Don't show too much skin, or they'll think you're a wannabe. Don't show too little skin, or they'll think you're a suit. What does one wear on a trip to a porn set? For my first visit, I decided on a linen scarf, eggshell button up and skinny Levis (red, white, and blue).
"It's modern-day sex education," Adella from Fine Ass Marketing tells me when I arrive. And: "It's what you always wanted porn to be." And: "It's made by women for women." And: "Today's topic is threesomes."
What's shot today will become the fifth installment in Jessica Drake's Guide to Wicked Sex, a series of educationally oriented porn DVDs aimed at the recently expanding demographic of women and couples. Before Threesomes, there was Basic Sex Positions, Anal, Fellatio and Female Masturbation.
According to Nielsen/Net ratings, about one-in-three visitors to porn sites are women, and almost 13 million American women check in at least once a month. Drake, who has spent 15 years in the industry as both an actor and a director, witnessed the gender sea change firsthand—i.e., as her career took off, so did the number of female fans she saw at signings and events. She wasn't alone. Many porn companies, including Wicked Pictures, New Sensations and Joybear, now offer titles intended to please (yes, "please") this market.
Surely, "porn for women" is a marketing campaign, not a description of porn women watch. It's not lesbian or queer (straights and bi-curious only), and it's not erotica (hold the period costumes). So what exactly is "porn for women"? Drake echoes other industry directors, stars and critics, when she tells me there's no such thing. "It's important that we don't generalize about the type of sex women want to see on screen," she observes. Presuming uniformity in women's desires is just plain sexist. "Women want, need and deserve just as much porn as men."
"Porn for women" may, in fact, be porn for men, because when it comes to niche porn, women aren't voting with their wallets. While it might seem like more women are interested in porn, they're often just browsing, not buying. And studios are beholden to the gender that consistently ponies up.
When I discuss it later with my companion on set, Slate sex writer Amanda Hess, she makes this point crystal clear. "'Porn for women' isn't actually for women. It's marketed to men to market to the women in their lives." Hess summarizes the attitude by which many directors abide, "I don't care if women watch my porn because men buy my porn, and I'm making porn for the people who are paying for it."
The bias reveals itself even on free sites like RedTube or PornHub. In straight porn, Hess says, "It's impossible to search for a male body type you might be interested in." And so, search tags are focused on women's bodies, ethnicities and talents (see: "busty" "Asian" "blow job").
Aimed both at straight women and the men who want to share porn with them, "porn for women" has a lot in common with its bigger, richer twin: straight-up porn. But still, it touts enough distinctions to earn it "genre" status. Extensive foreplay. Eye contact. Wider shots. Though "softer hardcore" may be as arbitrary as toy companies deciding girls like pink, each "porn for women" purveyor seems to offer such distinctions with its own twist. For Joybear's director Justin Ribeiro dos Santos it's good looks and attention to detail. For New Sensation's director Jacky St. James, it's comedy and aiming the money-shot below the neck. For Wicked's Drake, it's education.
"Have you done much research on the series or Jessica?" Adella asks me as we walk down a hot stretch of pavement in the San Fernando Valley, the Ronald Reagan Freeway still audible. "Not too much," I respond.
I'm lying. I had visited guidetowickedsex.com, where the name of the series appears on ruled lined paper and Jessica's name appears only in lower case. I browsed photos of Drake posing in hot-teacher tropes: perched on a desk, blonde hair outlining her cleavage, the end of a pen resting on the corner of her mouth. I learned that she leads seminars on female sexuality and offers sex advice on a radio show In Bed with Jessica Drake. I searched for her on PornHub, found hundreds of her videos and watched about four of them.
Drake shoots her films in her own house, a two-story, white concrete rectangle. Around it, her neighborhood, Granada Hills, sprawls with new construction, offering a speedy simulacra of luxury. "Perfect timing," says the broad man smoking at the front door as he brushes ash off his Giants T-shirt, his grey hair silver in the sun. "We're at lunch." He flicks his cigarette at the crab grass and escorts us through the door. "I'm just gonna need to see some ID." The interior is decorated in hyper-modern: Ultra-white walls meet black granite floor tile. The whole of it is sterile clean, as if purchased the day before.
