Be on the lookout for the February issue of The Blue & White, on campus now! Bwog will again honor our heritage/amorous affair with our mother magazine by posting features from the upcoming issue. Such treats include the first part of a discussion on the Columbia School, a visit to the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and a talk about, well, self-pleasure. Below, editor emeritus Mark Hay sits down Lux Alptraum, owner of Flehsbot.
Nearly all of Lux Alptraum’s life has revolved around sex. The Columbia alumna has been doing some form of sexual education since she was 14, and is the current owner of the sex-oriented weblog Fleshbot. Alptraum became an editor of the site—originally founded by Gawker Media—in 2008, and it has since become an independent company. The thread that connects Alptraum’s time at Go Ask Alice! as a Columbia undergrad with her ownership of a site that critically reviews pornogra- phy is a desire to promote a more positive view of sex and free it of the stigma that still surrounds it in our society. In honor of Valentine’s Day, The Blue & White sent editor emeritus Mark Hay to chat with Alptraum about sex, the porn industry, and other things that make for awkward talks at the dinner table.
The Blue & White: Fleshbot’s not something people talk about all the time. When I told a few people I was going to interview the Fleshbot CEO, they said something like, oh really, huh. And then they whispered don’t tell anybody, but I read it. So for those less familiar, what is Fleshbot?
Lux Alptraum: Fleshbot is a website that’s been around for over eight years. We were, I believe, the third Gawker Media site founded—went public in November 2003. We are the web’s foremost site about everything sexy basically. We’re often thought of as a porn blog, but we cover more than just the adult industry. We do everything from hardcore porn to amateur stuff to sexy TV and movies to written erotica to sex toy reviews to sexy celebrity photos. We write about gay content, straight content, transgender people, we write about cis[gendered] people, we write about virtually anyone who’s sexy.
We also approach it in a very friendly manner which makes us different form a lot of other sites in the sexy content space. We don’t ever really shame anyone or attack anyone’s appearance. We just try to promote the idea that if you’re confident and positive about your sexuality, then we support you.
We started in 2003, I became a writer at the site in 2007, I became an editor in 2008. As of February 1st, 2012, I’m CEO because we’ve spun off into an independent company. We’ve also grown a lot in the time that I’ve been there. We do an award show that celebrates sexy pop culture and celebrates everyone from wrestler-turned-porn-performer China to Allen Cumming to Casey Spooner and Fisher Spooner to Levi Johnston to Sasha Grey and all sorts of things for sexy culture and crossover between mainstream and porn and back again.
B&W: How did you wind up at Fleshbot, and in this scene overall?
LA: I’ve been doing sex ed in some form or another since I was 14. My mother did HIV education. When I was 14, I worked for the Red Cross as an HIV educator. When I got to Columbia, I started working at Alice! for a little bit and GHAP and the Rape Crisis Center and I also, because this was the early 2000s, when it was a lot easier to be an independent porn site owner, I got really interested in the alt/indie porn scene that was just forming. And because it was relatively easy both financially and legally to get into the adult industry at that time—relatively, compared to now—so I saw that and I thought it was really fascinating. I got involved in that, I started modeling and I ran a site for a little bit. I did that until about seven years ago, so early 2005. I took a break from the adult industry and went to work at an after school program working as a sex educator with teenagers.
Then in 2007 I started missing writing about sex on the Internet, so I started up a blog called Boinkology which was about sex and pop culture and sometimes sort of about the adult industry, but mostly it was about dating and birth control and safer sex and just any overlap of sexuality and pop culture. And through that site I got noticed by Fleshbot, who brought me on as a writer, and I just moved up through the ranks.
I know it seems like being a sex educator working with teenagers and working for Fleshbot seem worlds away, but for me my mission has always been promoting a positive attitude towards sexuality, teaching people not to be ashamed of sex, getting rid of the stigma towards sexuality. So for me it’s two very distant ends of the same spectrum, where it’s all about teaching people to love their bodies and love themselves and not be ashamed of their desires.
B&W: Fleshbot’s not the only site out there devoted to sexual content. What do you think of other sites like Nerve, which is much less explicit and much more human interest and soft-based?
LA: I’m a total fan of Nerve. I actually worked as an intern for Nerve from Fall 2002 to Spring 2003. It was really different when I worked there…Over the past 10 years, they’ve kind of toned down their message in pursuit of mainstream advertising, which is a totally legitimate strategy. I’m of the opinion that as long as you are promoting positive discussion about sexuality, then I’m on your team, and I think it’s great to have sites of a wide array of genres that are focused on sexuality, so I think that’s great.
Fleshbot, on the other hand, is more extreme and more edgy, and we don’t shy away from hard-core content. As a result, our advertisers are adult industry advertisers, which is fine. I think we sometimes just get labeled a porn site when I think we’re a lot more than that, but I get it and I don’t have a problem with it fundamentally.
B&W: So can I get a brief overview of the industry as it stands today?
LA: The industry today is not in great shape, because the Internet has just made a wide variety of free content available, both legal and illegal. A lot of people are not willing to pay for adult content anymore and a lot of companies that have been doing very well for a long time are seeing their profits drop. As a result you see people really scrambling to figure out what the next big thing is.
