When Porn Goes Public 

A new erotica film night aims to make Oakland more open-minded about all things sexual.

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Last First Friday, I did the following things in this order: met up with friends for drinks, milled about in two overly packed galleries, lost some people, scarfed an ill-advised hot dog in under a minute, and then, with the clock striking midnight, bid adieu to my compatriots to go sink into a couch at the New Parkway and watch porn with a bunch of strangers. Let it be known that this was a fairly new thing for me, but — slight amount of liquid courage and one brave friend abetting — I was totally down.

The new ongoing event, called Feelmore Fresh Fridays, was created by local sex shop owner, filmmaker, and self-proclaimed "sex-aware radical" Nenna Joiner. Billed as a provocative alternative to post-Murmur shenanigans, the series aims to "present films not in your typical 'booth' environment."

The film screened that evening was called Black Venus (Vénus noire), a 2010 French drama about a South African woman named Sarah "Saartjie" Baartman who was paraded around Europe in the early 19th century as a sexual oddity because of her non-Western, and therefore "unusual," anatomy.

The film is mostly in French, and unfortunately the version that screened had no subtitles. Later I learned that it was based on Baartman's true story: how she was displayed and caged on the London freak show circuit, and how she ended up in court to testify that she participated in the shows with full consent. The film soberly deals with issues of race, sexuality, and gender, and received high praise on the international festival circuit. But it was not, by any stretch of the common imagination, a porno. Armed to watch some serious fetishism, I had instead watched a serious film; Black Venus is a movie without sex that is still, on a deeper level, very much about sex. And this was precisely Joiner's intent.

"The story behind her actually plays with stereotypes within the porn genre about black women," she said. "I wanted to create an environment where the information is modern within a pornography context. I guess it's twelve months of porn versus twelve months of sexual-themed films that are beyond just being X-rated."

Back in 2009, Joiner threw a similar sex-themed film night called "Behind the Red Door" at the original Parkway. She screened Afrodite Superstar, a full-length semi-satirical pornographic film that she hoped would shed light on sexuality in communities of color, as well as a teaser for Kink, a full-on fleshy documentary about people of color in the BDSM scene. The night was meant to titillate as well as broaden people's horizons, Joiner said, and was by all accounts successful. Shortly afterward, however, the Parkway was shut down, and with it Joiner's dreams of hosting an ongoing pornographic film series.

But she's been anything but idle since: She started her own erotic film production company; directed several of her own films (Tight Places and Hella Brown); opened downtown Oakland's only sex shop, Feelmore510; and became a regular on the international erotic film festival circuit. And now, the New Parkway is open. Armed with a bigger arsenal of know-how about Oakland, the pornographic film industry, and "sex in general," Joiner said what she's attempting to tackle with Feelmore Fresh Friday is going to be bigger than what she intended with Behind the Red Door. Her goal is to show sex in all the myriad ways it's being had or not had, and in the process, bring a little more open-mindedness to a city she feels is woefully behind in sexual acceptance, despite being ranked one of the gayest cities in the nation.

"We still do our sex and kink things in San Francisco, but we need to foster and create an environment where people can be free and open in Oakland towards sexual diversity as well," said Joiner. "If I don't become a catalyst for making that happen, it doesn't help bigger things happen here."

As such, Joiner said she's planning on showing an impressively diverse number of movies at the monthly film night, including Buck Angel's Sexing the Transman, a documentary about transmale sexuality; Japanese anime porn; the deep kink fantasy The Fashionistas; the sex worker documentary Whore's Glory; and even a pornographic claymation film from Amsterdam. It's a totally mixed bag, to be sure, but "that's Nenna's strength," said New Parkway owner J. Moses Ceaser: "making things that seem foreign more accessible, making the experience inclusive, welcoming Oaklanders to learn about things that they might otherwise shy away from."

It's part of Joiner's "anything goes" approach to what she considers to be a pornographic film. On another level, she hopes the diversity of films will help provide better "context for understanding the social constructs around sex." Joiner drops the phrases "anything goes" and "context" repeatedly when describing her motivations for starting the film night: Pornography is never, she said, as simple as you think.

At last year's Berlin Porn Festival — which she cites as a major inspiration — films skewed toward "really far on the edge" as compared to most things produced in the United States. But after the screenings, few people were talking about the sex; instead, everyone was talking about the politics behind the sex. Joiner hopes to bring that same critical attitude to Oakland. "We can always go to straight porn — which many of these films will include — but we want to make sure that we stay very conscious about the information we're putting out there. It's not just about sex, it's also about understanding how sex plays into race, how sex plays into disability, how sex plays into our positions in society. I want to show the stuff you just can't see anywhere else."

And why watch porn, or not porn, or whatever, in a theater with a bunch of people rather than in the privacy and comfort of your own home, especially when pornography has long since been swept out of the booth environment by the Internet? For Joiner, Feelmore Fresh Friday isn't meant to replace the stuff everyone's already watching at home, nor is it nostalgically harking back to a bygone era of watching sex in dark theaters. In fact, watching the films with other people is actually part of the allure, if only so audience members can see they're not alone. "Some of this is going to be that you're not the only one that thinks this way, you're not the only one that believes sex could look a certain way, you're not the only one that can get turned on by something so non-erotic," said Joiner. "Watching these films with other people can do that."

As such, not all the films will appeal to everyone's sensibilities, and some of the films may veer too far out of most people's comfort zones (for example, one Japanese erotic film Joiner hopes to screen graphically displays castration). So audience-goers would be wise to investigate the schedule beforehand. After all, it's always advisable to look into some "context" before "anything goes."

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