Ethically Erotic: A Q&A with Feminist Pornographer Kate Sinclaire

We don’t speak of the four-letter “P” word all that much in our day-to-day lives. It might occasionally slip its way into kitchen counter conversations 3⁄4 into a bottle of wine, but it still remains off limits at the dinner table. Porn is the sex-ed topic forgone for the bulk of us who were sexually educated by VHS tapes featuring fuzzy ‘80s television announcers. It is something seldom taught, if only by ourselves. 

Porn exists. Whether we choose to talk about it or not, it will never cease to exist. 

Consumption of any media—pornography included—may reinforce or alter perceptions of others and ourselves. For many of those coming from underrepresented backgrounds, this can be especially problematic, as visibility in the mainstream media often means adhering to a stereotypical narrative. In search for an antidote, a wave of pornographers are taking a harm-reductive approach to the industry by producing ethical porn focused on representation, performers’ rights, and capturing sex in a way that isn’t dehumanizing. 

Kate Sinclaire is a tour-de-force in the ethical porn industry. She is the founder of Ciné Sinclaire, a production company working to shift from traditional narratives of porn by emphasizing safe practices and creating spaces for underrepresented performers to find work in front of the camera. I had the chance to sit down with her in her studio to talk all things ethically erotic. 

Lithium Magazine: How did you get into the industry? 
Kate Sinclaire: I got into the industry somewhere between 19 and 20. I was with a partner and we were having a nice time, until we weren’t having a nice time. Following our breakup, he decided to post photos [online] that we had taken of ourselves as what we now call revenge porn. I wasn’t ashamed of any of those things, but this was someone [holding] power over me by trying to shame and control my sexuality from afar. From there, I had two options: I could either be ashamed and pretend it never happened, or I could be like yeah, I did those things, but I’m not ashamed of my sexuality. Choosing the latter wasn’t easy, but it was the better route for me. 

From there I started trying out nude modeling but found that most of the places I was submitting to had very strict guidelines as to who they were including—women, mostly white, with pretty much one body type. After looking around I decided to start CherryStems, a philanthropic softcore nude modeling site that would include folks of any gender, size, and background. A few years later, I launched Ciné Sinclaire, my video production agency. 

Lithium: What would you say differentiates ethical porn from mainstream porn?
Kate: This conversation is a big one, and even within the so-called ethical porn community. The issue is that so many places that claim to be “ethical” are later found out to have things like consent being violated on set. People are using it like an “organic/fair-trade” logo but there’s no oversight. Generally, it’s loosely defined as porn [centered on] prioritizing the payment of the performers and crew. It’s also centered on ethics of representation—making sure various bodies, skin colors, and backgrounds are represented, and giving people the agency to create their own narratives rather than those “created” for them.

Lithium: People often use porn as an alternate means of sex ed. Can you talk about the importance of ethical porn in this light?
Kate: So first off is the performative aspect. Some people like to say that ethical porn shows “real sex.” It does and it doesn’t, because as soon as you turn the camera on something, it’s inherently going to be performative—but how close can we get? 

I do a talk on porn literacy that addresses how young people are using porn as a sex-ed tool, and it’s specifically noted in places where they don’t have sex ed. If they have abstinence-only sex ed, then they’re definitely leaning on porn. Queer folks and POC are also leaning hard on it because they don’t feel represented in mainstream sex ed. We’re failing all of those people. 

It’s also a problem of identity. The narratives in mainstream porn of, say, a trans woman often have a fucked up, stereotypical identity presented. If you’re watching it as a young trans woman, there’s a risk of internalizing that identity, which can be really harmful. In ethical porn, it’s all about just letting people do what they do as long as it’s consensual—because that’s just the reality of sex. 

