Conversation with Tristan Taormino, creator of the reality-porn series "Chemistry"
What timing! Just as Chris was reviewing Rober Jensen's newest anti-porn treatise I was talking with Tristan Taormino about her most recent addition to her "reality porn" series, Chemistry 3 . We thought it would be interesting to expand our discussion of pornography, widening it to include our community here. We'll start with Tristan Taormino and see where we go from there!
To get us started, I emailed Tristan a set of questions, mostly about the making of her newest addition to the Chemsitry series. Those questions and her answers are posted below. Please feel free to leave your own questions and reactions in the comments. She'll be checking in regularly to participate in the conversation.
Some background: Tristan Taormino has published several books on sex, anal sex for women being one of her main topics. She produces the Chemistry porn series (which features a group of performers in a house with no script or direction, so they determine their own scenes) and has consulted on a wide variety of film projects, specializing in the representation of sexual minorities. She even consulted on Spike Lee's 40 Acres and a Mule. Her work has been featured in a variety of mainstream press outlets including The New York Times, Cosmopolitan, Out Magazine, The Advocate, Men's Health, Salon.com, Nerve.com, Redbook, Playboy and Penthouse. (One wonders how common it is to be featured in both Redbook and Penthouse!). You can find her online at PuckerUp.com.
Elizabeth Wood: How did you come up with the idea for the Chemistry series?
Tristan Taormino: That probably goes all the way back to my days as Editor of On Our Backs. When I directed photo shoots for the magazine, they were always a collaboration with the models. We mostly shot real-life couples, and we wanted to know what kinds of things they wanted to do, and we'd capture them. I am also a reality TV junkie, and that has had a big influence on me. So, I was really interested in creating an environment for porn performers where they could feel safe and comfortable, and they'd be in control of who they have sex with, when, where, and what they do. For me, this part of the process is about empowering the performers to participate in their own representation—to challenge the anti-porn notion that all porn performers are exploited objects. Plus, I find it much more interesting to watch them doing what they like, rather than telling them what I want to see. In between the sex scenes, I do extensive interviews with them, and lots of viewers have told me that they really get a sense of the performers' personalities, which is my goal. I want people to see them as the fascinating, three-dimensional characters that they are. The performers have a lot to say about what they do, why they do it, what they like and dislike, and how it affects different aspects of their lives. Again, the interviews are a conscious choice: I am not interested in sex robots fucking, I want to see people fucking.
EW: How do you choose the performers for each episode? Do the performers have any influence in the selection process?
TT: The performers have all the influence! Casting Chemistry is like a puzzle. I usually start with one or two people in mind. I get in touch with the first person to see if she is interested (it's always a woman). I ask her for her "No" list—this is standard in casting; each performer has a list of people they won't work with. Then, I ask her for a "YES" list: who are the performers you love to work with, the ones you have chemistry with, the people who top your list, and who are the people you've never worked with before, but are interested in working with? From that "YES" list, I cast the second person. Then I ask performer #2 for the same lists. The final person is the most difficult to cast, since his or her name needs to be on most (if not all) of the other people's lists. So, going into the shoot, I know that the cast is what I call "sexually compatible." In that way, it's not like reality TV, it's not a random group of strangers.
EW: How important is it that each performer fit a different kind of image? For example, in Chemistry 3 you have a goth/alternative woman, the petite blonde ultrafeminine woman, and a defensive/assertive African American woman. I have a harder time distinguishing the men, though you have one who is into tattoos and domination, and one who doesn't shave his head or his body hair. When choosing performers do you pay a lot of attention to how much diversity you've got? And is diversity in terms of appearance more or less important than diversity in sexual inclinations?
