Sexuality Tomorrow: Masculinity and The New Dawn of Ethical Porn and Prostitution

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Ethical porn director, Nica Noelle, and sexologist, Carol Queen, discuss ethical porn and prostitution at the Center for Sex and Culture in San Francisco (Psychology Tomorrow MeetUp: January 30th, 2014)

 

 

Stanley Siegel: Psychology Tomorrow magazine will focus a good deal on sex. Unlike psychology magazines of the past, this magazine will have a sex positive approach. It’ll explore the idea of sexuality as creative expression. It will deal with many of the issues that other magazines are afraid to examine regarding sex.

From fetishes, to ideas about domination and submission. The magazine will move beyond conventional definition of sexuality in the way in which we parcel things into gay, straight, bisexual and to broaden the perspective as to what sexuality is and pay much more attention to peoples’ individual expression of their sexuality versus how we categorize them.

We will examine the specific kinds of fantasies and behavior that people create in their lives, all with a positive spin.

Carol Queen: My partner Robert and I, who can’t be with us tonight, started the center. We started discussions about it in conversations about what we wanted to do with it in 1994 with Betty Dodson in New York who some of you I’m sure are familiar with- the mother of masturbation, among many other things. She said, “You kids should start a place!” and we looked at each other realized that she was right. We kids should start a place. We spent some time talking up the idea and finally an angel investor gave us enough money to get our nonprofit status- throw some money at a lawyer and get this taken care of! We have been doing programming that’s arts and arts and culture related.

I was really moved and impressed by what Stanley was saying about creativity and psychology because for us creativity and sexology, or creativity and sexuality, is probably the most important way that most people in the United States actually access thinking about sexuality-related issues, from sex in mainstream movies to porn of all its various stripes to arts and culture. That’s because we get terrible sex education, most of us, so the arts and culture are a place that have a certain kind of resilience. It’s not always the best sex ed in the whole wide world. Maybe one of the things we can say is how porn actually often serves as sex education, but is it always really the best?

Some of us try to make sure that there is a model available for people when they are looking at actually, imagining how to have sex and how to have sex in different ways. The Center for Sex and Culture attempts to meet people’s sexual needs and engage people’s sexual creativity in all kinds of different ways. We also make space for community organizations that are sex-related to have their meetings and so forth. We hope you sign up on our list if you’re not already on it so that we can keep in touch with you.

This is a fraction of the poster collection amassed by an activist named Buzz Bents and he’s been in San Francisco for many years. He was a poster designer; a couple of his items are up on the walls, and during the HIV crisis these posters would come out to hang in gay bars and different places and stacks of them would show up on top of the cigarette machine just like the gay newspapers would and he would always run down there and grab posters. So he made quite a collection of them. He got posters off the bus shelters – those huge ones that you see on either side were San Francisco bus shelter posters from Muni in the late 1980s or early 1990s – and some of them as you might imagine were rather controversial. This moral majority and situation over there- “kind of” controversial! Our gallerist, Dorian Cats, when Buzz donated these posters to us got us, got so excited and said, “We have to have a show!”

At a moment in history, when it was so important to communicate about safer sex and sexuality-related issues, and you couldn’t get the information most mainstream places. We don’t really communicate our sex ed via posters anymore, and we didn’t do it really much before these, but these were a moment in time when people could get enough information to know they needed to get more information, as well as get support and understanding that they weren’t alone, grappling with HIV and safer-sex-related issues by looking at these images that showed up on bar walls all around the world. There are some German ones, there are some Australian ones, some from LA, some from New York and anywhere where there was a significant gay men’s community you might have been able to find these kinds of posters. So we’re so honored to be able to show them here.

So those are the things that we do around here. I just wanted to let you know that that was the room in which you find yourself. When Ben reached out to us and we thought this would be a terrific partnership. We’re very excited about the magazine and I’m super-excited to have Nica in the room because I met her in Toronto at The Feminist Porn Awards and we were not able, because that’s a total cluster fuck up there- it’s an awesome cluster fuck!- we weren’t really able to bond or anything but it’s really nice to see you again. It’s a big honor to have you here at the Center.

