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Australia‘s Nationwide Attempt to Make Porn Ethically

A thin, scruffy man sits in an armchair in a bright, sunlit room. He’s watching something the viewer can’t yet see. “Sometimes in a relationship you need to shake things up a bit,” he says via voiceover. His facial expression vacillates between happiness and lust before the camera turns to reveal a man and woman on the bed opposite him, kissing and touching each other lightly. Soon, the woman gives the narrator an inviting look, and he joins the action. Over the next six minutes, a montage of bisexual sex acts follow — ranging from oral sex to double penetration. The camera lingers on the intimate glances they exchange, and their facial expressions as they come. The short film, Trinity, ends with the woman leaving the two men at home together — the reveal being that they were the couple who wanted to “shake things up.”

Trinity, which has screened at four film festivals and won awards at three of them, is shot with natural light and doesn’t shy away from stretch marks and body hair. It feels low-budget, yet it’s set to a gorgeous score, beautifully shot and masterfully edited by Ms. Naughty, an Australian pornographer who self-identifies as ethical. On her website, BrightDesire, she reveals that Trinity was cut down from more than two hours of footage (though there’s a longer version available to members of her site). She also reports that the scene was proposed and co-directed by the performers themselves. And while it was made by an Australian pornographer and is lauded by other Australians as one of the best examples of Australian porn, it was shot in Berlin with an international cast.

Technically speaking, porn-makers Down Under are all outlaws, meaning they keep their operations small. They’re often one- or two-person operations who shoot on shoestring budgets and rely on creative solutions to perennial problems. The result is often artistically made, but relatively low-budget indie porn like Trinity. Also like Trinity, a lot of it is made ethically — i.e., with the comfort, consent, desires and input of the performers held in high regard.

Of course, the real challenge is disseminating it. Porn isn’t illegal in Australia — it’s fine to own and to consume it — but the laws around its production and distribution are largely considered the most restrictive in the Western world. According to Jarryd Bartle, policy and campaigns advisor at Eros, Australia’s longest-serving adults-only industry association, “Production [of porn] is illegal in all States and Territories, except for the Australian Capital Territory,” a small, yet cosmopolitan area encompassing Australia’s capital city of Canberra.

Depending on how the material in question is produced, distributed or exhibited, punishment can range from a simple government-issued takedown notice to a $215,000 fine and/or 10 years in prison. Although porn laws are rarely enforced and apply primarily to — as one producer put it — “the meat world” (as opposed to cyberspace), Australian porn producers tend to keep their heads down both online and off. “Most Australians get around [the laws] by shooting elsewhere and editing elsewhere and then uploading to international servers,” says Morgana Muses, a 52-year-old porn star, writer, director and producer.

Still, it’s a risky business. In 2009, for example, the offices of AbbyWinters.com, a successful porn company out of Fitzroy, Victoria, was raided by Victoria Police and brought up on charges of child pornography (a charge that was later dropped) and 54 counts of making objectionable films for gain and for possessing a commercial quantity of objectionable films. Ultimately, the charges against the company’s CEO were dropped, but AbbyWinters.com summarily relocated to the Netherlands.

Distributors and sellers of porn DVDs, too, must keep a low profile. Once produced, says Bartle, “Depictions of real sexual activity can only be sold in the Australian Capital Territory and Northern Territory.” These two areas, vastly removed from each other geographically, are far from the cultural centers of the country. In fact, the Northern Territory boasts less than 1 percent of the Australian population across its desolate, nearly 5.5-million-square-mile expanse. Yet, it’s where most of Australian-made porn films are mail-ordered from — since it’s only one of two places it’s legal to do so (the Capital Territory obviously being the other).

In large part because of these laws, escorting and brothels are larger industries in most of Australia than porn. In fact, some prominent porn stars and producers got started doing other types of sex work before stepping in front of the camera. “By the time I shot my first-ever porn scene, I’d already been a prostitute (my preferred job title) for 12 years, and a sex worker peer counsellor and low-key advocate for six years,” says Madison Missina, perhaps Australia’s biggest porn star.

