Cynical, Bitter, Jaded as Hell. Also Naked.
It takes only a couple of keystrokes to refocus your browser from your average fake-breast-fetishizing porn site to Suicide Girls (www.suicidegirls.com), but it take even less time to notice the difference between the two. Sure, the façade is similar: "Naked girls!" screams the Suicide Girls header, while a prominent message extols visitors to break out their credit card to check out the good stuff hidden from guests. But then there are the girls, who resemble Jenna Jameson like Frank Black resembles Frank Sinatra. Peering from the page are the kind of women you're more likely to find at First Avenue than at www.fucksluts.com: mostly skinny, mostly on the believably breasted side, and mostly (heavily) tattooed.
In fact, the women on display at Suicide Girls look a lot like the indie-rock chicks you'd expect to see at a Strokes show but never thought you'd get to see naked. Look further through the site and you'll find fervent music-dork discussion boards and tour info, and lots of journal posting, where, for instance, one model worries rather endearingly about her recent kidney checkup. Suddenly, Suicide Girls starts to look less like regular porn, and more like--well, more like porn for people who cry to the Smiths but ain't gonna let that get in the way of a little sumpin' sumpin'.
Or perhaps, as these sites would have it, they're not even porn at all. After all, you'd be hard pressed to find the word anywhere on the site, or for that matter on any of the slew of websites, such as Friction (www.frictionusa.com) and Supercult (www.supercult.com), that are joining Suicide Girls in retooling the online adult industry for the hipster set. Yes, each of the sites builds upon an age-old porn framework, offering monthly memberships (ranging from $6 to $10) that buy you access to a selection of softcore girlie photos. Yet the emphasis is ostensibly less on meat-market maneuvers and more on old-fashioned indie-rock community spirit. On these sites, naked pictures are only the beginning. Friction includes columns, poetry by a professor at Chicago Wesleyan University, and a chance to meet (and possibly pose for) the photographer as he heads on tour with his group Minus the Bear. And on the more community-minded Suicide Girls, each photo portfolio is accompanied by a journal where women discuss their feelings with SG members.
"I am: queer white female," writes Eve, a slender, pouty-lipped 19-year-old who name-checks David Lynch and Chuck Palahniuk and looks a tiny bit like Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein. "Blue/green/grey eyes, newly black hair. a student, a wanna-be writer, cynical and bitter and jaded as hell. bored. very bored."
Not that community guarantees anyone the response they're looking for. As one somewhat less romantic member replied, "Hmmm...you'd be perfect except for the aspiring lesbian thing."
But don't worry--these sites know that talk only gets you (off) so far. There are tits aplenty for the less conversational-minded, though chances are those tits belong to a girl as handy with a vintage 8mm film camera as she is with a webcam. From the more badass stylings of Suicide Girls to the mod posturing of Supercult and the cutesy tone of Friction, there's a naked girl for just about every hipster sensibility. A quick sampling of popular photo spreads includes a Scandinavian cutie named Kendra enjoying naked Cheerios, a playful threesome of pink-panty-clad young nubiles, and a punked-out and multi-pierced indie girl lounging with her collection of ultra-desirable clear-vinyl 12-inches. You can almost see the perennially heartbroken Lou Barlow quaking in his cardigan, and it's not hard to imagine the source of his confusion. When the hell did indie rock get this goddamn sexy?
¬ Of course, alternative sexuality in 2002 is not exactly revolutionary. Popular sex columnists and activists like Dan Savage and Susie Bright, and webcam pioneers like Jennifer Ringley (www.jennicam.com), have long since brought frank sexuality out of the brown bag and into the popular consciousness. And the Internet quickly realized that a female-friendly take on male-dominated porn could be a seriously profitable venture. Cake (www.cakenyc.com) has taken its "entertainment for women" (read: women-centric sexual shenanigans in swank New York clubs) from homespun enterprise to the pages of Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone. Meanwhile Nerve (www.nerve.com) has been peddling its brand of literate smut since 1997, blending erotic fiction, reporting, and photos with phenomenally popular and sexually charged personals (the same ones that currently grace the City Pages website). This service has almost singlehandedly transformed the personal ad from the last resort of the desperate to a new kind of status symbol for the sexually aware--and, while you're at it, a great moneymaking scheme for Nerve.
Which points to the fact that Suicide Girls isn't so much an offshoot of some kind of emo-porn phenomenon (as a past issue of Spin put it) but rather just a good example of the classic free-market tenet: Where there's a market, there's a way. After all, sex sells, even (especially?) if you bundle it with the DIY aesthetic, a connection to the punk and indie-rock community, and a liberal dash of personal weblogging. In fact, Suicide Girls is only one facet of a market presence that has quickly cottoned on to the fact that Will Oldham aficionados can be just as horny as regular people. Check the phenomenal success of the Internet meeting spot called Make Out Club (www.makeoutclub.com), which brought overt sexuality to a culture not known for brazen sexuality. (Just a few years ago a band named Hefner, of all things, could sing, "I don't want to get laid, I just want to be held in your arms" on their debut Breaking God's Heart.)
