Suicide Girls Quit The Site, Charging Exploitation and Male-Domination

This is interesting:

A group of angry ex-models is bashing the SuicideGirls alt-porn empire, saying its embrace of the tattoo and nipple-ring set hides a world of exploitation and male domination.

The women are spreading their allegations through the blogosphere, raising the hackles of the SuicideGirls company, which has until now enjoyed a reputation as porn even feminists can love. It offers burlesque tours, clothes and DVDs in addition to a sprawling online library of naked punk and goth women.

“The recent accusations are a little upsetting,” said “Missy,” the co-founder of SuicideGirls. “We think they’re all pretty much unfounded.”

According to the site’s critics, about 30 SuicideGirls.com models have quit in disgust over the past few weeks. Despite their resignations, their photos remain on the site, minus their ubiquitous SuicideGirls online journals.

I wonder if the company is still making money off of the pictures and whether the models agreed to let the pictures stay. Or if, at some point, they signed away the rights to their images.

Still, the woman-friendly reputation of SuicideGirls is being battered. Since its creation in 2001, media outlets have lauded the company’s focus on goth, indie and punk models who aren’t necessarily big-busted and bikini-waxed. “It wasn’t the first alt-porn site to come along, but it was certainly the most widely promoted and probably the most influential,” said John d’Addario, editor of the porn blog Fleshbot.

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.

SuicideGirls has always been billed as porn even feminists could love. Personally, I have always been skeptical. I’ve seen young women who are not models sign up as members — their profiles indicate that they are tittilated by the idea of male attraction by association with the site brand and models.

In any case, the idea that the majority of these models are in any way an alternative to the norm is disingenuous. Throwing a tattoo on a sexpot makes… a tattooed sexpot. Most of the women featured on the site are traditionally attractive. A labret does not alt.porn make.

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.”

I already knew that it was run by a man, but really, his gender is beyond the point. What matters is a) whether the company is as female-friendly as they purport to be, and b) whether the models are treated ethically.
For more detailed accounts, see two anti-SG blogs here and here.

And for what it’s worth, I believe SG is also in partnership with Playboy, a corporation not exactly known for it’s woman-friendly atmosphere. *

I’m curious what their specific charges are, more specific than the ones above. If they have not been paid their full $300 per shoot, there’s a problem. If the company is raking in money off of their pictures and the women want more money per set, I think that’s fair game. If there is proof of sexual harassment or some other something that constitutes “treating women poorly,” there is certainly a reason to expose the site for what it (potentially) is.

I don’t get off on exploitation.

* I’m not necessarily in ideological cahoots with the thoughts in this article, but do note Hugh Hefner’s response to marketing his products to teen girls and his curfew for the bunnies. Classy shit, you smarmy old man.

via Varkentine

UPDATE Hugo has more:

…this is where I find the likes of Larry Flynt (publisher of Hustler) to be less offensive than men like Sean Suhl of Suicide Girls. Flynt doesn’t pretend he’s empowering his models; he embraces raunch with a bracingly candid enthusiasm that even his detractors often find to be — almost — winsome. Fellas like Suhl are out to make money off women’s bodies in much the same way Flynt is, but in Suhl’s case, greed seems hidden behind the rhetoric of edginess, alternative culture, and a rather shallow feminism.

Word.


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34 Responses to Suicide Girls Quit The Site, Charging Exploitation and Male-Domination

  1. Jill says:

    Damn. Removing that site from my bookmarks…

  2. KnifeGhost says:

    I’m proud, though, that Claudia left.

    I’ve never been a big fan of the site, though (other than Claudia), mostly because I’m not a big fan of the skinny-tattooed-dyed-and-pierced aethstic, and because the famme-power alterna-chick thing always rang a bit hollow to me.

  3. Lauren says:

    the femme-power alterna-chick thing always rang a bit hollow to me

    Ditto.

  4. Auguste says:

    Ah, Suicide Girls. Portland’s contribution to the world of porn. Well, that and our most-per-capita fully-nude strip clubs. I was never tuned into the hype (or the site, frankly), but always bought the party line that it was the American Apparel of the skin industry.

    Apparently, it was the American Apparel of the skin industry.

  5. Hugo says:

    Two of my former students ended up as Suicide Girls. (I know this because they told me, not because I’m a visitor/member). I haven’t seen their pics, but I remember one of the gals writing a very impassioned journal entry about empowerment. I’m curious to know what she thinks now…

    I’ve made my anti-porn feelings fairly clear, and this story, frankly, reinforces what I’ve always felt — that “grrl-friendly” erotica flatters young women’s sense of autonomy while still making oodles of money for men.

  6. Agi T. Prop says:

    I dug the site for the tattoos. Oh well. I have just de-linked them from my blog.

