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"Everyone Has These Primal Desires:" A Chat With the Organizer of the NYC Porn Film Festival

Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 1.16.16 PM.pngPorn: everyone watches it, but no one wants to talk about it. It was with this basic premise in mind that UK-born, Brooklyn-based artist Simon Leahy put together New York's first-ever pornographic film festival, which is going down this weekend at Bushwick art space Secret Project Robot. The lineup is impressively diverse; from a talk by cultural critic Cindy Gallop to a "clothing optional" party to art house horror-porn to Tila Tequila getting fucked in the ass and a screening of James Franco's Interior. Leather Bar., it's clear Leahy values heavy lifting as much as he does heavy petting. "What we're trying to facilitate is a discussion, and maybe a celebration," he explains.

As an art school grad with a background in radical queer activism, organizer of the Bushwig drag festival, and one third of dance-punk act Bottoms, Leahy seems uniquely qualified to put on a festival that's stimulating to brains and genitals alike. As he rushed around making last minute preparations earlier this week, I called Leahy up for a chat about masturbation etiquette, the line between art and porn, and 2 Girls 1 Cup.

Hi Simon! What are you doing right now?

I'm at Secret Project Robot setting up the show. I have so much fucking work to do! We're just setting up the gallery and installing some paintings and stuff for the festival. We have these beautiful photos by Juliet Taylor called Creatures of the Night. They're these gorgeous portraits of transsexual sex workers at a park in Paris.

How did this festival come into being?

I had the idea to do a porn festival in my mind for three years. And then after Bushwig this year, I was really sad because I had nothing to do. And after Bushwig was such a huge success, I had some time on my hands and I was like "fuck it, now's a good time to do a new project" and this happened. It was only gonna be one day, but then we did the open submission calls and PornHub got involved and threw us a bit of money, so we could expand the schedule and fly people in. Then that thing happened, which got us crazy global press, and now everyone knows about it, it's this huge thing.

So what was the deal with the Miley thing? I feel like you got a lot of weird press from that.

No comment!

Fair enough. What are you hoping to achieve with this festival?

My main interest was basically, "how does porn affect people?" How does porn affect people socially and mentally? And maybe physically. Also, I've been to a lot of festivals, queer festivals, and I didn't want it to be a festival like "God, this is a queer porn film festival." Because I feel like, actually, the porn that people consume isn't necessarily feminist or queer or arty or weird. It's clips you find on sites like Pornhub. I didn't want to shy away from showing the actual content the mainstream consumes. As an experiment, I wanted to get a diverse body of people in a room and show the porn that's being made for a mass audience. The porn that makes money. And I think that in itself could be really powerful and people can draw their own conclusions on what it is, or what it means socially. And it's fun! It doesn't have to be so serious.

Porn is such a polarizing issue...I feel like there are people who think it's ruining society, and people who think it's totally harmless, but the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

Also, there's a lot of hypocrisy surrounding porn. People are like, "oh, you know it's disgusting, it's violent towards women," but people consume it. It's a bizarre double standard. A lot of political activists are like "this is so fucking wrong" but totally watch it. What is going on? We're not shaming anyone, we just want to show it and talk about it and have people engage with it in a different context, apart from their five minute jack-off in the bedroom.

What we're trying to facilitate is a discussion, and maybe a celebration. It's okay to have desires. Not all women that are sex workers or porn stars are being abused. No more than working at McDonald's. Porn can be highly politicized and I think it's interesting to talk about these issues because I feel like they underpin a lot of capitalist society's ideas of work, labor, oppression, et cetera.

How is the porn in the festival organized?

We're mixing things up as much as possible. We don't wanna go along any certain discourse of "oh, here's the feminist section." Basically, you're gonna come and see things that are really pornographic, things you might get off on, and things that are gonna shock you. A mixture of sexy, riot, queer, hetero, bisex, trans-sex, no sex, asexual people, all people, young people. A plethora.

Where's the line between art and porn? Or is it more of a fuzzy grey area?

There are overlaps. We're trying to walk the line. It could be a fucking disaster.

Are people allowed to masturbate in the theater? What's the etiquette there?

No, you're not! People aren't allowed to come and jack off. But you can maybe do it in the bathroom quickly, and hurry up if there's a line.

How did PornHub get involved? It's kind of crazy to see such a big company sponsoring something at Secret Project Robot.