Nica Noelle: Thank you. It’s an honor to be here with you.

Carol: Oh why don’t you say a little bit about what you do and how you entered this topic.

Nica: I like the term “ethical porn” better than “feminist porn” because it basically brings to mind what this is; it’s not a political thing but an ethical thing.  It’s about people being treated the right way as human beings and as sexual beings, and also in the workplace. Because a porn set is a workplace and performers have rights, just as workers have rights in any industry. tweet

With regard to whether condoms should be mandatory– here we get into “freedom of expression” vs. “protecting people in the workplace” and the question of “choice vs. exploitation.” In my view, the problem here–and this is the reason I shy away from politics with the issue–is that both sides draw lines in the sand and they don’t want to concede any points to the other side. But actually there are points to be made on both sides. There are points to be made by the healthcare community. There are also points to be made by the porn community with regard to freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

But none of those things matter as much as the way people are being treated when they’re on set. People call it “feminist porn” but it’s really about treating people as human beings. It’s about trying to create something thoughtful, artistic, beautiful and authentic. And in order to do that, performers have to feel comfortable and be able to let down their guard. They have to feel safe. It’s up to me to provide an environment where performers feel valued enough to create something we can then share with you guys. You’ll feel good about watching it, we’ll feel good about creating it, and it will be a much more positive experience for everybody.

Carol: And I just want to say a little bit about the notion of ethical prostitution. There’s such a, just as with porn and whether or not you factor in feminist varying perspectives, which it’s a little hard not to do when you talk about prostitution because second wave feminism has taken prostitution as well as porn and made it a really problematic thing.

Prostitution is a, the thing to say about prostitution as simple as possible, is that more diverse than it’s generally represented. So that the things that you hear about wretched conditions and terrible situations that people find themselves in do exist in some contexts. Of course they do. And it’s also very true that some people choose to do sex work, feel that it’s their calling or stumble into sex work at a moment when they need money and find out that it feels like it’s a pretty good fit for them at the time that they are doing it. tweet

People are sex workers from the time they’re teenagers to the time they’re in their 60s. I’ve known people who were older than I am right now who continue to be active sex workers. And I was a sex worker for many years and I like to say that and 99.9% retired but in this economy you really never know for sure, do you? You really never do. And when I worked I was what is often called a call girl or an escort. I didn’t work the streets. I didn’t have any of that kind of experience but I was fortunate to be in San Francisco in a community that had a 20 year history by the time I showed up in town of activist sex workers who had talked about working conditions for prostitutes that ranged–when you are thinking about ethical prostitution–from whether or not someone is living in a situation of economic justice so they can choose not to be a prostitute if they don’t want to do that. That’s one piece of what ethics looks like in a world of analyzing prostitution and another one is:

Do people have access to the kinds of services and resources they need that include medical services, safer sex information, support to find out whether or not there’s a bad John in town who might be dangerous? Do people have the opportunity to get support from one another? And one of the things that I found really extraordinarily important among prostitutes is if people have some sense of their own sexuality, sexual boundaries and ability to communicate about sexuality; when they begin, it makes a huge difference then, this notion that people sell their bodies. tweet

