A few months ago I came upon one of the many websites of May Ling Su, a Phillipines-born pornographer based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, who’s been making strong statements about her sexuality and femininity since just after 2000. Her work is strong, bold, kinky, and beautiful, and she’s got a stronger feeling for her own version of feminism than most of us do, if you ask me. As I perused her site, I realized that she had worked, in 2002, with the notorious Max Hardcore, as one of her first big porn accomplishments.
This fascinated me. I’ve been confused and intrigued by Max Hardcore for years now. For any of you who don’t know, he’s still behind bars at La Tuna Federal Prison in New Mexico serving time for distributing “obscenity.” The movies he made, in his infamous “Max Faktor” series, were renowned for their depictions of truly kinky, wildly over-the-top, borderline violent content. Max engaged in piss play of a whole new breed, using funnels and siphons in all sorts of orifices to get urine from point A to point B, which was usually the mouth. He had the women he filmed dress up as little girls and acted as if they were underage on camera. He “throat fucked” his women to the point, sometimes, of vomiting. He went all-out. But interestingly, when he went to trial for obscenity charges a few years ago, none of his costars (the “Hardcore Girls” as he called them) testified against him. For all his extreme antics on camera, he’d followed the rules about filming to a T and was only locked up for the distribution of his materials across state lines into territory where they were deemed obscene by “community standards.”
I’ve been intrigued by Max for a while. I’ve never seen one of his movies because I don’t think I would enjoy them, and so I’m torn as to what to think of them. I wrote to him a year or so ago as Miss Lagsalot for WHACK! Magazine, asking if he’d be interested in an interview via letters from prison. He wrote back
on lined notebook paper he’d turned into makeshift letterhead and enclosed a photo of himself in jail with his guitar, smiling for all the world like someone’s kindly grandpa. I decided to wait until he was released to try to talk to him; his letter was mostly a PR piece on the injustice of his situation, but I wasn’t interested so much in his imprisonment as what, in the first place, made this man tick.
Let me make one thing clear: I don’t think he should be in prison. Everything he did was technically speaking legal, to the best of my knowledge. He followed the rules. I might not personally like the things he did to women, but I neither have to watch them nor participate in them, and I believe that prosecuting people for obscenity in film-making is just a first step down the long road to censorship and the end of the First Amendment. But I wonder about the impact that his material could have on viewers, and more than most other pornography, his really calls questions of consent and empowerment into question.
And when I found out that May Ling Su, an outspoken advocate of feminine power, had not only worked with Max but furthermore really liked the experience.. I had to talk to her, about herself and her ideas, and her involvement with the infamous man himself. Here follows our interview. It’s fascinating.
MISS LAGSALOT: What type of feminism do you bring to the table? And to porn?
MAY LING SU: What type of feminism? I’m not sure I stand for feminism, let alone bring anything to the table. But I do find ancient stories of feminine power very exciting, feminine deities of different cultures, the work of Merlin Stone and Clarissa Pinkola Estes. I think after thousands of years of living in a patriarchal society, it’s empowering to remember that there was a matriarchal society that flourished before it. I try to get in touch with that through my porn.
ML: You’ve been doing these things for a while now; in your opinion, where does feminism stand in pornography at this point? How big a part of the whole picture is it? Is it growing? Shrinking?
MLS: I think women in general are taking on more power roles on and off camera. More women are telling their own stories. More women are watching porn. It doesn’t even matter which side of the debate women are on, whether they are pro-porn, anti-porn or somewhere in between. What’s important is the dialogue.
ML: What I’m super curious about in this interview is your work a few years ago with the now-infamous, now-incarcerated-for-distributing-“obscenity” Max Hardcore. You must have trusted him a lot, since you shot with him the same day you met him, at AVN. Can you tell us how that came about?
MLS: I’d seen some of Max Hardcore’s porn before I met him in person. My husband had some and I thought it was outrageous. Never seen anything like it. Watching it made me nervous, and honestly it turned me on. So when I saw him at AVN I recognized him and chatted him up. My husband was with me, so I was partly showing off in front of him. I just blurted out, “Are you looking for talent?” Max said he wasn’t sure, he’ll see if he can rustle up a crew. A few minutes later we were shooting an intro. Then we made arrangements to meet up after the expo to do the shoot at his hotel room.
