The Ugly Side of "Alternative" Porn

On my thread about NOW’s use of American Apparel (AA) products, I got into a long debate with reader Anika, who felt that I, and many other feminists, had unfairly singled out AA and ignored other companies:

I have yet to see any retailer or manufacturer be subjected to this level of scrutiny – to the extent that a well meaning person such as yourself demands that NOW boycott their products.

Well, just for Anika I have created a new category called “Companies Behaving Badly”. I wanted to call it “Bad Company!” in tribute of a site my mom used to run, but I decided that it sounded too much like a dichotomy that left no room for a mixture of good and bad. So, in honour of my new category, I’ve decided to plough headlong into a critique of another company, Suicide Girls (SG).

Now, I had known for a long time some of the sketchy business practices that the company engages in. I had heard the complaints from the models about poor treatment, the allegations about their journals being censored (when the company profited off of the “uncensored” nature of those same journals), and all that. It was maybe a year or two ago, and I started a personal boycott of the company. I would certainly speak out to any sex-positive organization that was taken in by SG’s “grrl power” hype.

Recent kerfluffle is that 30 models have left over what they feel is bad business practices. The problems range from financial disagreements, to unauthorized modification and censorship of journals, to termination of models who shot for other companies, and even verbal abuse by Sean Suhl, a co-founder of SG. The first two grievances are the same I remember from before, but the last one is quite shocking. I’m going to address it later, but first I want to give a little background on how SG presents itself as a company.

The message of business-side female empowerment hasn’t hurt either. “The perception that women had an important/equal role in the administration of the site probably made it more attractive to some people who might not have visited a porn site otherwise,” d’Addario said.

Two of the ex-models say they were attracted by the empowerment message, too. “I liked that you had a journal and voice, you had the chance to make your own (photo) sets,” said “Dia,” a 30-year-old former model who doesn’t wish to be identified because she now works outside the porn business in Northern California.

“I looked forward to making great art,” added Dia, who has unsuccessfully tried to get her photos off the site.

She and other models say that contrary to its image as a women-run operation, SuicideGirls is actually controlled by a man — co-founder Sean Suhl. They accuse him of treating women poorly and failing to pay them enough. (According to the site’s FAQ, SuicideGirls models get paid $300 per photo set.)

“The only reasons I’m doing this and I’m sticking my neck out is that people, especially females who are 18 years old and want to be a SuicideGirl, need to understand who they’re representing,” said 28-year-old ex-model Jennifer Caravella of San Francisco, who said she goes by the name “Sicily.” “It’s certainly not a group of women who are working together for this.”

[From SuicideGirls Gone AWOL by Randy Dotinga on Wired News]

It should be noted that Missy, the other founder of SG, disagrees with the claims about her co-founder because the majority of the office workers are women. I would like to point out that, as with AA (whose upper management, according to Anika, is 60% female), employing women is only one part of creating an egalitarian office space. I have to say that I’m less concerned with a man being a co-founder, though, and more concerned that a company that purports to have equal representation of women in the administration could shaft its models so badly on important areas like pay and free speech. I can understand not wanting models publishing journal entries that criticize the company, but I think that it’s unethical (if not illegal) to ghostwrite a journal without the original author’s permission.

I also get the feeling from various things the ex-models have said, that the “standard” contracts don’t do much in the way of protecting the models’ rights. Some of my biggest criticisms of the porn industry treats its workers (and, indeed, how society in general views and treats sex workers as a whole) is that they are often times put at risk, denied access to certain rights and benefits like a fair wage, and seen as objects for purchase rather than people selling a product (sex). The last point is illustrated by Suhl’s belief in his right to verbally abuse the women who work for him and can be seen in other areas such as stripping, ala. Robin’s Tales from the Boobiebar.

Sicily, a former SG model, speaks about her experiences with Suhl [emphasis mine]:

i have seen sean working hard on this project and know that it has been a huge frustration for him. my only grievance over the dvd is that i was lied to and told things like, ‘the dvd sucks because you guys are a bunch of vapid idiots’ and ‘an ass sex video wouldn’t have paid you as much’.
This leads me to the constant verbal abuse and threats that sean dishes out to models, or anyone who gets close enough to experience his personality. i have heard him call everyone in the office “fucking morons and idiots” on numerous occasions. i have heard him call models, “sluts”, “whores”, “junkies”, “stupid”, etc…this list is longer that i care to write. in fact the burlesque tour girls had an on-going joke about this, and actually wrote and taped a piece of paper that read “YOU SUCK! – from sean” on our costume bin. sometimes ya gotta make light of the ugly stuff. i have watched girls (my friends) cry themselves to sleep at night (on numerous occasions) due to his verbals insults and downright mean behavior. i have also heard sean laugh about it later…amused at his own demeaning antics.

