I recently spoke with Kelsey Obsession — porn performer and producer, emerging sex educator, and sociological colleague — about GIF porn… and why it’s not the ethical feminist utopia Cosmopolitan magazine, et al would like you to think it is

Portions of our conversation contributed to a recent piece I wrote for Mic.com (here), but there was no way to address everything Kelsey raised. As such, I am sharing the rough cut of our correspondence below. 

There is much to learn about this subject — Enjoy!!

DrCT: Tell me about the problems with GIF porn…

DrKO: The main problem with Tumblr GIFs is that they frequently lack watermarks — which every porn producer absolutely always puts on their work, particularly in this age of piracy. If a watermark were present, the source would be clear and we could all go on our merry way.

Yet most of these GIFs are not created by the porn companies themselves, but rather Tumblr users. Often there are no watermarks — because the user cropped the watermark out of the image. What is particularly infuriating is to see a GIF watermarked with the Tumblr username of the person who created the GIF — NOT the company or person who created the content.

Kelsey Obsession

(pictured: Kelsey Obsession)

Linking back to the source is a commendable attempt to address the piracy issue (as is the offer to remove any content known to be violating copyright). However these source links typically go to other Tumblr blogs, including those who place their own watermark on the image, rarely to the original site itself. Without any watermark, performer names, or links there is literally no way to find the original scene and pay for it. Many of these GIFs have a huge amount of “notes” (likes and reblogs) — I [am looking at one] right now with 24,655 — even if 0.5% wanted to pay to watch the scene, that represents over 1200 customers. Let’s say the sale of that scene (whether purchased individually or part of a membership) netted the company a mere $5 — that’s potentially $6,000 from one post. Multiply that by how many GIFs there are on Tumblr, and it adds up VERY quickly.

One could also make an argument about the namelessness of GIF porn. What’s interesting is that certain strains of feminists have long made the argument that porn turns women into sex objects for male use, and that this perpetuates a broader dehumanization of women and a denial of their own personhood. I clearly don’t agree with these arguments, of course. But what’s interesting is that by naming the actors — at least listing their performer names in the text portion of the post — this turns them from mere bodies humping to real live human beings. Humans that, more often than not, have social media accounts where one can actually interact with the “objects” of desire, thereby removing them from pure object status. They have breakfast, pets, and favorite TV shows, just like the viewer. Now, I do not believe the same feminists that equate porn to objectification to dehumanization are the same ones celebrating Tumblr GIFs, nonetheless, I believe it helps men to see and relate to women as humans, which I believe benefits women on the whole.

There is certainly a comparison to be made with tubesites, who are also profiting from others’ content. The one pseudo-positive thing tubes have done, however, is to at least allow producers to become “content partners” and link directly to the source site to earn a profit from the minority of viewers willing to become paying customers. Most my colleagues in the industry find this insulting, yet it is a necessary evil for many of us to brand and get traffic to our sites.  With content partner accounts, at least our brands and links are in front of the viewers eyes, as are performer names. It is relatively easy to find the scene to pay for it under this model, even while I find tubesites to be disgusting and unscrupulous, I appreciate this element has developed — as it has not with Tumblr.

I do not see how profiting from anyone else’s work could possibly be feminist, or politics aside, anywhere near the realm of human decency. The amount of labor and capital it takes to create a porn scene is something few understand outside the industry. Depending on the company, a producer may be paying for models, [STI] testing, makeup artists, wardrobe, props or toys, location fees, videographers, photographers, lighting people, video editors, and graphic designers, to name a few. They must also market the scene and the website overall to drive those Tumblr GIF-makers to even find out a scene exists. Whether the GIF creators pay for the scenes they bastardize is unknown, but the image quality appear substantially better than tubesites, so at the very least it seems they are working from a sellable video (not a tube video). Many people working behind the scenes are also women and people who have families, and this directly affects their livelihood as well.

DrCT: Why has “free” somehow become equated with feminism in the sense that paying for things is often considered antithetical to feminist ideals (and, on the flip side, expecting payment for one’s work, counter to feminist principles)?

DrKO: One could disagree with the philosophy of capitalism, but that does not negate that we live in a capitalistic society. We all need money to live, and therefore we must pay one another for the goods and services we offer.

I think that free, in this context, is appealing because it means one can enjoy erotic content without feeling guilty about supporting the porn industry, which is potentially or actually gross in many people’s eyes. This is bolstered by the way GIFs can isolate those sensual or intimate moments, which while sexy, can allow the viewer to imagine this is a fully consensual act everyone is doing solely of their own accord (i.e., not for money).  Clearly many people enjoy pornographic content while they feel uncomfortable with what they perceive to be a questionable at best, abusive at worst, industry. Yet instead of taking time to find porn created by models and producers who respect women, respect themselves, and enjoy what they do (which do exist, and not just in feminist or queer porn) — i.e., porn that fits the values many wish were reflected in the porn industry as a whole, myself included — they kid themselves by indulging in pirated content, severely limiting profits and thereby the possibility that “good people” can create “good porn.” I myself would have created a number of additional projects at this point in my career, emphasizing consent, communication, and true pleasure, if only the funds and potential profits were there. How can one create porn reflecting the values of feminists and those concerned with the welfare of adult models, if people are not willing to pay for it?

