Following The Money Shot: Ovidie on Her SXSW Investigative Doc Pornocracy
Originally trained in philosophy, and known as the “porn star intellectual” since the publication of her book Porno Manifesto in the early aughts, feminist pornographer Ovidie can now add hard-hitting investigative journalist to her CV. The French icon’s latest documentary Pornocracy, debuting at SXSW (and later in the month at CPH:DOX), is a stunning exploration of the dark underbelly of online porn — a shadowy world in which a single faceless multinational corporation, with numerous offshore accounts, controls what we see while exploiting the performers whose very livelihood it shamelessly steals. Filmmaker spoke with Ovidie prior to the doc’s March 12th premiere.
Filmmaker: Your film truly is an edge-of-your-seat investigative thriller. There are so many twists and turns and stunners — even for those of us with firsthand experience of the industry. So what took you most by surprise as you were shooting?
Ovidie: The real surprise for me was back in December 2012, the day that (German businessman and porn kingpin) Fabian Thylmann was arrested at his home in Brussels, when I discovered his existence and that of his company. Before then I believed that the streaming sites that showed mainly pirated content were obscure sites that could not be traced. But this guy lived one-and-a-half hours by train from Paris! And his company was established in Québec! For me, it was completely crazy. And to discover that this company had bought many other sites and studios, to the point of establishing a form of monopoly over the industry in the space of just three years, was a real revelation.
Filmmaker: Back when I left the BDSM biz around 2006 I distinctly remember feeling that things were shifting for the worse, with folks doing more for less money, but I chalked it up to Craigslist and the onslaught of freelancers cutting out the middlemen.(In other words, I though it was independent entrepreneurs, not corporations, that were changing the sex industry landscape. So for me, one of the film’s biggest revelations was how precisely you were able to target the “beginning of the end,” so to speak, the exact time frame (2006-2008) when the sex industry switched over to near-total corporatization. In a way, though, wasn’t this inevitable in our capitalist society? Shouldn’t we have seen this coming all along? I mean, Airbnb noticed people renting out their homes online as the Internet took over the real world and figured a way to corner that market.
Ovidie: Pornography is only an exaggerated reflection of society, and what we see today in the adult industry is just a sign of the general labor market, where IT platforms make the law. This same thing happened in the music industry, with the press, Uber etc. If we take the example of the business of webcams, we could say that the adult industry was a pioneer in terms of the Uberization of work. People have the illusion of working for themselves. The idea of having a boss has disappeared. But in reality, this new form of employer is present more than ever, and the commissions they charge are mind-blowing.
Tina, a German actress who appears in my film, films, edits and uploads her videos herself. One could believe that she is independent, and she is in direct contact with her clients. Except that the platform — based in a fiscal paradise — takes 78% of her earnings, leaving her with just 22%, which she pays taxes on. If we take the specific case of Tina, even after having made more than 500 films, she lives modestly in a German suburb. Uberization creates poor workers. And this is even truer in the adult industry, where there are no unions, and nobody is prepared to fight for the rights of sex workers, and where, as a result, the conditions are intolerable.
Filmmaker: I actually saw your film in anticipation of CPH:DOX, where it’s also screening this month. One of your subjects, the legendary porn star Rocco Siffredi, is also the subject of another CPH:DOX film, Thierry Demaiziere and Alban Teurlai’s Rocco (which premiered back at Venice). Interestingly, the only time we see a performer visibly shaken up in Pornocracy follows a difficult shoot with none other than Rocco. But this guy’s been around for 30 years and is known for rough sex! I’ve no doubt that you’re correct in blaming tubes like Pornhub, etc. for causing women (and men) to go to ever further extremes to earn a living, but weren’t the extremes always there? Perhaps the lure of “easy” money and the Internet’s smashing of social taboos is just convincing more and more vanilla folks that they’re capable of doing stuff only us kinksters would willingly do.
