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Edge Play

Women Exercise Creative and Political Control Over Sexual Imagery At Erotic Arts Festival

Jennifer Daniel

By Heather Harris | Posted 7/16/2008

The Baltimore Erotic Arts Festival

July 18 19, Load of Fun

Erotic Arts Festival website

"There are two strong currents that move through boundary pushing and edge play," says Load of Fun's coordinator/curator Suzannah Gerber. "One is make it softer; one is make it harder."

Gerber is the curator of Baltimore's first Erotic Arts Festival, which runs at Load of Fun July 18 and 19, and her guiding principle is "on the edge." Friday night is "before the edge," with exhibits that are "playful, even campy," Gerber says. "Things considered conventionally erotic, even safely erotic, like pinup and burlesque." Saturday night ventures "over the edge," characterized by "S/M, fetish, darker, twisted, more along the lines of the word `perverted.'"

"In a perfect world people would come to both nights," Gerber says. "But this event is both a reaction to" and an acknowledgment of "the fact that people do have problems in this area, which is why I'm breaking it up into two."

Gerber wants to transcend conventional shock and tease with this event. "I am evaluating submissions on artistic merit first," she says emphatically. "Then the question becomes, Is it referencing the erotic drive?" She stops to think of an example. "A naked white wifey tied up in the kitchen makes a point along the lines of what I want to talk about, but do I want to go there? Do I need to complicate your sex for you? Do I need to say that your marriage is a negative aspect of patriarchy? My answer was no."

What then, no June Cleaver porno shots? "I'm using irony in a very few pieces," Gerber says. "One image comes to mind--a naked black woman in a very 1970s shower holding a giant inflatable moose head over her crotch. It's hilarious, but there's a racial issue, a '70s blaxploitation issue going on."

Gerber is quick to point out that she is no feminist making typical feminist political statements. "If I were trying to present it as negative--like `blaxploitation bad!'--I would feel that way about it," she says. "But here, I am referencing blaxploitation, but I am neither playing into it nor against it--and that ambivalence is characterized throughout. I'm not going to come to these conclusions for you."

Second-wave feminists Andrea Dworkin, Gloria Steinem, and Robin Morgan were adamantly opposed to pornography on the grounds that it always, by definition, hurt women. Morgan's pithy quote said it all: "Pornography is the theory; rape is the practice." But the daughters of the second wave, who have claimed and defined the third wave as essentially about true inclusion and happily accept contradiction, are radically sex positive. This generation, which came of age during the AIDS epidemic and when porn stars were freshly designated by the courts as actors, not prostitutes, is critiquing the sex industry and the system it operates within, not the workers, and actively defending the rights of sex workers, including porn actresses, strippers, and prostitutes.

It would appear, then, that the Erotic Arts Festival is a natural outgrowth of third-wave feminist values. But Gerber is uncomfortable with that assessment. "I do not identify as feminist because I reject the idea of a phraseology choosing one side when it claims that its aim is equality," she says. "Like any other ideology, feminism is in the business of telling you what's OK and evaluating that for you. Feminists don't necessarily do that, but feminism does."

One of the evaluations that feminism makes, which really irks Gerber, is that there is a difference between "pornography" and "erotica." "Some people invoke the word `erotic' to intentionally make a distinction between erotic and pornographic," she says. "I refuse to do that. There are no boxes." The exhibits at the Erotic Arts Festival will be "seamless."

The distinction between pornography and erotica again goes back to the second wave. Gloria Steinem wrote several articles on the subject beginning in the late '70s, and landmark books such as Our Bodies, Ourselves use the word "pornography" when discussing sexually explicit material understood as hostile toward women and "erotica" when discussing sexually explicit material used by women. The basic idea is that pornography abuses women to satisfy men--and erotica depicts healthy mutual pleasure.

Julie Simone is one of the performers co-headlining the Erotic Arts Festival. Like Lee Harrington and the internationally known Annie Sprinkle, who are also co-headliners, Simone has been working in the adult industry for years, both in front of and behind the camera. She's thought about these issues and she has strong opinions.

Making a distinction between pornography and erotica is "complete and utter feminist bullshit that helps some people feel better about their perversions," Simone writes in an e-mail. "If they intellectualize their sex, it somehow makes it less dirty and more acceptable. Erotica tends to have moody lighting or more of a psychological element, but the primary purpose of both is to turn people on and to get people off."

Simone is the unapologetically horny/thinking girl's filmmaker. She never takes her eye off the turn-them-on-get-them-off ball. "People don't buy porn to think," she says. But she does "portray strong female characters in many of my films as an indirect statement."

