We porn in public: a weekend at CineKink and NYC Porn Film Festival

If people aren’t willing to pay for erotic entertainment in the privacy of their own homes, would they pay to watch it in a crowd?

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For over half a decade, I have devoted my life to tracking and analyzing virtually everything that could be considered sexy. As editor, and then publisher, of Fleshbot.com, I watched as the industry swelled with the promise of the internet, liberated as consumers were finally free to directly connect with the smut of their choice — and then began to collapse as the internet transformed into a playground for porn piracy, where consumers could easily download whatever fantasies they desired without having to spend a single cent.

One of the biggest tells of the state of the industry has long been the annual Adult Entertainment Expo and AVN Awards, an event which became smaller and sadder every time that I went, until I finally skipped it this year because you can only watch an industry collapse for so long before it starts to feel depressing. But a month and a half after playing hookie from the Oscars of the adult industry, I was presented with another chance to assess the state of the industry, or at least of sex on film, as New York played host to not one, but two, erotic film festivals over the course of the same weekend.

There was a frenzy of press in the lead up to these events, with breathless discussion of what sort of content would, and wouldn’t, be shown. But in the midst of the excitement, there was one question still nagging at me: if people aren’t willing to pay to consume erotic entertainment in the privacy of their own homes, would they really pay to watch it in a crowd?

Stacie Joy (Courtesy of CineKink)

The CineKink festival was founded in 2003 by Lisa Vandever. After an experience organizing a BDSM-themed festival for The Eulenspiegel Society, Vandever was eager to take on a project that would allow her to explore cinematic representations of sexuality beyond BDSM. For the past 12 years, CineKink has featured a wide variety of films — from documentaries to hardcore porn — that explore experiences of sexuality that aren't always reflected in mainstream entertainment.

NYC Porn Film Festival, on the other hand, is the brainchild of Bushwig founder Simon Leahy, who decided last year to fill a perceived gap in New York City's entertainment offerings, and provide Bushwick with its very own XXX film festival. In an interview with Mashable, Leahy described a desire to offer a festival that would offer an alternative view of pornography and sexuality, reflecting the wide range of adult media consumed around the world, from more mainstream commercial offerings to "feminist, queer, weird, trans porn stuff."

if people aren’t willing to pay for erotic entertainment in the privacy of their own homes, would they pay to watch it among a crowd?

It's futile to draw a firm distinction between CineKink and NYC Porn Film Festival on the basis of content alone. Though CineKink does not promote itself in XXX terms, there are a number of hardcore and explicit offerings. And while NYC Porn Film Festival gets a bit more porny (unsurprisingly, "Tila Tequila: Backdoored and Squirting" is not on CineKink's program), it does have its fair share of tamer films, including a documentary about the New York City burlesque scene. There's even a CineKink alum among NYC Porn Film Festival's programming: Graphic Sexual Horror took home the CineKink award for Best Documentary Feature in 2009.

Where they differ, then, is in presentation. While CineKink, which screens most of its films at the Anthology Film Archives screening room in New York City's East Village, feels like a sexier spin on a traditional film festival; NYC Porn Film Festival's Bushwick art space base gives it a rawer, more hipstery feel. The audiences differ as well: CineKink skews a bit older; while the crowd at NYC Porn Film Festival feels very Bushwick — most of the attendees wouldn't seem out of place in an episode of Girls.

My CineKink experience begins on Wednesday evening with the US premiere of Air Sex: The Movie. It's a cute documentary that functions as a sort of concert film for the 2013 national tour of the Air Sex National Championships (if you're confused: it's basically air guitar for sex). Following the film, there's a Q&A with the filmmakers, which culminates in an invitation for audience members to engage in a little competitive air sex of their own. Three brave souls give it a whirl, one wins a little paper trophy crowning her CineKink air sex champion. It's one part sexy, one part funny, and more than a little weird — the perfect way to ease into a week of sex-themed cinema.

The next night I'm at a screening of Back Issues, a documentary exploring the history of Hustler. I've seen The People vs. Larry Flynt enough times to be familiar with the general arc of this story — Flynt's humble beginnings as a club owner looking to advertise his wares, the magazine's willingness to offend anyone and everyone, the numerous legal challenges, and Flynt's battles with both paralysis and manic depression. But when I walk out, I'm surprised by how much it has affected me. Beyond Flynt's story itself, I'm struck by the knowledge of how greatly the business of making porn has changed in the past 30 years. Former Hustler staffers speak of shooting photo spreads with budgets of $25,000 — amounts that, even without adjusting for inflation, dwarf what's spent on making most modern porn films.

if this is the future of erotic cinema, it's something I can definitely get behind

On Friday, the documentaries have given way to far sexier fare: a collection of erotic shorts, all directed by women, and a tribute to a collection of Golden Era porn stars who go by the moniker of Club 90. The erotic shorts are, for the most part, incredibly hot and, more than that, incredibly inspiring. Porn may no longer be profitable enough for companies to sink thousands of dollars into photo spreads shot at lush locations, but there are still dedicated artists crafting beautiful, personal visions of sexiness on film. I leave Anthology Film Archives feeling encouraged: if this is the future of erotic cinema, it's something I can definitely get behind.

