HERE‘s a link to a really interesting podcast by We Are Respectable Negroes (WARN) which is a prolonged interview with Nica Noelle. It ranges about a lot of interesting issues about the interface between erotic and mainstream culture and issues of feminism, stereotyping, shaming and race which are all topics that interest me as a writer and a game designer of some small notoriety within my niche.
This blog is about atheism and reason but also about the application of rational thought to contentious subjects. So I think it best fits here.
I have come to know Nica Noelle via my friend and colleague Satine Phoenix who is working on the art for Machinations of the Space Princess. Nica is a porn actress, former stripper and current director who is trying to take porn in a different direction with plots, stories, emotions and integrity. What you might call ‘visual erotica’ as opposed to porn per se. She is “beautiful, charming, devastatingly intelligent” and well worth following on Twitter so long as you can stand the occasional naked selfie along with self-deprecation, dog pictures and intelligent meanderings.
This is going to be a long blog post as there’s lots to talk about from this podcast, which lasts over an hour. So it’s going to be a long read. No apologies, but I’ll try to break it up with the occasional picture and I’ll reference the point on the podcast timeline I’m talking about as I go along. I found the whole thing quite thought provoking and drew parallels to culture-wars in nerd culture, games, the trials and tribulations of erotica writers and so forth. I hope you find it as thought provoking and if you can carve out the time, listen and read along with me:
[4.00] Chauncey brings up the fact that going into interviews and appearances, most of the time anyone who works in the sex industry at any level – pornography or otherwise – is usually facing judgement and stereotyping. Immediately the interviewee is placed on the assumed defensive because of the prurient interest or agenda of the interviewer. Nica’s fascination with the sex industry mirrors my own fascination with it. People have such mixed feelings about it, it has such a powerful effect on people, there are such contradictions and paradoxes in people’s consumption/condemnation/views on it.
The stereotype which they talk about [5:50] is that of the ‘broken toys’, that something must have gone wrong, that someone must be damaged to get engaged in the industry. As Nica points out this may have once been more true – though never universally true – but it’s becoming less true over time. Like everything else – it seems – porn and erotica are going somewhat mainstream and people don’t have to be broken or fucked up to get involved. It is gaining some small amount of acceptance.
I’ve known people involved in the sex industry in some manner or another for getting on for 15 years and yes, a lot of them are damaged and as Nica points out, being damaged in some way allows some people to break boundaries in a way those with more conventional backgrounds may not. In my experience though many get involved as a way of defining and controlling the sexual aspect of themselves that they didn’t have in their past. Commodifying and selling their sexuality brings it back under their control. Agency, as Chauncey puts it. There’s weight to what Nica says as well though, owning your stigma gives you power and identity – something that’s also very true of the nerd/geek culture. This is what you identify as, it becomes you. You are a ‘Star Wars fan’, or ‘A stripper’ or ‘A porn diva’.
[9:50] The idea of a ‘porn intellectual’ seems funny or amusing and I suppose, in a way, it is. We’re used to seeing people approach erotica and pornography from the view of literary or cultural analysis, from a feminist perspective particularly but an actual ‘porn intellectual’ seems somehow comedic. It isn’t and it shouldn’t be. It’s a medium – and a powerful one – that deserves genuine academic study that doesn’t come from axe-grinding or distancing but from a genuine desire to understand, analyse and improve. The argument that ‘it’s just porn’ is the same as ‘its just a game’ or ‘they’re just comics’. One shouldn’t lose sight of the fun aspects or the purpose, but an intellectual examination of any medium can throw up useful ideas and methodologies to improve that form.
[10:40] Chauncey talks about his experience with meeting the porn star Sierra. He overheard a conversation she was having about having both a ‘porn me’ and a ‘real me’. This is, perhaps, something that people might not have been able to identify with particularly in the past but now we all have an ‘internet persona’ and a ‘real life persona’ to some extent. Is this distancing oneself from what one does? Not necessarily. Porn is a performance as is writing, painting etc even at a remove. Our performance personalities are part of our work – an important part. Meeting an author, artist or game designer can often be a surreal experience because we form a mental image of that person before we meet them, via their work. The ‘real them’ can be completely at odds. The horror writer might be a quietly-spoken butterball of a person, all affection and gentleness in person, despite the image their work creates. I know that I come across very differently in person.
