The Intractable Question of Porn vs. Non-Porn

A couple weeks back, The New York Times profiled MakeLoveNotPorn.tv and its founder, Cindy Gallop, describing the site as an “effort to promote ‘real,’ not porn-fed, sex.” The site, which is still in beta, allows visitors to upload videos of themselves having sex, and to watch those uploaded by others. The difference between this and any other porn site is that, according to Ms. Gallop and the NYT, all of the videos are vetted by editors who are looking for examples of people having “nonperformance-like sex.” Gallop’s vision is to counterbalance the effects of widespread porn consumption, which has influenced a generation of people to carry unrealistic – and often limiting – expectations into the bedroom.

There are a bunch of things about this that interest me – as a feminist, an entrepreneur, and someone who thinks raising the profile of “nonperformance-like sex” is a very good thing.

I also have a few questions – all of which are likely to remain unanswered, at least until the site comes out of beta. (A few are likely never to have definitive answers.)

A Brief Aside: Nerves

Before I jump into the body of this post, a confession. I’m nervous posting this, because:

a) It feels risky to write about porn. There was a time in my life when I wrote about sex, porn, and feminism semi-regularly, but it’s been a while, and those articles aren’t online anymore (at least, as far as I know). I’m not sure who I think I’m going to offend, here, but if it’s you, then hey, feel free to stop reading this and go enjoy something more wholesome. I’ll be back to my regular programming soon enough.

b) I have all kinds of respect for Cindy Gallop, and I don’t want to come across like I have a better solution to the problems she’s trying to address. I’ve had the good fortune to witness Ms. Gallop’s unending support of other women – and particularly other women entrepreneurs – and that’s just one of the qualities I admire in her. I do have some questions about Make Love Not Porn, though, and Ms. Gallop, if you’re reading this, I would love to hear your thoughts on them. Here’s my big fear about how this post will be read: When women critique the work of other women, too often it is perceived (sometimes correctly) as the worst kind of competitiveness – the kind that doesn’t allow room for everyone to succeed on their own terms. I want to be clear: I think Ms. Gallop is ten kinds of kick-ass. I think what she’s doing has huge potential to make the world a better place. On no planet do I want my questions about her project taken to mean that I think the project itself is not worth doing, or that she is not amazing. Okay? Okay.

c) I’m writing about a site that’s in beta, and I haven’t got beta access, so all of this is pretty theoretical.

All right, enough with the caveats. Let’s get on with it.

How Do We Define “Not Porn?”

The MLNP mission, as I understand it, is to disrupt the mainstream porn industry by calling into question the porn conventions that have become so commonplace as to be expected. Ms. Gallop has said that it was inspired by dating men in their 20s, whose bedroom moves are apparently significantly influenced by porn; she wanted to set the record straight about what “real” sex looks like, and how “porn world” and “real world” differ.

It’s a solid & worthwhile mission. She started the very basic & straightforward MakeLoveNotPorn.com website to address it, and is now launching MakeLoveNotPorn.tv as its video-driven sister site.

MLNP’s business model is straightforward: Visitors pay $5 to upload a video, and $5 to view a video – and half the cost of watching a video goes to the person who uploaded it. So in theory, the people having the aforementioned nonperformance-like sex (let’s just shorten that to NPLS, shall we?), and recording it on video, can upload it to the site and make some money, while funneling the other 50% of the ticket price back to MLNP to support its business.

So far, it doesn’t sound too different from your standard porn site, except for a few details:

  • The idea that contributors will actually make money off their videos is pretty novel.
  • I’m not sure many people are accustomed to paying for porn anymore – especially “amateur porn,” which I realize MLNP is attempting to differentiate themselves from, but which is likely the category many of its prospective customers will slot it into.
  • I’m assuming that MLNP won’t have advertising, given its revenue model. That alone could make it a pleasant alternative to the mainstream.
  • It sounds like MLNP intends to exercise strict editorial control, which will presumably result in higher quality content.

Of course, the major differentiating factor for MLNP is its mission to make porn that, well, doesn’t seem like porn. Or rather, to make non-porn (NPLS) that is still interesting and fun to watch, especially for people who normally enjoy watching porn. (Their goal is to provide an alternative to porn so that the youth of today don’t think they have to behave like porn stars to be good in bed.)

And in the awkwardness of that last paragraph, the real issue here becomes clear. We’re back to the age-old debate over what constitutes porn. Or to put it another way: What the heck is the line between porn, and videos of people having sex that doesn’t trot out the usual porn cliches?

This is one of those questions that invariably leads down the path of “I don’t know, but I’ll know it when I see it,” which is fair enough – but let’s all agree that it’s going to be a pretty subjective editorial process.

