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From #MeToo to cam stars, this year’s Oscars of the obscene showcased the future of porn

Here’s a Black Mirror pitch: You pay several hundred dollars to attend the world’s biggest porn convention and awards ceremony. You travel to Las Vegas, where the air has transformed into mentholated nicotine vapor and no one will validate your parking. You do this in order to meet porn stars in the flesh, to see them onstage celebrating the Oscars of the obscene, because – even though, according to Scientific American, half of us are now creating our own sexual content on our personal devices – there’s something superhuman about sexual celebrities.

But when you arrive at the convention, in place of your 1990s dream of impossibly proportioned stars in bedazzled Lycra posing for Polaroids, what you see is a 15,000-square-foot hall teeming with hundreds of beautiful, semi-clothed models of all shapes and styles, grinning into their laptops. You try to talk to a young woman in heart-shaped pasties and booty shorts, but she’ll only give you a few seconds of attention before she’s back to clicking her shiny gold nails across her keyboard.

Here’s the twist: This ain’t no dystopian nightmare. Attendees of the 35th Annual Adult Entertainment Expo and Adult Video News Awards were treated to precisely this display of tech-mediated intimacy. Plenty of big names were in attendance – stars who had led more traditional adult-film careers – but they were outnumbered by scores of up-and-coming models who primarily built their own businesses using cam shows, original clip stores and monetized social-media platforms. The mass availability of easily pirated streaming video may have decimated the porn economy, but it seems that women are the ones adapting, finding fresh ways to connect directly with consumers. As these models gain more economic influence, they are also raising the bar for consent conversations throughout the industry.

The last time I was at the AVNs was in 2012, when I was nominated for producing and directing a niche site called QueerPorn.TV. My Bay-Area scene was proud to think of ourselves as the forward-thinking weirdos, exemplifying the characteristics of the queer porn genre: body-positive and diverse, with a riot-grrrl aesthetic. We were nominated in the somewhat self-contradicting category Best Professional Amateur Site, and were miffed when we lost to Clips4Sale, a platform which had been around since 2003 for creators to upload and sell short original videos. Here we were, indie smut with a vision, and we lost to a tech host?

Now, it seems as clear as a Bellagio fountain that clips stores were the future of “professional amateurs.” While much of the male-dominated porn studio system is fighting against stolen content, independent female artists have been able to establish a sustainable business, producing their own content and marketing it to a small but loyal fan base.

One such artist is Bratty Nikki, a leggy, half-Mexican, half-Irish woman with a frosty reality-TV aesthetic: blonde extensions, impossible nails, skin-tight miniskirts and designer spiked heels. She sat on a gleaming white couch in an enormous booth on the expo floor, calling attention to her shirt, which read; “Never underestimate the power of a girl who knows what she wants.”

Nikki is the executive vice president of IWantEmpire.com, an umbrella company that includes IWantClips, IWantPhone, IWantFanClub and IWantCustomClips, with more in the works. Hers is one of many companies vying for dominance in a sort of clips market arms race. Nikki got her start seven years ago working as an online financial dominatrix, offering phone and cam sessions to clients in which she expressed a personality she tells me isn’t really a character. “I am a greedy brat,” she says. “I believe that I deserve the best out of life. My fans love that I’m confident enough to say, ‘This is what I want and you’re gonna give it to me.'”

She started IWantEmpire with her husband, entrepreneur Jay Phillips, because she felt other host sites were underestimating her as an artist. Like other platforms, they take a cut of the profits, but the artist sets their own price and decides what and how much they want to upload. Their brand expanded to offer a store for consumers to order custom clips, and a fan club where artists can monetize social media-like “lifestyle” content. As it turns out, kinky consumers are willing to pay for content created by people who understand precisely what they’re looking for.

Like many fetish clips, Nikki’s videos don’t include sex or even nudity, just specialty monologues in which she teases, chastises and degrades her devotees. In the larger-than life video projected over us in the booth, she wore skinny jeans and a tank top, standing in an apartment entryway holding shopping bags. “Yes, I’m leaving you,” she spits at the camera with an exaggerated eye roll. “I’ve already maxed out your credit cards. Taken a bunch of vacations with my girlfriends that you paid for. You’re going to be sitting home alone tonight crying into your pillow as you hate-jerk your little cock.”

