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Russia's porn stars aren't just hot, they're also ostracised and exploited

Russia’s porn stars may have a reputation on the net, but they enjoy little in terms of rights and respect offline.

 


If opponents and fans of pornography can agree on one thing, it would probably be this: lots of people like to watch porn. Russia, where reactionary conservatives appear on every TV channel, is no exception.

Pornhub, the biggest pornography site on the internet, provides helpful statistics to let you figure out just how big the porn phenomenon is. According to Pornhub’s insights team, people spent 4.3 billion hours on the site last year alone. And because Pornhub is kind enough to keep track of country statistics too, we found in 2014 (the same year Crimea was annexed and sentiment against “the decadent west” reached a fever pitch) that Russians were searching Pornhub for “anal” more than anyone in the world. 

2015 was no less interesting for Russia and porn – that was the year we found that My Little Pony was the porn search term that had the biggest increase in popularity in Russia, with anal taking a backseat but still retaining a position in the top ten searches and remaining the most popular category. 

It’s tempting to use Russian porn habits as another punchline about a country whose government is frequently an expert at self-caricature. But the way Russian porn stars are treated is no cause for laughter.

In demand

Consider this: the most popular search term for Russians last year was actually “Russian”. There is nothing weird or nationalistic about this. In France, they search for “French”. In the Netherlands, they search for “Dutch”. Most people prefer to watch the kind of sex that is, on one level or another, relatable to their immediate experience. 

Porn starring Russians is in demand in Russia. But as people involved in the industry have told journalists, any Russian who wants to have a career in the industry must go abroad. Bizarrely, or, perhaps, not so bizarrely, Russian porn actors are now a resource for export. They’re treated by western companies as just another type of cheap labour.

As people with experience in the industry also point out, Russia’s extremely vague legislation bans the illegal distribution (and production) of pornography, but doesn’t really define how pornography could be distributed legally. As Bob Jack, an ex-adult film director, told the entertainment weekly Afisha: “In Russia the rules of the game on the market are still not established. ‘Illegal distribution’ remains banned, but nobody knows what legal distribution’ is supposed to be.” Omnipresent piracy and lack of any kind of visible porn industry community actually interested in defending its rights further contribute to exploitation. 

A greater conversation on Russian porn actors’ rights needs to happen eventually — whether it kills the vibe or not 

One can argue that few workers in general are empowered in Russia, but porn actors are particularly disempowered because they are so uniformly looked down upon. Porn is OK to consume (well, sort of, considering Russia’s obsessive banning of porn sites) but the people who make it are not OK to defend. What politician will take up their cause? He or she will simply risk ridicule in a political atmosphere that already smacks distinctly of Iran, minus the drinking ban.

In its own bizarre, disheartening way, porn in Russia represents an intersection of societal ills. Illustration: oDR.What about the fact that facial recognition technology in Russia is now being used to out and harass Russia’s female porn actors? It’s an interesting conundrum – porn is, once again, seen by the harassers as something that’s OK to consume. But the people who make it must be punished with the same zeal as ruined girls in Victorian novels. Once again, they are not seen as human, but as a resource – cheaper than oil, but more fun. 

Vague legislation also means that porn fans themselves have become easy prey for law enforcement in Russia. According to Mediazona, in 2014, 148 people were convicted in Russia for illegal distribution of porn. Most of these people had simply shared an adult video via a social media account. Mediazona, which specialises in covering how the law functions in Russia, believes that these convictions are used to bolster police statistics with little regard for the fact that the distribution law itself makes criminals out of ordinary people.

In its own bizarre, disheartening way, porn in Russia represents an intersection of societal ills: a predatory criminal justice system, lack of adequate protection for businesses, lack of sexual education (because of that, Russians regularly turn to porn for advice – which is not always a great idea), repression in the guise of moral panic, class-based contempt for people who are seen as performing “dirty jobs,” and, of course, misogyny.

