When the Whip Comes Down

Peter Smith
As any savvy person will tell you, it takes more than just a funny hat and a profoundly perverse belief in abortion to be the pope. That same essential rule holds true in the world of fetish directors, the auteurs who bring consumers the pleasure of all that BDSM pain.

In other words, it takes experience, dedication and an honest passion for what you do to offer the best niche product within the massive market of straight, or "vanilla," porn. Fetish fans know what they want and easily see through uninspired offerings. To succeed as a director, one must be very much in tune with the taste of the consumer. But how does one crack that nut?

"I am the audience," emphasizes veteran fetish director Ira Levine, aka Ernest Greene, his nom de porn. "The problem is that dopey guys with no clue who've maybe been to an S&M club once try and do this. Lack of experience is still a problem. I'm a one-man focus group; this is my native sexuality, I know what my crowd likes, what they don't like and what they think looks and feels authentic."

Having been in the business since 1984, Levine should know. He started back then as a rigger, literally tying individuals up for bondage shoots (Marilyn Chambers was a subject of his knotworthiness) before taking over the director's chair in the early '90s. His first feature, "Strictly for Pleasure," became something of an industry standard; it still sells today.

"What the BDSM audience doesn't like is an attempt to get their money," Levine continues. "Someone who dresses a girl in a collar and a leash and sticks that on a box cover, and it contains maybe two seconds of something fetishy, well, the audience just pukes that up."

"When you're vanilla, you just don't get it," offers star-cum-director Anna Mills. The diminutive-yet-forceful blond entered the fetish world initially as an onscreen performer seven years ago, working for companies like GwenMedia and Bizarre. "You can direct somebody dressed in latex, but it's a lot more than that," she says. "You have to be on the inside to know what the consumer wants to see."

As with straight porn, the genre of fetish is fragmented into different interests, and listening to your audience's demands can go a long way toward supplying the deliciously naughty goods.

"I keep in contact with a lot of people," Mills says. "I also do a thing on that's phone sex, and that's really given me a lot of ideas. They'll tell me what they're into and I'm like, holy shit! I wouldn't have thought of that on my own."

Really, Disney said it best: It's a small world after all, and that world includes the cliquish fetish bunch.

"In the fetish world, they all know each other," Mills says. "It's like going to the same high school or something. And it's similar with the fans. Fetish people tend to be more loyal. The fetish guys will like me when I'm 40, and they feel that way about their product."

"The S&M audience tends to be people with a high IQ," Levine reveals. "They're not easily sold on a bunch of poseur bullshit. They get on blogs and they'll say, 'this is great' or 'this is just another attempt to exploit us.'"

That unique relationship between consumer and provider has helped the genre stay strong in this world of ever-advancing technology.

"I think the fetish world both on and off the Internet will be fine because it's such a specific thing," says Vanessa Blue, who has directed and starred in femdom off and on for 10 years under the name Domina X. She's also had plenty of experience on the straight porn side — experience that has not always been positive.

"There's nothing vanilla about fetish. In straight porn, whose stuff really stands out when they use the same people doing the same sex acts and the only way to differentiate yourself is to beat the girl up or shove 12 things up her butt and make it the most nonsexual, anti-female product that you can distribute?"

When it comes to relationships, it all begins with the performers and directors, and the special bond that needs to exist between the two in order to give birth to quality fetish product. As Billy Joel says, it's a matter of trust.

"We discuss things before they happen," says Blue, "and I tell them what I want, and the slave will tell me what his or her boundaries are, and then I'll push them during the scene to take them to the edge. We have a safety word to [signal] if things are going too far. There is no safety word in straight porn. In the fetish world, there's no anti-female. No one is thinking of a girl in the 'I hate you' way. The master loves his girl, he doesn't want to break her so she can't work the next day or put her in a mental institution because of what he's doing to her."

In fetish filming, trust is akin to respect, a somewhat ironic notion to most outsiders, given the fact that the commonly held idea of BDSM is that it's based on disrespect.

"I think the more mainstream you get, unless you're a big star, the way you get treated is a little bit worse," offers Mills. "In the fetish world, you never disrespect anybody. You can be choking someone, and if they say the safe word, you stop, even if you're two seconds from coming. You don't want them to be hurt or damaged or bruised. There's a code of ethics in the community, filming or otherwise."

Beyond that sacred code, there's also the issue of basic personal on-set safety — something that Ira Levine, with his years as a bondage rigger, is well aware of.

"It concerns me that there are people making these movies that do not have that experience or are not willing to pay for it," he says. "There are certain kinds of ethics in bondage, particularly with people that are new to it, where we need to explain everything we're going to do, show them every piece of equipment we're going to use, show them that it's going to be safe and comfortable and ask them how they are with it. And if they're uncomfortable, we don't do it. There are a million options when you're shooting bondage. There are alternatives to doing the gag if it's something they don't want to do."

The bondage arena also seems to allow women to thrive in ways mainstream does not, in front of and behind the camera.

"I believe fully that BDSM is female empowerment if you use it as such," says Mills, and that umbrella covers a wide variety of opportunities.

"I tell girls, if you do fetish, you can do private sessions or Internet stuff or whatever, and if you're good as a domme, you don't even have to take a titty out," states Blue. "You don't even have to be hot, and you can make a ton of money, at least the same dough she's making in straight-sex scenes. You can put a video up on rubbing your feet together. I do that, and pay my rent off of it. If a girl is looking for any form of dignity from this business, it's in fetish work."