As feminists fight to expand the frontiers of sexuality beyond the one-size-fits all, bland world of lad-mag culture, do ‘alternative porn’ sites have something to offer the feminist cause – or are they the same old objectification with extra tattoos? Jessica Bateman discusses some of the possible pros and cons of ‘alt-porn’.
The debate as to whether pornography can ever be feminist is certainly nothing new. In fact, many would say that it has long been the one issue that has divided the women’s movement the most. On the one hand, there are supporters of classic feminist texts, such as Andrea Dworkin’s ‘Pornography’, who see porn as a glorification of violence against women, and on the other hand those who describe themselves as ‘sex positive’ and oppose the prohibition of porn, such as the ‘Feminists Against Censorship’ group.
In recent years, the debate seems to have had something of a resurgence, with texts such as Ariel Levy’s book Female Chauvinist Pigs calling into question the ‘pornoisation’ of culture. One phenomenon which has no doubt played a role in bringing the issue back to the centre of the women’s movement is the rise and rise of ‘alterna porn’, or ‘alt-porn’ (Wikipedia definition here). Mostly internet-based, this genre features women (and sometimes men – or even those who do not define as a particular gender) from alternative sub-cultures, often with body modifications, getting ‘down and dirty’ for the cameras.
Whilst many see this as nothing more than hustler with green hair and a lip ring, the sites have plenty of fans who herald them as a new expression of feminist-friendly, positive and creative pornography. Sceptical that this may all be a clever marketing ploy, drawing in the rock and emo kids who want porn that goes with their music, I decided to take a closer look at one of the sites for myself.
I could have chosen any – there are a growing number of sites around, from nofauxxx.com (“Hot radical porn made by ladies, queers, and artists from all over the world!… Artistic, political and all inclusive, featuring models of all genders and sizes”), nakkidnerds.com (“your one stop shop for naked nerdy chix, and geeky girls getting frisky”), inkygirls.com (“real girls with real tattoos”), or even vegporn.com (“sex positive indie porn made by vegans and vegetarians”), to name but a few. However, arguably the largest and most well known of the ‘alterna-porn’ sites, discussed in U.S. feminist magazines like Bust and Bitch, is Suicide Girls. As a case study of alt-porn it seems appropriate to examine this site in more detail. First I’ll look at the possible positive aspects of this site as an example of the alt-porn genre, and then will go on to look at some of the possible negative aspects.
Logging onto suicidegirls.com, I browse around the pink and prettily-designed site before clicking on the banner that screams JOIN NOW FOR AS LITTLE AS £4!!! Feeling ever-so-slightly like I just sold my soul to Hugh Hefner in drainpipe jeans and a studded belt, I browse through the site’s goods to see what they really have to offer.
Suicidegirls.com first came to life in 2001, when its founders, Missy and Sean, claimed to be fed up with not being able to find any alternative-looking women in mainstream pornography. Missy, who was also the first photographer for the site, says that she had been interested in vintage Betty Page-style pin-up art for a long time beforehand and wanted to recreate those type of photographs with ‘the most crush-worthy girls we could find on the planet.’ Despite the fact that this stance is still taking the sexist view that the way women look is the most important thing about them, I have to say that the idea of giving more different-looking girls some attention does appeal to me.
Growing up in a small town listening to metal and punk music and ‘experimenting’ – sometimes successfully, sometimes not – with my hair and clothes, I’d felt alienated as a teenager by the role models on offer to me. I was not (and still am not) blonde, big-chested and fake tanned, and nor did I aspire to be. I had some heroes – Courtney Love, Siouxsie Sioux, Tairrie B, Christina Ricci – but had still felt starved of any real ‘alternatives’ to the fake, pre-packaged model of femininity that I had been over-exposed to. The fact that suicidegirls offers something other than the bland britney carbon copy that litters our media is something in itself that explains its popularity with females as well as males – it offers something in popular culture for the kids who are fed up with the ‘page 3’ vision of womanhood.
Before looking at the photos and videos themselves, I browse through the profile pages and online journals of the models. They all have one filled out, but rather than the typical ‘What I look for in a man’ and ‘What I like in bed’ questions that the women featured in magazines like playboy and FHM would be asked, they list their favourite bands, artists, authors and films, as well as their general interests. Although there are some sexually orientated profile questions such as ‘I lost my virginity…’ they are often followed by witty, tongue-in-cheek replies.
The models’ blogs, especially, provide a lot of funny and intelligent writing that is often a real pleasure to read. When Missy says of the models ‘their beauty is in their individuality’ it can seem laughable when many have identical tattoos, but when reading their journals it can’t be denied that their individual characters and personalities really do come across genuine and raw, not clean and sanitised like the women in most mainstream pornography. Through their individual pages the models are presented as real thinking, feeling, breathing beings rather than just sex objects, with the freedom to mouth off about what’s bothering them, post their own poetry or perhaps just muse about the benefits of salsa dip versus garlic mayonnaise.