Lithium: Is the mainstream media adapting to the idea of ethical porn? 
Kate: People are definitely picking up on the fact that it makes money, and that can be dangerous because there’s no governing body. Even if you have organic produce, you have to apply for the label, but in our industry there’s nothing like that—you could slam the “ethical” label on anything. So I think it’s problematic that it’s becoming more and more popular. It’s great that it is, but it has the potential for exploitation within it because you know, capitalism itself is unethical. 

Lithium: I noticed on your website that you have a pay-what-you-can policy. Can you talk about that?
Kate: We introduced our pay-what-you-can model last year. You can pay anywhere from one dollar to one million dollars (please give us one million dollars!). This specifically addresses access because we are making films by and for queer people and traditionally, we often have less money. The suggested price of $16 may be easy for me to get, but for someone else who may have challenges related to employment, $16 might render it inaccessible. From a profit standpoint, it’s worked really well because it opens it up to more and more people—more content gets sold at a lower price, but those people also get to see it. 

Lithium: So obviously accessibility is a vastly important factor in the ethical porn world. What other measures are being taken to make the industry more accessible?
Kate: Yes, definitely. PinkLabel TV, which hosts a lot of my content, has a program where if you can’t pay, they’ll let you watch content if you transcribe their films in return. So hypothetically, someone could watch my films for free, but then it would be transcribed. It’s a win-win because it makes it even more accessible for everyone. 

Lithium: Why is the need for queer, ethical, feminist porn so strong?
Kate: I think it’s important to have these options in the porn world because everyone is using it as sex ed, and everyone has so much access. If we only get a few narratives, then that’s all we’re getting. We need diversity of voices just like in every other sector of the media. Without diversity of narratives, it makes it so that the mainstream is the only stream. 

By Cierra Bettens
Collage by @slimesunday

Sink Faucets and Sexual Fluidity: A Tale of Growth

When I washed my hands as a child, I yanked on the faucet handle and let the icy water flow like a waterfall between my fingers. I made sure they were submerged for at least 30 seconds, or else my hands wouldn’t really feel clean. Though I knew the routine was absurd, I was quite literally testing the waters of how true I could stay to myself and my actions, how long I could dwell in the throes of the extreme. The habit was different––odd, even––but it was consistent, decisive, and all mine.  

In elementary school, it was a sweet surprise to bump into a friend while in the restroom. Socializing while class went on next door felt illicit and thrilling, like munching on a chocolate chip cookie before dinner. And from the billows of many brief, mundane conversations between those four cramped walls, one remains clear in my memory.

A friend and I were airing our grievances against the difficulties of fourth grade math when she stopped mid-sentence and asked, “Why don’t you wash your hands with warm water? Your fingers look red!” 

I’m pretty sure I shrugged off her comment at the time, but the question jolted me into a newly lucid mindset. Why did I continue to blast cold water onto my hands throughout the winter and worsen my dry, cracked skin? Why didn’t I just switch to warm water for a while?

I knew the answer, and, while it made sense to (at least temporarily) adjust my behavior, I still knew I wouldn’t.

Our chance encounter in the restroom was comically emblematic of my years adhering to a stubborn and uncompromising life philosophy. I had an unyielding obsession with control, order, and consistency––which led me to make decisions that were always clear-cut, unchanging, black-and-white.

And while such principles are harmless and fairly simple to abandon when intertwined with the narrative of foolish childhood habits, they aren’t as easy to unlearn when it comes to matters of sexuality and identity.

In eighth grade, I met a girl. She was whip-smart, passionate, hilarious, and an out-and-proud lesbian. We spent the majority of our time badgering teachers and whispering jokes to one another, failing to pay attention in class. As a quiet and relatively isolated kid, I felt lucky that she considered me worthy of spending time with. I even joined an after-school activity to spend more time with her––something I, an apathetic teenager, swore up and down I’d never do––and hopped into my mom’s minivan every afternoon with a stomach sore from laughing with her.

