XBIZ 2019: The LGBT Adult Biz and 'Porn With a Purpose'

XBIZ 2019: The LGBT Adult Biz and 'Porn With a Purpose'

LOS ANGELES — The current state of the queer and trans adult entertainment industry was the hot topic of discussion at four XBIZ 2019 panels moderated by director and CockyBoys principal Jake Jaxson, Cybersocket’s Morgan Sommer, Steven Grooby and Kristel Penn of Grooby Productions and Pink & White Productions’ Shine Louise Houston and Jiz Lee.

All four panels touched on diversity and representation, the shared responsibility of adult entertainment producers for the welfare of their performers, and how to operate a successful business, one that grows and evolves, under the rubric of producing "porn with a purpose."

JAKE JAXSON PRESENTS: “PORN WITH A PURPOSE”

Jaxson delivered a stirring, aspirational speech to a full house for his panel. “The reason that I was so excited to engage in this conversation is I went to an event in New York – the Sex Expo – and there were lines around the block. I go in and it’s packed with people – real, everyday people – hungry, wanting, needing some clear-headed conversation or focus on sex (and) on their sex lives. More and more, I find, as a pornographer, the industry is sometimes devoid of a conversation (about sex).”

Customers are taking in “scenarios, fantasies, taboos” but there often isn’t a focus on a conversation about sex. “I approach everything from an exceedingly optimistic (viewpoint),” he said. “I’m fine with everyone wanting to be a cynic and approaching this conversation saying, ‘This sounds great, Jake, I hope you got it off your chest, but the truth is, this is the porn industry. We still have to run our businesses.’ I’m with you on that. I’m not trying to move that dial one way or another.”

Rather, he said, his approach comes from a “real-life, what-am-I-doing-with-my-life moment. I make a lot of money and I donate to things here-and-there, but does what I’m doing have purpose? I’m almost 50 and I’m in the midst of my midlife crisis, which for a pornographer is very trippy.”

“I want what I’m doing to have meaning, power and purpose. If I approach it that way, I will be fulfilled. And the people in my life, in my orbit, and the people I engage with, will then have meaning, power and purpose, and that energy goes to the next person, and the next person. And what starts to happen is people say, ‘Oh, wait, sex workers are not disposable,’ and so on.” That mindset, he observed, is infectious.

CockyBoys’ Europa- and XBIZ Award-winning “Flea Pit” carried the subtitle, “It’s not the end of the world, it just feels like it,” Jaxson said. “We are going through this collective, primal ‘What the fuck?’ and all of a sudden, the porn industry are the adults in the room! For the first time since Gallup started polling, in the past 25 years, a majority of Americans think that porn is morally acceptable. That happened in the era of Trump because people are looking at Stormy Daniels and going, ‘Wait a second! This is a real woman. She’s speaking her mind.’ They look at her and think, ‘I want to be able to stand up to bullies this way. I want to be able to be empowered to do that.’”

“Have you read her tweets? ‘If you don’t like it, close your eyes. This is what I do.’ At some point, somebody empowered her with self-respect to enable her to take a stand. With that kind of energy, I see a massive opening for us as an industry. The point is to try to get everyone to think, ‘what is my purpose? What am I doing? What is my goal? What is my mission? And how can I, as a member of this industry, land on a foundational set of moral principles?’”

Porn has a purpose because “you can look at it and find yourself,” he said, a fact that has specific, very personal resonance for queer audiences. “People find themselves in what we make, what we create. We have the potential to step forward at a time when Americans are more open to discussion about who and what we are as pornographers. Not as a free speech conversation. We’ve got a guy in the White House right now free-speeching us to death; but our counterparts in other ‘vice’ industries realized, ‘We’ve got to have a conversation that matters and that is meaningful to people’s lives.’ Recreational marijuana becomes medical marijuana, not ‘Reefer Madness.’ It took sixty years, but we’re there. Amazon is the number-one retailer of adult sex toys or, as they refer to it, ‘sexual health and wellness.’"

The need for adult filmmakers to step forward is even more compelling, Jaxson observed, in an era of abstinence-only education programs and recently implemented bans or crackdowns on sexual content by Tumblr, Facebook and Instagram.

“As an industry, the porn industry, we have not begun to have a conversation about sexual wellness or how this has meaning and power in our lives. 'What am I going to produce? What am I going to choose to turn down?' Everyone in this room has the power to say, ‘No, I don’t want that on my site. That producer is known for abusing [models].’ We’re seeing this happen in other sides of the business.”

