Squicks, Squees And Monopolies: We Interviewed Stoya About The Future Of Porn
The Debrief: Will ethical porn ever break the stranglehold of the large tube sites? Stoya - one of the biggest porn names of this generation - is taking on the challenge
One of the biggest porn names of our generation, Stoya is passionate about driving change in the adult industry. I got to sit down with her at Sexhibition – the UK's largest sex event – and get her insider opinion on how she sees the adult industry changing. It's a tough topic, mostly because there is so much work to do: from educating consumers about ethical porn to breaking the stranglehold of the large tube sites and ensuring performers are paid fairly for their work. Alongside other performers and producers, Stoya is at the heart of this huge work-in-progress, and she's realistic about the challenge: it's not going to be easy, and change in the porn industry will happen over decades rather than overnight.
'If you go way back to the very early 80s, you had Nina Hartley, Annie Sprinkle, Candida Royale. All fantastic badass women who were performers and then they started doing things for themselves,' she explains. These performers and producers were something like the first wave of the porn revolution: taking power away from big studios, creating videos that were driven by their desires rather than the demands of the mass market. 'Then when Candida Royale died late last year I remember looking at the obituaries and thinking 'oh my god, the same things she fought against are some of the same battles that Kayden and I are fighting with Trenchcoat – FUCK.'"
The pendulum swing towards ethical porn
TrenchcoatX.com [NSFW link] is Stoya's big project: she and her friend Kayden Kross set up the curated porn site together, and it features scenes they've made themselves as well as carefully chosen ethically made porn videos from other performers and studios. Like many adult performers, Stoya is rightly pissed off with the current dominance of 'free' tube sites, and she puts fair wages for performers and ethical practices at the heart of all the porn she makes.
It seems like she – and other ethical performers and producers – are making some headway. Consumers are becoming more aware of the ethical decisions involved in watching porn – wanting to know if performers are being treated and paid fairly, for instance. But will we see real change in the porn industry in the near future? Stoya is cynical – or perhaps just realistic.
'When you step back and look at the entire history of the modern pornographic film industry, from maybe the mid-70s around the production of the VCR, you see a big pendulum swing [in the direction of more positive porn]. But then we swung backwards, and then we swung to the mid-point in the mid-2000s when I started, when companies were beginning to take an interest in 'female friendly' or 'couples oriented' or whatever. It was this like bright shiny adult film industry with lots of money in the US still.' So far, so good, right? Not really. 'Then enter Manwin, the company which owns PornHub and a number of the other large tube sites. They also own Brazzers and men.com and so many more.'
The level of dominance of this one company – now called MindGeek after a name change from Manwin – surprises even me. Redtube, Youporn, Babes.com, Xtube... the list is exhausting. And Stoya doesn't pull any punches when explaining why that matters:
'They have this hegemonic dominance of what your average user sees when they type 'porn' into Google browser. So much of what comes up is owned by them. So the style of what a casual browser thinks 'porn' is, is controlled by them. And as a worker, too, they have a monopoly. If it were any other industry and the US government had its shit together, there would be anti-trust investigations.'
'We had sex in an abandoned casino on camera – that's one of my favourite things to date'
But of course while the current porn environment has its problems, it also has its challengers: Stoya herself is working hard to try and offer an alternative to 'free' and unethical porn.
'There are so many people, especially so many women who have been performers, who recognise that the barrier to entry and the means of production is so low, we have an opportunity for diversity with some production value.' Excited about the possibilities of cheaper tech as well as much cheaper options for distribution of porn over the internet, Stoya describes it as 'Marx, plus some!' On TrenchcoatX, in addition to the porn she and Kayden make themselves, they also licence work from other people and distribute it through their channels – paying fair license fees to other producers so they can showcase a broader diversity of work.