With a porn star, camgirl or whatever else the experience is reversed. We may be intimately aware of their physicality but the ‘real them’ that we must adjust to is their real personality and mind and that – I think – can be even more jarring, possibly because it takes work to figure someone out and trust for them to let their guard down. Certainly I know that once you get past that shell adult workers are some of the most genuine and bullshit-free people it has ever been my pleasure to know. Perhaps this is because those who survive and thrive there or have the strength to get ‘out’ when they want to have to be resilient and genuine and to ‘own their shit’ to work there in the first place.
The other side is that the construction of an ‘alter-ego’ [12:20] allows one to disassociate one’s ‘true self’ from what you do. That’s an aspect of shame or in better-case-scenarios modesty. Its a reason for pen names in erotica (or even in Science Fiction! Look at Ian M Banks Vs Ian Banks) and for ‘porn names’. I’m not entirely sure that’s healthy though I can understand the desire to shield yourself from the condemnation and judgement of others in any way you can. It can be harsh.
[15:10] It’s interesting to hear Nica talk about how devastating the tube sites and piracy have been to the adult industry and it’s interesting to compare that with how it has impacted other industries. Porn is disposable. People pirate or free-view porn with fewer – if any – moral quandries than they would about anything else. Porn is shameful, using porn is shameful, buying porn is something you have to justify and explain to yourself – and potentially your partner. The porn industries have a public image as being exploitative and ‘evil’ which makes it easier to justify ‘stealing’ from them. A subscription to a porn-site on your account is something that will make you red faced. If you can get your smut hassle free and without having to break anonymity in any way you’re going to take the path of least resistance. So this means porn is particularly hard hit by piracy in a way music, books etc are not.
Nica’s mode for tackling this, consciously or unconsciously is to tap into fandom and, in a way, the distributed patronage model. This chimes with the zeitgeist formed from Kickstarter/IndieGoGo and Amanda Palmer’s TED talk. The quotable Nica here is: “People like to be fans of things” and they do! If you have a strong personality, a strong product, if you do things in a way that stands out in some fashion you will attract fans and the 1,000 True Fan model – while not new any more – still seems to be the way things are going.
Nica puts a lot of effort into engaging with and talking to her fans. She spends a lot of time on Social Media, she reveals her true self, she is almost endlessly nice to people and available. She is a living defiance of so many of the stereotypes about adult workers. She’s doing well on the back of that and on the back of taking a risk in having a product that differs from what else is available by going emotional and romantic, by having story rather than – necessarily – going full on hardcore.
What is frustrating, terribly frustrating to me, is that Nica could go so much further if the tools were available for her to do so. Since crowdfunding took off I’ve been looking at it and thinking that it could be an incredible boon for the adult industry in the wake of the problems it is having with piracy. People do seem to form strong attachments to particular studios, particular porn stars, particular directors in much the same way as they do in the mainstream for particular writers (look at Warren Ellis or Alan Moore for examples from the comics/literary world) and they will go out of their way to support people they care about.
Unfortunately for adult work it is often banned from these crowdfunding sites, even IndieGoGo which has an otherwise much more liberal political slant than Kickstarter does. There is – as yet – no platform I’m aware of that provides the necessary crowdfunding tools for adult workers in that it has security, accessibility, credibility and a high enough profile for it to work. Just imagine, though, if the money to make adult films and pay those involved could be raised from the fans, freeing those involved much more to choose who they work with, what they do and to meet the expressed needs and desires of their fans. Exploitation would no longer stick, financing would be in place with no up-front risk and there would be the capacity for Nica and others like her to experiment and push the boundaries more.
Part of the reason this hasn’t happened yet is the desire of these sites to maintain a ‘positive brand image’ but part of it is also the shaming and shunning of sex in our culture. Even with erotica we had this – and campaigned against it at Bannedwriters. Payment services, credit card processing, all of them seem to deem it acceptable to slap on extra surcharges and additional hoops to jump through if you’re doing something ‘naughty’, supposedly on the basis of increased risk to them. Are you more likely to return a sex toy or an adult video? I don’t know. We’d have to study that. Our reticence to argue and expose our peccadilloes allows the companies, meanwhile, to screw adult workers, writers and content providers over.
[26:00] The idea of ‘being yourself with the volume turned up’ resonated and I think that’s true for creators and performers across the spectrum. Interesting that the idea apparently came from wrestling!
