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Illustration by Ione Wang

Exotic dancers parade the stage. They don't champion a rigid hourglass figure, though, coming in all shapes and sizes. The act is followed by a BDSM routine—people come on wearing shiny latex outfits, and gimp masks studded with spikes cover their faces. They practice bondage on each other, twisting the rope into elaborate knots.

It's titillating, it's sexy, it's kink. It's the first night of the CineKink Film Festival.

CineKink is not a porn festival, though porn and erotica are featured throughout. It is a kink-positive, sex-positive festival that grew in New York City and is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. Sex-positivity is the precept that celebrates all forms of consensual sex, regardless of the number of partners involved or the types of sexual acts done.

For Lisa Vandever, co-founder and director of CineKink, the term "kink" is central to the festival. "It's generally outside of anything that's heteronormative and focused on monogamy. There are some things that are traditionally considered kinky—such as S&M, swinging, polyamory—which are generally outside the mainstream."

Jiz Lee is a porn star who identifies as genderqueer and uses gender-neutral pronouns like "they." They turned the porn world on its head when they reinvented the cumshot—Lee quickly became famous for their natural ability for female ejaculation, not to mention vaginal fisting. As far as porn stars go, Lee is as non-mainstream as they get.

This year, Lee acted in one of CineKink's chosen films, "Mommy is Coming," and also had their own 32-minute porn scene, "Justify my Jiz," accepted. In an email, they further nuanced Vandever's description: "mainstream traditional porn" also lacks "alternative bodies (non-white, people of size, disability) and authentic female pleasure."

It is this gamut of alternative sexualities ignored in mainstream porn and most Hollywood blockbusters that CineKink has tried to show, and it has done so in a way that doesn't portray them as freakish or weird.

In porn, Vandever said, "Quite often someone who's into kink is portrayed as either the villain or it's just this passing fancy—‘Oh, I experimented with that, that was just a wild thing, now I'm going back to normal.'"

CineKink's aim is to counter just that. With the advent of sex-positivity and kink-positivity in our culture over the past decade, CineKink has also become kinkier and has gained more traction in sex-positive communities in New York City, and more submissions from filmmakers across the world.

In 2003, it started out as a "teeny little festival," Buck Angel, a transman porn star and a filmmaker, said. "I don't even think there was even one day of showing films and maybe 10-15 films." Angel has been submitting films to CineKink since its inception.

In the past 10 years, Angel has become a pioneer in making transmale porn when he realized that there was no one like him in porn.

"Nobody else was doing transmale porn. And I wanted to have a representation of myself," he said. "I wanted to represent myself without having someone else represent me in a more negative way."

The aspect of sex-positivity is just as important as the alternative and kinky aspect of CineKink. Representations of non-cissexual, non-heterosexual, and kinky people's sexualities already have existed for a while in film, but they have not necessarily been the most true-to-life portrayals, often making sweeping generalizations or implications about a certain type of kink.

Cheyenne Picardo, CC '02, couldn't agree more. Picardo is the director of "Remedy," CineKink's opening film this year about a woman who becomes a professional dominatrix.

In many mainstream portrayals of BDSM, she said, a person tends to be "damaged," and the film presents that aspect as the reason why he or she might become involved in BDSM. She points out "Secretary" as an example, a 2002 film which starred Maggie Gyllenhaal as a self-mutilating submissive and James Spader as a sexual dominant.

"They equate masochism with self-mutilation," Picardo said. "The woman burns herself with a hot tea kettle and cuts herself with scalpels and I'm like, ‘Oh, please don't make that correlation.' I haven't met that many self-mutilating masochists. A lot of people only want BDSM as something sexual—otherwise they'd be smashing into walls all day."

Vandever and Angel, though, see these problematic approaches of kink and alternative sexualities a little more optimistically. "50 Shades of Grey" might have been "denigrated and found trifling," Vandever said—and yet the fact that it was pushing kink and BDSM into the mainstream was hugely important for the
kink community.

"Of course there are representations of trans people that aren't always positive," Angel said. "That being said, the fact that people are putting representations of trans people in media means they're interested in it and we just have to keep educating."

