Performers can now run their own shows. Picture: Flickr.com

New York - Kelly Shibari moved from Japan to the US at 15 to attend university, toured as a roadie for rock bands and Broadway shows after graduation, and settled in Los Angeles, where she built a career as a film production designer. 

But in 2007, Hollywood writers went on strike, and work dried up. Shibari was commiserating with others in the industry, wondering how to make ends meet, when a friend dangled an idea: What about … porn?

“My first reaction was, ‘There’s no fat girls in porn,'” Shibari said. And there were definitely no fat Asian girls. “The stereotype of Asians in porn is that they’re long and lean and not very curvy,” she said. “That’s how white Americans see Asian sexuality.”

Defying those conventions worked to Shibari’s advantage, and she staked a claim to a growing niche. By 2016, she had become the first plus-size model featured in the pages of Penthouse. But that recognition came after years of Shibari and other adult entertainers pushing against the industry’s boundaries.

Performers of her size were typically cast in fetish scenes that emphasized their weight - “feeding or gaining or squashing or face sitting,” as she put it. Shibari was more interested in sex. So she started making and distributing her own films, which gave her the freedom to produce the kind of material she would actually want to watch.

“Doing porn, in the beginning, was never about politics,” Shibari said. “I wasn’t trying to break any barriers. I just wanted to have a good time.” And make some money, too. She found that both were more attainable by striking out on her own.

READ: Porn star Stormy Daniels sues Trump for defamation

Shibari’s story, of economic crisis spawning creative solutions, is a familiar one in the porn industry, which is looking less and less like an industry these days. Amateurs are flooding the internet; piracy has addled the once-dominant studios; production has atomized and scattered. But along the way, something interesting has started to happen: Women are rising up.

“The decentralization of the industry is giving workers more power,” said Heather Berg, a lecturer in gender studies at the University of Southern California who studies labor issues in pornography. “It’s now so easy to produce and distribute your own content that workers are a lot less dependent on the boss.”

That means performers can now run their own shows. The rise of webcam work has opened up a style of performance that can be totally controlled by the model in her bedroom. The accessibility of film cameras, alternative hosting sites and webcam tools like Skype have made way for a wider range of sexual and gender representations. And social media has given women a voice offscreen, where they’re puncturing mainstream stereotypes while calling out destructive industry practices, too.

Take Pink and White Productions, which is run by director Shine Louise Houston. In her time working for a sex shop, she had noticed a lack of queer material, so she decided to direct her own. In her first film, Crash Pad (2006), she cast Jiz Lee, a nonbinary artist and porn novice, to star.

“I had always been interested in sex work, but I didn’t think I could do it without changing myself to present more in line with mainstream aesthetics - how I looked and how I had sex,” Lee said. “When I started, it seemed like everybody looked like Stormy Daniels.”

Lee has since performed in many of Houston’s films, but also for mainstream companies like Vivid, and now manages marketing for Pink and White. These days, “we’re seeing more trans people in porn, people of color, queer people, people of size, older people, people with disabilities,” Lee said. “We have a much more expansive vision of what’s possible.”

The rise of webcams has meant a boon in one-woman shops that can accommodate potentially endless performances. “I tend to not maintain the standard of beauty that the industry is looking for,” said Ingrid Mouth, who started performing on webcams when chronic illness made it difficult for her to sustain her career as an illustrator. “When you’re shooting your own content, you’re creating your own narrative. You’re building your own audience. It’s totally open-ended.”

New York Times