The Pleasure Principle — on ethics & desires

A transcription of the talk I gave for the keynote speech at the first Bean Flicks festival (18/02/20) on their theme of Ethics and Desires.

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My name’s Vex, and I am a full time pornographer. I’ve been making films with sex for the last 6 years, I’d studied Art at university while working as a cam girl and although I saw a lot of porn, it mostly existed as either a functional product for sale or amateur exhibitionism. I was interested to see if I could use porn as a creative medium for ideas, given the same consideration for aesthetics and concepts as I has been doing in my art work. I had no training in film making and started with a cheap camera shooting little experiments with my other sex worker friends and sharing them for free on Tumblr — that’s somehow now grown to where I am today, 6 years later. With my project Four Chambers our focus is making aesthetically and conceptually rich films with a DIY sensibility, that are hopefully hot, if not at least interesting and that have intentions beyond something to jerk off to, close your tabs and clear your history.

Sexuality always fascinated me and starting out making porn felt like discovering unmapped territory. Societally “respectable” institutions of film and art have left explicit sex mostly untouched, it’s used as a device or as allegory or metaphor or but it’s rarely explored graphically so it felt like this amazing untapped source of potential.

By the nature of the tube site search engine so much of porn is now rigidly defined by types and key words. I wanted to move away from this, rejecting explicit narratives or roles and not labelling our performers and films with the common markers of gender, sexuality, race and body type. This hopefully leaves room for a viewer watching to go in curious, experience something or someone outside of what they’d usually search for and for the performers themselves to exist in a space that’s less restricted by type, we try to leave gaps to let a viewer explore from their own perspective.

This ambiguity is important because it hopefully it encourages viewers to use their imagination, working to fill in the gaps, rather than passively observing. This, for me, was were a lot of more traditional mainstream porn I was saw fell flat, it often felt like it was everything all at once, intense instant gratification. For me, the unknown is a big part of what makes something truly hot. These gaps in understanding cultivate desire, which is explicitly tied to yearning, a pull to have or to know.

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Sex and porn are some of the rare parts of society we’re still pretty scared of — simultaneously an object of fascination and cultural dis-function.

Everyone wants to talk about the ethics of porn, especially tied into the wider cultural conversation we’re currently having about the ethics of consent and sex. Porn, like all other creative work, acts as a mirror that often reflects our cultural consciousness and it’s absolutely true that that consciousness is still to this day deeply embedded in misogyny, racism and inequality. The subtext of these issues that run through all media, film, art and literature or whatever often seems to be more immediately implicit in pornography because it’s long been dismissed and marginalised as culturally valueless, beneath us, unworthy of the same criticism as the other media we create and consume.

You might have seen Ethical or Feminist Porn being used a marker by producers or journalists (or even this festival!) trying to demarcate what porn is made with redressing these issues in mind and I totally understand why there’s a pull to make this work and use this definition. We’re all (hopefully) looking for ways to feel better about the moral trash fire that is western consumer capitalism and buying or watching things that are labelled as “ethically better” is a way to attempt assuage some guilt about our complicity.

But this label isn’t something I’ve chosen to use for myself and for this project. I’d like to think that everyone making porn or creating anything that’s self directed thinks they’re doing it “ethically” by their own standards — but that’s exactly it, ethics are essentially subjective — there’s no universal definition what’s right and wrong in porn, it’s all based in our own moral values, culture and perspective. Just putting a label of ethical/honest/feminist on something without a clear idea of what that means in reality for the people or ideas it’s meant to protect is just advertising, plain and simple.

When we take these definitions at face value we might not look beyond them and push to ask the important questions about what actually goes on. It can mean that it plays into ideas about divisive respectability politics, adding more shame and layers of hierarchy to an already stigmatised community.

So I don’t reject these labels because I don’t care about ethics or think they’re not ideas worth talking about, it’s exactly because they’re so important that we refuse to reduce them to buzzwords.

