The art of pornography: Dan Savage changes the face of porn at HUMP!

HUMP festival
Caroline Dodge/Courtesy

P
orn. To many, the word is a sort of onomatopoeia of its subject matter, conjuring images of all things cheap, synthetic and unbeautiful. Some argue that its very existence disgraces the individual and renders sex a glamorized object rather than an act of trust and commitment. But while pornography is largely shunned by our culture, it is simultaneously ubiquitous, as 94 percent of children have seen porn by age 14. It is only recently that this private act has been shared more publicly.

    Born in Seattle, HUMP!, the world’s largest amateur porn film festival, is now 13 years old and finding audiences in 37 cities across the United States and Canada — from Miami to Toronto to Kansas City, to our very own Oakland and San Francisco. HUMP! will be touring at the Victoria Theater from Nov. 7-17. The festival welcomes and encourages filmmakers and film stars of all orientations, shapes, sizes, kinks and sexual expressions.

     To answer this question of how such a sex-positive countercultural enterprise was realized, one need not look further than the Bay Area. San Francisco’s sex-positive atmosphere created the necessary cultural framework to make events such as HUMP! conceivable.

   Dan Savage, the founder and curator of HUMP!, is an author, podcast host and political activist for the LGBTQ+ community. He writes the sex advice column “Savage Love,” which was first published in Seattle’s The Stranger and is now circulated internationally. His work has also been disseminated more publicly on the podcast “This American Life” and on political comedy television shows such as “The Colbert Report” and “Real Time with Bill Maher.” HUMP! is the realized vision of the sexual-political model that Savage theorizes onstage, on his podcast and in his column.

  HUMP! is not a replicate of commercial porn nor a distributor of it. HUMP! is an amateur porn film festival that Savage says humanizes porn. Nothing about it is manufactured or mass-produced — each film is its own vignette of the filmmaker’s personal relationship with sex and kink. While PornHub and other adult film sites provide the mainstream commercial porn that we all equate with the genre, HUMP! offers something more personal. In expanding the capacities of pornography, HUMP! demonstrates that porn need not be synonymous with exploitation, appropriation and coercion. In its honesty, the porn at HUMP! envelops all that is human; it exposes our wants, desires, quirks, lusts, passions, vulnerability and shame.

    In addition to his large and growing career in sex, politics and culture, HUMP! is another rapidly expanding dimension of Savage’s career. I spoke with Savage to learn about how the DNA of kink, queer and film recombined into one tour for thousands of people to see.     

The Daily Californian: I want to begin by talking about the history and origin of HUMP! I know that this event started in 2005 in Seattle — can you tell me how this project began for you? What was your original vision and intent for this festival?

Dan Savage: HUMP! first started out as an amateur porn film by people in Seattle to be screened for audiences in Seattle. … So the question was, at first, would anyone enter, and then when we got tons of videos, the question became will people come to a theater and sit in the dark next to strangers and watch pornography, like their grandparents used to. The answer to that turned out to be yes as well. And the idea was to have fun, but … along with the fun we started noticing other things going on. Kind of like Savage Love in a way, where it was just supposed to be a joke at first for fun, but then other things started happening. … We would get films … in the first few years where people were trying to aid the conventions of commercial pornography, and audiences hated those films, didn’t respond to them. The more unique and personal, the more you got the sense that these were friends and lovers, the more the audiences loved those films. And then filmmakers saw what people responded to, … and over time it became the thing that it is because the audience shaped it. The audience gave it this extra mission, weight, umph.

(Audiences) are watching films that, if they were sitting at their home masturbating, they would not click on. And so they see a lot of stuff that they’re like, “Not my preferred genders, not my preferred sexual activities, not my sexual orientations, not my kinks,” whatever — they see these things that aren’t for them. And when you watch HUMP! audiences, as we do, you really notice this distinct phenomenon where, for the first five or six or seven films, people are thrown back in their seats. You got gay guys watching cunnilingus, you got straight guys watching guys getting fucked in the ass, you got really vanilla people watching really hardcore kink, you got cis people watching porn that was not made with trans people for cis people but was made by trans people for themselves and each other, and that’s different. And at first all that anybody can see is the differences. Saying, “That’s not mine!” And then, about halfway through the film, no one’s having that reaction anymore no matter what the film is that comes up next — people are laughing and cheering and clapping, and you don’t see people being thrown back in their seats anymore. … Suddenly this large room full of people who could only see the differences at first are seeing all the similarities; that lust, desire, sense of humor, vulnerability, passion — all of that is exactly the same. And I wish I could say that that was our secret mission all along, in trying to evangelize or problematizing around diversity and acceptance.

DC: Yeah, that is a beautiful transformation to see in people and in such a positive environment. I really love everything that HUMP! has to offer in changing the way that people view pornorgraphy.

So what’s the process like of choosing which films get into the HUMP! film screening?

DS: (laughs)

DC: Do you watch porn for nine hours straight?

hump festivalDS: We have a HUMP! jury, which I appoint, and it’s a lot of women and queers and one token straight guy. No, two actually this year. We watched all the films and then have a long debate about what’s in what’s out, and you know, representation is important and that is certainly factored in, but it still has to be good. And good is really subjective — it doesn’t have to be like good production values or professionally made, although we have some like that now. It just has to be well-executed. A film can be five minutes, it can be 30 seconds. There are some films that are five minutes that should be 30 seconds and vice versa, and it’s really subjective, although I’m kind of like RuPaul in that I’ll have the final say and the veto. So occasionally there’s a film or two in there because I like them and nobody else did.

DC: Have you seen an evolution over the years — do different kinds of kinks emerge?

