I begin writing this piece thinking of the first time I went exploring about my desires on the internet.
In this piece, I investigate how I witnessed alternative porn that in its core is feminist, queer and diverse, porn that represents people like me (messy, queer, non-white, and who lives at the margins of pleasure and vulnerability). It was a personal and a political discovery.
The first time I logged in to watch porn, I was left with confused turn-ons, didn’t feel entirely right, something about it felt off and disturbing. It was only later that I understood; it was the violence of patriarchy that was mirrored intensely in mainstream porn production and a genuine lack of interest in heteronormative performances of sex that was causing me discomfort.
…it was the violence of patriarchy that was mirrored intensely in mainstream porn production and a genuine lack of interest in heteronormative performances of sex that was causing me discomfort.
Heteronormativity is invasive!
Growing up as a girl with a much older brother felt invasive.
I shared a room with my sister and a computer with my brother. The computer table was placed in a corner in our living room that had a massive screen and a CPU in the early 2000s; each of us had timed sessions, arranged by our mother in a shared space. I was in my early teens, and I was introduced to surveillance. Being online meant being surveilled. Our living room felt quite like the society ready to betray and attack me; my mother’s eyes surveilled me. It wasn’t the last time, and it wasn’t the worst.
The first time I experienced the invasiveness of male dominance and being forced into heterosexuality was through my brother’s browser history of porn searches on the internet. I explored porn through following his online foot steps with a sense of curiosity, lack of boundaries and a sense of comfort that we were both united in doing something wrong.
Little did my brother know that I mastered the skill of obscuring. I’d clean all of my browser history, even the things that wouldn’t compromise me. I was confident that my mum wouldn’t have thought of checking browser history in “settings”. I was extra careful and scared of the intensity of my own desires. I couldn’t explain them in the realms of its immorality and it being religiously forbidden in our Muslim home. Also, how can you explain something you don’t understand? So, I’d delete my history, and his too!
But my curiosity was insatiable and so was I! My brother was not neat about hiding his collection of CDs containing porn. I’d often stumble upon a forgotten one in the CD-ROM, sometimes under a pile of his shirts as my mum tasks me with arrange his fresh laundry in his closet. Eventually curiosity won, I gave in and went through all of his CDs, and honestly it scared me. I was left with bewilderment and disgust.
A workout session! The trainer; a man ends up immediately fucking and choking the woman.
Two women make out to the gaze of a man (pleasing himself) until he fucks both of them.
Countless number of women pleasuring big muscly men where the whole scene focuses on men’ erections.
I judged my brother for what I found in those CDs and I really didn’t understand sex. I also didn’t understand what I wanted for myself. Misogyny, feminism, sex positivity and queerness were not part of my knowledge nor language at this age to unpack. I was scared of how I felt about those women in the porn films, about how they were dehumanized; and I was scared that my own brother liked it and was okay with it.
Crave: Alt Porn
It was 2013, I was in my twenties and felt much closer to my queer identity. I was in bed with my lover, and I showed her a porn video. The video must have been saved on my laptop for two or three years. It was the first video that I had seen that made me understand what was it that I was yearning for all those years. This was a video of two young women getting high and enjoying each other. It was so in the moment and it felt so real, there was no performance for a man, it felt like there was no camera filming them. Something about them was so chaotic, shy, vulnerable and extremely sexy. One of the women was so clumsy that she had only one sock on and they both laughed so genuinely when they used a double-headed dildo. 17 years old me yearned for this.
Around that time of my early twenties, I was navigating the internet like I was navigating life with so much passion and hunger for knowledge and pleasure. Life with all its freshness was just happening. Porn was part of an entangled body of knowledge I was surfing. I was reading about sex, queernes and unpacking the violences of patriarchy and understanding “male gaze”. In order for porn to be pleasant for me, it had to be not misogynist. I learned about ethical porn which is consensual and respectful for the rights of the performers.
