Porn's Behind-the-Camera Feminists
Is the adult film industry degrading to women? Not according to some of the powerful females behind films like "Blondage" and "Heather and Her Friends."
“Heather and Her Friends” opens with a shot of an attractive blonde woman staring into the camera with her lips open as she caresses another woman who is topless. In “Timeless,” a blonde girl eagerly smiles while a man ejaculates on her face and tongue.
It’s scenes like these that lend credence to the belief that the adult film industry objectifies and denigrates women, turning them into mere sex objects that are the instruments of male-centric pleasures and fantasies.
But these pornos were filmed by a self-described “left-leaning feminist.” As the managing director of Penthouse Entertainment, Kelly Holland is one of the most powerful women in the entertainment industry—adult or otherwise. She and a few other women working behind the scenes of the porn industry as writers, directors, and entrepreneurs are combating the stereotype that the only place for a woman in porn is in front of the camera servicing men.
Holland’s story complicates the feminist conception of porn as degrading to women. In the 1970s and 1980s, many feminists pushed against porn, claiming it hurt women's rights. Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, and Andrea Dworkin protested pornography by leading a 1979 march in Times Square. Dworkin and other feminists later testified in front of the Meese Commission in 1986, claiming porn debased women.
It was at this time in the 1980s that Holland was professionally occupied with activities that would make those feminists proud. As a documentarian, she was filming in Central America and focusing heavily on El Salvador’s civil war and the Contra wars in Nicaragua.
Holland was living project-to-project, paycheck-to-paycheck, so she also operated a post-production studio “in order to facilitate my evil documentary habit,” she said with a laugh. But things changed in the 1990s. She rented out space in her studio. One time she noticed someone editing gay porn, but the footage showed the director peeking out. She called up Vivid Entertainment, the company behind the footage, and offered to clean up the film. Her response from Marcie Hirsch, now the VP of Production at Vivid, was a challenge: “If you think you know so much, try to direct,” she told Holland. And that’s exactly what she did.
“I went in on it as a dare,” said Holland. “As a documentarian, you love to drop into interesting worlds, so I said sure.” In 1994, she produced her first pornographic film, “Blondage”. But what started as a lark became a professional passion for Holland. “Adult was great because the money was good, but it’s also this amazing playground,” she said.
The artistic options as a director were actually more bountiful than as a documentarian thanks to the budgets and short shooting schedules. “No movie cost so much you couldn’t take risks, and you’re doing three or four a month, so if you mess up, you move on. It was like being in film school, but getting paid. It was such a wonderful learning experience.”
Holland was well aware, though, that her feminist friends were aghast at her career choice. She said they all questioned her decision, but she “countered with the documentary journalist approach of coming in with a fairly open mind.”
She began making documentaries on porn sets—including one called “Porn in the U.S.A.” for a Netherlands television station—and interviewing some of the actresses. Getting to know those women not only dramatically altered Holland’s view of the porn industry, but also of feminism.
“I began to realize that these women—whether they articulated or not—really exemplified for me the essence of modern day feminism, which is, ‘My body my rules,’” she said. “Not my dad’s, not my husband’s, not my mullah’s, not my rabbi’s, not my priest’s, and frankly, not my girlfriends’.”
The actresses, she said, were often incredibly smart. “They were the kids who were such brainiacs they couldn’t stand school or follow a traditional path.” They were also comfortable with their sexuality, but felt judged by their communities.
The more time Holland spent in the adult film industry around its women, the more she came to believe that the feminist contentions against pornography were more of a reflection of class differences than anything else. “The first few decades of feminism were dominated by the East Coast intellectual elite, those doing women’s studies at Wellesley,” she said. “It set in motion not an issue about women’s rights, but more of an issue of what good girls should be doing. That’s a class issue, not morality.”
Which is not to say that Holland believes the entire porn industry treats with women with as much respect as she does or views the actresses through a feminist’s eye. “An enormous amount of misogynistic crap is produced in this business,” she admits.
However, she resents that “porn gets painted with this very wide brush stroke.” To her, it’s an unfair standard that all of porn has to answer to the industry’s worst examples. “I’m sure Ellen DeGeneres doesn’t accept responsibility for The Jerry Springer Show, even though they’re both talk shows.”
Joanna Angel agrees that it is incredibly frustrating when outsiders make blanket statement about the porn industry and its effect on women. “I don’t think porn can be blamed for domestic violence or sexual abuse, nor do I think video games can be blamed for violence in the street,” said Angel, who has been acting, writing, directing, and marketing adult films since 2002 for her own company, Burning Angel. (The company's NSFW site can be found here.) “If you are the kind of person who looks at forms of entertainment and can’t take it as entertainment, there is something wrong with you that is much greater than porn.”
Angel’s career in pornography, not to mention her positive view of it, is pretty shocking considering her background. She grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home in New Jersey following all of the traditional religious rituals, including keeping kosher and honoring the Sabbath. She attended Rutgers University and graduated with a degree English literature. Tattoos with quotes from Margaret Atwood and Kurt Vonnegut line her body.
When she was in college, she and her roommate started thinking it would be fun to start their own porn site. “We were just two college kids who wanted to have a cool job,” she said. “I didn’t know anyone in the industry. I just fell in love with this weird idea I had and wanted to turn it into something.”
After working as a stripper at night as she built her company during the day, Angel is now one of the most successful women in the adult film industry for both her work in front of and behind the cameras. Her website and her performances have won AVN awards, which is the Oscars of porn. Her niche is alt porn, which has a goth or punk edge. Instead of blonde and bubbly, the women tend to be tattoed and pierced.