Jaxson produced what he terms as a "very simple" mission statement: "to produce gay content that has meaning, power and purpose, and that is aspirational for the people that watch it. Aspirational? How is that possible? Trust me, when I say, your customers, our customers, are so hungry for something that feeds them and fuels them in ways other than just getting them off.”

"This has given me a life that I am proud of, that I love living," he said. "I work with people I absolutely adore and I’m excited to see their success. It does not mean that I don’t have days that I absolutely hate everybody. But, at the end of the day, I sleep well at night. There are no lies hanging over my head. There is nothing that I have to hide. I can just create from scratch because I am choosing purpose over statistics. If you start there, it becomes infectious. It starts with you. It will fuel you on the darkest, hardest days when the worst is coming at you: the server is down; the billing people are being mean. There will always be something that makes our life miserable. But if you ask, ‘What is my purpose here?’ those things become easy tasks. They are just part of you getting to where you need to go.”

“We all have, individually, more power than we think,” he said. “Engage with your audience. Transform them.”

CYBERSOCKET PRESENTS: STORYTELLING IN GAY PORN

Cybersocket co-founder Morgan Sommer led a panel whose shared expertise covered production, payment processing and pleasure products: Men.com director Marc MacNamara, producer Keith Miller of Helix Studios, Gary Jackson from CCBill (“I am actually the receptionist at CCBill,” he joked) and Lulu Shwartzer from electro-sex products company MyStim.

Sommer kicked off the panel discussion by noting a sea change in all-male adult back to big-budget, high profile storytelling. MacNamara, for example, was a 2019 XBIZ Awards directing nominee, in part, for “Pirates: A Gay XXX Parody,” shot on location in Spain with a full swashbuckling cast, while Miller is in the midst of promoting their feature “Vegas Nights,” whose shoot included more than 70 pages of dialogue.

“The way to get customers, for us, has been to produce the huge movies, the stories like ‘Vegas Nights,’” said Miller. He does see value in the DIY content generated through platforms such as OnlyFans and JustFor.fans, and the social media engagement of his exclusive performers is a pillar of the Helix Studios marketing strategy. However, “we’re going in the direction of telling stories, putting on big productions, and we’re doing it because the audience demands it. The audience loves it. They join for that. They want to see that.”

Jackson described a dramatic change in “the expectations of the consumer” in just two years, which he attributes to such streaming platforms as Netflix and Hulu. “The way they consume the content has set a new level of expectation — what they can access and when they can access it,” he observed. “The binge-releases – as I heard Bree Mills say, it’s a great phrase – what they want from their platform is easy access, instant purchases, instant upgrades and they’re creating a relationship with that platform, just like we have a relationship with Netflix. We have our own personal relationship with Apple TV or Amazon Prime Video.”

“That’s the biggest (change) from last year, that we’ve seen, from a payment processing standpoint, is that the ecosystems that are offering that lifetime customer value, and expanding that, and providing an experience that isn’t necessarily a weekly update – that’s old-school – but providing a more dynamic and knowledgeable release plan, have been the ones who are attracting and keeping those consumers for a longer period of time. They’re not downloading everything and leaving like they used to do seven or eight years ago. Now they’re actually building a relationship and they’re coming to expect certain things from their provider. And the people who meet those expectations are the ones who are succeeding right now.”

Shwartzer spoke about her company’s mission to “provide a new kind of sensation.”

“What people want is an experience at home,” she said. “That’s what we’re doing, creating a whole fantasy for them. We’ve evolved into realizing how important that is — and to partner with people who are producing the kind of content that our products can work with. Something more interactive. Thirty years ago, you went to Spencer’s and got a hard plastic vibrator. A prostate massager or a Fleshlight were completely non-existent. When I started, it couldn’t even look like a vibrator! There wasn’t an ability to integrate it into your life the way people do today. We’re so lucky to live in a time when it’s so accessible.”

MacNamara notes that 2018 was “a big year for Men.com to do some exploring about what types of stories that people like. They did a lot of exploring about what types of stories were selling and what type of content people wanted. They found out a lot of stuff they weren’t expecting, like bringing in women — whether they’re having sex and it’s a bi scene, or they’re just there watching — it was very controversial. But they found the stuff that got the most negative press was the stuff that actually sold the best for them.”

His focus is on telling stories on a larger canvas. “My strong suit is storytelling and bigger scripts. I’m a big fan of Helix and the way they’re doing stories, too. Last year we did ‘Pirates’ in Spain and we have three big projects coming up in 2019, larger, storyline-driven stuff that stands alone if you take the sex out.”