I joined Tumblr like many others to escape my life. I chose to be completely anonymous and to skip the oppression of knowledge and expectations of the people that knew me; even safe communities at times could be judgemental, and I didn’t need any exposure. I didn’t know the possibilities of Tumblr until I joined it. I thought I was doing it for my writing, but I was fascinated by the politics, the queerness, the sex, the anonymity of queer lovers struggling in their polyamory relationships and their queerness… Tumblr hooked me with the poetry of it all and gave my life a digital representation exactly as it is… uncensored, queer, poly, feminist, vulnerable and sad sometimes, but festive other times!
Tumblr hooked me with the poetry of it all and gave my life a digital representation exactly as it is… uncensored, queer, poly, feminist, vulnerable and sad sometimes, but festive other times!
Tumblr was a non-censored heaven for NSFW1 content. I was introduced to Four chambers(link is external)2 through Tumblr. It had that started as an inspiration from a community of naked girls making DIY Porn3 on Tumblr in October 2012, presented by Vex Ashley(link is external). Ashley had a provocative presence that felt like a refreshing breeze on the internet; she spilled things on people and film them as they lick it off each other, she sucks flowers and writes a ‘_transparency’_ document for her project on ethical porn(link is external) The project presenters don’t utilize words like feminism, inclusivity or queerness in defining it but in fact it is all of that and more.
What is strikingly beautiful about Four Chamber is its sensitivity, its closeness to reality where sex is gross, raw but pretty irresistible, a story of flesh and art. In Four Chambers, I saw what I disliked in my body; porn performers with acne on their faces, stretch marks on their bodies it was normal and beautiful, and I saw what I couldn’t find normal about myself; their often play with binaries, a game of femininity and masculinity that are both just beautiful and not a power game.
In “Cyber Sexy: Rethinking Porn(link is external)”, Richa Kaul Padte investigates the history of porn.She observes that “The drive to define porn, to separate it from erotica, art, fashion or literature, is the desire to order the world; to plug the steadily growing trickle through the respectability gates. It is the desire to prevent the creation of new portals, new ways for the water to get in”.4
Padte’s observations remind us that sex is so “essentially ungovernable”, and some people in authority throughout the years of their whiteness and class privilege didn’t like chaos, especially the chaos of sex.
But censorship eventually murdered Tumblr!
On December 17, 2018, Tumblr banned adult content.5 This policy change happened weeks after the site was pulled from Apple's App Store after child abuse images made it past Tumblr's filters, with a statement(link is external) from Tumblr’s CEO stating that they want to ensure everyone’s safety on Tumblr. Their policy in response to this didn’t reject or censor child abuse, instead they used this opportunityas an excuse release themselves from their moral panic toward sexual expression of multiple consenting adults on Tumblr and to attack sex workers, porn makers/performers, of course making it look like Jeff D’Onofrio is a saviour, a hero.
I never articulated and understood how Tumblr was so precious to me until I read Vex Ashley’s hauntingly beautiful piece “Porn on Tumblr – a eulogy / love letter(link is external)”6 as she mourned for Tumblr’s moral panic flagging NSFW content: “Anonymous enough that it allowed you to be vulnerable, public enough to feel seen.”
That was it exactly, Tumblr gave me this space of freedom. I go through my Tumblr archive (through 2011 to 2018) to find expression of vulnerability, writings, reblogged nudes, queer lovers, porn, and fleeting hotness. Tumblr holds some of my deepest moments of sadness and pleasure. I didn’t delete my Tumblr for archival purposes; personal and political. What I have learned about myself through this archive of posts and reblogs is that anonymity is essential to express and explore pain and sexuality. We are conditioned to hide pain, it is considered a weakness, and with that all our dirty, pleasurable and beautiful parts that make us human. Even in some progressive/leftist/queer/feminist communities we are shamed and alienated for being kinky, poly and porn consuming pleasure seekers.
