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Queering adult content: recategorizing porn for the ethically-curious

When it comes to the broad spectrum of human sexuality, labeling and categorizing our vast preferences and complex identities can be limiting, liberating, or both.

Pornography – as a metaphorical mirror for our desires and fantasies – visually represents what we crave sexually. But the industry isn’t a level playing field. Monopolies such as Aylo (fka Mindgeek, fka Manwin), that own the likes of Pornhub and RedTube, have instituted a “freemium” economic model of porn, embedding with it a predominantly white male-centric and heteronormative online domain.

Yet, how Internet pornography is being created, categorized, and consumed is arguably shifting.

A sub-section of the adult industry made up of independent, queer, and feminist performers, directors, production companies, and streaming sites, are increasingly catering to an ethically-curious viewership.

While labeling, categorizing, and tagging content might be a necessity in some cases, the language around our sex, sexuality, gender, and our desires is ever-evolving – creating a tension between how porn is created and how it’s consumed.

So how does the online porn industry evolve with the times? Should it work to maintain the status quo or perhaps seek to educate its audience? And how does it find the right words, methods, and tools to keep up with technological advancements?

In a 2023 study by porn performer Jiz Lee and adult web manager Kriss Lowrance, called The trouble with tagging: a queer porn company tussles to find the right words, it was argued that the trick is finding the balance between the customer’s desire with the performer’s needs in creating labels that are more helpful than harmful.

While there may be no perfect solution, it’s worth recognizing the efforts made and witnessing how these things aren’t as set in stone as we might think.

The inception of mainstream porn categories

A 2022 study led by Ilir Rama et al. titled The platformization of gender and sexual identities, explains that popular mainstream tube sites like Pornhub and xHamster are “deemed to reinforce a male, white, and heterosexual point of view, and thus contribute to foster hegemonic masculinity, the sexualization of minorities, and a heteronormative porn culture.”

The creation of tube sites had a huge on the porn industry as a whole, and, in his podcast, The Butterfly Effect, journalist Jon Ronson discusses how the need for categories became essential – driven by viewers’ demand for content to match their desires.

There was so much free porn that it had to be cataloged – which led to users focusing on and searching for particular keywords for their porn. This marked a shift away from retro porn titles like “Come and Blow the Horn” (1978), or “Tushy Heaven” (1998) toward the industry needing to adapt to naming videos based on such keywords as ‘anal, butt plug, rough, vibrator’.

Content began to be inspired and created from these keywords. What resulted is the proliferation of categorized tube content that we are all too familiar with today.

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Categorizing the male gaze

Out of this, came some of the most popular categories like ‘MILF’ and ‘Teen’, which, as Ronson explains, left many women between the ages of 24 and 29 out of a job for not fulfilling desired quotas. He goes on to investigate the rise of custom-made porn and sites like OnlyFans, whereby custom-made content permitted more performer autonomy and personalized entertainment.

Back on mainstream porn platforms, Rama et al. explain that many were “built based on categorizing bodies, races, and sexual behaviors; these classifications are predominantly concerned with labeling women and categorizing female bodies from a male and heterosexual point of view. Very rarely do heterosexual porn websites offer categories that anatomize and classify the male body.”

Positioning particular bodies, sexual orientations, and erotic acts (read: straight male-centered pleasure) as the default, leaves marginalized performers to be explicitly labeled for distinction. For example, some categories are created in a racialized way, “such as the ‘Big Black Cock’ category,” says Rama et al.

By reducing the satisfaction to the straight white male gaze, categories such as ‘Lesbian’ depicts “female homosexuality [as] categorized according to heteronormative labels”; or racialized and gendered categories such as ‘Latina’ and ‘Ebony’.

Yet is this any different from the racist and gendered society at large? Rama et al. suggest that at its core Pornhub is no different from any other mainstream platform that reflects social norms, however, the sexual nature of porn means that it “leans on sensitive information such as gender and sexual identities,” – leaving room for more explicit objectification and fetishization.

While the straight white man has his needs prioritized, for viewers or performers of marginalized identities, this can lead to an enhanced sense of othering and dissonance – creating a desire disparity in pornography.

Queer and feminist porn motivations

During the feminist wars of the 1980s, anti-porn feminists believed that porn was contradictory to the liberation of women. On the other hand, the sex-positive feminists believed that porn could be used to “educate and empower the performers who produce it and the people who view it.”