ML: Max is notorious for his extreme on-screen antics and persona, but from what I’ve heard, he’s actually a very nice person when the cameras aren’t rolling. Can you tell me about what he’s like behind the scenes?
MLS: What I noticed immediately while we were talking at the expo was how well-mannered Max Hardcore was. He’s got this old-fashioned gentleman vibe that I liked. Then as we were going up to his hotel room I got the feeling he was testing me. He said things like, “Well, when you play with snakes, you have to expect to get bitten.” So I wondered if he was trying to talk me out of it.
Before our shoot, he showed me his website. He read the text on his website out loud, as if he himself was amused at how outrageous it was. It was all very funny to him, and I found if difficult to take it seriously.
We talked about his routine. Do I do anal? Can I throat fuck? What do I think of golden showers? I told him I was curious about golden showers, but I’ve never been on the receiving end of it. I also told him I wasn’t into any vomiting or using a speculum. And you know what, he kept to my limits. I respect that.
Now I have to remind you that my husband was with me. I don’t know what it’s like being a single woman walking into that situation, although there was a point when my husband left the room to photocopy my ID at the hotel lobby and I was left alone with Max in the room. But even then I felt at ease with him. I didn’t feel uncomfortable at all.
At another time later on Max confided that he was leary of me because I was “too easy.” Most women took a lot more persuading than I did. He told me he thought I might be a sting operation.
I actually saw him trying to convince a woman to do a scene with him. We were at a party and this Southern woman, very proper, engaged us in conversation. Max whipped out his laptop and showed her his work. He asked outright, “Would you do anything like this?” Now her boyfriend was there too, and he was just quietly observing. She said, “Not on camera.” I was so amused. She went on to say, “Sometimes I get tired of men treating me like I was made of glass. I want a man who’ll take me.” Her boyfriend looked really uncomfortable. Max didn’t get anywhere with her, but that was an interesting night.
ML: How does he behave differently on camera? Is there a hugely noticeable difference between his on- and off-screen personas, or is it more subtle? Before the shoot Max was helping me get dressed. He had a whole wardrobe set up in his room, lots and lots of tiny bright colored outfits. He picked something out for me, I got into it. My husband was in the corner of the room taking pictures. I guess playing dress up with me turned Max on, he just bent me over on the bed and started fucking me right there, putting on a show for my husband. His crew scrambled to try and get a shot, but as soon as they got in there, Max pulled away and I got back to getting dressed and made up.
MLS: I think he’s the real deal. He turns the switch up for the cameras, of course, we all do when we’re being watched. It’s a performance after all. You have to infuse it with drama and conflict to make it interesting to watch. But you have to start from a point of honesty.
ML: Tell me about your experience at the shoot. What happened? Was it fun?
MLS: Yes! I had a great time. Like I said earlier, he kept to my limits. I was vague about the golden showers. I told him I was curious but never tried it. But we didn’t pre-arrange whether we were going to do it or not. He surprised me. It was a great ride!
ML: You are a pretty radical feminist—doing anything from sexy photos of yourself to experimenting with menstrual blood as an art medium (which we’ll get to in a minute) doesn’t daunt you—and you’re also into very, very kinky sex from what I’ve seen and read. Obviously, what is sexy versus what is obscene is different for everybody, but what about your personal take on these issues? Do you have a line that you would be willing to say, “If this is crossed in a video, then I would find that video ‘obscene’”?
MLS: Consent. That’s the line. It’s obscene when the participants are below the age of consent. It’s obscene when the participants are coerced or drugged against their consent. Obviously there are videos that depict non-consensual sex or underage sex, played by consenting adults, and those can be scary and sexy and it messes with your mind. But I want to know that it’s all in the realm of play, and that in real life it’s being carried out by responsible adults.
ML: Your husband blogged about his response to Max’s sentencing, saying that Max is “fighting for free speech every time he gets his dick out.” Would you agree that Max’s videos are political? Artistic? Just hot?
MLS: Artistic or hot, that’s subjective. But political, I say yes. Sex is very political. Property ownership often hinges on marriages and offspring. That’s why the law wants to control it. The law wants to control how we have sex and with whom. And anyone who makes a spectacle of deviance becomes a target.
Max Hardcore may not have started out thinking he’s going to make videos to challenge authority. I think he just made videos he wanted to make. It was the law that made a political statement out of him. What that means for us is up to us. Do we shrug our shoulders and say, “Serves him right for being so deviant. No one should do anything beyond the norm?” Or do we say, “This is wrong! No one should go to jail for consensual sexual expression, on camera or off?”