Shwartzer returned to the notion of creating an immersive, interactive experience for the consumer. She described how pairing MyStim products with popular cam performers, for example, sparked a shared experience that benefitted everyone involved. “It’s becoming more necessary,” she said. “People want an interactive experience. Nobody is just watching anymore; people want to be involved, and we help them be involved.”

GROOBY PRESENTS: TRANS ROUNDTABLE

Grooby Productions’ annual roundtable, led by Steven Grooby, was packed wall-to-wall with talent, agents, content producers and others. A wide-ranging discussion focused largely on how to meet the specific needs of the trans performer community.

Eric Paul Leue, Executive Director of the Free Speech Coalition, spoke with passionate conviction about the efficacy of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), FDA-approved since 2012, and which Leue described as “birth control for HIV.”

“It’s a revolutionary tool,” he said. “From when HIV came around until recently, all we ever could say was ‘condoms.’ In the industry, we developed testing protocols that have been really effective, but we needed more.”

Leue acknowledged “a completely screwed up healthcare environment” in the United States that is often unfriendly to trans performers, and sex workers in general. He took pains to describe the resources that are available to performers and sex workers, including the FSC’s Performer Subsidy Fund, legal services, mental health services and more. Grooby and Penn spoke about their recently formed Transgender Adult Industry Foundation (TAIF), that raises money in support of organizations that specifically serve the transgender community and transgender performers.

Another topic of discussion focused on consent. Grooby Productions recently made their code of conduct publicly available. “We’ve had it, obviously, for years, but we’ve never been transparent about it and wanted everybody to see it,” Steven Grooby said. “It’s something that all production studios should be doing.”

The transparent was particularly important, he felt, because “the trans community, trans production, is away from the mainstream a lot of the time.”

Penn is working towards a Masters degree in Counseling in order to be better equipped in helping their community of performers and customers. “But it’s more than just me, which is why I wanted to have this conversation today about mental health,” she said. “We know that marginalized people (deal with) stigma. We know that you can be marginalized and have privilege. And especially for sex workers, you’re often juggling multiple identities that carry stigma. We are a production company, we are a business, but we are a business that works with people. The conversation that we often have is, 'what is our responsibility, and what is safe and sustainable?'”

“We’re seeing people reaching out for help,” Grooby observed.

“We are at an adult business conference, but it’s not really just about the website, the dollars-and-cents,” Penn said. “We’re in a business where people are using their bodies, and in trans porn, it’s marginalized bodies. Even though we are a production company, I personally feel — and I know Steven personally feels — we have a responsibility in how we serve this community.”

PINK & WHITE PRESENTS ‘QUEER PORN VS. THE MAINSTREAM: BRIDGING THE GAP’

Filmmaker and Pink & White Productions founder Shine Louise Houston and her colleague, Jiz Lee, who also works as a performer and has been part of Pink & White for over a decade, conducted a lively, informative discussion about their shared passion for diversity, representation and personal fulfillment through sexual expression.

Houston described Pink & White as “broadly queer, indie, feminist productions,” which includes their fan-favorite “CrashPad” series and PinkLabel.tv. She admits to “preconceived notions, as a civilian, about what the industry was,” and Pink & White was founded, in part, as “a reaction to what I thought the industry was. I still had that idea that porn is a monolith – porn is all white, porn is all men. And when I started, it was with a very gung-ho attitude about having queer people, people of size, brown people, which is still a goal.”

As an indie filmmaker in a billion-dollar industry, Pink & White soon became a curious object of fascination in the mainstream press. Houston was regularly cast in David-versus-Goliath storylines. “The press will take queer porn or feminist porn and pit it against the mainstream,” she noted. “It’s not good for any of us. It still demonizes sex work and it demonizes the industry, even if they say you’re on the ‘good side.’ Overall, it’s still saying there’s something negative about porn.”

Houston developed a technique that she urged attendees to adopt. “What I started to do, when I noticed that people from the press had that agenda, and I can hear it in the questions they’re asking, I usually say, ‘Well, actually, there are some awesome people in this industry. Did you know about APAC? Did you know about PASS?’ And nine times out of ten, they’ll say, ‘Whoa! I had no idea that’s how the industry worked!’ That’s changed some of the articles that have (been published); they can’t throw the rest of the industry under the bus. When they ask me a question that’s very leading, I answer the question I wanted them to ask me! Give them a pivot, the ‘porn is not a monolith’ answer. I’m hoping that everybody is getting fed up with it and change that narrative, which is detrimental to everybody.”