Put The Needle on the Record (Image courtesy of Cinekink)

On Saturday morning I swing by the apartment of Cindy Gallop, the ad exec turned sex tech mogul behind MakeLoveNotPorn.TV. Cindy and her site were featured during the Friday programming block of NYC Porn Film Festival, and I'm curious to hear about her experience before I see it for myself. She speaks glowingly of the festival: the crowd was positive, the room was packed, everyone really got what she was doing. "There's something enormously validating about sitting in a real world audience who is watching a sampler of the kind of thing you do and responding so brilliantly," she tells me.

NYC Porn Film Festival kicks off at 2:30PM, and I arrive on the dot. There's already a crowd outside of Secret Project Robot, the art space hosting the festival, but as I draw closer, I see it's a collection of protesters wielding signs declaring that porn hurts women. One sign encourages readers to smash the patriarchy by ending porn, and this sets me off. Against my better judgment, I find myself asking one of the protesters how, exactly, telling women how to make a living and what to do with their own bodies can truly be considered fighting the patriarchy. She responds by telling me to read their pamphlets.

I decline, but it becomes clear that engaging has served only to kick the rest of the protestors into gear; another woman tells me to read a list of titles of videos on Pornhub, as if the crowd-generated misogyny of free porn sites is actually proof of anything about the industry itself. I tell them that after years working in the adult industry, I'm unlikely to be convinced, then dip into the only door I can find — which proves to be the back door into the festival. Although it's well past 2:30, they're still not open yet, but I'm not about to go outside to fight with protesters again.

Did the program designers just put everything together while stoned?

Whatever enthusiasm I'd generated for NYC Porn Film Festival quickly dissipates once I'm inside. The venue is small and dirty feeling, the staff is disorganized, the paper program is full of mistakes. The schedule is presented as "schedual," and Sunday's programming is listed as taking place on February 29th. I can't tell if these errors are intentional, or if the program designers just put everything together while stoned.

And then the first film starts. In my desire to throw myself into the experience, I'd neglected to check what, exactly, would be playing at Saturday at 3PM; it turns out it's James Franco and Travis Mathews' Interior. Leather Bar.

Interior. Leather Bar is so bad it feels like a parody of the worst impulses of a porn film festival. It's over intellectualized and incredibly unsexy: though it purports to be Franco and Mathews recreating the 40 minutes of gay sex censored from the movie "Cruising," it's more like two minutes of gay sex and an hour of straight men agonizing about gay sex and actors who are uncomfortable with explicit cinema agonizing about doing sex scenes. On multiple occasions, I feel my brain shutting down out of sheer boredom; my main takeaways from the film are that a) James Franco is really, really angry that he had the misfortune to be born heterosexual and b) no one told James Franco that you can't shoot your own Hearts of Darkness.

When it's finally over I feel drained and emotionally ruined. Stepping back out into the cold, I pick another fight with the protesters, asking them how they're fighting the patriarchy by protesting depictions of gay sex. I'm once again urged to read the pamphlet, and I once again refuse. Another woman mentions Pornhub's sponsorship of the festival, which launches me into a diatribe about how it's the pro-piracy Pornhub, and not porn itself, that actually hurts sex workers. At some point it occurs to me that someone's filming this interaction, and I wonder if my ranting will end up on some anti-porn website. "Go fuck yourselves," I tell the protesters, and make my way to the M train.

Jesse (Image courtesy of Buck Angel)

Later that night, I return to Secret Project Robot. The protesters are gone, but the crowd is in full force, and the screening room is at fire code-violating capacity. The shorts currently screening are far more to my liking than Interior. Leather Bar, but it dawns on me that that's not the point. Both here and across the river at Anthology Film Archives, a number of people are paying to watch weird, arty, thought-provoking films about sex, and at the end of the day, that's a tremendous win.

people are paying to watch weird, thought-provoking films about sex, and that's a tremendous win

The next day I return to NYCPFF and am impressed to see that, despite the snow that's blanketing the city, the crowd is still standing room only. I ask a few attendees what's inspired them to take part in the festivities. Scarlet Fox Letterpress founder Meena Ziabari tells me she was drawn to the festival "because it's celebrating human sexuality, and not afraid of turning people on. It seems like there's substance, and they're making statements ... It seems really thoughtful, which you'd think would be difficult to achieve."

When I talked to Cindy Gallop, she'd told me that she wholeheartedly believes that people will always pay for "individual creative vision" — the same kind of creative vision that's made Ziabari and her friends to brave the elements to watch indie sex cinema in a Brooklyn art space. As I watch the Bushwick crowd applaud the offbeat celebrations of sexuality screening that day, I start to think that Gallop might be onto something.

I don't know if CineKink or NYC Porn Film Festival are the "future" of porn, or if either really has a lock on what kind of sex films people want to see. But after this weekend, I do know that there is a future for sex-themed media, and for an industry that's long felt like it was dying, that may be enough for now.

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