ML: Your preferences run to the very kinky side of the spectrum, and so you enjoy shocking/extreme activities like piss play and rough sex, which is fascinating in a feminist. Of course, there are many types of feminists out there as there are any other kind of person, but I think many people think of politically correct, female-centric, super-empowering material when they think of “feminist porn.” Where does feminism fall into scenes like Max’s that involve a high level of trust and consent, but appear shockingly violent and extreme to viewers?
MLS: I would put Max Hardcore’s work alongside BDSM and contact sports. It’s violent, extremely physical, you could get hurt if you don’t set clear boundaries. But feminism isn’t about tiptoeing around women and treating them in a patronizing manner. It’s about women’s rights and self-determination.
I found it empowering to pit myself one on one against a notorious pornographer. I walked in there knowing the experience would be a test of my strength. Like sexual sparring.
ML: Have you heard of any girls who got onto a Max Hardcore set who found out through their experience that they didn’t like these things? Anyone who had a bad experience?
MLS: Someone named Neesa contacted me through YouTube. She posted videos of herself talking about her experience working with Max Hardcore. She says she’s speaking up on behalf of many others, that she didn’t know what she was getting into when she shot with Max, claims he raped her and that she filed police reports afterward.
ML: I agree with you and your husband that the things Max did should not be considered obscene or prosecutable—they were made in compliance with all laws governing the filming of sex acts, with models who had signed releases and met all the required standards of age, competency, and sobriety. But I have to ask: do you think that the difference between the experience of his costars with him as a friendly, polite film-maker and that of the viewer, who might not understand how things really work on a porn shoot, could be a real problem? Someone who’s never been on a porn set or thought about all the rules surrounding a porn shoot might think that this man is really hurting, or hating, the woman he’s with. Do you think maybe the jury of his peers that declared him guilty believed that he truly had hurt someone?
MLS: I’ve only hung out with Max a few times several years ago. I don’t know what he’s like with other people. He may have truly hurt someone, as Neesa claims. I can only speak from my experience, and that’s what forms my opinion of him.
ML: It’s difficult to measure, though, what effect his work has on his audience. We’re not privy to what his viewers do in their bedrooms. I have yet to hear about anyone who was hurt by someone trying to emulate Max’s sex moves.
MLS: However, I have seen a man come up to him, take his cowboy hat and stomp on it. You know, challenging him to a fight. This was in Vegas. Nothing happened, there were a lot of people around to stop anything from happening. But that man was mad!
ML: Ok, now going on past Max, since did your scene with him years ago… I’d like to talk to you about your projects, especially your On My Period book. What a fascinating idea. Can you tell us about it?
MLS: On My Period is a collection of photographs, videos and diary entries about my menstrual flow. Every month brought new insights on what it meant to be a menstruating woman, and what it meant to me personally. I make porn, I make art, I explore my menstrual blood in many ways, including painting my body with my menstrual blood.
ML: What kind of response have you gotten for it so far?
MLS: On My Period seems to polarize people. I get a lot of positive responses from people who feel inspired and empowered after seeing the work. And I also get people who are disgusted by what I do.
ML: What did your husband think of the project?
MLS: Jay is really supportive of it. On more than one occasion he has volunteered to help me with it. But when he gets confronted with the flesh and blood reality of it, the sensory overload of the smell and the blood, he buckles. I prefer doing it alone actually. Nowadays he gets out of the way unless I invite him.
ML: How do you feel about birth control methods that delay periods or change their cycles?
MLS: I don’t think it’s healthy. We’re supposed to menstruate. It’s part of our biology, part of the natural rhythm of life.
ML: What would you say is the strongest message you’d like us to take away from On My Period?
MLS: In our present society there is this denial of menstruation. People are either suppressing it through medication, or making women feel ashamed of it. On My Period is my way of showing people that menstruation is beautiful, empowering, natural, mysterious and sexy.
ML: What would you say is the strongest message you’d like us to take away from all your work?
MLS: I’ve received email from people who told me that they read my blog and in between getting turned on, they found themselves weeping because they caught a glimpse of the kind of love they wish they could have.
My story is about an average woman who found love, and that love gave her the courage and freedom to be truly herself. It doesn’t matter how you find that love or with whom. What is important is that when you do, you give it all you’ve got.