We don’t speak of the four-letter “P” word all that much in our day-to-day lives. It might occasionally slip its way into kitchen counter conversations 3⁄4 into a bottle of wine, but it still remains off limits at the dinner table. Porn is the sex-ed topic forgone for the bulk of us who were sexually educated by VHS tapes featuring fuzzy ‘80s television announcers. It is something seldom taught, if only by ourselves.
Porn exists. Whether we choose to talk about it or not, it will never cease to exist.
Consumption of any media—pornography included—may reinforce or alter perceptions of others and ourselves. For many of those coming from underrepresented backgrounds, this can be especially problematic, as visibility in the mainstream media often means adhering to a stereotypical narrative. In search for an antidote, a wave of pornographers are taking a harm-reductive approach to the industry by producing ethical porn focused on representation, performers’ rights, and capturing sex in a way that isn’t dehumanizing.
Kate Sinclaire is a tour-de-force in the ethical porn industry. She is the founder of Ciné Sinclaire, a production company working to shift from traditional narratives of porn by emphasizing safe practices and creating spaces for underrepresented performers to find work in front of the camera. I had the chance to sit down with her in her studio to talk all things ethically erotic.
Lithium Magazine: How did you get into the industry?
Kate Sinclaire: I got into the industry somewhere between 19 and 20. I was with a partner and we were having a nice time, until we weren’t having a nice time. Following our breakup, he decided to post photos [online] that we had taken of ourselves as what we now call revenge porn. I wasn’t ashamed of any of those things, but this was someone [holding] power over me by trying to shame and control my sexuality from afar. From there, I had two options: I could either be ashamed and pretend it never happened, or I could be like yeah, I did those things, but I’m not ashamed of my sexuality. Choosing the latter wasn’t easy, but it was the better route for me.
From there I started trying out nude modeling but found that most of the places I was submitting to had very strict guidelines as to who they were including—women, mostly white, with pretty much one body type. After looking around I decided to start CherryStems, a philanthropic softcore nude modeling site that would include folks of any gender, size, and background. A few years later, I launched Ciné Sinclaire, my video production agency.
Lithium: What would you say differentiates ethical porn from mainstream porn?
Kate: This conversation is a big one, and even within the so-called ethical porn community. The issue is that so many places that claim to be “ethical” are later found out to have things like consent being violated on set. People are using it like an “organic/fair-trade” logo but there’s no oversight. Generally, it’s loosely defined as porn [centered on] prioritizing the payment of the performers and crew. It’s also centered on ethics of representation—making sure various bodies, skin colors, and backgrounds are represented, and giving people the agency to create their own narratives rather than those “created” for them.
Lithium: People often use porn as an alternate means of sex ed. Can you talk about the importance of ethical porn in this light?
Kate: So first off is the performative aspect. Some people like to say that ethical porn shows “real sex.” It does and it doesn’t, because as soon as you turn the camera on something, it’s inherently going to be performative—but how close can we get?
I do a talk on porn literacy that addresses how young people are using porn as a sex-ed tool, and it’s specifically noted in places where they don’t have sex ed. If they have abstinence-only sex ed, then they’re definitely leaning on porn. Queer folks and POC are also leaning hard on it because they don’t feel represented in mainstream sex ed. We’re failing all of those people.
It’s also a problem of identity. The narratives in mainstream porn of, say, a trans woman often have a fucked up, stereotypical identity presented. If you’re watching it as a young trans woman, there’s a risk of internalizing that identity, which can be really harmful. In ethical porn, it’s all about just letting people do what they do as long as it’s consensual—because that’s just the reality of sex.
Lithium: Is the mainstream media adapting to the idea of ethical porn?
Kate: People are definitely picking up on the fact that it makes money, and that can be dangerous because there’s no governing body. Even if you have organic produce, you have to apply for the label, but in our industry there’s nothing like that—you could slam the “ethical” label on anything. So I think it’s problematic that it’s becoming more and more popular. It’s great that it is, but it has the potential for exploitation within it because you know, capitalism itself is unethical.
Lithium: I noticed on your website that you have a pay-what-you-can policy. Can you talk about that?
Kate: We introduced our pay-what-you-can model last year. You can pay anywhere from one dollar to one million dollars (please give us one million dollars!). This specifically addresses access because we are making films by and for queer people and traditionally, we often have less money. The suggested price of $16 may be easy for me to get, but for someone else who may have challenges related to employment, $16 might render it inaccessible. From a profit standpoint, it’s worked really well because it opens it up to more and more people—more content gets sold at a lower price, but those people also get to see it.
Lithium: So obviously accessibility is a vastly important factor in the ethical porn world. What other measures are being taken to make the industry more accessible?
Kate: Yes, definitely. PinkLabel TV, which hosts a lot of my content, has a program where if you can’t pay, they’ll let you watch content if you transcribe their films in return. So hypothetically, someone could watch my films for free, but then it would be transcribed. It’s a win-win because it makes it even more accessible for everyone.
Lithium: Why is the need for queer, ethical, feminist porn so strong?
Kate: I think it’s important to have these options in the porn world because everyone is using it as sex ed, and everyone has so much access. If we only get a few narratives, then that’s all we’re getting. We need diversity of voices just like in every other sector of the media. Without diversity of narratives, it makes it so that the mainstream is the only stream.
By Cierra Bettens
Collage by @slimesunday