[From Suicide Girls: More Sad Tales, quoted text by Sicily]

As any survivor of verbal abuse knows, insults like the ones attributed to Suhl are used to dehumanize and control those that they’re used against. They also constitute sexual harassment under US law and are inappropriate in any setting, much less a workplace that is supposedly “equal” and “empowering”. Every person deserves their right to personhood to be protected by law, but more often than not I read stories where victims in the sex industry are blamed for their abuse by police, news organizations, random people who hear about the issues, and even the government itself.

Sex workers deserve the same rights and respect we give any employees. I’m going to make the same criticism that many of the posters on this situation have made: SG isn’t “alternative porn”, it’s mainstream porn with a new face. There’s nothing subversive about that.

Read More on the Issue:

Via feministe.

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This entry was posted in Abuse, rape, and domestic violence, Companies Behaving Badly, Gender issues, Pornography, Sex, sexuality, and sexual politics, The Evil -ism's. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to The Ugly Side of "Alternative" Porn

  1. Ex SG Member says:

    I posted a message to the Suicide Girls message boards explaining why I had decided to cancel my membership.

    After posting, I attempted to cancel my membership only to discover that they had ALREADY cancelled it for me.

    Wow! They really do run that place with an iron fist. I can only imagine how the models were treated.

  2. Ex SG Member says:

    Forgot to mention that SG also removed my post called “Why I’m cancelling my membership.”

  3. tekanji says:

    I’m sad to say, but what you describe isn’t surprising, given what the ex-models have experienced.

    While writing this post, I was looking on the SG website (trying to find a statement about their company, but all I found was quotes from other organizations) and came across this little gem in their FAQ:

    1.06 The staff wasn’t fair to me, who can I make an appeal to?

    No one. Whining about things not being fair is for grade school kids and college professors. Those of us who live in the real world think you should shut up and move on.

    Now that’s award winning customer service right there!

    Seriously, though, I have to question the fitness of a company that has no regard for fairness. Furthermore, I don’t think it’s “cool” or whatever to refuse to have any systems of checks and balances in place to ensure their site remains professional and above the board.

    Honestly, if this company wasn’t part of the sex industry I have a feeling it would have been reported to the Better Business Bureau by now.

  4. Pingback: Feministe » Even More on the SG Front

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  6. bob says:

    I think the fact that suicide girls has lost a very minimal number of models (compared to real world turnover numbers, theirs are outstanding), and the fact that many of the ones that have left seem to have issues of the mental kind , seems to indicate that this is a non-issue and simply provides more advertising for SG. Remember, most of the people whining still pay their memberships.

  7. Ben says:

    Hey, my name’s Ben, I write the Dictionopolis In Digitopolis blog linked above. Someone “anonymous” (Bob?) left a link there, to the same page that is referenced in the previous comment.

    Um…it doesn’t wholly help their case. In that, if you’re going to accuse someone of having “mental issues,” it helps to come off as if you yourself have at least a third grade education. As opposed to seeming like the sort of ranting luntatic you expect to see outside stores begging for change.

  8. Pingback: Official Blog » Blog Archive » Think women have achieved equality? Think again.

  9. prefer to remain anonymous says:

    It’s a really typically sexist tactic to accuse women of having “issues of the mental kind.” Many people are aware of the origins of the word hysteria as being related to the uterus.

    There is now a boycott going on on Myspace of the site and it links to this blog and a whole lot more. Kinda cool.

  10. Jeff says:

    At first, I thought it was my imagination when I dropped by the Suicide Girls Site ( I was a member ) and saw my profile suddenly deleted? With an invitation to “cancel” if I DID NOT like it! That knocked the wind out of me, because I really liked the Website and as an experienced marketer and a fan, merely offered a couple of suggestions for improving the Website. Plus, I left a nice message for one of the models… Well, that was enough to get me BANNED! What a bunch of arrogant Jerks. I’m not too surprised by the negative Buzz and commentary now developing over this enterprise…


    aka “Jungle Jim”

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  14. Anon says:

    Just replying to the reference to the Better Business Bureau below… the BBB is not a regulatory body in any way, shape, or form. It is a business about ranking businesses. Businesses pay to be members of the BBB, and after doing so usually have their ratings greatly upgraded. “Reporting” anything to the BBB accomplishes absolutely nothing except for recording your complaint for others to see. Who do you know that has actually looked up a BBB listing before purchasing a good or service from a company? (caveat: that isn’t a big ticket purchase)

  15. kellykop says:

    Suicide Girls are [ad hominem removed by moderator], it needs to go away, all this Suicide Girl stuff.

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