By Benjamin Butz-Weidner
Interview By Benjamin Butz-Weidner and Molly Harris
Pictures and Video by Ameer Alba
Have you ever been in the mood but alone? Were you frustrated by the lack of video options out there to satisfy your needs? If you aren’t quite sure what I’m talking about with this scenario, you’re probably a man. If you know exactly what I’m referencing – the violent treatment of women, “grow your dick ads” – you are most likely a woman not much different from a pioneer who was also fed up with this reality: Michelle Shnaidman.
Michelle is the founder and CEO of Bellesa, a project whose impetus “really just started with [Michelle] trying to find a porn video to watch.” Frustrated by the “misogynistic ads” and burdened with having to dig through all the videos depicting violence and fake orgasms simply to find a video she enjoyed, Michelle took matters into her own hands. It was a year and a half ago that Michelle founded Bellesa, a “free online platform for women to watch pornography” whose mission is to turn on its head an industry for which “misogynistic” is an understated description.
“The name is… Catalan, and it means ‘beauty’”, Michelle said, going on to explain to The B&B that “it started as a code word for developers to talk about [what we were doing]”. She wanted to create a platform that was totally catered to women and did not depict women as objects to be conquered.
Now to clarify, Bellesa is more than just videos. Fifty Shades of Grey “moved the dial forward in terms of what women are comfortable with” and Bellesa has been sure to capitalize on that trend: erotic fiction writing and publishing (they accept contributed pieces for any interested) is one of the major components of Bellesa’s operation.
These stories, like the videos they think women most enjoy, have what Michelle called “fantasy fuel”: she elaborated that “women like to see story lines, realism, bodies that look real” and sex that looks like it’s really being enjoyed. From what Michelle told The B&B, there is a pervasive misunderstanding within the adult industry of what women actually want. When Michelle first told a male friend who works for another company in the adult industry about Bellesa “he just kind of scoffed at what [Michelle] was saying… he’s a good guy by all means, but like ‘oh, female sexuality’”, she said mocking him with a clueless gesture. “He compared it to the Easter bunny.”
Many companies in the porn industry say they cater to women, but most women agree their attempts have been feeble. Michelle said that “when [Bellesa] started, we were… thinking [that] if adult entertainment were created in the vision of a woman, it would look very different than it does”, and so from the onset Michelle and her team “kept [their] heads down” to avoid being like anything already in existence. Furthermore, the culture that exists on other sites – where the most commonly searched items are ‘animated’, ’teen’, and ‘stepmom’ – is not something the female demographic wants to see when they type in Bellesa. Jess McLaren, Head of Erotic Fiction at Bellesa, pointed out “clichés keep getting repeated because that’s what everybody thinks people want”. Bellesa, however, knows better.
The B&B asked Michelle if she thought any men would be interested in Bellesa, and while she stated that a lot of “men don’t love the current framework that exists for adult entertainment” she clarified that:
“The difference is that when [men] are going through these [misogynistic] videos they’re just thinking like ‘meh, no, no, no.’ It’s not the same hurtful and harmful experience that women experience when they go on these [mainstream] websites and see this violent stuff, and the [poor] treatment of women…”
“We’re really attached to our work… [we’re] really invested in the social cause of what we’re doing…we’re in it for the long haul.” Michelle, who majored in Psychology and minored in Women’s Studies while a student at McGill University (Class of 2014), recognizes the potential in both influence and profitability that Bellesa posses. Michelle told The B&B that she believes that by changing the way that sex is represented online a great deal more can be changed throughout society.
After launching, Bellesa was the subject of a NowThisHer video that received praise from its followers: it went on to be shared on NowThis’s main page, where of the 10 million or so viewers about half are men. While the praise largely continued, some responded less enthusiastically to Bellesa. As expected on the internet (let alone a page with so many followers), it was inevitable that people would post some harmful comments; for Michelle it was only “further proof that there needed to be something [like Bellesa]”.
Truly being the first of its kind, Bellesa is an innovative player in its field, and given it launched only about a month ago it is growing exponentially. Bellesa “want[s] to get a million users in the next six months”, and it is pursuing a multi-pronged strategy to get there. Soon Bellesa will be launching its online shop where a variety of sex toys and other adult products will be available for purchase. While that is the cash-focused operation, which Michelle hopes will lead to Bellesa producing its own adult videos within a year, Bellesa has on its page “the Collective”, which is their blog-type community platform. The Collective, which Michelle said was geared toward millennials, talks about some sexual topics but also “some more serious matters” such as body image, culture, and abortions – “all things that have a female image empowering message in them.”
Bellesa has received some amazing feedback on the space they have created. Michelle said that the reactions have given her seemingly endless energy, and she is working tirelessly to make sure “everything happens and everyone is happy.” While many are now simply enjoying porn without having to first trek through countless tasteless videos, this women-focused space has also provided some survivors of sexual assault an avenue to experience sexual pleasure while feeling safe, and is allowing others to explore their sexuality in a comfortable environment. Calling erotic fiction “a gateway drug”, Jess told The B&B that after witnessing the traffic in the adult fiction store where she worked in Saskatchewan (which Jess said was in the town that has the most senior citizens in Canada) before moving to Montreal to join Bellesa she knows, “there’s a market for this.”
While Montreal provides some corporate benefits, such as the cheap costs of building a business here, the real “sex-tech” boom is happening in New York and London. Michelle told The B&B that she had recently been to a sex-tech convention where she networked with a variety of other feminist industry-innovators, from feminist pornographers to bloggers. There is only an upward trajectory as women become increasingly “unapologetically bold”. Michelle said she isn’t sure where Bellesa will be (geographically) in a year, but “there’s so much potential.” Bellesa is actively hiring for a number of technical positions and other staff, but Michelle made clear that Bellesa “only [hires] people who are die-hard” about their operation.
Overall, Bellesa is poised to carve out an untapped market for itself while combatting the stigma around female sexuality. Expanding on recent trends and providing much needed spaces for women within the adult entertainment world is revolutionary and sets a strong example for countless young women. Michelle is innovating and creating all the time: she “doesn’t just go home and shut off. [She’s] thinking about Bellesa all the time.” It is exciting to imagine what a year for Bellesa will look like with a woman like Michelle at the helm.