NSFW. Not Safe For Work. Those four little letters are like music to my ears. It’s quite possibly my favorite acronym next to WWJD. Any web content prefaced by those magic consonants is almost instant gold. Or instantly disturbing.

The Stagg Party and Shot By Kern are a little from column A and a little from column B. Both are similarly themed series about the topic of nude photography. Both are instantly engaging. Both may make you want to take a shower afterward. Smut or art? “Porn” or “erotica”?

Let’s talk about sex, baby!

IFC.com’s The Stagg Party focuses on professional photographer Ellen Stagg, primarily a commercial print photog who likes to take pictures of pierced and tatted up ladies sans clothes. We get a glimpse of Stagg trying to get her website off the ground and a little insight into what it takes to shoot “erotic,” along with some nuts and bolts photography information.

It’s amusing. How can it not be when it routinely features Stagg having utterly senseless small talk while some chick’s private parts are is just a few feet away from her lens. Produced, directed and edited by Joe Swanberg, The Stagg Party has that “aren’t we subversive” vibe to it that IFC is quite adept at. That’s not a swipe at IFC. I just don’t think Ellen is in on the gag.

Cut to: Shot by Kern.

An obvious influence on Stagg, the somewhat famous (notorious?) Richard Kern is the focus of this VBS.tv series. Kern started out in the 80’s making underground films with punk icon Lydia Lunch and hanging with Sonic Youth. Then he ventured into photography. Photography that features very youthful looking girls in various stages of undress, which is reminiscent of that old Calvin Klein print campaign that got yanked because it looked like kiddie porn.

The series focuses more on his subjects than on the photographer (which is kind of a shame). However, we do get an interviewer asking (weak) questions of his subjects; an advantage this series has over The Stagg Party when it comes to insight. But of insight, there is little.

This is all I know about Kern from the series: He likes round butts, lotion, shooting up skirts, and watching girls smoke weed. The show is really all about the ladies. Perhaps too many ladies. It can become repetitive and boring, even with the boobs.

So, with The Stagg Party and Shot by Kern, what are we dealing with here actually? I’ll add a few more pairings to the questioning. Expose or exploitation? Smut or art? “Porn” or “erotica”?

As always, the answer in the eye of the beholder. I’ll put it to you this way. All erotica is porn. Not all porn is erotica. Discuss. It all depends on the circles you swing in, unfortunately. If you either hang with Sonic Youth or your name is Anne Rice, you are allowed hoity-toity labels, if not, get in the van. You’re porn.

Expose or exploitation? Neither show goes deep enough to be expose. Neither show tackles the elephant in the room. WHY DO YOU DO THIS? They only hint at the reasons. Why won’t somebody ask what we’re all thinking? Ladies, did someone touch you where they shouldn’t have? Did your family not love you? Did you have a stifling religious upbringing? Can we be honest with ourselves? There is nothing wrong with sex and nudity. But Dr. Drew tells me 9 times out of 10 something traumatizing makes women do this. All we get in these series is the borderline irresponsible explanations of “I’ve always been sexual” and “I just like my body.” Rrrriiiiigggggghhhhhhtttttt.

One of Kern’s “models”, Megan, admits to being attracted to men with moustaches because her dad had one. Not abnormal, but it’s a clue. She drops the religion bomb, as well. Why doesn’t the interviewer pursue this? Well, then that will just make us all even more uneasy. Who wants that? We want to giggle with these girls about what they don’t like about their bodies, not weep for their lives. There’s no fun in that (not to mention, that’s a great way to lose an erection).

Another subject, Renee, admits to having a 49 year old boyfriend. She’s 23. Again, not abnormal, but a clue.

The Kern series has an overall creepy vibe that screams exploitation. Most of his subjects contact him via email. Is a famous photographer supposed to be that easy to get a hold of? Especially by young women that want to take their clothes off for him? Yowza. He has this casual detachment that makes it seem that he is just as likely to throw these girls down a well as take their pictures.

As for Stagg, her issues seem to be just as apparent as her subjects’. Strange, cartoon bull-like piercing: check. Creepy relationship with brother: check. Tattoo on lower back: check. Once again, though, the series provides absolutely no insight into the “why.” Many people are comfortable with their bodies. They don’t chose to be in or make porn. So, without insight, all we are left is the sideshow and the breasts. Exploitation.

That leaves Sasha Grey.

I waited to watch the Sasha Grey segment of Shot by Kern. Along with Jenna Jamison’s book and Zack and Miri Make a Porno (which featured Katie Morgan and Traci Lords), Sasha Grey has ignited another “is porn going mainstream” argument mostly because she’s been cast in a Steven Soderbergh movie called The Girlfriend Experience. Via various trade articles, I was led to believe this young lady somehow had a head on her shoulders, a thinking man’s porn star, if you will. I think I was misinformed.

Sasha Grey doesn’t immediately appear to be enlightened more so than anyone else. She’s another scared kid that freely admits the absence of her father. As for her being a fan of Herzog and Godard? Here, I’m reminded of a A Fish Called Wanda. Kevin Kline: “Apes don’t read philosophy.” Jamie Lee Curtis: “Yes, they do, Otto. They just don’t understand it.” Nuff, said.

And we’ve been through this before. A few years ago, Traci Lords was cast on Melrose Place. The topic of mainstream porn came up then. Guess what? It all went away. Porn stayed porn.

Here, again, we find ourselves dealing with the relevance of pornography in today’s culture. Yes, there is beauty in the human form, blah, blah, blah. Newsflash. Porn will NEVER be accepted as “mainstream” (and, yes, I’m a fan). Our prudish, sexually repressed, overly religious society will make sure it stays in its mylar packaging in the back room. Porn is in pop culture Alcatraz. It has an interesting legacy and you can go visit, but it’s still a prison.

This is probably okay. Sex is supposed to be intimate, right? If it isn’t, would sexual content get slapped with NSFW? If you want to use the art versus smut argument with your boss, be my guest. Let me know how that works out for you. But, don’t cry for porn. It’s doing just fine. We will always watch. Which makes us just like Stagg or Kern (or Sharon Stone in Sliver).

If one day NSFW goes away, maybe that will be the most telling indicator of all. Porn will have arrived. Don’t hold your breath (unless you’re into that kind of thing).

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