Photo by James Bunoan
Posing is easy, says Hannah. By the end of her first photo shoot, she was trashed on whiskey—"It kinda settled my nerves!" she says and laughs—and having a blast. And then she was naked. And pretty soon after that, she was naked on one of a wave of adult websites selling what's basically punk rock porn. Girls like Hannah—not her real name—are where the action is on such sites as Friction USA, Burning Angel, leader-of-the-pack Suicide Girls, even a site originally based in Long Beach called Punk Erotic (featuring, among other models, "Bee from OC"). Some get up to tens of thousands of visitors a day, charging members a few bucks per month to see thousands of crystal-clear color photos of what Suicide Girls calls "the hottest, cutest, sexiest Goth, punk and emo girls we can find." And after about a year, these girls with pretty good hair and not-always-so-good-but-hey-we-all-liked-the-Misfits-at-one-time-too-right? tattoos have won more of an audience than pretty much any dirtball little punk band around for the same time has ever even approached. Punk has a new face now: probably young, probably white and probably topless, and if you wanna see more, you better get out your credit card. And, says Hannah—a classy, statuesque girl who looks good in black, at least in her free sample pictures—it was no trouble at all. The part about skinny little punk rock boys point-and-clicking up her pictures with one hand down their pants? "It'd be really funny," she says. "Better than them cutting ads out of Victoria's Secret catalogs."
* * *
It's tempting to read punk porn as a rerun of the way punk itself started: a bunch of maverick kids knocking a tottering industry on its ear and making up their own rules as they went along.
But that's not what happened. Punk didn't get naked until way after the porn party got started: the do-it-yourself methodology and female-inclusive aesthetic of punk porn sites may be antithetical to the mainstream dinosaurs (i.e. porn films and magazines), but it's old news on the Net. Call it proto-punk porn: by the late '90s, a new wave of living-room smut merchants were putting their friends on the web, a breed related to but somehow distinct from established amateur pornographers. Web designer Jennifer Ringley may have been the first: in 1996, she set up a camera in her Pennsylvania bedroom and a website at jennicam.org, transmitting a little skin and a lot of regular daily life to anyone who cared to watch. And a lot of people wanted to watch—USA Today called her "one of the only people to achieve celebrity solely through the Internet." It wasn't all that explicit, as websites go, but the idea was throbbing with potential. Then in 1999, a guy named Killshot thought he had a fun way to learn a few things about programming HTML; what his Raver Porn site really gave the world was a Never Mind the Bollocks for anybody with a digicam, a dedicated server and a female friend with weird-colored hair. Here was the proof that anyone could make anything they wanted; here was a challenge to go do it yourself.
"It got a lot of attention right away because no one had ever seen anything like it," Killshot says. "And I'm really glad that I was able to maybe help inspire some people to do these kind of sites. I really hope this can show the porn industry that porn doesn't have to be nasty, that women like porn just as much as men so long as it's done in a respectable way—not advertising 'Hot Russian Teenage Cum Sluts That Want Your Rock-Hard Cock!'—and that porn can be really interesting and fun, not just for people to get their rocks off."
That's the difference, says this new wave of pornographers. These punk sites run like bedroom record labels, not like big businesses. The person behind the camera—and behind the cash register when you become a member—is more often than not a woman; at the shoots, the girls get to do whatever they feel comfortable doing, instead of playing to some producer's idea of what's sexy.
So far, it feels pretty good—way better than stroking it to Belle and Sebastian record covers.
* * *
Punk and porn have had a strangely uneasy relationship for years, but the chemistry—and the money—is apparently finally there. And as everyone's websites strut toward their one-year anniversaries, there's still an almost-idealistic sense of innocence: it's fun, it's cute, it's clean, it's sexy, it's DIY, and it's not hurting anyone, right?
Then why does it feel like no one has thought about the hard parts—well, besides those hard parts—yet?
Punk porn looks great on paper, looks even better sizzling away on the computer screen. But when you start asking the tough questions—about making easy money off a nation of alienated kids, about reducing a supposedly still-meaningful subculture to its basest fashion statement, about setting a pretty narrow standard of beauty where no standard was set before, about playing with the idea of sexuality and community and maybe not really thinking it all the way through—you really feel like a total dick. But punk porn begs the obvious question: Once you strip a girl naked and charge $9.95 to peek, you've got the porn part down. So where's the punk?
