For almost a decade, the annual HUMP! Film Festival, spearheaded by syndicated columnist and media personality Dan Savage, treated audiences in Seattle and Portland to curated selections of homemade movies billed as “the sexiest, funnest, most creative dirty movie fest in the world.”  Every year, the mélange of artful films, each no more than five minutes in length, offered to audiences a variety of genders, sexualities, body types, and attitudes that explored distinctive sexual experiences while also exploring their commonalities.

Last year, Savage and his crew expanded HUMP! into a cross-country festival, releasing all that pent-up amateur filmmaking energy in dozens of cities from coast to coast, including Pittsburgh.

On October 15th, 16th, and 17th, HUMP! returns to town for its second year showing at Lawrenceville’s Row House Cinema, and Adam Shuck, creator of the must-read Pittsburgh e-newsletter Eat That, Read This, got a chance to chat with festival director Dan Savage about last year’s local dust-up, the woman who became the festival’s patron saint, and why HUMP! is the porn festival for people who hate porn.

Dan, have you been to Pittsburgh before?

Oh yeah, a few times. I love it. Not to pander or anything, but I love it for all the wrong reasons—I love it for the same reason I like cities like Milwaukee and Detroit and Cleveland. Although Pittsburgh isn’t shrinking anymore, there’s just something about big industrial cities that had that shrinkage that makes them, I think, as urban spaces, more interesting than other cities. The gritty core, the rivers, the bridges—the way they all come together. It’s really pretty there.

So last year, the first time that HUMP! toured the country, Pittsburgh gave you guys some trouble.

[Laughs] That’s right.

I should note that it was the suburb of Dormont and not the City of Pittsburgh. Apparently the borough realized the film ran afoul of a couple ordinances. One, the theater was across the street from a church. And two, the ordinance read that structures in which you could legally watch “adult movies” had to be made up of “single-occupancy rooms.”

Oh my gosh, that was the ordinance in that little suburb? That’s nuts. But you know what’s really nuts about that? It’s that everyone has a dirty movie theater with them everywhere they go now—it’s called your phone. So the idea that you could regulate or wall off or ghettoize porn in this day and age is just ridiculous.

From what I’ve read about HUMP!, and from what you’ve said, that’s the whole point, to bring people together.

Right—and to be entertaining. You know, what makes HUMP! different is that, in some ways, it recreates the porn viewing experience of 75 years ago, which was communal and in a theater.

Dan Savage who is bringing the Hump! festival to Pittsburgh. AP photo.
Dan Savage who is bringing the Hump! festival to Pittsburgh. AP photo.

There’s a sort of mystique about that age–the age of porn theaters, bathhouses, discos, book stores–public spaces where one could go to watch sex or have sex. And of course all of that was considered seedy and then cleared out as cities gentrified. Do you see HUMP! fitting into that tradition of being that “third place,” a social gathering place?

I do. It used to be that if you walked into a bathhouse or if you walked into a gay bar or dirty bookstore or porn theater, by stepping through that door, you were saying something about yourself to everyone else in that space, and that can feel very liberating. It’s a form of outing yourself. And I think it’s the same way with porn, with walking into a dirty bookstore or movie theater. You’re saying, “I have a healthy interest in whatever is being shown here. And maybe I have some qualms or maybe I’m struggling with shame, but I’m overcoming the shame by walking through these doors.”

HUMP! is more of a celebration; it’s not a masturbation festival. It’s a celebration of human sexuality, sexual diversity, gender diversity, kink diversity. Everyone is coming there to see what everybody else is up to. And the films there are entertaining–that’s first and foremost. They’re compelling and interesting and off-the-wall and funny.

And sweet.

And many of them are sweet. One of them in the tour this year, called “Gloryhole,” won the festival’s audience ballot in Portland and Seattle. But “Gloryhole” is really touching. What I love about “Gloryhole” is that it makes a point that I make many times, which is that a lot of really great and lasting relationships have sleazy starts, but we tend not to hear about those.

I’m assuming that the festival draws a somewhat self-selecting crowd of people, who are already comfortable watching explicit sex acts in public. But are there experiences of people who are like, “Wow, this opened my eyes! I’m converted!”