[26:30] Nica and Chauncey go into a bit more detail about the different eroticism of The Random Encounter versus the Emotional Context and how each have their own appeal. Nice produces material with emotional context while most other pornographers seem to produce mechanical fucking but, as they both point out even a random encounter has some connection, even if its pure animal lust, which is most often missing from adult material. The nuances that make it work. There’s a fallacy, I think, that men are purely visual/physical and don’t crave intimacy in the way that a woman does and while that main contain a kernel of truth men absolutely do crave intimacy it’s just that acknowledging that is ‘unmanly’ and a ‘sign of weakness’ and – thus – to be avoided. That isn’t to say the purely physical or lusty can’t be great, but it doesn’t meet EVERY need. Many men who hire prostitutes do so as much for female company and conversation as physical relief and the same is often true of women who hire male escorts.
[27:20] This section talks about how porn people are funny. About how they’re hilarious and always joking around. This seems frivolous but I think it’s a hugely important point. We all know about the porn parodies and their (often) silly names which are funny, but not necessarily that sexy. Certainly from my experience in writing ‘adult’ game material it is much easier to sell the idea if you sell it as comedy. Humour is another distancing tactic, like euphemism or persona-creation that somehow makes it more acceptable to talk about sex (or death, or drugs, or cancer or whatever else makes people uncomfortable). This is a shame. I know I was terribly frustrated working on some of the stuff I did for Mongoose because I wanted to examine the material in a more serious vein but there just wasn’t the option. The later work suffered because it ended up confused between ‘Lol’ and ‘Hmm’.
[33:00] Nica and Chauncey start to talk about the impact of pornography for couples but also on teens and kids growing up today where porn is much more accessible and only a Google search away from satisfying your curiosity. I think it’s a bit arse-backwards to say porn creates fetishes and behaviours when it is more about fulfilling people’s desire to see certain things and exaggeration of those already extant desires. It’s hard to convince people they need a product they don’t want, it takes a lot of effort and the only example I can think of, off hand, is the invention of halitosis as a term by Listerine and the promulgation of the paranoia over it that they brought about. In other words, people are turned on by cumshots so they seek pornography that includes it, rather than pornography creating the desire to see cumshots. There are all sorts of complex psychological and evolutionary reasons why such a thing might turn us on despite seeming counter intuitive and for that I’ll refer you to the excellent book A Billion Wicked Thoughts.
[35:00] They touch on the idea of exploitation and the exploitation of women in porn when talking about the hardcore ‘gonzo’ material. This is where I part ways with Nica a little in that I still see such material as being non-exploitative because its fantasy and because everyone involved is paid and consenting and that there are people, men and women, who genuinely enjoy such acts. The lack of connection and meaningful power-exchange makes this material less engaging, interesting and causes it to part ways with such behaviour between consenting adults in real life and that’s where there’s a ‘problem’ with it but really this stuff is scratching a similar itch to BDSM.
I’m glad that Nica goes on to point out the shaming that goes on. That women aren’t supposed to enjoy certain kinds of sex and that this pressure most often comes from other women, telling them that they’re being exploited and used for something that they have agency over. I agree with Nica that such judgement is a way to oppress women and to try and enforce a party line. Certainly for me, growing up, it was a revelatory experience in and of itself that I – as a man – could be desired and pursued rather than the other way around and that a woman might want and desire sex rather than it being some sort of ghastly male imposition. This seems, to me, to be an extension of that.
[37:00] ‘Different strokes for different folks’ is something that needs to be understood across all entertainment genres. Something weird happens in education that you don’t normally see elsewhere, say in food. If someone doesn’t like the taste of coriander or (in my case) courgette then they happily go about their lives pushing it to the side of their plate or avoiding it altogether. When it comes to entertainment though, whether it be porn, games, books, comics, whatever else they seem to want to dictate their personal taste upon others and to justify their dislike beyond ‘this isn’t for me’ by turning it into some moral or social issue.
Historically one found this behaviour on the right-hand side of the political spectrum, generally stemming from religious beliefs. A personal distaste (or shame) would dictate that someone would condemn something on religious or moral grounds. This still goes on but increasingly one sees it from the political left as well. A personal distaste for something will be dressed up in the clothing of feminism, sexuality or other activism in order to justify that personal distaste and to portray the thing being targeted as societally harmful. Whatever side of the political spectrum this comes from it is harmful and shaming and needs to step back and think a little more.
