AVN Awards 2014: more thoughts

avn-2014I was interested to receive some feedback on my recent blog post about the not-so-inclusive tendencies I noticed in reading about the AVN Awards 2014, specifically with regard to the many “categories” of films, sex acts, and performers recognized at the Awards. (I was miffed about “ethnic” categories, how “bisexuality” seems to only apply to women, that gay/queer men get ignored, that trans people were subjected to a “shemale” movie winning for transsexual release, that “oral sex” only applies to fellatio, etc).

First of all, I LOVE feedback on my writing, so please keep it coming! But more to the point, I was gratified to hear thoughts from more-insider-than-I-am insiders about some of my gripes.

Mireille Miller-Young, Associate Professor of Feminist Studies at UC Santa Barbara, let me know that that the “ethnic” award categories were added to the AVN awards in the 1990s, at the request of people of color within the industry. “It was actually something that people of color advocated for,” she said, “because they knew that they were not competitive in the general categories due to the primacy of whiteness…Without that different category, few people of color performers or films about them would ever get recognition.” So, in a way, kudos are in order to those people standing up for their own visibility and agitating for change within an industry that was deeply racist, particularly at that time. And kudos also go to AVN for listening to them and responding appropriately!

Similarly, I received a response to my kvetching about how I find it (and have always found it) rather silly that in mainstream porn itself and in the awards given out for it, “straight porn” includes lesbian sex acts, which are usually called “girl/girl” and which are not considered “gay” because “gay” only applies to men, and “bisexual” refers exclusively to women who dig other women. Which is to say, in a roundabout way, that the gay porn industry, huge and lucrative and fascinating as it is, is kept totally separate from straight porn. Sherri Shaulis, who works for AVN, told me in a comment that the AVN did attempt to start a gay sister show (or should I say brother show?) to complement the AVNs, called the GayVNs, which was short-lived because “unfortunately, the gay porn community did not support the GayVN’s and we were forced to abandon the show.” I’m sure there are a lot of politics behind that, which I know nothing about, but it’s nice to know an attempt was made. But! The AVNs and the GayVNs weren’t meant to be buddies: they wouldn’t have been part of the same show/Vegas extravaganza, “because gay porn and straight porn are completely different in the eyes of the consumers.” Hold that thought–I’ll be back to it in a moment.

Sherri also told me that the award categories at the AVNs “are chosen and named the way they are because we take our cues from retailers all across the country. It’s also partially based on the major studios and the movies they are making. The way many of them organize movies in their stores is how we name the categories, for consistency’s sake.” Ok, yeah, it would make sense that most of the major “categories” of films and sex acts that you can find in a store or on a website would get their own award, so consumers can relate to them. I guess…

All of these explanations are innnnteresting to me because they all make sense. And yet… and yet… there’s that loud-mouthed idealist hiding in the back of my head clearing her throat loudly. I mean, sure, categorizing performers in order to award prizes to more people is a good thing because people deserve recognition for their work. Of course if your audiences are totally separate, keeping your industries separate seems logical. And, like, duh, you want the organization of your awards to mirror the organization of the people selling your wares, so that the fans know what’s going on and feel interested in the proceedings because they see their interests being recognized.

But… I feel as if these practical answers are like treating a chronic illness with aspirin. Sure, it covers some of the symptoms, but it’s not curing the disease. It’s looking at the end result–the sale, the audience, the racism in the industry–and figuring out a quick workaround to make sure everyone’s placated. But it’s not addressing the fact that categorizing people into race is gross, or the fact that audiences for gay and straight porn are mostly separate because the industry hasn’t tried very hard to merge them, or that maybe the industry should get on the whole “not being so racist” bandwagon and tell its audiences to hop on, as well.

I am not so naive as to think that we live in a “colorblind” or otherwise egalitarian world, or that porn is some kind of raceless, prejudice-free utopia. But I do want to point out how silly it seems to me that porn is not said liberal utopia. Think about it like this: the porn industry thrives on delivering the goods on taboos that other industries dare not even mention. Pornographers wade knee-deep in making the deepest, darkest fantasies of the populace actually happen, and in good lighting with sound technicians and makeup artists on hand, no less. If there’s anyone in this world who should be able to see past prejudice, fear, and hatred, shouldn’t it be a pornographer? Adult entertainers see so easily through the barriers separating us that they think about how best to flout them. Subversion is their daily bread. Cuckoldry? No problem. Age play? Standard. Verbal humiliation, spanking, bondage, everything un-PC to the nth degree? You got it. Interracial sex? Positively de rigeur. Yawn-worthy, even. And everyone on set can stand around and eat chips and drink bottled water after all that’s gone down. Clearly they’re not very uptight about these things, in general. So then why the separation? Why the categorization? Why spend all this time playing into a system of prejudice that so many people within the industry see right through?

Because then there wouldn’t be enough awards to give out. True, true. If there were only one “best performer” award every year, given to one person regardless of sex, gender, orientation, race, age, size, ability, etc… that’d be a pretty boring awards show, and not nearly enough people would be rewarded for their hard work. I get it. I do.

I also get that lots of straight guys would run screaming from a movie if the two men DPing a female porn star suddenly started making out with each other… but I also know a lot of women of all orientations, and plenty of non-homophobic guys, who would love to see that. It’s not so much that the audiences are objectively separate as far as consumers are concerned, as it is that the industry has blinders on about the possibilities because it’s so terrified of losing money.

You see what I’m saying? It’s not so much that any of these individual ideas (categorization, separation of industries) are wrong as it is that the whole set of them is based on a backwards ideology: women and gay men are not our audience, people don’t want to watch people of color so we have to treat them differently, and we categorize so that the consumer can find what they want before they get too embarrassed and leave the store or website.  And sure, yes, band-aids do help. But not as much as applying direct pressure, treating the cause of the symptoms, and changing your perspective.

Look, the porn industry has been suffering staggering losses of profit for the past decade. Cosmo just ran a piece about how pirated porn is hurting everything. There’s a moral panic going on across the country about how free pornography is hurting everybody all the time, especially the youth. Clearly, things are not going well when it comes to mainstream porn. So maybe it’s time for mainstream porn to take a step back and really honestly think about how all of this is happening. Maybe a more friendly, humanist approach to the way porn is made, marketed, and rewarded is in order. Maybe humanizing the people who make it, dignifying them, and offering that sense of dignity to the consumer as well is a starting point. Maybe capitalizing on the changing demographics of porn consumers and catering new, good content to them, and reflecting those changes in a more humanistic way of rewarding them–like awards for best fellatio and best cunnilingus, giving some room for bisexual male releases (or at least some kind of nod toward non-hetero male porn), veering away from the cringe-worthy stereotyping that goes on in the “ethnic” releases and rewarding films on merit rather than the color of the performers’ skin. I could name a bunch of other tactics.

The thing is: consumers will continue to want porn. If the names of the “categories” change to be a bit less icky, they’ll figure it out. If they find themselves unable to seek out sex according to race lines and instead get pleasantly surprised with a variety of races, ethnicities, etc in their sex scenes… I doubt they’ll go running for the hills and swear off smut. The porn industry is in a unique position in that it has the market more or less cornered. It can change things and consumers will have to comply if they want to jerk off to adult content. And clearly, the status quo isn’t doing so well for anyone.

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