Well pretty much we all have our bodies at the end of the transaction, don’t we? So that’s not what’s really happening anymore than a psychotherapist sells their body and their mind to client. They are selling their time and their focus on the person. That’s what they’re selling. That’s what we were selling and are selling. So that’s what I want as a sort of to take as a counter measure to this idea that people are not able to draw their own limits and make their own decisions within sex work. In ethical sex work they absolutely can. And the other piece: is do they have access to support? Do they have to lie to everybody within their lives? Do they have to hide? Do they have to be worried that their kids will get taken away or that their partner will get arrested for pimping? Or any of the terrible things that can happen to a person who’s a prostitute. Are they going to get arrested? If they’re HIV-positive if they’re arrested, it’s felony and a long prison sentence in many states whether or not all they did was give a hand job, which has no real possibility of transmitting HIV. So there are two ways of thinking about ethical prostitution and that’s in the systems that people have a chance to access by which they get their clients: Do they have a madam that they can work with who they’re pretty much on the right page with? Or is there somebody forcing them, or pressuring them to do things that they don’t want to do? They get paid enough? Do they get to keep all the money that they make or most of the money that they make? Those kinds of questions. And then there is, what kind of culture are we doing sex work in in the first place? I think it’s really telling that Stanley’s fight with Psychology Today included a question of how you represent sex work. And it was just too controversial for them to say some sex workers really have a profoundly valuable and healing responsibility and role with their clients. I wouldn’t say that that was true of all sex workers, but I can tell you that some prostitutes think of themselves that way.

Nica: It’s kind of interesting- sorry to interrupt you.

Carol: Please do.

Nica: Just that there are sex therapists who act as sexual surrogates, and that’s considered legitimate.

Carol: More than prostitution anyway, of course.

Nica: Right. So it’s interesting that there’s this refusal to give any kind of validity to prostitution at all, when in another form it’s regarded as a profession with some legitimacy in terms of professionally assisting people psychologically or emotionally through sex.

Carol: Some people, some therapists actually actively work with surrogates and know that for certain clients, especially clients who don’t have very much sexual experience, that having someone who is trained and knows how to communicate and knows a lot about sex to go through the process. It’s actually a Master and Johnson-developed modality that you know, maybe you guys are watching “Masters of Sex” for the, you guys are watching it for the sexological history or for the sex or for the cool clothes? I don’t know, but it’s a biopic series, basically, about Masters and Johnson. Did anybody ever think that that was what was going to be on TV this year? This is kind of extraordinary really and Masters and Johnson did all this incredible studying and what they determined was: there was a way to sort of initiate people into sex to be able to do it comfortably, to overcome their fears, to overcome erectile dysfunction, or various kinds of problems that they might have, common problems that they saw. But the person had to have a sex partner willing to do the exercises with them. And that’s where sexual surrogates came from and of course somebody could hire a prostitute to do that. I’m sure it has happened but it’s thought of as being two completely different [things] and it’s really not. It isn’t, it isn’t.

Nica: I think this is one of the image problems porn has as well, in that when you’re psychotherapist or a counselor, or even a theater actress, people assume you’ve had a certain amount of training or you’ve made a disciplined effort to take what you do seriously. You didn’t just decide, “I need rent money so I’ll do this thing I really don’t have any skills for.” And because prostitution is currently illegal–which it shouldn’t be but it is–there’s no professional standard as to level of skill. You don’t have to go through training or demonstrate that you’re competent to deal with people in this intimate way. And these are sort of important things to consider.

It’s always difficult to raise this, because sometimes sex workers have knee-jerk reactions to any kind of perceived criticism. They think it’s anti-sex worker to raise it at all. But I think it’s fair that society wants to know that whatever a person’s profession may be, they put some serious thought into it. They want to know the person is qualified and is observing certain ethics and rules. Because ethics are a two way street; not only should the client or the John be ethical, so should the escort. But when everything is going on behind closed doors, both sides can kind of make up their own rules and that can go awry. So that’s another thing that makes it hard for people to say, “prostitution is a good thing; a valid profession.”  It retains the stigma, I think, at least partially, for that reason.

Carol: Yeah, from that perspective I think of ethics in prostitution as basically having to do with the prostitute’s understanding that the client as a right to their desires and basic respect and willingness to work with that.