Kelsey Obsession 3

(pictured: Kelsey Obsession)

DrCT: What other things to people need to know about piracy as it relates to GIF/Tumblr porn?

DrKO: It is one thing if my content is out there, it is another to actively make money from it.  There have been other avenues (I won’t mention specific sites because they are still actively doing this and do not want to give them any publicity) I have witnessed my own content being directly profited from without my consent. It feels like someone is stealing directly out of my wallet. Watching for free is one thing — especially if I put my content out there, with proper watermarks and attributing model names, as advertising — but profiting from it feels like a huge violation.

I think the perception that the porn industry oozes cash is part of the problem. As porn has become increasingly mainstream acceptable, increasing numbers of viewers engage in piracy and I don’t think the public has any idea just how badly the industry has been hurt. Many companies have gone out of business in the 7 years I’ve been around, others have been sold to conglomerates actively destroying the industry via tubesites (aka Mindgeek, [formerly Manwin]).  There is a sense among viewers that there is no victim to this crime – though I doubt most even see it as a crime – yet falling profits have dramatically affected not only studios but performers.

The porn career has dramatically changed.  Where studios used to create stars, now we create our own brands and use that in multiple avenues. For many, that means personal sites (though far less profitable than 10 years ago), webcam (which is a lot more labor intensive than it looks, both emotional labor, as well as physical – women used to get a premium to stick anything up their butt, now models will do it in $20 cam shows), phone sex, dancing, escorting, and branching out into mainstream entertainment. Adult models have always had a variety of sources of income, but at this day in age many are barely making a middle class living, while others are flat broke. When I started in the industry in 2009, we’d have a good number of models whose primary job was being a porn performer.  Porn was able to sustain them, at least for a period of a couple years or so before moving on or expanding to other adult avenues. Today, porn is but one income source of many for the vast majority of performers. It takes a much stronger business mindset to be successful in this industry, while there are no shortage of people willing to get naked for money, doing a handful of scenes here or there is about as far as most will get. Nonetheless, the mainstream public often equates the porn industry with Hollywood and assumes we have similar levels of cash flow. I laugh when I see AVN compared to the Oscars, because while its the best descriptor for an outsider, the top Hollywood actors and actresses make many, many, MANY times more money than the biggest porn performers ever will. Many of those accepting awards won’t be able to pay their rent at some point in the coming months, unless they learn how to brand, market, find their niche and broaden their horizons. And most do not. They move on to “normal” jobs, where they may face discrimination and harassment based on their previous career choice.

DrCT: What first called your attention to these issues?

DrKO: I became aware of this issue when I started using Tumblr as a user myself. I followed a number of porn blogs and immediately noticed a lack of attribution to the original source. The first time it really mattered to me, I saw GIFs from a scene between Dani Daniels and [a male performer]. I loved it, so I tweeted and asked her where it came from. She replied with the site so I could find it.

I was annoyed, but nonetheless content enough to keep on scrolling and enjoying what I saw.  The turning point for me was when my company had four of our own blogs shut down by Tumblr in quick succession.  We were told they were closed for affiliate marketing (which is against Tumblr’s TOS). Yet the only content we posted were images and GIFs from our own videos, linking directly to the scenes on our websites, and the occasional reblog of (pirated, I’m sure) content we enjoyed that was relevant to each site.  We appealed and they allowed only one of our blogs to come back online, we were not sure why.  We created new blogs for the other three sites, which were shut down again within weeks. Finally, after trial and error, we discovered that our accounts would stay active when we only posted the image or GIF without linking to our website. Instead, we now list the website name, and scene name which includes model names, so the user can find it.  Nonetheless, the user must do more work to find what used to be an easily clickable link, which decreases the likelihood of an interested customer buying (Rule of business: the easier it is to find and buy your product, the more sales come in. People do not like obstacles, even simple ones like opening a new tab, typing in a URL and searching for that specific clip.) We lost dozens of hours of work, thousands of followers and it is more difficult for our customers to reach our websites.

The hypocrisy of seeing predominantly pirated GIF porn celebrated as feminist, contrasted with my company’s experience attempting to use the same portal to generate income for content we owned and produced, deeply angered me. It is not to say I don’t enjoy GIFs – I actually really do – I just want them to be shared in an honest and legitimate way.  Posting portions of books on a website without attribution is plagiarism, and few would agree in the name of free thought, we should disregard where the information came from or who created it.  At the very least, we should be able to find the source in a library, where at least an organization purchased the book, allowing us to both consume the original and for the author to profit from his or her efforts.  I wish we took the same level of care with all forms of media, including porn.

Kelsey Obsession 2

(pictured: Kelsey Obsession)

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Get Exposure: A Sociologist Explores Sex, Society, and Adult Entertainment on Amazon and CT.com

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