fatale media: private pleasures & shadows

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this double feature of butch-on-fem sex is not only an erotic exploration of vintage lesbian desire, it’s a glimpse into a revolutionary time in lesbian history – one that reflected monumental changes in the LGBTQI community as the 70s gave way to the 80s and the political landscape heaved with varying inter-connected movements. feminism, gay rights & the AIDS crisis all had significant roles to play in the emergence of sex positivity, a movement instigated by lesbians and bisexual women who were committed to developing erotic content, opportunity and education for same-sex attracted women.

Fatale Media was an initiative of this ambition, founded by butch & femme lovers, Nan Kinney & Deborah Sundahl.

both active participants in Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media, after only a short time of involvement they became convinced that pornography was not the root cause of violence against women and felt frustrated with the prohibitive environment created by their peers. their own sexual interests and values did not align with the organisation’s – practitioners of BDSM, they believed in the importance of lesbians being able to freely explore our sexual desires and additionally believed that porngraphy could be valuable to women – as both pleasure and education. furthermore, they were discomfited by the treatment of sex workers by their chapter of WAVPM, recognising an elitist divide between the well-educated feminists who verbally harassed the lower class & minimally educated strippers and prostitutes they targeted.  in 1982, they moved from Minneapolis to San Francisco – in Kinney’s own words, “for the sex.”

in San Francisco, Nan became one of the first female jack-hammers in San Francisco, while Deborah worked as a stripper. but even in gay mecca, the couple were frustrated by the pervasiveness of sexual repression amongst lesbians. as many of their butch and femme peers have observed of this period in time, the pressure on lesbians to suppress their sexual needs and desire for other women was immense. as Deborah put it, “lesbians were hiding by appealing to political feminism for legitimacy.” sensing a need for change, the two resolved to do something that had never been done before: create explicit, authentic lesbian erotica.

Private Pleasures and Shadows were the first two films produced by Fatale Media in the pursuit of this goal, but far more significantly than that, they were the first lesbian pornographic films – that were made entirely by lesbians, for lesbians.

released in 1985, Deborah, Nan and Susie Bright – who by then had joined the team – pooled their own resources in order to get production off the ground. they sought out members of the San Francisco lesbian community who shared their vision to act as the performers and production team, many of them amateurs who learned as they went along.  They had to learn how to create pornography that operated on multiple levels – as sexual and sexual health education, as an authentic representation of lesbian sex, and as genuinely arousing to lesbian viewers, erotic content they could get off to. between the total lack of precedent, severe budget restrictions and limited resources, Nan recalls that it was “almost like being missionary work back then – we really were the only ones kinda forging our way and making up the rules as we went.” often times, it was only their shared passion in what they were doing that carried them over the varying obstacles and challenges in their way.

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one of the biggest of which was the lesbian community itself, which reacted in varying degrees of outrage, hostility, disgust and fear. when Private Pleasures and Shadows was accepted at Frameline Film Festival, the Fatale team assumed it made it through the selection panel thanks to lesbians involved who agreed it was significant to screen a first of its kind – not to mention the fact very few movies made by lesbians even existed. the screening sold out, but the crowd’s reaction was divided: those who hated it made their feelings known by hissing, booing and throwing food at the screen. at the end of the films, outraged lesbians cornered Nan Kinney, working the Fatale merchandise booth, viciously attacking and berating her for being a pornographer – a term by which Nan still describes herself today. some of the audience members came close to physically assaulting her, so offended they were by the films’ content.

it wasn’t just the pornographic nature of the content that made the films so controversial. the real-life couple who starred in both films, Teri and Caerage, were obviously butch and fem, two identities under strident attack in the lesbian feminist movement of the time. the actresses wore makeup, the fem sensual in high heels and satin. explicit penetration and sadomasochism featured prominently – practices then highly frowned upon in lesbian feminist theory. in every way, Fatale Media had challenged the political status quo in their efforts to depict truthful, compassionate and hot portraits of lesbian sexual lives. and despite the backlash from many, other lesbians in the community expressed their gratitude and appreciation at finally being able to enjoy erotic content that appealed to them, that reflected their own lives and desires, that was authentically lesbian. Fatale Media went on to become the world’s largest producer of lesbian pornography, adding an array of other unique and revolutionary films to its catalogue.