Because her films fall outside the traditional mainstream Angel realizes how diverse and wide the spectrum of modern pornography is. “Porn is not one thing,” she said. “No one says they dislike all music because they don’t like one band.”
The women in porn know the many, many arguments that they are up against for their career choice, namely that their work puts bodily and sexual pressure on women and subjugates them to male desires. But they see the core faults of pornographic films as no different from that of the mainstream Hollywood entertainment industry. Angie Rowntree, who founded Sssh.com a “porn-for-women” website in 1999, said, “Is it by the adult film industry or the film industry period? That’s always the question. Porn feeds a fantasy. Movies are a fantasy. Shouldn’t we say as adults, ‘This is a fantasy?’”
Holland says what bothers her more than pure nudity is the sexualization of violence, which she feels is just as endemic to mainstream entertainment as pornography, if not more so.“CSI which goes on the air at nine is predicated on sexual predators,” said Holland. “I was and am outraged by the hypocrisy of it all the time. All that’s missing is the nipples, the areolas, the vaginas. But because they don’t shoot that they can shoot all sorts of insane violence against women.
That being said, she realizes that porn does play a unique role in creating what she calls a “sexual social etiquette,” and that, yes, it does make it harder for women.
“We impact the social and sexual lives of people as they grow up. Fifteen years ago, we taught a whole generation of young men about pulling out and popping on a girl’s face,” she said, referring to the common porn practice of a man ejaculating on a woman. “We had to do that for the camera, but unfortunately, that got translated into contemporary sexual protocol.”
However, Holland ultimately believes porn can help liberate women and teach them to vocalize their own sexual desires. Shed said, “Do we create the open dialogue? No. But, are we a factor? Do we push it to the 50-yard line? Yes.”
In regards to the above mentioned “popping,” Holland said, “Hopefully now we are training a whole generation of women to say ‘No, don’t do that because my hair is going to get funky.'”
Holland recounted how every time she goes out with a group of women who are just learning for the first time that she works in porn, they bombard her with questions they’re too embarrassed to say to their spouses. “It remains shocking how many women can’t talk openly with their partners about their sexuality,” said Holland.
Rowntree said the whole purpose of Sssh.com is to “try to give women a safe place to explore their sexuality and make them feel good about it. We want to show women enjoying themselves sexually.”
And at least in her films, Angel believes she is showing women in the power roles, rather than the men. Not only does she tends to write scripts where women are the smarter characters and in control, generally in the porn industry “male porn stars are like a prop,” she said. “They’re there to bring something out of the woman in the scene. Maybe that’s objectifying men,” she laughed.In fact, Angel feels she has only been treated with respect as an entreprenuer and businesswoman in the adult film industry. There is certainly a pervasive image of women in porn being treated abusively at least in front of the camera—think of Linda Lovelace and Chuck Traynor's relationship. But Angel says that as a woman in porn in 2014, you are treated as well as you demand. “If you try to get your way by batting your eyelashes and sleeping your way to the top, then you'll be treated that way,” she said. “If you act like a business woman, you'll be treated as such. I think you're only going to feel like you're not getting certain opportunities if you're not letting yourself get those opportunities.”
Holland not only agrees with Angel, she thinks the adult film industry may be more hospitable to women than men, at least to a certain degree. “It may be easier because we're a liberal group of people, and we have a renegade spirit,” she said.
Holland did note that there is a glass ceiling, even in porn. Once a woman in porn reaches “the coporate level, then you start to run into the same world that the Facebook COO runs into. In that world, it's still harder to be a woman,” she said.
Former porn star and agent Shy Love, though, has a very different view of the adult film industry's treatment of women and believes it is generally harder for women at every level. After working as a performer, Shy Love started Adult Talent Managers, an agency specifically devoted to representing porn stars, but no longer has interest in it and stepped away from the industry.Based on her experience, Love believes that the adult film industry “sometimes has a problem with women.” According to her it can be difficult for female performers to vocalize what they feel comfortable doing on screen. “Are there women who feel they have no choice but to do specific and play dumb? Yeah,” she said. “Women don't have the control that men do.”It's partially for those reason that Love hopes her own daughter will avoid the adult film industry. She said that she would be upset if her daughter pursued porn the way that she had because “I don't want her to think this is only path. I want her to have another lifestyle.”Love entered the adult film industry after coming from a traditional background, including earning multiple masters’ degrees and working as the comptroller for a large company. “I was honestly bored out of my mind doing everything my parents wanted me to do-the white picket fence, husband, everything,” she said. She did some work for Playboy to break away, and she ended up pursuing a career in porn.
Love felt stifled by her own parents' expectations, and it's very important to her that she doesn't do the same ot her daughter and set up a reason to rebel. She said “I don't want my daughter to be in that position. I did this because my entire life was sheltered in a box, and I needed to figure it out. Hopefully, I don't shelter my little princess in a box where she needs to figure it out this way.”
However, there are a number of women who have also worked in front of and behind the scenes in porn who say they have found their work to be incredibly empowering. “I think the idea that the porn industry is degrading to women is 30 years old,” said Angel. “I don't like my sex get in the way. I use it to my advantage.”
And for Holland, going back to her roots as a documentarian who loves challenging and enlightening people, working in the porn industry is an ideal career. “As a person who is liberal and loves the dialogue, I cannot think of a better business to work in,” she said. “I get to push the buttons and see how they respond, and then try to inform their responses in a positive way.”