Near the end of that year, I had come to a pivotal conclusion: I was absolutely a lesbian. At some point, my feelings toward her had transformed from platonic admiration into an all-consuming romantic infatuation. I couldn’t summon any memories of being so infatuated with boys––I don’t think I even had innocent schoolyard crushes on them––and decided that if a boy-crazy phase hadn’t struck me at 13 like it had most of my friends, then I wasn’t attracted to them at all.  

Although I felt a brief wave of concern over what this would mean for my adolescence and my future, I was mostly excited in the wake of this realization. After all, it’s comforting to discover you share a part of your identity with someone you’d do anything for. My metamorphic and newly-realized identity was a connecting thread between us that I was giddy to divulge, confident that it would draw us closer.

Years later, when I set foot on my university’s campus for the first time, not much had changed since my middle school discovery. I’d remained faithful to the strict persona and identity that I’d carefully crafted for myself. On the first night, in an attempt to get to know one another, my first-year roommates and I sat cross-legged on the floor and gingerly attempted to ask each other personal questions. When the topic of sexuality surfaced, I felt comfortable offering up an answer. After all, I was a lesbian, and it only made sense to be open and transparent about it. I wanted more than anything to signal that I was comfortable around them, and this was a great way to lay all my cards on the table.

It wasn’t the smartest avenue for doing so, however, because the situation surrounding my sexuality grew murky soon after my declaration. As the seasons changed, so did my previously unwavering certainty in my sexual identity.

I developed a surprising crush on a guy in our class who was confident, handsome, and universally liked. We grew close quickly, and eventually discovered that a mutual friend had orchestrated scenarios for us to bond––revealing that the crush was mutual. Laughing one night in his bed about what we had uncovered, I felt adrift. As I’d expected, the mood shifted––and mid-conversation, he leaned in to kiss me.

I didn’t kiss him back. Because when he leaned in, I felt butterflies in my stomach. The same butterflies I felt when I fell hard for my friend in eighth grade.

The resurfacing of intoxicating romantic feelings––but this time, toward a man––threw me into an unexpected panic. I quickly gathered an excuse about having to leave, fumbled to put my shoes on, and bolted out the door. Although I later covered for myself by sending apology texts, rambling about how intimacy scared me due to a lack of romantic experience, the truth ran much deeper than that.

For a couple of weeks, I felt like a stranger to myself. Although we continued to see each other, I was feeling increasingly uneasy about what was developing. I garnered so much joy and pride from my alignment with lesbianism, and genuinely believed that identifying as bisexual––or assuming a more ambiguous queer label––would strip that away from me. I was reasonable enough to acquiesce and admit to myself that these thoughts were a result of deeply ingrained biphobia and a stubborn resistance to change, but I didn’t care at the time.  The potential loss felt too visceral.

Despite my swirling fears and concerns, I resolved to keep an open mind––suppressing the old, familiar voice inside my head that was telling me to keep the cold water running.

Although our romantic entanglement proved to be brief, unsustainable, and emotionally lacking, I’m glad I pushed through the cloud of discomfort and fully accepted the experience for all that it was. The conclusions I drew from it are among the most profound lessons I’ve ever absorbed into my psyche.

I think back to the harmful foundation I constructed for myself as a child and feel a cavernous sadness for her––but more importantly, I am unabashedly proud of myself for taking a step that required me to reconsider my restrictive obsession with labels. Now when people ask me about my sexuality, I smile and say I’m queer.

The title feels right this time. It gives me the space I so desperately need to breathe––and explore my sexuality without the burden of guilt. 

Accepting that you can and will misperceive yourself throughout your life––especially as a resolute, change-averse individual––feels like taking a hammer to a thick glass box that refuses to shatter. But eventually, when your arm is nearly exhausted, you give a blow that brings it all to the ground.

And now, whenever I wash my hands, I turn on both faucet handles and allow the water to freely dance between warm and cold.

My fingers are happier that way.

