This interview ran in the June issue of AVN magazine. Click here for a link to the digital edition.
Women and pornography. Like many relationships, it’s complicated.
Until the home video revolution came along, most hardcore porn was sold or traded in spaces that were not welcoming to women: stag parties, dirty urban arcades and sex shops that catered to the so-called raincoater crowd.
After that came online porn, which had its own barriers to entry. Take the experiences of Michelle Shnaidman. As a young woman born in the digital era, Shnaidman didn’t feel welcome on tube sites, where female bodies are center stage, but women are not catered to as consumers.
“I would log onto these websites and I couldn’t shake this feeling of being alienated. For me personally it didn’t feel accessible to me—[the content] didn’t speak to me. There’s amazing content out there, but a lot of it is made by men, for men. And so I really couldn’t shake that. It became an obsession,” Shnaidman says.
Two years ago, Shnaidman came up with a solution to that obsession when she founded Bellesa.co, an online platform dispensing female-friendly erotica and sexual wellness information. The site celebrated its two-year birthday in February. As the company CEO and original brand ambassador, Shnaidman talks passionately about Bellesa’s mission.
There were “three original pillars” of Bellesa: articles about sexual wellness, literary erotica, and sexually explicit videos. But first and foremost the focus was on creating a safe space for women and “the feeling of being part of a community.”
Shnaidman elaborates, “Women engage with their sexuality differently, so whether that’s by watching videos or reading erotica or reading articles about sex or sexual health, they were able to come to Bellesa and have this one-stop shop for all things female sexuality.”
But right away the company ran into a problem with one of the pillars: video. The team was so focused on creating an online platform that would empower women to engage with their sexuality in a safe environment that reflected their desires, that they ultimately ended up neglecting how that same platform might disempower the content creators who are responsible for that content in the first place.
“It was four, maybe five months in and our traffic got so big and we were getting all this amazing press from mainstream publications,” the Bellesa CEO says. But then the industry took note—and began complaining about copyright violation.
“It was kind of this rude awakening, really—I was paying so much attention to the mainstream and working to empower them and I didn’t realize this whole time that I was disempowering this whole other group of women who are in the adult industry,” Shnaidman says. “This happened in September 2017, and we took immediate action. So within 24 hours our video library was taken down because our whole team felt we couldn’t go on doing what we were doing because it was not in line with who we are.”
Shnaidman issued a statement that “really came from my heart,” and for about a month, Bellesa.co had no video content on the site.
Happily, she says, “I was pleased and surprised to find that our statement was taken very well. I think people just wanted it to be a teachable moment, which I feel that it was. … We had amazing content creators and studios reach out to us and say, ‘We do love what you were trying to do. We just didn’t love how you were doing it. And if you are trying to fix that, we’d love to work with you.’”
Above, Angela White and Ramon Nomar (Jeff Koga/Bellesa Films)
And one of those voices was director Jacky St. James, well known in the industry for her work with New Sensations and Mile High Media. She confirms that the way Shnaidman handled the issue proved Bellesa’s good intentions.
“While tube sites basically ignore the fact that they have crippled businesses and undermined the work of so many directors (myself included), Bellesa immediately took down every video from their site and issued a formal apology to everyone in our industry,” St. James says. “The public acknowledgement was huge. They didn’t shy away, sweep it under the rug. … Shortly thereafter I spoke with Michelle on the phone and before long I was working alongside Bellesa to help bring their vision to life.”
Two years later that vision is becoming a reality. Using content supplied by studio partners as well as some amateur producers, the Bellesa team cuts the videos to lengths that range from 10 to 17 minutes, depending on the partner. “Sometimes there’s a video that’s amazing,” Shnaidman says, “but at the end of the video there’ll be a cumshot to the face. … And we’ll literally just cut that out.”
