Trouw: An interview with ethical porn filmmaker Jennifer Lyon Bell
Thank you so much to Dutch newspaper Trouw and journalist Rufus Kain for this great Dutch feature article on my production house Blue Artichoke Films in today’s edition of Trouw: “Her Amsterdam film studio pioneers erotic films that revolve around empathy and diversity.”
I appreciate how Rufus touched many of the topics I care most about, including my longtime academic interest in sympathy/empathy/morality, my feminism, and my love for gentle clumsiness between people attracted to each other — a clumsiness that I think is more beautiful than elegance.
One of my favorite quotes, sharing why I think my teaching and workshops are part of a bigger mission got me:
“She also wants to make a positive contribution outside of her films. ‘I give workshops in which I teach people how to make their own erotic films. Most people won’t actually ever do that, but still it’s valuable to explore your ideas about sex and learn how sexual representation works in movies. Most people have never had media training, and our sexuality is strongly influenced by what we see in movies and magazine ads.’ Erotic films are a medium for Bell to broaden people’s view. ‘I think it’s good not only to focus on your own little life, but to develop a broader perspective. That’s difficult if you keep seeing the same images over and over again. I’d love to help make a difference in that, however small, and I feel extremely privileged to have found this area of activism. This is what I was born for, so I have to do it. ‘“
Special thanks to photographer Maartje Geels for the *gorgeous* photo.
Ethical porn filmmaker Jennifer Lyon Bell: “Clumsiness is more beautiful than smooth sex”
Jennifer Lyon Bell: “I’m not opposed to the standard menu of mainstream pornography, but there are many people with different needs.” (Image Maartje Geels)
From racism and piracy to child abuse, there’s a lot wrong with online porn. That could be better, thought Jennifer Lyon Bell. Her Amsterdam film studio pioneers erotic films that revolve around empathy and diversity.
By Rufus Kain February 9, 2021, 11:09 AM
Chris slides uncomfortably in his chair. He’s nervous. “You know what’s going to happen,” he explains, “but you don’t know what it will be like.” What’s going to happen is a woman he doesn’t know will come into the room to give him oral sex.
But all that happens off-screen in Headshot (2006), the debut film by ethical pornographer Jennifer Lyon Bell (51). All the viewer sees is Chris’s face. As in her later work, it is not the act, but the experience that is central. Although the American-Amsterdam filmmaker doesn’t shy away from spicy, no-holds-barred sex scenes.
“A common misunderstanding about women is that they only want to see romance,” says Bell. “People can enjoy all kinds of emotion regardless of their gender. The common denominator – whether you are mild or kinky – is that you want a character to be moral and good at the core. ”
Morality and porn; that may sound contradictory. But while studying film science, Bell learned that the two concepts are psychologically linked. “When we believe someone is good, we care more about what they feel. As a result, we move more quickly into their pain, their joy and their pleasure. ”
Feminist doesn’t mean the movies are just for women
Still, we hear more about the immoral side of porn. In December, Pornhub (the YouTube of sex) hit the headlines for child pornography and other illegal material. That was reason for an ethics committee in Pornhub’s home country of Canada to investigate the porn giant. But in everyone’s haste to ward off such malpractices, people tend to overlook erotic films, says Bell. “As a result, little attention is paid to ethical alternatives that place gender and sexuality in a different light.”
The most famous ethical pornographer is the Swedish Erika Lust, who made her debut in 2004 with her feminist porn film The Good Girl. Bell is also in awe of the Danish filmmaker Goodyn Green, who focuses on the LGBTQI+ community. And then there is Bell’s own production house, Blue Artichoke Films.
Where Pornhub earns from advertising around millions of cheaply made videos that users upload for free, Blue Artichoke produces short films that it rents and sells for 5 to 15 euros each. Blue Artichoke has only made seven films (the latest, Wild Card, was released in December 2020), but they often win awards, including at the Canadian Feminist Porn Awards.
Feminist doesn’t mean the movies are just for women. “Half of our viewers are male. The films are intimate, but also exciting and surprising. They just aren’t made from a typically male perspective. We aim for diversity in terms of genders, body types and actions. I’m not against the standard menu of mainstream pornography, but there are a lot of people with different needs, and I want to show those people that there’s nothing wrong with them. ”
Paying cast and crew fairly is difficult in a world where free is the norm
Behind the scenes, Blue Artichoke applies a number of ethical rules. It’s often difficult to find out on porn sites whether the people in a video have given permission to post the recordings online. “For me, it’s crucial that everyone agrees beforehand and during filming with what we make, and feels good about the end result.”
