Porn Panel Talks Mainstreaming of Erotica at USC

Porn Panel Talks Mainstreaming of Erotica at USC
Dan Miller

LOS ANGELES — The adult industry received a unique spotlight Wednesday night when a panel of experts explored the mainstreaming of erotica at the University of Southern California.

Hosted by the USC School of Cinematic Arts at the Ray Stark Family Theatre in the center of the sprawling campus, the accomplished group of speakers featured Wicked Pictures contract star and sexual health expert, jessica drake, adult star Casey Calvert, producer and screenwriter, Magnus Sullivan, and certified sex educator, Elle Chase.

Alex Ago, director of programming and special projects for USC's School of Cinematic Arts, moderated the public discussion titled “50 Shades of Erotica: The Blurring of the Line Between Hollywood and Adult Entertainment” during the lively two-hour exchange.

The group addressed a breadth of topics that included mainstream perceptions of adult entertainment; the stigmas attached to being in the porn business; the market for plot-driven, explicit movies; the culture of fandom; and the impact of “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

Hollywood's “Fifty Shades of Grey” film earlier this year may not have won critical acclaim and its actual entertainment value was debatable, but it did serve an important purpose, the panel admitted.

“The one good thing about the film is it took BDSM and put it out to the world and people went, ‘oh, maybe it’s not all about locking people in a dungeon and beating them until they’re bloody and dead,” said Calvert, an honors graduate of the University of Florida who got into porn three years ago.

Now an established performer who is well-versed in fetish play, Calvert writes a monthly BDSM and fetish-themed column for GameLink's The Naked Truth blog. She said when she started doing porn that fetish work was considered the hardest, most extreme niche in the industry, but nowadays “fetish is a romance category.”

“Everyone is shooting fetish,” she added.

Wicked’s drake, a performer, writer and director who has helmed her instructional “jessica drake's Guide to Wicked Sex” series for the past four years, agreed that Hollywood's "Fifty Shades" if nothing else managed to bring these themes to the forefront.

“And it made us comfortable talking about it and exploring different areas of our sexuality,” said drake, a seasoned speaker who conducts sexual wellness seminars and workshops around the world.

“It was also great for the retailers because stores that have seen slumps in DVD sales because of piracy are now seeing people coming to the stores. They want the books but they also want the toys that go along with it. I timed the release of my instructional ‘BDSM for Beginners’ with the theatrical release of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey.’"

She added, “The other thing I think ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ did is it kind of created this mash-up. It took the white knight comes in and saves the girl, but it also mixed that up with this virginess, innocent girl that saves the guy that’s damaged and sexually promiscuous. So ‘Fifty Shades’ managed to do all of that in one bad movie.”

While drake drew a roar of laughter from the appreciative audience as she finished her remark, the mood got serious soon after when Sullivan made one of the evening's most emphatic arguments.

He said now it’s incumbent upon the adult industry to make the most of this cultural moment that has been largely powered by the “Fifty Shades” phenomenon to make great movies on its own. And if it doesn't, someone else from mainstream surely will, Sullivan suggested.

“HBO built an empire on simulated sex, so you have really interesting cultural dynamics happening at the same time,” noted Sullivan, the San Francisco-based co-founder of GameLink.com as well as the owner of LionReach Productions.

“I think that’s the great opportunity for adult. Because I think HBO has shown that there is a massive market for well-developed, well-produced, sophisticated, erotic narratives. That to me is the great opportunity.

“The problem with the adult industry is as an industry we really haven’t figured out how to tap into that market. We haven’t figured out how to make the content that appeals to that market and we haven’t figured out how to distribute it and get it into that marketplace. That’s the big challenge.

“We’re sitting in this weird space where mainstream is doing a much better job of integrating sex into narratives than adult is.”

But Sullivan is doing his part. LionReach recently produced “Marriage 2.0,” an ambitious film that examined modern relationships, sex and intimacy that received an Editor’s Choice from XBIZ and was named Movie of the Year at the 2015 Feminist Porn Awards and Best Narrative at the 2015 CineKink Film Festival in New York.

