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Pity Porn: The Unlikelihood of an Unbiased Porn Doc

06/11/2015 01:58 pm ET | Updated Jun 11, 2016

"A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding." - Marshall McLuhan

I've watched a lot of porn documentaries. A lot. It's kind of a thing. There's a new documentary that's causing quite a stir right now, and I've been getting asked about what I think.

This is not my review of that documentary; I've spoken at length, on social media and in interviews about the flaws I see in that film. Rather than offer more of the same opinions, I want to focus on an element of this discussion that seems readily apparent to me... an uncomfortable reality no one else is talking about.

In the late 90s, long before MTV stopped showing music videos, they sent a reporter named Tabitha Soren to LA to cover the porn industry. Her show aired as part of their True Life series. It painted one of the most objective pictures the mainstream has ever produced about fame, money and HIV; but frankly, her conclusions still skewed anti-porn. The audience seemed receptive, but the feedback from the network was that it was still too pro-porn. Tabitha Soren was allegedly fired, according to AVN's former editor Mark Logan, for being too sympathetic to an industry that deserves none.

Two adult-friendly documentaries premiered this year. I'm in one of them, X-Rated: The Greatest Adult Movies of All Time. At its core, it's got some presentation of reality, but really, it's just standard late night fair -- no substance, all titty. Showtime refused to promote it until after its original screening. Sitting behind his desk, Showtime president David Nevins was worried something positive about porn would scare away his shareholders. Once he saw it, and determined it was safe enough, he allowed some press.

The second is an independent feature, with the funds for production raised via Kickstarter. Directed by Sean Dunne, who won Best New Documentary Director for Oxycana at the Tribeca Film Festival, Cam Girlz endorses the budding webcam industry and the girls who participate in it. It's a beautifully shot film, and stunningly color corrected; it's only criticism being that it doesn't talk enough about the downsides of camming. The film premiered at AEE (the Adult Entertainment Expo, the industry's big trade show), received very little mainstream press and is now for sale on Vimeo.

These are just a couple of examples, drawn from a massive collection of similar circumstances, of what happens if you suggest anything other than Porn is Bad. Porn is still that much of a hot-button topic; people might whisper affirmations in hush-hush tones, but are terrified to say something dissenting from popular opinion in a forum where audiences will hear it. A filmmaker can't present empowerment because a film critic can't say, "that film was great."

To see this dynamic in action, we need only look at Hot Girls Wanted, the newest doc in a long line of Porn is Bad narratives. Hot Girls Wanted premiered to critical acclaim at Sundance. With its perfect storm of a well-known feminist producer, the money to hire a crack PR team and its easily-digestible message, a media frenzy ensued, revitalized recently by Netflix's debut of the film.

Admittedly, yes, there are some negative reviews counteracting all of the positive ones. Susan Elizabeth Shepard at Vice deconstructs the specific parts of the film that are incorrect. Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals at Uproxx explains the tonal problems at the core of the film.

However, no one is talking about the quality of the film, as a film. Not one review, good or bad, mentioned the camera work, or lack thereof. Not one examined the pacing issues. Not one considered how much was plainly staged -- the scene where Tressa tells her mom she does porn comes to mind. (Hey mom, this camera crew is following me around but don't worry, it's not because I do porn or anything.)

Everyone is discussing the film's take-away points: Porn is exploitative. Porn is corrupting our youth. Look at these poor girls. They need rescuing.

Porn is Bad.

It's an old, tired narrative about the business, but it's safe for the press. So what if some porn stars criticize your review? That's much more manageable that criticism from the entirety of the flyover states, or worse, your editor, a little closer to home.

So therein lies the conflict. Work in porn and make a pro-porn documentary; watch it be dismissed as biased and unimportant. Be a mainstream company and make a pro-porn documentary; watch it disappear because there's no story the press is willing to tell. Make an anti-porn documentary; watch it start discussions and make money.

Audiences demand stories about porn. Audiences eat them up, whether it's positive (X-Rated garnered the highest ratings for an original documentary Showtime had seen in years) or negative, like Hot Girls Wanted (which, at the time of writing, is in the "trending now" category on Netflix). But network suits and mainstream media won't allow an unbiased story. Filmmakers have to present what's safe, or risk their film not being sold (or worse, not being seen at all). The only prerequisite for success is the right point of view.

It's worth pointing out that, yes, obviously, it's still possible to make the film and tell the story you want to tell. But I must play the cynic and say, if your film falls in a forest where there are no ears to hear, does it still make a sound?

I do believe that there is an audience out there that wants an unbiased story, but the pressure from the audience that doesn't is too great. Too much of this country, too much of our culture, is afraid to look at porn in any way other than as this bull in the china shop of our morality.

But we, the adult industry, we are going to keep trying. I know I am. I have plans for my own social experiment of sorts -- a documentary that just presents the reality of the business, the good and the bad, without any sort of spin. I'm going to hire a PR team, be the celebrity feminist producer, and watch what happens.