* * *
"I think people were concerned it was going to be, like, 'Punk Sluts Fucking for Punk Rock Records!' and it would be very demeaning and degrading to women in the scene," says Spooky, co-webmaster with partner Missy of flagship nudie site Suicide Girls, the Epitaph Records of the DIY porn scene. "[But] you'd be shocked. First of all, I don't sleep with any of the girls. I don't touch any of the girls, period. We do have parties for the girls, but the girls just chit-chat, drink, have fun. There are no orgies. No sex parties. No gold Ferraris or giant Jacuzzi tubs. I spend most of my day answering e-mail, doing tech support. There's nothing decadent about the business."
So what are you getting for your punk porn dollar these days? For a subculture that once could have laid claim to women like Lydia Lunch and Wendy O. (arrested 11 years ago this month for masturbating onstage with a sledgehammer!), the visuals skew a little tame: though boys make appearances on edgier sites such as Pennsylvania's Porn for Punks and Punk Erotic, the bread-and-butter of punk porn is young female models. And since so many of the girls on the sites are modeling for the first time ever (or so the story goes), they tend to stick to the vanilla stuff: a lot of T&A, a lot of full-frontal, maybe a little girl-on-girl petting. Of course, paying members get more: Porn for Punks will happily sell you pictures of off-duty dominatrixes pissing in their own mouths, for instance, and even Suicide Girls—the models, not the administrators—were debating whether to take the plunge into penetration shots. And members were generously telling them to do what they were comfortable with.
A Suicide Girls model named Chloe says she feels like a part of something rather than a piece of something. It's a sentiment members paying to access these sites might agree with. For many, it's the community that's the draw, as much as the naked girls. And it's that part-of-a-community—rather than piece-of-ass—feel that characterizes the kinder, gentler approach a lot of punk porn tends to take.
"The audience," says Missy of Suicide Girls, "is people who look like the girls. They've got the same attitudes and the same interests as the girls on the site. It's not designed for the typical porn user, like a 56-year-old man who's divorced or something."
Of course, there's no way to be exactly sure who their audience is, at least until the Total Information Awareness database goes online. But porn site message boards offer pretty convincing hints: user profiles feature the same sort of indie-Internrrrds that frequent MakeOutClub and LiveJournal, counterpointing ironic hipster tastes with professed interests including "college music girls tattoos" and "hot chicks and guitar licks."
It looks as if they've tapped into an audience that's more than willing to keep them in the black—maybe because webmasters are their own target market. You can't get much more in touch than that: as a woman, says Friction USA administrator Stephanie, she wants to be able to find images of beautiful women that aren't offensive; as a man, says Spooky, you'd want a woman to enjoy sex—so why wouldn't you want her to enjoy porn?
What's most important, they say, is putting form to a fantasy not included in the industry vision and making sure that the models have the freedom to do whatever they want. First, they want it to be different than the porn they've already seen. They want it to be clean, smart and female-friendly. They want it to be—in a lot of ways—like the trendy website Nerve.com, which blazed a trail that punk porn sites, intentionally or no, seem happy to follow by buttressing their own punk-girl photos with articles, band interviews and even message boards.
They also want it to be punk: specifically, like Dischord Records, the D.C. independent label whose take-care-of-your-own integrity is echoed in a site called Burning Angel's collectivist organizational structure or Suicide Girls' hire-from-within employment policies that puts models to work as HTML programmers or office managers.
And of course they want it to turn a profit—apropos to those punk-y business ethics, a profit that's fair for everybody involved. Nobody likes to talk numbers, but the payment a model receives for a photo session seems to be somewhere between what you'd make by working eight hours at McDonald's and what you'd need to make rent for a month in the Pacific Northwest—probably a few hundred shy of the $1,000 or so a girl might make for shooting a porno out in the San Fernando Valley.