Oh my God, absolutely; and that’s one of the reasons I love HUMP! The rap on porn–you see this sometimes from the Left, and I’m of the Left–is that it’s dehumanizing and it’s sexist. But, time and again, people come up to me afterwards and tell me how much they hate porn but that they love HUMP! And I think the difference is that because HUMP! isn’t commercial porn, it’s very deeply personal, an expression of the filmmaker’s or the actor’s own desires and interests. And because it’s amateur and it’s done for the joy, the love, and the fun of it, it’s deeply humanizing porn.

It really is the porn festival for people who hate porn. On one occasion, a woman came up to me and said, “I hate porn. My friends dragged me to this and I was bitching all the way in. Politically, as a feminist and a humanist, I hate porn. But I loved this festival, I loved this porn.” And not only did she say that to me afterwards, she was in a HUMP! video the following year. She went from hating porn, to be dragged to a porn festival, to loving that porn festival, to appearing in porn in the next year’s festival. She is the patron saint of HUMP! now as far as I’m concerned.

One of the important elements of HUMP! is that there’s nothing online. We don’t release the videos. We police the screenings to make sure no one’s making a bootleg. There are couples and throuples out there who are very private but have an exhibitionistic streak–but they don’t want to have to deal with one day having to explain to their grandchildren why they’re on the Internet. And we’ve gotten so many great films that those people have made, and some of those people are so elated to have an outlet that, as we like to say, allows them to be a porn star for the weekend in this movie theater without having to be a porn star on the Internet for eternity.

We’ve seen a sea change in the way that America thinks about and feels comfortable with LGBT issues, including sex. Most recently we’ve seen trans issues come to the fore, and I’m wondering how trans folks have taken to HUMP!

There aren’t any on this year’s tour, unfortunately. But trans people have embraced HUMP!, as it’s allowed them to create porn by, for, and about themselves without having to pass through a filter of cis desire. There’s a lot of trans porn out there, but it’s mostly created by and for cisgender people who fetishize trans people and their bodies. We’ve had really amazing films made by trans people who are expressing themselves and sharing their thing with a largely cisgender audience, but on their own terms, without having to shape or package it for anyone else but themselves. I’m cisgender, much to my eternal shame, but there are trans people and genderqueer people on the jury, and they’re advocating for the trans porn and trans porn performers. I hope we definitely have a trans film on the tour next year.

You know, the HUMP! jury is really good at honoring people’s own things. We put films in the festival which, year after year, people invariably come up to us and say, “That one wasn’t porn.” And we have to explain, “Well, that’s somebody’s porn. It’s not your porn, but it doesn’t mean it’s not anybody’s porn.”

There’s something I love about seeing these films with an audience, and I really think it’s the accidental revolutionary part of HUMP! At first, everyone’s thrown back in the seats, like, “Whoa. Not my orientation, not my interest, not my gender expression, not my body type.” And then about a third of the way through the screening, six or seven films in, people stop. You don’t see that anymore; people aren’t having the wind knocked out of them. People are cheering and clapping and laughing and having a blast.

That’s a super powerful thing to be able to do.

It is–and it’s really different from how people watch porn now, because, you know, you go to your computer and you click on only what you want to see, what is your particular thing. So to watch other people’s particular things and to see that they derive as much joy and pleasure from those things as you do from yours? To suddenly tap into that joy and pleasure?

I’ve watched a group of straight bros who came to the festival, sitting in like the tenth row, cringe and curl up when there’s gay sex on the screen two films in, not being able to watch. But by the end of the program, twelve or fourteen films in, there’s gay sex . . . and they’re watching and cheering. It’s awesome. I just love that, because we should all be able to be comfortable with each other’s stuff. Because if you cheer for other people’s things, they’ll cheer for yours—and that’s a good thing.

Adam Shuck is the creator of Eat That, Read This, the lunchtime link round-up e-newsletter about Pittsburgh. Informing and entertaining in equal measure, Eat That, Read This’s regular aggregation of local news, politics, culture, and miscellany has been called “a must-read” by media in town. A native of Frederick, Maryland, Adam holds a degree in German Studies and Linguistics from NYU and lives in Lawrenceville with his husband.