[38:00] Inevitably the discussion gets around to 50 Shades of Grey and how BDSM and erotica has abruptly and suddenly (yet again) popped up into the mainstream. Is 50 Shades giving women ‘permission’ to explore their kinkier or more submissive side? That goes back to the shaming culture that surrounds women who enjoy sex, particularly politically incorrect sex and the necessity of having a means to bypass or avoid the judgement of others. 50 Shades is, of course, awfully written and portrays the BDSM community in an appalling light and a manner in which it has reacted to very badly. This happens to every subculture that gets dragged into the mainstream glare whether it’s punk rock, roleplayers, comic fans or Trekkers and its going to be no different for kinksters. Awful or not, it does raise consciousness and does get people to experiment and explore which – in my opinion – is a net plus. Even if it creates some weird ideas in some people.
[39:00] I self-identify as being sexually dominant (don’t laugh) and briefly flirted with the BDSM scene for a while back in the day, in secret, ashamed of myself and terrified of both my own desires and of being ‘found out’. I still identify that way even if I’m not a ‘practising dom’ in much the same way as Stephen Fry used to identify himself as a celibate homosexual. I still find erotica and pornography along these themes the most intriguing in every sense, including artistry and what Nica says at this point about your sexual proclivity and identity not having to carry over into the rest of your life almost made me applaud the computer.
There are way, way, way too many doms (and dommes) who confuse being sexually dominant with being a jerk or a bully. That domination requires one to be an arsehole. That the power exchange is one-sided. That’s simplistic, stupid and ruins people for the BDSM scene much as it did me. Equally on the other side there are plenty of submissives who think that they have to be meek and useless all the time, to have no spine or desire of their own whatsoever, to defer on everything. There are those subs who forget that there’s no small amount of joy in ‘resistance’ before surrender – for all parties concerned and again, equally, this can be massively off-putting. Reconciling a respect and concern for women with the desire to dominate and control a partner sexually was – and is – incredibly shaming and difficult to process. Especially when people are telling you constantly how monstrous it is to have these desires and that, even as pure fantasy, they are somehow dangerous.
[45:00] Back to 50 Shades again and again about how the writing is awful. Nica and Remittance Girl seriously need to be friends and trade notes as they’re both intellectuals in similar arenas striving to better the craft.
[46:00] The discussion gets into race in pornography and honestly this is something that has always really confused me and made my brain itch. I think that’s because I don’t have quite the same cultural cues and history as Americans do. That’s not to say race isn’t a big issue in the UK its just not as big an issue and not as woven into the warp and weft of British society as it is in America. Americans are seriously fucked up about race and this has one of its most open expressions in pornography to a degree that you don’t see elsewhere, perhaps because porn is already seen as problematic and shameful and so racial issues on top of that don’t seem like a big deal.
Part of me sees this issue as just another aspect of taste and fantasy. There are evolutionary reasons for us to be drawn to (and repulsed by) the different and the exotic and there are racial archetypes and cultural trends as well as physical aspects that do tie in – however loosely – to things that attract us. There’s nothing inherently wrong in being attracted to black women, Caucasian women, Hispanic women, Asian women, South Asian women or Arab women (or men) though you may find some of these itches harder to scratch than others, again for cultural reasons.
On the other hand, as Nica points out, often the person is there – at least in the adult film – to be nothing but ‘the black guy’ or ‘the Japanese schoolgirl’ and that is their entire and total character. At the same time I wonder why minority actors and actresses go along with it and that’s where I think it gets even more complicated, especially with African Americans and especially with African American men. The ‘thug’ stereotype seems, to me, to be as much a defensive stereotype, one of pride and masculinity, of threat and power as it is an offensive stereotype. The rapper, the pimp, the gang banger, these are shitty, two-dimensional things but they can be a source of strength. If you scare and threaten someone you have power of some sort over them that you may not, otherwise, have. The other stereotype being the super-hung black, the ‘mule’ (Is twoo is twoo!) which is simultaneously insulting but also affirming of dangerous, powerful masculine agency.
The dynamic in the states is such that many people are threatened by these black stereotypes and cultures and are simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by it. There’s an element of humiliation and despoiling in the interracial pornography, especially when it’s a black man (or men) and a white woman. Its a weird, charged mix and one that porn doesn’t shy away from while in other media this is pretty much unacceptable.