The audacity of financial domination is a perfect fit for naturally bossy women. Haven, a Haitian-American dominatrix from Orlando, says that when she was go-go dancing and camming she didn’t take direction from clients very well. When she discovered that she could make fetish clips online, it was a way for her to make a career off her genuine demeanor. “I really don’t want to talk to you; I really just want your money,” she deadpans. “That’s me, wholeheartedly.” Now she films around 15 short clips every Sunday, improvising on topics like small-penis humiliation or jack-off instruction. She spends the rest of the week editing footage, scheduling uploads, writing marketing copy and promoting her brand on social media.

“It takes a lot of work to make this look so easy,” she says.

I tagged along to an afternoon of clip shoots at a local film studio run by porn director/performers Madeline Marlowe and Will Havoc. Havoc was pulling a red and black leather harness over his tattooed chest, preparing to shoot sex scenes with two porn stars named Riley Nixon and Arabelle Raphael.

Riley, who was nominated for Best New Starlet at the AVNs, wiggled into a canary-yellow latex two-piece and platform heels. As she filled out her legal paperwork, she kept squatting and yanking on the rubbery crotch of her outfit. Even though she was following a conventional route to adult film fame, signing at the Penthouse booth and shooting for notorious gonzo studio Elegant Angel, she also sold Skype shows, custom clips and signed Polaroids on her personal website. She would post today’s footage on her own ManyVids and OnlyFans pages, where fans can pay a monthly membership for access to exclusive content.

One advantage to making her own content is that she has more leeway to maintain her preferred androgynous style and buzzed head ­– some mainstream studios still won’t cast models with short hair or tattoos. “I’ll wear a wig to play a character, but I don’t want to have to wear a wig to play the role of a woman,” she complains.

Arabelle has had to deal with her own hair troubles in the industry. She’s a French-Persian Jew, and long ago grew tired of being expected to straighten her hair and use skin-lightening makeup to work with certain directors.

“I was being cast in really racist roles,” she says, “and basically told I was not good enough.” She took time off to build her own membership site, a Clips4Sale store, and an OnlyFans following, discovering unprecedented financial and emotional success. “I had no idea I was a good performer and that people wanted more content of me,” she says. “I left my hair curly, got as many tattoos as I wanted, shot with who I wanted.”

Riley, Arabelle and Will show one another the results of their standard STI tests on the secure Performer Availability Scheduling Services database. They negotiate sexual boundaries and preferences while doing their own costuming and makeup. With low production cost and the creative advantage of working with friends, they’re each an individual porn studio unto themselves.

Porn stars work hard and party hard, and sometimes they work while they’re playing. Late that night, I was invited to a private sex party with a hard-to-obtain address. A Lyft took me away from the light pollution of the strip to an edge of town tract housing development. Through the unfurnished living room, past an ominously neon-lit pool, was a warehouse filled with porn stars smoking blunts and offering one another bumps in their rhinestone-encrusted nails.

Hired stars ascended to a sort of wrestling platform in the center of the room, performing exaggerated lubed-up sex for onlookers to the rhythm of deafening drone metal. My friends, a polyamorous “family,” decided to find a quieter room in which to play. As I enjoyed a beer and watched sex-worker activist Siouxsie Q fuck her curly-haired boyfriend Michael Vegas, an AVN nominee for Best Supporting Actor – as her Barbie-blonde pro-domme girlfriend Bella Bathory is eaten out in a nearby chair – it occurred to me that we were doing exactly what porn fans assumed we must be doing. I felt like I had ringside seats to watch NBA superstars play a pick-up game.

As the four-day convention wore on, the all-night partying didn’t threaten to slow anyone down. The AEE still makes the classic circuit demands of conventional porn stars, each scheduled to appear for three- to five-hour shifts, where they were to sign and sell eight-by-10 glossies, allow hands around their waists and shoulders, smile, twerk, tell fans how their favorite position is still reverse cowgirl, princess wave, talk to men like they’re babies, talk to men like they’re dogs. But it was the cam models who had the boundless energy, who behaved like Vine stars or friends at a slumber party that just happens to be surveilled. They hovered over their screens, promising to spank one another in exchange for tips; the ding of virtual tokens being earned echoed the slots at the nearby casino.