More, More, More: Broadening the Definition of Sexy

This seems like a good time to say that I am entirely supportive of sexual entertainment that broadens the spectrum of what we normally see in porn & erotica. The vast majority of the “adult” genre is at best, tediously repetitive, and at worst, dupes people into believing they don’t deserve pleasure unless they look and behave like the people they see in x-rated pictures and movies. (Well, actually, no – that’s not the worst outcome by a long shot. But I’m going to sidestep the outcomes that are violations of the law and/or human rights – such as the subset of porn that features people who haven’t chosen to be there – because that’s a topic for another day.)

We absolutely need a much, much broader spectrum of definitions of who gets to be sexual, and what sex looks like. Older people, genderqueer people, skinny guys, curvy gals, women with short hair & well-trimmed fingernails, people of colour, people whose breasts, butts, and genitals don’t conform to the bizarrely tight constraints of porn norms… sex that’s not all about male stamina and women as objects… Hell, yes to all of the above.

So on that front, I’m thrilled that Ms. Gallop is opening up a new venue to explore what better porn-but-not-porn might look like.

Here Come the Questions

I have some nagging questions, though. Like: If the performers get paid every time someone watches their video, doesn’t that create an incentive to infuse some level of “performance” into the video? And isn’t it more likely that viewers will choose to watch the videos that adhere most closely to mainstream norms around beauty, gender roles, and sex acts? (For example, the NYT notes that one of the videos available to beta users stars two adult performers (Lily LaBeau and Danny Wylde, who are a real-life couple), having the kind of sex they purportedly have off-screen. I have to imagine they’re going to garner more views than the average, non porn-star contributor.)

On a more pedantic note, I share Slate columnist Amanda Hess‘s question about whether viewers will pay for the content in numbers that can sustain MLNP – as well as what the gender balance for contributors will look like. Hess writes:

Gallop is actively looking to appeal to women, but to do so she’ll need to overcome a serious gender barrier. Young men have long built a social order around the sharing of sexual material—think of the neighbor kid who farmed out his dad’s stash of VHS tapes to his friends—but it’s still less acceptable for women to talk openly about viewing porn, and even porn sites that encourage a commenter community are mostly filled with men. Then there’s the ultimate male porn sharer: the guy who spreads private sex tapes to thousands of strangers through his “revenge” porn site. He’s not a libertine—he’s a misogynist.

I also wonder how the micropayments are doled out. Does each performer have his or her own account, or are the payments funneled to one contributor to split with their co-performer(s) as they see fit? I hope it’s the former scenario – since the honour system isn’t likely to be too reliable if a couple (or trio, etc.) parts ways after making their film.

Perhaps the biggest question is how plausible it is to create videos that don’t constitute a performance. I get where MLNP is going with their mission, but the fact remains that filming oneself having sex, and uploading it to a website for others to watch (and pay for), is a performative act – one that, in mainstream culture at least, is also taboo for the majority of people. As I write this, I’m going through my mental rolodex of all the sex-positive, open-minded and open-hearted people I know (lucky for me, it’s a longish list), and I am coming up very short on prospective MLNP contributors. I mean, sure, I don’t go to Burning Man or the Folsom Street Fair, but I’m a well-connected, progressive left-coaster who’s been around the block a few times. But my friends run businesses, and have kids*, and occasionally run for political office, and do various other things that make it tricky to earn a side income as an online adult performer.

Setting aside, though, the question of who will choose to contribute to MLNP, there is also the question of what kind of sex they will feel comfortable sharing with the world. MLNP’s editorial team may be ready to throw the doors wide open on what constitutes a great sex video, but I imagine the contributors will have to do pitched battle with their own beliefs about what ought to go into their video. Some of their choices will be determined by boundaries around what they prefer to keep private, but others will surely be based on anticipating the viewer’s expectations, be they esthetic or content-oriented.

Perhaps this dance will prove to be the very reason MLNP was created – to convene a conversation around how and why we “perform” sex, both on- and off-screen. But there’s also a risk that MLNP’s video content will merely replicate norms seen elsewhere. (Just ask critics of SuicideGirls how they feel about the transgressive power of having more slim, conventionally attractive white girls - tattooed, pierced,  multicolour-haired and natural-breasted, but still slim, attractive white girls – in porn.)

I hope MLNP.tv succeeds. If nothing else, I know there are parents everywhere who are cheering at the prospect of their teenaged kids having access to videos that show consenting adults having NPLS – because they know that otherwise, their sexual imaginations risk being curtailed by banal, often-misogynistic, laughably accessible mainstream porn. And if that’s as far as MLNP gets, that’s a good thing. I just hope it can go beyond good, to great – and that will require creative answers to some big, intractable questions.

