BDSM Shakes Up Vanilla Porn
But times have changed, and BDSM isn't nearly as underground as it once was. Numerous BDSM websites are published on the Internet, professional dominatrices are in heavier demand than ever, pop superstars like Madonna and Joan Jett have addressed kinky topics, and any run-of-the-mill sex shop is likely to be selling handcuffs, whips, leather masks, blindfolds and ball-gags along with the standard dildos, vibrators, lubricants and flavored condoms. BDSM is hardly new (Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's 1869 novel "Venus in Furs" was a BDSM manifesto), but it has never been more ubiquitous — and that fact is not lost on the world of vanilla porn, which isn't as vanilla as it was 20 or 30 years ago. In 2008, the Internet is full of vanilla adult websites that are not specifically BDSM-oriented but have become increasingly BDSM-friendly.
Jeff Booth, president of the Los Angeles-based EroticUniversity.com and a longtime observer of adult-industry trends, noted that both spanking and light bondage have become more acceptable in vanilla porn. However, Booth was quick to stress that really hardcore BDSM — for example, someone voluntarily receiving an intense bullwhipping — is not something that the majority of people who patronize vanilla adult websites are going to identify with.
Booth explained: "There is definitely more kink slipping into what you might call mainstream porn or regular porn... But what people who are seriously into the BDSM scene are interested in is not necessarily what the mainstream adult entertainment fans are going to be interested in. If the mainstream adult entertainment fans are going to be interested in any kind of BDSM, it is going to be a BDSM-light kind of format."
BDSM-light, Booth said, is what adult superstar Jenna Jameson favored when she showed fans her kinkier side in 2005's "Jenna Loves Pain" (which is part of a mildly kinky Club Jenna series that also includes "Roxy Loves Pain" and "McKenzie Loves Pain"). Booth noted that vanilla erotica is merely reflecting the fact that American society on the whole has become quite comfortable with softcore BDSM, but he stressed that experimenting with softcore kink here and there is not the same as becoming a card-carrying member of a BDSM organization like the Society of Janus in San Francisco, Threshold in Los Angeles or The Eulenspiegel Society (TES) in New York City.
"A huge amount of people are into light BDSM these days," Booth noted. "Light BDSM play has grown exponentially; couples are really into the light bondage and light spanking. But that's where the line gets drawn. There is definitely an upper limit to how far people in regular porn are going to be able to go with BDSM activity, and we're probably hitting those boundaries now."
Colin Rowntree, president of Wasteland.com (which bills itself as "the web's oldest and largest BDSM and fetish site"), recalled that softcore BDSM started becoming more acceptable in vanilla porn in the 1990s. "I started to see the incorporation of soft BDSM and fetishism in standard adult entertainment about 10-15 years ago," said Rowntree, who founded Wasteland.com in 1995. "Much of this appears to have been driven by mainstream non-adult popular culture — Madonna in corsets, Michael Jackson's pseudo-kinky music videos, and a lot of movie stars pushing the edge as far as wearing fetish gear in public appearances and the like. The one identifiable turning point was the 1990s-era Penthouse magazine edition that showed — gasp! — models peeing into glass bowls and brandy snifters. From that point on, 'fetish' became fair game for adult entertainment. Feature films and websites then, with increasing frequency, began to incorporate light BDSM and fetish into their productions — a little spanking, a little sex and submission, light bondage."
Howard Levine, national sales manager for Vivid Entertainment, explained that these days, light BDSM is showing up in Vivid material much more than it did in the past. But "light," he said, is clearly the operative word where kinky activity in Vivid's material is concerned — and he doesn't envision Vivid becoming any more hardcore than what Club Jenna audiences saw in "Jenna Loves Pain" or "Roxy Loves Pain."
Levine told XBIZ: "How prevalent is softcore fetishism in mainstream porn in (the late 2000s) compared to 10 or 20 years ago? I think that it is quite prevalent. It's almost commonplace... There used to be a rule: you could tie them up and not fuck them or fuck them and not tie them up. But we do include light bondage now, and I mean very light bondage. Being tied up with scarves and stuff like that is pretty OK these days."
Even though vanilla porn has become kinkier and more bondage-friendly than it was in the 1970s and 1980s, there is still a big difference between vanilla-oriented adult websites that include some light kink and adult websites that focus on hardcore BDSM exclusively (such as Kink.com, SpankedBrats.com and DungeonCorp.com). Serious BDSM players who visit DominantDolls.com or BrutalCBT.com to see extreme paddling, caning, whipping or CBT (cock and ball torture) definitely are not Club Jenna's target audience.
