Ginny Benson/New York Porn Film Festival

The New York Porn Film Festival isn’t particularly sexy at all

I went to the New York Porn Film Festival and all I got was a vagina-shaped cupcake.

Mar 1, 2020, 8:55 am*

IRL

EJ Dickson 

EJ Dickson

This article contains sexually explicit material.

When you think of porn theaters, you typically think of dimly lit edifices with busted marquees on the bad side of town, haunted by middle-aged men with doughy faces and plastic shopping bags. But at the New York Porn Film Festival at Secret Project Robot, an arts space in Bushwick, Brooklyn, the atmosphere is far from seamy. 

While the festival touts itself as a recreation of a “42nd Street 1980s experience,” it’s more along the lines of a liberal-arts college party, with 20-somethings in giant fur coats and wire-rimmed glasses milling around, munching on vagina cupcakes and eagerly discussing the upcoming hardcore porn fare as if they were sharing their senior art history theses.

“We’re here because we heard about yaoi on Reddit and we decided to check it out,” a girl from New Jersey in a giant puffy coat tells me. She’s flanked by a gaggle of similarly wholesome-looking young women, all of whom have paid $7 to see a curated selection of yaoi, a subgenre of Japanese cartoon erotica featuring young men having sex.

The next day, a group of giggling sales reps from New Haven, Conn., tell me they’re at the festival to see Interior Leather Bar, the documentary film by James Franco that features hardcore gay BDSM sex scenes. Although they missed the screening, they mention that they’re super excited for the next film, a Russian piss porn. It’s as if they’re talking about seeing the 2:00pm show of Paddington.

As they filter into the tiny screening room, where clean-cut 20-something Brooklynites and suburban émigrés hoot and holler at a cartoon Japanese boy giving a BDSM slave a handjob, the thought bobs and weaves like an amateur boxer through my mind: Porn has become cool. And I’m not sure how I feel about that.

Ej Dickson

Ej Dickson

With the advent of free tube sites like Pornhub and YouPorn and the increasing popularity of boy-next-door types like James Deen, there’s been much lip service devoted to the topic of the mainstreaming of porn.  

Porn has become cool. And I’m not sure how I feel about that. 

When the New York Porn Film Festival was announced back in November, it seemed very much like it would not only represent the convergence of mainstream culture with porn, but that it was actively trying to make porn—as in, straight-up videos of people sucking and fucking—cool.

For starters, the festival was sponsored by the tube site Pornhub, which has made a very public project out of bringing porn into the mainstream via its SFW advertising campaign and (unsuccessful) attempts to grab advertising space at the Super Bowl. The fact that it was showcasing submissions from Franco and Miley Cyrus, celebrities with a stalwart interest in obtaining indie art cred, made the porn film festival even more of an arts event. (While Franco’s film was screened at the festival, Cyrus’s BDSM-themed entry was pulled from the festival following an enormous press blitz.)

In an email to the Daily Dot, Pornhub vice president of marketing Corey Price said the controversial tube site was the perfect match for the film festival. “Pornhub is always intent on diversification – of both our brand and the industry at large,” Price says. By “providing a venue through which the audience could experience screenings covering the full range of human sexuality,” Pornhub sought to offer “something different” from the typical, solitary at-home wanking experience. 

The program at the New York Porn Film Festival seems to support the festival’s aspirations as an all-inclusive, near-utopian celebration of human sexuality. While the festival features “mainstream” porn content, such as Tila Tequila’s Back Doored and Squirting sex tape, it also showcases the type of low-budget, grainy films you’d see at an NYU Tisch undergrad’s final project presentation. These are the sorts of films where you can’t tell if you’re supposed to find them interesting or arousing. There’s BDSM porn. There’s trans porn. There’s porn of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles going down on each other. Whatever your kink, the festival has catered to it.

Ej Dickson

“We want to remain as open as possible,” Simon Leahy, the organizer and curator for the festival, tells the Daily Dot. “If this grows, we would like to see all voices at the table. NYC is big enough for us all and different ideas to coexist. You can have it all.”

There’s BDSM porn. There’s trans porn. There’s porn of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles going down on each other. 

The marriage of mainstream porno flicks with queer Brooklyn art house erotic films makes the festival accessible to a mainstream audience, while simultaneously allowing festival attendees to partake in genres of erotica they might not have been exposed to before. A poignant short film from trans filmmaker Tobi Hill-Meyer about how to fake an ejaculation on camera, for instance, had a warm reception Saturday evening. The aforementioned yaoi was also well-received; though the film started with the audience convulsing in giggles, it ended with an intensely erotic scene that left everyone silent. You got the sense that a lot of people would be going home, waiting until their spouses were asleep, and streaming yaoi on their laptops.

