Gothic Girls: Pretty in Porn
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Gothic Girls: Pretty in Porn
Alterna-porn is challenging the Playboy body ideal

The glossy photograph shows a woman named Cerah bent over a worktable, soldering. Her lank black hair is pulled back; her makeup-free face boasts a pierced nose. She is naked.

Cerah is one of more than 300 women whose images appear on SuicideGirls. com, a Web site offering "pin-up punk rock and Goth girls." Co-founded three years ago by photographer Missy Suicide and her boyfriend, Sean, Suicide Girls positions itself as a space where girls can pose nude in a female-friendly environment, where men can experience desire with a conscience through sexy visuals that aren't overtly sexist.

Its founders might flinch if they heard "porn" applied to their soft-core aesthetic, but Suicide Girls is one of the lead players in an Internet movement known as alterna-porn. On these progressive porn Web sites founded by club kids, neo-hippies, political activists and sundry bohemians, subversive variety rules -- piercings and tattoos prevail over implants and Brazilian waxes.

Some combine naked bodies with a social conscience: Vegan-run Vegporn.com donates a portion of its profits to charity, and the Sensual Liberation Army site alternates nudes with links to alternative news sources. Sites such as Fatalbeauty.com, Nakednerds.com and Thatstrangegirl.com feature models of both sexes, Voodoo-Dollhouse.com and Nofauxxx.com celebrate larger-size Goth and punk models. Femmerotic.com and Scarleteen.com offer both sexy poses and sex education.

Many of these sites have moved beyond visuals to become vast online communities with news content and message boards where models and their fans banter about everything from cooking to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

While the owners of Suicide Girls distance themselves from the "porn" label, other, equally soft-core site owners embrace it. "This whole division between porn and erotica really bothers me," says Lux Nightmare, the 21-year- old Columbia graduate behind Thatstrangegirl.com. "To me, the only difference between the two is that erotica sounds classy and arty. People don't want to say they do porn because it implies masturbation fodder.

"I don't think masturbation is a bad thing," she adds. "If you want to be a model and you're going to be naked, what do you think the reaction is going to be? The distinction is not between porn and erotica; it's between good porn and bad porn."

Those involved all agree that progressive porn fills a gap for those whose notion of what's sexy falls outside the airbrushed images of the mainstream. Yet there are those who wonder whether some of what's called progressive only dresses up accepted norms with different clothes and a hip feminist attitude.

This question has especially plagued Suicide Girls. Drawing 750,000 visitors every week, it's the largest Web site in the alterna-sex spectrum. Its critics charge that its range of alternatives is limited: Tattoos proliferate, but excess body fat is scarce.

"Some of my models had applied to Suicide Girls and were turned down, and I assume it was because of their size," says Lexi, 29, whose not-for-profit Voodoo Dollhouse site spotlights more Rubinesque women. "I wanted something that resembled me and my friends and would show how larger girls who don't fit mainstream ideas can still be sexy."

Lux maintains that a site touting itself as "progressive" has to go beyond featuring models with mohawks and body piercings. "Suicide Girls blew it open and brought this trend to the forefront," she says. "But do they go far enough? To me, no. They don't do much to challenge mainstream standards of beauty."

Missy Suicide, 26, disagrees. "There is a range of shapes and sizes. You just have to look around. With over 330 girls, there's going to be someone similar to the women looking at the site. There are plenty of girls who don't fit into the Playboy shape."

Others question whether a medium that focuses on women as sex objects can effectively escape the mold of patriarchal pornography. It's a new chapter in a feminist debate Lynn Chancer, author of "Reconcilable Differences: Confronting Beauty, Pornography and the Future of Feminism," has pondered for years.

"It depends on whether they're just repeating objectification or doing something new," she says of alterna-porn. "It seems these sites are mimicking, or reiterating, larger feminist sex-versus-sexism debates over whether beauty norms are really so repressive. It's hard to entirely avoid the influences and images with which one has been burdened from birth on, but it's possible that there's a little more freedom on a site where women are trying to appropriate objectification for their own purposes."

Says Missy Suicide, "Sex and sexuality is nothing for a woman to be ashamed of, but for a long time it felt that way, even in feminism. It's that old attitude that anytime you take your clothes off you're being objectified or exploited. I think the women on Suicide Girls are brave in saying, 'I'm confident, I'm intelligent, and I don't have a problem sharing my sexuality with the world. This is what a real body looks like, and it's beautiful.' This is what should be celebrated."

Alterna-porn pioneers argue that being viewed as a sex object can be liberating as long as those objectified control their own images and are presented as something more than naked skin. Suicide Girls prides itself on drawing a hip, college-educated demographic that crosses sexual boundaries -- 57 percent male, 43 percent female, according to a recent survey -- and includes high-profile fans such as Courtney Love and Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl. The site maintains a zero tolerance policy regarding misogynist language on its message boards.