  7. stone says:

    i like SG mainly because the girls are not your standard pr0n body type. not huge fake tittied, made up, unrealistic fantasy women. but real girls with real bodies that are really sexy. tats and piercings were irrelavent, or i guess, more of a garnish.

  8. Amy Bo Bamy says:

    The site is also under investigation by the FBI, thanks to the new war on porn.

    I think we could be using those resources elsewhere, but that’s just me.

  9. piny says:

    i like SG mainly because the girls are not your standard pr0n body type. not huge fake tittied, made up, unrealistic fantasy women. but real girls with real bodies that are really sexy. tats and piercings were irrelavent, or i guess, more of a garnish.

    Like the Dove ads, there are some important questions of degree here. While the Suicide Girls look like human women rather than emissaries from Planet FemBot, they’re still largely conventionally pretty with a soupcon of punkishness. I don’t remember many very large women or big mean butches, and I think most of the models are white, young, and not disabled. The models for OOB are one example of a technically-mainstream mag with a lot more female diversity.

  10. kate says:

    i have a vague recollection that Bitch magazine ran a skeptical story about SG awhile back…i’ll have to go through the archives and see just how prescient they were….

  11. Jacqui says:

    SG has been looooooooong abhored by the photography community, as they have been very notorious for writing up disgustingly one-sided contracts and, even if negotiated, severely abusing them regardless of legalities. Photographers I know are constantly warning models to stay the hell away for this reason, as they undoubtedly severely abuse their models as well.

  12. piny says:

    They did indeed, bless their feminist hearts–I couldn’t tell you what issue. They had a “sex” issue a few months back, but that might be too recent. Their objections were along the lines of the ones made in comments. I don’t know if they mentioned anything about abuse or potential abuse, but they may have commented on the low pay scale.

  13. Kim says:

    Wow. I actually signed up for the SG thing… but backed out. Looks like maybe my gut was right. I had no idea they were affiliated with Playboy.

  14. Hugo says:

    Thanks for the link and the “word”, Lauren!

  15. Thomas says:

    I gave up on mainstream porn years ago, because I just can’t feel good about the way it presents women, and I have real concerns about what it does to the women portrayed. I did subscribe to SG for one month, but I let it lapse. As Piny said, the women were all young and conventionally attractive, and all I saw was a mainstream formula with a new twist on the classic playmate profiles and some tattoos and piercings. Add punk and stir. Fake empowerment. No thanks.

    I’m not of the view that visual depictions of women being sexual are inherently exploitive. I know folks that hold that view, and I respect it, but I don’t share it. I would love to find places where women who are so inclined can express their sexuality visually to a wider audience, but not if they are doing it because they lack other good options or because folks are pressuring (or forcing) them. That doesn’t leave much.

  16. Jimmy Ho says:

    Kate,

    I too remembered that Bitch article as soon as I saw this post’s title (the article is also why I am not surprised with how this turned out). PinkDreamPoppies had linked to it at Alas back in the years.

  17. Jill says:

    I’m not of the view that visual depictions of women being sexual are inherently exploitive. I know folks that hold that view, and I respect it, but I don’t share it. I would love to find places where women who are so inclined can express their sexuality visually to a wider audience, but not if they are doing it because they lack other good options or because folks are pressuring (or forcing) them. That doesn’t leave much.

    I’m with you, Thomas. If you discover such a place, clue me in.

    One question to ask is if it could even possibly exist.

  18. I always figured SG was some goth chick fetish site and never paid it any attention.

    I would love to find places where women who are so inclined can express their sexuality visually to a wider audience…

    I don’t think it’s possible to perform a private act in public for an audience and NOT be exploitative in some way.

  19. Thomas says:

    David, in a sense that is correct, but it “proves too much,” to use a term of art. One could say that to be prurient is exploitive in a way. It exploits the shock of the audience. But if doing what is private in public is always exploitive, then Holly Hughes is exploitive: she exposes the private workings of her own mind and insecurities in public for money. And she’s exploiting our reaction to it. I’m still perfectly comfortable watching it.

    There are specific kinds of exploitation that bother me, and that I don’t want to participate in. I don’t want to have access to a piece of some woman’s sexuality because she’s broke and does not have better options. I don’t want to have access to a piece of some woman’s sexuality because she’s coerced into it by some guy, or because she’s shitfaced and will regret it later.

    If a woman is simply angry and defiant and wants to show her breasts in public because she wants to comment on why patriarchal rules tell her when she can and can’t show her breasts (I have read in interviews that Lynn Breedlove of Tribe 8 does this, but I’ve never seen the band), then you might say that I’m “exploiting” her angry reaction to patriarchy. I’m okay with that.