Ej Dickson

Ej Dickson

For this reason, Emily, an angel-faced pro domme with a giant halo of black hair and “slut” ankle socks, thinks it’s good that the festival has gotten a lot of mainstream press attention. “It brings in lots of people who arent in the BDSM or kink community,” she tells me as she sips PBR through a straw at the bar. “It’s really lovely to see people come out and enjoy these different fetishes and perspectives on sexuality. Here you can see fat people, people of color. We don’t normally see people like that having sex.”

But when I talk to other people associated with the film festival, there’s a sense that it isn’t quite as inclusive as it wants, or claims to want, to be. Jacqueline Mary (NSFW, a filmmaker who makes queer DIY indie smut, expressed her frustration about her entry for the Horror Porn program being left off the schedule, on the grounds that she missed the deadline. (She says she didn’t.) She says many queer women in the erotic filmmaking community felt that the festival was actively suppressing their voices.

“The festival had good intentions, but in the rush from all the attention combined with some technical shortfalls, queer woman-powered productions were shoved through the cracks,” she says. “I think the NYC PFF could have done better to make a more inclusive space, physically and curatorially, and hope that comes with their growth as a festival.”

“We don’t normally see people like that having sex.”

Another queer filmmaker who did not want to be named told me she also felt that the program deemphasized entries for queer, trans, and POC filmmakers. “What I experienced was a predominate presence/ perspective from gay, mostly cis, men, who wanted to create a media stunt that they thought was provocative,” she says. “Really it felt like entertainment for their own sake/enjoyment.” (In response, Leahy says that entries from women filmmakers comprised 70 percent of the festival’s program, and that “we actively seek to show all ranges of genders, sexualities and kinks.”)

Another, perhaps less surprising group was also unhappy with the New York Porn Film Festival: Stop Patriarchy, a feminist organization that held a protest outside the festival on Saturday. A Stop Patriarchy protester who introduced herself as Juana tells me the organization was protesting the festival because it is “fighting all kinds of women’s oppression, and we think pornography is shaping the minds of people in society to accept degradation.”

“We know that Pornhub is one of the biggest sponsors,” she says. “If you look at the videos that they have that are the most popular, they have all kinds of videos of men raping women.” 

Ej Dickson

When I bring up the fact that many of the films in the festival do not fall into this category, and instead feature non-heteronormative sex, Juana is unmoved. “When you just portray a body as something to have sex with, you’re taking their humanity away,” she says. Regardless of how queer-positive and body-positive and sex-positive the entries in the film festival might be, Juana sees them as reflective of the “mainstreaming of pornography that’s ever more cruel, ever more violent, ever more degrading against women.”

It’s easy to dismiss Juana—who, I eventually gather, has not seen any of the entries in the festival—and her compatriots as radical feminist activists painting with too broad a brush, maligning all types of pornography as sexist and debasing in an effort to grab a few press mentions. But there’s also something to her point about the mainstreaming of pornography, and how watching enough of it renders you immune—or even something else entirely—to the acts onscreen.

After a few minutes of sitting in an audience with a 50 or 60 hipsters, giggling at Franco and a woman pretending to slice off her breast and dancing disembodied phalluses and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lapping at each other’s genitalia, I wasn’t shocked by anything I saw. But I also wasn’t turned on, which, if nothing else, is the sole purpose of watching pornography.

Watching a Lady Gaga lookalike climb out of a dumpster and force a man in a pig mask and stilettos to perform cunnilingus on her while she slathers him in bacon isn’t tantamount to reveling in the multicolored rainbow encompassing the wide range of human sexualities, as the festival organizers claim. It evokes very much the same emotional response as tipping back a few ironically stirred cosmos and watching Lifetime movies on Netflix. The laughter comes from a place that’s a bit darker, and maybe even a little mean. 

I wasn’t shocked by anything I saw. But I also wasn’t turned on, which, if nothing else, is the sole purpose of watching pornography. 

While not all of the films I saw at the festival fell into this category—the yaoi was truly arousing, and Hill-Meyer’s film, which included a tutorial on how to make your own fake semen, was educational—by and large, the porn at the New York Porn Film Festival wasn’t degrading or debasing or whatever the protesters outside claimed. But it also wasn’t particularly sexy or interesting or transgressive. Instead, it’s a joke, and it’s one that the clean-cut kids from New Haven coming in for the weekend are in on together.

Ej Dickson

Ej Dickson

The question of whether porn is going mainstream is one that has been discussed to death, and it’s one that Leahy has no patience with. “Mainstreaming of porn is such a funny concept because it already is mainstream, it’s just no one talks about [it],” he told the Daily Dot. “They just consume it and throw it away. It’s the McDonald’s of the entertainment industry. Fun, accessible, and easy!”

It’s clear that by offering something to tempt every type of palate, the New York Porn Film Festival is at least attempting to elevate porn beyond the level of McDonald’s. But it’s also clear that in order for our taste buds to evolve beyond Tila Tequila anal sex tapes and “Mandingo loves Asian pussy,” we have to change our minds about porn first.

Photo via Ginny Benson/New York Porn Film Festival

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*First Published: Mar 3, 2015, 11:00 am