Our story begins two summers ago in a sweaty North Portland bar. I’m shouldering my way through a packed crowd, a pint glass dripping down my arm in the August heat, looking for people who seem like they would fuck on camera.
But what do porn stars in Portland, Oregon look like? Do they wear plaid shirts and thick-rimmed glasses? Do they have keys jittering from the loop of their blue jeans? Is it the girl with the deepest cleavage? The guy with the gropiest expression?
It turns out the porn stars are the quiet ones at the back table I’ve walked past twice already.
There’s Jenna, a sparkly-eyed, blue-haired photographer in cat-eye glasses. There’s Ryan, a PHP coder with a razor-sharp jawline who explains that before making porn he acted in a local Star Trek performance group. Amory Jane, or AJ, and her husband, Steven, are a polyamorous couple who’ve been married for more than five years. She’s a 31-year-old sex educator with big blue doll eyes and a flashbulb smile. He’s a lanky 37-year-old bartender and singer, a guy with aw-shucks good looks who can’t keep his hands out of his mess of blond hair. Before we talk, AJ orders a hamburger and yanks up her skirt to show us the freshly inked flowers climbing her hip bone.
Looking at her bikini line so soon after shaking her hand, I reflect that this is the sort of thing I expect when talking to a porn star—a feeling reinforced a few minutes later when someone pulls out a phone and queues up one of the amateur porn films they’ve made together. Suddenly, AJ is getting nailed in a shower by both Steven and Ryan as Steven sings Journey’s “Any Way You Want It.”
The group, along with friends, made this movie and others to submit to Hump!, an amateur film festival that started in Seattle, sprouted a Portland version a few years later and now tours the country. (In 2015 it played to 20,000 people in the Pacific Northwest alone; last year it hit 27 U.S. cities.) When we meet, AJ and her friends say they intend to make one more film—and this time they’re determined to take Hump!’s top prize.
That was the story I planned to write: how an amateur porn gets made.
But in the nearly two years since that night at the bar, it became a lot more than a story about on-camera sex. It became a story about all the ways the world tells people to have sex, about the fear that comes with being honest about our most primal selves. It became a story about AJ, a woman who aggressively knows what sort of sex she wants to have, and the consequences that come with that knowledge. And it became a story about me, and all the things I didn’t know I had to learn.
Dan Savage admits that the idea of starting an amateur porn festival was kind of a joke—a full-page advertisement he and a colleague placed in The Stranger, the Seattle newspaper he runs, “just to see what we could get.” But when submissions started flooding into the office—movies of straight sex, gay sex, trans sex, no sex and every sexual fetish from peeing on trampolines to being smeared with cake—Savage realized they’d unintentionally created a sex-positive celebration that cheers on every imaginable kink with equal vigor.
That tends to take first-time Hump! attendees by surprise. “Initially people are thrown back in their chairs. You’re a straight guy watching hardcore gay porn, or you’re a gay guy watching cunnilingus,” Savage says. But then the mood changes.
“Everyone is cheering and clapping after every film. At first all anybody can see is the differences. And halfway through everyone starts to see the similarities, or that everything is exactly the same,” he says.
Hump! offers its contributors the promise of on-camera sex with no nasty, long-lasting consequences. Cell phones are forbidden at the festival, and the films are destroyed after they’re screened. As Savage often repeats, “Porn stars in a movie theater for a weekend,” not “for all eternity on the internet.”
Because of that, in 12 years Hump! has become something of an artisanal counterpoint to the mainstream adult-film world. It is the porn of the people. Nine-to-fivers, parents, couples, bi, straight, gay, lesbian, queer, trans, polyamorous, kinky—people who would never spread their legs for the internet will do so, unblinkingly, for Hump! Savage says the films often steer clear of any resemblance to mainstream porn. That irks people who aren’t used to porn that doesn’t feature “a giant dick flying in and out of a pussy,” he says, adding that “porn is in the eye of the beholder.”
The audience votes on the sexiest, kinkiest and funniest films, which take home $2,000 each; best in show gets $5,000. Movies come from all over the country now, so to make it to the big screen, filmmakers had better have a hell of a good idea. And when we talk, AJ and her friends say they know they’ll win.
For their first submission, the group made D&D Orgy, in which a game of Dungeons & Dragons turns into a 20-sided dice-throwing fuck pile. Two years later, they submitted Humparaoke. Both made it into Hump!, and both were a far cry from anything you’d find on Pornhub: The actors laugh and smile, and there are moments of awkwardness. That has always been the group’s goal, they explain to me back at the bar: to show real sex, in all its rawness and honesty. Yes, there’s a thrill in having sex on a big movie screen—but the point, for them, is to push a new brand of porn out into the world.
There should be porn out there that pushes some boundaries.
