Freedom, Responsibility and Porn: Q&A with Erotic Photographer Holly Randall

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The concept of porn and women has been a highly debated topic throughout the past century.  As soon as it was possible to capture images on film, nudity and sexuality were documented. From the nude female figurine “The Venus of Wollendorf” that carbon dated to 24,000 BC, to the 1 billion dollar adult industry that saturates our culture, media and society, humans have always been fascinated by and interested in viewing nudity and sex. Given that fact and that (most) everyone has sex, why is it that our culture treats sexuality as though it is on the same level as violent crimes?  

Women through the multiple waves of feminism have had opposing points of view regarding pornography. In the 1980s, Feminist Andrea Dworkin held an opinion that all sex was inherently rape since the act of penetration is invasive to a woman's body. She pushed this opinion through her highly selling books and towards the media, even approaching the legal system to suggest the censorship of all pornography  since she felt that all pornography was exploitative to women. After this era of conservative feminism, Tipper Gore, and Ronald Regan, we are led into the 1990s with the “riot grrls,” “do me feminists” and an overall more liberal attitude towards sexual women in culture and media.  Feminist Annie Sprinkle had workshops showing her own vagina, and Betty Dodson published on the benefits of female masturbation. The pendulum has swung to extremes with society, culture and even how feminists have viewed porn, sex and women's roles in both.

Personally, I have very strong and specific opinions regarding this topic. Somewhere between my combat boot wearing, Hole singing, and purple-haired feminist punk rock phase and my academic, independent and more conservative modern self, I have formulated guidelines on what I feel are the best ways for women to move towards sex and porn. Do with your body whatever you want, it’s YOUR body. Given that, also be aware of the cultural repercussions of those choices. The three concepts that I apply to this, I apply to most choices in my life and the guidance that I give others: Freedom, Responsibility and Meaning.   

In terms of seeking out porn as a woman, these concepts are very important. Take responsibility for what your behavior contributes to in our culture. Choose to buy porn that is portraying women in empowering ways, shows a variety of body types, treats women fairly on set and has female directors/producers.

 Suze and Holly Randall are two women that lead the way and contribute to adult content made by women. Suze Randall was a nurse turned model that started to enjoy taking pictures of beautiful women. Soon, she became the first female staff photographer for both Playboy and Hustler in the 1970s. She branched off and started her own company, making her the president of one of the largest adult content sites, The Suze Network. Suze, a creative erotic photographer, got married and had a daughter with writer, Humpry Knipe. The offspring was Holly Randall,  a strong minded woman with a degree in literature who was a successful erotic photographer. Holly has worked with Playboy, Penthouse, Hustler and Quiver Books, all while getting a degree in world literature and leading a balanced, and healthy lifestyle. I had the opportunity to probe Holly recently about what it was like growing up with a famous pornographer as a mother,  her opinions as a woman in the porn industry, and what she is doing next as a woman that has an active role in creating what our culture sees as pornography.  

Holly Randall

Holly Randall

Amie Harwick: What was it like growing up with a Mother that worked as an erotic photographer?  What do you think was different about your childhood compared to your peers as a child?   Do you think your childhood around a parent that did this shaped you in any way as an adult?

Holly Randall: Growing up, I didn't really see my mother as an erotic photographer, I saw her as a mother. My parents were pretty good at separating their career from their home life -- I had a very normal childhood. If anything, I enjoyed growing up in a liberal household that didn't teach their children to be ashamed of their bodies or of sex. I feel very lucky for that -- I think that has definitely shaped me as an adult. I'm pretty comfortable in my own skin, I'm definitely comfortable with my sexuality. And I'm very liberal!

AH: I know that you went to school for literature.  What did you initially want to do with that?  At what point did you decide to follow in the footsteps of your Mother?

HR: Well I had two loves growing up: photography and books. I think I was initially nervous about trying to pursue a career in "the arts" so I thought a degree in literature would be safer. I was considering becoming a teacher (my family on both sides have a lot of teachers). But when I started working for my parents in the erotic photography business, I knew I'd found my niche. I hadn't finished school yet though, and I couldn't bear to be a college drop out, so I went on to finish my studies and graduated from UCLA with a degree in World Lit, just because I could, and I knew I'd regret it if I didn't. Even though I knew that degree would probably do nothing but hang on my wall. But it looks damn good up there!

AH: What was your first adult shoot like?  What did you enjoy?  What were the challenges?

HR: My first adult shoot was actually Aimee Sweet for her website, which my parents ran at the time. Aimee was one of my mom's favorite models, and who remains one of my closest friends to this day. I was terrified, but she was a professional and she moved through all of the poses without my having to say really anything. I just clicked the shutter and hoped everything would come out OK! So I guess the challenge would be getting the explicit shots that this kind of work entails, but like I said Aimee was a pro so she knew what she needed to do. What I did enjoy was shooting beautiful, sexy photos of a beautiful, sexy girl. And she was my friend, which made the whole experience a lot of fun.

