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This Gay Porn Company Is Upending the Definition of Porn

The studio is staking a claim that gay porn can be diverse, experimental, contemplative, complex—and still hot.

Hugh Ryan

Hugh Ryan

A still from Alfa, the latest release from Naked Sword Film Works, out today. Photo courtesy Naked Sword

Note: Many links below are NSFW.

What is porn?

That's the question at the heart of a new initiative by Naked Sword, the Netflix-like site that bills itself as "the largest collection of gay porn on the net." While primarily a distribution house for other studios, this February, Naked Sword expanded its original production wing with the launch of Naked Sword Film Works (NSFW for short), an indie arm aiming to "produce and showcase new work from independent film directors with an eye toward the provocative, the experimental, and the explicit."

NSFW may be the most prominent effort by a major gay porn industry player to date to blur the line between art film and pornography. Its productions mix erotic and often hardcore sex with funny, moody, and contemplative moments: Nova Dubai is a 50-minute meditation on gentrification, incest, and suicide in Brazil; Brontez Purnell describes his 100 Boyfriends Mixtape as "one hundred failed relationships condensed down into one;" and Hattie Goes Cruising is a documentary following Hank Major, a 70-year-old black gay man from Philadelphia, as he remembers a life of public sex. The studio's latest offering is the short film Alfa, about a porn star's first day on set after his lover's death, which launches today.

A still from 'Nova Dubai.' Photo courtesy of Naked Sword

The studio is making a claim that porn can be diverse, experimental, emotionally contemplative, and grapple with complex questions of power and social relations—while still delivering hot, balls-deep sex.

"In 2008, the industry was starting to get hit hard by tube sites and piracy," Jack Shamama, the website's product manager and one of the creators of NSFW, told VICE. "I could see that things were going to be bad."

Shamama was interested in distinguishing Naked Sword from competitors by pursuing things that might "keep people on [the site] longer." As he put it, when it comes to pushing the envelope in terms of what porn can be—especially in a beleaguered industry, where other studios' offerings have grown extreme to court clicks—"we're as progressive as the market will allow." So when he met filmmaker Travis Mathews (who would co-direct Interior. Leather Bar, the 2013 film that recreated lost, explicit scenes from Al Pacino's homophobic masterpiece Cruising), Shamama decided Naked Sword would try something new: partnering with indie filmmakers to produce films that didn't look like porn but packed an erotic wallop.

To test their concept, Shamama and Matthews produced an excerpt of a planned film called I Want Your Love. It saw more than 2 million views within a month of its debut on the site. In 2011, they produced the full-length version, which garnered a 70 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. London-based critic Ben Walters, writing for Time Out London, coined the term "mumblehardcore" to describe the result—and he deemed that "the gambit works."

After a few more one-offs, Naked Sword brought on filmmaker Adam Baran to curate NSFW, with an eye toward distributing or producing one new film every month. Shamama said that NSFW accounts for about 1 percent of the site's content, yet pulls in about 10 percent of their monthly viewership.

Baran had previously worked as a programmer for NYC LGBT Film Festival NewFest and saw the opportunity as a chance to promote great filmmaking to a new audience. It was also a chance for Baran and Naked Sword to push back against one of the worst aspects of both mainstream porn and LGBTQ film in general: its glaring whiteness.

"We don't see a lot of diversity in porn," Baran said. "Or, if you do, things are segregated"—black actors with black actors, white actors with white actors. Even when porn features diverse actors, it can exoticize actors of color for the gaze of a white audience. By bringing on filmmakers of color, NSFW flips the script, presenting sex through the eyes of a black hipster in Oakland, for instance.

Naked Sword, like many porn studios, has a rough history with issues of diversity. Recently, a social-media firestorm erupted when it emerged that one of their models, Cameron Diggs, had neo-Nazi tattoos and may hold white-supremacist beliefs. When I spoke with Shamama, he said that Naked Sword would not work with Diggs again, but several of Diggs's scenes remain up on the site, and Shamama said the studio hasn't yet determined whether they're going to take them down. His frustration was obvious as we discussed the issue; as a "gay Jewish man," he said he found Diggs's views "vile."

But in a market that pushes for a constant stream of new content, he argued, it's impossible for a studio to vet a model for everything that could possibly offend a viewer, and Naked Sword has no internal policies about what to do when this sort of information comes to light, though Shamama said the studio is having conversations about how to handle such issues in the future.

The bigger issue, he said, is that "there's a severe lack of representation and diversity in the gay community." Porn is merely "a record of the tastes" of gay men at-large, he said, and many seem to want racially regressive porn scenes. "I'm sick of seeing them," Shamama said, "but we can't force the community to have that conversation." The best a porn producer can do is show consumers other porn is out there, which is, he said, "as close to a mission statement as I can get for NSFW."

Gustavo Vinagre (right) alongside two characters in a still from his film 'Nova Dubai.' Photo courtesy of Naked Sword

Even NSFW's indie filmmakers have been surprised by mainstream interest from Naked Sword. "I was really excited because in the festivals, there's always this discussion, if it is porn, if it's not porn," said Gustavo Vinagre, the 31-year-old Brazilian filmmaker who made and starred in Nova Dubai. For Vinagre, "sex is a part of life," and he's continually shocked that audiences who can handle brutal, life-like violence turn into nattering schoolmarms at the site of an erect cock.

What the future holds for NSFW is anyone's guess. The industry has spent the last decade in free fall, as tube sites and the era of free content decimated porn's traditional DVD business. That very collapse, however, has forced studios to "expand our reach in terms of who we find and who we market to," said Shamama. The destruction of the porn industry may well be good for porn itself, by forcing those who make porn to cater to more than just a narrow audience of older white gay men. If so, it will be initiatives like NSFW that pave the way.

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