It is still a fantasy though and as Nica talks about there are those actresses who refuse to work with black men in movies, but who date black men in their ‘real lives’. They cannot, then, really be called racist but they know (or at least believe) that such a performance might damage their prospects or change their image with their fans. Equally those who make the films are exploiting a fantasy and a fetish that pre-exists.
Its the kind of problem that really bakes your noodle and needs discussion, discussion which doesn’t happen enough. My visceral reaction is disgust and its definitely ‘problematic’ but at the same time it is still fantasy, at a remove from reality, as much as BDSM fantasies are removed from ‘patriarchy’. To me, I think, after consideration it acts to illuminate just how messed up Americans are about race in the wider culture.
[48:00] As a grumbling old left-anarchist I think that a lot of these problems of white, male, middle class dominance are down to economics rather than race and that makes me realise why, in part, what passes for the American Left is so vitriolic and why it turns to blaming privilege in terms of race/gender etc so much. The argument on socialism versus capitalism is 99% lost in the US. It is not really part of the political conversation. The inability of immigrant and racial minority groups to climb the social ladder to the middle classes and nouveau riche on anything like an equal basis cannot be down to economic failure because freemarket, laissez-faire capitalism and trickle-down economics go virtually unquestioned in the American political conversation. If you work from that assumption then the issue must be down to black indolence (if you’re a conservative) or entrenched racism (if you’re white) and nothing to do with money at all.
From my perspective as a European and a leftist, that is (almost but not entirely) bollocks.
[50:00] Nica has proven her point and increased diversity in pornographic representation not by attacking or trying to eliminate the things she doesn’t like but by creating the things that she does. She has ‘made good art‘.
[56:00] Chauncey brings up V.M. Johnson and, obliquely, the problems and surprise that racial minorities can encounter in the kink scene. This echoes what one finds in the gaming, science fiction and fantasy scenes where the problem is not necessarily the people who are already part of that tribe but rather those around the atypical person who finds themselves liking, loving, adoring something that is seen as ‘white boy stuff’. Certainly the goth and metal scenes have very few members of racial minorities in them and that’s not so much to do with racism within those scenes but rather the pressures upon minority kids to conform to the community into which they’re born. Owning and identifying with their stigma in a way similar to that Nica described for porn stars.
[57:30] Quoting V Chauncey says – to paraphrase – “That’s the politics of it, but whatever gets you off”. This resonates with my with regard to fan/geek culture, despite being focused on race, in that the assumption is so often that if you like cheesecake art in your fantasy games or comics, if you like to rescue the princess in a computer game that this necessarily says something about your feelings towards women. Merely not condemning such material sufficiently for those who hate it is also grounds for you to be branded a misogynist or whatever else. Sexuality is far more primal and powerful and yet V can make the distinction, even when it comes to so bitter an issue as black slavery, that the one thing is fantasy, the other is reality and the two don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other.
[58:00] Alongside the brain-itch from out and out racial issues in porn there’s also issues that come up with playing into the idea of ‘Americas enemies’. Mexicans crossing the border being caught and sexually used and humiliated or Arab (or Arab) women being the target of gonzo porn in the wake of 9/11 (fascination/revulsion at play again). This is no different to how wrestling brings in a ‘heel’ who is Iraqi – or whatever – when there’s a war on.
[60:00] Nica again reiterates about not judging people for their personal kinks and desires, however dark you might think they are or how harmful you might think they are. As she says, people can be exploring these things in a safe environment. I have known more than one woman who, as a victim of rape, sought out rough sex and rape play as a way to play out, process, deal with and work through their issues after the fact. A way of having a safe harbour where control was there if needed. Where they were reclaiming their own sexual autonomy through exploring these things.
From [64:00] to the end is important and valuable, I think, for challenging people’s stereotypes about adult workers and certainly meshes with my experiences and friendships with people who have worked across the spectrum of adult entertainment.
I found this whole ‘cast interesting, intelligent and it provoked the thoughts I’ve set out above. I think its worth listening to and I think people like Nica are worth supporting. I hope you’ve found it – and my thoughts – the same way. I’m going to end with a link to the brilliant Alyssa Royse talking about sexual shame and how its a load of bullshit.