Better Than HeteroQueer Porn as Political Desire

Let’s be honest: Most people watch pornography. Still it’s viewed as a secretive, individualistic activity that we partake in alone and don’t discuss. As a result, our society rarely has substantive conversations about the roles of pleasure and desire. This secrecy impacts everyone, but especially queer people who often have trouble finding representations of sexuality—even in our private porn experiences. Luckily, many members of the queer porn community are challenging this status quo: Queer Porn Americana—four scenes depicting queer and trans people having sex—was released in April, and producers Chelsea Poe, Ella Bryn, and Courtney Trouble embarked on a worldwide screening tour to celebrate it.

Watching porn in a room with 20 other queer people is a much different experience than what most people are accustomed to. Rather than revolving around self-gratification, public queer screenings are a collective art experience. (Poe compared them to DIY music shows.) During a screening of the film in Providence, Rhode Island, I was drawn to things I rarely ever thought about while watching porn, including camera angles, editing choices, and music. A public screening—with the understanding that the audience isn’t going to whip out our junk and rub one out—allows for queer porn to be treated and analyzed as a form of art.

Queer porn explores the pleasure and desirability of non-normative bodies, and screenings offer a public space to discuss all the shit that we as queer and trans people are taught to believe about ourselves and our bodies. “When you’re at home, you get to be very specific about the type of porn that you watch,” says Trouble. “But when you go to a public screening, you have to sit through an entire scene that you didn’t choose. I think there’s something powerful about that.”

Queer Porn Americana

Porn used to be viewed collectively all the time. “Porn used to be shown only in public because there weren’t home movies back then,” Poe says. “People went to see Deep Throat and it was an event.” However, the rise of home video’s popularity in the 1980s meant that people no longer needed to leave their house to watch porn. This ultimately hurt queer people, as we were no longer able to have our desires validated publicly by others. Instead we had to watch by ourselves what was available at the local adult video store, which was usually white, cisgender, heterosexual sex. The loss of the public experience of sexuality meant that queer people became more susceptible to internalizing the ways in which we are told we are undesirable, since we no longer have communal celebrations of our desirability to counter these messages.

Poe and Trouble, who edited Queer Porn Americana with their company Trouble Films, both see public screenings of queer porn as a reclamation of the collective experience of pornography. When combined with other queer/trans art forms—as the screening in Providence was—there’s an opportunity to relish in the creativity and resilience of queer and trans people. In a society that views queer, and especially trans, bodies as disgusting and unlovable, and under a presidential administration that is doing all it can to make life unlivable for queer and trans people, these sites of celebration and pleasure are even more powerful.

“At the end of the day I want trans and queer people to see this film and for it to be accessible to them,” Poe, who also starred in its first scene, says. “Everything else after that doesn’t really matter.” In Providence, this accessibility took the form of a screening at a DIY show with the queer/trans bands Baby; Baby and Strap-On Ritual. The result was a powerful and political public exploration of queer art and sexuality.

Queen Porn Americana

When I asked the people involved in making Queer Porn Americana if they conceive of their work as political, I was met with diverging responses. Chelsea Poe doesn’t see her work as deliberately political, telling me, “It’s not an intentional thing where I sit down and think, ‘How can I make this subversive?’” Yet, she understands her films are political because they show trans women experiencing pleasure. “Being a queer, trans woman, I’m not gonna leave my politics at the door because my politics are part of me,” Poe said.

Ella Bryn, who coproduced the film and made her debut in it, said she didn’t consider politics at all when she decided to make porn. “When I initially got into sex work it was entirely for the money,” she told me. “I didn’t look at it as political by any means.” Yet she quickly realized how political the film was. “Being loud about Queer Porn Americana with my clients has been helpful in opening queer porn up to people who I thought would be super hostile to it, but ended up being really interested in it,” she said. “It was really cool to realize that maybe I’ve changed some people’s minds by introducing the idea of queerness to them.” She’s now committed to being more political in her future films.

While Poe and Bryn were less intentional with their politics, Trouble says that they started making porn specifically for political reasons. “People wanted to show off their fat naked bodies, their queer naked bodies, and that was a political desire from the get-go,” Trouble says. “It was about the awareness and the visibility I wanted to bring to the table and I think it made a profound difference. I honestly think queer porn has to have political roots.” While the three performers may have different views about the relationship between queer porn and politics, they all agree that making queer porn is ultimately a political act.

Queer Porn Americana

Because it is a political act, attending a public queer porn screening is an empowering and transformative experience. I was able to watch the film with the people who made it—tearing down the boundary that separates performer from viewer. Everyone attending the screening was able to give real-time feedback on what they liked about the film, which allowed us to communicate with each other about what gets us hot, destigmatizing “taboo” desires. Being a queer person in a room full of queer people watching a film showing queer people experiencing pleasure was a powerful antidote to the negative things we are taught to internalize about ourselves. Ultimately, I left the screening feeling much more desirable and determined to have better and more pleasurable forms of intimacy.

We need more queer porn screenings in order to create spaces where we can all discuss and explore our relationships to desire and pleasure. We must work to destigmatize pornography, and sex work in general, so that these screenings can be more frequent and more widely attended. The future of queer art and queer politics is pornographic, and I couldn’t be more excited.

by Jes Grobman
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Jes Grobman is a graduate student of both social work and human sexuality education in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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