Another well-documented feature of Suicide Girls is the online community that it boasts. Members have profiles just like the models and all of them can interact on the sites’ various message boards and special interest ‘groups’, whether it’s to discuss current events, music, plan real-life meet-ups or simply to amuse themselves with banter and silliness. Most of the models join in with the conversations and attend meets offline with the members, striking up friendships and networking opportunities.
While their interaction with the paying members may have the potential to turn sour and attract unwanted attention, people seem very much aware of this and new members are usually only allowed to attend real-life meets after they have been vetted by others, and meets are always held in public places. Any member who insults, intimidates or makes a derogatory comment about a Suicide Girl is immediately ‘zotted’ if she complains about it; i.e. their membership is cancelled and they are banned from the site.
Browsing through the members’ profiles, whilst I come across a few who seem a little seedy, the overall impression I get is that this resembles a social networking site such as MySpace rather than a porn site. The members appear to spend more time on the site communicating on the boards and in each others blogs than commenting on the pictures, although there are no stats for the amount of ‘anonymous’ members, i.e. ones who pay there money but don’t make their profiles public. The atmosphere that the social aspect of the site gives is one far away from the smutty, ‘dirty’ feel of most porn sites, and whilst I hesitate at using the word ‘liberated’, I would say the attitude that the site gives off is mature, grown-up and open in its approach to sex and erotica.
The people visiting the site for discussion and networking break the stereotype of the ‘dirty old man’ as pornography connoisseur; here, pictures of naked bodies are just one component that makes up the site’s identity, rather than being its focus. In the same way, the models’ participation on the site, in discussions and their blogs, means that their bodies and their sexuality that they display in pictures comes across as only one side of their many-faceted personalities, one part of who they are rather than the sum of their being. In other words, the women who pose naked are presented as sexual beings as opposed to sexual objects.
It is clear that many of the girls work for the site as well as just modelling, whether it’s as photographers, editing and writing reviews and articles, helping select models or working on site maintenance. Manko, a suicide girl who creates some of the most interesting and creative photosets, has sold clothes that she designed and made through the site and also has a weekly slot on suicide girls radio. She says ‘I love the “accidental” moments on SuicideGirls that develop into nifty projects just because of staff’s attentiveness and support of the girls. There is more to the Girls than just a pretty picture, and all girls’ talents are welcomed and utilised in the most unexpected ways’. Other women credit the site with teaching them new skills and encouraging them in things they are passionate about.
This brings me onto one of the most important things: the pictures themselves. The pictures take the form of themed photosets, consisting of about 30 to 70 pictures, with the model starting fully clothed and stripping throughout, with the last 10 or so pictures showing her fully nude. Ok, I will admit, some of these are less than remarkable, with models lolling on their beds in unimaginative poses. But for the most part, they are creative, interesting and even surprising, with unusual settings and themes and proper narratives throughout. This is especially true of more recent sets, as the site ‘upped the bar’ in their standards as to what they will accept as the site’s popularity grew. Sets have ranged from film tributes, such as Ghostbusters and The Nightmare Before Christmas to explorations of personal issues such as eating disorders and self-harm, and the surreal and the artsy such as LillithVain’s ‘Psychological Prisoner’ to the politically motivated, such as Pearl’s anti-Bush ‘American Voter’ set.
One of the most attractive aspects of the photographs is that, although they are photo shopped to remove things like spots and under-eye circles, the womens’ bodily quirks and features such as scars, tanlines, lumps and bumps are left in, adding to the character that comes across in the creativity of the sets. It also makes a refreshing change from the standard modern pin-up, who is so airbrushed and made-over that she resembles a doll more than a human. Manko, who had worked as a model for a while before joining the site, states that it was the chance to create her own photosets that first drew her to Suicide Girls, saying “I got complete creative freedom in interpreting my sexuality in pictures. There was no greasy old man of a photographer to tell me to fucking smile and not sneer, what to wear and how to pose. I could take photos in weird outfits, makeup, settings, and tell sick stories in my photosets without being creatively censored by those who pay me for the pictures.” Albertine, who works both as a Suicide Girl and as an official photographer for the site, agrees with this, saying she feels empowerment as a woman and as a photographer through shooting for the site. She states “I can work with my own imagination and I have an almost blank page as far as creativity is concerned.”