TT: Diversity is very important to me, but only in one sense: there are performers of color in every volume of Chemistry. But beyond that, I really choose performers who are enthusiastic about the project, opinionated and articulate, and interesting. I don't see it in terms of aesthetics or archetypes like those you listed. In fact, it was interesting how you characterized each woman, because I don't see them that way at all. Roxy DeVille actually talks in the movie about how people assume she's goth because of the way she looks, but she doesn't identify with goth culture at all. To me, I love Roxy because she presents a different version of femininity and female sexuality than "typical" porn stars. She even mocks the sort of sex kitten people expect her to be, one of my favorite moments in the film. Hillary Scott, the blonde, is really shy and introverted but when she starts to have sex, she transforms into an uninhibited exhibitionist. Jada Fire, an African American woman who has been in the industry for almost ten years, is very complicated. Yes, she can be assertive and guarded, but she's also very honest and gets into a submissive headspace in her scene with Steven. To me, the men are all very different from one another. Steven is a veteran and he's really into the psychological aspects of sex, getting into the heads of the women he performs with. Derrick talks a lot about dominance and rough sex, and what it meant for him when Roxy turned the tables and got rough with him. Christian is super laid-back, Mr. Go-With-The-Flow, and he genuinely loves his job.
EW: I think it is in an "extra" scene but I recall seeing you sitting on a couch with a clipboard that had what looked like a chart of pairings on it. How much "managing" do you do on the set?
TT: It's sort of like controlled chaos on my set the first day, everyone jumps right into it, and the crew can hardly keep up. In the morning on Day 2, I sit down with everyone and go over what/who they've already done (that's the chart you saw), and ask them what they might be thinking about for the coming day, so I can have an idea what to expect.
EW: How much do performers get paid on your projects? How does that compare to other work in video porn?
TT: The performers get paid per scene whatever their rate is; in the industry, performers set their own rates depending on activities. So, performers aren't paid more on my set than other sets.
EW: Pay aside, what do you do to ensure the best possible working conditions on your projects? How would you say that working conditions on your projects compare working conditions on other projects? (And speaking of conditions and pay, how do conditions and pay for photographers, technicians and others compare on your projects and others? Those are folks we hardly ever hear about.)
TT: Creating a safe, positive working environment is at the top of my priority list when it comes to making porn. I follow industry standards in terms of STD and HIV testing protocol: each performer must have a valid negative test results that are less than 30 days old. They always have the option of using condoms. I make sure that anywhere they want to fuck is clean and safe. I bring my own sheets, and change sheets between scenes. I encourage them to bring/use their own sex toys and make brand new, in the package, sex toys available to them. I have their favorite lube on set. I ask in advance about food and beverage preferences, and anything they request—within reason—is given to them. I shop at Whole Foods and am known for having the best food on my sets. I figure, if I am going to ask them to fuck all day, they should be well hydrated and nourished. And not with cold fast food on the catering table. I never ask anyone to do something they don't want to do or pressure anyone to do something. I treat everyone with respect and make it known that it's all about them for these two days. I can't speak about working conditions on other sets, but I can tell you that many performers tell me that mine is the best production they've ever worked on, one of their favorites, etc. It is incredibly rewarding to hear from performers that they feel relaxed, they don't feel pressured, and they feel respected and cherished when they are on my set. My crew is AMAZING and every person has been with me since Chemistry #1 with the exception of the makeup person. The days are longer and harder for them than a typical porn day, because we are shooting so many hours and often running around trying to catch up with spontaneous sex scenes. But they tell me consistently that they appreciate working for me because they see that I am trying to do something different. They look forward to my sets because they know they will learn something new about performers they work with all the time (during an interview), and the mood will be spontaneous and fun. I hope my work ethic, enthusiasm, and commitment to respect is contagious to those around me.
EW: One critique of porn is that it is all about men's pleasure and not about women's. A different critique that I'd love to explore is that, at least in terms of visual representation, porn is not about men's pleasure at all. It makes sex look like a lot of work for men, where it makes sex look like lots of pleasure for women. What's your sense of how your porn portrays sex and pleasure for men and for women?