What I have learned about myself through this archive of posts and reblogs is that anonymity is essential to express and explore pain and sexuality.
I see this message and I feel suffocated.
Those who sit at the top of the power structure dictate us to stop this immorality. Internet at this moment looked like a father, a patriarch that didn’t really like our sex chaos and ban shied out communities from Tumblr.
What the patriarchs maybe don’t know is that we, the recalcitrants, always manage to find our ways. Tumblr’s death brought me to making an Instagram account; it was easy to find all those people on Instagram that I followed passionately on Tumblr. Of course the content is more of a teaser and accommodating to Instagram’s guidelines that’s owned by the monstrous Facebook.
Following adult performers and porn makers on Instagram is a daily source of political and sexual education. And of course pleasure. No matter where I am, I pass a heart to a new production of alt porn, a reflection on sex and porn industry. Instagram's censorship attacks performer’s accounts everyday by erasing content, but more accounts keep showing up in resistance.
Embracing the Chaos
Let’s take a break from theorizing and from stupid men in authority with a pleasant breeze of alt-porn which is so fucking cool, challenging, messy and queer as fuck.
I come across a video of Lina Bembe(link is external),7 Black Bishop(link is external) and Carmen Canela, filmed for Lustery(link is external)8 as they state that they’re friends, not a throuble,9 telling the story of how they met and that they sometimes hang out, and other times fuck for work or just because they want to, they say this as they laugh and blame the hormones and alcohol. I laughed and smiled from all of my heart watching this video, something about it is so delightful, so easy and so funny about how they just play with each other, joke, fuck and most importantly check-in. Nothing about the film is gendered, it is not a story of two women and a man, it is just three bodies navigating sex/pleasure and escaping gender roles. I sent a disappearing video to my best friends on Instagram that cracked me up. Wherein this video, Lina and Bishop both slap Carmen’s butt cheeks and then high five as the three laugh from their hearts.
I started following the performers immediately on Instagram, and that exposed me to Lina Bembe’s reflections and politics. She writes about “the downsides of porn industry is that it has “a shelf-life(link is external)”, reflecting on her phase as a “new-face” is over. Lina writes about topics like censorship, limitations of alt porn to support its makers financially, and feminist politics.
I slide into Lina’s DM as I begin drafting this piece and ask her: “How do you experience (or not) vulnerability, intimacy, pleasure/joy in relation to your work, in an extremely patriarchal world?”. A question driven by the vehemence I feel when I watch her work! In her response, Lina says “sex and sexuality can be really political; patriarchy doesn’t really want us to tap into questions about sex and sexuality because it would be a massive risk for patriarchy and capitalism. Porn has helped me alot to face all these elements; it has helped me to see that all these elements together can be really powerful. It is not about being weak, it is the opposite, and there's plenty of power that we can grasp from that. In so many ways it is normal that it is made taboo because it has a lot about knowing yourself and rejecting prefabricated rules and laws about the ways in which we’re supposed to exist in this patriarchal world”.
Lina continues with a powerful reflection. “Pornography and explicit sexuality can be a powerful mean for expressing ideas about politics for contesting existing relationships of dominance, capitalism and patriarchy; and I guess this explains why porn and expressing sexuality in so many ways are taboos. Why being in this world in ways that aren’t heteronormative are so punished in this world; there’s so much power contained in it, so much potential in flipping and changing the patriarchal order that we live in''.
“Pornography and explicit sexuality can be a powerful mean for expressing ideas about politics for contesting existing relationships of dominance, capitalism and patriarchy.”
I saw myself and my friends rejecting heteronormativity in that Lustery video. I saw us with our queerness, disobedience of gender roles and taboos. This piece is not dismissing mainstream porn and glorifying alt porn, but it is a refusal of violent patriarchal practices and the one narrative of sex and sexuality. Lina says on this point “Sex and sexuality practices that don’t fall in heteronormative boxes; working specifically with sex and sexuality in ways that really breaks heteronormatives boxes, can really help unmask and tap into those very important elements of our sexual life, our sexuality and our identities”.