Ovidie: The problem for me is that certain BDSM practices have become mainstream, with all the problems that entails. People who practice BDSM are perfectly aware of what they’re doing. They know that it’s a game and that, above all, there are safety rules to respect. The majority of people I know who practice place enormous importance on respect and, above all, on consent.
Now I’ve noticed more and more that dominance and submission have become an integral part of mainstream porn, without being identified as BDSM. We see actors like James Deen strangle, humiliate and slap actresses, and everyone thinks it’s normal. Since it’s no longer labeled BDSM, it passes for “regular” heterosexual relations, and thus creates new norms. In my previous documentary What do young girls dream of?, which portrays the sexuality of millennials, many of the girls I spoke to were doing things without even questioning them. For them, it was normal to be sodomized and slapped because they discovered sex watching these increasingly violent videos.
Rocco is a pioneer of “rough sex,” and for a long time he was one of the few. But today, everyone is doing the same thing and nobody is shocked. The fact that there’s a documentary dedicated to Rocco is proof that it’s no longer shocking to sodomize a girl by putting her head in the toilet. You should have seen the reception that film got in France! All the press were in awe of him. And at the same time, the actresses are always stigmatized and undergo daily slut-shaming.
What the tubes changed was in bankrupting a sector that produced “classic” mainstream productions. Only those producing rough sex have survived. That’s why we have seen the trivialization of implausible sex acts like double, triple or even quadruple anal. Rape videos are more popular than ever. Rape culture has never been so present. And many actresses confided to me that sometimes they filmed scenes they hadn’t consented to, but they didn’t feel they could complain afterwards.
Filmmaker: Pornocracy strikingly reveals that the campaign against the bill to make condoms mandatory on shoots in California was funded by “king of porn” Fabian Thylmann’s Manwin USA. (And by the way, Ron Jeremy should be ashamed of himself for appearing in their online ads!) Back when it was passed in 2014, I wrote about the UK’s misogynistic and anti-fetish Audiovisual Media Services Regulations, which was basically an attempt to shut down mom-and-pop operations while leaving the big, male-run corporations completely unscathed. Do you happen to know whether that Orwellian statue was the result of any particular corporate lobbying effort? (And yes, I’m thinking MindGeek — or who you eloquently refer to in the film as the “Monsanto of porn.”)
Ovidie: Since the announcement of the release of the film, people are starting to talk. A while ago, I was contacted by someone on Twitter who told me that MindGeek were working with the British authorities on an age verification system to protect minors. At first I thought it was a joke. For the past 10 years the tubes have bombarded us with free videos; 10 years with no system in place to protect minors. Because of the tubes the average age of discovering pornography has fallen to 11. Since the arrival of the tubes, access to porn is easy, and any boy can view, with his phone, videos not intended for him without any kind of control.
I verified the tip, and it’s true. Representatives of MindGeek are part of the Digital Policy Alliance in Great Britain and were instrumental in bringing international cooperation to the government’s age verification initiative. Their lobbying work is astonishing. They’re fiendishly intelligent.
Filmmaker: The doc is certainly both rigorous and thorough, though I almost feel like this could be turned into a multipart investigative TV series. (Personally, I want to learn more about Thylmann’s possible ties to Goldman Sachs money!) Any plans to continue exploring this subject?
Ovidie: I’m not planning to continue investigating this company — it’s up to other journalists now to take over. But MindGeek is just the tip of the iceberg, and there are many other things to say about this sector. Over the past few years I’ve accumulated lots of information and anecdotes that I didn’t have the space to include in this documentary — information not about the tubes. I think this could be the basis of a documentary, or even better, a fiction series, which would allow me to take certain artistic liberties.
Originally, one of the reasons I was compelled to make Pornocracy was that I had never seen a documentary about porn that I liked. They’re all worthless and full of clichés. It’s the same with cinema — all the films that deal with the porn world are far from reality. Generally speaking, it’s impossible to take a fair and non-stereotypical look at the sector if you were not once part of it.