This story is part of Prism’s series on sex positivity and the arts. Read the rest of the series here.
Warning: Some photos featured NSFW.
In the mid-2000s, porn was going through a seismic shift. Technological innovations like cheaper cameras and widespread high-speed internet had begun to upend the industry. Suddenly, being a pornographer was cheaper and easier than ever. Before, you needed a distribution deal (or a whole lot of money) if you wanted to get your film in front of a substantial audience; now all you had to do was grab a camera, post a video on the internet, and wait for the cash to come rolling in. Filmmakers who’d previously felt shut out of the adult industry suddenly had a way in, and a flood of female, queer, POC, and other marginalized voices began to re-envision what porn could look like. One of those voices happened to be Shine Louise Houston.
Houston didn’t originally intend to be a pornographer. As a film student at the San Francisco Art Institute, she assumed her career would take her along a more traditional path. But after graduation, she began working at local sex toy boutique Good Vibrations. As she helped customers navigate the store’s selection of porn movies, she realized that her talents as a filmmaker could help more consumers find erotic films they could connect with—particularly consumers who, like Houston, craved erotica from the point of view of someone who wasn’t white, straight, and male.
In 2005, Houston directed The Crash Pad, an award-winning film about a clandestine apartment-turned-queer hookup spot, which quickly inspired a web series with the same concept. Fifteen years and over 300 Crash Pad episodes later, Houston’s production company, Pink & White Productions, has become a mini-media empire, with multiple features and a video on demand site, PinkLabel.TV, which provides consumers with access to a wide variety of queer, feminist, and independent adult films that can be difficult to find elsewhere.
When we chatted over the phone, Houston told me that she hopes to take on a “grandpa role” within her corner of the industry, providing emerging filmmakers with all the advice and resources she wishes she’d had all those years ago. As the COVID-19 pandemic utterly upends the porn world, leaving filmmakers scrambling to figure out how to shoot safely at a time when even casual contact feels incredibly dangerous, there’s very little that feels certain about the future of porn. But Houston plans to remain a part of the industry—and hopes her expertise and insight can continue to help build a safer, more thoughtful, and more diverse adult industry in the years to come.
Our conversation has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.
Lux Alptraum: What’s the distinction between queer porn and porn that is made by queer people?
Houston: It’s still queer porn even if I’m shooting a straight couple. If we’re talking about gaze, there’s no way to take that lens off when the camera is being operated by somebody who is queer or of color or just in general non-white.
Alptraum: Traditionally we’ve had “girl on girl,” which is shot by straight men. You can have sex that is queer, ostensibly, but when it’s shot by straight people, does that still count as queer porn in your book?
Houston: I guess it would depend. It depends on what their style of shooting is, how much autonomy they let the talent have. It happens all the time: You have a straight director and two women who really are queer, but it’s the same performance. Some directorial styles are “you have to do this, you have to do this, and you have to do this,” because we’re getting a certain market. Even if the talent is queer, it still looks like [a generic “girl-girl” porn scene].
If we’re talking about queer porn, then we’re talking about a slightly different performance. Some of the same acts can be in that performance, but the juxtaposition or the context in which those acts happen within a scene are a little bit different. Maybe it’s about the autonomy of the talent.
Alptraum: Do you feel like it’s about authenticity?
Houston: Don’t get me on my soapbox about authenticity. That is a complicated word. Who’s to say what’s authentic and not? Who gets to grant authenticity? When we’re talking about performance, what’s authentic? So much of this shit is constructed, let’s get rid of the word authenticity, especially when we’re talking about film. Especially when we’re talking about constructed identities. I’d rather leave that term out of the conversation.
If we’re talking about performances—I appreciate an honest performance.
Alptraum: I’m still trying to work through what makes something queer—it does feel like one of those “I know it when I see it” things. Maybe it’s porn that’s in conversation with the established, heteronormative tropes.
Houston: Things that undermine the norms. Things that subvert, to use an overused word. You can do these things, but you have to be able to flip it on its head. You can do an interracial scene without it being fucked up and racist. You can flip it on its head while still giving your audience what it wants.
Alptraum: That leads into another thorny concept: What does it mean to create ethical porn?
Houston: Let me get on my soapbox again. Here’s my spiel: I don’t like the term “ethical porn” because it presupposes that everything else is unethical. But I understand it as a marketing tool. If you’re going all the way back, there was the women’s market, the couples’ market, feminist porn, queer porn, independent, altporn. You have all these words that are trying to differentiate themselves from what people consider the monolith. Once again, it is a tool to distinguish oneself from certain styles. But I don’t like the term because it throws a lot of the industry under the bus. A lot of the industry does really awesome work.
I just don’t like this term “ethical.” People who are working in the smaller subgenres of the industry that are supposed to be the “good guys” can totally be assholes. You can have people in the “mainstream” who are wonderful. There are good and bad players everywhere. In every industry.
Alptraum: What was interesting to me was that when I first heard people talking about “ethical porn,” it was because feminist porn had been co-opted to be about what was going on onscreen and not about how performers were being treated. So people started talking about ethics, but then at some point when I wasn’t paying attention, ethical porn became a superficial term about what people were watching on camera.
Houston: We’re dealing with fantasy. For some reason, people cannot have that moment of suspension of disbelief when they’re watching porn—well, some people can’t. If you’re watching Marvel Universe movies, you’re not like, “Oh my god, did that person actually get blown to bits? That’s horrible!” You don’t because you know how to watch the movie. You know what happens behind the scenes. But for some reason people can’t get beyond this with porn. I think it is because the way porn has been marketed for decades is about realness and authenticity, which comes back to bite the industry on the ass. If you are doing a very hardcore scene, if it’s all real and authentic, then that is actual, real harm that is happening.
It’s problematic that people can’t do this suspension of disbelief.
Herzog says there are no bad ideas, just poor execution. If this is just another film genre, then it’s the same thing. I’m not going to censor anybody’s fantasies, but what I do want to see is artist responsibility. Take really sensitive and explosive matter, and handle it in a smart and conscious way.