It’s the dawn of Trump’s America and I’m in San Francisco’s Mission District filming a porno called Make America Cum Again, supine on a workout mat, video camera in hand, trying to find the perfect angle on a naked pair of butt cheeks. The buns belong to Andre Shakti, one of the film’s stars, whose Twitter bio reads “Writer. Wrestler. Slut.” She’s wearing an assless wrestling singlet, revealing toned legs with tattoos on the back of each thigh that say “No Money” and “No Honey,” respectively.
Upon action, Shakti grabs her co-star, James Darling, a female-to-male transgender adult-film actor, by his polo shirt. Darling is playing an uptight Republican who has accidentally wandered into “a queer-resistance wrestling training session,” where a group of citizen-soldiers prepare to wage hand-to-hand combat against the patriarchy. Shakti is playing the wrestling coach, warming up before her students arrive. She rips off Darling’s Make America Great Again hat, tosses it on the ground, and squashes it with her socked feet like a cockroach. Then she picks it up and wipes her crack with it.
Clothes fly off, and the two characters wrestle away their ideological differences until Shakti straps on a dildo and takes Darling from behind. Between thrusts, as the camera rolls, she pants, “How long… do I have to fuck you… to fuck the Trump out of you?”
Madison Young, a veteran feminist porn actress and director with champagne-colored hair, kneels beside me. She likes what she’s just seen. “You’ve done this before,” she tells me. “You’re secretly a porn director, aren’t you?”
Maybe I’m just a quick study. I matriculate in porn school on a drizzling Friday morning, in a small room in a community center normally used for sexual counseling. The day begins, as so many school days do, with the students going around a circle introducing themselves—only in this case my seven classmates and I also pass around Young’s crystal necklace and share our preferred gender pronouns.
Young is the founder and host of the Erotic Film School, the only of its kind in the world. The three-day, $1,200 course, teaches everything an aspiring smut peddler needs to know about making pornography. Armed with a mix of technical, theoretical, and practical knowledge, we will develop, shot-list, storyboard, film, and edit a five-minute porno, using real professional actors. On Sunday we’ll screen it at a so-called “dirty” comedy show before a live audience.
Some students belong to the bondage and S&M communities. Lux Lives, whose actual name is Julia, is tall and fair with Kool-Aid blue hair. Before recently settling in Las Vegas to focus on her cam girl career, she says, “I porned my way around the country for six months,” living out of her car. Master Scorpio, a middle-aged black man with a shaved head, salt-and-pepper goatee, and black hoodie, developed a passion for porn while sneaking into adult theaters as a kid in the ’70s. He’s the proprietor of a local S&M workshop called Dark Eros Dojo. Dawn, who lives in Salt Lake City, hosts a sex podcast; Ariel, whose pronouns include he, she, and they, is a Burning Man regular. Brandon, a handsome Chinese-American from Oakland, experienced a sexual awakening when he saw a sex and relationship counselor after a failed relationship; Calista Roxxx acts in fetish videos; and Rob, an engineer from L.A., does black-and-white pinup photography in his spare time.
Essentially, the course consists of a group of eager and earnest individuals gathered together to make some woke-ass porn. I’m not exactly a natural fit: I’m not an avid connoisseur of porn and my sex life is pretty vanilla. I’ve never been bound or gagged or whipped or peed on. I’ve come here not so much out of passion, but instead out of curiosity, to ask certain questions, like: Why does the world need an Erotic Film School? And, what’s the difference between an erotic film school and a regular film school, apart from, you know, the obvious?
I’m also here to explore a budding porn movement that the school represents, one about sexual empowerment and openness for people of all orientations and body types. There are now dozens of film festivals around the world—from Dan Savage’s nationwide HUMP! Film Festival to COVEN in Berlin to New York’s CineKink—that perpetuate this movement, a celebration of human sexuality in all its rich and slightly sticky tapestry. Madison Young, 37, has been making this type of porn for her entire career. She’s directed and starred in some 50 films, including her first feature, Bondage Boob Tube, which earned her a Feminist Porn Award. Her Erotic Film School attempts to turn porn back into the art form she argues it can be. Pornography, Young believes, is a form of resistance in the age of Trump. At the Erotic Film School, students don’t make films for mass masturbation—this is porn as politics, politics as porn.
