Bellesa Fills the Gap in the Porn Industry

New Website Centres Feminine and Non-Binary Pleasure

  • Graphic Deanna Hewitt

There are some conversations that are harder to have than others. Telling your mom that you do porn is one of those.

“I remember the first time I kind of just [told] my mom—I was merciless—I kind of just said, ‘I’m doing feminist porn,’” Michelle Schnaidman chuckled.

Her mom’s reaction: “A head tilt and a ‘What?’” she recalled, with a giggle in her voice.

When she said that she was “doing feminist porn,” Schnaidman doesn’t mean it the way that most do when they say they “do porn.” Curate might be a better way to describe it, for instance, or facilitate, maybe, but not “do.” Schnaidman does not produce porn herself in anyway.

Rather, she makes it available for those who seek it.

With Bellesa.co, her new website which is based out of Montreal, Schnaidman is trying to break down the stigma surrounding feminine sexuality. The idea, she explained, was to create a space in which female-identifying and non-binary people could go to embrace their sexuality, in all its forms. Something prior to starting Bellesa, she didn’t always do herself.

“It’s quite funny because I actually didn’t really watch porn before,” she said. “I dabbled in it a couple times and I was like ‘Eh, cool. It’s not for me, I don’t like it.’”

But the process it took simply to find something worth watching, she continued, furthered this disdain. It was tedious, she said, having to dig through pages of abrasive videos, titles and ads to find something worthwhile.

“I remember there was one time, I was looking for a video to watch and it was just this insane experience of being shown these ads and these images,” she said. “I thought, ‘This can’t be it.’”

And it’s not it. Schnaidman explained that the content people like her want to watch is out there. The deterrent is the challenges that they need to go through to get it.

“It was just this insane experience of being shown these ads and these images. I thought, ‘This can’t be it.’” —Michelle Schnaidman

She shared her experience with a friend of hers, who succumbed to saying that’s just how things are—porn websites are a space made for men.

“Wait a minute? What do you mean ‘That’s just how it is?’” Schnaidman remembered thinking.

That, she said, is when she laced up her bootstraps.

After launching Bellesa for a closed beta-test, she and her team saw immediate success. When they took the site down to prepare for the official launch on Feb. 15, Schnaidman explained that the desire for a site like it became blaringly obvious.

“We got these emails—really angry emails—asking where the hell Bellesa went,” she said. “It was the best kind of problem to have.”

The reason why they were so upset was because Bellesa’s users “wanted this thing so badly,” Schnaidman explained.

The aspect that appealed to its users is that the site goes beyond pornographic videos. It’s a holistic approach to sexuality that provides Bellesa’s users with different ways to consume sexual content. Beyond the videos, Schnaidman and her team have sought out erotic fiction writers to produce stories specifically for the website.

Jessica McLaren is one of those writers. She said before Bellesa, she had never considered writing erotic fiction for public consumption. But after seeing an ad online, she knew there was something special.

“I knew that it was going to turn into something much bigger than a quick few dollars,” she said over the phone. After signing on last February as a contracted writer, she proved herself to the team and quickly moved up to becoming the site’s head of erotic fiction.

But what they’re trying to do, Schnaidman explained, is probably most evident not in the videos or fiction on Bellesa, but in the articles that can be found at the bottom of the homepage.

The “Collective” tab leads readers to articles that aren’t explicitly sexual—Schnaidman describes them as being “safe for work.” The Collective is what shapes the overall tone of Bellesa. While there isn’t any porn in this section, she said, “We do talk about all things female empowering. That includes sex, love, relationships, culture, body positivity, feminism—anything.”

This, she said, helps clear up a lot of the confusion about what exactly her website is. When she first started getting serious about Bellesa, Schnaidman explained that she was faced with a lot of raised-eyebrows.

“I’ve been trying to sell an idea and I’m telling them, ‘Yeah this is about empowerment and the movement,’ and all people really hear is ‘Okay it’s a porn site,’” Schnaidman continued. “But everyone’s come around, I think. Even my grandmother!”

Gabrielle Bouchard, the trans advocacy coordinator of the Centre for Gender Advocacy didn’t need any convincing to buy into the idea. What Schnaidman had brought to fruition, she said, addresses something that is truly lacking in the porn world.

The focus is shifted onto feminine pleasure, said Bouchard. “It’s not going to be accessory anymore. It’s going to be the centre of the porn, right?” she continued. “That’s a huge shift.”

Bellesa ensures that shift by putting control into the hands of users. On the top right corner of all videos displayed on the site are hearts with numbers next to them—some four or five, others 29 or 53, and a few with upwards of 150. This, Schnaidman explained, is how they choose which videos to promote.

It’s an up-vote and down-vote system. Much like other websites like Reddit, the users are in control of what content gets uploaded—there’s a link at the bottom of the home page which redirects to an upload form—and then they choose which work gets featured. The result is a site that is grounded in the community, Schnaidman said.

But that doesn’t mean that just anything can end up on Bellesa. The content must meet their guidelines, she continued, which means “none of the –isms,” such as tokenism, ableism or sexism.

But Bouchard still has her reservations. She said only time will tell whether Bellesa will be able to live up to its intersectional goal of having content that represents femme, non-heterosexual, trans and non-binary folks from a variety of backgrounds in a non-fetishizing way.

Schnaidman acknowledges and shares these concerns. Bellesa is a unique concept, and like with anything that’s new, she explained, they run some inherent risks.

But for now, “I’m happy,” Schnaidman shared. “I’m fucking thrilled.”

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