That seems to be a really ground-floor level of ethics that when you stop and think about it the kerfluffle about prostitution isn’t just about the person is getting paid for sex, it’s also the person who is putting money out for sex. And we often get the messages that the culture at large does not really believe that everybody has the right to sexual satisfaction, especially if they have to pay for it. And I almost think of it as a parallel to people who watch porn, well not, why should people have the right to see the erotic images that they want to? That’s like, that’s not baseline need but maybe it is for some of us. tweet

Nica: I think it’s pretty much been proven that humans need to watch other people have sex. From the earliest days of our species, we were drawing pictures on cave walls of, you know, people having intercourse. Sex is something we’ve always had a need to see.

Carol: When I mentioned about using porn in a sex ed context, I think there’s titillation and I think there’s information that come with any porn movie, sometimes not in the same measure and not all porn is made to be sex ed right? I mean not all porn at all is made to be sex ed. Sometimes it’s not very good sex ed, but the kind of porn you’re talking about, whether or not that’s your primary goal in making it, could probably be seen as better modeling than when people have like physiologically, unrealistic expectation of what they are depicting and things like that. My fun thing to talk about there is the orgasm on the part of the woman who gets someone ejaculating on her butt and it makes her come. In real life that can happen but it is rare. Rather rare.

Nica: I haven’t seen that.

Carol: In the 80s it happened all the frigging time!

Laughter

Nica: You know, I actually don’t approach my work from a political standpoint of “I want my films to be sex education,” or “people are going to watch my porn and emulate what they see.”  I’m not thinking about that.

What I want to do is to show sex as authentically as I can, and sex can be many different things at different times. There’s angry sex, loving sex, romantic sex, boring sex. tweet

There’s sex where you’re thinking about somebody else, or forbidden sex between two people who shouldn’t be together because maybe it’s your sister-in-law or your teacher, or whatever.

When I first became a director, I noticed there could be different storylines in porn movies, but the sex scenes always looked the same. Three minutes of the blowjob, then on to the next position, then the next. The sexual expression was always the same and it always looked mechanical. Also, the sex scene never had anything to do with the narrative of the movie- to the extent that there was a narrative at all.

I don’t know if any of you have heard about the movie, “Blue is the Warmest Color,” that came out this past year. It’s by a highly respected filmmaker, but it was getting a lot of flack because he included an explicit lesbian scene in the movie. And even the author of the original book apparently said, “This is porn” and she was not happy about it. So I wanted to see this movie, but I was a little bit afraid to, because I was like, “Wow, a ‘real’ filmmaker shooting an explicit sex scene.” You know, I never went to film school and here comes this very respected guy, sort of moving in on my territory! I made my mark as a director doing lesbian porn; that was how I started my career. So I was like, “Am I just going to feel like a complete hack when I watch this?”

So I went to see the movie and I was actually shocked at how bad it was- not the movie itself, but the sex scene. Because as soon as I started watching the movie I was like, “this is incredible, the acting is amazing, the writing…” There were so many things to be in awe of.  But when it came time for the sex scene, it was like the director became completely bewildered and self-conscious.  It was sort of like a montage and it did look kind of like “typical porn.” Also, the sex scene didn’t have anything to do with the film’s narrative: you didn’t get any sense of the dynamic between the two women and you learned nothing new about them or their relationship. So I thought he must have just thrown in the sex to get attention, to create a scandal and get press for his movie.

But then I was thinking, maybe he sincerely wanted to depict sex in the movie, but there’s such a stigma to it that even gifted directors don’t consider that sex can be as important to the narrative as the dialogue. The performers’ facial expressions, who ends a kiss first, little hesitations and pauses. Is one person smiling and the other isn’t? Who’s in charge? All of these little details, these little moments that give you so much narrative information, are missing from most porn scenes and were missing from this sex scene. Because I know in porn, most directors just say “okay, let’s do a blowjob for a few minutes and now let’s do reverse cow girl…” There’s no real information there.

As a director, that’s what I’m trying to reach for. I want to create something that seamlessly transitions from the buildup to the sex, where the sex is consistent with the dynamic between the two characters, or you even learn something new about them by watching them have sex. So that’s the approach I take, and it’s not a political one; it’s more of an artistic one.

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