The Boston Phoenix - 1 in 10
November 1998
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Video vacuum

In the lesbian sex wars, the 'pro-sex' contingent came out on top. So where's the porn?

by Tristan Taormino

movie poster In 1984, Susie Bright, Nan Kinney, and Debi Sundahl founded On Our Backs, the first lesbian-produced lesbian sex magazine. A year later, Kinney and Sundahl formed Fatale Video and released their first video, Shadows and Private Pleasures, a tape of a real-life couple engaged in S&M. In 1996, On Our Backs was sold and went on a two-year hiatus. Sundahl moved on to new projects, including founding Isis Media, which produces self-help sexual videos mostly for straight couples. Kinney took over Fatale; its most recent release is Bend Over Boyfriend, a how-to video about women anally penetrating . . . men. What's going on?

Well, as the saying goes: to understand where you are, you need to understand where you've been. Fifteen years have passed since the "lesbian sex wars" -- the heated (and very public) debate between anti-porn feminists (think Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon) and pro-sex/pro-porn feminists (think Bright, Kinney, and Sundahl) -- kicked off at the Barnard Conference. During that time, the pro-porn forces seem to have emerged as victors. Although porn and other expressions of sexuality are still under attack, the contingent of pro-sex lesbians is alive and kicking. Many lesbian/queer sex magazines, including Bad Attitude, Venus Infers, Lezzie Smut, and Brat Attack, have come and gone. And pro-sex lesbians have formed organizations, produced conferences, and written and published successful sex books. The one area lagging behind has been the creation of dyke-produced porn.

Writer and cultural sexologist Carol Queen argues that the anti-porn crusade has had critical repercussions, and that many lesbians are still not comfortable with objectifying other women. "There has been such a strong anti-porn sentiment within lesbian feminism that it took a decade to get over it and start producing material in the first place," she says.

When Fatale first formed, it was part of a growing group of so-called amateur porn producers. More important, it was the leader in -- well, it was the only company producing -- hard-core lesbian porn. Kinney remembers that even progressive stores such as Good Vibrations didn't carry videos when Fatale first started. "Good Vibrations only started selling videos in 1988," she says. "It was really grassroots distribution back then. Places like Good Vibrations have made it easier to make and distribute videos, but there isn't overwhelming acceptance, exactly. It's still difficult, and part of that is [that we're] not being carried by mainstream distributors."

Around the time Fatale was first launching its line of erotic lesbian videos, another company based in Northern California, Tigress, produced a few lesbian sex videos -- focusing on romance and relationships -- that differed markedly in tone and content from the edgier Fatale style. The most well-known of these was Erotic in Nature, starring Cris Cassidy, a mainstream porn actress. In The Good Vibrations Guide to Adult Videos, Cathy Winks offers this description: "Two lovers engage in tender outdoor sex in an idyllic country setting. A sensitive and realistic depiction of lovemaking." Tigress no longer produces lesbian porn, although Erotic in Nature is still available in selected stores and catalogues and continues to be a bestseller at Good Vibrations.

Today, Kinney says she wants Fatale -- which is still the only lesbian porn company around -- to continue producing lesbian videos. "But our titles, like How to Female Ejaculate and Bend Over Boyfriend, cross over into the sex-education market," she says. "They sell better and help finance the other projects." Though she adds that Bend Over Boyfriend doesn't exactly deviate from Fatale's mission: "It presents sexual practices that are authentic, alternative, and not normally seen in mainstream porn."

Fatale is now in the early stages of its next project, Rev Her Up, which Kinney describes as "a lesbian urban romp shot in New York City that will be fun, well-written, full of wall-to-wall lesbian sex in a car garage." Meanwhile, there's been a growing trend toward the production of more soft-core, less explicit lesbian erotic videos. Wolfe Video, which distributes gay and lesbian videos, currently releases about 10 new titles per year. In 1993, Wolfe began selling the lesbian erotic video Et L'Amour, and the sales were phenomenal. Since then, the company has acquired others to distribute, including Teasers, Goodbye Emma Jo, and Cynara, which is by Claire of the Moon filmmaker Nicole Conn.