The models had each brought their own laptops, colorfully branded with their stage names. Most of them had elaborate production rigs including flattering ring lights, bulky webcams and phallic microphones. Cam models perform all kinds of explicit shows when they broadcast from their homes; but, due to city-wide nudity laws, they couldn’t wear less than pasties and a thong at AEE. That meant no dildo shows or live sex. Yet their chirpy conversation still had value for the members watching from home, some of whom had actually financed the travel for their favorite model.

At the booth for the webcam company Chaturbate, both men and women were making cameos on one another’s screens. This seemed to be in defiance of the porn convention that objects of desire should be separated, lest a consumer’s taste be offended or boner deflated by something they weren’t expecting to see.

A male model named Leon with One-Direction hair and powder-blue briefs explained to me that one of his online fans had just told him he was enjoying watching all the broadcasts because, “It’s like seeing all of the characters from my favorite TV shows in a crossover episode!”

I approached a group of giggling young camgirls in pastel-colored wigs. They were teasing a group of bystanders, telling them to tune in to their group cam show later that night “to see some real action.”

I asked them if they were hoping that in future years they’d be as famous as the porn stars in the Wicked or Evil Angel booths? Did they want everyone to know their names?

One of the models shook her head vigorously, making her unicorn-horn headband wobble. “The more famous you get,” she pointed out, “the more people will pirate your content.”

Her friend, who was wearing a mesh leotard with skeleton hands covering her nipples, agreed: “We make more money when only our fans know who we are.”

With the national conversation surrounding #MeToo, it was no surprise that the sex workers at AEE were ready to address the topics of harassment and bodily autonomy. Members of the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee (APAC) handed out colorful “What Is Consent?” flyers, which illustrated how consent is “informed” and “freely given,” and that it “can be revoked at any time.”

For the second year in a row, every single convention attendee – fans and exhibitors alike – was required to sign a Code of Conduct form that outlined, for example, the difference between a consensual public picture and a violation such as an upskirt.

“The Code of Conduct described a zero-tolerance policy towards “stalking, unwelcome physical contact” and “offensive verbal assaults,” emphasizing that guests were “welcome to use the restroom that match their gender presentation or identity.” This last stipulation was especially welcome from the trans community attending the awards, as two years ago several performers accused Hard Rock security guards of disrespecting a gender non-conforming attendee.

Some participants were aware of ways they could make their models more comfortable. Best director nominee Greg Lansky, a delightfully flashy French pornographer in a red Givenchy tracksuit, says that he literally elevates his studio so that fans can see women “on a pedestal.” His security teams knows which performers are ok hugging and touching their fans and which aren’t.

“I’m trying to make these girls feel good about what they do,” he says. “They all worked really hard to get here.”

With security at all corners of his booth, with its Instagrammable gold couch and open bar, Lansky believes fans get the message that women deserve respect.

“It’s hard for me to go anywhere [in the hotel],” says Jessica Drake, a Best Actress nominee, from the relative privacy of her pristine media suite. “Guys congregate in groups of 30 and just stand there. They circle you. I’ve become a master of taking a selfie and restraining them at the same time.”

Director and performer Joanna Angel, owner of the alt genre site Burning Angel, says she’s never had a bad experience with a fan at AEE. “The fans are traveling to be here,” she says. “They’re really looking forward to this. People wait in really long lines to come see you.” The only time she’s seen nonconsensual groping is from men at the bar after the convention, whom casino security quickly ejected. “I wouldn’t even call guys like that fans,” she says, just entitled jerks.

Ron Jeremy, who has been considered more of a walking novelty than active performer for many years, was banned from the convention and awards show following his claim that groping is a part of the job of his pubic appearances.

In a statement to Rolling Stone, AVN CEO Tony Rios commented, “Ron Jeremy admitted guilt to specific aspects of our code of conduct policy. We discussed this with Ron, and he was not allowed to attend the convention and awards show.”

However, performer/director James Deen, who was accused of on-set misconduct as well as intimate partner violence back in 2015, was nominated at and attended the awards.

Rios clarified, “We did not prohibit people from attending based on accusations.”

Siouxsie Q, who was recently elected secretary of APAC, is upset about what she sees as double standards, where the young, powerful Deen is still welcomed while aging Jeremy is put out to pasture.

“I think we see similar trends in Hollywood. These accounts of Harvey Weinstein’s predatory behavior aren’t coming out during the height of the Kill Bill franchise, but rather in the soggy aftermath of Paddington Bear 2,” she says. “As someone’s star dwindles, people are more willing to watch them fall.”