By Anonymous
Illustration by Fin Fleming

Spreadsheets, Paris, and My Type A Personality

Looking down at the French streets outside my hotel window, I almost started crying. It was 9:30 AM, an hour and a half after I wanted to start our day, and we were therefore 90 minutes behind schedule for day two of my family’s four-day trip to Paris. We had a lot to do that day: strolling around the Luxembourg Gardens, sipping hot chocolate at Angelina, exploring the 7th Arrondissement, visiting the Eiffel Tower.

And I was freaking out. I was mad at myself and my family for sleeping in, irritated and panicked at the thought that, oh my god, our itinerary is all messed up now and we won’t get to everything on the list.

I was yelling at my family, rushing everyone out the door, speed-walking to the metro; I was tuned into some kind of pseudo-biological clock that ingrained an inclination toward structure into my identity.

Never mind the fact that we had spent the last thirteen hours on various airplanes and were now adjusting to a completely different time zone, nor that 9:30 is a normal hour to wake up anyway. I wanted—needed—to go to sleep that night assured that the trip was going according to plan.

Looking back on that morning, all I can think is, What is wrong with you? You’re in Paris. Calm down. I spent so much time planning and thinking about how the trip would look, fantasizing about the perfect Parisian vacation, mapping out all the places I wanted to go to make sure we maximized our travel efficiency. And for what? I was so caught up in checking destinations off a list that I forgot I was on vacation in the city I had dreamed of for years. Obsessed with my expectations, I forgot to experience Paris. (And it was so beautiful!)

I have always been organized (a natural-born planner, if you will), and it’s certainly come in handy for academic situations. But for literally every other encounter in my life, it really sucks. My anxiety around ambiguity and adventure can make it difficult to enjoy the spontaneity that others seem to love. It can make me feel guilty for not being more carefree, as if someone is wrong with the way I view the world. It can make me feel insecure about my identity.

I’ve definitely become a little more relaxed as I’ve aged out of middle-school perfectionism. I’m learning to leave more time and energy free of expectations. Part of this may be because I don’t like cleaning my room anymore or because I’ve just become lazy, but I definitely have created a better mindset for myself to grow.

Here’s a disclaimer, though: I take antidepressants and regularly go to therapy, and I definitely think mental illness has played a role in my “type A” personality. There’s a fine line between being organized and being anxious, and that line is a bit blurred in my case. But there are so many things I have done and still do in order to detach myself from the whirlwind of expectations I might bring into my daily life. From deleting social media (which I highly recommend, seriously, from the bottom of my heart) to not journaling, giving myself the space experience the moment—without worrying about documenting it or making sure it looks good or follows a plan—has allowed me to understand myself as I experience my life.

All the ways I’ve changed since Paris are part of my own timeline, an erratic and, fortunately, completely unstructured narrative. All the ways I’ve changed have made me a better person, albeit one with clothes strewn all over her floor. Learning to erase this internal pressure for everything to go exactly as planned can be frustrating and regressive sometimes, but it also gives me the opportunity for self-awareness and growth.

I’m going to Amsterdam next spring break with a close friend, and aside from our apartment and iAmsterdam pass, we haven’t made plans. It is so deeply liberating to allow for exploration, to release a bit of control. We have no itinerary, no checklist, no Instagrammable locations in mind. I love it, and I’m even more excited for Amsterdam than I was for Paris. Without all the planning, I can be excited for the experience, not for any specific location or photo or restaurant. Without all the planning, I can feel how much I love my life.

By Katherine Williams

Why You Should Care About Planned Parenthood Leaving Title X

Last Monday, Planned Parenthood left the Title X program after the Trump administration introduced a new regulation to the program that would forbid Title X recipients from performing or recommending abortions.  The only exception to this regulation applies in cases of rape, incest, or medical emergency. 

Opponents to this regulation say that it interferes with the doctor-patient relationship and that anti-abortion advocates don’t want any federal funds to go toward organizations that offer abortions—particularly Planned Parenthood. This is a shock to millions of low-income women across the country and is yet another blow to women’s reproductive rights (which have never been able to get a break, especially this past year). 

