Posted on May 30, 2013

Jennifer Lyon Bellby Jennifer Lyon Bell

A few years ago, the explicit erotic film “Matinée” that I had directed had its premiere at the Kriterion art cinema in Amsterdam. The audience was packed, and I was terribly nervous. The lead actress and I were trying to restrain ourselves from giggling as we hunched down in our seats together and waited for them to dim the lights.

When the movie ended, the applause faded and the lights came up, it was a huge relief for both of us. We hugged each other and were finally free to go party with our cast & crew, beers in hand. As I retrieved my well-earned beer in the bar, a woman stopped me and asked politely if she could talk to me. “Of course,” I answered happily, not sure what to expect. She lowered her voice, inviting me to share her secret. “Thank you for showing that. It’s very good to see that I’m not the only one,” she said quietly. She went on to explain that she loved the part where the female character, Mariah, has a spectacular orgasm just from being fingered at length by the male character, Daniel. His penis isn’t anywhere near her at that point. “That’s what I like, myself. No one ever shows that in porn. At least not in any porn I’ve ever seen. So thank you for that.”

At least half a dozen women said the same thing to me that night. I was shocked at how many there were. They told me that seeing this scene made them, well…just plain happy. They were happy because they, too, love intense fingering and rarely get to see it in mainstream male/female porn films. They were also relieved and gratified to see some indication that some other women must feel the same way too, that not every woman orgasms instantly just from having a penis inside them. That’s a message that sex educators have championed for decades, but seeing it in even a simple, single sex film packs a big emotional wallop for many people.

What I’ve learned is that when we see porn that actually reflects what we do in bed, or what we would secretly like to do in bed, we feel less alone. And as an alternative porn director, as well as a sex-positive feminist and activist, I’m grateful to play any small part in that important process.

How did mainstream porn get so far away from what many of us want to see? Paradoxically, although our culture is full of sexual images and messages about how best to “get laid”, most people really have no idea how other people have sex. Right? We can guess, but we’re not sure what people do in bed, exactly how much fun they’re having, and how (or if) they manage to get what they want. And this is information we really want — out of sheer curiosity, out of our desire to feel like we’re “fitting in” and doing it right, and out of our hope that we might even improve our own sex lives with a few good tips on what’s actually possible when it comes to sex. Although personal blogs help fill in this knowledge gap in the online sphere, when it comes to visual/aural examples, porn is the only data most of us have access to. And unfortunately most porn is not a very good mirror.

As an erotic filmmaker myself who shoots explicit sex scenes, I can understand some well-intentioned reasons why porn sex often doesn’t look much like real sex: For example, good real-life sex positions are often not very “open” to the camera, so you have to sacrifice some audience visibility if you want to show, for example, a sex position that has lots of good grinding stimulation. Therefore, most porn directors opt to open it up (usually way, way up) for the audience, and as a result they are showing acrobatic sex positions that could be hard to enjoy in real life. For example, most of the positions in hetero mainstream porn are wide-open positions that offer lots of penile stimulation but relatively little clitoral stimulation. No matter what your gender identity, if you’ve got a clitoris, most porn sex is probably not going to look completely satisfying to you. As a filmmaker, I’m at least sympathetic to this conflict around literal visibility (although I handle the conflict very differently myself). But there are some lazy reasons for showing “porn sex” too: Many porn directors get paid to show the same basic positions, so there’s no reason to buck the system by trying to show something different — even if the different way is how that director has sex in his or her own private life. It’s easier to stick with porn clichés. And, unfortunately, all these dynamics work together to crystallize even further the image of the mythical “porn sex” that most real-life people don’t and can’t practice enjoyably.

This is where the power of alternative porn comes in, and this is why I’m proud to be a part of it. Though alternative porn/erotica and feminist porn are of course still movies that do have to use some movie magic (the performers might be taking rest breaks that are edited out, for example), most of the ones I’ve seen place a high value on showing sexual acts that feel especially good to the performers who are performing them, if not also to the director in his/her own private sex life. Kissing, vaginal fisting, power play that doesn’t fit into a mainstream male-dominant femme-female-submissive model: You can find all of these, and much more, in alternative porn.

I love directing sex movies because they can be empowering and educational. But I’m also proud to make them because the most obvious and excellent thing about good porn –as if we all hadn’t noticed — is that, quite simply, good porn is exceedingly fun to watch. By yourself as a treat after a long workday, on a date with your partner, or on a lazy Sunday afternoon, it’s fun, totally absorbing (read: stress-relieving), and leaves you relaxed and refreshed at the end. Honestly, what more could you want from a hobby? I do hear from a lot of people, particularly cisgender women, that they feel ashamed of watching porn and masturbating. But why? Assuming we’re not neglecting our other hobbies or real-life relationships (and assuming the porn we’re watching is ethically made), I don’t see porn-watching as radically different from such socially-sanctioned treats as going to the movies, doing a crossword puzzle, or reading a good book. Just because society says that sex is shameful, and that body-based pleasures are selfish, doesn’t mean that it’s actually true. And, to paraphrase the pioneering porn scholar Linda Williams, it’s a bit silly that we’ve culturally decided that crying in a movie theater is a fun leisure activity but that heaven forbid your body reacts in a sexual way to a film. I’m as proud to make an arousing sex film as I would be to make a weepy art film you can see at the CineCenter. That’s not a societally-approved attitude to take, and plenty of people would say it’s a shameful waste of my perfectly good Film Theory degree, but it’s true for me.