Tech by VICE

How the Internet Keeps Pushing Porn's Social Progress Forward

It may be cliché to talk about the disruptive power of the internet. But in the case of porn, it’s pretty apt.

by Lux Alptraum
Jun 23 2016, 12:00pm

Valentina and Buck Angel. Photo courtesy Evil Angel

Earlier this month, celebrated porn director Dana Vespoli released a groundbreaking new film, Girl/Boy 2. From the box cover alone (NSFW), which features glam face shots of a man and a woman, there doesn't appear to be anything particularly unique about the film. Except the man in question is celebrated trans performer Buck Angel, and another scene features trans woman Venus Lux. But despite how the film's scenes are all about playing with gender, Girl/Boy 2 is not specifically advertised as a trans film.

The story of the internet and the adult industry is often framed as a tragedy—at least, if you're someone who's hoping to make a living from smut. Anyone who's been in the industry for over a decade will reminisce about how going online transformed the jizz biz, first by accelerating profits as discreet access to porn became easier than ever, then by tanking the whole operation as piracy ran rampant and paying for porn became a thing of the past.

But that's the story of the industry's financial health (a story which, it should be noted, has been replicated across a number of other, more mainstream media industries). The story of how the internet has changed the content of the actual porn we consume, on the other hand, is a much more positive one.

By offering a way for outsiders to break into a historically impenetrable industry, the internet allowed for an injection of totally new ideas. This effect continues shaking up long-held views about how and what porn is "supposed" to be. And it's beginning the process of a democratization that is creating a vastly more interesting erotica landscape, where porn's finally breaking from its stale ideas and formula and creating something truly innovative, like Girl/Boy 2.

If your main exposure to porn is whatever clips happen to pop up when you search "big boobs" on PornHub, however, you might not be aware of any of these major sorts of changes in content. The style of porn—primarily heteronormative, straight-male focused—that was popular throughout the 90s and early aughts is still being made, and still has an audience. But alongside that classic type of porn is a new breed, once solely considered the domain of small, indie producers, that's finding its way into the libraries of big name distributors and studios.

Mixing together a whole bunch of rather queer-feeling content into a mainstream release is a radical break from format.

Girl/Boy 2 was released and distributed by Evil Angel, one of the bigger names in the world of porn. If you're mostly familiar with indie internet smut, Evil Angel backing Girl/Boy 2 might not seem like that big a deal. Gender bending and freely mixing trans and cis performers in the same product is pretty common for companies like the San Francisco-based Crash Pad Series. But for a more mainstream, LA-based company like Evil Angel, this kind of release is hugely groundbreaking. Mainstream porn thrives on sorting performers into body type based silos; mixing together a whole bunch of rather queer-feeling content into a mainstream release is a radical break from format.

Why was Dana Vespoli able to transcend the rigid gender boundaries that define most porn? To understand this story, it helps to go back to the early aughts, and the beginnings of a genre known as "alt porn."

In those days, heavily pierced and tattooed women weren't so much a thing in porn. If you had a punk look, mainstream studios weren't super likely to hire you. But with the advent of the internet, it became easier for anyone with a computer, a camera, and a dream to create their own porn site. Budding entrepreneurs like Joanna Angel (then a New Jersey-based college student) began creating companies that offered up a different kind of porn, one that embraced a once-shunned look.

Dana Vespoli. Photo courtesy Evil Angel

Along with similar sites like SuicideGirls, Joanna's venture took off. As Burning Angel racked up members, the industry began to take notice. By 2005, Hustler's VCA was distributing Burning Angel's first feature, as well as other "alt" inspired titles. Not long after, Vivid launched Vivid-Alt, a division devoted to the kinds of performers previously shunned by the studio. By 2014, the heavily tattooed Bonnie Rotten was winning AVN's Female Performer of the Year, something that would have been unthinkable in an earlier era.

There's a great deal of risk that comes with creating porn. As a result, pornographers tend to be conservative in their business decisions. To be blunt, they just want to make what sells. Tattoos were eschewed because they were assumed to be unpopular; once that was proven incorrect, body ink was suddenly welcome. By offering indie producers an affordable way to prove that tattoos had an audience, the internet helped alt porn go from alternative to mainstream.

A similar effect has led to the queering of mainstream porn as well. Girl/Boy 2's Buck Angel used the internet to establish himself as one of the best known trans male porn stars. Genderqueer performer Jiz Lee (who appears in Girl/Boy 2 and was the cover star for the first Girl/Boy) got started over a decade ago with Crash Pad Series. As performers like Angel and Lee have grown their fan bases, they've proven that trans and queer bodies aren't just a "fetish" item, fueling the social change that enabled Girl/Boy 2 to get the backing of a company like Evil Angel.

It may be cliché to talk about the disruptive power of the internet. But in the case of porn, it's pretty apt.