Porn devours punk – the commodification of (another) counterculture aesthetic

Punk began as a reaction to mainstream culture; defining itself not just by its fast, discordant music, but also by its politics. Punk rockers oppose dominant, capitalist mainstream lifestyles. Bands like Discharge, The Germs, Millions of Dead Cops, and Crass, took a stand against the status quo, not just with their shocking names, but with their lifestyles as well. Bands and punk rock fans alike, often went to great lengths to show their opposition to mainstream music and lifestyles. From starting squats in abandoned buildings to putting together benefit shows against animal testing in laboratories, they believed in the tenet “do it yourself,” or DIY. Besides making music, many punks were involved in promoting equality for all people, and doing so in the face of big business.

Since the first mainstream American feminist movements, in the 1960s and 1970s, pornography has been a subject of contention between people who view any kind of pornography as another form of capitalism and patriarchy working to keep women trapped in exploitative relationships, and people who believe that erotic performance can be utilized as a tool to encourage a healthy enjoyment of sex in the face of oppressive mainstream cultural views of sex and sexuality. Regardless of what views you take on the issue of porn, it is an undeniable fact that pornography makes a lot of money, and that the largest pornography business are run by men who are more interested in making money than in changing our society’s perceptions of sex and power. According to one report, Americans spend around $10 billion a year on the (legal) sex industry. What happens when punk rock aesthetic meets up with pornography’s money machine on the internet?

Part of a new kind of internet porn claims to have brought porn and punk rock together at last. Sites like Suicide Girls, Burning Angel and SuperCult profess to combine mainstream visual erotica with subculture looks and ideas. How successfully they do this, however, is a question that remains in the forefront of many people’s minds. What’s empowering about a new aesthetic in porn? Is it possible to broaden mainstream standards of beauty, and would punk porn help? Can punk porn maintain any of its radical ideals or is it just a niche market?

Porn on the internet reaches all the markets of porn viewers, from people who look at Playboy to “hardcore” porn buffs. Many social activists and other feminists believe that porn is “not so much about sex per se as about male power exerted against females.” The creators of “alternative” porn sites say that they are reclaiming porn for women, using punk rock DIY ethics. They say that by providing a space for women who are pierced or tattooed to make porn, they are encouraging the societal acceptance of kinds of beauty that are not seen in mainstream porn. But in a world where you can find any kind of porn you want on the internet, from “all redheads” to “biker girls” to “latina ass,” are photos of naked, tattooed girls so subversive? These proprietors are exploiting a lifestyle without making anyone feel uncomfortable about the political implications of punk.

A few of the sites like Suicide Girls and Burning Angel are run by women, which is unusual in the world of internet porn. The creators claim that their sites celebrate female sexual freedom. In an interview Spooky, one of the founders of Suicide Girls, stated that “These girls are not being paid to play the part in member’s fantasies, they are being paid to be themselves.” Under the premise of letting the viewer “really” get to know each model, the girls write entries about their fantasies, their favorite foods, and what music they like to listen to, some models even keep a daily online journal. This seemingly “subversive” personalization of their porn profiles actually started in mainstream porn as a way to develop the girl next door fantasy. By providing “true” information about a model, the viewer will feel more connected to the model, and then pay for more images of her. And, by giving the model the impression of empowered autonomy, the site owners are able to pay less per model than in mainstream porn. This pretext of intimacy isn’t subversive—it’s good marketing.

Embracing at least part of the DIY idea, many of these sites don’t employ professional photographers. Rather, they encourage the girls to take pictures themselves and then upload them to their profile page. While the models get to pick what sort of photos they want shown, it really just lowers overhead and increases profit. And, like all pay per view porn sites, punk porn offers “teaser” pictures for free, encouraging the viewer to pay with a credit card to see full nude shots. While models on Suicide Girls and other sites have some creative say in their photos, they do not get paid as much as models for other sites. Instead, a mystique had been built around these “punk porn stars.” There are Suicide Girls and Burning Angel parties held frequently in major cities around the US, and each profile has a place where viewers can rate the model. It may seem that punk pornography must be liberating to the models who, since they don’t make much money off of it, must do it for the love of posing naked. However, I don’t think that this is actually the case. In my encounters with models, both in real life and on their websites, the models and owners of the sites did not seem to get involved as a reaction to dominant porn, or as a way of turning the ideals of beauty and feminity on their heads.

Punk Porn sites claim that they are presenting images of women who are nontraditionally beautiful. Sadly, there is little truth to the claim. The sites are all run similarly, using a screening process to find and approve models that fit into some beauty standard. Even if not all the models on SuperCult are blonde with DD cups, they all fit into the “normal” category of body types. On all these sites, I have not seen one obese woman, only a few women who were discernibly not white, and no women with visible physical disabilities. If, by showing women with a few tattoos, the creators of these sites believe that they are really blowing open mainstream beauty ideals, they should probably reevaluate. If they want a captive audience who will pay for pretty young women who look alternative, they’re doing it right. There’s also another problem. Defining beauty by a market, means that one can only be beautiful if the market agrees. It’s just not possible to sell social change, because the problem of capitalism persists.

Regardless of the spin that owners put on their punk porn sites, it’s still work that women do to pay the rent or get through med school or whatever, and there are still tons of men fantasizing about women they’ll never sleep with.

Since the advent of corporate “punk” tours like the Warped Tour, and shops like Hot Topic, the “punk” aesthetic has really taken off in mainstream fashion and music. With pop singers like Avril Lavigne and Ashlee Simpson showing how sexy and non-threatening punk-looking girls can be, it is easy to see how they have made punk rock look appealing to the very people it is actually revolting against. Rather than providing a site that is truly DIY and really does show all sorts of naked punks, these websites have simply adopted the aesthetics of punk, running a corporate machine underneath. Suicide Girls recently joined forces with Playboy. And, while at first they claim they were receiving many letters about how unattractive their models were, because they were so “alternative” looking, the members page now features a “Suicide Girl of the Week.” Websites like Suicide Girls, Burning Angel and SuperCult may provide a specific kind of aesthetic to the viewers, just as “hot asian chicks” websites or “young white trash” magazines do, but they are not actually punk. They might present images of models with tattoos or piercings, but the sites themselves do not have anything to do with the social concerns that punk rock often embodies