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Sex, Dreads, and Rock 'n' Roll

Article by Annie Tomlin, published in 2002; filed under Internet culture; tagged diy, porn, subculture, suicide girls, web, webcams.
Suicide Girls' live nude punks want to be your porn alternative

"People think I have the greatest job in the world," says "Spooky" Suicide. On any given day, he's busy coding, designing, or holding up the business end of his website. It doesn't sound too glamorous—until you realize that his site, Suicide Girls, is probably the best known in a growing trend in adult entertainment: alternative, independent web porn. Of course, amateur pornography is nothing new—the popularity of home videos and webcams have made it relatively easy and cheap to produce—but the average amateur site doesn't feature girls with baby-blue dreadlocks and septum piercings. As one Suicide Girls slogan declares, "We've kidnapped your daughter and given her a tattoo."

Though this kind of alternative web porn has gained momentum only recently, its roots reach back a few years—practically an eon in web history—to the mid-to- late '90s, when the popularity of webcam-based pay sites (especially Jennicam.com, which documents a young woman's home life in real time) suggested that people were willing to pay for a peek into someone else's life. The same era saw the launch of web-based magazine Nerve, which brought its thought-provoking self-described "literate smut" to audiences looking for a mix of essays, interviews, photographs, and community. All the while, increasingly affordable technology encouraged entrepreneurs to develop their own projects.

The eventual result of these trends is a variety of subculture-specific porn sites. In the mood for Day-Glo hair? Check out Raverporn. How about a straight-edge girl? Try Friction USA. Mods playing with Star Wars dolls? Head to Supercult. Most of these sites go beyond the standard naked-picture fare, offering not just erotic writing but also scene reports and record reviews. Others offer even more, with member profiles or—in the case of Burning Angel—interviews with punk bands, exotic-dancer union organizers, and pro-porn documentary filmmakers. There's no question that these "indie" porn sites stand out from the thousands of other salacious sites out there. Generally speaking, they're designed better and they avoid sleazy pornspeak. Instead of showcasing peroxide, stilettos, and silicone, their main features are piercings, tattoos, and dyed hair. You're more likely to find a self-described feminist anarchist gardener at these sites than a hot 'n' horny, barely legal teen. But are they really challenging the old guard, or is it just the same old boobs in a punk-rock bra?

Suicide Girls sprang up about a year ago, when Spooky and his friend Missy had grown tired of pornography that only featured pneumatic-breasted, big-haired women. Despite the abundance of adult websites, Spooky and Missy couldn't find any that featured punk, goth, and emo girls. So with Missy's photography skills and Spooky's technical know-how, they joined the adult entertainment world and started their own site. Now in its second year, Suicide Girls is the place to see girls with pink hair, girls with vivid tattoos, girls with plugs in their ears, girls with black lipstick (as with most porn, it's always "girls," never "women"). But it's not just nudie shots, says Spooky. "It's so much more than that. We have a community that gets traffic like you wouldn't believe." He points to the site's message boards, member profiles, chat rooms, and online calendar—all content generated by paying customers. Spooky seems happy that many of the site's members hold real-life gatherings, attend Suicide Girls burlesque shows, and even find dates through the site.

Along with the community offerings, the appeal of Suicide Girls lies in the girls' interactions with members. Each Suicide Girl has her own section, which holds her profile, photo sets, and journals. Members can leave notes for their favorite Suicide Girl, drop her an e-mail, or check in on what she's up to. Girls typically update their journals a few times each week (some more, others less) with whatever they feel like sharing.

Through the journals, photo sets, and message boards, it's easy to see that the Suicide Girls enjoy expressing their sexuality to an eager audience. The Girls look genuinely happy to be posing, and, says Spooky, "We hope to be cute and naughty instead of dirty and sleazy." In contrast to the often-degrading images of traditional pornography, the Suicide Girls call their own shots—literally. They choose the themes of their own photo shoots and control everything from the poses right down to the color of their thongs—making the site a genuine and refreshing example of women actively in touch with their sexuality without the trappings of shame or exploitation. Erotic filmmaker Candida Royalle, a former porn actress herself and a longtime champion of women's sexuality, sees the Suicide Girls' philosophy as part of a larger shift in societal attitudes. "The next generation of sexually empowered young women is definitely pushing the envelope even more than my generation," she says. "They're a lot more aggressive in proclaiming their right to great sex and freedom of sexual expression. They're not sugarcoating it at all."

