How the Internet empowered women in porn

joanna angel

This article originally appeared on the TouchVision TV website before it shut down. Reuploading here because it deserves to live somewhere on the internet forever – 

One night during her senior year at Rutgers University, Joanna Angel was up late with her roommate, talking about what they were going to do once they graduated. He flippantly suggested they start a porn site together, and after laughing about it for a minute, she agreed.

The site, named Burning Angel (NSFW) after Angel’s tattoo of an angel and a devil on her back, was launched less than a year later, from the duo’s post-college apartment in Brooklyn. Angel was barely 21 years old at the time, and she quickly went from being a film and English student at Rutgers waiting tables to becoming one of the most well-known names in the porn world for her work as an alternative, award-winning tattooed performer, producer and writer.

“I couldn’t have existed without the Internet,” Angel said. “I didn’t want a boring job and I didn’t want to become part of the corporate world, I wanted to start something myself.”

Angel’s story of independence and entrepreneurship as a young woman in the adult entertainment industry is common, and quickly becoming the norm. She is just one of a myriad of porn performers who started online and now run their own shows, call the shots and make the money with little intervention from middle men. But instead of hearing these stories, we get ones like the much-talked-about Hot Girls Wanted, the Rashida Jones-backed Netflix documentary following the rise of amateur porn production in Miami. It’s just the latest example of what some performers call “docu-tragedies” or “pornsploitation” that zero in on classic tropes of the naive girl from Kansas getting off the bus only to be led astray and ravaged both mentally and physically by evil men.

While one can’t deny that exploitation does still exist in the porn industry, overlooking the rise of the role women play in the production and distribution of it is extremely problematic for a number of reasons. Choosing to ignore the progress women have made in the industry marginalizes performers and further stigmatizes them (and all sex workers, really), all while hindering progress of their labor rights. The Internet has provided a very important platform for women in porn to take near-complete control over the production and distribution of their work, not to mention to their livelihood, in a way we haven’t seen before. And yet, we barely hear about any of this. 

In the case of Hot Girls Wanted, the film heavily suggests it is easier to exploit and recruit impressionable young women via shady, pimp-like characters thanks to the Internet, namely Craigslist.

Contrary to what Hot Girls Wanted portrayed, the Internet has actually made it more difficult to take advantage of women in the industry, if you ask performers and producers. Colin Rowntree, co-founder of the first BDSM website wasteland.com (NSFW), for example, cites the days when VHS tapes and studio systems were rampant with abuse and exploitation of women (and anyone, really) by the men dominating and controlling the industry.

In the pre-Internet days, there were only dozens of porn producers and a handful of large companies responsible for creating most of the movies available — and for decades they answered to the mafia. Most U.S. films were commissioned by Gambino mafioso Robert DiBernardo, effectively giving him control over the industry. Ruben Sturman, a well-known porn producer in the 1970s, was said to have protection from the Cosa Nostra mafia, and is believed to have collaborated with DiBernardo. Even the infamous Deep Throat was paid for and distributed by the mafia. Some 20 years later, men were still the gatekeepers of porn in the 1990s, pre-Internet.

“If you didn’t get into a big agency or company, you weren’t going to be in porn,” Angel said.

Why no regulation, oversight or protection for actors all those years? Before the 1973 Supreme Court ruling to redefine obscenity, the creation, participation, distribution and even consumption of porn was a criminal offense in most states due to anti-obscenity laws. Organized crime syndicates, and other illegal elements, controlled the porn industry prior to the landmark decision, leaving many performers vulnerable to exploitation and abuse in the industry.

Years after the height of her fame as the star of legendary porn flick Deep Throat, Linda Lovelace revealed she was forced, sometimes at gunpoint, to perform in her sex scenes — and in the industry — by her abusive husband and was hardly compensated for any of it. Her experiences in the industry at the hands of abusive men were so bad, she went on to become a leading voice in the anti-pornography movement with her third book, the memoir Ordeal. Her account of her experience in the industry during the 1970s echoes what other actresses have spoken of, and played into public perception of the industry.

“When you see the movie Deep Throat, you are watching me being raped,” she told the Toronto Sun in an 1981 interview.

Candy Barr, long considered the first porn star for her work in the 1951 silent movie Smart Alec, was a 16-year-old prostitute when she filmed it, and according to the Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work, she was forced into it, as well.

Before the Internet, there was really only one porn star in the late 1970’s known for being able to call the shots during production, and then later on writing and directing, but her story is hardly mentioned, or known, to industry outsiders. Seka the Platinum Princess, aka the “Marilyn Monroe of Porn,”  was a performer that managed to wield considerable control over her shoots, in part because she was an icon. She was asked about this level of autonomy in a 2012 interview with VICE Canada, to which she attributed it to having “the balls to stand up and say” what she wanted and didn’t want to do, which other girls just didn’t seem to have. Seka admits to getting out of a scene with a guy she didn’t want to do by throwing her spiked shoe at his head.  Seka was the exception back then, not the rule, though the same could be said for Linda Lovelace.  

Now, with these dangerous barriers to entry gone, so too is the organized criminal element. The Internet has democratized pornography: Anyone can make porn, and they don’t have to deal with the mafia to do it.

