Maximum Tits 'N' Ass
Where on earth did "punk porn" come from?
>>> The Internet has given the world many great advantages, perhaps none so great as the ability to find naked pictures of practically any kind of person. Celebrities, athletes, librarians, firemen, Catholics, you name it--whoever you want to see naked, you can see them naked on the web. It should come as no surprise, then, that you can find websites devoted to naked pictures of hot indie rock girls, the kind of girls who go to indie rock shows, who play in indie rock bands, who like indie rock.
But, like, naked.
It's not surprising that there are websites featuring naked indie rock girls, or that they're being run by indie rockers with little experience in the adult industry. What is surprising--to me, anyway--is how many such sites there are, and how popular they've become with the same kind of people (i.e., indie rockers) who 10 years ago would've blacklisted them out of existence.
Remember the '90s? It was the decade that pop culture spent being wrong about almost everything. We were wrong about Bill Clinton. We were wrong about Kurt Cobain. We were for sure wrong about Courtney Love. We were wrong about independent film. We were even wrong about the Internet. High atop the list of erroneous beliefs dotting the popular landscape in the 1990s, however, was the belief in punk rock circles that the classic triumvirate of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll would be best served by removing the part about sex. Like much of the music being made at the time, the anti-sex faction was a genetic mutation of first-wave punk, third-wave feminism, and good old-fashioned contrarianism. The echoes of Johnny Rotten's maxim that sex was boring, combined with legitimate strains of young female activism and misguided blasts of pseudofeminism, formed the noise floor for the art--and more significantly, the publicity--that defined "alternative" culture.
Lust was out. For a brief, strange moment in rock 'n' roll subbacultcha, wanting sex was not cool. Suddenly, in lyric and interview alike, heroic tales of groupie conquest were replaced by renunciations of macho hedonism. The message was clear: Women were no longer to be treated as objects, but as equals--betters, even. To hear rockers railing against the clichéd misogyny of their cock rock forbears was at first a bracing change of pace that opened a lot of young eyes. And then, it became its own cliché. Somewhere between Kim Gordon asking Kool Thing if he was gonna "liberate us girls from male, white, corporate oppression," and Kurt Cobain screaming "Rape Me" on MTV, the manifesto of fashionable feminism, submerged masculinity, and lust-free rock became a pickup line for a generation of hormonally mangled boys and girls. Punk rockers still got laid, of course, but only if they could pretend that they didn't want to get laid.
And one thing good/authentic '90s indie punks certainly didn't do--or didn't admit to doing--was look at porn, punk or otherwise.
Because I'm not a porn aficionado (a dabbler, at best), I found out about porn sites featuring pictures of indie rock girls from a recent article in Punk Planet that considered the issue of so-called "punk porn" at great length. I soon discovered that, as usual, I was the last to know. Sites like PornForPunks.com, BurningAngel.com, and SuicideGirls.com have been drawing a steady stream of hits for the last couple of years by trading on the aesthetics of punk, indie, and goth culture, and the naked, tattooed bodies of some of their most attractive female adherents. Though plenty of people have browsed the wares--some out of curiosity, others out of more prurient concerns--no one seems to be dwelling on the seeming contradiction. Punk porn? How can a movement founded on anti-beauty and the energy of the outsider join hands with an industry designed to cater to conventional standards of beauty and the absolute lowest common denominator?
SuicideGirls.com, founded in Portland by two porn novices who go by the names Missy and Spooky, is the gold standard for naked punk rock girls on the web, claiming over 200,000 unique visitors per month and featuring daily updates of photo sets from close to 100 young women. Despite its name, the tone of the Suicide Girls site is light and playful. The design is outstanding, the self-styled, self-photographed models sexy and intriguing, the photography tasteful, the sense of humor smart and literate. Many such sites feature erotic literature, band interviews, chat rooms, and the like, but Suicide Girls is a full-blown community--like the WELL, but with labia piercings. The women who pose also keep running journals, attend public events known as "hook-ups," and receive avid compliments from an array of fans, who also maintain profiles and journals on the site. They talk about bands they like, shows they've seen, books they've read--and oh, yeah, the unstoppably fine naked ladies they pay $10 a month to jerk off to. Judging by the profiles on the site, the men who subscribe to Suicide Girls are the kind of guys you see on Pike Street, talking to girls who look like they might be Suicide Girls themselves.