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AH: Do you view pornography as exploitative or empowering to women?

HR: I think this all depends on what context you are basing this question in. Is there porn out there that's degrading to women? Of course. Is there porn out there that is degrading to men? Of course (though funny enough, people don't really talk about that). Porn stars play a role -- they can be dominant, submissive, loving, aggressive, etc. I think that as long as everyone involved is a consenting adult and the performers are fully aware of the type of scene they are doing and they are OK with it, there's nothing really wrong with any type of scene (excluding of course, scenes so extreme they are illegal-- such as bestiality, etc). I might personally find certain scenes absolutely disgusting but that doesn't mean that people don't have a right to make them, or enjoy them. Porn is for entertainment purposes only, it's important that the viewer distinguishes reality from fantasy, and doesn't take it at face value. (I think those that do tend to have issues with their own sexuality that runs much deeper than the scenes they are watching.) That being said, I think porn can be very empowering to women as well. It can encourage them to discover their own hidden desires and learn what excites them. We all have different sexual tastes, and there is enough porn out there to cater to all of them. Society has spent centuries oppressing women's sexuality, and I believe that now is the time that women are starting to actually recognize themselves as sexual creatures, just as men are. We have needs too, why can't we have the freedom to explore them the way that men do? It's important that women shake off the stigma of being considered a "whore" simply because they enjoy sex. It's our right, and our privilege to do so.

AH: What are your current projects?  What are your future goals?  What impact would you like to see your work have?

HR: Right now I am (as always) working on my website, improving my video skills, looking to shoot in more exotic places on this earth. I've also been asked to host a TV show (sex related, of course), so I'm gearing up to start that in August. And then after that I'm in talks with a distribution company on producing a documentary. I'd like to be able to encourage women to open up, and to embrace their sexual selves. After all, the sex drive is one of the most important and strongest motivations known to mankind. It's an ingrained, ancient instinct that evolution instilled in us for the endurance of the human species. It's significance is profound and it should not be  ignored or feared. And that doesn't mean you need to believe in free love and screw every guy who comes your way, it just means that you need to allow yourself to explore what drives you, and allow yourself to give those needs consideration and respect. It's part of being a well-balanced individual.

AH: What are your favorite things about working with a "good" model for adult content?  What are some examples of horror stories?  What did you do when faced with them?

HR: The best part about working with a good model is that she intuitively understands what is sexy, which allows me to give her the freedom to express herself naturally, without too much nitpicking from me. Those are the best kinds of shoots, when we can work in sync. Horror stories... well there are always going to be a few of those. The occasional shoot of a model with an obvious drug problem is never pleasant, on many levels. Shooting a girl who is highly insecure in her looks can be very draining, and shooting a girl who clearly doesn't want to be there is just downright depressing. Each case is different-- sometimes I've had to confront the model outright, sometimes I just have to humor them and coax them into giving me the best shoot that they can. I think it's important to remember that if a girl is being difficult it's probably because she is afraid-- afraid she doesn't look good, afraid that she's in the wrong line of work. Compassion and a gentle touch is usually my default tactic, and usually works very well.

AH: To YOU.... what is beauty?  What is erotic?  What is sexy?

HR: This is so hard to describe as an absolute-- like that a photo which just shows boobs and no vagina is sexy, or a photo of a beautiful girl with an amazing body is sexy... I think the piece of art in question has to appeal to the audience on a visceral level... it could be the model itself, the lighting, the wardrobe, the set, and how it all comes together. Or it could be simpler-- the way the light skims over her curves, the angle of her chin, the beads of water glinting off her breasts, the curve of a smile at the corner of her lips, a hint of pubic hair between the thighs. I think the most beautiful thing is a woman who is comfortable in her own sexuality and loves her body- flaws and all. There is nothing more attractive than confidence.

AH: In what direction do you want to see the adult industry go?

HR: I'd like to see the erotic industry turn towards more cinematic, artistic representations of sex. Human sexuality is so multifaceted, with so many secret hidden corners to be explored. To bring beautiful people together to engage in one of the most beautiful acts mankind can perform-- to take something that is rooted in our most carnal desires and elevate it to a thing of artistic beauty, that is a welcome challenge. And you see film makers tackle this issue from all sides, to some pretty spectacular results. I've seen S&M scenes done with such love-- the mixture of sadomasochism and romanticism is a heady combination (trust me I've actually been there, and I don't mean with a camera involved). The possibilities of the human mind are infinite, and I would welcome artists with the same sensibilities and desire to unearth the enigma that is human sexuality, to come explore our sordid little world. What you find might surprise you.

 

Written by Amie Harwick, M.A. 

Amie Harwick is a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern with a private practice in West Hollywood, CA.  

Check Amie out here. 

Photos by Holly Randall

For more of Holly Randall's work, check out her site.