How This Amateur Porn Festival Is Changing The Way Americans Approach Sex

CREDIT: KELLY O. / THE STRANGER
CREDIT: KELLY O. / THE STRANGER

It’s a drizzly Saturday evening in Baltimore’s retro-hip Hampden neighborhood — a short walk from Johns Hopkins University — and a line is forming outside of a largely nondescript gallery. The crowd’s anything but sedated by the weather: Friends stifle giggles as they shake off their umbrellas, new couples chat nervously, many share knowing grins with fellow attendees filing in beside them.

Aside from a small sandwich board propped outside, a passerby wouldn’t have any idea what was drawing the tittering crowd inside. And perhaps that’s the point.

These visitors braved the rain tonight to watch something that’s rarely viewed in a room of 60 strangers.

Who wants to see some porn?

“Who wants to see some porn?” the emcee asks the packed room, after all the guests have settled in. The audience replies with a roar of cheers, applause, and whistles. The lights go down.

Thus begins Baltimore’s first screening of HUMP!, a compilation of the best submissions to Seattle’s amateur porn festival of the same name.

The hour-long screening exposed wide-eyed viewers to a vagina playing the french horn, vegetable fantasies (featuring grape costumes), and good, old-fashioned unicorn sex. But the festival didn’t just leave guests blushing. HUMP!’s sex-positive, friendly atmosphere may be subconsciously changing the ways communities talk about sex.

Before last year, the 15-year-old festival had never left the Pacific Northwest — and, unlike the viral spread of most porn, the films stayed there too. Applicants are promised their films won’t be made into DVDs or shared online (“be a porn star for a weekend — not for life” is the show’s motto) in hopes of attracting a range of submissions. Cell phones must be turned off as soon as audience members enter the show, a rule that is strictly monitored by festival staffers. So, all past films have only be viewed by people who’ve made it to a theater in Oregon or Washington. Until now.

Dan Savage CREDIT: AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File
Dan Savage CREDIT: AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File

The Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger founded HUMP! in 2005, with Editorial Director Dan Savage’s guidance. Savage, known best for his syndicated sex advice column “Savage Love” and his creation of the “It Gets Better” movement aimed at LGBT teens, said that at first, HUMP! was exactly what it sounds like: A fun, charmingly taboo event.

“People come because seeing porn in public is exciting, it takes them out of their comfort zone,” Savage said.

Savage spends most of his time during the screenings watching the audience, on the lookout for cell phones, which has given him a new take on the festival’s influence.

“The audience looks like they had the wind knocked out of them during the first two or three films,” he said. “They realize it’s not the kind of porn they usually watch alone. It’s gay men watching cunnilingus between two lesbians, it’s straight women watching trans sex for the first time.”

But by the middle of the screening, Savage said everyone’s cheering and clapping for every film — regardless of their own sexual preferences.

“What happens is halfway through they starting seeing everything as the same. Sure, the sex is different, but the lust, passion, and humor is all the same,” he said. “They leave with a deeper understanding of sex. It’s sneakily transformative.”

The Baltimore audience proved to be the same. The first few short films left many shifting in their seats, nervously giggling when the camera focused on a naked body for too long. But by the time a sex-propelled Rube Goldberg machine sweeped across the screen, the crowd was laughing and whooping along with the rest. And when an older gay couple sweetly described how a chance encounter at a glory hole started their 22-year-long romance, many sniffed back tears.

Sure, the sex is different, but the lust, passion, and humor is all the same.

“I really had no idea what to expect,” said a woman in her mid-sixties, after the show. “But this was far better than anything I could have imagined. I feel enlightened. How fun!”

Savage recalled a past HUMP! screening in Portland, Oregon, where a man approached him after the show. He explained that he had always thought porn was disrespectful, and that his friends dragged him along to the event. But this screening had completely changed his mind.

“He said it was wonderful, that it had changed his perspective,” Savage said. “And you know what? The following year he submitted his own film! Doesn’t get better than that.”

Savage acknowledged that this sex-positive take on amateur porn is still far from mainstream.

“There’s so much anger in mainstream porn, so much pent-up aggression,” he said. “But it’s like any form of media. It’s going to be distorted.”

As a father to a teenage boy, Savage said the best advice he can give is to not succumb to the rage. Most of the heterosexual porn Savage has seen (which has been a lot, thanks to HUMP!) involves male dominance and abuse of women. While BDSM is a serious genre, this anger toward women (and men, in many cases) seeps across genre lines, and can give viewers a warped view of what consensual sex is supposed to look like. Savage calls it a virus.

Nonetheless, with online porn of all shapes and sizes being so easily accessible, this is often the first way kids learn about sex. In the absence of federal standards for sex ed classes — a 2012 report found that only 18 states require schools’ sex education to be medically accurate — porn continues being a leading source of information as Americans become sexually active. Plus, talking about sex in general is still culturally frowned upon. Abstinence-only and sex-shaming curricula are still rampant in many schools, even though many of the highest rates of sexually transmitted infections are found among high schoolers.

There’s so much anger in mainstream porn.

HUMP! hopes to spread the positive side of sex and sexuality, rather than the distorted lens often found online.

As the lights flicked back on in the Baltimore gallery, the emcee returned to the stage, this time with information about the upcoming 2015 festival. The deadline for film submissions ended three days prior, she said.

“But you know what, I’m going to extend it ten more days,” she said. “Because Baltimore, you’re looking good tonight.”

As the audience reemerges into the misty night, couples link arms, friends waving goodbye to friends. A man shouts to no one in particular, as he follows his boyfriend into a cab: “Time to go home — we only have ten days!”