"At the end of the day, [Suicide Girls] can be whatever you want it to be," says Spooky. "People hook up on our site with one another all the time. In San Francisco, they get together for curry dinner. In LA, they're all going to Disneyland with one another. But if people just want it to be a place to find materials to … pleasure themselves, that's certainly available on the site, too."
* * *
Aaron Muentz—who hasn't been called Aaron Probe for a while now—finds it kind of funny that there are whole websites full of naked punk girls on the Internet now. He remembers one poor desperate kid in Idaho carrying around a ratty copy of Probe zine for most of the early '90s because that was all the naked punks he was ever gonna see. And he remembers the huge shitstorm that settled on his doorstep once he casually tossed a few topless pictures of a girl (and later some naked guys) in the first issue of his zine, becoming one of a handful of people who had tried—after a fashion—to marry punk and porn.
"It doesn't seem that long ago, but the attitude to nudity in the punk scene was kind of different than it is now," he says. "I started by accident, and it ended up being my crusade. You had the Christian value system coming at you from one side, and then you had the politically correct thing. More often than not, people were for it. But when they were against it, they hated your guts."
He was accused of getting girls drunk and tricking them into posing, of exploiting women and exploiting the scene. People called for a boycott; a clerk at Amoeba Records pulled his mag off the shelf. But he also remembers bringing a box of 60 hot-off-the-presses copies to a show and selling every one in seconds. And until now, that was pretty much how punk porn was going to work: at the basement show, they'll hate you; but in the bedroom? It's usually a different story.
Like early punk, early punk porn was comparatively abrasive and intense, rubbing up against the queer scene, the fetish scene, even the avant-garde art scene. Maybe that's why it never really penetrated to the more mainstream sectors of the music. In the early '80s, a gay skin mag in LA called In Touch hit up Henry Rollins for some sexy shots and asked him what he thought of his gay following (for the record, he said he was very flattered); Richard Kern and Lydia Lunch fist-fucked formulaic mainstream porn with such films as Fingered and Right Side of My Brain as part of New York's no-wave film scene at roughly the same time. But there has never been breakout punk porn—like thousands-of-visitors-per-day punk porn—until now.
"It says more about porn than it does punk," says Spooky. "I look at myself as a punk rock guy doing a little porn. The mainstream is more accepting of adult content, and probably every subculture is more comfortable with it now. We just happened to be punk rocker/Goth kids. This is the only thing we knew."
* * *
"Punk porn?" laughs Mari Macha. "Real punk porn would be free. It'd be Xeroxed—it wouldn't take itself seriously. It would be something that would be so ridiculous you couldn't even get off on it, and it would go out of its way not to feature standard beauties. And if standard beautiful women did get featured, it'd be in the context of being a joke."
Mari is a model—as well as a writer—for Punk Erotic, the Southern California site that trades on the grittier, scarier side of punk, eschewing the scrubbed-up women of Suicide Girls for Sid-and-Nancy style shots. When she's not writing or modeling, she's got a very respectable job—we won't say what—in a very local city—we won't say where. She connected with Punk Erotic because she thought there was a little of the spirit of punk in the raw photography of webmaster Geoff Cordner, a professional who got started in punk with the Big Boys and the Dicks in Austin in 1978. But Mari has looked at the competition, too. So far, she thinks a lot of this so-called punk porn is—basically—bullshit. At least as punk. As porn, it's just the same old thing. Interaction between the models and the members, feel-good working conditions and female-friendly content aren't enough, she says. If punk porn is an alternative, it should have something alternative to say about what's sexy, what's erotic, what's worth $9.95 per month for wank-related activity. And it should start, she says, by offering alternative girls.
"Punk is supposed to be anti-beauty, anti-fashion, an anti-aesthetic," she says. "So why is it that a lot of these girls on the sites, if devoid of punk trappings, would totally fit the mainstream image? You could clean these girls up and put them in a regular magazine, and it's not just one or two of them—it's all of them. And if you could put them in a regular magazine, that defeats the purpose because it's exclusionary in the end. It's discriminatory. If you cleaned these girls up, people would still want to jerk off to them. And you know what? They're all fucking white. I'm Mexican, and when I see something that's like a big fucking white blanket, I notice if there aren't any spots. But traditionally, punk is really white, too."