For example, she writes, "In my film Audition I portrayed a rape scene that is nonconsensual to show that women do have these fantasies. It was a controversial move, but I think being a woman actually worked in my favor. If a man had made that film, there would have been added connotations and potential problems." Try figuring out whether that makes her an example of or the rebuttal to Robin Morgan's statement about pornography. Talk about a mind-fuck.

Gerber chafes at the allegation that pornography and its industry are uniquely problematic. "There has often been an exploitative element, but it's not inherent to pornography," she says. "There has been just as much exploitation in sexual dynamics in dating as in porn, but in porn it's exaggerated, because you're marketing the disparity."

"In my experience, about 75 percent of the folks I worked with wanted to be there and were empowered in their work, and about 25 percent allowed themselves to be in a place of disempowerment," says festival performer Lee Harrington, an industry veteran and female-to-male transgender person. "But I felt similar ratios when I worked as a database administrator."

One way women are getting around any disempowerment they feel in the male-dominated world of pornography is by making the magazines, art, and movies themselves. Harrington, before undergoing sex-reassignment surgery, was one of those women making films. He admits that he (she at the time) made money off the idea of "supporting the sisterhood": the actresses didn't expect as much money from a woman director, and the female porn customers bought it no matter what because they felt less guilt and anxiety about purchasing "by women, for women" products.

"By women, for women is sort of like [going] green," Harrington says. "It's a start. It's better than doing nothing. But if you have the time, and you really care about the ethics, you need to investigate it more closely."

Harrington has since had an ethical change of heart and offers these simple ways to investigate the ethics of porn production. "Look for transparency," he says, "a making-of section, outtakes right on the video. Bloopers allow you to see what's going on on the set. Look for a statement of intent. If a company went to the trouble to make a statement and use words like `ethical,' they're probably trying to achieve that goal." He points to Kink.com as a good example.

"It's fine and very good to say, `I don't like the way that woman is being treated,' or, `I object to that,'" Annie Sprinkle says by phone from her home in California. "The problem is when we say, `You can't film naked people. No one can make sexual imagery.'"

Today, maybe always, the pros and cons of the adult industry are as much about money and economic systems as they are about sex. According to Debbie Nathan's new book Pornography, there are many more strip clubs in the God-fearing U.S. than in Canada or Europe. In those more socialized developed countries, higher education (along with health care and sometimes even food and shelter) is paid for because it is deemed to be in everyone's best interest to have a healthy, educated populace. In the U.S., uninsured college students are stripping to pay for tuition, room, board, and books.

The Erotic Arts performers applaud this ingenuity on the part of girls-next-door everywhere, women who are coming out of school with money in the bank, instead of debt like their externally genitaled counterparts. But sending the message that there's a free-market solution to everything is risky when most people are in charge of precious few resources. Do we really want everything to be for sale? Think of the things that people would try to buy from you.

The good news for nervous parents of young American women is that pornography is getting so expensive to make here that pornographers, particularly the morally flexible ones, are looking elsewhere for talent. Nathan writes: "The reason for the strong porn industry in Hungary and other poor countries? Globalization. Like managers in other lines of business, pornographers are looking for countries with cheap labor and new markets to exploit."

"Power is not taken or given up," Harrington writes in an e-mail. "Power flows back and forth, between the polarities/people in question, or else it's not interesting." He's talking about S/M, not economics, but the same principles are at work.

Pornography has always been a convenient scapegoat--whatever is wrong with America or the world, it must be because predatory men and loose women have teamed up to fuck on film, ruining themselves and the children. It's so much simpler to believe that than to seriously consider which we value more in this country: people or money. It's not a tossup. Porn is playing by the same rules, in the same way, as every other American industry. Like Gerber says, it just markets the disparity present everywhere.

At the festival, Sprinkle will teach some of her favorite lovemaking techniques during a Saturday workshop: "Ecstasy Breathing and Energy Orgasms," which she describes as "a sexual healing session, a chakra enema, a mind expanding shamanic journey all rolled into one yummy pleasurable experience." She's says her workshops are for people of all orientations and appetites, even those who are celibate. She's also showing her film Amazing World of Orgasm before the workshop.

Sprinkle, a woman who cares deeply about the well-being of other women, says that strong women are capable of handling themselves in the porn industry. "All women need room to make mistakes," she says. "Women learn to say no when they say yes to something they don't want to do. If you learn, you win. If you don't take any personal risks, you get nowhere."

When asked what she would say to someone who suggested that women will have achieved true equality with men when the most lucrative things they have to offer the market aren't their breasts and vaginas, Sprinkle replies without a pause: "I would say, `You don't respect breasts and vaginas very much.'"

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