In the first issue of Things & Ink, Christina Owen explored the politics surrounding the relationship among tattoos, femininity, and the workplace. The article is an honest insight into how tattoos affect the assorted professions of a variety of women. Personally, I am yet to experience this type of workplace discrimination, primarily because I don’t have a job. I also don’t consciously associate my tattoos with my sex, sexuality, or gender. But I am aware that, unfortunately, vestiges of religious and patriarchal ideologies still permeate the gaze of many, dismissing the right of women to control their own bodies. (In the same issue, Alice Snape, editor of Things & Ink, responding to the Metropolitan Police department’s decision to ban visible tattoos at work among its employees, lamented their desire to promote what they called ‘consistency’). Therefore, in a way, a woman getting tattooed could be viewed as an act of rebellion against received notions of femininity.
Tattooed bodies, regardless of gender, sex, sexuality, or aesthetic, are modified works of art, and works of art are inevitably appraised and conclusions about them drawn. Once inked, women are especially exposed to judgements cast from the hoi polloi concerning their sexuality and character. For instance, I’ve been in social situations where the appearance of a woman with visible tattoos elicits lascivious murmurs of a more aggressive tone than usual. Commonplace are statements like, ‘I’d fuck the shit out of her,’ or, ‘I bet she loves it rough in the arse’. I’ve also heard, on several occasions, correlations being drawn between tattoos and sexual promiscuity. The link is about as appropriate as miniskirts legitimizing rape. These disparaging preconceptions might be seen as a meek attempt to ‘take’ the woman’s autonomous body through unsolicited vocalized fantasies of violent sexual acts: she defiantly claims her body for herself, and in their ignorance these troglodytes urgently self-soothe back to their version of normal—that she exists for their erections.
In view of these discussions of femininity, sexuality, and visible tattoos in the workplace, I became interested to see whether women’s bodies are treated differently when they enter a profession that’s already a hotbed for contentious views on sexuality and feminism: the alternative porn industry.
A place where you’re more likely to find actors with body modifications, this sector also distinguishes itself from the mainstream by building an online community of members as well as models in an attempt to encourage varying degrees of interaction between the two.
Initially, I turned to the ‘adult lifestyle brand’ of ‘alternative female models’ called ‘Suicide Girls’ with the intention of interviewing some of them, but they pride themselves on being ‘pin-up’ and not porn, so I ultimately had to research elsewhere. But Suicide Girls caught my attention for several reasons. It’s interesting to note that www.suicidegirls.com is the most financially successful alternative
porn ‘pin-up’ website. Created as an another option from the mainstream’s obsession with ‘silicone enhanced Barbie dolls and the incredible shrinking starlets’ (these are skinny people, apparently), founder Missy Suicide wanted a space where women could reclaim the right to their bodies in porn ‘pin-up’ by allowing them an active role in the presentation of their sexuality. Their motto reads:
Suicide Girls is an online community that celebrates ALTERNATIVE BEAUTY and indie culture from around the world… Our community carefully chooses the most unique, beautiful women from those submissions and invites them to join our sorority of badass bombshells and geek goddesses. We consider ourselves the sexiest, smartest, most dangerous collection of outsider women in the world.
Suicide Girls celebrates tattooed women. But does the site offer the consumer a true representation of the varieties of tattooed women that exist in reality? Their pithy description could be read as a proscription against anything outside of the binary of badass or geek. When asked why they use the term ‘Suicide Girls’, Missy responded:
People no longer define their identity by the subgenre of music they listen to. ‘Suicide Girls’ seemed like a good way to describe the girls who projected confidence and individualism, whose staunch refusal to conform [to society’s standards of femininity] equated to social suicide; girls who dye [their hair] by their own hand, and whose [music on their] iPods are as diverse as they are.
Projecting confidence and individualism equals social suicide? Perhaps taken at face value that sounds like an overstatement, since we’re none of us characters from Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. But even in 2014, as this article mentioned at the beginning, there is a powerful impulse to ‘put women in their place’ (a variation on the Georgian-era ‘cutting’ of people socially?) that can be seen in contemporary social situations.
However, expecting Suicide Girls to be impervious to the same facile presentation of women they are supposed to be reacting against is unrealistic—after all, they are a corporate ‘pin-up’ site. These ‘alternative’ models are presented in exactly the same way as are non-tattooed women in the mainstream industry: like products to be placed on shelves; in this case, merely populating the ‘tattooed’ aisle of the megastore. Alternative porn actress Joanna Angel once articulated this by saying, ‘Suicide Girls is the McDonald’s of alt porn’, which encapsulates it neatly. In any case, I realised I needed to find the porn equivalent of my local organic whole-foods store in order to find tattooed women represented as real women, not some badass or geeky outsider cliché with a diverse iPod.