Young, who once performed while nine months pregnant, is a mother of two who looks like a hippyish Jessica Chastain. She wears a beige knit shawl over a turquoise dress and has a wrist tattoo of a heart bound in rope. She came of age in the early 1990s, at the height of the do-it-yourself Riot Grrrl era that propelled the Pacific Northwest punk scene.
Fast-food porn companies are in it strictly for profit, DIY pornographers are fueled by passion.
At 20, Young founded a feminist art gallery. To pay for her artistic endeavors, she explored sex work, at first posing for local fetish photographers and then acting in porn. She became part of a group called the “Queer Porn Mafia,” which she recalls as “very queer, very rough.” Aboard a Greyhound bus one day, she began storyboarding what became Bondage Boob Tube, a pervy Pleasantville in which the characters’ orgasms turn a black-and-white world into color. Other films in the Young oeuvre include the David Bowie-inspired StarrLust Experience and Tangled Heart Strings, about two women in a triad relationship with an electric guitar.
“One of the things that we’re shifting and changing here at Erotic Film School and within feminist porn, sex-positive porn, is changing porn from the perceived notion of what we think people think is hot, to documenting sexual culture as it is, and the sexual culture we hope to see in the world. It’s a very strong and powerful medium,” Young tells the class. She argues that people are making this new kind of porn to combat, or at least provide an alternative to, what she calls “fast food porn”—the plotless, heteronormative, brutally utilitarian kind found in vast quantities on websites like PornHub and YouPorn.
After a snack break of bagels with hummus, Young breezes through a PowerPoint presentation that covers the basics of making conscientious porn. To name a few: Pay your actors decently (up to $1,500 per day for a woman doing a scene with a man; between $400 and $600 for a male actor, who is often referred to as the “penis” on set); know your actors’ wants, needs, favorite lubricants, etc.; talk to your actors about what interests them sexually. Make sure your actors have the proper identification, in accordance with state law. Know their dietary restrictions. “There are times when you are the one doing anal at 8 p.m. and you’ve been waiting around all day while everyone is scarfing down greasy pizza and you’re a vegan,” Young says.
Our textbook is Young’s own DIY Porn Handbook. It documents the entire process of making porn, with chapters on everything from obscenity laws to distribution and marketing. Writing exercises and words of wisdom are sprinkled throughout. (Example: “At a loss for a story, but your best friend owns a flower shop and totally loves that you are about to shoot DIY porn? Allow your story to blossom in this fortuitous setting.”) There’s even a section about talking to your mom about your new vocational choice.
One of the biggest challenges of woke porn is money: Whereas fast-food porn companies are in it strictly for profit, DIY pornographers are fueled by passion. This can translate to a budget of next-to-zilch. Young often relies on the barter system; she’s given massages in exchange for a crew’s time. She suggests tapping friends for free shoot locations—she’s shot in vineyards and cafés—to save costs. Fundraising, she tells us, is a good option for raising money; a PowerPoint image beams from the projector of a perky-breasted woman holding a tray of chocolate covered strawberries. Bars will sometimes do a percentage of drink sales; raffle tickets, she says, are also good.
Before we start brainstorming our student film, Young shows us clips of her Bowie-influenced movie, for inspiration. The film focuses on Mowie StarrLust, whose two nipples are in a polyamorous relationship with her anus; one of the nips is painted blue with an eyelash glued atop it. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Young wrote the script one night at 4 a.m.) “I really tried to make the whole film and cover into an art piece,” she tells us. The CD cover came printed with an image of a butthole.
Young hands out bio sheets for our two performers. Shakti (pronoun: she/her) is a queer non-monogamous journalist, educator, performer, and artist who enjoys “wrestling mediocre white men.” Darling (he/him) has been in the biz since 2009 and likes to prep for scenes while prancing in front of a mirror listening to Lil’ Kim.
