Guest post by David Church.
If or when a person views pornography today, it’s not likely in public, in polite company, or with aesthetic appreciation in mind. This is because mainstream pornography is often considered cheaply made, politically damaging, or crudely single-minded in its purpose: turning a person on or helping get them off. While there is certainly a strong grain of truth in those judgments, these assumptions still remain judgments — moral, aesthetic, and political — that don’t tell the whole story of what erotic cinema is, or more precisely what it can be. But when we look beyond straight and narrow ideas of pornography as a cultural “bad object,” shrouded in a veil of sex-negative attitudes, then we can begin finding sexually explicit films that are as artfully made and politically engaged as any other form of cinema. Indeed, at a time when sexuality and pornography are both expected to remain behind closed doors for the sake of social respectability, there is something almost radical about opening oneself to public exhibitions of sex, finding beauty in different forms of erotic pleasure and sexual identity than one’s own.
In 2016, I helped found the Seattle Erotica Cinema Society (SECS), along with several of my former students from a six-week “History of Porn” community-education class that I taught through the Seattle International Film Festival. DeAnna Berger and Amber Adams had existing connections in the local film scene, so they took the lead in creating an annual, sex-positive festival dedicated to exhibiting films that might not otherwise find public screens, even in a major city like Seattle. The three of us have since remained SECS Fest’s core team, expanding the event into an increasingly visible node in the growing, international circuit of porn film festivals. Five years in, we remain dedicated to showcasing films that might prove as stimulating to your mind as your body — especially work by feminist, queer, and trans/nonbinary filmmakers, whose submissions represent about 80% of our selected films in a given year — and we have long wanted to extend the festival’s reach through a touring program.
Last year, I invited students in my Porn Studies graduate seminar at IU to help curate SECS Fest’s 2021 festival, and several of them have selected the cream of the year’s crop to become SECS Fest Midwest at IU Cinema. The series consists of two programs of short films and an award-winning feature film, all of which depict a range of aesthetic styles/genres and diverse representations (e.g., race/ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, body type, age, ability). SECS Fest does not segregate its programs along the lines of queer vs. straight, or kink vs. vanilla; rather, each short program ideally offers something for everyone, to help spur open and honest conversations about sex and sex-positive values. Whether you call these works “pornographic,” “erotic,” “art,” “experimental,” “queer,” or whatever else, we hope they inspire a blend of curiosity, surprise, humor, heat, and heart, challenging easy notions of how sex and sexually explicit cinema can look and feel.
The first shorts program, “Carnal Delights” (March 3, 7 pm), explores the lighter side of sex, with films themed around food, fun, friendship, and laughter. Viewers will be treated to decadent concoctions of sex, music, and dance; a very sexy card game; pregnant and stoned cravings; several unconventional picnics; tongue-in-cheek celebrations of non-monogamy; and much more. This playful and funny program also features work by noted feminist erotic filmmakers Ms. Naughty and Jennifer Lyon Bell.
In the second shorts program, “Holes and Wholes” (March 4, 7 pm), the more serious side of sex takes center stage, with films that use sex to think through personal, philosophical, and metaphysical issues such as trust, transformation, the natural world, and the boundaries of existence. These works range from documentaries about sexuality and trans/nonbinary embodiment; to magical-realist fantasies about aquatic seducers and ghostly BDSM encounters; to poetic essay-films about sex’s relationship to time, space, and the multiverse.
The series concludes with Olympe de G.’s One Last Time (March 4, 10 pm), the winner of SECS Fest 2021’s award for Best Feature Film. This touching meditation on sexuality and mortality stars Brigitte Lahaie (who some viewers will recall from her many appearances in 1970s European horror and adult films) as Salomé, an aging French woman who decides to end her life before society’s ageism relegates her to supposed irrelevance as an elderly person. Before that point, though, Salomé is determined to plan the perfect final session of lovemaking, reclaiming her sexual and existential autonomy alike. Although this thematic intermingling of sex and death may sound rather grim, One Last Time sensitively invites us to ponder what pleasure and empowerment might mean across one’s lifelong relationship to their body.
All in all, SECS Fest Midwest presents a bevy of sexy, well-crafted, and thought-provoking films that wouldn’t otherwise play anywhere near Bloomington. Bring a date, bring your friends, but please don’t bring the kids. For those with adventurous tastes, this is a series not to be missed!
SECS Fest Midwest begins at IU Cinema on March 3 at 7 pm with SECS Shorts #1: Carnal Delights, followed by SECS Shorts #2: Holes and Wholes on March 4 at 7 pm. The series will then end on March 4 at 10 pm with the feature film One Last Time. No one under the age of 18 will be admitted to any of the screenings.
David Church is Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Gender Studies at Indiana University, and the author of four books: Grindhouse Nostalgia: Memory, Home Video, and Exploitation Film Fandom (2015), Disposable Passions: Vintage Pornography and the Material Legacies of Adult Cinema (2016), Post-Horror: Art, Genre, and Cultural Elevation (2021), and Mortal Kombat: Games of Death (2022).