TT: I feel like lots of porn represents male sexuality as hard, aggressive, and robot-like, and female sexuality as merely a vehicle/receptacle for men's pleasure. To me, a lot of porn does a disservice to men and women, and I want my porn to be different. The first thing is that in my movies, you can *see* the men. I try to give them equal space in the frame—literally. Visually, in the majority of porn, men are literally CUT OUT of the frame, and they are reduced to an erection only. We never see the rest of their bodies, let alone their faces while they are fucking. I love to see an expression wash over someone's face as they experience pleasure, and for men, those images are never included in scenes. We also never hear from them. Men are rarely allowed to speak, some are even told to not speak; in my movies, I give them equal "talk" time in the interview segments. One of the complaints I hear a lot from female performers is that they are not given time to reach orgasm, because when things start to heat up for them, the director calls for them to change what they are doing. I let performers pace themselves and never tell them to stop what they are doing, and I find that it leads to more real female orgasms, which are still lacking in a lot of porn.
EW: There are a lot of standard features of mainstream porn that come to seem pretty repetitious. Audacia Ray has called this the "pornula" and has written about how it can be frustrating but is also to large degrees an artifact of the limitations on making and marketing porn. One such feature is the cum shot. When you started putting porn stars together without a script how much did they deviate from the standardized "pornula"? (One example I can think of immediately was from a scene in Chemistry 3 where the man in the scene came without pulling out and ejaculating on the woman he was fucking. How unusual is that? It seems like it would make the sex more pleasurable for the men involved. Also, what other deviations from the standard do you see in Chemistry 3?
TT: have a big sit down with all my performers at the beginning of Day 1 and I tell them, "Forget everything you know about porn. Forget everything you've learned. Forget the formula: cunnilingus (if you're lucky), blow job, position 1 for 2 minutes, position 2 for 2 minutes, position 3 for 2 minutes, pop shot." But it's difficult. They are professionals and they do stuff automatically: they get into weird positions that don't feel good but look good for the camera and they don't stay in one position for "too long". So, my goal for Chemistry is for as much as possible to deviate from the formula. I shoot scenes where there is intercourse, then oral sex, then intercourse. I shoot so-called "internal" cum shots and—this is a HUGE no-no—scenes WITHOUT cum shots. I shoot scenes where performers stay in one position for a long time. I shoot scenes where sex toys cover the pussy, a cardinal sin. I shot a scene with Jack Lawrence and Dana DeArmond in Chemistry 1 of just cunnilingus and Dana's orgasm; Jack did not even take his clothes off—unheard of! I've shot men receiving anal pleasure in Chemistry 1 and 2, which is usually relegated to strap-on niche movies only. As for the internal cum shot in Chemistry 3, usually the only time you see these are in “niche” movies dedicated to them, creampie movies. Steven wanted to come inside her, Roxy really trusts him and said yes (internal ejaculation obviously puts a female performer at greater risk for STDs or pregnancy). They talk about it later in an interview, and Roxy says she did it because it was Steven, and doesn’t do that with just anyone.
EW: I enjoyed some of the extra scenes. How did you decide what scenes to put into the video and what ones to leave as "extras"? For example, there was a scene where Roxy demonstrates how she rinses her vagina before a sex scene. There was something very charming about the way that she explained what she was doing, but also about the fact that someone in the background asked her why she would bother, since there is nothing wrong with vaginal secretions as they are. She responded that it was a "professional courtesy." That made me wonder what other kinds of "professional courtesies" porn performers extend to one another.
TT: That scene is a funny one. Well, there are all sorts of rituals that go on before a scene starts. Most women douche. Roxy douched with water, although I think most women douche with the liquid that comes in a pre-packaged douche. If there is going to be anal sex, women do an enema. I think the most fascinating thing about interactions between performers is their negotiation process, which almost always happens off camera. I try to capture as much of it as I can. I think this is especially apparent in the scene with Jada and Derrick, where he starts to get rough with her, and she tells him to slow down and relax. It's an interesting moment, like hearing someone say "No" in porno, which is rare.
Photo provided courtesy of Tristan Taormino.