It is mid-afternoon in a Jaffa apartment. Two young men sit a sofa in the center of the room, chatting amiably, occasionally laughing; a bottle of vodka is within reach. But the camera at the edge of the room, light stands and the fact both men are as naked as the day they were born make it clear this isn’t a regular encounter between friends or lovers, but a film set for the Israeli porn website igay365.
“Hey, we’ve got a lot more filming to do and you guys are yakking there,” the director says suddenly, only a few minutes after he was laughing with them. The director, who is also the cinematographer, will be referred to here as Shay. He has quite a bit of experience in this business, having spent a decade making adult films.
“I’m not competing with foreign sites that show guys with abs who look like a million bucks,” says Shay adding, “With me, everything is homey; my films are amateurish.” And he sees absolutely nothing wrong with that. “When I write that the film was made in Florentin [a trendy Tel Aviv neighborhood], that someone is straight or Arab – it’s true,” he says. “All these silly things give it the feeling that it’s local.”
The stats from Israel’s most popular porn website, x-nxx, back him up: “Israeli sex” is the most popular category among the site’s users. People like porn they recognize, believes Shay. “I always look for Mizrahi actors,” he adds, referring to Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin. “But it’s harder to recruit them.”
While in the past Shay dealt primarily in heterosexual porn, today his work is aimed solely at gay men. He made the switch after periodic reports over the years about the porn industry’s exploitation of women. “Suddenly, you find out that your actor is a single mother who has to do this for the money – I didn’t like that,” he notes, adding that men are less subject to exploitation.
Prof. Esther Herzog, a social anthropologist and chairwoman of the Movement for Equal Representation of Women, agrees that pornography “is primarily the serious exploitation of women,” but adds that there is “also exploitation and objectification of men.”
Israeli porn seems to have always been with us, even though it’s undergone many changes over the years. In the early 2000s, any talk of “blue-and-white pornography” immediately brought two names to mind: Moti Avraham and the sex-toys store Sex Style. But over the years, as in most countries, the availability of free online videos made the production of porn films unprofitable. Avraham has dropped off the Israeli radar (he says he is still active abroad), while Sex Style has left the field.
Nowadays, Israeli porn is primarily produced for the gay community. These productions are generally amateurish, with the actors getting between 1,000 shekels to 2,000 shekels ($277 to $554) for a day’s filming.
Anyone entering the igay365 website will discover a variety of films of different durations, as is the norm on such sites. But unlike similar sites abroad, you’ll find the same actors in many of these films. There are only about 10 male stars in Israeli gay porn, and Shahar Koren, 31, is one of them.
“It was a kind of fantasy,” he says, smiling bashfully as he describes his decision to be filmed having sex. “We started to make the first movie and then it went from there – sometimes yes, sometimes no.”
Koren is a chef by profession, and that’s still his main source of income. He’s been doing porn movies for a year, “just for fun.”
He says he’s rarely recognized in the street, although he’s relatively well-known on gay websites. But it makes him feel good to hear from fans. “Yesterday, I got a message from someone: ‘Just know that I really like your videos and you’re very sexy.’ It’s fun to hear.”
Koren claims that while the gay community is very open sexually, it is also very judgmental. “The community knows how to tarnish people,” he says. “But I am who I am, and I don’t care what people say. I always tell myself that if people are talking about me, it means I’m alive.”
He hesitated before going public about his alternative life as a porn star, and at first was nervous about people’s reactions. “I slowly realized it only does me good,” he says. “My friends accepted it and said they’ll always support me, no matter what. I wasn’t speaking to my family during that period, so didn’t really care so much about them.”
Koren grew up in the northern town of Ma’alot-Tarshiha. He came out of the closet at 17 and recalls that it was a very difficult time. “My family didn’t really accept it, especially my father,” he says, adding that one day he just left home for Tel Aviv, “without telling anyone, without anything. I stayed with a friend for a month, and I just moved around like some kind of survivor. To this day, I think of myself as a survivor.”