Those in favor of this regulation fail to acknowledge that Planned Parenthood doesn’t only offer abortions. In its 2013-2014 report, Planned Parenthood stated that only 3% of their overall services provided were abortions. In fact, Title X funds are hardly used for abortions. According to Planned Parenthood’s website, Title X is meant for “affordable birth control and reproductive healthcare,” so most of the funds are used for wellness exams, breast cancer screenings (Title X funds are especially needed for these screenings since Susan G. Komen stopped funding them), birth control, contraception education, HIV testing, and STD testing and treatment. Still, Planned Parenthood is portrayed as an unstoppable abortion machine. 

Instead, Planned Parenthood should be seen for what it truly is: an organization designed to provide millions of women, insured or not, with affordable reproductive healthcare. And the fact that it’s out of Title X and has lost $60 million in federal funding should scare everyone because it affects everyone. Title X helps four million low-income women receive healthcare they may have otherwise been unable to get, and Planned Parenthood helps 40% of that four million. This means that now, approximately 1.6 million women will no longer have access to safe reproductive healthcare. But if you’re not one of those 1.6 million women, you still can’t rest easy. Planned Parenthood provides healthcare to everyone, regardless of citizen status, sexuality, gender, or income. So now it’s also harder for immigrant women and members of the LGBTQIA+ community to receive reproductive healthcare and get tested and treated for STDs and HIV, which still disproportionately affects marginalized communities.

Because the most prominent member of Title X is now out of the program, the Trump administration—and many anti-abortion advocates—essentially is enjoying a huge win, which could encourage them to create further regulations restricting reproduction rights. Who’s to say they won’t leverage their money to make birth control harder to obtain? Or increase the price of breast cancer screenings? Or make reproductive healthcare accessible exclusively for cishet U.S. citizens? We don’t know how far they’ll go to impede reproductive rights, and this should scare everyone. The Trump administration might even dismantle Title X altogether, which, according to Planned Parenthood’s website, would cost federal and state governments $13.6 billion. We need to take action now. If you’re able, donate to Planned Parenthood; sign this open letter to show your support; continue to call your representatives and tell them that you stand with Planned Parenthood and will not stand idly while reproductive rights everywhere are being targeted. Tell them you care about Planned Parenthood leaving Title X, and then tell them why they should too.

By Modesty Sanchez

Reflections on Gendered Friendships

Late in high school, I was known for being friends with almost exclusively boys. Because of this, my friends and classmates dubbed me “ferda,” or “for the boys.” There was hardly any malice in this term, but beneath it was a certain element of tension that I couldn’t decode: resentment, jealousy, or disdain… I wasn’t sure. 

Our confinement within a boarding school campus in some ways hardened gendered divides; dormitories and athletic teams, which dominated daily commitments, were almost completely divided into girls and boys (with hardly any accommodations in place for non-binary students). Even things like senior class presidents were divided, though implicitly, into two girls and two boys rather than simply four students.

Within this somewhat split environment I sometimes put myself on a pedestal for breaking the unspoken rule that girls should be friends primarily with girls, and boys with boys. I bought into the retrospectively reductive notion that I was “not like other girls” because I crossed the divide into the vastly disparate and enigmatic territory that was the world of boys and their friendship. 

I also felt special, being the odd one out in my friend group. Amidst boys who were my close friends, I usually appreciated being singled out when we made jokes or discussed arbitrary subjects; I enjoyed having an extra sprinkle of attention for being the only girl in the group. Being a girl meant I tended to—or appeared to—know more about the other gender’s perspective, and that my experiences and even opinions could diverge wholly from theirs in a noteworthy way.