'We licence from... by no means everyone we think is doing great things with explicit sexual video but from a variety of people. So we say 'oh you like female-directed adult video – also see Erika Lust!' Or you like my graphic depictions? Check out A Four-Chambered Heart. As far as diversity of bodies we're still nowhere near where we'd like to be, but we are already showing diversity of sexual interest and treatment of sexual video. There's also so much coming out of both the UK and the US, even within the constraints of what's legally allowed and what the payment processors will allow. We've got all these women doing what they want to do - performing in what they want to perform in, and I think that's just beautiful.'
And performing is definitely a passion for Stoya – when she is in control of the way she's performing and with who. Her eyes light up when she talks about her latest series – Around The World In 80 Ways – where she gets to indulge her passion for traveling to cool and out-of-the-way places. 'I take my handy camera and go and operate it myself while I'm getting railed by a male performer. I just got back from Serbia – I love Serbia.' She has a particular fondness for bizarre and interesting locations, so I asked if she had any particular highlights.
'Oh my God!' she exclaims, getting settled in, 'We just did this thing in Croatia. Bob Guccione, who's the guy who built Penthouse, he also built this casino in Croatia when it was Yugoslavia. He was going to bring the Penthouse Pets and American tourists and the communist heads of state and mix them together in the casino. A kind of utopia for everyone to be friends - but within this extra thing of communism and capitalism working together. He sold it a year later, then during the Bosnia-Herzegovina war it ended up being used as a refugee camp and now it's abandoned. So Zac Sabbath and I went and had sex there on camera. That's one of my favourite things to date.'
'I don't want to rain on their happy wanking parade'
But while she's passionate about travelling and performing, it's not just on-camera that Stoya wants to have an impact – she also wants to change the way we discuss and categorise adult videos. So often porn sites categorise and label videos with extreme prejudice or judgment (MILF, BBW, teen – you can probably think of plenty more) – or classify videos with such broad brush-strokes that you could be having a great time one minute and the next stumble across something that's incredibly disturbing to you. To try and get around this problem, Stoya is experimenting with a tagging system where site users can class sexual acts into 'squees' and 'squicks' – respectively things they like, and things they'd rather not see.
'It came about when I was watching a scene Kayden Kross did for a series called Fluid. It was a beautiful scene and I was watching it to write the description. And in it Kayden – she'd just had a baby pretty recently - and she grabs her boob and squeezes and breast milk flies out. And I gagged. I … kind of wish I'd known I was going to see that. I wanted to know how to describe this and let people know without being like 'WARNING' - that's judgmental. For people who like that I don't want to be raining on their happy wanking parade.'
So just as people can filter videos by the kind of things they like, using Stoya's categorisation system they can also use very detailed tags to filter out the kind of things they don't. It's far from perfect, as she freely admits, but it's a work in progress. Just looking at one video on the site shows categories I've never seen on a mainstream porn site: smeared lipstick, smacked ass (which is a different category to spanking), ciswoman, unscripted, armpit hair. By introducing more detail and nuance, the 'squick/squee' system makes users think about how they'd categorise their own desires – and potentially make them less judgmental of other people's.
“We want everybody to be able to perform what they want within reason and what our payment processor will allow us to do, but we also want the individual consumer to be able to come in and say 'you know I am personally not into and it will ruin my arousal - possibly ruin my day.'"
'It's important to have the cynical chainsmoker in the corner'
Listening to Stoya talk about her ambitions, and the work of other fantastic adult performers and producers, it's easy to feel very hopeful about the direction porn is taking. So I ask her the obvious question: are ethical porn producers winning? Is the pendulum swinging towards Stoya and others who are trying to take on the big tube sites?
'Well... Audacia Ray, who's a sex work activist in New York, said to me once that she's 'a short term pessimist but a long-term optimist.' She didn't expect to see real concrete progress that sticks in her lifetime, but she's prepared to keep chipping away at it so that we can get there sooner - however far ahead that date might be. For me it's awesome and exhilarating - Trenchcoat isn't bleeding money and the Department of Justice hasn't knocked on my door yet so I'm like 'wheeee!' But I'm also braced for the potential of the smack down, where I have to deal with god knows what, which is where the real struggle is.'