Jessica greets me with a handshake. She wears full make-up, a gray tank top and gold-embroidered fashion sweats. She's matched her teal eye shadow to her nails. Her gaze is steady but kind. Like a good guest, I compliment her home, and thank her for having me. Like a good host, Jessica wonders if I need anything. "Are you hungry?" she asks.
I pick up a strawberry. I concern myself with eating it as un-suggestively as possible. "People actually eat on porn sets," Adella encourages. "No fashion fake food here."
Jessica begins talking about the Guide to Wicked Sex project, much of the language cribbed from her own website. As she tells it, the public put out a call for knowledge, and she answered it. "Porn educates, whether it wants to or not." (When I interview her by phone later, she elaborates, "Porn is a fantasy. It's not its responsibility to educate, but I want to provide that disclaimer. I'm at a point in my life when I'm thinking about the effects of what I'm doing.")
Indeed. When I open up a set of Jessica's instructional DVDs, it's abundantly clear that communication and safety are central themes. Each video has two parts: a how-to pep talk illustrated by candid interviews with the actors and brief demonstrations, and two hardcore sex scenes, with Jessica's optional voiceover commentary. In the how-to section, Jessica shifts between concerned therapist ("Remember there's no pressure to go further than kissing"), talk-show host dishing dirt ("Can you stand the thought of your partner kissing someone else?") and sex-positive guru ("Communication plays a huge role in a successful threesome.") You can watch the hardcore scenes with the actors' moaning and ambient techno as the soundtrack, or if you prefer, as I did, you can watch them with Jessica's sensually whispered voiceover, which transforms the scene into a kind of nostalgic remembrance.
But education has monetary as well as moral motives. Most porn studios are driven by trends, their content determined by aggregated search data. In this click-driven climate, instructional videos have staying power; they act as "evergreen." Moreover, Jessica uses the educational format specifically to target women. "A lot of women are reluctant to watch porn because they don't know if they can perform a specific sex act," she says. Her compelling (if entrepreneurial) benevolence allows them to bridge that gap. "I can't have one more woman come up to me afraid that there's something wrong with her because she can't have anal sex the way she sees it portrayed in movies."
A cynical read? Porn creates insecurities that "porn for women" is pitched to fix. Scared of anal? It's not for everyone! But here's a tip from a pro: Warm up with a butt plug.
Chasing the green dragon of "realism" on behalf of their projected fan base, Guide to Wicked Sex and much of "porn for women" take on "feminist porn's" concerns for better labor practices and safe, performer-driven sex. But Jessica advocates the Golden Rule—"I treat people the way I would want to be treated"—not the Feminist Revolution. For her, making movies that portray "spontaneous," "connected" and "authentic sexual experiences" means seeking out "real couples," or providing all the toys and tools her actors could want and leaving them alone to "play."
That said, her product's contribution to "porn for women" reinforces some of its problematic tropes: straight white people, their habitats and capitulation to the same, linear sex acts.
"Interviews with the actors 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.," reads the schedule I was e-mailed. Right on time, Jessica calls in her first actor and sits him on a couch. The cameraman hovers over my shoulder; the sound guy perches on an exercise machine. He must try not to move or his reflection will be caught in a 60-gallon vase, décor for the shot. Jessica sits next to me. She calls "roll," then "tell me about threesomes." The actor's answer: "The best part about threesomes is there's more women to fuck."
I'm switching off watching the monitor, the actor and Jessica. "Have you ever had a negative experience?" she asks.
"I'm a drama free guy, but girls are drama queens," he responds. "Every time one is jealous. My advice for girls: Just don't get jealous. That's it." The camera doesn't catch Jessica stifling laughter and rolling her eyes.
"It's all good except anything up my ass," he responds when Jessica asks him what he likes.