Erotic film director, screenwriter, and producer, Erika Lust tells SEXTECHGUIDE that her primary motivation for her feminist pornography was to “challenge the mass-produced porn industry, which often perpetuates harmful stereotypes and exploitative practices.”

She goes on to share that her audience is made up of those who seek an alternative type of porn for those “who value more genuine and inclusive sexual content” and “who appreciate the beauty of real bodies, diverse desires, and consensual interactions.”

Founder of the queer porn company Pink & White Productions Shine Louise Houston’s work is known for its depictions of queer and trans sexuality, showcasing diverse performers in her various membership sites such as CrashPadSeries and PinkLabel.

Professor of Women’s Studies, Ariane Cruz writes in her 2016 essay The color of kink: Black women, BDSM, and pornography, that “Houston’s work critically queers representations of black [women’s] sexual desire, offering modes of pleasure outside hegemonic, heteronormative representations of black female sexuality in pornography.”

Trans porn production company, Grooby, owns various membership sites and was founded in 1996 by Steven Grooby out of a “glaring lack of content in the trans-genre” at the time. Its creative and editorial director, Kristel Penn, shared with us that, in the beginning, they were scanning photos from magazines because there was barely any online representation.

“In our early days, straight cis men were our primary audience.” What Penn has since discovered, “is there is growing diversity in our consumer base in terms of identity.” While it was assumed that the “consumers of trans porn were only those who were trans-attracted” they now know that “people also consume porn for a multitude of reasons beyond desire itself (such as reflection of identity or a combination of numerous reasons).”

While trans visibility in the media is often associated with harmful stereotyping and fetishization, pornography can also be a subversive space to place the ownership and humanity back in the control of the performer, which is prioritized by trans-positive production companies such as Grooby and CrashPadSeries. Grooby, for example, has evolved its use of language over the years, rebranding in 2017, moving away from more offensive language, and championing trans-positive terms like “tgirls“.

Pink & White Productions also offers a whole trans-positive guide to porn which is “a resource of erotic and explicit materials that reflect a broad array of trans, gender expansive, and non-binary desires – while supporting sex workers who gain financial stability and life-affirming benefits through adult film production.”

While mainstream search engines offer quick and easy access to mainstream sexual content, BDSM and bondage porn director, Ex Libris, explains that the “tags people use for porn with trans women tend to be slurs which do not bear repeating, and also typically lead to tube sites that offer little to no money for performers’ work.”

Queer, feminist, and ethical porn producers are typically motivated by creating a fairer, safer, and more diverse industry – which can be a tricky path when dealing with an already embedded system of categorization.

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The benefits of porn categorization

Despite its limitations, categories are important, even beneficial for queer and feminist platforms.

Searchability ease

Anna Richards is the founder of the female-led porn site, FrolicMe designed for women and couples. She explains that categories “can offer an improved user experience when navigating around the site as well as supporting visibility online.”

This becomes particularly relevant when we think about the breadth of published content, as “it can become a minefield to seek those genres of films, stories, or audio porn that is of interest and continue to explore that style of fantasy.”

Erika Lust adds that by offering a diverse range of categories, her content aims to provide viewers with a “curated selection of films that align with their specific interests and desires.”

Categorizing them this way allows people “to explore and discover content that resonates with them on a deeper level, leading to a more fulfilling viewing experience. Our categories also enable viewers to navigate the platform more easily, saving time and effort in finding content that matches their preferences.”

Content inspiration

Thanks to SEO (search engine optimization), sites can see what people are searching for and in turn, curate and create content that is directly relevant to the viewer.

Richards explains that this has been helpful in the creation of more recent categories like “porn for women” and “female friendly” driven by individuals who are “broadly looking on search engines” and in turn inspiring new categories and sites like FrolicMe.

Site ranking

Battling for visibility against mainstream free tube sites that often oversaturate the first few pages of search engines, Richards argues that offering specific categories has become an important factor in helping achieve improved page ranking for smaller niche independent sites and ethical platforms that are at risk of “being lost and users not able to navigate their way to the style of erotic site they are looking for”.

While it can be hard to compete with mainstream sites’ volume of content and breadth of categorization, “keeping aware of how users search is relevant to the type of categories incorporated across your platform is key” as well as “ensuring enough content is available per category to ensure a strong presence in search.”

Social insights

We can also give thanks to categories for all of the insights that we gain about our sexualities as a global population of sexual beings. The latest of Pornhub’s yearly insights 2023 has taught us that on average we watch porn for 10 minutes and nine seconds.