Deen’s attorney Michael Fattorosi characterized comparisons to Jeremy as “inaccurate and unfair.” In a statement, he said, “James was never investigated criminally, nor were there ever any lawsuits filed against him by any of the accusers. Nor did James ever admit to any misconduct on his part.”

And unlike other industries where powerful men continue to be reckoned, those in porn face powerful taboos. “It’s challenging for adult performers to speak out regarding any abuse that occurs; it is because it perpetuates stigma and allows for society to tell us we asked for it,” says Tasha Reign, an APAC chairperson.

Siouxsie Q agrees that stigma plays a huge role in consent controversies within the sex industry. “As long as sex workers have as much difficulty as they do when reporting and prosecuting sexual assault,” she says, “there will continue to be a culture of silence, victim scrutiny, and inconsistencies in how the industry responds.”

“What do you think of this dress? It’s very ‘Times Up,’ but is it whorey enough?”

Janice Griffith, a Best Actress nominee, is in her hotel room preparing for the awards. It’s true that her black cocktail dress is not as provocative as some of her colleagues’ revealing red-carpet looks. The teal undertone in her ombre hair is fading. She’s Indo-Caribbean, Angelina Jolie-skinny, and speaks with a husky authority. She barks at her date not to interrupt her, impulsively dumping out a jar of candy because there’s nowhere else for him to pour her a fresh vodka cocktail.

None of Janice’s friends in attendance know how to roll a joint. I’m happy to oblige, so she gratefully hands me a packet of rolling papers the size of a hot dog and a sack of sativa the size of my laptop.

“Our biggest issue is that we treat an industry of freelancers as if we’re an industry of employees,” Janice says. Despite the efforts of the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee and Free Speech Coalition, in her view, porn is currently too under-regulated for meaningful accountability.

“When men make women uncomfortable, we brush it off,” she says, “because we know people will write us off as being over-reactive or emotional.”

I visited many porn star rooms and saw both their self care safeguards and true psychological states – Sephora explosions and Cosco-sized boxes of Tangerine Emergen-cee, elaborate dabbing rigs and electric kettles. Janice had brought Complete Works of Kierkegaard.

As the red carpet wound its way through the Hard Rock, gamblers and bar patrons scrambled for a glimpse of the stars. While many pornographers opted for prom-worthy gowns and suits, their outfits nodded to their profession with bare midriffs, waist-high slits and undulating décolletage. Some wore little more than fringed bikinis. Lance Hart, founder of the PervOUT network, stood out in a stripper-style policeman’s shirt and fishnet stockings; he was handcuffed to his date Charlotte Sartre, who revealed on Twitter that she was not wearing anything underneath her slinky black dress. Abella Danger, last year’s Best New Starlet, shimmered in a transparent bodysuit adorned with strategically placed green and pink crystals.

The AVN awards show was predictably raunchy but surprisingly sincere. Co-hosted by comedian Aries Spears, Australian performer/director Angela White and camgirl Harli Lotts, the event’s biggest draw was hip-hop star Lil Wayne, who performed two high-energy sets with a drummer and DJ. The teleprompter dialog meshed well with the talents of porn star presenters, who were well-practiced in the art of the arched eyebrow and exaggerated wink.

White set a record by winning fourteen awards, the most AVN wins in one night. Clutching her Female Performer of the Year trophy to her remarkable cleavage, she emotionally thanked her co-stars for “allowing me to be vulnerable.”

Tommy Pistol, the Best Actor winner for a film called Ingenue, praised the industry for being a “fucked up family.”

Yet Spears, a MADtv alum, did not seem to pick up on the changing attitudes in the room. “Your personal space should not be invaded,” he declared, before utterly failing to read the room. “However, you bitches look delicious tonight. If I should come up to you and beg you for a blowjob, can you blame me? I am a hot blooded heterosexual male in a room full of professional cocksuckers.”

Eventually, the celebration came to an end. The false eyelashes were peeled off, the hangovers medicated with Ibuprofen and brunch. Pornographers’ minds return to their business, and to the social challenges they continue to face.

“We demand so much from porn stars,” Bree Mills says. “Performers who have made successful careers could be mentors. Give them infrastructure. Get them an appointment with an accountant, get them health care. They get the stigma stamp on them harder than anybody. We have to take care of them.



Fuente de la Noticia