On top of this, there's also the global context: 'Women are doing it for themselves as far as porn goes, but then when you look at the ecosystem of global sex workers' rights you see that awww – we win over here, we lose over there. When I'm like 'oh maybe there's no point', it's important to have an optimist bounce in and say 'NO it's cheerleading time!' But it's also important to have the chainsmoker in the corner who reminds you of the travesties that are happening.'
While sex workers are fighting for their rights worldwide – and many, like Stoya, are challenging the big companies that currently hold sway in the adult industry – it might seem hard for consumers to keep up. I ask Stoya what individuals can do to contribute to her revolution.
'Stay. The hell. Off. Tube sites,' she orders sternly, again highlighting the Manwin/MindGeek owned sites that dominate the market. 'It costs the consumer nothing to pirate that way but the tube sites make money off impression based ads, so it's like compound theft. … As far as a consumer with disposable income who can access pornography legally in their country – please pay for it. Please. If there's too little income then I can't afford to pay performers reasonable rates. So then I just won't shoot.'
She isn't an idealist, though: Stoya is a practical person, and is keen to get more people watching her porn even if it's not possible for them to pay – if they live in China, for example, where many adult sites are blocked, or in South America where her payment processor won't operate.
'It's also important to me that 18 year old kid in South America sees the scene I just shot with Zac Smith in Athens, where when it's penetration time he pulls a condom out of his pocket and puts it on. Like a normal human being would when we're having sex. I'm not on birth control, so unless it feels necessary for the project or there's some director saying 'you have to', I prefer to use condoms. So let's show that but actually show that and normalise condom use. Or there was once this young guy who came up to me at a convention and pulled the equivalent of 20 bucks out of his pocket. He just handed it to me and was like 'I live in China. I have pirated so much of your work and here you go.' So even that is wonderful and emotionally balances some of the negativity. Like oh, I put this scene up an hour ago and people are watching it for free and saying it's garbage because I didn't take a load on my face.' She rolls her eyes, and I can understand the cynicism – in the face of tube-site dominance it seems like anyone who wants to do something different has a mountain to climb first. But there is some good news: particularly thanks to social media, and vocal campaigners for sex worker rights being given platforms in the mainstream press, there is a much more useful discussion about the problems.
'People using social media, change in coverage of adult, and also so many sex workers and porn performers getting bylines – it really humanizes us. If I was the only person getting bylines in mainstream publications we would have the same issue as ten years ago where people thought every porn star was like Jenna Jameson. But it's becoming more obvious to the general public I think that we're all individual people - with regard to workers rights we all have our individual pet problems. I think also because of the internet women – in fact anybody who doesn't want traditional pornography – they're not only more aware of it but also more able to access it in private on their own terms at first.'
It's clear by the end of the interview that Stoya and I sit at different points on the optimism spectrum – I'm excited by the changes happening in the adult industry, and anticipate a pendulum swing more in favour of performer-producers like Stoya, who are making the kind of films they want to, on their own terms. She's a realist, though: keen to push for change but fully aware of how much hard work it is.
'I'd hope that everything you want actually comes to fruition and sticks,' she explains, and when she says that it does seem like a huge ambition. There are plenty of hurdles along the way – from government censorship (and censorship from payment processors) as well as competition from the dominant MindGeek and their network of free tube sites. The proliferation of judgmental language and fetishisation that she's trying to tackle with her squick/squee project. But while my glass is still half-full when it comes to predictions for the adult industry, Stoya seems more grounded and realistic. She recognises where progress has been made, celebrates the pioneers who came before her, and understands the scale of the problems she's trying to solve.
But as she explains: it's important to have the cynics as well as the optimists. We've all got our parts to play.
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