Dan Savage’s Hump! porn film festival merges erotics and empathy.

How Hump! Uses Collective Porn Viewing to Merge Erotics With Empathy

How Hump! Uses Collective Porn Viewing to Merge Erotics With Empathy

Outward
Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
Oct. 26 2017 2:39 PM

How Dan Savage’s Hump! Festival Uses Porn to Create Empathy

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"A porn festival for people who hate pornography."

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The smell of synthetic butter filled the packed Manhattan movie theater where roughly 100 people chatted as they waited for the porn screening to begin. The vibe was strangely wholesome. A row of women congratulated themselves for choosing the event as a birthday outing. Two men swapped podcast recommendations. Everyone in the audience had immaculate posture.

I was at a screening of the 12th annual edition of Hump!, a festival that features short amateur porn films submitted by people who want to be a porn star for a night in a theater—not forever on the internet. This year, the five-minute-or-less films showed latex suits and cuddling, group sex and solo acts, gay couples and straight pairs. With the current touring festival wrapping up and the 13th edition about to premiere in Seattle, I called Dan Savage, the festival’s founder, and Robert Crocker, the executive producer, to learn how Hump! has managed to create such a genteel audience culture around its filthy films.

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“The audience creates Hump! and Hump! creates the audience,” Savage explained. Every year, audience members get to vote on their favorite films, and many go on to submit their own in subsequent cycles. Interestingly, when the festival began in Seattle in 2005, the organizers received submissions that aped commercial pornography; but no one voted for these films, and eventually people stopped submitting them. Nowadays, Savage describes Hump! as the porn festival for people who hate pornography. The films are made almost entirely by lovers, and the audience does not have to worry over who may be coerced or faking enjoyment.

Much of the work the festival does to set the inclusive tone happens behind the scenes. “We really pore over marketing material, taglines, all of those things,” Crocker said. Every word sends a signal to potential actors, viewers, and the cinemas that might host the festival. Organizers replaced the phrase “amateur porn festival” with the term “film festival” in their promotional materials, suggesting they want more than just traditional pornography. To clue in performers who have not seen the show before, they post marketing material showcasing diverse bodies, orientations, and acts. To prep the audience for proper behavior, Hump! holds screenings in art theaters and conventions rather than porn theaters.

During the first 15 minutes of the New York City screening last spring, the audience clapped politely like an automatic faucet turning on for a moment before shutting off. Several films in, that environment changed. The applause became warm and full. Whether it was the giant rainbow dildo, the use of sunscreen as a lubricant, or the eager postal worker who discovered puppy play, we were enjoying and the experience of watching as a group

I asked Savage about the particularity of this moment. It happens so reliably in every screening that he has a name for it—the “cake moment.” At first, the audience is thrown back in their seats. People focus on a performer’s body type, orientation, or kink. Savage calls these markers the “frosting.” Their specificity initially obscures everything we have in common—lust, desire, and sense of humor. “At first the frosting freaks everybody out, and then halfway through, or a third of the way through, everyone is just eating the cake.”

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At traditional porn theaters, where sexual play is both legal and encouraged, eating the cake could well be a euphemism for masturbating. Not so at Hump! “People in the audience are not masturbating, they are not blowing loads, but they are laughing out loud,” Savage explained, “and we need that release.” Sex wields incredible power over us. Laughing at this, Savage said, “is the only way we can keep our sanity.”

There is another reason people aren’t tempted to masturbate. Crocker searched for a delicate way to say it, gave up, then said, “A lot of people are turned off sexually by some of the images they see.” With a festival ranging from straight couples to water sports, this certainly makes sense. Straight people may be watching gay porn for the first time. It may be someone’s first exposure to needle play. Many people see the festival as an experience to broaden their horizons, Crocker said, rather than to excite themselves sexually at the moment.

As a way of testing his theory, Crocker always tries to sneak a peek at the crowd during “Breakfast in Bed,” the runner up this year for “Best Kink.” After a morning romp, a boy finds a creative way to warm a stick of butter to body temperature before squirting it on his boyfriend’s toast. During this film, Crocker told me, the crowd will do one of two things: They either go nuts, shouting and whooping when the boy butters the bread, or are completely silent.

In my screening, the toast scene was when the crowd stopped eating the cake. The theater stilled. People sat in silence, stunned. The men to my left covered their faces. Many of us, it seemed, were stuck in the frosting. Thankfully, three humorous films followed, including a mockumentary on the habitat of the gimp and a clever ode to fisting that featured sock puppets and a rainbow xylophone. The crowd relaxed and began to cheer again.

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I wondered about the moment the crowd closed their eyes. Had Hump! gone too far? By way of an answer, Crocker told me that one woman’s response after attending Hump! was to request a screening for medical students. She was a faculty member at a top-ranking medical school, and thought the film would help educate students about the people they would be called on to serve. In other words, watching a bunch of dirty home movies might help cultivate empathy.

Savage agreed, noting that while Hump! is primarily meant to titillate rather than educate, medical providers might have less denial about the ways people use their bodies for pleasure if they attended. His voice slipped into the measured tone he uses on the Savage Lovecast podcast when he lays out an elementary principle that still needs to be defended. “Our bodies are ours to take care of,” he said, “but also to use, and, in a sense, to use up by the end of our lives.”

Hump! is carefully curated to help the audience see this. The winners this year of “Best Humor” (a woman threatens her partner with a layoff if he doesn’t perform sexually) and “Best Sex” (a man and woman mix sex with yoga on various mountain terrain) come early in the festival. Flogging, needles, and blood play all come toward the end. The kinkiest films are always followed by a humorous film, which Crocker described as “palate cleansers.” So, at one moment, a person might laugh and cover their eyes. Another moment might make them want to start taking notes or call in a team of medical students. But in the end, they will ideally walk away with a renewed sense that the ways we enjoy ourselves and use our bodies can be limitless.

For all upcoming Hump! tour dates, click here.

Ella Jacobson is an Alaskan transplant to Brooklyn. An independent writer, her work explores our collective experiences and meaning making in economics, sexuality and art.