Photo courtesy of Erika Lust.

3 women porn directors on navigating a world without new porn

While consumption has been on an upswing since the world went into quarantine, production faces an uncertain future.

by Beatrice Hazlehurst
|
09 April 2020, 4:00pm

Photo courtesy of Erika Lust.

When Italy mandated a country-wide lockdown in response to COVID-19, Pornhub announced free premium service for the entire nation. In a single day, Italy’s consumption of adult content surged 57 percent. France followed with a 33 percent increase in engagement, and Spain, well, their porn viewership skyrocketed to a whopping 61. As of March 17, when most of the world went into lockdown, Pornhub’s global traffic went up 11 percent. A week later, the platform donated 50,000 masks to New York medics.

Self-isolation self-love: everyone’s doing it. Even sex toy purchases point to stockpiling (MVP vibrator, the ‘Womanizer,’ reported a 175 percent sales increase over March alone), and when your imagination is exhausted, there’s a plethora of stimulating adult content catering to every need and niche a mere Incognito tab away. While your clicks might be contributing to an all-time peak for porn providers, no view count will save its producers from swallowing a hard pill: get creative or confront destitution.

They all saw it coming. On-screen sex between strangers isn’t necessarily an essential service in the face of a fluid-transmitted disease, and COVID-19’s pandemic status all but shuttered the porn industry overnight. Scheduled shoots were cancelled, upcoming releases strategically rationed, and filmmakers found themselves facing unemployment with no benefits (as it turns out, the IRS does discriminate). Since, cam sites have been flooded with sex workers competing for online clients as their income stalls. Independent studios, while appreciating the traffic bump, are forced to find new ways to record intimacy or risk running out of videos.

So what might porn look like after the storm? In a roundtable discussion, porn directors Erika Lust, Jacky St. James and Bree Mills walk us through weathering the porn industry as women, whether sex on-screen is sex education, and what’s next for porn production.

First off, how did each of you find adult entertainment? What about the industry appealed to you?
Erika Lust: I was a fan of porn, but struggled to find something that really worked for me. Porn was very male-centered and most of the female characters were there to fulfill the role of the male fantasy. I felt very early on that I wanted to see something where women were more represented in the images. I was a film student and just thought, Can I make something that aligns with my values?

Jacky St. James: I was a porn consumer since I was 18, back when you had to go behind the little curtain to get porn. I watched a ton of it just because I primarily had a bunch of male friends and we would share clips. I had no desire to work in porn, but when my guy friend sent me a link to a clip that was very female-centric and romantic, I was so compelled to learn more about the company. I found out they were holding a screenwriting contest, so I submitted a script and I’ve now directed hundreds of movies.

Bree Mills: I was working in marketing for e-commerce sites on the music and retail side when I was headhunted by Gamma Entertainment. I didn’t have any intention of getting involved with production but we wanted to test shoot our own content after purchasing a network of massage sites that no one knew what to do with. They decided to give me the lesbian one because you know, token lesbian. I started talking to the fans, who were literally saying like, “We want to give you our money, just please make something that’s worth it.” So, I started to work with them.

How did you mediate the stigma? Society hasn’t always been this sex positive -- it must have taken a lot of courage.
JSJ: I can’t be a big sister to a special needs kid as a volunteer because of my career. Obviously, my family doesn’t support me. When I won my first AVN (Adult Video News Award) I was ecstatic and I couldn’t even call my parents because they wanted nothing to do with me as a pornographer.

EL: There is a huge stigma with it, even today. My mother is not really happy. I can definitely still feel my parents have a very different relationship to what I’m doing and who I am compared to my little sister -- she’s a fitness influencer and every time she’s on a cereal box or in a magazine my mother goes “Look at your sister!,” then I’ll do a TED Talk and won’t hear anything. As a company we had problems that other companies don’t face. Opening up a bank account at a good bank, or donating to organizations who wouldn’t take it. We also face severe censorship online, especially if we are talking about female content or female sexuality.

Walk me through your experience as women directing adult content, do you notice a gender discrepancy working in the industry?
JSJ: Whereas I think a lot of men might say, “Tough it out!” I want to make sure that the sex is consensual and comfortable for female performers — making sure anal scenes are shot in the morning, because I know the girl is starving. We know what a yeast infection or UTI feels like. These are still bodies having sex. I had a camera guy irritated because the woman’s breasts weren’t revealed within the first four minutes of the scene. I think it’s just this lack of understanding, like, we’re looking at the connection between these two people.

BM: All we can do is encourage better protocol and lead by example, that’s what is going to get more and more of the wrong people out of the business. You need people who are willing to shoot things differently and move past the people that are stuck in 1995.

EL: And that’s how you change an industry.

