Feminist Adult Site Bellesa Undergoes Complete Redesign Following Pornstar Outcry

Pirates on the waters during adult swim. Pixabay

Bellesa is a porn site targeting female consumers. It got a glowing write-up in Bustle that hit all the applause lines: myths about women’s sexuality, slut-shaming and a young entrepreneur, but the story sparked anger among members of the adult media community, who started talking about it on Twitter. What rubbed so many adult performers and directors the wrong way was the idea, suggested by Bustle, that somehow Bellesa had found a way to distribute porn ethically without asking site visitors to pay for it.

Bustle wrote:

It’s hard enough to find porn that isn’t totally degrading to women. And then, when you finally come across porn for women, it’s usually behind a pesky paywall. There’s a good reason for this: It’s hard to produce porn ethically without charging customers. But Michelle Shnaidman, founder of Bellesa, has found a way to bring women porn they’ll actually enjoy without draining their bank accounts.

The problem here is that implies Bellesa’s distribution model was ethical, but it was easy to see that Bellesa didn’t pay anyone for the videos it distributed. In fact, Bellesa didn’t even host the videos on its own servers. Instead, it used embedded videos from other tube sites (we mostly found videos from the tube site Snapbang, with some from VPorn, Pornhub or XVideos as well). Subsequent to publication, Bustle amended its story to include a note about the accusations of profiting from piracy.

As the Observer was reporting this story, Bellesa completely redesigned its website. In a statement posted on Twitter, founder Michelle Shnaidman wrote, “I am making a firm commitment, right now, to transition the entirety of the video section of Bellesa to feature exclusively videos that are in direct partnership with studios and that compensate all fairly for their contribution.”

She added, “Until such a point, we are taking down our entire video section.”

Sometime early this afternoon, the front page flipped from mainly videos to entirely links to articles about women’s sexuality. Visitors can also find erotic stories on the site. The videos page is gone. It also formerly had a “pictures” section, but that has been removed as well.  Archive.org last captured the site on September 14.

‘I am sorry to those who feel like Bellesa disempowered them, disrespected them, or placed our interests above theirs’

Bellesa’s mission statement (archived) doesn’t make any claim to supporting the women who make or appear in porn. It focuses entirely on satisfying its audience. “Bellesa is a platform on which users can access sexual content that suits their desires, share intimate and erotic stories and engage in a community of like-minded individuals,” the website says.

However, in her statement, Shnaidman acknowledges that she also has a responsibility to the women producing this work. She wrote:

It has become soberingly clear to me that the goal with which I created this platform has regrettably become in direct conflict with supporting and respecting the women of the sex-space. The way this platform ultimately ended up being used is not a reflection of the reason it was created. By empowering women to embrace and celebrate their sexuality, we were simultaneously disempowering the women who helped to create the great content that we were sharing in the first place.

Before the switch, Nate Glass of TakeDownPiracy helped the Observer identify stolen content embedded on Bellesa and showed us where the same work could be found legitimately.

“There are so many more ways they could do this legitimately than the way they’re going about it. They could only use videos from authorized channels or sources in a way that sends traffic to those producers,” Glass wrote in an email. “Sites like Spankbang are a scourge on the industry, with no legitimate channels or the means by which to support producers.”

Jacky St. James had several of her videos stolen by other sites and embedded on Bellesa. Prior to today’s redesign, she pointed out that Bellesa does not “credit the people that actually created, produced, wrote and directed these films.”

Shnaidman acknowledged her errors today.

“We’ve displayed a massive amount of ignorance with regards to the adult entertainment space and have unintentionally hurt women who work in the sex space. We are unendingly sorry for this. What everyone has written on Twitter and sent to our inbox was heard—loud and clear,” Shnaidman wrote. “I am sorry. I am sorry to those who feel like Bellesa disempowered them, disrespected them or placed our interests above theirs.”

In many ways, the experience recalled Evan Williams statements about the ad-driven media business from early this year. He wrote that advertising doesn’t pay enough to support news alone as he fired dozens of staffers.

No kidding?

Similarly, it’s not news to anyone who follows porn that publishing free videos is almost always harmful to creators and performers. We recently covered an Audible podcast from Jon Ronson that dives deep into the surprising ways that plentiful free porn has hurt society.

Pornstar and HuffPo contributor Casey Calvert flagged one of her scenes on Bellesa for the Observer as well. The scene was hosted by XVideos, but the legitimate place to view it is on Sweet Sinner.

Calvert explained in an email that she gets paid as she shoots a scene and doesn’t get a bonus if it goes viral. Still, it’s better for her if people consume her performances legitimately, because “Sweet Sinner will make money, which means Sweet Sinner can make more porn, which means they can hire me again, which means I get paid my rate again and I am happy,” she wrote the Observer in an email.

If Bellesa enters into a partnership with Sweet Sinner or another production company that works with Calvert, it should help the star prove her popularity and win more jobs.

Bellesa has done well for itself as a young site. It first shows up on Archive.org in February of this year, and it has managed to grow quickly. Alexa ranks it as the 13,358th website in the world. That might not sound great, but it’s not bad for a new page. The Outline is a news and commentary site founded last year by famous names with powerful backing. It’s doing well for a young site, too, but it’s in the low 20,000s on Alexa. According to SimilarWeb, Bellesa started breaking a million monthly views this summer.

Bellesa sent the Observer the same statement it posted to Twitter in response to our request for comment. We also contacted PornHub to find out if the site had any connection to its parent company, MindGeek (which owns most of the world’s largest adult sites), but the company has not replied.

“Piracy is the most destructive to independent creators, especially women filmmakers and female performers who produce their own content,” Lee, a producer for PinkLabel.tv, a sort of Netflix for indie porn, wrote the Observer in an email.

It will be interesting to see what happens to Bellesa’s popularity as it pursues the tougher slog of curating and promoting appropriately licensed porn.

Feminist Adult Site Bellesa Undergoes Complete Redesign Following Pornstar Outcry