The selection criteria for Hot Bits — a queer erotic film festival now in its third year — is hard to put into words.

It’s just a feeling.

“Does it turn us on? Does it make us feel warm inside?" said festival co-organizer Evie Snax. “It could be super-high production, a lot of money could have gone into it, it could have gorgeous actors. But if the feeling isn’t there, we probably won’t curate it. In fact, definitely not.”

Snax, who is 26 and lives in West Philadelphia, is part of the eight-person collective that’s producing Hot Bits, which arrives at the Lightbox Film Center in University City this Friday and Saturday and will later travel to Boston, Baltimore, and Atlanta.

Inspired by the Berlin Porn Film Festival and incubated during Snax’s 2017 residency at the 40th Street AIRSPACE Gallery, where Snax and a smaller team hosted an invite-only version of the festival, Hot Bits hopes to eradicate shame around sexuality by creating a communal space for erotic art — made for and by folks not often seen in mainstream media.

“Come for creative visions of full-spectrum sexuality and all-over sex- and body-positive freakishness,” its event description reads.

Some of the Hot Bits collective. From left to right: TopShelf, Heart Byrne, Evie Snax, Wit López, Arazel Newman.
Hot Bits
Some of the Hot Bits collective. From left to right: TopShelf, Heart Byrne, Evie Snax, Wit López, Arazel Newman.

They’ll screen films at the festival and the after-party (about 50 out of more than 200 international submissions made the “warm feeling” cut), as well as host burlesque performances by local artists like Icon Ebony Fierce and Wit López, who is also part of the Hot Bits curatorial team. There’ll be a relaxation room (see below) if attendees want to step away from the screenings. There’ll even be a pair of “Cupids” who will help introduce you to an attendee if you’re feeling shy.

Though the curators prioritize films that they’d define as porn, it’s not your typical YouPorn offering, and they say that’s exactly the point.

We talked to Snax and Philly-based co-organizer Arazel Newman about what it’s like to watch porn with a group, the limits of representation, and why, as they would have it, Jesus would be down with Hot Bits.

Why curate a porn festival?

Snax: Any film that has any explicit imagery can’t be accepted to regular film festivals, even queer indie film festivals. Same with performance art. The performers that we feature, their performances, for the most part, don’t get accepted to traditional performance art spaces because they’re “too provocative” or “too illicit.” So it’s really important to carve out a space like this.

What about representation? What’s the power in showing different kinds of bodies — like fat folks, trans folks, and people of color — experiencing pleasure on screen?

S: We curate art where people are really taking ownership of their own representation. A lot of times the depictions of desire that we get exposed to, featuring people who look like us, are confined to a certain niche or stereotype because it’s coming from an outside lens. Like, some director is trying to get the most hits.

But the work we’re curating is made by queer people who have all different types of bodies and are representing their sexuality in complex, emotional, and nuanced ways. That expands the realm of possibilities for what we can see for ourselves, for experiencing pleasure.

So it’s not purely about representation. It’s about marginalized folks writing and directing the work, too.

Newman: Right, we’re not saying that these folks are not being depicted but it’s that they’re not being depicted with their own narratives. They’re just hired to fill this role and are usually framed through someone else’s perspective.

S: They’re always in a tab, like, “Shemales." It’s very objectifying, like sub-sub-sub categories.

N: Or these folks are only support for someone else’s erotic expression or sexuality. Many queer folks, especially feminine-expressing folks, their homosexuality is only acceptable if it is being sexualized by others, particularly a cis-male gaze. Like, if people see homosexuality expressed that they don’t find themselves personally attracted to, they deem it unacceptable.

Is all mainstream porn bad?

S: No, and not all indie porn is good. But personally, I’m very interested in independent porn because a lot of the times it’s not based on what will sell or what some boss is asking for. There’s no ulterior motives other than expression. I was inspired by the idea that people would make porn with their own money because it is such a stigmatized genre.

There’s also nothing wrong with survival sex work, of course. But there’s a different feeling to porn that’s made by sex workers for fun versus porn that is exploitative. And we can find so much of that exploitative, bad-feeling porn on the internet. But the stuff that is really uplifting, really diverse, empowering? Those forms of art are not available.

How does viewing porn collectively change the experience of it?

S: There’s a little homage that gets paid to all the porn theaters that have closed down. ... Hot Bits is part of a new evolution in the history of screening porn.

N: Watching collectively adds to the destigmatization of porn because it removes it from being something shameful, like 'You have to do this in private."

Shame is such a big part of how people experience sexuality.

S: We’re conditioned and socialized to feel shame about our bodies, our desires, sex, porn. Literally, shame is a poison. Our whole society would be so much happier if we had less shame.

N: Shame reinforces the isolation that folks feel even within their own chosen communities.

S: We’re basically doing God’s work.

N: Right? [laughs]

S: That’s how we’re talking about it. [laughs] We’re giving porn to the people.

N: This is what Jesus would want. He was friends with a sex worker, OK?

At the festival, you’ll have a relaxation room with pillows and tea if people want to take a break, as well as specific people available to provide emotional support. There’ll also be trigger warnings for, say, a film that depicts choking, in the festival program and before each film, with time for people to leave if they need to. What’s the thinking behind these measures?

S: I would guess that the majority of our audience has experienced sexual trauma. All the curators have experienced sexual trauma of some kind. And being triggered is a reality of having experienced trauma. We are not creating a safe space. There is no such thing. But we do our best to make sure people feel cared for and that people have the resources they need in order to care for each other and to care for themselves.

Hot Bits will be at the Lightbox Film Center (3701 Chestnut Street) on Friday, April 26, and Saturday, April 27, at 8:30 p.m. Tickets for both nights are $20, with a discounted rate of $14 for trans folks and people of color. Tickets to the dance party are separate.