Have you seen any kind shift away from hyper male gaze driven, “Stepdad, Creampie”-type content?
EL: I mean this depends dramatically on where you go. I think that most people today, when you say the word ‘porn’ they think of the free tube sites online. But it’s not really free, it’s more like stolen-renamed porn. A film that I have that has a certain name appears on a tube rebranded as 'Big-breasted whore fucked by boss.' Lots of misogynistic language, racist language. Paying for your porn helps independent productions to keep ensuring fair labor conditions for both talent and crew.

JSJ: I’m working for a studio, so I am shooting and directing the content I’m told to and working on a tight budget because the free sites have created a world where your return on investment is so small. What ends up happening is, yes, I’m doing incest, but I’m making sure it’s not rape-y because that’s the only way I can empower myself. Like Erika, my movies have been rebranded constantly to, ‘Whore is assaulted by guy’ and it has millions of views.

So you think we’re slaves to free sites and the demand of the people who are using them?
BM: We bred an entire generation of consumers who grew up with the Internet where it wasn’t ever even an option to pay for porn. With Adulttime, we said, let's create a platform that appeals to people who are interested in supporting a certain style of content. What we need on our platform over the next year is to remove racist and transphobic terms. We want to make sure that we aren’t subscribing to that.

EL: I receive emails from so many different guys saying “Hey, you kind of ruined porn for me!” I’m not saying that porn can’t be nasty and juicy and perverted, of course it can, but just clean up our values.

How has COVID-19 hindered your production? Can porn continue in the midst of a pandemic?
JSJ: The adult industry has been so great about swiftly acting when anything could affect our industry health-wise, but there was a lot of confusion pertaining to Coronavirus. I cancelled all of my shoots and as of this moment, I have nothing on the books and will be without income until the quarantine is lifted. Sadly, the US Government will not be providing any funding to people in the industry, apparently the government can discriminate against people doing legal work -- even those who pay taxes. I will be focusing on screenwriting and creatively sourcing ways to make any kind of income.

BM: When it became clear that the coronavirus was a pandemic, we put a temporary suspension in place for all our physical productions and decided to stretch our inventory to last several months longer than planned, while actively working on alternative programming to keep our release schedule interesting. This includes live series we can record with performers from the safety of their homes and commissioning custom projects from industry people who either live alone or with each other so that they shoot content while still remaining in isolation.

EL: My shoots have been postponed, but thankfully we work quite far ahead in production so we can keep up with our release schedule for the next six months. I'm also currently collaborating with six performers on a “Sex and Love in times of COVID-19 film, a mix of individual performers and couples will shoot some playful sex scenes by themselves… then we'll edit them and make it into a movie.

How do you hope the virus will affect porn? What, if anything, might be its lasting impact?
JSJ: The lasting impact could be devastating for some companies. I am afraid smaller companies will not be able to survive the total halt to production.

EL: I hope this emergency will lead adult cinema productions to be even more responsible when it comes to performers' health and medical situation. It's actually essential to take care of their condition, history and limits, before shooting a film. I hope an open conversation will be encouraged in order to create a trusted sex environment on set, in which performers can feel that their safety and agency are a priority. Also, now that sex workers are financially vulnerable as many other professionals, I wish the audience would open their eyes to the fact that sex work is a real job, which deserves to be paid.

BM: What will be new is the potential addition is testing for COVID-19 for anyone working on a set, as well as talent. I also believe the current hold in traditional production will pave the way for continued growth in alternative forms of content creation: camming, customs and self-shot clips. What will be new are the professional studios adapting their productions to be more inclusive of working with talent not just as performers, but creators.

I believe it has given us a big reality check on how we treat each other. On our video and social media comments there has been a real reduction in negativity and judgement.

I’m going to leave this over to you three, what would you most like to ask each other?
JSJ: I got really rude responses recently doing something for NPR saying I didn’t think it was porn’s responsibility to provide sex education. I’m curious to hear what both of you think, should we be thinking about how that’s going to be impacting those watching?

BM: Whether we should be responsible for it or not, I think that porn is absolutely the primary source of sex education today. Because of larger systemic issues we don’t take sex and sexuality seriously -- we put so much stigma around it which causes so many problems. If this is people’s exposure to sex then all we can do as content creators is make better content. Maybe we won’t have as many suicides or mental health issues, if we just actually dealt with sex.

EL: I try to do gender analysis on my script and on my characters, but you can only be responsible for what you are doing as a creator, and understand that you can’t be responsible for all the porn that’s out there. We all have to acknowledge that porn today has become mass media. Most young people, when they don’t have access to correct sex education, will go out and practice exaggerated, fictional sex. It’s complicated to get to know another person’s body, and to find that chemistry together. In the end, I think it’s about better sex education, and daring to start to talk more about intimacy.

Adult content creators and performers are among the many currently facing immense financial stress. You can support them by subscribing to their personal cam channels via social media and if you can afford to pay for your porn, please do.

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