Pink Label’s Trove of Erotic Cinema Is a Vital Historical Archive

Photo: Prednisone Productions

Owing to a little thing called “the internet,” porn is more accessible, and thus more ubiquitous, than ever. Be it consumed through tube sites, Twitter, paid-for studio streamers, or OnlyFans — for now, at least — the erotic moving image, for better or worse, has become central to our sexual lives and identities.

The lion’s share of commercial porn, usually with bizarre story lines and stiff, wooden acting, is factory-made for the heterosexual, cis male gaze, centering those fantasies and desires. But that isn’t to say that porn should be exclusively for that audience — nor does it have to solely exist as an orgasm aid. As with any film genre, adult film has the propensity to tell us a lot about ourselves beyond our mere fantasies and desires. And the way we think about porn critically is beginning to shift: Letterboxd, an open film-review site, has just offered a curated selection of 1,500 adult titles, from the works of queer filmmaker-activist Arthur J. Bressan Jr. to earlier X-rated entries from notorious provocateur Abel Ferrara and slasher pioneer Wes Craven.

Of course, many of these titles are difficult to come by without more nefarious means; indeed, as much as there’s a clear argument for the likes of MUBI and the Criterion Channel to showcase adult films of historical or cultural significance, few have been platformed. But what if I were to tell you there’s already a streamer that not only boasts an exhaustive collection of vintage erotica but whose deep curatorial effort beats off any of the conventional art-house streamers?

This site, Pink Label, was started in 2013 by Shine Louise Houston, an adult filmmaker who once described her work as if golden-age porn-maker Radley Metzger, American art-house legend Jim Jarmusch, and the inimitable suspense king Alfred Hitchcock had “made a porn together.” Houston had already started an adult-film production company, Pink & White Productions, in 2005, built from a desire to see more nuanced exploration of queer sexual desires in adult cinema. According to Jiz Lee, Houston’s close collaborator and the marketing director at Pink & White, this was the central ethos they brought into Pink Label. “I think we push back against how porn is segregated in terms of body demographics — how it tends to skew towards the conception of white, straight men,” they say.

On the surface, Pink Label presents itself as a fairly ordinary porn site: On the landing page, you’re welcomed by a big rose-pink “Enter” button dressed with the promise of independent erotica at the “touch of your fingertips” and embracing a lustful tactility. The site’s layout evokes something between Netflix’s stacked, neatly categorized carousels and an indie porn site from the mid-aughts; it’s outdated and a little sparse, but that itself gives the portal some charm, as if you and you alone had stumbled upon a well-kept relic. The general agedness — and, well, sexual nature of it all — does mean you won’t find this on Apple TV or a Fire Stick, but guess what: HDMI cords exist! And while we’ve not tested it, Chromecast can be a great wireless alternative for streaming straight from your browser if you’re too space-age (and, crucially, cool) for unsightly cables.

The Netflix-style categorization makes Pink Label super-easy to navigate. In terms of contemporary adult film, there’s a section called “Edu-porn,” with titles like Consent Sex School and Blake Mitchell: Guided Masturbation that center sexual self-exploration and encourage an open mind around sex. Another, “Eco-Sexual and Outdoor Sex in Nature,” largely offers queer narrative shorts, with compelling plotlines set in the great outdoors, on cruising sites, off highways, or — as eponymously titled — a Post Picnic Snack. Just as MUBI may spotlight offerings from Cannes or Toronto, another category curates the best titles from PornFilmFestival Berlin, including The Pizza Topping, a funny subversion of commercial porn’s pizza trope, in which a transmasculine, anthropomorphized pizza orders a horny human. (We’ll leave the rest to your imagination.) Maybe these are things you’ll get off to — erotica is erotic, after all, and the Horn is probably inevitable — but Pink Label, uniquely, isn’t solely for that purpose. Its content speaks to and reveals myriad sexual desires hitherto unexplored, for the most part, across mainstream spaces.

Its layout is so simple you could probably traverse the site one-handed, if that’s your thing. If you’ve already got a title in mind, there’s a search bar for quick, easy access, and you can even sort titles from A to Z, if you’ve got one on the tip of your tongue but can’t quite recall it in full. Once you’re past the home page, it’s just a click and a scroll to the extensive archive of vintage (largely queer) porn: a section titled “PinkLabel.TV Classics.”

A few years ago, Houston reached out to Jenni Olson, a pioneering queer-film historian best known recently for co-launching the Bressan Project, which collects the gay erotic filmmakers’ works, to flesh out Pink Label’s selection of vintage adult films. “Some of the most important work is on the Fatale Media line, this pioneering lesbian-made lesbian porn from the mid-’80s,” Olson says. “It had been available on VHS at the time and then DVD, but it wasn’t on streaming at all. I coordinated with the filmmakers, got all their materials sent out to the UCLA Legacy Project, and brought in Shine, and Pink Label covered the costs of new digital preservation of all these tapes. It wouldn’t have been made available otherwise.”

Classic queer cinema has been swiftly canonized in recent decades, but preservation efforts for erotica are few and far between, which is a terrible, terrible shame: Bressan’s explicitly pornographic Passing Strangers — one of the top-three titles on Letterboxd’s Adult Film Megalist — imbued with the revolutionary spirit of the early post-Stonewall years (and actual footage of the 1974 Gay Freedom Day parade), boasts just as much historical importance as any Maurice, Cruising, or Death in Venice. These canonical titles acted as my entry point into a fascination with queer history; cinema is frequently our favorite mentor, after all. And yet, before I discovered Pink Label, erotica was an unbeknownst blind spot.

More than anything, the platform has made me rethink how films are categorized — pornographic, queer, both, neither — as is, too, the increasing school of thought on how they are canonized. Access, after all, is the watchword: Once upon a time (read: before the early aughts), you would have to trawl adult stores or swap noisy bootlegs to get your hands on any of this, so it’s no wonder it had been forgotten. To have all of these historical nuggets collated in one place, online, for just ten bucks a month? For anyone’s money, that’s exciting. (You can rent titles à la carte, too, if you just have a couple of films in mind.)

Aside from the narrative and archival content of these videos and films, our sex lives tell us as much about the human condition throughout history as any platonic drama. “I’ve talked before about my frustrations when explicit sexual media is excluded from queer history. I think it goes back to this idea of preserving this legacy that we have,” says Lee, who has performed in films under the Pink & White label. “I hope that one day my films are looked back on as being, like, Wow, this is queer history. To be able to go back and honor the films that had come before us, I think that’s so paramount.”

In the current cultural moment, commercial cinema is sexless. Comic-book executives are left astounded by the idea that a heterosexual male superhero might consider giving head. That we tug at our collars and fan ourselves around the conversation of erotic film — porn — something with which the vast majority of us engage on a frequent basis, is a testament to our weird attachment to puritanism. Streamers like Pink Label disrupt not only our reticence to engage with sex and, indeed, sexual media, but the dominant gaze with which we see it.

Pink Label’s Trove of Erotica Is a Vital Historical Archive