You see a lot of more “couples” driven porn. That’s along the “romance” series line, and it’s for a couple of reasons. One, because it’s more story driven and that’s a lot harder to pirate a story than it is just like three minutes of hardcore porno. And it’s also kind of like women and couples who are the intended focus of this are not a traditional porn consuming audience and I think they’re just more willing to pay for what they want. They’re more willing to say I’ve found this, this is important to me, I’m going to pay for this.
One of my good friends, Jizz Lee, is a San Francisco based performer who identifies as gender queer. They use the pronouns they. They’re female bodied but kind of androgynous looking and they’ve worked for numerous mainstream companies. They’ve just shot for a wide variety of people who you wouldn’t think would shoot this kind of boyish shaved-head person. But they do. And I think it’s because they see that, oh, people want this. They want this kind of stuff, we want to make money, so we will hire this person.
The reason porn adheres to outdated seeming things, the reason they say we’re going to hire girls with big boobs or we’re going to hire this or that is because they’re like this is what’s sold in the past. They’re conservative in that sense that they don’t really like change because they don’t want to risk their bottom line. That’s why you see this established idea that you can’t put black people in movies with white people unless it’s tagged as interracial because that’s what consumers want. It has nothing to do with the ideas of race that the performers and the directors have. It’s just about what they think is going to sell, which I think is fascinating.
So that’s the industry. It’s kind of in panic mode and desperately trying to figure out what sells.
B&W: I’ve been thinking recently about the growth of search algorithms and video recommendations based on watching patterns on tube sites and the idea that it will force people to view or think about content they wouldn’t usually see and how that can change the way we think about ourselves, our sexuality, sex, and the society we live in. I wanted to hear what you think about all of that.
LA: I actually try to steer away from the tube sites in general because I don’t like supporting things that are stealing from my friends. But I think that the Internet has opened up…if you think about Internet publishing versus print publishing, it’s two completely different things. In the digital space I just have to create one website…then I can reach people form all over the world form my living room.
From a consumer basis, if you wanted to explore fetish porn, or if you wanted to explore something beyond Playboy, you had to actively seek that out. With the Internet…I think that for good ends and bad ends a lot of people have discovered new things that they are not into, didn’t know existed, are into that they wouldn’t have had access to because it wouldn’t have occurred to them to look for it. I think that that’s really cool.
B&W: Well, let’s talk about how that transformation of porn online seeps back into society.
LA: I think there’s a really interesting paradox about the way that porn transforms our reality. On the one hand, it’s gotten us a lot more exposure to sexual content. It’s also given us a greater sense of privacy. Which is a false sense of privacy, too. Because when I was growing up, if you wanted to take naked pictures of yourself, it was, do it with a Polaroid, because you had to worry about getting the pictures developed, being seen by someone. And now it’s digital, which is, whatever, it’s just on my thing, no one but me can see it. Which is odd because digital media can be distributed vastly easier. So a lot of people have gotten exposed. While we are aware of and comfortable with sexuality privately, we haven’t gotten publicly to this point where we say it’s okay to have sex, it’s okay to do all of these things.
B&W: Let’s switch gears and get back towards the college end of things. You’ve talked before about college sex columns and sex advice in college and how that sort of stuff flops just because it’s college. I just wanted to get a pulse on the way you think colleges deal with sex.
LA: I mostly know about Columbia, a little bit about NYU. It’s a little funny to me that, back in my time, Columbia’s sex column was so controversial, because I always thought Columbia was a really sex-positive school. Still, I had great experiences at Alice!, I really liked the student health center. I always felt like I could get the information I needed and that I was supported. I always thought Columbia was a really liberal place. And it is, there’s also just a conservative community at Columbia that I wasn’t in touch with that reared its head when there was a sex column.
I think what’s really great about colleges is that you have young adults who are exploring themselves and as a result you get a really interesting exploration and discussion of identity that I don’t think you really get after college that often. You don’t see as much discussion of trans identity or gay identity and certainly not in the same way. So I think college is just this wonderful place to explore other people and learn about yourself and just formulate ideas about sexuality.
B&W: What’s interesting for me is that all colleges have that inherent voyeurism and awareness but not all have the same vocabulary or environment to work with that college experience.
LA: Right. I mean, I think that it’s really interesting because in residential colleges you’re throwing together a wide variety of people from a wide variety of experiences. And I met someone who was gender queer and people who were totally heterosexual and I just got exposed to these different avenues of sexual experience.
B&W: So you’re a 20 year old college student just staring to explore all this and engaging with your sexuality and pretty excited but also a little nervous with a bit of experience under your belt. What do you do?
LA: Just communicating and doing what feels right. I think that one of the dangers with the sex-positive space is that there can sometimes be this pressure to feel like you are not sex-positive unless you’re doing the most stuff or being the kinkiest and you have to go to this sex party or have to have a gay experience. And if it doesn’t feel right to you, it doesn’t matter, don’t do it. You can be a virgin who decides to wait until marriage and still be sex-positive. It’s not about what you’re doing, it’s about being open and honest and expressing desires and recognizing and respecting everyone else’s desires.