Vague legislation also means that porn fans themselves have become easy prey for law enforcement in Russia

Snob columnist Arina Kholina, who regularly writes about sex and attitudes toward women and is no fan of porn, has recently pointed out that Russian attitudes about so-called “fallen women” are particularly cruel, and make porn actors, women especially, vulnerable. 

“For generations, we pass down this very strange and cruel rule – a whore is inhuman,” Kholina writes. “Whether you screw for money, or are pregnant by God knows who, it doesn’t matter. Get out of here. Go kill yourself.”

Kholina blames this attitude for society’s blithe attitude toward abuses many actors experience on set. As Russian journalist Yegor Mostovshchikov recently discussed with porn producer Pierre Woodman (as he prepared to shoot a scene with a Russian actor, no less), today it’s not uncommon for actresses to be sent to the hospital after shooting extreme scenes. But sympathy is not forthcoming. As Kholina notes, the women are seen as having signed up for everything and anything.

A recent scandal in the U.S. saw popular porn actor James Deen accused of multiple sexual assaults. While obviously awful, the mere fact that people are talking about these accusations in respected publications shows a distinct shift in society. Even critics of porn can probably agree that the people making it should be protected under the law.

A noble cause

I can’t imagine a similar scandal erupting in Russia, and not just because there are no porn stars of Deen’s magnitude in the country. The porn community is far too ostracised for that to happen. Whatever happens when the camera is off is of little interest to greater society. 

It would be a mistake to say that Russians as a whole are completely disempowered. You regularly see them fight bureaucracy and repressive legislation — and win. Decent palliative care, for example, is being established now in Russia due to a years-long fight with both the complacent medical establishment and societal aversion to talking about death. Better, more coherent legislation on drinking and driving was adopted due to social pressure. Tighter regulation of mobile operators came about due to widespread outrage at dishonest pricing tactics.

Consider the fact that those “hot Russian women” you’re fascinated by online may have a price to pay for, well, being so hot and naked and out there 

But porn, though widely consumed, is not a “noble” enough cause. And few people approach the porn phenomenon systemically. A feminist outlook on porn — whether critical or positive — barely registers on the societal radar, in spite of feminism slowly but surely growing more visible in Russia. At most, porn is used by the fire-and-brimstone crowd as yet more “evidence” that western influence has been bad for Russia. Domestic consumption of porn, naturally, doesn’t figure into these discussions. Or if it does, the conservatives frame it as an issue of, “Our poor, innocent people, seduced and destroyed by the evil charms of the west – they would never dream of watching a gangbang unless the CIA had brainwashed them first!” 

In this context, female Russian actresses aren’t merely reduced to “whores”. They are also seen as hurting “national prestige”. It’s an issue of “our women” being “whored out for all the world to see,” which is made further complicated by Russia’s aggressive reassertion of a kind of political masculinity that Russian politicians frequently juxtapose with the so-called “effeminate” or “gay-dominated” west. The women themselves aren’t given a voice here — whether for or against.

Depictions of sex and sexuality are common to almost all cultures. They date back centuries, even millennia. When cavemen learned to draw, they started drawing genitalia. Germans have dug up a depiction that appears to feature doggy style that dates back to 7,200 years ago. Much has changed since then, but one thing remains the same: we are fascinated by the sexual act, and this fascination has both positive and negative connotations.

The consumption of porn is a contentious issue, and there are strong arguments both for and against. Whatever your stance is, though, if you care about basic rights and principles of fairness, you can probably agree that those making the product deserve to be treated as human beings. 

Against a backdrop of a domestic moral panic and foundering diplomatic relations, Russian women in particular continue to be sexualised in the west. And demand for Russian porn is not going to go away any time soon – not at home, and certainly not abroad either. 

If anything, greater conservatism at home and more negative views of Russia abroad make female Russian porn actors the perfect forbidden fruit.

In light of that, consider the fact that those “hot Russian women” you’re fascinated by online may have a price to pay for, well, being so hot and naked out there. A greater conversation on porn actors’ rights needs to happen eventually — whether it kills the vibe or not.


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