This is where punk porn gets ugly: if punk (supposedly) doesn't draw its politics from the mainstream, and punk doesn't borrow its look and sound from the mainstream, then why do all these hot punk girls look like they just fell out of Cosmo Girl and into a back-alley tattoo parlor? It's evidence—at least by weight, race and even style—that all these rebel rockers who never fit in still want to fuck the prom queen. And all these rebel girls still want to be her.
Almost every webmaster we talked to will tell you what a confidence boost it is to be featured on their sites. "Girls have said to us, 'For the first time in my life, I feel like I'm beautiful,'" says Spooky. "And when a lot of girls apply to the site, and we ask why they want to be a Suicide Girl, they say, 'For the first time, I've come where people feel girls like me are the epitome of beauty.'"
But you have to wonder: Suicide Girls puts up one or two girls per week out of sometimes 300 applications. What kind of confidence boost do those other 298 girls get? "The only complaint I'd consider legitimate is that we're furthering certain beauty stereotypes," says Spooky. "There aren't women that weigh 300 pounds on the site, and I'm not saying there never will be, but at this point, most of the girls would probably be considered beautiful in most circles. There is an idea of beauty that is just Western media, and it permeates how we choose girls as well. And that's where we may be failing."
But it's not where everybody in alt.-porn is failing. You can find websites dedicated to every degree of every physical attribute of the human body; you can easily find print zines catering to similarly niche tastes. And it's not even all the punk sites. Jack Sordid's Porn for Punks includes transgendered people pissing on one another, for instance ("I think we're the only site out there that doesn't exclusively shoot girls and just a little bit of hardcore," he says). But it is a lot of them.
"It's like if you dressed up REO Speedwagon in bondage pants and Mohawks—they'd still be REO," says Punk Erotic's Cordner. He made his name as a fashion photographer a few years back, and when he started Punk Erotic last year in Long Beach, he did it as something of an artistic experiment.
"What I was doing was pretty much straight out of what so many of us used to do when I first started out as a punk rocker—tweaking the form, fucking things up," he says. "I don't think [other sites] are doing anything to push the envelop in porn—they're doing the same old fucking stuff with a different looking girl. To define a standard of punk beauty is antithetical to punk—or antithetical to punk as I define punk. You can be into punk and you can be into porn—it doesn't mean the porn you're into is punk."
* * *
"You could go on for years about, 'What does a punk girl look like? What does a punk girl mean?' But people just want to get to the boobs," says Becky Goldberg, a documentarian behind a film called Hot and Bothered: Feminist Porn. "If you get too tied up in 'Is it punk? Is it punk enough?' then you've completely missed the point. It's meant to be enjoyed. Making up definitions is just defeating the purpose. There should be a little more unity in things like this."
Okay, fine: save the political debates about punk for the kids buying Crass shirts at Hot Topic. There's another question that demands to be asked: Why punk porn?
The webmasters agree: girls. And they'll all explain that they're simply selling images people can't get anywhere else, so their audience is willing to pay. Elementary capitalism—except it can't be completely true.
The Internet exists to drown the world in porn. And a lot of that porn is free. And in between the blondes-with-big-boobs that used to clog up Cinemax are girls of every size, shape, ethnicity and aesthetic. Even comparatively outr tastes—transsexuals, interracial gangbangs, girls straddling automobile gear shifts—are easy to find; zooming in on girls that share a look with the models on punk porn sites would take only a few seconds. There's something that punk porn sites are pushing besides pictures, and it's what really makes the kids sign on: like any other porn, they're selling fantasy. And in this case, it's the fantasy of reality.
"It is real girls, girls you'd find at the coffeeshop, and they're so much hotter than someone who is just made to be fucked," says Suicide Girls' Missy. "They're real girls with real bodies and real interests. I guess it is punk rock in the same way you can go up to a band after the show and talk to them."
But is it community that's attracting these paying members? Or something else?
"I think they're attractive to me specifically because these are the kind of girls you see at a show, girls you could meet when shopping for clothes—people you could literally meet, instead of an unattainable plastic-y fake chick," says Jake, co-webmaster for Seattle's Friction USA. "When the fantasy can become reality in a way, it's somehow more erotic."
