Women in Porn Talk About Ethics, Exploitation and More

Pictured above, from left, Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals, Angela White, Bree Mills, Kay Brandt and Kristel Penn; photo by JFK/FUBARWebmasters.com

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Women’s History Month, celebrated during March in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. The month of March also coincides with AVN’s annual wrap-up issue covering the AVN Show, held in January at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Las Vegas. to see the digital edition.

If you think an adult industry trade show is an unlikely place to find fodder suitable for marking Women’s History Month, you haven’t been to the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo recently. With the rise of the cam industry and technological advances that have made it easier for performers to shoot their own content, women in adult have the potential to control their own careers more than ever before.

One place at the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo that offered ample evidence of the many articulate woman who are thriving in the industry was in the room where the trade seminars were held. Of particular relevance was the discussion titled “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” moderated by Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals. Here are some of the insightfut points made in the discussion.

Does porn exploit women?

Kay Brandt, director of the AVN Award-winning Babysitting the Baumgartners and its upcoming sequel, from Adam & Eve Pictures: “The women I’ve met in in this industry since 2009 are here by choice. … I do believe being a woman in this industry carries a certain level of responsibility, and that responsibility to me is making women look as wonderful as they can possibly look. And I’m not just talking about putting on makeup, but showing every kind of talent that they have. I look for girls who have acting talent and aren’t afraid to be actresses in front of the camera as well as really strong sex performers. I also make sure that they know they are the goddess in the scene, and it’s their body that should be respected and treasured and that they’re always well taken care of on my sets.”

Angela White, director of the AVN Award-winning series Angela Loves Gonzo (AGW Entertainment/Girlfriends Films): “I think our industry is shrouded in myths and a lot of those myths focus on female sexuality. People aren’t worried about whether men are exploited in pornography. Everybody’s worried about women being exploited, everybody’s worried about women being degraded, women forced into the industry and women being abused. It’s a situation where women are really seen to not have agency. They’re not seen to be empowered being able to make their own decisions. Men, women—we’re sexual beings. So I think that if you believe pornography exploits people, then you probably believe that sexuality exploits people. I mean if you don’t find having sex degrading, then why is it degrading when it’s filmed? What is it about the documentation of sexuality that makes it degrading? I think it has to do with the fact that we have so much sexual shame in our society still. I think we are moving forward and being a little more accepting of women expressing their sexuality and doing so publicly and doing so proudly, but I think we still have a long way to go.”

Bree Mills, Girlsway head of production and co-director of the AVN Award-winning Missing: A Lesbian Crime Story (Girlsway/Girlfriends Films): “Let’s be real: In any entertainment industry—be it fashion, be it dance, be it mainstream Hollywood—there are good people and there are not good people. ... I try to make a very conscious point in never hiding what I do ... to be as open and transparent about what I do as possible just to not add further stigma. So sometimes that means I’m either the most popular person at the dinner party or I’m the one that gets the most awkward looks. ... There are probably more women in positions of leadership within the industry than there have been, and the more that we can be out and proud and showcasing what we do and help support each other, the more we are going to be able to break down barriers.”

Kristel Penn, marketing and editorial director for Grooby Productions: “For me personally, because I work in trans porn, any time you’re doing porn that features a marginalized group there’s an extra responsibility. It’s a very tricky intersection. … I think porn CAN exploit, but I think that as a concept, where it’s consensual and everybody’s on board, I think it strips away the power to conform.”

Angela White: In this industry, if you say you have a bad day, everybody around you who doesn’t believe this is a good industry is going to say, “You need to get out.” Whereas if you’re working retail and you say, “I had a really bad day,” people aren’t going to say, “Well, you need to get out of retail.” …

Kay Brandt: I was in retail, I was a retail manager—I’m not going to say what store—and there was nothing more demeaning than coming to work in retail, I’ll tell you that right now. I’m treated a thousand times better in adult than I ever was than working for some major retail chains.

Angela White: In other industries, you can say, “You know what, this part of the industry needs to improve. This is not good. We’re not treating our workers fairly.” You can say that in other industries without people saying, “This industry needs to be shut down.” You say, “You know, I have a great time on most days, but this set, they don’t care about feeding us, or they don’t care about the temperature”—whatever it might be—people are like, “See, porn is evil.”

Kay Brandt: There’s just so much fear about people who are OK with being sexual, and that’s crazy. It’s just insane. The more that we continue to be like that, to allow that kind of behavior and judgment to go on, the worse it’s going to be for the evolution of our species, I really think that, so we ultimately if we are going to evolve to be better people it’s about embracing our sexuality and allowing the empowerment of people who are in touch, are OK, with being sexual, and sexual for a business.

