The 31st annual AVN Awards were held this past weekend in Las Vegas to honor the work of the porn industry over the past year, and I want to talk about it. Mostly I’m jealous that I didn’t go to AVN this year, because as I’ve said before, nobody pays me for my expert porn journalism work these days (applicants, please form a line!) and I can’t afford a trip to Vegas currently. I know, I know, my life is hell.
But the point is, I’m going to talk about the AVN awards even though I wasn’t there this year. I have some thinks and some feels.
On the one hand, I want to congratulate AVN for trying to work at being more inclusive. This year saw the first-ever award for BBW Performer of the Year! (Which went to April Flores, as I believe it damn well should have, because she’s pioneered in this field—as Courtney Trouble put it, “plus size porn can be separated into two categories: before April Flores, and after April Flores. she changed our world.”) Treatment of transsexual performers has gotten much better over the past few years. Indie porn companies, especially queer-centric ones, have gotten a lot more attention than before. These changes reflect a slow, but spreading, change in the mainstream porn industry itself: whereas the industry a few years ago could have been described as homophobic, racist, and sexist across the board, to the point of excluding most everyone and everything that didn’t fit into its preferred worldview (with several very notable exceptions), these days it’s starting to open up its eyes and arms. Mainstream porn is beginning, it would seem, to read the writing on the wall: evolve or perish. There are still plenty of people in the world who just want to see thin white people with no body hair and perfect tans pumping away to bad music, but pioneers like Joanna Angel, Courtney Trouble, April Flores, and so many others have done so well for so long doing other things, like showing not-white people with tattoos and bigger bodies and different gender expressions having a blast in the bedroom together… And so many people have loved those alternative versions of what porn can be… That AVN has finally begun to notice and give some credit where credit is due. This is fucking fantastic. Hooray!
However. There’s still a long way to go. The winner of the 2014 AVN award for Best Transsexual Release was still American Shemale-X (I’m gonna go out on a limb and say the vast majority of trans women don’t like the term “shemale”). The winner of Best Alternative Website was Kink.com. (There’s a lot to love and a lot to hate about Kink.com—I’m not passing judgment on that front. The point, though, is that Kink.com is about as un-alternative as porn sites get these days.) The nominees for the Best Oral Sex award were all women who gave blowjobs. (Not that there’s anything wrong with blowjobs—by all means, let’s have a “Best Blowjob” award, and a “Best Cunnilingus” award.) The threeway scenes nominated featured no male-male sexual contact. For god’s sake, the AVNs still don’t even acknowledge the entire gay male porn industry, but all-girl releases and all-girl performers are all over the place (note the use of “girl” rather than “woman” or “female” or, heaven forbid, the word “lesbian” because that’s not sexy?).
And, come on. There are separate categories for “Best Ethnic” releases in three fields: Black, Latin, and Asian. This brings up a whole slew of problems: What about Native American? West Asian? Pacific Islander? Etc? And perhaps the bigger question is, why not just put all the releases, and all the performers, regardless of race/gender/presentation/etc, into one category? Isn’t it kind of gross to separate them like that?
What I’m saying here is, there’s a long way to go. And I guess this all kind of comes back to the problems inherent in labeling in the first place. On the one hand, separating everyone and everything into categories makes it possible to give more people awards for their specific contributions, and that’s pretty cool. On another hand, though, singling people out for being “ethnic” as opposed to “white” just has icky written all over it. Can you imagine if the Oscars reserved a “Best Actor” award for just Latin actors? Holy shit, the fur would fly—and rightly so. But the nod to “ethnic” people working in the porn industry seems to get a pass, on the tacit implication that nobody cares in porn. Which is pretty fucking gross. I know lots of people in porn who care. And I care, too.
But then, on the other other hand, of course, there’s the whole issue of categorization in pornography in general. Porn has developed to make its offerings easily identifiable to people, no matter what they’re looking for. Adult entertainment has the dubious honor of being one of very few fields in which fantasies that are not at all PC are not just projected on entertainers, but in which those fantasies are actually acted out by human beings. And so we get people who have all the same rights and should by all means be treated with the same dignity as anyone else participating in things that are meant to edify fantasies in which rights and dignity don’t have a foothold. So we get films and sex scenes featuring people doing what feels good, which then get labeled as “ethnic” releases or “all anal” releases or whatever, and dropped into that particular compartment of websites, stores, and our minds. People who prefer BDSM scenes with black people in particular can find those scenes quickly and easily when they’re categorized as such. The easier it is to find what you want, the more likely you are to pay for it, and BOOM. Done. And that’s good, from a consumer’s perspective. But it also reinforces in the mind of the industry powers-that-be that categorizing people along ethnic, racial, and gendered lines is A Good Thing. And so it keeps going, and it continues to perpetuate in the mind of the consumer that while Racism Is Bad in the Real World, it’s Ok to Label People in Porn, which kinda sorta implies that people in porn aren’t as human, or at least as deserving of being treated with dignity. (And that’s without even getting into the dehumanization/objectification issues inherent in the performance of sex itself–which is a whole other thing I can’t even imagine having time to cover in, like, my whole life’s work.)
That’s sort of always the rub of it, in porn. The industry and the people in charge, like the people who give out the AVN Awards, are concerned with making what they do profitable. Over the past few years, that’s gotten more and more difficult to do. AVN seems to be seeing reality, ever so slowly, that doing Business as Usual has not helped make things better so far. It seems to be blinkingly awakening to the fact that opening itself up to new and different ideas, to treating the people in the porn industry better, might be the way forward. But this transition is happening at a crawling pace, and that’s not fast enough to keep up with the real world. Porn is a blink-and-you-miss-it industry in which technology and fads spin past at breakneck speed, and if AVN doesn’t get its act together on treating trans people, people of color, bisexual and gay men, women… pretty much everybody… with more outright respect, it’s gonna wish it had.