    I’m also not sure I’m on board with the way you’re using the word “private.” In a world where sexuality is defined by the set of patriarchal gender norms that I want to change, maintaining a total sphere of privacy around sexuality is simply to isolate it. Nobody develops as a sexual being in a test tube: we develop in response to cues from the culture, and from our sex partners. If we withdraw from public expression about sex, then the dominant culture is the only message: mandatory heterosexuality, PV intercourse as the paradigm, and worse: as MacKinnon said, “man fucks woman: subject verb object.”

    In order for anyone outside that paradigm — whether queer or sex radical or simply someone who does not want to have a sex life defined by a progression from “foreplay” to PV intercourse — unless they are truly remarkable, they have to have some idea that there are people and models outside the dominant paradigm. For example, it’s a lot tougher and more damaging for a girl to grow up lesbian if nobody ever tells her what a lesbian is. In fact, that’s what the wingnuts want: to destroy all non-pathological depictions of gay, lesbian or bisexual existence, because when there is no positive representation, any departure from the patriarchal proscription is by default defective.

    I just can’t say this strongly enough: demanding that sexuality is private is to build a closet and let a lot of folks be pushed into it.

  20. Jimmy Ho says:

    I will go back to silence, but I was reminded of another “take” on that Suicide website: this old Nothing Nice to Say strip by Mitch Clem.

  21. alextree says:

    right on Thomas –

    I kept track of SG for a while, though I was never a subscriber. I kept enough track that I know who most of the women who quit are. I had hope that it was as decent as it sounded, but I’m not surprised that it’s turned out otherwise. Basic, sexist analysis? A man should never have control over a bunch of womens’ bodies, especially when there is money and power involved, even on the internet.

    I’m not particularly distressed by porn, especially polite objectification of the SG type. Maybe it’s because most of my peers have had internet access pretty much since puberty and it’s something that’s been fairly openly discussed in my life. I am extremely distressed by exploitation of labor. I wonder if any of the complaints here are of the type one can file lawsuit over? If they can, they should.

    (to be fair, and feminist, I am in fact distressed that women are a spectacle and men are not. I’m also a heterosexual female, though, and it is fair to say the internet is not filling my need for artfully-presented hipster boys nattering about body positivity.)

  22. Lauren says:

    Nice comic, Jimmy. I think the artist’s take below the ads is worth reading as well.

  23. Xeni Jardin at boing boing has a couple of posts about this matter: I & 2.

  24. Pingback: Official Shrub.com Blog » Blog Archive » The Ugly Side of “Alternative” Porn

  25. Thomas says:

    AlexTree, I think it’s really telling that there are not a lot of places for women to look at naked men (Sweet Action notwithstanding, which I have not seen, but which I think represents itself as scruffy Brooklyn hipster boys getting naked for a female audience).

    It’s not as if there are not women who want to see naked men — but the overwhelming audience for naked men is gay men. It’s also not as if men won’t do sex work — there are plenty of men doing gay porn for the money. So either women cannot afford to consume images of naked men, which is a problem, or cultural constraints still prevent women from doing so, which is a problem.

  26. Dilan Esper says:

    It seems to me that feminist porn is quite possible– I am not completely sure of this, having never been there, but the unionized Lusty Lady strip bar in San Francisco comes to mind, and certainly there has been enough attention given to porn movie directors who put more into their movies than just a series of penetration scenes and money shots.

    Nonetheless, what Suicide Girls demonstrates is something that we’ve known for a long time in a lot of contexts– that “feminism” is easily co-optable, at least in the sense of the broad notion of “female empowerment”. The Dove ads, for instance, are not by a longshot the first time that Madison Avenue has used quasi-feminist rhetoric to sell products; a particularly outrageous example from the past was Virginia Slims cigarettes, which were marketed under the slogan “we’ve come a long way, baby”. Virginia Slims also sponsored the women’s tennis tour for many years– the first (and perhaps the only) sports franchise that affords women athletes a shot at comparable compensation to what their male counterparts get.

    The point is, of course, that the customers of purportedly “feminist” commercial products often don’t discern– or sometimes don’t even care– whether the actual product benefits women. That is certainly the case with Suicide Girls– the guys who pay to see naked women on that site may feel elevated by the feminist message, but they are still logging on to see the naked chicks. They aren’t going to spend much time figuring out if the site actually lives up to its rhetoric.

    This makes it very hard for people who actually do advocate a pro-porn, pro-sex feminism and want to recast sexual expression in a more feminist direction. If the customers are making their purchasing decisions based on the surface veneer and not an actual commitment to feminism, it’s always going to be really easy for men who care about money rather than feminism to step in with Potemkin feminism along the lines that Virginia Slims sold 30 years ago.

  27. Thomas says:

    Dilan, Amen.