“Straight people are terribly behind everyone else in their porn,” AJ says between bites of her burger. “There should be porn out there that some straight people could enjoy and that pushes some boundaries.”
To this group, that means porn that shows consent and is ethically produced—porn with a message that goes beyond hot sex.
“We want to be the change we want to see in the world,” AJ says (and it’s hard not to wonder for a moment if a Gandhi quote has been applied to porn before).
They have just six weeks to make a pornographic magnum opus.
On the way home from the bar, my mind is tangled up in something AJ said: that straight people like me are terribly behind. Lately in progressive Portland, the city where I grew up, to identify as a straight, married liberal female can feel almost conservative. I’m not young, and I’m not old, but I feel out of touch.
I acknowledge that’s in part because my sexuality hasn’t come with much struggle. I haven’t had to come out to my family. I haven’t had to fight with politicians over which bathroom I can pee in. I was never bullied because of my sexuality, never scared to be who I am.
Before I met AJ and her friends, I assumed that the straight monogamous sex I’d been having all my life was “normal” sex. By the 10th interview with a Hump! filmmaker, I felt abnormal. I became convinced everyone in the world—me excluded—was having kinky sex, much of it on camera, without a single hang-up.
One chilly fall afternoon, I sit outside a coffee shop with Zachary Brown, a 31-year-old filmmaker with piercing green eyes, and his partner, a 36-year-old Korean woman who goes by the name M. They have done ayahuasca and enjoy Chinese board games. They made a porn after one month of dating, a noir called Lipstick inspired by Quentin Tarantino and Alfred Hitchcock: five minutes of speeding in the rain, blurred headlights, thudding bass, piles of drugs and driver’s-seat sex.
“It’s art. It’s beautiful,” Zachary says.
But do you feel any sort of shame having sex on film, I ask.
“I would show my grandmother it,” he answers calmly.
I phone a guy in Seattle who says to call him Peter Pinkpuss. He’s translating a dream he had into a porn film. When he’s done, he sends me the clip: an acid-trip kaleidoscope of a dildo being thrust in and out of a vagina. I e-mail him, asking to talk to the actress on-screen.
“I’m the actor in the film,” he e-mails me, a smiley-face with its tongue out following. I’m confused.
“I may have been mistaken about your gender—can you clarify?” I write back.
“I’m a female-to-male transsexual,” he says. “I haven’t had any genital surgery yet.” I immediately feel like such an ignorant, clumsy newb.
Another guy calls me on his break from work at a call center. He and his friends got into the festival one year when they made a fake infomercial for something they called “Anal Alley.” In it, they shoot butt plugs out of their assholes into a set of plastic bowling pins. They had a blast. I can almost hear him smiling over the phone as he recalls the experience.
I talk to a film director who reinterprets fairy tales as gay porn. He sends me a few to watch. I’m in my home office that night, watching his version of Cinderella: a janitor at a gay bar seeks the love of the tavern’s hottest bear patron. It’s touching, and hot.
I open the door to my office and call to my husband. He walks in carrying his bong and takes a seat next to me as I restart the movie. It’s halfway done when I hit the spacebar to pause it.
“Do you realize we’re watching gay porn together?” I ask him.
He shakes his head and laughs, takes a deep hit and blows it out our apartment window.
We’d been a couple for a total of 11 years by then, and this was the first time we’d ever watched porn together.
In Portland, AJ is something of an erotic missionary, proselytizing a gospel of sexual shamelessness. If anyone can make sex into polite dinner-table conversation, it’s probably her.
She has delivered spoken-word performances about orgies, her polyamorous marriage with Steven, kissing new people. “I’ve made out with half of Portland,” she said in one performance. She holds a master’s degree in counseling psychology and teaches classes around the city with names such as “BJs With AJ” and “Back That Ass Up! Anal Sex 101."
Four weeks before the Hump! deadline, the cast is sitting around Steven and AJ’s thick wooden dining-room table. They live in a small, nondescript house in a half-gentrified North Portland neighborhood, with two dogs that roam around the front yard.
They’re here to brainstorm. Flipping through her notes, Jenna proposes a kung fu porn. No one’s into it. Ryan wants to do a series of quick trailers called “Cumming Attractions” with names like The Bi-Curious Case of Ben-jammin Butthole and Die Hard With a Big Cock.
“How can you have sex with tiny four-second snippets?” AJ says, a little exasperated, as everyone else cracks up. “It’s a porn fest, not a comedy fest, you know? And that’s what I’m good at. I’m good at having sex on film. Like, let me show this off!”
Jenna proposes a live-action video game, and AJ runs with it: What if they make a video-game-themed film in which she, the protagonist, overcomes cultural and patriarchal barriers that keep women from fully embracing their sexuality? And if she wins, she gets what she’s always wanted the most.