Angela White: A lot of that fear comes from female sexuality; it’s about our society being afraid of women who are embracing their sexuality and expressing it proudly. And also it’s an industry where the women are paid more than men—at least the female performers—and we still live in a patriarchal society, even if it’s gotten better than it was—the feminist movement has made huge gains—but female sexuality is a scary thing and females, no matter what they do they can’t do it right. If you don’t have sex enough, you’re a prude. If you have sex too much, you’re a whore. That’s one of the reasons I got into the industry because everything that I did in terms of my sexuality in high school was criticized. If I had sex with women I was a lesbian—or in Australia they call them lemons—and if I had sex with men, I was called a slut. It’s really hypocritical. Because on one level I’m being criticized for having sex with too many men, and the other slur is criticizing me for not having sex with enough men. … There is an assumption out there that performers are stupid, that we’re in the industry because we were forced into it, that we have no other way to make money, that we’re drug addicts. Nobody just assumes that, hey, having sex is really fun. Wouldn’t that be a great way to make a living? Wouldn’t that be great to be able to express yourself … explore your passions?

Do you identify yourselves as feminist pornographers?

Bree Mills: Do I identify myself as a feminist pornographer? That’s not what I would put on my business card. I create content that I love and have a really good time doing it. I certainly strive to present women in strong roles and positions of power and to empower the women I work with and to support the women I work with.

Kay Brandt: Why do we have to label it? Can’t we just say a woman made it and there’s a woman behind the camera dictating what’s happening, who’s choreographing the sex, who’s imagined it in her head, who’s put it on paper, who’s gone to the executives or whoever’s paying for it and said, “Let me do this” and then put it out there? That’s big enough.

Angela White: I’m of two minds about this. Because categorization is really limiting. Whenever you categorize anything it limits it. And to define feminist pornography you have to define it against something else. So if you’re creating feminist pornography that means you’re not creating that evil mainstream pornography. I shoot gonzo porn for male producers and directors, and I still have a lot of fun. I came out of the Australian industry, which is far more identified as, I guess, feminist, alternative—it’s very grass roots. A lot of what I did there was labeled feminist pornography, and some of the stuff we did there was slightly different than the mainstream stuff that I shoot now. It was different, but I don’t see it is better or more ethical. I think the more important thing is not be producing feminist pornography per se but to be producing ethical pornography. And mainstream heterosexual boy/girl porn can still be produced ethically and with consent.

What do you mean by ethical?

Angela White: When it comes to ethics it can be the smallest minute detail, to macro and micro. That’s everything, from making sure that everything’s consensual—and that means the sexual acts that will be performed but also the rate of pay that people be getting and making sure that everybody’s being paid fairly for what they are doing. And it goes down to the small things, like are people being fed on set.

Kay Brandt: It’s just being professional. I know that there are certain circumstances where women aren’t treated great on set and those are few and far between and they’re more on the outskirts, because what we do for mainstream porn is be professional. … If you’re doing boy/girl sex and you don’t respect the man, you’re not going to get a good performance.

Bree Mills: Our goal is to not only produce great content, which comes from the energy that’s brought to the team itself, but also it is to build relationships … we want to have people come back. It’s just good business practice in addition to being respectful.

Kristel Penn: I’m not a producer, I’m just on the back end, so for me ethical porn starts with consent. … I want to feel the models are educated about what they’re getting into. … A lot of times models who want to shoot for my company ask a lot of questions and I’ll give them the lowdown, the things they should think about. And I’ll tell them, “If you don’t want to shoot for our company it’s totally OK. Whatever you choose you can still ask me.” The trans industry is so small it relies on community support.

In the question-and-answer period at the end of the seminar, one query in particular sparked thoughtful comment. One woman asked how producers deal with what might be termed “exploitative language”—especially search terms that enable their target audiences to find the content they want.

Putting on her marketing hat, Mills brought up TransSensual, the adult studio launched by director Nica Noelle for Mile High Media. “One of the great challenges to market that product was that [Noelle] really wanted to treat that product with respect and sensitivity but the No. 1 keyword is ‘tranny,’ shemale, and so on. So there was a great internal struggle,” Mills said. “You have to use the language of the person seeking the site, even if the language is not at the same level as it could be or should be.”

Grooby’s Penn followed up, agreeing that “there’s no easy answer” when marketing porn featuring trans performers. “We want to make sure the content found … and this is the language people are using to talk about it.” She voiced the concern that using more neutral terms “actually dilutes other search engine results when people are looking for emergency resources and health care. It … gets flooded and confused with our stuff.”

Penn concluded, “We have to keep revisiting this conversation over and over and over again. If the language changes, then you reevaluate. But you want to make [your porn] as targeted as possible.”

White brought up another hot topic: the use of keywords to market IR, or interracial porn. “In Angela 2, when I did my first interracial d.p. I didn’t want to advertise an interracial d.p. because I didn’t want to fetishize race, so I called it my first ‘airtight’ because I had three cocks …,” White explained. “But after I released it I couldn’t control the language anymore, I couldn’t control what people called it. … Interracial is a very popular genre, so even if you’re trying not to fetishize interracial sex, it’s very difficult to control how things are marketed.”