Though Suicide Girls' entrepreneurs won't say how many members there are or how much income the site generates, it's clearly a very lucrative enterprise. Even if only 10 percent of their monthly visitors paid the $9.95 full-access fee, they'd be looking at serious money--hundreds of thousands of dollars, perhaps millions.
"No, not millions," laughs 26-year-old Spooky, the male cofounder and designer of SuicideGirls.com. "We make a lot more money than we ever thought we would, that's for sure."
Headquartered in the home of more strip clubs than any other U.S. city, Suicide Girls was founded on the principle of "empowered erotica"--the idea that porn is healthy and can be produced without compromising the integrity of the girls who appear in it. The site is also the most famous of its kind, receiving recent magazine profiles in Playboy, Spin, and Maxim, and public shout-outs from the Strokes and Courtney Love; the site was even featured on ABC's Nightline. As the most visible punk porn provider, Suicide Girls is both bellwether and standard- bearer for the adult industry's newest booming subgenre. It is politically pro-woman, reasonably well-paying ($100-$250 per photo set), heavily stylized (no pop-up ads!), band-friendly, and ultimately tame by typical adult standards. It's also big business, the success of which depends heavily on the site's acceptance by a subculture traditionally uncomfortable with public displays of affection--to say nothing of beaver shots.
"You know, we're of that scene," says Spooky, when I ask him how he's reconciled the sexless-by-design ethos of punk rock culture with the jerk-off material he produces. "And there's no secret who the members of our site are--they put up profiles, they keep journals. Go look at them. By and large, they are people from the scene. You don't go to the profiles and see a bunch of 40-year-olds in suits. You see cute punk rock girls and cute punk rock boys."
Spooky and Missy, whose backgrounds are in the television and music businesses, started Suicide Girls to make money, naturally, but also to create an outlet for sexuality and community in a culture that still can't seem to get comfortable in its own skin, much less the skin of others. Objectification would no longer be located in the eye of the beholder, but of the beheld. The theory that lusty/lust-starved punk and indie kids would embrace such a phenomenon was proven almost immediately: Within a few months of its September 2001 launch, Suicide Girls was an Internet phenomenon, rolling in dough, attracting the attention of huge rock stars, and spawning scores of imitators.
One such newcomer is FrictionUSA.com, a one-year-old Seattle website run by Jake and Stephanie, a 26-year-old married couple who play in local bands Minus the Bear and Onalaska. A bit more explicit and not as style-centric as Suicide Girls, FrictionUSA is less about the tattoos and more about the payload. Many of the 22 models are friends of the proprietors; if they look like girls you might see at shows, it's probably because they are girls you've seen at shows. (Which brings up the most illicit thrill of locally produced indierotica: scanning the sites for people you know.) Jake and Stephanie say that their business draws around 8,000 hits a month, and that it's coming close to making money. Though neither had any experience in adult entertainment (Stephanie: "... aside from being customers"), the couple was inspired by an NPR report about a strip club that earned $20 million in a year. Rejecting the idea of opening a club of their own as too complicated given Seattle's less-than-hospitable adult-entertainment regulations, they decided to start a website featuring the kind of people they would want to have sex with.
"The people we hang out with are the kind of people we're most attracted to, generally, so we were just kind of looking for people like that," Jake explains. "I don't know how you describe that--indie rock chicks?"
Yeah, indie rock chicks. Naked. Sounds good on paper, but imagine asking them to do it. There was a time when just saying "indie rock chicks" could get a person in trouble.
"In the punk rock world," says Jake, "you definitely have to tiptoe around sexuality in a lot of ways. But I just think that's bullshit. Everybody loves sex and imagery of naked people and stories about sex. Anything you can do to enrich that part of life is, I think, a positive thing. Not that we're trying to change the world or be political in any way--we're totally not. But if we're going to do it, it's not going to be a sleazy thing for the girls to encounter. They're gonna have fun and we're gonna have fun."