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“Once I moved to Australia, I started escorting,” adds American Kim Cums, a performer and one-half of the team behind KimCums.com, a small online porn company. “Through that, I was offered an opportunity to be in a porn film. I did a couple scenes and absolutely loved it!” That said: “If starting up a porn site had been our original intention, starting one in the States would’ve certainly made a lot more sense and been a lot less of a hassle.”

Part of the push for ethical porn is to end that hassle. “I think that if we, as an industry, focus on trying to make ethical, good-natured porn, not coercive, sexualized violence or porn filmed in public spaces, that we will mostly be okay,” Missina says.

The word “ethical” when applied to porn production is definitely malleable — depending on which ethical practices a producer chooses to champion. Missina, for instance, brings up the difficulties around safer sex practices and STI testing in the Australian industry. “In Australia,” she says, “performers are asked to show up to set with printed-out test results, but often it’s months between shoots.” That means the tests aren’t always up-to-date, and according to Missina, they “can be faked in numerous ways.”

Similarly, Missina won’t shoot without condoms anymore, but she says, “I’ve had many producers who publicly claim to make ‘ethical’ porn refuse to shoot me with condoms.”

“No company ever gets this 100 percent right,” says Michelle Flynn at Light Southern Cinema. “The most important part about our ethics is full disclosure from the moment you start having communications with a performer.” From the start then, Flynn sends as much information as possible in writing before every shoot so performers can make informed decisions about what they end up doing on camera. “On set, it’s about creating a safe and comfortable environment for people to do their jobs. I make sure that they know they’re in charge of the shoot,” she continues. “It’s mostly common sense and treating people with respect.”

Cums, who worked with several of the larger companies in Australia as a performer before she began producing for herself, says, “The majority of my experiences with companies have been positive, and their shoots have been run ethically.” Only one company, which she said “tried to claim that what they do isn’t porn,” gave her pause. “Downplaying the fact that your performers are actually engaging in porn may attract performers who aren’t truly ready to face the stigma associated with working in the sex industry.”

Her negative experience, she says, led to her “writing a full brief to each performer that I shoot with,” including shoot dates and times, a list of items to bring, how much they’ll be paid, what to expect on shoot day and details of the scene itself. “I want to give them every detail I can think of in advance because I want them to be able to veto anything they aren’t comfortable with and not feel pressured.”

There are a few notable exceptions to the small, indie Australian porn paradigm — most notably Aussie Ass, whose very-Australian work is easy to find at their website or on PornHub. Aussie Ass didn’t respond to an interview request, but its website is a slick affair that mirrors big mainstream companies like Brazzers. And there’s a lot more content on it than, say, KimCums.com. And its videos are the most popular blatantly Australian porn available on free porn sites — e.g., its scene, “Friends With Benefits — Fucking Her Tight 18 Year Old Pussy in her Own Bed” has nearly 6 million views on Pornhub. But while its online footprint might be larger than most Australian companies’, Aussie Ass is beholden to the same rules as their smaller counterparts: And so, they’re not technically an Australian company. Instead, they’re owned by a parent company, TMC Media Group, which has its business address in Delaware.

Back in Australia, the government’s eSafety Commissioner, Julie Inman Grant, has expressed interest in replicating recently passed British legislation that requires age-verification software on all porn made in and viewable to the U.K. Along the same lines, several of the pornographers I spoke with noted that they were wary of recent moves toward more conservative values in their government generally.

All the while, Aussie pornographers have to do battle with the same free streaming porn tube sites that have hobbled the American industry — an exhausting task for one- or two-person companies. “I’m pretty burned out,” Ms. Naughty told LifeHacker in May. “There’s a huge learning curve ahead of me, and a large part of me doesn’t have the energy for it.”

Flynn at Light Southern Cinema, however, believes this is mostly frustration talking and that the “amazing work” of Aussie pornograhpers isn’t going anywhere. In fact, she cites Ms. Naughty as one of her biggest inspirations. “Ms. Naughty produced one of the sexiest threeway scenes I ever saw in her film The Fantasy Project,” Flynn gushes. “Overall, everyone here brings something of theirs to the table. That’s what really sets Australian pornographers apart. We have such an eclectic mixed bag of fucking great content that frankly the world needs!”