The Boston-based Isobel Wren, an erotic model who has done her share of fetish-themed work and includes some of it on her membership site IsobelWren.com, explained that vanilla-oriented adult sites that include some light BDSM are not really competing with Wasteland.com, Kink.com or DungeonCorp.com because their audience is not a hardcore BDSM audience. Wren said that even if a vanilla adult web site includes some spanking and light bondage, intercourse is still the main ingredient — whereas on hardcore BDSM sites, the main ingredient is still BDSM. "In real fetish stuff," Wren explained, "the climax scene would be centered around that fetish rather than the sex. In regular porn, the climax is the sex. In mainstream porn, you might have someone getting handcuffed or spanked — I'm seeing a lot of spanking in mainstream porn — but it's still centered around the sex. And in real fetish stuff, you might not even have sex; you might not even see genitals at all because the fetish is the most important part."
Similarly, Rowntree said that even though vanilla porn has become more BDSM-friendly, there is still a world of difference between vanilla porn consumers and consumers of hardcore BDSM erotica. "These are absolutely two different genres and audiences and do not really compete with each other," Rowntree explained. "'Vanilla' viewers want hardcore, compelling sex scenes, generally with as little acting or dialogue as possible; BDSM viewers are really there for the pain and psychodrama of erotic power exchange, generally with a lot of dialogue to propel the drama along. Yes, both genres borrow from each other from time to time. Mainstream adult includes some kinky behavior; BDSM productions include some sex as part of the power exchange. But, there really is not a lot of significant cross-over between the two sexual cultures. Viva la difference."
Kelly Eberhard, chief information officer for the sex toy merchant XR LLC, said that sales of BDSM-oriented sex toys have been booming online in the 2000s — and she gives some of the credit to the increase of light BDSM in vanilla porn as well as to the increase of BDSM images in mainstream entertainment. For five years, Eberhard has been keeping a journal of BDSM images and BDSM references she encounters in the mainstream media — images and references she said have been great for business if you are using the Internet to sell floggers, blindfolds, handcuffs or restraints.
"When I first started logging BDSM images in the mainstream media," Eberhard noted, "I would have an entry in that journal maybe every six months — and last year, I bet I was putting in entries three or four times a month. There has to be a direct correlation between the fact that our sales are increasing and the increase in BDSM-type images in vanilla porn and in the mainstream media. I've seen more and more BDSM images in mainstream media; we've had women dressing like dominatrices in mainstream commercials, and we've had references to BDSM on 'Frasier' and 'Sex and the City.' So I believe that the mainstream porn consumers were ready for light BDSM and light spanking as part of their entertainment."
Eberhard added that both hardcore BDSM websites and vanilla adult websites that incorporate light BDSM have been beneficial for XR LLC, which caters to serious BDSM players on its ExtremeRestraints.com site and has a self-described "light BDSM" section on its milder HealthyandActive.com site. Eberhard echoed Booth's assertion that someone who enjoys seeing some light spanking and light bondage on a vanilla adult site might be someone who has no formal association with the BDSM community — and similarly, Levine said that someone who appreciates "Jenna Loves Pain" isn't necessarily someone you will see in a hardcore BDSM dungeon.
"'Jenna Loves Pain' is really BDSM with training wheels," Levine asserted. "I think that a fan of full-on, blown-out BDSM would go 'Ah, that's nothing.' How many people who watch 'Jenna Loves Pain' or 'Roxy Loves Pain' will go on to become hardcore, full-on S&M players and participate in the Society of Janus or Threshold? I think the percentage would be extremely small — like one percent. Most people buy 'Jenna Loves Pain' because Jenna is in it. They get to see maybe a harder edge to Jenna, but I don't think they're going to see 'Jenna Loves Pain' and become hardcore, full-on S&M players. I just don't think that's going to happen."
Although vanilla erotica that incorporates softcore kink is not created with BDSM purists in mind, BDSM activist Susan Wright is still happy that such material is being made. New York City resident Wright is the founder and president of the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF), which has been aggressively fighting for the BDSM community's civil liberties — and the very fact that a vanilla porn superstar like Jameson has provided some BDSM-minded erotica is a sign of social progress, Wright said.
"Millions of people enjoy the behaviors of BDSM even though they don't necessarily identify what they are doing as BDSM," Wright emphasized. "Those are the people who are buying so much vanilla porn, and they are loving all these BDSM behaviors in their porn. That's why BDSM behaviors in vanilla porn are successful — they are reaching an enormous market of people who love BDSM behaviors even though they don't identify them as BDSM behaviors and are not in the BDSM community. BDSM is not a label that they put on themselves, but they do enjoy those behaviors."
Wright said that from a legal perspective, the presence of those "BDSM behaviors" on vanilla adult websites is a positive thing for the niche companies that specialize in BDSM/fetish erotica because the more exposure and mainstream acceptance BDSM receives, the harder it will be for prosecutors in obscenity cases to argue that BDSM is deviant, unnatural behavior or is harmful to society.
"As long as it is clear that BDSM behaviors are consensual, that's the important thing," Wright asserted. "I like the BDSM/fetish videos that include little interviews with the participants where they're asking, 'Did you enjoy that activity?' I think those interviews are very beneficial because they show that these activities are being done in a safe and consensual way; they are beneficial from a legal standpoint and are also instructive to the people who buy the videos."