Clearly, a lot of fun is being had at FrictionUSA--by the indie rock girls who are getting naked, by the indie rock musicians who are posting their pictures, and presumably by the indie rockers who are cruising it. Not for nothing, but "fun" and "sex" are hardly the first two words that spring to mind when discussing indie rock. At the risk of making a massive generalization, it's traditionally been the least sexual corner of punk, a harbor for thwarted sexuality and muted maleness, awkward pauses and affected autism. In the last few years, however, sexual energy has been on the rise in the music that fuels the scene, which might help explain the growing acceptance of sites like FrictionUSA. According to Stephanie, "It's not so much that men are starting to reassert their masculinity, but that women are like, 'Hey, I like sex, too!' Some women know how to use it and are very aware of how they're using it. And others are just [getting off on] being cute."
The era of impotence-as-aphrodisiac was short-lived because it was about as realistic as Soviet Communism. It didn't work for anybody. People, men and women, still wanted to have sex. Meanwhile, other scenes were proving that lust was alive and well.
Pornography was born again acceptable in the '90s, infiltrating the mainstream in much the same way "alternative" music did. (Even the concept of "mainstream" pornography was unthinkable before the 1990s.) When the Internet fired up its engines and porn became aggressively, unstoppably available, acceptance was no longer the question. Porn was an inescapable truth. Before long, it also acquired a certain chic, which began creeping into music, first as ironic statement and later as full-on personal aesthetic (this is the gap between Ad-Rock and Kid Rock). Popular rock soon became tough again--extra tough, in fact, as if to compensate for the lost years of tenderness. Cocaine and Ferraris were back, and porn was once again welcomed with the outstretched, heavily tattooed arms of bands and fans who were happy to admit they were doing it all for the nookie.
And so, the punk porn school. What it means about porn is a new niche--a variation on Catholic-schoolgirl fetishism--and in some cases, a safe harbor for women to expose and express themselves for fun and profit. What it means about punk is something else again. Punk has died as many deaths as the theater, poetry, abstract painting, or any other important 20th-century art form. Still, like all of those forms, it somehow manages to persevere, threatened on all sides by interlopers, preserved by an eternal elitism. The crucial separations--of punk from mainstream, punk from other punk, true punk from tourist--all hinge on a certain hermetic insulation, wary of outside influence and contemptuous of the outside attention that spoils scenes.
In the '90s, when a bastard variation of the punk ideal entered the popular imagination, the elitism became blindingly aggressive--the only recourse left to purists was to withhold approval, withdraw attention, refuse to dance. Now that public attention has long since waned, a punk-influenced subculture is again poking its head up from the underground and asserting its place before a mass audience. The difference this time around is that what's for sale is more than just an attitude, a statement, or even a sound--it's the lust that goes with it. They're showing everything. It's not just the Butthole Surfers now--it's the actual butthole.
One of the main ideas separating punk and indie culture from the mainstream is unavailability to the undeserving. In real life, the foxier the punk rock girls or boys, the cooler you must be to even talk to them. The ultimate genius--or corruption, perhaps--of the Suicide Girls paradigm is not what it provides to its community, but the offer it makes to the straight world: You may not be cool enough to talk to these girls in real life, but for $10, you can see them naked. What's for sale, then, is the illusion of belonging.
That illusion may be the thing that has kept the mainstream world coming back to punk every few years. The advent of the Internet has ensured that absolutely anyone can have access to indie culture; it has done the same for pornography. But speaking of the Internet, have you seen it lately? You can scarcely compare the erotica of punk girl sites, with its softcore/ pinup/no-penetration sensibilities, to the worldwide web of "cumsluts" and donkey-fucking teenagers. Whether punk porn is merely another kind of sexual hypocrisy--porn is okay, but only if it's our porn--is another discussion. What's clear, however, is that all this consternation about punk porn is basically being stirred up by a little nudity. For indie rock, this stuff is a big deal, but is it really even porn?
"I think pornography's on a continuum," says FrictionUSA's Stephanie. "You have erotica, then you have hardcore stuff way over there. I never feel comfortable calling [FrictionUSA] pornography, because of the negative connotation. We want it to be sexually enticing, but we want it to be beautiful at the same time. I mean, it is what it is. It has a purpose, obviously. There's no ifs, ands, or buts about that."
Well, maybe a few butts.