This tweet I saw recently really gets it: “when it comes to art/media, feminism is a lens through which to critique it, not an adjective to describe it”

Instead I try and prioritise Transparency, which for me is just being up front about who I am, what I care about, how I make my films and aim to treat my performers so that anyone watching can decide if that aligns with their personal ethics and ideas.

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IS THIS DESIRE?

There’s no definitive marker on everyone’s ‘good’ and ‘bad’, especially when we talk about sex. Sex and desire are as multifaceted and diverse as we are and they span and serve many purposes and meanings in different peoples lives.

Sex has a visceral pull, bypassing our polite, thinking brain and tapping into something inside our guts, inside our body. This is why it’s so compelling and sometimes so scary. It can seem to sit in contrast to the way we think about our public facing selves, it allows us to explore untapped parts of our inner lives. it can make us feel out of control or undone, I think this is exactly why sex is fascinating to me. Porn is often criticised for exploiting this pull, but never celebrated for exploring it. Sex deserves to be documented and shared as we do any other intrinsic part of human experience.

Desire is energy, it connects us to our vitality, ‘to want’ is to be engaged, it intersects with past experiences of play, touch, or trauma, which go on to form the foundations of our sexual selves. Things that give us the most pleasure can come from painful or difficult sources. Desire is not comfortable and it’s not easy or neat — a fusion of excitement and anxiety.

But it often raises questions: is my a desire for this, this thought, this act, this porn, this person, is this ok? is it ethical?

Why do we often desire to explore parts of ourselves and our experience in the sexual realm that seem to sit outside of our day to day lives and personas, in ways that maybe challenge us and our idea of who we are?

Coming from someone who was, for my sins, a child actor, I often think about ways that sex can be theatre. It can be a space to play out roles and ideas in the zone of the sexual stage and sometimes you desire an experience that confronts your fears and insecurities, to say or do things you wouldn’t normally dare to. Sometimes subverting or giving up the power or rejecting the powerlessness you experience in day to day life can be a way to feel more in control. And sometimes, it’s just kinda fun? Fun to step outside of yourself, outside of society’s expectations and limitations, fun to try on different ways of being. Play is such an important part of our development, it’s never all sunshine and roses, we learn about all parts of ourselves through imagination and fantasy without having to be fixed in the limitations or dangers of reality, this learning doesn’t need to stop when we reach adulthood.

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This is exactly why it irks me when sometimes people talk about a need for ethical /feminist porn to strive for AUTHENTICITY. Porn gets a lot of flack from people saying, “it’s JUST FAKE, it’s not REAL SEX.” Although I totally share the frustration in a lack of openness and sex education that has often left porn as the sole provider of learning AND that a lot of the most easily accessible porn pictures a pretty narrow and limited expression of sex, I do think the ideal of “authenticity” is reductive. What is real, authentic sex? Is it sex without an audience, without performance, without augmented bodies? without exaggeration or fake orgasms?

We absolutely do need to make room for more realism and especially diversity in the porn we most commonly encounter but to eradicate artifice altogether is to give up the idea that good sex on film can be anything and say anything more than un-curated documentation. Instead of rejecting fantasy and performance, it can be expanded. More voices, more ideas, exploring the potential of sex on film in both a more real and more allegorical way. Making more exciting and varied work possible rather than simply swopping the constraints of tradition for the constraints of ‘authenticity’.

Desire isn’t about what you already have and are — it’s allowing yourself to explore the potential possibility of what you could have and do and be. Letting your imagination run wild and examining what it comes back with. We can and often should investigate what our desires tell us about ourselves and the society we live in but we should also free ourselves from the idea that they define our moral lives, desires, for me, are questions to be explored without easy answers, which is why creating safer spaces in sex for trust, vulnerability, growth and learning are so important.

Porn, both more realistic and completely fantastical CAN inform and expand our sexuality, our desires, our learning. It’s not about a blanket definition like “porn is… good / bad” — it it deserves to be celebrated and critiqued like all other creative work: on an individual basis.