    Someone on Hugo’s blog said that the criteria for truly different sexual expression be that the models 1) control the content and context; and 2) that it’s not financially exploitive, and preferably not even commercial. I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that. The financial motive is far and away the one that is most likely to produce oppression masquerading as empowerment. What is produced for free just because the producer wants to speak, we can count on mostly to faithfully represent someone’s vision.

    Of course, there are not exactly a lot of places I know of where women put recognizable images of themselves being sexual in a public space other than for profit.

  28. ika says:

    Slight tangent here. A close friend of mine involved in the legal field found that Playboy, from the employee side, was actually a much more female friendly, comfortable working environment than the previous law firms where she worked, which she characterized as very strongly a men’s club (gen. extending that to comment that it was a white men’s club). She found that the hours were more conducive to her balance of family life, that co-workers were more supportive, and that she was less likely to be passed over for challenging work assignments based on her gender. While there seem to be clear an genuine issues with the Suicide Girls’ conduct, it seems like it would be difficult to say that it is as horrid and exploitive as portrayed without saying that there still might be empowering components to the experience of a participating member. I would think that for women coming from backgrounds that are very traditional or conservative, where even this more mild form of alternative culture would still be heavily criticized and where religion-driven guilt over sexuality reigns (which is still large chunks of less urban areas of this country), the chance to present an image you identify with and your sexuality might very well be a positive experience. While I believe that there should be criticism over such issues as contract handling and whether there is an unfair bargaining position used to exploit members, I think those exist as an element of many labor disputes outside the industry of adult-oriented entertainment. There is a strong position that there should be more diversity (size, shape and color) to the world of burlesque, but I think it is developing (albeit slowly) over time and I think that the Suicide Girls have popularized the medium so that such diversity may follow as more women are engaged in this type of expression.

  29. Logan says:

    I had a girlfriend who worked for Playboy for two years as a web developer. Her experience was the same as your friend’s, ika. It was a very woman and family friendly company. That may be in part Christy Hefner’s leadership, but HH always like to run his company like a family.

  30. Laura says:

    As a former suicide girl who left the site 2 years ago, I’ll say that SG is run like a family… a very dysfunctional family where whatever the “father” says goes, and the women and children keep silent. I thought it would be a great outlet to express myself in ways I felt closed off from beforehand… nudity never meant a whole lot to me but art has. However, that pipe dream was obliterated with really bad pictures and little control over what I really wanted to be on the site, among other things. It’s about time other women are leaving. And it’s true, in a sense, that they are a symptom of a social disease. Hopefully this walking away is a symptom of a cure… perhaps even a true future for the feminist movement.

  31. Karen Healey says:

    I wrote my MA thesis on objectification and subjectivity in the journals of the Suicide Girls, and one of the major problems I discussed in it was the fact that although the girls are supposed to be able to control their photoshoots, once they’ve sold them to the site, that’s it. The photos then belong to the site, and can be used in anyway SG.com sees fit.

    The site’s common practice with ex-models is to keep the photos archived, but delete the journals. The hypocrisy of this cannot be overstated for a site which actively distances itself from “mainsream” porn through the pro-feminist tropes of giving “voice” and “control” to the women depicted on the site.

    I’m glad there’s a shitstorm over this latest, bulk defection, and that more follow. As has been remarked, at least Larry Flynt’s upfront about being a patriarchal exploiter. The SG team’s hypocrisy sickens and revolts me far more, because there’s a chance people will buy into their “empowerment” spin.

  32. Dia says:

    I really, really like what Laura had to say.
    Ignore the troll, he’s done that everywhere online I’ve clicked.
    I’ve walked away over 2 years ago myself and am finding myself now strongly desiring creating a non-profit group to benefit women, in response to my own and the negative experiences of others who were involved. I did work with non-profits for awhile but not as a radical feminist or anything, mainly for child welfare.
    I’m Feminism With An FU. You can’t take my punk. I’m 30 now.
    I want to make beauty out of what was ugliness.
    If anyone can steer me in the directions of the best charities that need the most help, I’d really appreciate it. I’m filing the papers tomorrow and feel very at peace, finally.

  33. sherry says:

    I have some stupid questions:

    Why is it that “women expressing their sexuality” always involves being looked at rather than doing the looking?

    Might “feminist porn” require a bit of equality with regard to which gender is displaying their bodies for the pleasure of the viewer?

    I’m afraid I find “sex positive” or “pro sex” feminism suspect because I inevitably hear its proponents talk about some form of female sexuality in which the women get looked at but don’t do any looking. I do not hear discussions about porn, stripping, or prostitution that involve serving (tittilating? benefiting?) women in the same way that men are served.

    Do other straight women like to look at naked men?

    Am I out of touch with reality? Am I missing something?

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