The most popular globally searched category for the third year in a row is “hentai”, and “android” searches grew by 1,689 percent. These insights allow us to bear witness to our ever-evolving landscape of desires.

sextechguide porn categorisation

Limiting nature of categories

While categories can be useful, they can also be limiting, and potentially harmful. Labeling our sexual desires and performers’ bodies arguably minimizes the complexity of human sexuality and our gender identities.

“As a whole,” Penn shares, categorizing is “tricky because it is subjective, to the performer, to the business, and to the consumer. The marketing language used in porn has shifted and continues to shift, where companies are trying to ensure their content is reaching those searching for it.”

Financial

Lee and Lowrance report that terms of service for many platforms, including banks, payment processors, and social media often prohibit “adult” words they deem taboo or illegal.

Marketing is a key aspect of studio hiring or promotion of productions. Categorizing scenes helps to establish a brand, reputation, fan base, future work, and income opportunities, and yet these rules around language can be limiting for those promoting or marketing their content while facing censorship bans.

Problematic

Some mainstream tube sites let the viewers propose tags that other viewers can then upvote or downvote. While categories serve to group films together, a tag describes something specific about the film, for example, a sex act, body type, or mood, to make it easier for viewers to know more accurately what they will be watching.

While this may be useful for viewers, it is subjective and driven by those concerned with helping people find what they want, without consideration of offensive terminology.

Lee and Lowrance critique platforms that do this as avoiding responsibility by outsourcing this labor which “also has the potential to enable harmful labels and abusive actions.”

Dehumanizing

To a degree, performers have to let go of some personal ownership over one’s image when working in this space. However, in letting go, there may be words that a performer would never choose to use for themself that could cause emotional harm.

“The English terms for many sex acts carry gendered connotations and applying them haphazardly can misgender performers” causing gender dysphoria. One example is ‘BBW’ which is an acronym for ‘big beautiful woman’. Lee and Lowrance explain that “we can assume [a viewer wants] to see performers they would consider fat (probably cis) women.” However, if a performer is fat and femme, but non-binary, “the term ‘BBW’ is misgendering even if that is not immediately visually evident.”

As Erika Lust adds there are challenges in fitting some performers’ work into specific categories, “as their performances and identities might transcend traditional labels,” making the process of ethical categorization that much more difficult.

Therefore, categories as traditionally applied for the male-centric status quo do not capture the complexity of human sexuality; are restrictive for performers’ identities; and may dehumanize through gendered or racialized terminology.

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The queer (r)evolution of categorizing methods

In Lee and Lowrance’s research, they argue that “the performer’s need outweighs the customer’s desire, but the customer’s desire is still important to the financial ecosystem that benefits the performer.” So how does porn evolve to match these evolving needs?

Performer-driven tags & self-categorization

While viewer-driven tags have benefitted the consumer without regard to the performer, performer-driven tags could make room for benefitting both creators and consumers.

Naturally, the performer and the distributor want to benefit financially from their work being consumed, so CrashPadSeries asks the performers for a list of tags they want to be used for their bodies and which they do not.

Similarly, PinkLabel invites the producer to suggest tags as they often represent the performers who appear in the film. On sites where performers or producers upload content directly, they are usually allowed to provide tags themselves.

Lust’s sites continuously try to “provide a supportive and inclusive platform for performers to showcase their authenticity and creativity. We want the performer’s work to speak for itself rather than being confined to preconceived notions of categorization.”

Penn explains that Grooby’s trans performer’s bios will be written by the performers themselves, and “we also include social media links on the profile pages of our performers, so consumers are also able to learn about each performer in their own words with a simple link out.”

Meta tags & hidden information

If someone is searching for a word, there are a bunch of other words that are associated with it that are hidden – these are called meta tags. Each tag also serves as a “hyperlink that pulls up a page of films with the same tag” thus making for easier search tools.

Hidden tags could be employed, for example, when a trans-masc performer may not want to be associated with “female” body parts, but a viewer might be interested in watching “cunnilingus”, certain tags could be hidden so the viewer will still be able to find their content but the performer maintains their public identity.

Redirection & education

Taking this idea further, Lee and Lowrance offer suggestions for redirecting users as an opportunity to learn. For example, if a viewer searches for a transphobic slur, that tag could be linked to a page with trans porn along with the appropriate language and possibly a message educating them on why it was harmful; turning the harm into something helpful.