Shnaidman believes a female-friendly portal for consumers to sample free content will ultimately serve the interests of content creators by bridging the gap between free samples and paid porn. She relates her own experiences: “As someone who hadn’t engaged too much with porn before, I wasn’t ready to sign up with a subscription site because I wasn’t really there yet. And that’s where I thought the magic needs to happen. We need to make something so accessible that women start slowly dipping their feet in until they’re comfortable. And then they’re happy, proud porn watchers and people who are engaged with their sexuality, and they’re ready to commit to content of quality.”
The video pillar of Bellesa is robust due in no small part to a collaboration with Mile High Media and its sister company, O.L. Entertainment. Shnaidman calls Bellesa’s involvement with Mile High Media’s Jon Blitt “the biggest blessing.” In addition to providing footage from its many studios, including Sweet Sinner, Sweetheart Video and Erotica X, Mile High is also a partner in Bellesa Films—which will begin releasing original content this spring.
“That was an easy choice for us,” Shnaidman said, adding, “The Mile High family has some of the best content creators in the industry.”
Above, Damon Dice and Ivy Wolfe (Jeff Koga/Bellesa Films)
One of those, the aforementioned Jacky St. James, is serving as the creative lead for Bellesa Films. “She’s one of the best storytellers and tension builders—not just in porn,” Shnaidman says.
“Jacky has been a godsend. People feel so comfortable around her because of the kind of person she is. Everyone on set is just having fun. I think it’s a different kind of thing when they show up there and they’re literally told to just go have fun and go have sex,” Shnaidman says.
St. James shares her own delight with the collaboration. “Working with Michelle has really been more gratifying than I could ever articulate. There were some growing pains initially—working with someone who wasn’t as enmeshed in porn as I was did have its challenges—but once we hit our stride and worked out the kinks, it has been a true meeting of the minds. My business model has always been to ‘bridge the gap between porn and mainstream,’ and Bellesa is doing just that. It’s not about selecting performers who are this male ideal; it’s about finding people who can truly capture the chemistry and passion of real, authentic sex.”
Shnaidman says she bases casting on viewer demand. “We’ve looked at our analytics and said, ‘Who do people want to see. Who does our audience want to see?’ … We’ll select our female lead first and then we’ll bring her a list … and she’ll pick. And I think that adds to the passion and authenticity of the scene.
“At times Bellesa will get requests from a female performer for a specific partner,” Shnaidman continues. “We’ve made it happen. If it’s someone that you really want to work with and he wants to have sex with you, then magic’s going to happen.”
When Shnaidman spoke with AVN in March, she was “looking at a Q2 launch.” As for methods of releasing the content, plans were still evolving. “I don’t want to let on too much what we’ll be doing, but you will for sure see scenes released and DVDs released.” And those who opt for a Bellesa Premium subscription will get many extras, including access to more content—both videos and literary erotica—as well as perks in the store.
But really, Shnaidman says, “You’re subscribing to a community.”
Who’s in that community? Based on user data, Shnaidman says, “North American women, college educated, between 18 to 35” lead the demographics. “It may change and evolve—we don’t know that—but that’s what it is right now,” she says.
“Everything we do at Bellesa is very data driven. And because we have such a high amount of female traffic we’re able to make these statements knowing what we’re talking about. We’ve found certain things that women need to see in their porn, that they want to see in their porn. Women want to see stories that feel realistic, that they could relate to—they want to see themselves in porn. … We call it fantasy fuel. It’s where reality ends and fantasy begins.”
Overall, she says, “Data is king. You have a hunch; you put something out. You see how people engage with it.”
Among Bellesa’s observations: “Women don’t want to see fake orgasms. And I think that’s something that can pass by men easier and they’ll just accept it. They don’t have an eye out for it. Eighty-plus percent of women require clitoral stimulation to orgasm, and that’s reflected in our videos.”