But the most appealing thing about Suicide Girls for me as a viewer, a woman and a feminist is the fact that the models actually look like they are having fun in the sets, and their enthusiasm for the site comes across in the boards and their journals. This is arguably not like the rest of the adult industry, which is full of women who’ve entered into their line of work through economic need and thus find it difficult to leave and move to a lower wage. Most of the models insist that they have never participated in the site for the money. All of them appear to have lives and jobs or other means of support outside of the site; this does not appear to be a sleazy porn empire exploiting women’s poverty and desperation. One Suicide Girl, Chloe, says “I have been involved in the adult entertainment industry for seven years and have found the generosity and overall decency of SG to be above and beyond any other company or individual I have ever worked with.”
Of course, I can see some of the downfalls of Suicide Girls. As a film studies student familiar with the theory of the male gaze, I can see that a lot of pictures on the site could be seen as objectifying; typical ‘loaded’ pictures with a few tattoos painted on the girls, perhaps. But, as there are close to 1000 models on the site as I write this, it really does depend on the model and the set. Some start off with a relatively ‘safe’ photoset, and then start creating more imaginative and expressive ones as their confidence in what will work (and what won’t) grows.
Another worrying aspect is the sense that some girls reasons for becoming a Suicide Girl may have nothing to do with expressing their sexuality, challenging society’s idea of the ‘perfect woman’ or any of the other reasons some of the models give. As the site has grown both in membership numbers and in public profile, becoming a Suicide Girl may seem to some like a ticket to mini-celebrity. It is depressing to browse through MySpace.com and LiveJournal.com sites and stumble across fifteen year old girls saying ‘It is my dream to become a Suicide Girl!’
In a world where women’s looks and beauty are celebrated more than their minds, where young girls are encouraged to base their worth upon their physical attractiveness rather than their intelligence or skills, there is a worry that some of the younger models may be aspiring to take their clothes off for attention or reassurance about their looks. In the ‘Suicide Girls hopefuls’ group on the site, where wannabe models can post their rejected sets and get feedback and advice, there are a few who seem desperate for others to tell them how pretty they really are in amongst the ones who just want tips on lighting and camera angles. Although they are often told by the other Suicide Girls and the members that they shouldn’t be doing the site for reassurance, and models have to state exactly why they want to be a Suicide Girl when they apply, there is a danger than some younger women may slip through who are trying to build their self-esteem and have not seriously thought through what it means to have naked pictures of themselves on the internet.
Personally I believe that any erotic website that really has the best interests of its workers at heart should consider upping the minimum age from 18 to 21, when the women are hopefully better positioned to make mature and rational decisions about being photographed naked. This is not meant to patronise or belittle the choices of any younger models, but like in any business of this nature the utmost care should be used to protect the young and vulnerable.
It also cannot be denied that SuicideGirls is nowhere near as daring or radical as its fans sometimes herald it to be. Although it features far more diverse looking women than your average issue of playboy would, it has to be said that most of the models still fit into what would be traditionally classed as ‘pretty’. Ultimately it seems the owners are more concerned with making money than really being experimental with the erotica that they feature. More money means the site can grow larger and bring respectful, female-viewer-friendly erotica to a larger audience, but it also means that the site will always be playing it on the safe side. In the world of pornography, the ‘safe side’ will always have its roots and definitions in something that objectifies and degrades women. To truly experiment and to try break the rules of erotic art means making material that will not always be commercially successful, and it seems the owners do not necessarily want to go down this route.
And of course, many feminists will have an issue with the fact that the site is called ‘Suicide GIRLS’. As well as the obvious point that it is not called ‘Suicide Women’, I’m sure some may be thinking ‘what about Suicide BOYS? If taking your clothes off is empowering, then why don’t men do it?’ Well, on Suicide Girls they actually do. There is a Suicide Boys group, in which male members post photosets of themselves in the same vein as the girls’ pictures. The abundance of pictures in the group, and the hundreds of comments the photosets receive, may make interesting viewing for some. Here, young straight men seem just as keen to take their clothes off and pose naked. Many seem to jump at the chance of expressing their sexuality in the same way that girls do.
‘Lad’ culture has attached a horrible, homophobic stigma to men in touch with their sexuality and willing to show it off, and here it seems young men are trying to fight back. It is also a welcome change for me as a (relatively) straight female. Even though we have ‘Playgirl’ and the Cosmo centrefolds, we are still told that we are ‘different’ from men, that we do not like looking at pictures of naked men, that we are not visually aroused. Personally, I find that statement is rubbish, so you can imagine my delight when I found all these pictures of cute naked men, not oily and beefed-up with orange tans and waxed chests, but skinny, scruffy ones with piercings and stylish hair.
I know there has been much debate recently about ‘porn for women’ and some feminists have suggests that it just reverses the power structures rather than actually reconstructing them, but I may have to disregard my morals here and admit to just, well, enjoying pictures of naked indie boys. But ultimately, the site is still advertised as being about naked women, and although the Suicide Boys group has been mentioned in articles about the site, most people would not discover it unless they were a paying member in the first place. The site is still ultimately holding up the idea that stripping off for the cameras is something for WOMEN to do, and is thus still holding up the status quo.