Immediately afterward, he says Friction's stock-in-trade is just pictures of cute naked girls. Like everybody else. But he was right the first time. "Think about it," says Mari. "Every porno site that is selling some sort of niche object always fetishizes the idea that 'this is real.' 'Real teens!' 'Real Asian pussy!' 'Real lesbians!' People always want real lesbians, even though none of it is real. Because that fantasy is a big draw—that the girls really get off on it. That they're gonna go home and shoot a gun and drink a beer and see a band."
Of course, the girls on some of the punk porno sites get to represent themselves, to put across as much or as little of their own personalities as they want. Can you trust them when they say they like to drink beer and see bands? Probably—honestly—yeah, sure, they probably do drink beer and see bands. And they probably are a lot like you, the punk rock porn consumer. That's why you pay for it. See, porn can be a positive thing—Becky Goldberg and Susie Bright and Annie Sprinkle and the people behind the punk sites are right about that. But porn is also something that feeds on alienation, something punk as a subculture has up to its pierced-with-a-safety-pin ears. The idea that everyone poking around on these sites is happy sex-positive hipster couples looking to get a little revved-up is as much a fantasy as anything else they're selling. And the idea that there are a lot of lonely subscribers who don't have any other realistic way to see cute naked punk girls is something that nobody ever brings up.
There's a subtle dynamic at work here that plays to insecurities on both sides of the computer screen, but when Spooky says girls complain about not getting enough fan mail, he still means it as a joke. "After the 30-second image hunt for self-gratification purposes, people want to talk sex; they want to connect with others; they want to share their like and find the like," says Rebecca Gray, associate editor of the online Adult Video News. "It's the boards, the personal e-mails, and the chatrooms that make for retention rates on the adult web—across the board. Oh, loneliness."
* * *
Punk porn is still very virginal, as trends tend to go. Those standards of beauty aren't absolutely set—not yet; the burnout hasn't yet flared up. Maybe it never will, says Cordner—there's a future in any kind of porn. But there's no future in it for him. He removed the members-only site of his Punk Erotic, unwilling to yield to market pressures to ratchet up the raunch.
"Any time you get a little bit too immersed in something like sex, which is what porn is about, you get kind of inured to it," he says. "You get jaded. A little while ago, I was shooting pictures of someone I just met, and so I was having a conversation with this girl as she's sitting on the toilet with the bathroom door open. And I think to myself, 'Holy fuck. Here in my apartment is some beautiful girl I barely know, and she's sitting on the toilet, and we're having this conversation like it's the most normal thing to do.' And I just sort of stepped out of the line of sight—for my own sake, so I wasn't looking at her."
Art can always progress, he says—but porn can only go in one direction. And you can probably extrapolate what that is—of course, if and when punk sites sink down into the triple-X dregs, questions about subcultural viability and political integrity will look pretty pasty against questions of simple dignity and exploitation. It depends on what the people raking in all those credit-card numbers decide to do if their little basement smut factories keep getting popular: Break the rules? Or follow them?
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Because when the mechanisms by which punk porn sites operate aren't too different from those already in place on many alternative porn sites, when the girls on the punk porn sites aren't too different from the girls already in place on many alternative porn sites, then you have to ask what's different besides the haircuts and the tattoos? Simply: What's punk about punk porn besides that, well, it's marketed to people who want to see naked punk girls?
Hannah, the girl who has made Victoria's Secret catalogs obsolete, says there's still a difference between the site she's on and the rest of the porno web. It's in the way her site is a little more creative, the way they treat her, the way there's something on the site besides naked pictures of her. And it's in the way she looks—yeah, she can't say she has small tits, she says, but she's not a blond porno girl. Nor does she call herself a punk. "I don't really put that label on myself," she says. "I know a lot of people that are way into punk, but I just don't like labeling it like that. I listen to punk music, and I don't know, how I dress—I guess it's pretty much normal."
So what's the difference between her site and all the other naked-girl sites on the Net, we ask? "They do it for themselves," she says. "And they're just doing it their way—instead of someone else's way."
A version of this article originally appeared in the winter 2002 issue of Punk Planet magazine.