Missy, the petite, blue-haired, 22-year-old punk rocker who cofounded Suicide Girls in April 2001 as a joint enterprise with friend Spooky, openly admits she was emboldened by many of these pioneering sites. "We were inspired by what Make Out Club was doing in terms of hooking people up with each other, but [we] didn't want to be one of the typical porn sites that dress up strippers in striped tights and black lipstick," she explains via e-mail. Since Suicide Girls' inception, she has seen the company expand to a core staff of five full-time employees and a cadre of 81 women posting photos.
"[I wanted] a place for members to find girls from their scene who are proud of their bodies and not afraid to have some fun showing them off," she says. "Members can look at pictures of a model, then compare Dashboard Confessional set lists and talk about the crisis in the Middle East."
Indeed, for Missy, the profit margin is only one part of the equation. In Missy's eyes--and the eyes of many members--Suicide Girls is more than simple pornography, because the power is vested not with the credit cards but rather with the Suicide Girls themselves. "The Suicide Girls pose how they want, in what positions they choose, wearing whatever clothes they choose, and showing as much as they want to show," she comments. "For all intents and purposes the models choose the images of themselves they want on the site. They aren't just bodies on the site, but whole people who leave an impression of who they are in [the members'] minds." (The models are paid the industry standard--around $200 an hour.)
And the site ostensibly practices what it preaches. When Dia, an SG model, mused on the discussion board whether a photo session featuring sex-toy penetration was too risqué for the site, one member proposed a vote to decide whether the images should be posted. But other members soon jumped in to nix the idea, deeming it contrary to the model-empowered morals of the site. "Whatever the girls are comfortable with is OK," surmised one member, though another was less polite in restating the Suicide Girls ethos: "Fuck the members! That's the whole point. It's gotta be all about the girls."
Some indie rockers have lined up behind Suicide Girls as a feminist alternative to traditional pornography. "I think the women who pose for punk porn sites are brave, and I applaud them for doing what they think is sexy," says Amy Schroeder, founder of the feminist-themed Venus magazine, which has championed the likes of the Butchies, Le Tigre, and Tara Jane O'Neill.
Jessica Hopper, editor of punk zine Hit It or Quit It and founder of promotional company Hopper PR, concurs: "Because the stuff is girls of their own volition, or girl-on-girl queer porn, it seems that there is a freedom inherent in it. The sites seem geared toward women. Plus, if punk dudes want to rub to punk chicks, it's nice to have realistic options--some cutie in horn-rimmed glasses talking about her favorite bands, books, that she's vegan, that she's 5'4" and 140 and covered in tattoos. Those girls are icons in [the] context of rebel beauty--dreadlocks, flat-chested girls with big butts and homemade Jawbreaker tattoos--[and they] are being sexually appreciated, rather than scorned and degraded."
The pro-woman vibe of the site is especially important to Missy, who proudly points out that the last Suicide Girls poll revealed that their membership is split 49 percent female and 51 percent male. (That said, a quick sorting of the online member database, dividing by male and female search categories, draws up the rather more average result of 15 percent female and 85 percent male.)
One wonders, however, if the personal and empowering touches of the site may present as many potential hazards as they offer variations on the pornographic experience. The Suicide Girls e-mail system, which allows subscribers to contact girls via anonymous messaging, sounds great in theory but worrisome, perhaps even dangerous, in practice--what with some of the girls barely old enough to have escaped their teens. Bailey Maxwell, a 22-year-old SG model, admits that the blurred lines between girls and members admit potential trouble. "I worry, and I know Missy and Spooky do too, that the girls are too trusting of the members because of the strong sense of community the site has," she writes by e-mail. "I try not to post too much personal information on my journal.
"There have been a lot of Suicide Girl/ Member parties happening all over the country, and I'm guilty of attending a couple. Suicide Girls party like rock stars, of course, and another girl and I were being totally silly and pretending to give a member a lap dance. Of course the cameras come out and the next day there are dozens of photos of her and I all over the guy. What no one saw is the fact that we were laughing hysterically the whole time, talking about how people were going to take this the total wrong way. So we project that image, you know? And one night's fun could end up being a lot of harm to a girl down the road because members may come to expect that sort of behavior at every SG event, or think the girls are trashy enough to not mind a stranger fondling them. I feel guilty for helping to convey that image and I worry that some of my SG sisters won't be as smart as I was to know enough to not get too crazy."
A more essential criticism, however, remains: Does the fact that the women control their photo shoots make any difference to the fundamentally problematic relationship between viewer and viewed that lies at the heart of all pornography? Minneapolis-based multimedia artist and musician Ana Voog, who helped invent a brand of personalized adult content on her site www.anavoog.com, remains unimpressed with sites like Suicide Girls. "From what I have seen, there isn't much difference [between Suicide Girls and regular pornography]," says Voog via e-mail. "It's still the same old boring 'money shot' and still geared for men rather than women. And, frankly, I think the sex looks just awful."
Others remain similarly skeptical. As one correspondent on the intellectually minded weblog Metafilter (www.metafilter.com) writes, "I have no problem if people want to run a business this way, or post pictures or do whatever the hell they want to do on or off the Internet. I just wish they understood that objectification occurs even when the participants are willing."
Still, whatever else Missy may be, she's first and foremost a businesswoman who has cannily uncovered a profitable niche in a largely flat Web-porn market. "My friends and family have all been very supportive [of the site]," says Missy. "My parents even bought a membership." To rephrase Calvin Coolidge, the business of America is nobody's business.
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