There is also a danger that, in their attempts to challenge the idea of the ‘perfect’ woman, sites like Suicide Girls may ultimately just create a different ideal of womanhood that is just as restricting. Whilst creating an alternative to the skinny blonde ‘playboy’ look, they may end up just heralding black hair, lip rings and nautical star tattoos as making up the perfect female body. Of course, this identity is just as restrictive and alien to some women as the look they are rebelling against in the first place. If feminism aims to give every woman the chance to be her own individual self, then ‘alterna-porn’ can never be truly feminist in this sense. Whilst it may showcase far more diverse and varied women than the mainstream media, it is limited nonetheless and will always exclude the women who do not subscribe to the identity it pushes.
It is also difficult to talk about the site without taking into consideration the controversy that has surrounded it recently. Essentially, in summer 2005, a number of girls left the site claiming that they had been verbally abused by the owners whilst on the live burlesque tour. They also claimed that Sean was the real owner of the site, whilst Missy was just a ‘figurehead’ to make it seem more female-friendly.
Obviously I do not know the girls or the owners, and do not want to accuse anyone of lying or being abusive. But from what I have seen on the site and elsewhere, I believe an open mind should be kept before dismissing Suicide Girls as being just another exploitative porn empire. Suicide girl Nixon, who was on the burlesque tour, states in the site’s testimonials: “It seems that only one viewpoint is currently being presented to the public..… So, were we verbally abused? We were certainly never called’ sluts’ or ‘whores’. Were we told that we sucked? Yes. Did we, in fact, suck? Actually, yes. Of course our performances were criticized. Every dancer, actor, musician and performer of any kind expects criticism throughout the development of a project.” As for Sean being the sole owner, my research suggests that it has always named the owners as Missy, Sean, another suicide girl called Olivia and her husband, ‘S5’. Some of the press coverage of the controversy has given the impression that the site claimed Missy to be the owner, but from what I can see this has never been the case. As has been discussed earlier, most of the staff who work for the site are the girls themselves and most of the photographers are also women, facts which people should take into consideration before they dismiss it as being just pornography made by and for men. (For those interested, a summary of the controversy is here on Wikipedia, at the former models’ site suicidegirlx.com and the Suicide Girl owners respond at suicidegirls.com/trash/).
Although I understand why some aspects of alt-porn may prove problematic for feminists, I can see a lot of positive things in it, examples of which have been discussed above. The fact is that pornography of some kind is always going to exist in our culture. We are sexual beings and will probably always want to look at others naked or participating in sexual acts. The problem is that the pornography available to us is misogynistic and objectifying. The sexuality conveyed in them is a sexuality that has been shaped and moulded by a handful of rich, white middle-aged men, with the majority of performers partaking for monetary reasons.
I remember when I was about 10 or 11 years old and first becoming aware of sex, sneaking through the newspapers and magazines in the corner shop by my school trying to get a peep of naked women or men, curious as to what adult sexuality was all about. The pictures I looked at were in The Daily Sport. I also remember looking for pornography on the internet with my best friend when we were about 12, again out of curiosity, and actually feeling upset by the images I found and the language used next to them. This was the image of sex that was presented to me by the media as I was growing up and is still being fed to young adults and teenagers today.
I can’t help but wonder what difference it might make if the pornography available to them was accompanied by respectful words, celebrated their minds as well as their bodies, where the performers were in control of the way they were portrayed and not being coerced into anything that they did not want to do, whether through lack of money or pressure from agents and directors. I don’t think this is idealistic daydreaming either – the way Suicide Girls rocketed from a small website showcasing 20 or so girls from Portland, Oregon to become a global phenomenon in a few years, and the influx of similar sites that seem to be popping up all over the place, indicate that this is something the public actively wants.
Of course, I think it is also important to address the lack of sex education in our society, and the fact that pornography is filling in this gap for teenagers. But even if we manage to progress as a society to the point where sex can be talked about completely openly by adults and young people with no embarrassment or stigma attached, some people are always going to want to enjoy sexually explicit material in private or with a partner. It may be a case of chicken and egg: perhaps when we have been brought up with an open attitude towards sex we will actively want to seek out material that is more respectful, as we won’t have the mindset that sex is ‘dirty’ or ‘naughty’ that most pornography caters to with its descriptions of women as ‘sluts’, fitting right into the model of women as either virgins or whores. Or maybe if we have digested more respectful erotic material, such as alt-porn sites where sex is open and un-stigmatised, then we will begin to question why society is still so closed to sexual discussion and education.
Either way, I believe that some alterna-porn sites may point the direction for a new sex-positive version of erotica that is not in opposition to feminist principles and concerns. Now we just need someone to shake the formula up and make it really challenging and experimental – any takers?