While I sat in a government-furnished straight-backed chair, I admired the image of her finger adroitly penetrating her anus. ‘I like anal fingering, and I like anilingus: they’re really easy things to do.’ The topic of conversation seemed to bellow incongruously against the majestic walls of the State Library, as did the website I was glancing at. ‘But I think it’s quite shocking to have something going in your anal passage,’ she continued, ‘if you’re not expecting it.’ Sitting directly in front of me, basking in a shaft of sunlight, was Liandra Dahl, pornographer. Newly arrived back in Melbourne from the Berlin Porn Festival, where several of her films were screened, she agreed to meet me to discuss the politics of tattooed bodies in pornography and the burgeoning industry of independent alternative porn. She also let me touch her boobies.
After sharing my sceptical thoughts on Suicide Girls with her, Dahl commented that even though we may not agree with the portrayal of sexuality in the mainstream, ‘people who work in those situations should be supported and not dismissed, because their experiences are still valid, and their choices are still valid, even if we wouldn’t make those choices ourselves’.
As a purveyor of a brazenly divergent type of porn, she recognises the diversity needed in pornography:
I wanted a truer representation of the broadness and diversity of female bodies, such as older women or tattooed women being visible as the ‘girl next door’ and not stereotyped as painted harlots or bad girls. Tattoos have become a niche in porn. Porn tends to do that to humans. Well, humans generally do that to themselves. We put things into categories and separate them. We compartmentalise each other, our lives, our bodies, and our sexualities. So heavily tattooed people, especially women, are going to find it harder to get work within the mainstream adult industry. Some people won’t [film] me now, though they did before I was more heavily tattooed. It’s not usually because of the director’s tastes but about their concern for the audience they want to reach. I’ve found that since becoming heavily tattooed I get cast more as a dominant woman, or even a bit of a predator! I suppose that’s not a million miles from the truth for me, but I know many girls with tattoos who are demure, and tattoos are no indication of temperament or personality.
At this point no director is going to cast a tattooed woman in a ‘good girl’ role in porn films or in any other film genre really. But I think that will change. Sixteen years ago, when I was seventeen and I got my first tattoo, I got a lot of ‘shock and horror’ responses about girls with tattoos from my peers. That kind of reaction is not common now. Tattooing is becoming prevalent and viewed as an art form, so having a tattoo won’t mean you’re stereotyped culturally for much longer, and that will be reflected in porn. Especially since the democratising force of the Internet is levelling the industry. Anyone can make and distribute porn these days. I like that. I like diversity.
As a university student, single mother, and salacious extrovert, for Dahl the high pay, low hours, exhibitionism, and sex offered by the porn industry had her at high pay. But even when working with websites that pride themselves on making ‘real, natural, and ethical representations of female self-pleasure’, she encountered images of female sexuality that were, she believed, restricted. Her website, www.liandradahl.com, was conceived out of a frustration with these sexual limitations and representations. The kinds of women they’d show, the exclusion of tattooed women, the degrees of gender of women, as well as what versions of female sexuality they were willing to represent did not, in Dahl’s opinion, fulfil the dictum of her employer’s site: ‘real women having real orgasms’. Instead of representing truly authentic versions of female sexuality, she found herself being asked to pander to male desire and instructed to avoid anything deemed threatening to the fairly conservative heterosexual, male members.
Liandra’s films break down the segregation of bodies, genders, and sexualities. She tries to achieve this on her site by including performers of all gender identities, all sexualities, and all body types: ‘I want a big melting pot where you don’t know what you’re going to see next’. Her site espouses an activist, philosophical approach to sex, endorsing sex positivity and promiscuity devoid of shame and sexual stereotypes. There are people who are gender transitioning or transitioned, people with cosmetic enhancements, people who make no modifications at all, and plenty with tattoos.
It’s not the end of the fucking world if porn segregates people into niche markets, but it’s not a reflection of my world or my tastes. My attraction to people isn’t determined by gender, body type, colouring, or modifications. It’s about individuals and how they put all that together.
Unfortunately porn, like most mass media, is slow to reflect the diversity and potential of consumer desire. It’s not that tattoos are unfairly stereotyped in most porn, it’s that most porn unfairly capitalises on all stereotypes. This concise means of delineating character, done on the basis of appearance, should be understood within the conventions of genre rather than as attempts at realistic portrayals. We are more often than not subjected to the predilections of unimaginative, sexually provincial men. However, entrepreneurs such as Liandra continue to challenge essentialist limitations by presenting heterogenous bodies, including tattooed bodies, in a manner faithful to each individual’s nature.