Everyone from couples in their basements to big-budget film pros is shooting movies, and making different kinds of porn, including specifically for LGBT viewers and women. Now, it is estimated one in three people browsing porn sites are women. Angie Rowntree, married to Colin Rowntree, runs her own porn site called sssh.com (NSFW) that features porn made by women for women. Colin Rowntree proudly calls his wife “one of the early pioneers in feminist porn” and said he thinks the success of Angie’s site couldn’t have been possible without the Internet.

“In 1999 she was thinking, ‘Well, there really aren’t any porn websites for women,’ and all the men in the industry were like, ‘You’re nuts, women don’t watch porn,’” he said. “She said, ‘Well, I think you are wrong there,’ and that’s how sssh.com was born.”

This control over the kinds of porn available that performers have in the industry naturally extends to the business and personal branding side.

To compare, Candy Barr was given her stage name by the manager of the strip club she worked in. Marilyn Chambers, who filmed the first interracial sex scene in the 1972 porno Behind the Green Door, received only 10 percent of the film’s profits, a pay request that was so unusual at the time she almost didn’t get it. Lovelace said she got a paltry $1,250 for her Deep Throat performance (which her abusive husband pocketed), while the three members of the Colombo mafia family involved in the funding, production and distribution of Deep Throat made millions.

Business arrangements that shortchange performers to this degree just don’t happen any more. Joanna Angel came up with her own performer name. Within weeks of founding her own company in 2000, Jenna Jameson’s venture ClubJenna was profitable. By 2005, she saw profits of more than $7 million. Through access to the Internet, performers can have total control over their personal branding and their business through their own websites and especially through their own social media accounts.

“It’s nice to have that extra tool,” performer and body positive advocate Kitty Stryker said.

Besides control, the Internet has enabled the fostering of community among performers from all over the world — be it for support, tips or just commiserating over shared experiences.

“They are like my support team,” a webcam performer named Tina told the Daily Dot. “We help each other and we chat about everything.”

This newfound sense of community can also be a powerhouse for sex-positive activism and spreading the message that sex work should be considered a legitimate profession instead of stigmatized. When fetish porn star Eden Alexander had her GiveForward fundraiser for medical expenses shut down for being “in connection with pornographic items,” Stryker utilized her online porn support network and championed on Alexander’s behalf. They were able to find a crowdfunding platform that would allow them to collect funds for Alexander’s medical expenses, but “more importantly, we were able to have these very important conversations about crowdfunding [platforms] and how they’re prejudiced against sex workers,” Stryker said.

“By engaging these companies, and giving them space to be allies, and explaining to them how to be allies, it meant we got a lot further than making a Change.org petition,” Stryker said.

These advancements, particularly in social media, have essentially humanized performers. Through blogs, Twitter accounts and things like Vine, women can both further their brands as porn performers and give their followers a glimpse into their real lives outside of porn. People can now see and identify porn performers as real people — and not necessarily as victims of circumstance or even criminals — warts and all.

“Suddenly, everyone can see the bad days and the rants and the mundane drudgery of sex work,” says sex writer and Slantist editor AV Flox.  

All of these advancements in the perception of porn and the way performers reach their audiences  parallel how the Internet has changed other industries. Except these major accomplishments are not the subjects of documentaries. They’re not covered by the media. They’re not championed by high-profile producers like Rashida Jones. It’s 2015, and the work of porn performers, consumed at one point or another by most adults in the modern world, is still largely, and dangerously, stigmatized.

“The media hasn’t given the adult industry credit for anything good, they’ve only sensationalized all the bad,” Angie Rowntree said.

By avoiding these conversations, or discussing the practicalities and how performers are using new technology (for both better and for worse), we hinder the development of all sex workers labor rights, not just those in porn. If we’re too bogged down with “moralizing about sex and whether selling it can be genuine or is simply reinforcing the patriarchy,” AV Flox posits, we may never create a truly safe space for women in the industry to live freely and enjoy their work without prejudice.

Nearly 13 years after her launch into porn from the post-grad apartment, Joanna Angel and her Burning Angel empire are thriving. In 2011, CNBC named her one of the porn industry’s hottest stars, crediting her punkish, tattooed look and Burning Angel for creating a new genre of porn known as “alt porn.” She has won more than a dozen awards for her work, including “Best Porn Star Website” for three years running. The Burning Angel website averages 750,000 views and 1,000 new memberships a month, and some of the production house’s most popular projects are in porn parodies, like the Joanna Angel-directed Rhonda Arouse Me: Grounded and Pounded dedicated to UFC fighter Rhonda Rousey.

On any given day, Angel is working on a set for 12 hours at a time, either directing, writing or performing. When she’s not, she’s in business development meetings, doing appearances or working cleanup duty after shooting sex scenes, picking up baby wipes off the floor. While the stigmatization of her life’s work, something she’s built almost entirely on her own from the ground up, can feel “infuriating,” she doesn’t let it slow her, or her empire, down.

“I work so hard,” she said. “This is my home, that I built, and I want to keep this home that I’ve created.”

 



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