Jessica's facial features form a maternal scold. "Why no other guys in your threesomes? Is it jealousy?"
"Another guy in a threesome is just wrong," the actor explains. "I don't like having another dick around. That's not jealousy; it's just not right."
Afterward, Adella spins me. "It's too bad you missed the couple's interview earlier. That was feminist. A lot less porn-y."
Jessica gets the last word. In the 20-minute montage on the DVD, barely any of the actor's comments make the final cut. From the interviews I see of the four women on set, many of their topics are similarly expunged. Partner telepathy: "Your partner should just know if you're uncomfortable. … You can say it all in a look." Peer pressure: "Your partner will respect you more if you're just open and confident. Confidence is sexy." Anatomy: "Best of both worlds: vagina and cock."
What stays? "My advice for guys in a couple? Stick your cock in your girlfriend's vagina first," one actress suggests. "And make sure you cum on her."
"Excuse me, Jessica," the director of photography asks, inching toward her during the break. "The pizza's here, and we have no money. How are we going to pay him?" Everyone laughs. "I have some kneepads upstairs if you want to take care of it," Jessica teases. She hands over some bills and scolds, "No more talk of pizza. I'm PMSing like crazy, and all I want to do is eat."
We have to wait for the sun to go down before shooting the sex in Jessica's living room. This is, I think, what I came to see. In the meantime, Jessica teaches me new terms—e.g., "man-blanket" for what happens when the man's back takes over the whole shot and "man-cave" for when the camera dips too low while shooting oral and all you see is crack.
Finally, three people are about to fuck—the married couple, Jack and Melissa, who were interviewed as a pair before I arrived and Nicki, who gets credit for the "cum-on-your-girlfriend" tip. Jack is in a black butterfly-collared shirt and light denim. The women are in spandex and sparkling heels. They sit on Jessica's L-shape couch. There are 12 other people in the room. The camera, monitor and Jessica are on one side of the L; I'm on the other.
No one speaks. Jack, Melissa and Nicki just look at each other, eyes in various states of close. They begin to kiss. High heels stick to the floor. Leather whines. Clothes fall behind the furniture. They allow for space for the camera between a tongue and a nipple. I'm facing Nicki's back, and when she bends forward toward Melissa, knees on the couch, I have a porn angle the camera does not. Jack reaches a finger between her legs. "Mmms" hum alongside the equipment.
The dick comes out. Slathering and popping sounds replace human voices. "Put your arm around her," Jessica directs. "Yes, keep the hands moving like that. Roving hands. Perfect! Nicki can you get down to it? ... Let's get Jack and Melissa oral on Nicki. … It's fine when we can't see everything. Don't worry about cheating out right now. … Jack can you just look for a while? … If I see hardcore, great; if not, great. … Hold each other. … So hot right now, so hot right now."
Soon, Jessica calls cut. "I need any one of these shots," she instructs. "Missionary side by side, two girls on top, spoon with oral, all oral chain, doggy and oral or doggy stack. You guys choose, and we'll shoot it. We can do penetration if you want, or if you don't want to put a condom on, we can fake it." They choose two girls on top and faking it.
Jack lies face up on the couch. The camera gets the length of his body. I'm looking at his feet. Melissa straddles him. "Can you see my penis?" Jack asks.
I certainly can—the head of it squished in between Melissa's butt cheeks. It's completely flaccid. The cameraman tells Jack to lift his knee up: "Great. Can't see a thing." He checks the shot with Jessica, who approves. "Nicki, can you sit on his face?" Nicki does as she's asked. "Ready you guys?" They nod. "Pretend it feels good!" cheers the cameraman. Laughter. Jessica calls action. Melissa and Nicki moan and whine. They reach for each other's breasts. Melissa bounces up and down.
For me at least, it turns out that "porn for women" is the one eye of a soft penis as it stares at you, squished into a ball sack over and over again.
Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal writes about art, sex, and neoliberalism. Find her latest at Rhizome.org.
Photo courtesy of Roads to Moscow PR