His hope is that others in the industry step forward and undertake projects comparable in scope, creating cinematic experiences worth paying for in an era of free content that has eroded profits.

“My whole take is I’m not using sex to facilitate masturbation,” Sullivan reasoned. “I think that’s a big mistake that content providers [make] — I’m a huge fan of it — but the problem is that model as a financial model is not sustainable anymore. You have to look at sex in really different ways and use it in different ways.

“Like using sex the way that Tarantino uses violence."

Sullivan pointed to creating "a visceral viewing experience that’s unique to adult."

"That’s our one asset. The one thing we have that separates us from everybody else is the ability to show hard cock, penetration. That’s it," he said. "So that line is getting thinner, thinner and thinner. If we don’t understand how to use it better, we’re done."

The producer added that porn performances and the industry's elite talent often go under-appreciated in this regard.

“These performers are amazing,” Sullivan said. “What they give to the audience is incredible and it’s very rarely treated with respect for the social and cultural boundaries that are being crossed.”  

The veteran star drake noted that her company Wicked has always marketed its movies to women and couples with a focus on creating higher-budget movies “with plot-pertinent sex.”

“Not just the pizza man ringing the doorbell and now people are having sex, but there’s a backstory,” drake said. “We created a line called Passions as well for more plot-pertinent sex.”

And her line of instructional DVDs is carefully captured in an effort “to enable [viewers] to have a sexual experience.”

Elle Chase, the nationally known sex and intimacy coach who also serves as the Lead Sex Educator at the Los Angeles Academy of Sex Education, made the distinction between “an experience of sensuality as opposed to masturbation material.”

“Sure they masturbate, but they also want to feel sensual and erotic, and I think that’s what Magnus did with ‘Marriage 2.0.’ And I think he’s on the cutting edge of the next wave of what sexuality and adult will bring to us,” remarked Chase, who curates Cosmopolitan’s "No. 1 porn site for women," LadyCheeky.com, and the SmutforSmarties.com blog.

“People are masturbating and cumming in 30 seconds, but what they miss is intimacy, the arousal process. The feeling of sensuality and what comes along with it. And that’s where the money is. And I think that’s also something that I feel we practice.

"I have men and women that come to me and want to find ways to become more intimate with their partner... And having a site that is more erotic than porn gives me a certain perspective.”

Chase said that as entertainment and technology have evolved in the past 20 years that “there’s a worldliness that we have at a younger age now.”

“Without even having to have money you can sort of get an idea of what’s going on in the world and communicate with other people and see how other cultures treat sex,” Chase added.

USC's Alex Ago later asked the panel about perhaps the most controversial topic in the adult industry today — mandatory condom use, and the battle that was waged against Measure B.

The measure that was officially known as the "County of Los Angeles Safer Sex in the Adult Film Industry Act" passed with 57 percent of the vote in the November 2012 election in L.A. County. 

Now a new statewide condom ballot measure sponsored by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation designed to enforce condom use on adult film sets throughout the state will be on the November 2016 presidential ballot.

The panel agreed the ballot measure is designed to simply drive the industry out of California altogether. Wicked's drake recalled being approached by someone asking for her signature endorsing the measure.

“Just one illustration was how it was presented on the ballot,” drake explained. “I was in a local grocery store walking out with my groceries and a man came up to me and said, ‘do you want to protect the poor women who are in porn?’

“I turned my necklace around — I wear a Wicked necklace — and I was like, ‘yes tell me all about those poor women in porn.’ And he proceeded to tell me what grave danger we were all in, and I took in all the information and just shook my head.

“That’s how it got on the ballot to begin with. Even though I practice safer sex in my movies — there’s a difference between safe and safer sex — I don’t believe that the government should be able to tell me what to do with my body and I feel very strongly about that.”