepted counterparts. But I do think that they are both art forms unto themselves. They have traditions, they have genres, they have periods and movements, they have icons, they have practitioners great and small. And just because a good deal of what’s produced falls flat or rings false in the sophisticated ear doesn’t invalidate the medium, it just means it’s bad art.

I think if we started treating and thinking of and criticizing pornography that way it might rise to the occasion and prove itself worthy. Maybe if we treated it with respect it might really become respectable.


FOR THE RECORD: As I was writing this article I received an email sent to Patreon’s Adult Content creators by their CEO Jack Conte. It emphasized Patreon’s implicit support of its erotic creators and committed to working with them on a case-by-case basis in the event of a policy violation.  It also reiterated that the changes are meant to address the obscene and declared that they affect very few of their NSFW accounts.  I found it genuine and we will have to see how they handle things from here on out.


© 2017

Click here for more insightful essays from The SMUT Project!

On the Monetization of Sexual Content

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.


© 2017

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What’s Really Wrong with 50 Shades of Grey

Not long ago, I decided to crack the spine on the first installment of the publishing sensation 50 Shades of Grey. Now, personally, I should admit that the book perhaps did not have the same mysterious allure that it does for most of its audience, which is to say the inexperienced and uninitiated in the art and world of BDSM. I am, if I may put it mildly, familiar with the stock from which the work is drawn.

I also was ready to have been less than thrilled with its content because, in the interest of full disclosure, my own tastes and interests lie with the opposite dynamic; my preference is for the woman in the scenario to be the dominant one.

My desire to avail myself of the content and form of the work was almost exclusively to determine, being that the book has become such a touchstone of the cultural representation of kink, just what it was that the public at large thought of when they thought of kink, of bondage, of submission, and frankly, not to put too fine a point on it, what they thought of when they thought of people like me. I was also aware of some pronounced criticism from within kinky circles of the relationship dynamics involved between the characters, and I wanted to establish my own opinion on the matter. And yes, why not, I was hoping that somewhere in there there would be something I’d find arousing.

But the truth is I never got that far. The one thing I learned very quickly about 50 Shades of Grey, and I’m sad to say it was the only thing I learned, is that it’s bad. Really bad. Just incredibly really very bad. I mean it. Sincerely poor writing.

Most books, even ones that are fairly poor or that for whatever reason don’t grab me, I will hear out for 50 or 75 pages. I will give the author space, let them establish the form of the book, let them illustrate the finer points of their style and method, and really give it a chance before I start evaluating its merit. But no. Not this one. I really, despite an honest effort in good faith, couldn’t get beyond page 5.

And I suppose, while there may well be other things to address about it, that’s my real problem. That much is enough.

I’ve found routinely in my pornographic excursions that quality isn’t always the watchword, and this much is news to almost no one. Since the 1970s the genre has been almost automatically associated with ham acting, unbelievable plots and circumstances, awful writing, terrible sets, and in the last 15 years or so that high quality equipment has been accessible to the majority of producers it has also, in my mind, developed a reputation for being overproduced– overlit, garish colors, excessive production values, and so on.

It’s almost that pornography can only be called pornography if it’s trash. Anything of value, 2014’s The Duke of Burgundy for example, is “challenging cinema” that won’t exhibit too much for fear of too closely associating itself with that other base, uncouth endeavor, and even efforts like those from pornography studios like Hegre Art and Strapless Dildo flirt exhaustively with having been overthought. Erotic photography is artwork when it looks like anyone who knew what they were doing was behind the camera, and it rarely turns its eye toward anything more torrid than the glorification of certain bodyparts. The bad stuff that at least thinks it’s art, all too often, is made by people who apparently think Robert Mapplethorpe worked with too soft a touch.

And too, it pains me to say, erotic writing is often extremely poor. The published variety tends to fare a bit better, but anyone who’s browsed the laughably (and I should say, purposefully) antiquated Literotica looking to get off has waded through dozens of 400 word snippets, strung together by prose that could be written by a sixth grader, which rattle off incidental facts of setting and character before leaping headlong into the most ‘shocking’ nouns and verbs the author can muster before saying, “To be continued…”

Why should this be?  Why should you have to settle just because it’s smutty?  Why do we believe that no one with any talent actually stoops to that level?  Why do we indulge and perpetuate the assumption that art has no business watching people fuck and that porn has no business taking itself seriously?

To put it another way, in this age that enables to be more discerning than ever, why do we continue to accept mere pornography?

I’m not going to bemoan the fact that it spawned two sequels and a rewrite (bestsellers, all), and a movie franchise, and a line of sex toys, and that “E. L. James” laughed her lazy, inarticulate way to the bank.  I don’t even care that it apparently misrepresents kink and kinky people or that it has become synonymous with the more adventurous forms of naughtiness.  What bothers me is that it fits right in with what we’re already willing to accept from our smut and, because of that, for all that it’s done to “change the conversation” and “raise awareness” and open people up to new experiences, it won’t do a thing to make them more conscious, more discerning, or more likely to seek out experiences that are worthy of them.

If we all thought better of our pornography, and with good reason, perhaps we’d think better of our sex lives, our sexual preferences, and ultimately ourselves, and if you ask me the first step toward that is making sure that the next time you cum it’s to something that deserves your attention.


© 2017

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