these first two films, each a half hour long, provide incredible insight into the lesbian San Francisco of the time – from the fashion trends to the obvious budgetary challenges. Nan would later laugh when she recalled being terrorised under the table at the Frameline Film Festival, observing to Shar Rednour: “Hey, I would’ve understood if they had complained about the production quality!” regardless of the film’s low quality, and the amateur direction and editing, the thought and care that went into both titles is also evident. beauty was an obvious consideration in every element – in the sets, the cinematography, and the performers – making them visually appealing, even though the necessarily-inexpensive film has deteriorated almost forty years later. the genuine chemistry and intimacy between Teri and Caerage is evident, adding to the intensity of the sex, and the action is hot. as promised it is explicit, showing graphic dildo penetration, oral sex and fisting. playful sadomasochism features in Shadows, with butch Teri submitting to fem Caerage, performing high-heel worship before being bound, suspended and flogged. when she proves her devotion, she is allowed to bring her mistress to orgasm. in Private Pleasures, voyeurism is explored as a third performer, Mariko, watches Teri seduce and fuck Caerage while masturbating to climax. a clear lesbian sensibility is apparent throughout in the camera work, the moments that are focused on, the way the performers interact. while the lesbian pornography of today may be even more graphic and adventurous, with slicker production values and more experienced creative teams, these films remain significant on so many levels. from being the first of their kind, to a snapshot of lesbian history, to an incipient moment in a sexual revolution, Private Pleasures and Shadows should be remembered and celebrated.

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certainly the stories from on set echo the complexity of the times in which these films were made. Mariko, the young lesbian who masturbates for the camera, revealed the day of filming that she had never masturbated before and didn’t know how to – an announcement that led to Nan having to talk Susie down from a panic attack, and Deborah taking Mariko aside for a quick 101 on self-pleasure. off-camera, they pulled on Mariko’s legs as she masturbates, to increase the appearance of pleasure and tension. whilst this anecdote may seem bizarre from the set of a porn film, it also speaks to the challenges and triumphs of what they were attempting to do. the performer, a woman from the community, interviewed for the role, clearly believing in the ambition and wanting to be a part of it – but nonetheless inhibited by a lack of sexual education.   years later, when queer femme sex icon Tristan Taormino heard this story, she observed that it demonstrates the potential ways that porn can be a tool not just for the viewers – but for the performers themselves.

Nan, Susie and Deborah were also the conceptual team behind On Our Backs, the pioneering lesbian sex magazine. both collaboratively, in their solo work, and in their work with other lesbian and bisexual women, these three were enmeshed in the very heart of the lesbian sexual revolution and each played significant roles within the resulting sex positive movement. at the time, this movement was radically challenging and defying both the mainstream cultural expectations of women, and what mainstream feminism considered taboo – having an impact on the sexual behaviour of women, especially that of lesbians, to this day. Private Pleasures and Shadows are two important moments in the lesbian movement, and if you ever get the opportunity to watch them – make sure you do. I had these titles on my wishlist for years – Nan Kinney very kindly unearthed a couple of old VHS copies for me to purchase. support the work of lesbian innovators in all our industries – Fatale Media is still producing authentic lesbian pornography, with many of their older titles available to purchase through their website. step into history and give in to joy.

references & further reading:

Real Lesbian Movies: An Interview with Nan Kinney
Sex Out Loud with Tristan Taormino, March 8, 2013

The Second Lesbian Revolution (pg 227 – 236)
Josh Sides, Erotic City, Sexual Revolutions and the Making of Modern San Francisco, 2009

Steamy, Hot & Political: Creating Radical Dyke Porn (chapter 8, by Shar Rednour & Jackie Strano)
Lynn Comella, Shira Tarrant Ph.D., New Views on Pornography: Sexuality, Politics & the Law, 2015

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