We go around in a circle again and list the values we want included in our movie. “I’m excited right now about the concept of ‘resist,’” says Ariel, the Burner from San Francisco. “There’s a lot of resistance in wrestling. And I feel like we’re in a stage of resistance overall right now.”
“I love that,” Julia says.
“There’s a strong, meaty power behind it,” Young agrees.
We take a few minutes to jot down individual ideas that we’ll share with the group. As soon as I’d read that line about mediocre white men, I’d pictured our 45th president in a stars-and-bars onesie. So in my notes, without stooping too low (golden showers), I sketch out a plot that speaks to our Trumpian moment. Everyone loves it. With a few trips around the circle, we fine-tune the concept of literally wrestling with conservatism. We decide that it’s the idea we’ll film tomorrow. Just like that, I’m a screenwriter.
The next morning, we meet at the community center to prepare for the shoot. Young has procured dental dams, gloves, and silicon lubricant, but has to send her assistant out for a water-based lube, per James Darling, the transgender adult actor’s request. We discuss our film’s planned climax, in which Darling will be fucked into submission. We ponder how to flip Trump’s “grab ’em by the pussy” comment on its head. Fisting is on the table. Scorpio wants to know: “Can we incorporate ass eating?”
One of the biggest problems we’d faced was finding a MAGA hat in ultra-liberal San Francisco. Even a Wal-Mart in the East Bay didn’t carry it, so we end up buying a red cap and some white stick-on letters. “Which is better,” Young says, “because it means we’re not donating money to the Trump campaign.”
As we prepare, Young continues her ongoing lecture about the nuts and bolts of erotic filmmaking. We discuss tax preparation. Porn is a business and must operate as such, and Young notes that it’s important to be diligent when reporting income and expenses. It’s not always easy: She’s currently being audited and it’s awkward explaining to the taxman why you’re writing off a dildo.
She’s currently being audited and it’s awkward explaining to the taxman why you’re writing off a dildo.
In early afternoon we flesh out the shot list. Brandon takes notes on his laptop while Rob storyboards the shoot with stick figures in a lined notebook. Julia pastes a hand-drawn prop sign on the wall that says “Queer Resistance Wrestling Meet-up.” Scorpio sprays the wrestling mat with disinfectant and wipes it down with paper towel. Young tells us to cover up any logos and turn off anything making noise, like the AC and fridge.
At 1 p.m., the stars arrive. We photograph the actors holding their IDs to prove they are of age. Then we divide into roles: directors, videographers, still photographers, production assistants. At first, I’m a production assistant, and I sit on a chair carefully affixing white letters onto the cap. We have a total of four hours to shoot. “When we get to the sex it’s wildlife photography,” Young tells us. “Try to give the performers as much space and freedom as possible to choose positions and duration of sex.”
Dawn, the podcast host, directs the first section on the sidewalk, with Ariel behind the camera. For the shot, Darling’s character—dressed in a black polo, khakis, and my MAGA hat—walks into what he believes is a pro-Trump meet-up, only to realize too late that he’s at the wrong address. As the camera rolls, onlookers stop and try to figure out what we’re filming. I help usher confused pedestrians down the street as Dawn captures Darling from several angles.
After we finish the outdoor scenes, we migrate back to the classroom, where Scorpio and Shakti are having a casual conversation about how to best prepare for an anal scene. (Shakti: “I generally don’t eat for 24 hours before the shoot, and then I have this at-home enema.”) I assume camera duties while Scorpio jumps in as director and we film the initial confrontation at the wrestling training session. The first thing Darling sees is Shakti’s bare bottom as she stretches on the mat. Darling feigns shock and horror; Shakti exaggeratedly shakes an angry fist.
The wrestler and the Republican begin to grapple. I hand off the camera back to Ariel and watch the action unfold. It’s surprisingly intense. Shakti throws Darling to his knees, grabs his head, and squishes his face between her butt cheeks. She then pins to him the mat and wails on his chest, where red welts form. Shakti straddles his face, puts her hand to her own crotch, and says, “You want to grab this pussy, huh, yeah?”
