Porn for women, by women.
90% of young men and 60% of young women see porn before their 18th birthday. Whether intentional viewing or not, young adults are learning about sex from porn without necessarily realizing that it is fantasy, not reality. Unfortunately, mainstream porn tends to objectify women and is a little one-sided in its depictions of pleasure. Because most porn is portrayed through the male gaze, women often have trouble finding content that suits their needs, and young adults don’t have a clear understanding of what mutually pleasurable and respectful sex looks like. Thankfully, Michelle Shnaidman is on a mission to flip the industry on its head, and create a new world of erotic entertainment that is truly changing the game for depictions of women in porn, and opening up an overdue conversation about female sexual empowerment and pleasure. We chatted with Shnaidman about her plans for the company, and the need for Bellesa.
What was your ‘aha’ moment when you realized Bellesa needed to exist? How and when did you decide to pursue the company full-time?
The ‘aha’ moment came about a year and a half ago. I was looking at porn and it dawned on me how abrasive the experience was. I couldn’t believe what little options women had when it came to adult entertainment. I hopped around on a few sites but couldn’t shed the feeling of…intrusion? It felt like I was trespassing. It was clear to me that all of these websites had been created by men, for men. From the male-targeted popups, the deeply degrading titles, the violence toward women…it was like going through this misogynistic minefield.
So, I did some research as to what the market landscape looked like… the gap that existed between the market offering and what women wanted begun to seem more like a chasm. “I don’t get it. Women account for half the population, how could this demographic be so incredibly overlooked?” This was an actual question that I asked a friend that worked for a major porn company, by the way. My friend then went on to compare female sexuality to Narnia and the Easter Bunny… (again, true story).
He turned to me nonchalantly and said something along the lines of: “For a company like ours, female sexuality… it makes for a good story to tell our viewers, but for all intents and purposes, it’s a myth.”
That’s when I decided once and for all that I was done with the stigma that surrounded women who like sex and enjoy talking about it… and so, I started Bellesa.
What was the reaction you received from friends and family when you first told them about Bellesa?
Lots of head tilts, lots of half smiles. I think at its very inception when Bellesa was just an idea, it was tough for some to conceptualize. Before we had an actual product, before we had our branding/messaging, it was difficult for people to see it as anything other than…well, porn. Smut. People didn’t understand the vision/movement and how our mission was and is to de-stigmatize female sexuality — and consequently liberate women. (Shout out to my mom and 84-year old grandmother who’ve been supportive af since day one).
What does the name Bellesa represent?
“Bellesa” actually started out as a codename that we used when developing the website. Literally, “bellesa” means beauty in Catalan (language spoken in Barcelona). We knew that we didn’t want to call it something that was crass or super obviously just porn, because in reality, we’re not just porn. Bellesa isn’t a traditional porn site. (Our users report not feeling the need to delete Bellesa from their browser history — this is major for us. Definitely due in part to the empowerment we were preaching, but also in part to its elegance of our branding and design — name included). Bellesa was ultimately chosen to be the name of our company because it’s a word that rolls off the tongue, is elegant and evokes a sense of empowerment. The product/brand fit was seamless.
Bellesa is described as a “free adult entertainment website for women.” Do you intend for your audience to always be exclusively women? Why this focus?
We get this question a lot! While the large majority of our community members are definitely female, we do of course have a small, but loyal group of male users. And that’s cool — we welcome anyone and everyone to whom Bellesa appeals!
That being said, our target audience will always remain women. That won’t change. Women have been ignored and excluded from the adult entertainment world for far too long — Bellesa is committed to shifting the landscape of that world to include women — and shedding the stigma as we go.
Bellesa wasn’t built by asking, “what kind of porn do women like?” It was done by asking more foundational questions like: “if adult entertainment was made in the vision of a women since day one (all expectations, norms, scripts out the window) what would that look like?”
What is the greatest challenge you face in determining appropriate content for your site that aligns with your mission?
Diversity. I think our growing network of engaged, unapologetic community members does a badass job at uploading top quality content to Bellesa. A major problem in the industry, though, is the fetishization of women of color by production companies…many of these production companies cater to male fantasies using profane and often derogatory portrayals of WoC.
Inclusion is a fundamental guiding principle for us. We want women of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, orientations, and more to feel both represented and sexually empowered by Bellesa. Once we begin creating our own content, we will have much more control over this. Stay tuned for this!
Bellesa is a multimedia platform. Why did you feel it was necessary to include erotica in the form of film, image, and literature?
A ton of research was done before building Bellesa. We steered clear of asking women the simple question: “what kind of porn do women like?” Bellesa was built by asking more foundational questions like: “if adult entertainment was made in the vision of a woman since day one (all expectations, norms, scripts out the window) what would that look like?”
The answer…was different than anything that existed online at the time. Really different. And this makes sense. Women experience sexuality differently than men do. Their adult websites should look and feel different. Being able to sympathize with and imagine yourself in the content is a top priority for women’s content — and this is an area in which erotic literature is in a league of its own.
What is the role of education in shifting what your website describes as “the male-dominated paradigms that have defined sex on the Internet?”
Firstly, sexuality on the Internet should depict women as they truly are — as subjects of pleasure, not objects of conquest.
Secondly, people today are often watching sex before they are having it, and so in a sense online adult content is today’s sexual education. (If you’ve visited a few existing porn sites…that’s kind of a terrifying thought). We believe, deeply, that by changing the way that sex is represented online, we can change a whole lot more.
If you could go back in time to when you were just getting Bellesa off the ground, what advice would you give yourself?
When you’re conceiving something entirely new, especially in a mature, established space like adult entertainment, people will think you’re crazy until they don’t. Stay focused, stay driven. Create your product, solve an actual problem, listen to the people in your target demographic. Product-market fit is the only thing. We spoke to over 3,000 women in the early going of Bellesa. Each provided me and my team with some meaningful insight. If I could do it all again, I would interview/survey double that.
What is the most surprising or game-changing thing you have learned as an entrepreneur?
That women actually want to help women. I’m kind of continuously surprised at how helpful other female entrepreneurs are. I’ve legitimately cold emailed women — important, busy, brilliant women — who have later gotten on the phone with me and taken time to learn about what we’re doing, provide feedback and point me in a helpful direction. I don’t think the stereotype of cattiness among women could be less true.
What is the future of Bellesa and the larger sexual health/sextech space in general?
The future of Bellesa…is moving the dial forward in terms of social expectations of sexuality for women. Currently in development, Bellesa has an ecommerce store (where we intend to curate products to sell right from Bellesa), a Bellesa publication, and a Bellesa production operation, a Bellesa sexual health initiative, among several other projects.
UPDATE: After facing industry criticism for piracy and disempowering female sex workers and producers, Bellesa removed its video content on 9/21/17. Founder and CEO Michelle Shnaidman made a statement on Twitter apologizing and committing 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.”