 

* Yes, I know that many adult performers have kids and successfully keep their professional and personal lives separate. I’m just saying it’s not always easy – and that for people who don’t primarily earn their income from sex work, having kids is a significant barrier to uploading a video of themselves having sex to a website.

Update (25 Sep 2012, 9:15 pm): Cindy Gallop has graciously responded in the comments; I recommend reading her take. The links in her comment are also well worth your time.

4 Comments

  1. Is it ridiculous that the most interesting thing for me about the site is the business model, specifically the $5 to upload as a way of screening out people who just want to anonymously show off their private parts to other people?

    While I completely agree with the mission and proposed purpose, I find it hard to believe that this is the model by which it will be accomplished. Pornographic video by its very nature seeks to “open up” what are physically private acts – I don’t mean this metaphorically, either. Go look up “opening up for the camera” in a porn context (the AMAs on Reddit are fascinating, here) and you’ll understand what I mean. It’s hard to actually show the acts in question without contorting one’s self into positions that are as explicit as they are uncomfortable.

    When I was in high school I remember long and what at the time assuredly felt like deep discussions about how it would be great to mix pornography with higher quality scripts and acting. Maybe there’s still a space for that, but the entire industry has discovered (to the adult movie business’ chagrin!) that many people now use pornography in an almost transactional nature: I am in the mood for porn, I am transacting around porn, I’m done now, please go away. I somehow doubt that a market will be built around longer form, more honest pornography with fewer production values at an increased cost. Feels to me like the only people that will attract are the people already attracted to the idea.

    Honestly, and at the end of the day, pornography is about actors doing what is considered taboo. It feels to me like we need to see more realistic PG-13 portrayals of sex and love (on TV, in magazines, in Hollywood) for the influence to trickle down to pornography.

  2. Hmmm… I was intrigued when you first posted about this and I checked it out. I think her’s is a noble goal, but it seems to me that the model is unlikely to have the desired effect. If the arguement is that young people get their ideas of sex from regular porn, then it is likely that “young people sex” is likely to look like or strive to look like regular porn. So the people who are having NPLS are going to be older – those of us who remember when you had to enter an XXX shop with a watchful shopkeep and meander to the back room where you could rent or buy a VHS tape to take home. And kids don’t want to watch their parents have sex. Maybe I’m too cynical, but I think the idea is going to miss the intended audience – if that truly was the intent.

  3. Lauren – thanks for your post!

    I’m writing this in Sydney, Australia, where I’ve been for a speaking gig, shortly before needing to leave for the airport to fly back to the US :) so this will be a necessarily brief response, if that’s OK.

    This is my launch blog post that explains our objectives and why I designed the business model the way I did:

    http://talkabout.makelovenotporn.tv/post/29383253943/helloworld

    I can tell you that for our contributors to date, the money is not the primary motivation. Our social mission and social values are. If you click on ‘How This Works’ here on the site:

    https://makelovenotporn.tv/

    you can see how we characterize what constitutes #realworldsex. I and my team curate every submission. We are looking not for ‘performing for the camera’ but ‘simply recording what goes on in the real world’.

    However, I prefer to let other people determine whether we are succeeding in our mission. This is WhackMagazine’s detailed review of our site and content, which calls us ‘nothing short of revolutionary’:

    http://www.whackmagazine.com/2012/08/22/makelovenotporn-tv-%E2%80%94-%E2%80%9Cnothing-short-of-revolutionary%E2%80%9D/

    I actually want MLNPTV to help the porn industry. Here’s how, via an interview with porn blogger Lynsey G:

    http://lynseyg.com/cindy-gallop-will-make-you-think-and-bring-you-hot-sex-videos-all-at-the-same-time/

    We’re an experiment. As the line from the Apple ad goes, ‘The people crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.’

    All I can tell you is that at 6 weeks old in private beta, we have as of today over 69,000 people on our beta signup waiting list. People are joining, renting – we have taken in thousands of dollars in income already – and watching each video an average of 2-3 times. And my email inbox is an avalanche, every day, of welcome, endorsement, and support.

    We’ll see how this plays out :)

  4. It’s a very interesting idea, but I think much will depend upon how much effort the performers put into their production. I don’t mean in terms of sexual performance, but in terms of the framing of the piece. Good documentary cinema is not really showing bare reality, it is structured and edited. Absent that framing, most of the subjects are boring or confusing to the viewer. I would expect something similar here.

    I’m also reminded of the Humped film festival in Seattle. Truly amateur productions, many of them humorous, deeply personal, entertaining, sex-positive and ultimately humane.

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