“These things are important to me, especially as a small business. It doesn’t mean that queer porn, or queer companies, are better or worse, they’re just different,” she said. “And this is something that I keep seeing in the press. ‘This is good porn because it’s queer, or feminist, and mainstream still sucks.’ That’s part of why I wanted to do this (panel) today, to learn how to talk about queer porn without throwing the rest of the industry under the bus. Whether (the press) actually uses that information in their articles is a whole other conversation.”

Before launching Pink & White, Houston worked as a sex educator and sales associate at the famed Good Vibrations brick-and-mortar retail outlet. She soon noticed a lack of specifically queer or feminist content that reflected the tastes and desires of her customers. “People would come in, especially guys, and say, ‘what can I watch that’s lesbian with my girlfriend that’s not gonna piss her off?’ And queer folks coming in and asking, ‘what can I watch?' Well, I’ve got a few titles… It wasn’t a huge selection. I thought, ‘I’ve got five years of market experience and a film degree. Let’s make this happen.’”

Pink & White’s staying power in the marketplace has not gone unappreciated by Houston and Lee. They actively work to find new ways to innovate and evolve their business model. “We’ve totally ditched DVDs,” Houston said. “Everything is now online. We have online distribution because the landscape has changed so much. We’re folding in new producers because it’s so hard (for them) to navigate what’s happening politically.”

Lee notes they currently rep more than 85 studios with approximately 800 films “that are similar to ours. It really behooves us to have a growing audience that supports our competitors – we call them 'competitive collaborators,'” which Houston termed “queer community values.”

She observed how often a self-described queer or feminist studio would emerge, “produce a title and then just disappear. I thought, ‘I am starting a business and we’re going to keep creating titles.'"

“Who are our competitors?” Lee asked. “As niche producers, there is not enough content being made that would even satisfy our audience. It only benefits us to have other people that are like us; the more people that are making films similar to ours only grows our (potential) audience and therefore we benefit from it.”

Although “CrashPad” was a success upon its launch, and continues a popular run, Houston does take note of one specific difference that sets her apart from the larger porn community: “With queer directors or independent directors, the goal wasn’t necessarily to make money,” she said. “The goal was, ‘I really just need to make this thing.’ And it’s great the money came afterwards. That’s a different ethos that happens in this section of the industry.”

Lee finds empowerment in their work with Pink & White, which they see as “a reaction to normalized beauty standards. It’s really important to think about who gets to be sexy, and what types of narratives that we’re putting out there. ‘No, not just this narrow section of people gets to be sexy.’ We (should) also get to see all these other people.”

Their first film in 2005, as a performer, was with Pink & White. “For me, personally, it was important to know that I could do porn and not change the way I looked or how I had sex or who I had sex with.” A day job allowed them the freedom to be choosy about their adult film work. “The reward in it was sharing my sexuality in a way that really validated how I felt sexy, and to hear feedback about that made it feel so great, it was super-rewarding. Being paid for it was great! And so was being a part of a growing network of other filmmakers and other performers who were starting to own parts of it, as well. I still operate in a similar way. I’ll work (onscreen) if I feel like it’s a project where I can be myself or explore something in a way that feels satisfactory to me. Sometimes I’m (testing) the water to see if this a good fit for me. And sometimes it’s not, to be honest. But I’m trying it. And I place myself in situations where I feel safe enough or confident enough to do so.”

They bring the same standards to “CrashPad” and other Pink & White shoots. “I value that we have that same space with the performers that come in. They don’t feel like they have to look a certain way or perform like this or that – and if they do, it’s their choice. It’s along the lines of sex positivity. ‘Sexy’ is not one-size-fits-all. There are a lot of different variations: what you look like, your body type, how you’re having sex, what your desires are. Each time we do a shoot, we are able to represent something new and different. Our audience really responds to that; our models respond to that. And models who see other models who look like them, and who they can relate to, respond to that. So every time we shoot, we get more applicants, more diversity.”

“I love it when people have sex and they don’t take their clothes off," they said. "I want more of that! The fact that someone can come to us and say, ‘I have an idea and it’s kind of weird…’ and we can talk about it. We want to make sure the crew consents. Just know you can have sex in whatever way you feel comfortable; you can have sensuality in whatever way you feel comfortable. You’re asexual? There’s so many options that we can represent.”