It was kind of a roundabout way. Cindy Gallop [of Make Love Not Porn] suggested some people there,  because I was like,"if we can get money we can get a talk schedule going and pay people for their time." So we reached out to them and they were like "yeah, this is great, we're down." But also, I feel like PornHub are more of a tech firm than a porn site. They're more like YouTube or Google. They don't actually produce porn, they're basically a media sharing website at heart.

How do your filmmakers break down, in terms of identity?

The weird thing is that when the open submission call happened, we went really broad. It went slightly mainstream, so straight hetero males would have read it. But most of the people submitting stuff, 70% of the people were women. Even though porn is very male-dominated, the hetero, cis white men haven't stepped up to really produce anything.

You've got some Vivid stuff though, right?

I had to ask for that stuff. I wanted to show this porn people consume to a vast audience like, "hey, look at this. Is this okay? How does everyone feel about it? Is anyone being oppressed? Who's benefiting from this? Is it enjoyable?" All these things. I'm really pleased they gave us the Tila Tequila one. We asked for the Kim Kardashian tape first, but they can't show it anywhere. She's over porn.

What are you hoping to achieve by including celebrities in the fest?

The world of celebrity is so fucking insane. For example, Interior. Leather Bar, James Franco's film -- I think if James Franco wasn't famous and that film had come out, it would've been received differently. Some people were like "this is the worst film" and some more artsy publications were like "this is really good" but I feel like, because of James Franco and because of the weight of his celebrity, it distorts the way people view things. Things are viewed through this skewed lens. It's fucking weird. He might be coming! He said "maybe." If he comes, I've already told my girls to keep their fucking hands off him.

What was your criteria when selecting programming?

Variety, but also...my attention span is not very good. So we don't wanna show 40 minutes of fucking lovers running through a field naked or something. The focus was on short films. No one wants to sit through 40 minutes of boring porn. Personally, I always skip to the money shot, honey.

Sometimes the acting is the best part.

Well, we have a film that is basically tons of gay porn but with all the sex edited out so its just the dialogue before sex. Which is a short as well, so no one will get bored.

How has porn affected your life?

I'm married and monogamous now, but before I was interested in the fetishization of bareback sex and AIDS, basically. What happened to the gay community after the crisis, after everyone died, and then the '90s we were fed these slogans...studios like Treasure Island Media started making films where they tear the condom off and fuck, or do drugs and have crazy bareback orgies...I feel like everyone has these primal desires, and some people go there, like some of my friends do the shit that they've seen in porn. But personally, I've done things that I've regret. I've put myself in situations that could have been bad for my health, and whether that was due to porn or not is a question. But I don't need an answer for it. I'm an adult, and this is sexuality. There's no shame in it.

I've definitely been in situations where a guy tried to bust out a move he saw in porn and I was like, "what are you doing, this is awful."

Sometimes it's cool, depending on how they do it. I've been in those situations too where it's like, "can you stop sounding like a porn star, it's not hot." Like, first of all you're Irish, I don't know where the fake American accent came from, honey. And second, I'm not a fucking porn star and you don't look like one either!

I feel like they get women's pleasure especially wrong -- or at least what's pleasurable for the majority of women. I realize not everyone likes the same things.  

I feel like women's voices are pushed aside in the mainstream media narratives...and there's a lot of shame around women having a sexuality. In England they just banned female ejaculation. The video-recording of female ejaculation is banned in England. You can go to prison for filming a woman ejaculating. It's like, why? These things have bigger political implications about the Catholic society and control and oppression. It could lead into those big heavyweight discussions. And there are crazy laws in America, like obscenity laws, which we're thinking about doing a schedule on next year.

It's basically up to the government and the lawyers to decide what is obscene and without cultural merit. That's fucked up. [Bottoms singer] Jake and I have this idea about doing these pieces around testing the obscenity laws, which is really highly political and we could go to prison, but we don't care! Me and Jake are gonna reproduce 2 Girls 1 Cup as frightening drag queens. 

I mean, the Real Housewives shows are pretty low on cultural merit, but you don't see those people getting thrown in jail. 

I feel like everything should be free and open for discussion without the threat of imprisonment. It's the policing of thought.

What are you most looking forward to about the fest?

I'm looking forward to doing what I set out to do, which is to show porn and get people in a room together to watch it. And to see how people react, and what they take away from it.

The NYC Porn Film Festival kicks off tonight and runs through the weekend. Tickets and times here

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