As language is constantly evolving, Lee and Lowrance say, “Especially with our rapidly evolving understanding of gender, terms can arise and fall out of favor, slurs can be reclaimed, and so on,” this could be a great chance to transform people’s perspectives through porn.

There could also be an interactive educational element, offering a “yes, no, maybe” list of tags for users to choose from, whether to promote or obscure specific content, further matching it with viewers, in a more conscientious way.

Tag team & community feedback

Unlike tube sites, where responsibility is shirked onto the viewers, ethical sites could employ a “tag team” of reviewers, suggests Lee and Lowrance. Along with feedback from member surveys, social media, and customer emails “could be utilized to gather suggestions and recommendations for tags.”

Lust shares that on her sites the categorization process “has indeed evolved, and one crucial factor for this is feedback and input from our audience! We value and listen to their perspectives, desires, and suggestions, which have helped inform our categorization choices.”

This collaborative approach would help to “incorporate diverse perspectives and input into the tagging process,” say Lee and Lowrance.

Sites by category

By creating separate sites that each have its focus, Grooby offers an alternative form of categorization offering a way to humanize the performers with non-assumptive language.

Penn explains that “our categorization process has evolved as we’ve increased our long list of sites.” Over the years Grooby has created over 30 membership sites, and these operate “in some ways like the first level of categorizations a consumer encounters.” For example, when someone joins TGirlJapan.com they are aware the site will feature Japanese trans femme performers based in Japan.

Of course, there is no perfect solution, and Penn is well aware of the restrictive limitations of Grooby’s methods for viewers. “One constraint of our current categorization method is that our overall content gets funneled into separate websites, which means that a consumer will only be viewing the content categorized for that singular site.”

Nevertheless, within Grooby’s distinctive sites, its search function and categorization process is fairly straightforward: “users are able to search by things such as shoot type (hardcore, solo), hair color, clothing type,” and “other generally tangible things, so no assumptions are made about a performer’s identity.”

Richards shares this approach, whereby FrolicMe has adapted its categories and tags to predominantly focus on the “style of sexual content or the fantasy explored” such as ‘hotwife’, ‘threesomes’, or ‘voyeur’, “rather than ways of categorizing those involved which can be negative and divisive,” such as racial stereotyping – however, depending on the outlet, this could leave room for the whitewashing of porn whereby performers of color are less likely to be found.

Nevertheless, the benefit of this method is that it doesn’t “have to rely on categories and labels about the performer’s identity in the same way catch-all tube sites” that host content with a variety of niches that need to make their content findable, says Penn.

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The future of categoriesBalancing tech advancement & ethical values

Just as porn has been a historical change-maker for the development of technology, who’s to say the evolution of how porn is categorized couldn’t also be a change-maker for our relationship to sex, sexuality, desires, and gender?

As technology develops, this will also arguably influence how content is going to be categorized in the future. Such as with the development of “more sophisticated algorithms and artificial intelligence,” Lust ponders, “platforms will be able to offer personalized recommendations and more accurate categorization based on individual preferences and feedback.”

The challenge, however, will come with “balancing company ethics, values, and social mission with the personalization that algorithms and AI are bringing to the world.”

Richards agrees that AI is already showing huge strides in advancement with many streaming sites already presenting users with the style of content they are seeking based on their viewing habits.

Not only that but voice and image search for example is becoming more common, which instantly creates new challenges to how we categorize our content. “Voice search will create more opportunities for specific search based on an individual’s desire, which will create more niche categories across sex and gender,” says Richards. “Tagging will play a more important part allowing us to detail our content far more to work in line with what users are seeking to find.”

There is a growing demand for more inclusive and diverse representations of sexuality. Lust is adamant that viewers are increasingly seeking content that “goes beyond traditional labels and embraces a wide range of identities, orientations, and desires.”

Is it possible that demand for inclusivity will “push the industry to reassess and expand its categorization methods, allowing for a more nuanced and encompassing representation of sexual experiences,” as Lust proposes? For now, we know important shifts are already occurring in these queer and feminist sub-sectors.

Ready for more?
Oli Lipski
Oli Lipski

Oli is a freelance sex tech researcher based in London. With an MA in Sexual Dissidence, researching sex tech, and a BA in History, researching gender and sexuality, she has a keen understanding of the past, present and future of sex. In addition to SEXTECHGUIDE, you can find Oli's work on titles such as shado-mag, QueerMajority, UnicornZine and more.

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