I ask Lina Bembe if she uses the term “alt porn” and she responds affirming the alt categorizing and reflection on work conditions and ethics: “It is not about what sort of messages but rather the conditions of the production is done, as previously there was huge dependence on studios and production companies, now DIY/independent porn is showcased with more diversity of bodies and formats… alt pornographies are alt because they don’t depend on studios, directors or whatever who pay wages, but it could be done on webcam, Snapchat, Only Fans”.
Once as I was scrolling on Facebook, when I came across a conversation between some friends and strangers about feminist porn, I saw a comment from a woman (cis, heterosexual, feminist) against feminist porn: “I don’t wanna see porn that’s so boring/mediocre and women being asked for consent every two seconds and fucked respectfully and gently”. I felt bad for her, and somehow I felt offended! Porn that centres women and produces content that centres desire out of patriarchal gazes can be really everything, from gentle to extremely hardcore, kinky and everything in between. Thankfully, people linked in the comments some of Erika Lust’s10 work as it is one of the most known feminist porn production of our time.
We’re often scared of what we want/fancy and lowkey liking somethings that scare us, and that’s my favourite thing about porn; it made me face fantasies that I wanted, but also the ones was scared of, and I eventually learn that I can do both “want” and “fear” as I approach a fantasy.
Porn is one of the greatest sources for sex education for me to learn about my pleasure and unlearn heternormative violences. I can say my sexuality keeps getting reshaped through feminist knowledge productions and alt porn.
I can say my sexuality keeps getting reshaped through feminist knowledge productions and alt porn.
Who gets to undress?
Lina said in one of her voice notes to me: “Alt porn is not about sending a feminist message. It is important to say that not all mainstream porn is bad and all feminist porn is good, because it is more about what you don’t see, the ethics of the production, feminist values in the way you do the work… and even if it is a feminist porn it doesn’t necessarily mean it was done ethically”.
I live in a geography where most of its local porn production is leaked. I saw porn on a website that was made for Arabs with Arabic content; which was most probably leaked. I read about it in the news.There are video being circulated of people who are completely unaware that their faces/identities have been leaked and are put up for display on a porn website. It sickens me. I question geographical privilege, representation, and who gets to undress in front of the camera.
My geography makes it challenging for me to pay for my porn pleasure, I want to support the porn producers and performers that I watch. However, I can not risk compromising my identity and security from the government officials and institute. This is the reality of oppression we fight on but also find ourselves trapped in the void.
In Vex Ashley’s film “L’appel du Vide”, she ends it with the words of Emil Cioran,11 and like her “I would rather die of fire than of void.”
- 1. “Not Safe for Work”, an internet slang to make you alert in public spaces, mostly contains nudity and sex.
- 2. This project is named after one of Anaïs Nin’s literary books, an autobiographical novel titled “The Four Chambered Heart”, published in the 50s.
- 3. “Do It Yourself”, homemade porn, no production and no studios.
- 4. Cyber Sexy: Rethinking Porn”,Richa Kaul Padte, 2018, Penguin India, page 15.
- 5. https://tumblr.zendesk.com/hc/en-us/articles/231885248-Adult-content(link is external)
- 6. https://vexashley.medium.com/porn-on-tumblr-a-eulogy-love-letter-6d45e70...(link is external)
- 7. Adult performer, writer and educator.
- 8. A platform of self submitted videos with no scripts, no acting, not faking of real couples/throubles, and also reflective content about sex and intimacy.
- 9. A relationship with three people.
- 10. Indie adult filmmaker, her platforms ([Lust Cinema](https://lustcinema.com/(link is external)), [Erotic Films](https://eroticfilms.com/(link is external)) and [XConfessions](https://xconfessions.com/(link is external))).
- 11. Romanian-born philosopher, essayist and poet, 8 April 1911 – 20 June 1995).