And the goal of Suicide Girls and sites like it is to make these women more than just anonymous T&A shilling illicit online kicks for horny guys. In the offering of distinct personalities, the site stands out from mainstream adult sites and magazines. Sure, Playboy has always profiled its Playmates, but does anybody really believe that Miss March gets turned on by long walks on the beach? Conversely, the Suicide Girls' profiles and journals are believable. The profiles list their favorite bands, books, and movies, and if the format is meant to titillate, many of the girls insist on doing so at their own pace—as with those who finish the sentence "I lost my virginity..." with sassy lines like "but I still have the box it came in" or "and it sucked." The journal format is well used in porn to grant customers the illusion that they're being given a glimpse into the girls' personal lives; but at Suicide Girls, the journals are introspective and—as with one girl's story of being assaulted, or another's description of family strife following the death of her grandmother—often not erotic at all. It's a startling shift from fantastical reality to real reality. In these cases, the Suicide Girls are not only physically naked; they're also emotionally fleshed out.

But one major way in which Suicide Girls are not that different from their Playboy counterparts is that despite their tattoos, hair coloring, and creative piercings, they fall neatly within the confines of mainstream beauty standards. Imagine giving the varsity cheerleading squad makeovers at Hot Topic, and you wouldn't be too far off. Most of the models here (and on other indie-porn sites, too) are thin, white, and traditionally beautiful. Fat girls—hell, even average plump girls—aren't Suicide Girls, and with only a couple of exceptions, neither are girls of color. It's not that punk and indie scenes are devoid of these women, so their apparent exclusion from the site suggests that Suicide Girls and others aren't seeing the alternatives in "alternative." There's a certain kind of hypocrisy in a site that pats itself on the back for being "different," yet seems to equate that only with being different from others featuring blond Pamela Anderson manquŽs, a fact that Spooky himself admits in a recent issue of Punk Planet: "There is an idea of beauty that is just Western media, and it permeates how we choose girls as well. And that's where we may be failing."

So what are the site's creators looking for in a new model? "Someone who is attractive, who has a unique style, who has something interesting to say," Spooky says. "We want them to be interested in becoming a Suicide Girl for the right reasons. It's not going to happen if they just want a quick buck or to piss off their boyfriend." He adds that being a Suicide Girl requires a commitment to keeping a journal, not just a one-time photo shoot. But it seems to be well worth it for participants in search of a little naked notoriety: A house advertisement boasts of the "World-Famous Suicide Girls," and while the site is hardly a household name, the boast is more than mere marketing savvy. Becoming a Suicide Girl is a fast ticket to moderate celebrity, a sign that you're someone. The perks range from free show tickets and records to the more lavish: Courtney Love brought some models to appear with her on MTV, as did members of the Strokes. Whenever a new set of photos appears, compliments from fellow models and members follow. It's a near-constant flow of admiration and approval—something that many punk and goth girls have never heard before.

It's no wonder, then, that many women are vying to become part of the nude elite. Each week, a new Suicide Girl is introduced; most come from online applications. The number of would-be models is staggering: An average of 350 young women a week apply to become Suicide Girls. They send in a picture, explain why they want to join the site, and wait as Missy and Spooky evaluate the applicants. Of these hundreds of hopefuls, relatively few are considered. Those women then answer essay questions, get to know Missy and Spooky, and are perhaps eventually inducted. With all the essay questions and interviews, the application process is almost like rushing a punk-rock porn sorority. Many will apply, but few will be chosen. The irony is that punk and goth subcultures have traditionally been welcoming places for the social misfit; now there's a whole new level of weeding out the (un)desirables.

And there's always a fresh new face wanting to be more desirable than the last. In more than a few journals, models quietly admit to insecurities heightened by their involvement. They don't feel as pretty as the new girls—or, as one girl laments, being part of the site has "done a number" on her self-esteem. The initial rush of being a Suicide Girl—seeing yourself looking sexy, hearing others discuss your naked hotness, answering friendly fan mail—doesn't always last. For every Suicide Girl who feels validated and beautiful, there are hundreds left wondering why they didn't make the cut.