We pause for a water break. The room smells of hummus and sweat. Shakti and Darling discuss how they want to transition to sex. First, they agree, they’ll make out for a bit, and then Shakti will “magic on a dildo” (strap it on between takes so that in the film she’s suddenly wearing it).
The camera rolls and there’s some dildo sucking, some additional chest punching, and then, finally, some humping. Young frequently halts production to make sure we’re getting all the angles, and the stars stop and start on command. Young encourages us to get wide shots, close ups, and intimate moments—a hand on a naked thigh, for example.
When Young says we should be about wrapping up, Darling says, “You want me to cum? That’s fine.” Young yells action and Darling climaxes in a matter of seconds, like a pro. For a kicker, Shakti places a Make America Gay Again hat that Ariel brought onto Darling’s head and he sashés out of the studio wearing shiny gold booty shorts.
That’s a wrap.
“People think we party like porn stars. But when you’re actually pornographers, sometimes you’re just exhausted by the end of the day,” Young says in the morning. “You just want to curl up and watch TV!”
We’ve gathered in the studio chatting about the night before. Julia, a.k.a. Lux Lives, had gone to a bondage party, where somebody beat her with her own shoe, but most of us went to bed early. I slept ten hours; making porn, it turns out, is kind of exhausting.
After breakfast, a guest lecturer teaches us about film editing. We watch a clip from Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and get a little tutorial on the Marxist idea of the dialectic. We watch clips of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures and watch a Guy Madden short Sissy Boy Slap Party as examples of expert editing work.
Then we sit around for what feels like an eternity watching our dailies. Julia catalogues each shot and notes the usable parts; we’re disappointed to find the first half dozen shots are missing because Ariel accidently had the camera off. Scorpio strolls in several hours late wearing a three-piece alligator skin suit and carrying a bag of McDonalds. By midday we haven’t even started the messy business of editing our film, which needs to be finished by 6 p.m. so we have enough time to get the venue.
As the afternoon wares on we take turns beside the editor cutting together the scenes. Finally, with about half an hour to spare, Make America Cum Again is ready for its world premiere.
Our video will be shown at Total Smut, a variety show in the Somisspo Hill neighborhood. During each event a porn star is interviewed, and tonight Young is the guest of honor. We, her students, sit around at tables nervously drinking and chatting. We still haven’t seen the final version all the way through.
After five or six comedians, our film is projected on a wall. I admit, it’s not exactly Scorsese. It looks amateur because it is, rushed because it was. We didn’t have professional lighting, or microphones of any kind. But there are some genuinely funny moments—like the scene where Shakti rolls a fully-clothed Darling out of frame and then, thanks to some snazzy editing, he rolls right back in wearing nothing but a jock strap. I wouldn’t say the sex is arousing, but it is real and raw, and that is an accomplishment in and of itself. In filming something preposterous, we captured something genuine.
This is definitely something I want to do forever. I want to be a mogul.
Our group sticks around for a few minutes after it’s done, chatting with members of the audience, and then we disperse into the early-spring night. Was the course worth the $1,200? For me, although I don’t envision a career switch to amateur porn, it was worth it for the story alone, to one day tell my grandkids about my wild days as a radical student pornographer. But for the others—for Julia, with her budding cam-girl career; for Scorpio, with his BDSM moviemaking aspirations—the course had a more practical value, providing tools to help them further their erotic journeys. “This is definitely the end game for me. This is definitely something I want to do forever. I want to be a mogul,” Julia tells me later. She says she could have used more technical training in the course, but it helped her think of how to better portray her authentic self in her videos. “I’m thinking of porn more as filmmaking, instead of just… porn.”
We stay in touch over the next few weeks on a group message thread. Scorpio shares on Facebook the details for a fisting course in Portland, where, coincidentally, Young has recently moved to escape the San Francisco grind. She messages us one day to say that she has good news—our movie will be screened at an erotic film event in Oakland, where she is delivering a lecture titled “Political as F**K.” A Q&A will follow, and she invites us to participate. We are no longer her students; we are now her protégées, amateur pornographers in our own right, sexual revolutionaries overthrowing the system one thrust at a time.