Jen Bowers, the editor and creator of S.M.U.T. magazine, emerges from the dark and smoky Zen Lounge on Queen West in downtown Toronto, where the publication is having its launch party. The 29-year-old greets me with a handshake in the lobby and upon finding out that I am part of the “media,’ passes me a neon green backstage pass and tells me to “have fun.” I notice she is conservatively dressed, wearing round, bookish metal-framed glasses, no-fuss short hair and black clothes. She looks more like a librarian than an editor of a queer-friendly erotica magazine, but Bowers isn’t a stranger to challenging stereotypes. S.M.U.T. is anything but the typical porno on newsstands.
I enter the club and the chatter of voices drowns out a Missy Elliot song. Picture the Moulin Rouge on crack and you’ll get a good visual of the party. While Sasha Van Bon Bon performs a burlesque dance being watched by the likes of the drummer from Sum 41, a sexy masseuse in a vinyl nurse uniform gives the aching shoulders of partygoers a rub down. Young girls are popping out of red and black plastic corsets, taking orders for drinks, and the dance floor is full of gyrating, nearly naked bodies. Who knows how many people are here for the actual magazine being sold at the door for ten bucks, but if S.M.U.T. is as popular as the party, then the independent porno will definitely be able to survive beyond its first issue.
“And this is where we keep our porn,” Bowers, says nonchalantly a week later. Now in an orange T-shirt, jeans and daylight, I’m getting a tour of the S.M.U.T. headquarters (her downtown house). She is noticeably more relaxed and less wired as she points to a white shelf in her teal-coloured bedroom, heavily stacked with dirty magazines, otherwise known as the competition. Not that there is much, which is part of the reason S.M.U.T. was created.
Back in March 2003, Bowers and co-editor Kate Gilliam, were sitting in a bar bonding on their growing frustration with the uncreative porn and erotica magazines they were exposed to. The two were sick of the strictly heterosexual or homosexual porn made by men that failed to challenge its audience.
At the time, Bowers, who out of her house runs a research business used by medical and legal experts, was searching for a creative outlet. Very articulate, she has university degrees in both women’s studies and “yucky stuff” (parasitology). “I studied all kinds of gross things,” she says of the latter. “That was a lot of fun and I was going to do medical school, but I realized there are other things I can do with my time.” The two decided to use their time developing S.M.U.T. (spelled like an acronym to avoid confusion with a defunct NYC publication), their response to the absence of women and queer people in the pornography industry.
Although S.M.U.T. was originally supposed to be a zine, the idea quickly evolved into a full-blown publication that would address all forms of sexuality, be it bi, transgendered, gay or lesbian. “There’s nowhere that all of those identities come together,” Bowers says. “It’s a way to educate people about other sexual identities as well as helping them get off on it.” Bowers also insists S.M.U.T. be labelled “pornography” rather than the softer “erotica.”
“I don’t see it as pornography,” says Dr. Judith Taylor, who teaches in the Institute for Women’s Studies and Gender Studies at the University of Toronto. “I respect their desire to reclaim the word ‘pornography’ and expand its definition. But when I classify things personally, I see this as erotica because it has so much intentionality and because it is very complicated.” Whereas pornography is simply about helping people achieve sexual excitement, it’s quite evident that S.M.U.T. has a more complex mandate.
As soon as you open the book, there is a ten-point manifesto outlining how the magazine will educate its readers and support those committed to change. And the strong political statement doesn’t end there but currents through the publication by way of photos, short stories and interviews. All of the women appear to be implant-free, there is an interview with Mistress Chloe, a vegan dominatrix who will not use leather, and most of the short stories do not state the sexes of the characters outright. Although serious issues do come up in the publication, humour is also presented to avoid a preachy, overly political tone. “Smut Valley High,” for example, is a parody of the popular tween book series, Sweet Valley High, and how to become a dirty schoolgirl. In other words, it’s not just smut, it’s smart.
Although the magazine has an unmistakable social duty to its readers, Bowers has already received hate mail. Her critics scream that what she is producing is not love-and-cuddles erotica but misogyny. Women are always being denigrated, they claim. “If you are offending someone,” says Bowers, who doesn’t seem bothered by the negative feedback, “you are making them think outside of their sphere of reality.”
However, Bowers was scared when she went to the Kinko’s at Bloor and Spadina to get S.M.U.T. printed, because she hadn’t told them the content of the 500 magazines they had agreed to print. She visualized the employees opening the master computer file and a manager phoning her to tell her she was a pervert and couldn’t do business there. “But luckily,” she says “the money talked and they didn’t say anything.”
S.M.U.T. cost only $7,000 to produce and the money came from Bowers’ own pocket. It relies heavily on volunteers to do publicity, layout and web design, along with the co-operation and charitable spirit of writers, who are unpaid at this point. Bowers also bought the rights dirt-cheap to reproduce a Bitch magazine article about a sex-trade worker who enjoys her job.
The magazine also looks pretty naked (yet noticeable) on newsstands, especially since it is placed beside magazines with much bigger budgets, like Venus , Bust and even Spin . With a brown, cardboard-like cover, it is designed to look like an old-fashioned, mail order porn package. On launch day, co-editor Gilliam was still spray-painting S.M.U.T. with a stencil in her girlfriend’s parent’s garage.
But some laborious tasks will soon end. Bowers has made a deal with Doormouse Distribution, Canada’s largest distributor of alternative publications, whose roster includes the likes of Adbusters and Bitch. S.M.U.T.’s second issue will be put out through Doormouse, reaching more cities in Canada and the U.S., although the magazine can be found currently in places as far off as Good Vibrations in San Francisco.
Right now, Bowers is recovering from the six hundred people she saw come through the Zen Lounge. The next S.M.U.T. party is set to happen in January. “Yeah,” Bowers says, “we had a lot of reporters there. I didn’t think I could have a decent conversation with them if I was all tarted up.” Maybe next time.