The owners are also realistic about their inability to control how visitors view their pictures or interpret their message. They recently received a crash course in archaic attitudes when Suicide Girls inked a three- month licensing deal with Playboy.com that included posting a weekly set of pictures on the mainstream site. Playboy. com members responded to their nontraditional aesthetic with shock and disgust; Suicide Girls flocked to the Playboy site's forums to give the unappreciative males a few choice words on alternative beauty.

According to Olivia Suicide, 25, Suicide Girls' San Francisco-based programmer, "It was a successful experiment. It shook things up over at Playboy. The models rumbled with the mean people, and they managed to change some minds. And show them that we're not just faceless models. You have to show me some respect."

Other site owners hope that Web surfers who come to look at porn will leave with an altered perspective. "People come for the nudes, of course," says Dr. Menlo, 34, who runs the Sensual Liberation Army Web site (Drmenlo. com/sla) with his girlfriend, Pagan Moss, 30. "But we try to combine the best of sexual causes with the best of progressive causes. Hopefully some of the progressive political links will have an effect, or at least open up people's minds."

Whether opening people's minds will translate into profound socio-sexual change is another matter. Some surfers might enjoy watching Cerah solder, but millions more pay to ogle Pamela Anderson-style models strike submissive poses. Alterna-porn pioneers differ in their opinions over whether they'll continue to occupy a countercultural niche or make inroads into the mainstream porn market.

Menlo is optimistic. "I think this is the way porn is going to go. Things from the subculture usually affect the mainstream. The stigma is gone from porn."

But Olivia Suicide isn't so sure. "When you get out of your little bubble and into the real world, this is not mainstream. I hope it does become mainstream, though."

For Voodoo Lounge's Lexi, it's the act of opening doors to alternative experiences that's important. "Since the site was put up, I've noticed that there are a lot of people who don't like Barbie," she says. "To be cheesy, beauty is in the eye of the beholder."

SuicideGirls Gone AWOL
By Randy Dotinga - September 28th 2005.

Talk about piercing the veil.

A group of angry ex-models is bashing the SuicideGirls alt-porn empire, saying its embrace of the tattoo and nipple-ring set hides a world of exploitation and male domination.

The women are spreading their allegations through the blogosphere, raising the hackles of the SuicideGirls company, which has until now enjoyed a reputation as porn even feminists can love. It offers burlesque tours, clothes and DVDs in addition to a sprawling online library of naked punk and goth women.

"The recent accusations are a little upsetting," said "Missy," the co-founder of SuicideGirls. "We think they're all pretty much unfounded."

According to the site's critics, about 30 SuicideGirls.com models have quit in disgust over the past few weeks.

Anti-SuicideGirls blogs: http://un-pink.blogspot.com/ and http://www.livejournal.com/community/sgirls/

Despite their resignations, their photos remain on the site, minus their ubiquitous SuicideGirls online journals.

It's hard to measure what impact the exodus will have. The site's 75,000 photos of nearly 800 women -- punkified naked men known as SuicideBoys only get a tiny chunk of bandwidth -- probably face a much bigger threat from the federal crackdown on porn. On Saturday, SuicideGirls announced that the site was taking down a number of photo sets -- "blood-bathing beauties, rope-bound babes and handcuffed honeys" -- because of the threat of prosecution.

Still, the woman-friendly reputation of SuicideGirls is being battered. Since its creation in 2001, media outlets have lauded the company's focus on goth, indie and punk models who aren't necessarily big-busted and bikini-waxed. "It wasn't the first alt-porn site to come along, but it was certainly the most widely promoted and probably the most influential," said John d'Addario, editor of the porn blog Fleshbot.

The message of business-side female empowerment hasn't hurt either. "The perception that women had an important/equal role in the administration of the site probably made it more attractive to some people who might not have visited a porn site otherwise," d'Addario said.

Two of the ex-models say they were attracted by the empowerment message, too. "I liked that you had a journal and voice, you had the chance to make your own (photo) sets," said "Dia," a 30-year-old former model who doesn't wish to be identified because she now works outside the porn business in Northern California.

"I looked forward to making great art," added Dia, who has unsuccessfully tried to get her photos off the site.

She and other models say that contrary to its image as a women-run operation, SuicideGirls is actually controlled by a man -- co-founder Sean Suhl. They accuse him of treating women poorly and failing to pay them enough. (According to the site's FAQ, SuicideGirls models get paid $300 per photo set.)

"The only reasons I'm doing this and I'm sticking my neck out is that people, especially females who are 18 years old and want to be a SuicideGirl, need to understand who they're representing," said 28-year-old ex-model Jennifer Caravella of San Francisco, who said she goes by the name "Sicily." "It's certainly not a group of women who are working together for this."

Not so, according to Missy. "I don't think that's a really good argument," she said. Suhl "co-founded a site that is about the appreciation of women. The majority of the people in the office are women. He deals with women every day."

As for the charges of exploitation, she said models get plenty of opportunities to promote their own bands and "artistic endeavors."

So what's going on? "A few girls," she said, "are spreading rumors and lies."

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