Now a year into college, where the majority of my close friends are instead girls, I’ve begun to take note of the differences—expected and unexpected—between girl-to-girl and girl-to-boy friendships. In my experience the two relationships can seriously differ, even if these distinctions play into a restrictively heteronormative and gender-binary outlook.

Recently, when one of my close guy friends was going through an especially tough time, I couldn’t be there for him in the same way I usually could with my close friends. A big part of it was his reluctance to open up to his friends, which led to the bottling and boiling up of his problems for several months. When I finally learned of his endured suffering, I couldn’t help but wonder if I could have prevented his silence. Had I put more effort into encouraging his vulnerability with me, perhaps he would have felt less afraid to seek support from his friends, and perhaps he might be in a better place now. 

It can take more effort to connect on a deeper emotional level with boys than with girls—societal expectations have ingrained in most boys a defensive instinct to stifle their feelings rather than be vulnerable and open about them. Sometimes I feel I must, in being friends with boys, take extra steps encouraging them to recognize and combat the role that toxic masculinity plays in their lives.

Simultaneously, girls are taught to be perfectionists and take fewer risks, and when this pervades social spaces it can lead to overly superficial interactions in which girls are afraid to too quickly expose their authentic selves. I spent my first two years of high school over-investing my time and energy in friendships I felt obliged to make despite how forced or one-sided they often felt.

I know many girls who felt the same way. Their strongest friendships sprouted in inefficient ways; they required time, patience, mishaps, and little serendipities before they could actually manifest. On the other hand, and unsurprisingly, more of my guy friends agree that they’ve stuck with the same cluster of boys they met and clicked with at the onset of high school. In this sense, it’s sometimes easier to connect among boys than girls. Boys may have their guard down more.

Throughout middle and high school, I’ve seen boys cultivate a sort of intra-gender safety net, reasoned or not; boys support and nod to one another as a means of expressing and affirming some understood fraternal identity. Though in recent years girls have been encouraged to shift toward a similar framework (through cultural movements such as girl squads and the uplifting of oft-stigmatized female friendship), there still are vast differences between the way society expects men to collaborate with one another as women grapple in each other’s company.

In observing my male friends interact with one another, sometimes their agreement and unanimity in arbitrary things are almost too unflappable—as if disagreeing with the other boys might rupture some unspoken, gendered bond. This occasionally leaves me feeling like my voice, as a girl’s among boys’, is quieter in group discussion, my opinion less valid and less heard.

The concept of brotherhood and boys uncritically accepting other boys also manifests itself in the content people consume. I’ve noticed that a few of my guy friends almost always prefer to watch more conventionally masculine or male-created media, from movies to books to music. Even my dad admits to listening almost exclusively to podcasts by men (and he is a huge podcast fan). Girls, on the other hand, unless intentionally trying to reverse male-dominated industries and spaces, are more likely to seek out the art and intellect of both men and women. Their intake covers a broader range of perspectives and flavors.

Around my male friends, then, I sometimes feel pressure to accept their preferences, and consequently their perspectives, over mine. My say is more dismissable, or less valid, than theirs because it’s silly, unserious, and girlish. I find myself passively compromising on decisions that should really be 50-50, as I chuckle at yet another rejection of my own interests. Sometimes shrugging it off is easier than tackling the real thing.

Finally, there are some things that many straight white cis guys, however decent or empathetic, are unable to understand as fully as a girl friend might—things such as the acute fear of walking alone at night, the pressure of wanting to impress others and validate our bodies on Instagram, the aggravatingly painful and persistent phenomenon that is mansplaining… The list goes on. Having close friends who are girls is simply irreplaceable, in this sense.

I don’t know exactly what the solution is for these traditionally-ingrained gender divides. Presently, I’m working on treating my girl and boy friends with more intentional compassion, so that they might feel less bent by gender constructs when in the company of others. More importantly, I’m working on expressing myself wholeheartedly, with an awareness of and—when necessary—resistance against the long-learned habits that separate us.

By Becky Zhang