And (as with other companies that produce couples erotica) there’s no requirement for performer to “open up for the camera” for the benefit of the viewer. “It gets some great shots, but I believe it takes the magic out of it because the performers have to stop what they’re doing. When you’re not telling them to do that, you’re able to capture something that’s really authentic and pleasurable, and I think that’s palpable,” she explains.
She also says that while women like good-looking men in porn (“Our audience loves Jay Smooth”), even more important is that they are able to see the men—they don’t just want what Shnaidman calls “a humping torso.” They want to see and hear the male performer and “get a feel for the entire experience. And everything we do is to feel more dynamic, almost like you’re not watching it behind the screen but like you’re in the room with the people, watching them have sex,” she says.
As for girl/girl content, women will watch “regardless of how they identify sexually. I think there’s a different way of empathizing in the scene—you don’t feel like she’s performing for him. They’re both just there pleasuring each other,” Shnaidman says, adding that statistics also show squirting is big in searches. “Maybe it’s a visual proof of pleasure that people want to see.”
St. James describes the Bellesa process from the point of view of the director, working on set with the talent. “A lot of magic has happened during our Bellesa productions. It’s not about opening up and getting the necessary penetration to satisfy the male gaze—it’s about real sex that looks and feels good. The general response, especially from the female performers, when I tell them not to perform, not to fake their orgasms, not to make these loud, repetitive moaning noises—but instead to make out and stay clothed for as long as their ‘characters’ would—there is this look of shock and then relief. ‘Wait, I get to actually just have sex and truly enjoy it?’ I don’t want to speak for all women because female sexuality is diverse and nuanced, but for many women it’s about the truth as it exists in the moment that’s hot. The staying in character.”
Above, Charles Dera and Vicki Chase (Jeff Koga/Bellesa Films)
Shnaidman adds that in the future Bellesa plans to show “more diversity, different kinds of women. But more so than anything women want to be able to relate to the woman in the video. So they want to see someone who looks real. So that starts with even the wardrobe … real, everyday clothes.”
Though the community is designed for women, it’s not surprising that a site with porn also draws men. “We have mostly women, but then we have couples that use the website a lot, and that’s something I really love. I think that’s beautiful And then we have some men—whether they want high-quality content that feels ethical or if they’re just curious about what women are watching, that’s OK too. When you’re talking about societal implications and making a change in the world, if men want to come see what women are watching and it’s content that shows women as the protagonist and shows equal sex, that’s totally, totally OK with me.”
But most of all, Bellesa community members “want to see real stuff, where there’s high tension and high risk in a scene. More than that we are also building into our scenes societal messages—things like consent. … Any time when there’s a power dynamic or something like that, you’ll see that no one’s being taken advantage of here.”
Director St. James talks about the artistry in depicting consent. “Bellesa is big on moments. Sometimes that moment is nails down a back, but sometimes it’s just a look, a breath, a shift. What’s sexy isn’t just the sex—it’s everything leading up to it. It’s everything that makes it true; it’s the stakes of the encounter. And, most importantly to me, it’s sex between two consenting adults. Porn has gotten very lax about non-consensual sex being glorified or done for shock value and clicks, but as a woman, I can’t get behind content where the women aren’t a) enjoying it b) fully consenting. Fear on a woman’s face isn’t sexy to me and I don’t think it’s something we, as a business, should glorify. That’s just my opinion. But lust, desire, and need—that’s sexy. That’s what we should be giving our female audiences.”
Given the company’s data-driven nature, one might assume Shnaidman has a strong tech background. But she actually graduated from McGill with a degree in psychology and a minor in women’s studies. After some time spent traveling in Asia, she came back to North America and started working as a content manager at a financial education startup. And that’s where she learned about building community and engaging with an audience—lessons that would prove key for the Bellesa adventure.
At heart, her mission at Bellesa is to be an advocate for sexual wellness.