Suicide Girls also distinguishes itself from its more mainstream competition by staying fairly tame. "We won't do penetration or spread shots," Spooky promises. "We want to keep it on the R-rated or Playboy level." Yet a cursory look through the newest photo sets proves otherwise. In one, a redhead named Morgan licks a popsicle before spreading her legs for the camera. Another set features Sasha putting a vibrator in her vagina. When later asked about this discrepancy, Spooky says that he had no idea that such content was on the site. "Missy does not censor the girls," he explains. "Sometimes it's debatable whether something is a spread shot or not. The idea is that we never focus on requiring the girls to do something like this. If a photo is important to a model, that's why it goes up."

It's a convenient answer, one that seems full of female empowerment. In fact, that's the subtle message surrounding the site: Naked sisters doin' it for ourselves! And it's the fact that women have a say in the site's content that really sets Suicide Girls apart, even from other indie sites. "Are there any other sites where the models are as involved with what's going on with the site?" Spooky asks. But the models' creative input invites some other contentious questions: If the girls are writing journals, posting in message boards, and making decisions about their photo shoots, why aren't they making more money? Suicide Girls pays between $100 and $200 for each photo shoot. When you factor in the time the Suicide Girls spend updating their pages and participating in the online community, it's not a very good wage. Money is a touchy issue in the land of Suicide Girls. Spooky and Missy aren't living the Hefner high life, but the site does earn more than enough to cover their $10,000 in monthly expenses. So for all the talk of having models involved in running the site—and, to be fair, some Suicide Girls work full-time as html coders or in order fulfillment—it's a little disappointing that they aren't sharing in more of the wealth. Yes, Suicide Girls is a business, but since its owners insist that it's also so much more, one might expect its pay scale to be more progressive.

Spooky bristles when asked if he and Missy run Suicide Girls from a feminist perspective. "I don't consider us either feminist or antifeminist," he says. "I think that for some girls, posing for the site is a feminist act. The intention of us giving the girls journals is not to promote the idea that women have something to say, it's that we are interested in what they have to say...but not for a political goal." It's a sentiment echoed by Candida Royalle: "I don't see [Suicide Girls] as a feminist site, in the same way that people were quick to label my movies as feminist porn. The point is, not everything is black and white. Yes, the act of taking charge of the means of production and doing what we want is an act of feminism, but I don't think it necessarily means [the product is] feminist."

Royalle's comments perfectly capture the conflicts and ambiguities of Suicide Girls. Whether the intention exists or not, much of the site is produced in at least a slightly feminist fashion. Missy and Spooky do defy the stereotype of the exploitative pornographer, and the models have full control over their images. Everyone involved is overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the project because, they say, it differs from other adult sites. Yet despite the message boards and model profiles, the tattoos and the pink hair, Suicide Girls succeeds only in being a different-looking version of traditional pornography. It borrows loosely from the tenets of punk and feminism, but winds up being a version of existing porn dressed up with a new fashion statement, rather than a true revision of it. Turns out Suicide Girls has more in common with Playboy than the minds and bodies behind it would like to imagine.

All photos, journal entries, etc. used in title image are courtesy of and copyrighted by Suicide Girls.

Annie Tomlin gets naked every day before stepping into the shower. She keeps a journal at http://annie.newdream.net.

Comments

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What is the reason for sex

What is the reason for sex in movies???

Controversial business model

For all the controversial that Suicide Girls have stirred up, I think they are pioneering a radical business model. It is like taking your traditional Playboy model and mixing it up with all Web 2.0 and user generated stuff.

Update Desired for A.V.T.'s Sex Dreads and Rock 'n' Roll

It would be nice to read an update of this post by you, Annie Tomlin, in light of the trend noted in Mandy Van Deven's October 9th, 2009 post entitled "Capitalism + Feminism = True Luv 4 Eva". The trend noted was that both Germany's most popular women's fashion magazine and Glamour have both decided to get away from the trent of using emaciated overly thin professional models. One of the troubling aspects of the Suicide Girls and other sites you pointed out is their focus almost exclusively on very young skinny women. It would be nice if there were options of seeing or being seen if one is more average looking older looking. Naturally I have a bias since I am older and have posted photos of myself male-modeling ladies full brief panties (back view) at http://www.sissypantybuns.com/wordpress/?cat=4 and at http://www.sissypantybuns.com/wordpress/?page_id=56 . Is there any chance you would write a post updating your 2002 article entitled "Sex Dreads and Rock 'n' Roll?

Suicide Girl is awesome! :)

Suicide Girl is awesome! :)

Suicide Girls is great!

Suicide Girls is great!