“A surprise gang-bang birthday party!” she says, practically jumping out of her seat. “For me this seems like a feminist fairy tale.”
The response around the table is tepid, but AJ doesn’t seem to notice. It’s decided.
A few days later, Ryan e-mails everyone to say he’s out—too busy to make porn this year. Jenna is in, but she’d prefer to shoot and direct the film.
Just when I’m sure they’ll drop out of the running for the festival, AJ and Steven find three Hump! virgins to participate: There’s Calico, a 24-year-old caramel-skinned weight-lifting coach; Austin, a tattooed and pierced farmer who is down to get with both guys and girls on film; and Matias, a 22-year-old Chilean model and part-time house cleaner.
They’re so good-looking—perfectly coiffed and tattooed, septum piercings dangling from aquiline noses, bodies like Adonises—it’s almost hilarious. If Portlandia were to make an amateur porn sketch, this would be the cast.
On a rainy night in November 2015, I see AJ, her husband and their porn recruits for what I think will be the last time: the night their latest movie is set to debut on the Hump! screen.
Before the show, AJ is dancing in the aisle of a converted school bus equipped with a karaoke machine and packed with 20 of her friends. In a long-sleeved lace dress and back-seam tights, she puffs on a vaporizer, the sweet-sour smell of weed adding to the mix of cologne, beer and tequila with Ocean Spray already hanging in the air. Someone is bellowing the words to the Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun.” A woman in a red dress grinds up against a guy in a sport coat in the aisle. Steven is in the back, talking in another woman’s ear.
AJ falls into a seat behind the driver, yelling over the music. She admits she’s nervous. She and her friends have pulled off something of a pornographic miracle, filming a feminist video-game porn called Level Up. It’s one of just 22 films accepted.
Trundling around Portland’s potholed streets, I realize that throughout this whole process, I’ve been hung up on how unapologetic and vocal AJ is about sex. I’ve been surprised—and maybe a little threatened—by how forward she is about liking to have sex on camera, but I’ve never once thought that about any of the men in these movies. I’ve looked past them. AJ watches porn and likes group sex with men and women, and she’s not ashamed to talk about it. That should be normal. That’s the whole point of all this.
It’s something Savage has heard before—that Hump! might not give people a desire to make porn, but it could give them the courage to ask for what they want. “Seeing a film at Hump! isn’t going to give you a kink you don’t have,” he says. “What it can do is allow you to have a conversation that felt difficult.”
Hump! is all about coming out of hiding, about removing the layers of shame around whatever sex we like to have. It creates a tiny world where this societally agreed-upon shame about sex is just gone, a thing of the past.
Savage adds, “It can give you the courage to ask for that thing that you want.”
Hump! 2015 is an hour and a half of vaginal sex, anal sex, oral sex, twosomes, threesomes, foursomes, fivesomes, group fistings, sex in masks, sex in tube socks and films with no sex at all. Beforehand Savage takes to the stage to lay down rules. “No assholes out there,” he says, pointing to the crowd. “Assholes only up here,” he gestures toward the movie screen behind him. The place shakes with applause and screams.
“You are going to watch porn that if you were at home watching, you wouldn’t fucking click on,” he says.
With that, he throws a dildo out into the audience, a wobbling trophy for a lucky attendee, and the lights go dark.
After midnight, when Level Up’s eight-bit title design lights up the screen, the entire balcony cheers.
On-screen, AJ falls out of the sky in a flash of pink light, dropping into a grassy meadow, wearing a short green Zelda-esque dress. She encounters a fairy, played by a sparkly, wing-wearing Calico, who tells her (in scrolling blocky captions) that it is her destiny to defeat the patriarchy. To win the game, AJ must pass three Mortal Kombat–style rounds that pit her against the enemies of feminism.
First, Matias: a visor-wearing dude-bro who grabs his crotch and catcalls her from his pickup truck. She shouts a ball of fire and lays him out flat. Next, Steven plays a white-suited preacher who hurls copies of the Bible, Fifty Shades of Grey and Mike Huckabee’s God, Guns, Grits and Gravy at her—which she boomerangs back at his crotch. He convulses and drops to the ground. Austin plays a sniveling plastic surgeon who wraps AJ in measuring tape and dots surgical suggestions across her skin. AJ unceremoniously knocks him out with a fleshy dildo.
In the final boss fight, Austin, Steven and Matias stand crammed into a pair of oversize men’s briefs adorned with felt letters that read patriarchy. The men boo and shame AJ, and when it seems she might shrivel, Fairy Calico pops up at her side with a weapon. The women’s eyes meet.
Together they grasp a vigorously shaking vibrator and direct a bright pink beam of light from its tip into the three-headed beast, vaporizing the giant underpants. She wins! And the men start making out!
Calico gestures toward the kissing men. “Go ahead,” she tells AJ. “Fuck the patriarchy.”