Although most gay porn in Israel is made by men, not all of it is. Mor Vital is a female director-producer of porn films that feature transgender women (who generally have sex with men). She has made about 110 films over the years. Like many others in the field, she’s had to grapple with the question of exploitation. She says her answer was with the type of company she established, which she calls a cooperative in which the women have a say in the decision-making process.
“This business was created by girls, so everything that happens there is the result of our decisions,” says Vital.
The conventional porn industry model of shooting scripted films has been changing in recent years, with live webcam broadcasts becoming more and more popular. “It’s considered more authentic,” explains Vital. “There’s a conversation, you get to know the person – and if there’s no chemistry, the customer ends the conversation,” she adds. “It’s a decision by both parties.”
Prof. Herzog takes issue with Vital’s idealization of the porn industry. “It’s pulling the wool over people’s eyes,” she says. “Even if a few women make porn and think it’s a wonderful thing that really respects the person, pornography is pornography.
“Pornography, prostitution and trafficking in women are three sides of the same phenomenon,” Herzog continues. “Ultimately, we’re talking about buying sex – it’s just that with pornography, technology enables it to multiply infinitely.” She adds that those who support the porn industry often do so under the cover of “hypocrisy, pretense and the cynical use of liberal rhetoric about freedom of occupation and freedom of expression.”
Kol Lior Kolton, a well-known LGBT activist, is responsible for dozens of projects at the Gan Meir Center in Tel Aviv, including artistic evenings on the subject of sex. As part of her work, she decided to make a film based on an existing relationship between two women. “I have a couple of girlfriends who filmed themselves having sex,” she says. “I asked them, ‘Did you feel like you were making pornography?’ They said no.”
To present the film at a festival, she sought a term that would be disconnected from the violent history linked to pornography. “We couldn’t find an existing definition for it, so in the end we called it ‘feminist pornography’ – which introduces the resistance, the political dimension,” she says.
Kolton believes porn that’s derived from an actual real-life relationship changes its essence. She explains that for one of the subjects, “She wasn’t making porn, she was documenting herself the way you document a child running through the park. There’s no shame in it; there’s no weak woman, there’s no violence.”
And there’s another advantage, she notes. The moment porn documents an existing relationship, there’s no need to fulfill any commercial expectations. “The purpose is not to turn people on. Although it’s for outside use, what’s done with it afterward becomes much less relevant,” she says.
One of the women in the film, Alina Vladimirsky, says that bringing the camera into intimate moments fascinated both her and her partner – particularly as lesbians “who know what the porn world looks like nowadays.” Having the ability to remove the stigma that society ascribes to female sexuality enabled them “to create new boundaries from a place that isn’t dependent on social conditioning,” she adds.
Do it yourself
Whether they use live sex webcams or edited films, Israeli porn websites make their money primarily from ads, according to the operator of the x-nxx site, who asked not to be identified. “The free sites get a lot of traffic,” he says, also citing the growing popularity of webcam sites. “They’ve replaced the sex chats that were once popular, and in recent years have gained momentum along with the social networks.”
The fact there’s no need for a production company today, and that anyone with a camera can turn himself into a porn actor, has given rise to several “independent actors” who opened their own websites or use an existing platform to gain exposure.
One such person is Ella Kross, an artist and porn actor with a website featuring some 700 films, a Twitter account with nearly 20,000 followers, and hundreds of films on international websites. In porn terminology she’s known as a “queen” – a “dominatrix and experienced humiliator of men,” who appear wearing masks in her films.
Another actor pursuing the independent approach is Nurit (not her real name). She says she started working in porn out of financial necessity, but notes, “I don’t have to work at this to earn a living today, but I’m still doing it.
“Sex is part of life,” she adds, unashamed by her career choice. “I think it’s too bad that society imposes sanctions on anyone who deals with sex. It’s hypocritical and sanctimonious, because the fact is that everyone consumes porn.”
Nurit insists that she’s less vulnerable than she’d be in any other job, since she’s at home, decides when to work and controls her employment conditions. “I used to work as a waitress, but I felt like a whore,” she says. “Now that I work in the sex industry, I can allow myself to live.”