Everything isn’t for everyone. It seems remedial to say but so much of our world now seems to be about making spaces or communities that are aiming to be appropriate for every single person regardless of context, and as our lives move increasingly online we’re seeing a targeted suppression and censorship of sexual expression.

The internet used to be a haven for people to find their niche — in terms of sexuality and also just; anime, stamp collecting — or in the case of my teenage self the website: vampirefreaks.com— But with the move from community forums to privately owned social networks, the realisation that although it may have been good at building dedicated communities it wasn’t good at transferring them into profit and profit rules all. To sell the most people the most things, or even worse — to sell the most people, as our data is now the product — you need the raw numbers using your app or site or network at any one time. To facilitate this they have to homogenise us — homogenise our desires, our expression to fit neatly and safely into one box, one app.

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No longer a space for communities, the internet is for corporations. The pervasiveness of surveillance capitalism attempts to increasingly monitor and link every step we take online to our personal data. Exploring and experimenting with our sexuality — if not entirely anonymously, then certainly more discreetly — from our bedrooms and screens was and is overwhelmingly valuable and necessary, especially for people whose sexual identities are marginalised and ignored by mainstream society. Increasingly, it’s impossible to escape a sense of constant observation and therefore it’s more likely that going forward we’ll increasingly remain in and be limited to whatever is considered culturally ‘safe’.

A win for bland normativity in all its forms. Subversion, queerness and dissent are silenced, censored and hidden by algorithms prioritising only what can be monetised to the most people. Sex work and the sexuality of women and other marginalised groups have always been controlled as a method of limiting their power in society, but they are now being disappeared from our lives and our online spaces at an exponentially increasing rate. This is why spaces like this festival are so important, we have to fight for, build on and preserve the community we have left outside of censorship and corporate control.

It is not our responsibility to be vessels for monetised content, it is not our goal to sell or be sold too.

This is a mantra I tell myself as I try to navigate the intersection of ‘being a person online monetising my image and self and capitalising on other people’s desires by making porn for money’. No easy answers or perfect fixes but I try to resist the pull of The Brand at all costs, I try to keep my focus on the people, both those performing in my films and and watching them. It’s important to me that the project remains accessible and open, both by being present as an accountable human being behind it and moving away from profit and growth as the ultimate goal.

So much of the sex positivity movement now is tied into branding and buying. It’s become focused on the idea that expensive sex toys, or courses or elite sex parties are the route to a higher plane of sex existence. Not that any of these are inherently bad, but to frame spending money as the best way to open the door to sexual freedom isn’t liberation.

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I think about the ways in which we are guilted out of desiring or experiencing pleasure and indulgence when it isn’t connected to the solitary spending of money on things. Sexual exploration that’s about connection with others or with ourselves, that doesn’t feed the market, is dismissed as vapid or worse: dangerous and degenerate in a world that’s invested in funnelling us pain and suffering and selling us the lie that exchanging money for Stuff™️ is the only tonic. If we’re led to believe that our only respectable access to the release and restorative aspects of our desires and pleasures are things connected to capital — then we have to pay in to get off.

Obviously outside additions and augmentations can absolutely be great — for example they will have to prize my hitachi magic wand vibrator from my cold dead hands — but we need to de-center products and brands when thinking about our sexual liberation. Sex and pleasure is for everyone that wants it and it starts in ourselves and our bodies. Trying not to sound trite here but inhabiting and connecting to your physical self, something that costs nothing and no one can hold hostage from you is a deep expression of free will.

I want to end by just saying that in a world that feels often at the moment like it’s burning, it can feel selfish, vacuous or even, unethical, to focus on sex and pleasure. We’re often encouraged in times of turmoil to minimise our desires, to expect less. But experiencing and investing time in joy, can be a radical act. Treating your body and your life as one worthy of pleasure reminds others that theirs are too. To desire is to be alive, we can’t just accept passive existence we have to push to really live and to explore all the messy, wonderful complexity that that brings.

Written by

@vextape — I make pornographic films with Four Chambers. Not a model, not a muse. vexashley.com

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