AJ smiles, gives a little shrug.
And then she does exactly that.
A week later, Savage leaves Jenna a voicemail.
“You guys won best in show!” he says. “It’s so deserved. Level Up is great, and really hot.”
Jenna doles out checks to each member of the cast and crew. And their private Facebook group, where they have so vigorously discussed plans for their porn, falls silent by winter.
A year passes.
In February 2017, more than a year after I last saw the Level Up group, I check in with the cast and crew to see what they’re up to. Jenna hasn’t made any porn since but knows she will someday: “Once a porn director, always a porn director,” she says. She didn’t submit to Hump! 2016, though. All she could think about? “How the hell was I going to top winning with Level Up?”
Calico started going by that name shortly after Level Up, which was her first film. Now she regularly makes independent queer porn with her partner (who also starred in a Hump! film in 2015) for an online site called Crash Pad Series. “Being able to boldly be on a screen saying, ‘Here I am in all my natural glory, exploring myself and just having unabashed pleasure’—that’s normalizing,” she says. “And it hopefully helps someone out there who looks like me.”
Savage recalls the launch of Hump! 2016, which took place the day after the presidential election: “I got up there and said, ‘It’s okay that you’re here.’ Part of what we’re coming together and fighting for is this: people being able to share who they are politically and socially but also sexually.”
There’s defiance in joy and defiance in pleasure.
According to Savage, that’s the role this kind of porn can have in times as divisive as these. “We still have to make time in our lives for pleasure and joy and intimacy and pornography—and fun,” he says. “There’s defiance in joy and defiance in pleasure. It actually energizes you for the fight.”
I meet up with Amory Jane on a drizzly day for Thai food. She peeks out from under a peacock-blue flapper hat.
“I’m trying not to sob right now,” she says, explaining that just months after Level Up won the festival, she and Steven separated and then divorced. They just filed the final papers a week earlier. Making Level Up had nothing to do with their split, but it turns out it was a bit of a last hurrah, she says. After a decade together, infertility and AJ’s desire to be a mother drove a wedge between them. Steven, she says, wasn’t always sure about parenthood.
When she and Steven broke up, AJ says, she was devastated. She took her savings and bought a 1987 Toyota “Toyhome” camper. She named it St. Edna the Sex Ed Mobile and drove it from Oregon to the Southeast, across Texas and up through California, teaching her brand of adult sex education. When St. Edna broke down for good on the freeway outside Portland, she was devastated again.
She started a podcast called Sex on the Brain With Amory Jane. For one recent episode, she did a live broadcast of a femme sex party, complete with spankings, fistings and squeals of glee. It’s a monthly event AJ hosts at her house with a circle of other women, which started after the election.
After Trump’s win was final, she says, “everyone felt so scared—like we don’t know what this is going to mean for our community or queer people.” At the parties, sometimes people are honest that they’re not looking to fuck or be fucked. Sometimes, according to AJ, they’ll say, “I’ve had a really hard week and I would just love cuddles and kisses and maybe to be spanked.”
She also started a live erotic variety show, which sold out each of its first three monthly installments.
“Everyone was so sad about Trump, and they needed a boost,” AJ says. “All of the acts are sex positive or body positive.”
Although she hasn’t made any porn lately, she’d like to run her own production studio one day. But right now, AJ knows she has to keep pushing feminist, sex-positive conversations in all the ways she can—to get people talking, to keep people united, to remind people that to love is bold and messy and worth fighting for.
“If I can’t create a family, if I can’t create children, I need to put some sort of creation into the world,” she says. “If I can’t have the traditional settled-down life that I was originally striving for, at least I’m going to have an epic, adventure-filled life.”
Like AJ and lots of other people, I spent 2016 thinking about the world breaking. Bowie. Prince. Carrie Fisher. On Election Day, I snapped a selfie with a fist raised and stopped a click short of posting it online because I thought there was still a chance America wasn’t ready for a woman president.
I recall a thought I had while walking home after the Hump! 2015 screening. I realized that the only place I wanted to be was back in the crappy expensive apartment I share with my husband. Next to him. Eating snacks and watching TV and getting high and maybe having that married-couple sex we’ve come to know so well. Or maybe not.
When I got home that night, I climbed into bed, smiling to myself at the idea that AJ, Steven and the rest of the group were probably having an orgy on a party bus as it bounced across the city. And how the only place in the world I wanted to be was right there on our lumpy mattress, in a quiet room, where everything is familiar, where my own sexual revolution starts by kissing my husband on the head as he sleeps.
And though I know our sex doesn’t look anything like what I saw on the Hump! screen that night, I caught a glimpse of it recently—our dark shapes moving in the mirrors that hang on the closet door in our bedroom.
One day, I think I’ll have the courage to keep watching.