Education about the existence of a variety of sexualities that exist has been one of CineKink's biggest successes—and it is a goal that it has improved on achieving throughout the years.

The diversity of sexualities that film festivals like CineKink put the spotlight on is in and of itself incredibly important toward influencing sexual attitudes.

"People can see something and think, ‘Maybe that's how I am. I just never got to have a representation,'" Angel said. "Sometimes people just need a little push to know what's going on."

Filmmakers face a conflict when they want to tell a darker story or provide a dramatic or tragic story arc. They still want to portray alternative sexualities in a way that is supportive without leading audiences to think they are condemning an entire community as negative.

Picardo ran into this difficulty as she was creating her film, which is heavily based on her life. In "Remedy," the main character works as a professional dominatrix ("a ‘pro-domme'") but, in fact, considers herself a "sub"—the submissive partner in a BDSM relationship. Several purportedly submissive male clients who turn out to be dominants realize where her true desires lie. Slowly, the character secretly allows male clients to dominate her. Despite having a good share of sex-positive experiences, the character unfortunately came across several clients who would violate the negotiations they made. They were "psycho fuckheads who wanted to basically pay people to be their slaves for an hour, to do anything that they wanted—negotiation be damned, no safe words, no protection, nothing," Picardo said.

While this was true to Picardo's life, she worries that this could anger the BDSM community.

"I'm trying not to send a message that the industry is bad. I don't think it is," she said.

Rather, she simply wants awareness. And she emphasizes that this story is, above all, not a story of BDSM but a story about the character letting pride get the best of her.

"I'm showing how naiveté can make you do stupid things," she said.

To create a balance between the negative and the positive, she keeps all the sessions in the movie in which a client violates a negotiation to avoid sound bites and show the arc of how the dynamic shifts, while the positive scenes are montaged. Vandever agrees.

"The films aren't always going to be "happy happy, ra ra, joy, joy," she said. "There are ramifications, there are complications. But we do try to get away from every story about kink portraying kink as a problem. They could just happen to be kinky and that's part of the story. It's not that kink's necessarily causing the problems."

That is, in effect, what Picardo is trying to achieve through "Remedy": showcase an alternative sexuality in a realistic manner without making the movie a definitive message about BDSM.

Lee wrote that they see sex films—particularly porn—as an incredibly useful way to spark more conversations about the subject of sex.

"Porn has become a platform for sexual expression, as well as one of the few fields that is somewhat lucrative with the potential of creative liberty," they said.

The Internet has been an incredible factor in promoting sexual attitudes since CineKink's birth in 2003.

"With the current evolution of technology, we'll see a continued growth of content creators—those who make porn," Lee said. "The social stigma of doing porn will fade when everyone's doing it. My theory behind social media is that it will make our intentions transparent. We'll either need to step up our methods of privacy, or give in to the humanity of our desires. Human desire is normal. It's society that dictates the line between public and private."

Even if a world in which everyone is doing porn doesn't come to pass, it is likely people will be more open to watching porn or sex, and to discussing it. Vandever agrees that technology in general will transform sexual norms.

"The Internet's huge, in terms of more education, whereas people might've once thought it was a freaky interest and then on the Internet you see all these other people who are into it," Vandever said. "More and more people become comfortable with it. It's not this weird thing that's hidden away."

In line with this, Vandever aims to take more advantage of the Internet in order to market CineKink differently in the future.

"A lot of the programming for films have a brief festival run," she said. "It seems like after the festival nothing really happens with them. Now we want to work with filmmakers for online marketing and niche marketing to help them get audience for the work."

To what extent, though, was it appropriate to use the word "alternative" to describe CineKink? Angel's transmale porn would be grouped under the same category as Picardo's cissexual, heterosexual film on BDSM. Would an "alternative vs. mainstream" dichotomy be as reductive as a dichotomy like "white versus non-white"?

"Mainstream is quite boring. It doesn't want people like me and I'm not mainstream," Angel said. "So I think CineKink calling itself alternative makes it stronger. It shows we're not in the box of society, which is exactly what my work is about." | @AGarciaVargas

Weekend festival Film cinekink Andrea Garcia-Vargas