Perhaps the most popular title Wolfe sells is Siren, which was produced by Pride Video and Venus Video. It is an arty, well-crafted example of the emerging soft-core genre that approaches erotic encounters between women from an intimate -- but not explicitly sexual -- perspective. In fact, there is only one frontal pussy shot in the 45-minute film; "tasteful nudity" is much more common. Siren is full of passionate, careful kissing, gentle caressing, bare shoulders, nipples pressed against nipples, bed-sheet pulling and grabbing, all to a soundtrack of original music and orgasmic moaning. Things do heat up, however, with some pretty sexy butch/femme action at a sex club, complete with bondage, cross-dressing, and several pierced nipples. As with other erotic videos Wolfe distributes, the focus of Siren is definitely on the sensual. It's not all soft and tender, but it's not rough and tough either -- more middle-of-the-road.

Lest Wolfe be accused of being the Playboy Channel of lesbian porn, its videos can be steamy: Hey Sailor, Hey Sister features a naval officer on leave and a hot femme having safer sex, including a cock-sucking scene in an alley (with a condom on the strap-on dildo, of course). In addition to Fatale and Wolfe, there are also individual renegades making lesbian porn. For example, former mainstream-porn-star-turned-performance-artist Annie Sprinkle has produced Linda/Les & Annie: The First Female-to-Male Transsexual Love Story and The Sluts and Goddesses Workshop, which combine sex education, sex-positive spunk, and women's spirituality. Lesbian porn is out there; it's just hard to find.

But why is there so little of it? One word: money. It may be a simple answer, but it's a complicated issue. As a minority, lesbians (and women in general) have much less disposable income to buy porn, and less capital amassed to create it. "Producing our own porn has not been on the number-one hit parade of important endeavors by lesbians," Kinney observes. "It's not that easy to do, especially not that easy to get distributed; there's not a lot of money in it -- right now, anyway -- so it's really kind of a labor of love. You really have to have some inner motivation to do it."

Kim Airs, owner of Grand Opening!, the Brookline-based sex boutique, says that the obstacles to producing porn have a lot to do with many women's misgivings about the sex industry: "Women are too afraid to show their naked bodies having a good time. We're raised to be self-conscious about them and never encouraged to see naked ones. That's why strip clubs are not attended by women. You'll never see women in a porno theater having a good time and jerking off with the rest of the guys -- one of my favorite pastimes -- and women never pay for sex."

It's true that most women are not used to paying for sex-related goods and services such as porn; it's not part of women's socialization. The producers of porn, in general, do not see women as a viable market. Women are still not seen as sexual predators or sexual aggressors, as wanting sex for sex's sake, the way men are. Women are not seen as porn consumers and, in turn, don't see themselves as consumers. When women are involved in porn, they are the ones doing the selling and not the buying; they are the consumed.

Still, Maria Lynn, Wolfe Video's vice president of distribution, says she sees a huge interest in erotic lesbian videos. "This company has grown 30 percent per year over the past five years, and a lot of that growth has to do with our lesbian erotic titles," she says. "The market is definitely growing." In fact, the demand has grown so much that Wolfe is launching a separate label, called Wolfe Video Wild, just for its erotic titles.

Even as Wolfe is expanding, however, it still has a hard time finding videos to distribute. "Every time we see a new erotic video, it's different from the one before, and the quality is getting better and better," Lynn says. "Still, every time we find one [to distribute] it's like a gem, because there are so few even being made."

Kinney, for one, intends to do something about it. For more than a decade, Fatale has been the only lesbian porn video company, but she'd welcome some competition. "I'd like there to be more people trying to develop the market," she says. "There's room for more, because once women discover porn they have a huge appetite for it. . . . I truly wish there were more women making authentic lesbian porn, getting images of lesbians having sex out there. It'd be great if there was as much lesbian-produced porn as there is mainstream porn. Can you imagine?"

In the meantime, she plans to produce more videos and make more sales. Especially in the amateur porn arena, where it all began for Fatale: "I'd like to encourage any lesbian out there with a video camera to get it rolling and let's see what we can do together."

Tristan Taormino is the editor of Best Lesbian Erotica 1999 (Cleis Press). She can be reached at puckerup@earthlink.net.

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