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From Barbie Doll to Razordoll: The Sexual Shift in Porn

Lauren Mayberry discusses the growing move towards alternative cultures in mainstream pornography.
Feature by Lauren Mayberry.
Published 30 July 2009

Fishnets, pigtails, lapdancing and lip-licking: porn stalwarts. Knives, nipple rings, blue hair and decapitation of a large stuffed bear? Not so much. Yet, these are all ingredients of Kill the Bear, an early video by rising (porn) star, Stoya.

Born in North Carolina, this actress-cum-model of Serbian/Scottish descent is not your typical American porn fodder. Dubbed the first alt-porn contract girl, Stoya represents the gothic girl next door. In pornography, more so than anything else, there is no such thing as ‘normal’. Yet, this is the most surprising thing about seeing Stoya on-screen: how apparently normal she looks. Pale skin and modest, natural breasts, the 23-year-old is eerily familiar, reminiscent of an image which haunts one thousand MySpace friends lists, posed at arm's length. The former design student was drawn into mainstream hetero pornographic acting following stints as a fetish model and a series of lesbian pictures for alt-erotic websites. Following two releases with Razordolls, Stoya was propositioned by Digital Playground in 2007, and subsequently signed to their stable for a considerable fee, having released almost a dozen films under their banner to date. The California-based company, widely regarded as one of the five biggest porn studios in existence, has progressed to complete domination of the US porn market, according to Reuters. Its release Virtual Sex with Jenna Jameson ranks among the highest-selling adult DVDs of all time, warranting the company’s tagline: “Hotter girls, higher quality: porn worth paying for”.

And now, apparently, this extends beyond the traditionally tacky, sleazy female image depicted in hetero pornography of yore. The influx of alternative culture, be it queer, straight, gothic or whatever else, into the pornographic sphere has arguably increased in recent years. Suicide Girls, GodsGirls, Supercult and Deviant Nation are among the most successful in the soft-porn emo-goth-rock Pin-Up stakes, seemingly priding themselves on having ‘realistic’ models, making content appeal to an entirely new audience. Back in 2005, Suicide Girls removed a number of images, allegedly depicting bondage and knife use, in order to comply with US obscenity laws. Since then, those images and others of that ilk have been reinstated and multiplied. The fact that such images and artists now move freely amongst the highest ranks of America’s pornographic elite is significant, to say the least. Reasons for this infiltration are numerous, but no firm conclusions can be drawn. Perhaps the ‘fake and bake’ aesthetic of traditional pornography, with its fake blondes, fake tits and fake orgasms, began failing to attract models. Or perhaps the cross-over was inevitable, due to increasingly post-modern, liberal views of sexual culture and audiences craving something a little ... different.

Feminist fragmentation in recent decades is complex. Female attitudes to pornography seem to be divided into two camps - those who view it as degrading and those who consider it liberating. Sex undeniably exemplifies the most vulnerable and raw elements of the human condition. The animalistic part of a person experiences the desire to look upon a beautiful naked form, compounded by the sense of voyeurism. The tricky part is presenting this natural desire for visual stimulation in a way that does not dehumanise or alienate - and alt-porn appears to have a more sex-positive and less slippery grip on this angle than its predominately male-driven, mainstream counterparts. Suicide Girls’ president Sean Suhl claims that over half of their subscribers are female. It remains to be seen, however, to what extent these new models and actresses are really breaking the mould, other than in a visual sense. The question remains as to whether this ‘alternative’, feminist-friendly porn is as truly legitimate as it suggests, or simply another misrepresentation in this increasingly over-sexualised culture. Anyone familiar with Ariel Levy’s Raunch Culture concept could contest the idea that the infiltration is due to social factors rather than commercial. The more cynical could view such ventures as contrived methods of making hipsters and Joe Not-Your-Typical-Porn-Fan part with his cash.

Most notably, critics of Suicide Girls are plentiful, and its reputation for providing porn even the most rampant feminist could love has been somewhat tarnished. Former models have alleged that the website mistreated its subjects, exercising heavy censorship over content in their designated blogs and failing to fulfil the company’s apparently pro-feminist stance. The website, originally so appealing due to the models’ ability to control how their sexuality is presented, allegedly warns their contracted women against talking to the press, requiring all enquiries be dealt with by a complex PR team. Alarm bells sounded when a corporation claiming to be women-owned and female-run was, in fact, co-founded by a man now at the centre of numerous misogyny allegations, accused of verbally abusing models.

So, to Stoya: the Avril Lavigne of porn, another commercial entity designed by the big boys in suits? Not quite, if her current popularity as the most delectable newbie is anything to go by. Bombs have yet to be dropped on Digital Playground, its ethics or treatment of any of its actors. But, if porn really does shape adolescent male attitudes towards the allegedly fairer sex and sexuality itself, then I sleep, and do whatever else at night, more soundly knowing that they are being fed more realistic and healthy imagery on which they'll base their ideas. Now that is porn worth paying for.