DS: Absolutely. In the first few years we got a lot of stuff that looked like commercial porn. And I have friends who are in the commercial pornography industry who do good work and I respect what they do, but it wasn’t what people came to HUMP! for. … A couple years ago we had a film that was called “Go Ahead and Pee” and it had this woman in a gray leotard in some backyard somewhere in Oregon jumping on a trampoline. And eventually with this voiceover, it was just going, “Go ahead and pee, pee, go ahead and pee.” Eventually you begin to notice that the crotch was turning a darker color and it was running down her legs and she was peeing into her unitard on a trampoline and then it was over. Some people were like, “That’s not pornography,” and we said, “Oh, no, no, no, that’s her pornography.” It was a great and beautiful film, and I’m glad she shared that with us. That’s what I love about HUMP! One thing that people say about porn is that it’s dehumanizing. And what HUMP! is is humanizing pornography. People humanizing pornography.

A lot of people have problems with how porn is produced, about coercion,
about people doing this out of their free will. Well, everyone in HUMP! is doing this out of their own free will, they’re doing it for fun, they’re doing it for all of the right reasons, and they’re doing it without having to be on the internet to be watched. One year we had this woman come in, probably about seven or eight years into HUMP! in Seattle, and on her way in she found me in the lobby and said she was there under duress and that her friends are making her come and that she didn’t like pornography because it’s dehumanizing. And when she came out after, she loved it and stood there in the lobby talking to me about her favorite film and what was so interesting about it while the next screening started. She was an academic so she was giving me the full deconstruction analysis of what it was we had done. The next year she submitted a film to HUMP! So she went from “I hate porn, I’m here under duress” to “I love your festival, I’m in your festival” in 12 months.

DC: Wow, that’s amazing, to see that reaction not only shift within the audience like you said before but then also to be transformed within the whole year.

DS: Yep.

DC: For many, I think it’s true that porn is their first exposure to seeing sex. What do you have to say about the porn industry today and how it changes our expectations and perceptions of sex? And do you think this differs between hetero and homosexual relationships?

DS: Well, porn for many people is their sex educations. And that’s unfortunate. But that’s not new if you’re queer. Because queer sex is not a part of sex education if kids are lucky enough to be in a school that has sex education. There’s not much time spent educating kids about queer sex. You know, if we don’t want porn educating our kids, then we should do a better job of it. But yeah, people learn about sex from porn, and porn is of course informed by the sex that people are having. And it’s not a one-way communication; it’s more of a feedback loop. We know that porn is not addictive, we know from the research and the data that’s coming from the last decade that people don’t escalate — they don’t start watching harder- and harder-core porn. We also don’t see that porn has gotten more violent, despite people’s protestations. So it’s more of the contrary. I don’t think porn is this malignant force; I think porn is judged in our culture, and I think our culture is sex-negative and homophobic and transphobic and butt-phobic. And all of those things play out in porn, and so I think porn gets a bum rap sometimes, literally.

But I’m the parent of a boy, and when he was younger we had conversations about what he might encounter so he could be a smart and critical consumer of it. The same cultural poisons that can make a TV show misogynistic can make a movie problematic or transphobic. Or can make a joke sexist. It can also wind up manifesting in porn. And we can be a critical, lawful, mindful consumer of porn in the same way that we can be a critical consumer of anything else.  

DC: How is it raising a son giving all of this sex advice in your column and elsewhere? Is he receptive to it?

DS: No! Would you be if one of your parents was an underwear model and the other was a sex advice columnist? You would probably be, as my son was, appropriately mortified. He wasn’t psyched about the fact that most of his friends read my column when he was 13 years old, he was embarrassed! But what are you going to do about it? You like those clothes you’re wearing, you like that roof over your head, you like that skateboard you got for your birthday?

DC: (laughs) So going back to HUMP!, it first began in Seattle and then expanded to other cities. Why did you choose San Francisco, and has the Bay Area had a different flavor than other cities that you’ve traveled to?

DS: We’re experimenting with the idea of letting everybody vote at all the screenings in all the cities so everybody has a say. So it was natural to expand the franchise first to San Francisco, just to see logistically how that would go. But you know the sex-positive culture in the last 25 years really grew out of San Francisco. And HUMP! is a product of that sex-positive culture even though it originated out of Seattle. It has a bit of San Francisco all over it.

DC: And the HUMP! festival usually has films from all over the country showing, correct?

DS: Yeah — they used to just be from Seattle and Portland. Even the first few years, we were on the same learning curve that audiences and the first filmmakers were on. So now we’re getting all these great submissions from people who understand HUMP!, who get HUMP! because they’ve done it a few times, in Toronto, in San Francisco, in New York, in Chicago. And we’re excited about those films!

DC: I know you’ve appeared in more political discussions, like “Real Time with Bill Maher” and Joe Rogan. I was wondering if there’s a more political aim behind HUMP! or if it’s just more of a passion project.

DS: HUMP! opened up in Seattle the day after the election — the day after Donald Trump won. And we all poured into the theater, just devastated, to watch this funny, sexy porn film festival. A lot of people were just sitting there looking shellshocked, not really knowing if they shouldn’t be there, maybe this was too trivial. And I got up there in front of the audience and gave a speech that really walked by my trauma of being a young gay man just about when the AIDS (epidemic) began; when it was beginning to destroy men of my generation. It was a dire and political moment, but we still made art, and we still had fun, and we still made porn and we still had sex, and not only was that not betrayal of the sick and the dying, it actually made it possible for us to keep our morale up. It kept us in the fight. And it’s what we were fighting for. We’re fighting for love and pleasure and friends and porn and joy and sexual connection.

Contact Layla Chamberlin at [email protected]