“I just saw in my day-to-day life how women and men are brought up and socialized,” she said. Whereas male sexuality and self-pleasure is “a given,” when women talk about masturbation, even with friends, “there’s a weirdness there. I found that so strange. … If you could see porn that really reflects female empowerment and that reflects female pleasure—where the female is the protagonist and not just a prop in a scene—then we could change people’s ideas of what sex means and what it looks like.”
Above, Michael Vegas and Emily Willis (Jeff Koga/Bellesa Films)
Since Bellesa is a site aimed at women, it’s not surprising that just as much emphasis is placed on literary erotica, articles about sex and Bellesa’s online store.
The Erotic Stories section has its own Twitter feed (@BellesaStories), and the company’s first hire was the section’s editor, writer and curator, Jayne Renault. “She has built a community there as well,” Shnaidman says. As with the videos, there are free stories on the site. “We are also now working with some really amazing storytellers and we’re selling those as little novellas on the store,” she says, noting the e-books retail for under five dollars.
Renault says, “I feel that our collection is as much about building community as it is empowering the individual. It’s what attracts the kinds of people who have ultimately become our family of writers. Because that’s what we are—a family. We cheer on each other’s successes, in writing endeavors and life at large. The group is brimming with mutual love and support for one another and I couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve managed to accomplish together so far.”
In addition to familiar names such as Selena Kitt, Kay Brandt and Rachel Kramer Bussel, Bellesa also features new voices. “Lauren Emily and Eva Monroe, for example, had never any published any erotica before Bellesa, and now they’re two of our most popular authors,” Renault says.
She continues, “It’s been incredible to see what inspires the authors and how it resonates with the readers. BDSM is still hot as ever, but most especially when it’s about two everyday people navigating how to bring safe, consensual BDSM play into a pre-existing relationship.” She points to Rachel Woe’s “House Rules” and Mischa Eliot’s “Tease” as two of the most popular examples. And Bellesa readers are “also really big fans of bisexual women having a good time with (without being demeaned or fetishized), and men getting it on with men too, especially in the context of threesomes.”
In general, Renault asserts, “We give our writers permission to explore what excites them. They’ve really run with that and made our collection what it is today. Because the authors explore freely and unapologetically, championing sex positivity, consent, and female sexuality, the readers then have the permission to do the same, which is the whole point of Bellesa.”
In addition to stories, readers can also explore the Collective (bellesa.co/collective), which abounds with sex tips, listicles and pop-culture essays. This section seeks to address a general lack of sex education in society, that’s an area where Shnaidman wants to grow. “People are really engaged with sexual health articles,” she says.
Asked about other online communities that inspire her, Shnaidman mentions Bumble, a dating application created by Whitney Wolfe Herd, a co-founder of Tinder. “When I think about a company that I not only admire but one that truly inspires me, it’s Bumble. It’s Whitney Wolfe Herd. It’s the absolute freaking power move that was walking away from Tinder and starting her own female-empowering, female-led company. It’s the community of women she’s created and empowered through the Bumble brand.”
Above, Riley Reid and Abella Danger (Jeff Koga/Bellesa Films)
In July of 2018, Bellesa added another component to the site: an online store. As with the video side, Shnaidman was inspired to launch the shop by her own online experiences. Sex toy megasites “have amazing stuff, but there’s so much going on. And if you’re someone who hasn’t bought a toy before … you’re just so overwhelmed. You don’t know where to start.”
Bellesa Boutique (BBoutique.co) aims to be a site “that demystifies sex toys and you’re being recommended something from a friend you can trust. And I think that changes the whole air of it.”
She continues, “We have our Bellesa line of sex toys and we have a bunch of other sex toys that are body safe and have been vetted and tested by us. … And we have a new line that will be coming out soon.”
The first-time visitor can enter the Bellesa community through any of the paths: videos, the written word, or through a desire to shop. But the overall goal is the same: “We’re really trying to bridge the gap between the mainstream and the adult industry. … We’re welcoming people who aren’t yet comfortable and kind of holding their hand until they are.”