The end result also sometimes goes wrong in the industry. Last summer, around the Black Lives Matter protests, a number of black porn actors reported they had been lied to in the past. Scenes in which they had acted appeared with racist titles, and their marketing was also racist.
Finally, Bell believes it is important to create a safe environment for actors (for example, the use of condoms) and to pay both cast and crew fairly. That may be difficult, in an industry dominated by Pornhub. “I’m not competing with other indie filmmakers, but with free porn. Why should consumers pay? I struggle with that, because I understand that a lot of people are not well-off at the moment, but films don’t make themselves.
“The pressure to produce extremely cheap porn means that many companies can barely spend time or money on actors. Most of the major studios are either near bankruptcy or owned by Pornhub’s parent company, MindGeek. ”
Since anyone could post videos on Pornhub until recently, much was uploaded illegally. That means piracy – “We often have to have our films removed” – but also worse offenses. Bell was not surprised when The New York Times wrote in December that there were films featuring minors on Pornhub. “Various organizations have been pushing Pornhub for a long time to remove that material. The only thing that surprised me was that a single article caused Visa and Mastercard to withdraw their partnership with Pornhub and keep those credit card companies firm, even as Pornhub deleted millions of videos. ”
“Porn and Pornhub are synonymous for many people, while in fact porn has never been one single thing”
From now on, people are not allowed to post videos on Pornhub until they have identified themselves with a photo of themselves and a valid ID. This is a significant step for the industry, because although the problems that plagued Pornhub are still unabated at other sites such as xHamster, XNXX and the Dutch Vagina.nl, Pornhub is the largest outlet.
“It’s so big that porn and Pornhub have become synonymous for many people. While the truth is that pornography has never been a monolithic thing, ”says Bell. “At events I speak to Blue Artichoke enthusiasts who were looking for something different. It has grown into a community. I think that is the added value we offer in a world of disposable pornography. ”
Bell has no qualms about discussing the dark side of the porn industry. “Identifying and eradicating injustice is extremely important.” But she sounds even more passionate when she talks about the kinds of movies she makes. “Smooth sex scenes leave me cold. Clumsiness is much nicer; I like the tension when people don’t yet know exactly what’s going to happen or how it’s going to happen.”
She also wants to make a positive contribution outside of her films. “I give workshops in which I teach people how to make their own erotic films. Most people won’t actually ever do that, but still it’s valuable to explore your ideas about sex and learn how sexual representation works in movies. Most people have never had media training, and our sexuality is strongly influenced by what we see in movies and magazine ads.”
In addition, Bell would like to make sex education films. “Lately, more and more small film studios are making educational films that are sexy at the same time.”
Erotic films are a medium for Bell to broaden people’s view. ‘I think it’s good not only to focus on your own little life, but to develop a broader perspective. That’s difficult if you keep seeing the same images over and over again.
“I would love to help make a difference in that, however small, and I feel extremely privileged to have found this area of activism. This is what I was born for, so I have to do it. ‘“
Who is Jennifer Lyon Bell?
Before becoming an ethical pornographer, Jennifer Lyon Bell had a career in the advertising world. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Harvard University, she worked as a consultant to explore the psychological connection people have with products.
Even then she knew that erotic films were her real passion. “It might help that I’m from San Francisco, where a lot of sex-positive feminism started. My parents were ethical when it came to sex, but also open-minded. ” She just couldn’t see a way to make it her job.
That changed when her partner, also a brand strategist, was offered a great job in the Netherlands. “In 1999 we moved from San Francisco to Amsterdam. Instead of rebuilding my consultancy practice, I enrolled in a master’s degree in film science at the University of Amsterdam. I told them the truth: That I wanted to learn to make engaging erotic films. ”
That was a bit of a challenge for the administration. “I don’t think anyone had written a master’s thesis on porn before. But they saw that I was taking it seriously. I focused on cognitive film theory. What happens in the brain when you see certain images? When do those images take on meaning? What do you need to know about characters before you start to care about them?”
She learned about the psychological link between empathy and feeling someone else’s arousal. And also about how you generate that empathy. “By focusing on facial expressions, for example. Minutes-long shots of penetrating body parts aren’t necessary; faces provide much better information. ”
When Bell started, there was no alternative porn movement yet. So she had to invent the wheel herself. It later turned out that feminist pornographers in other countries were also working on it around that time. “Many of them came up with roughly the same working method behind the scenes. But I think the style of Blue Artichoke films is completely mine. ”