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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

23

'The Feminist Porn Book': Celebrating XXX Fantasies Left Out of Mainstream Porn

In an age of gonzo and revenge porn, when Iceland is considering banning online porn and San Francisco's Kink.com is under fire for poor working conditions, what's a feminist-minded porn lover to do? The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure (Indiebound | Amazon) has a variety of answers. Edited by Tristan Taormino, a feminist porn producer, and professors Celine Parreñas Shimizu, Constance Penley, and Mireille Miller-Young, it offers a mix of (mostly) women who create and perform in porn, and academic discourses on porn's meaning.

Defining either feminism or porn is a tricky endeavor, so defining "feminist porn" is particularly challenging. A basic definition is culled from the Feminist Porn Awards, which Toronto sex toy shop Good for Her has hosted since 2006: "(1) A woman had a hand in the production, writing, direction, etc. of the work; (2) It depicts genuine female pleasure; and/or (3) It expands the boundaries of sexual representation on film and challenges stereotypes that are often found in mainstream porn. And of course, it has to be hot!" Every author here grapples with that definition, though what makes a particular piece of porn "feminist" is ultimately left for the reader to determine.

Taormino writes about including authentic scenes of female pleasure as part of her devotion to feminist ideals: "I place so much emphasis on the process of making porn because it’s difficult to designate what a feminist porn image looks like ... if you’re going to go to the trouble of calling a woman a slut and smacking her while you f–k her, there damn well better be an awesome orgasm in it for her. If she’s not having a great time, what’s the point?” In other words, it’s just as absurd to say “I know it when I see it” about feminist porn as it was when Justice Potter Stewart said it about obscenity. You fundamentally can’t know just by looking; you have to dig a little deeper. While acknowledging that most viewers watch porn to get off, the authors collectively argue that a significant subset of porn fans and creators want something more from their XXX viewing. They don't necessarily desire pretty, polite, romantic versions of sex on screen (though some do), but want to be sure nobody was coerced into performing.

The voices that stand out most are those who've been traditionally either left out of mainstream porn or fetishized in a way that leaves them cold. After a historical overview from Betty Dodson, Susie Bright, and Candida Royalle, the book presents women who knowingly entered porn to make women like them more visible. From April Flores on plus-size porn to Tobi Hill-Meyer on trans women's fight to be included at levels proportionate to trans men to Loree Erickson on disability in porn, each practically echo the other in conveying porn's real-life impact. Flores: "One woman said that she was rarely intimate with her partner because she felt ugly and undesirable, but, after discovering my work, she was able to view herself differently." Hill-Meyer, quoting from a fan letter: "I definitely think you are doing awesome things and you are certainly one of the people inspiring me to make porn that I’m not embarrassed to be in and that I actually find hot.” Erickson: "After I screened want at a queer conference in Massachusetts, a young woman with a disability thanked me and told me she had never had a romantic relationship. She told me that before she saw my film, she never even thought it was a possibility for her."

When anti-pornography activist Gail Dines laments the "plasticised, formulaic, and generic images" in porn, she ignores this vibrant movement that's explicitly countering those monotonous images. She excludes those who are challenging some of the problems from the inside, whether it's black porn star Sinnamon Love refusing to eat a slice of watermelon in a scene with a white man and standing up for black women's legitimacy or genderqueer Jiz Lee refusing to shave their (Lee's preferred pronoun) legs for a shoot. Of course, feminist porn is but a small subset of a gigantic industry. Femme Productions founder Royalle writes, “I wish I could say that my greatest source of pride is the impact my work has had on the enormous adult industry, but that is not the case.” Still, in a relatively short period of time (the first Femme Productions films were released in 1984), they’ve made considerable inroads, building a subculture (many performers reference the Feminist Porn Awards as a source of validation) while also influencing mainstream porn companies.

While I believe the debate about porn is too often narrowed down to a simplistic dichotomy of "empowered" vs. "victimized," the other message from these essays is that for most performers, there's been an element of gaining self-knowledge through acting in porn. Lorelei Lee writes, "There is a kind of irony in the fact that people so often link pornography with coercion, when it is on porn sets that I really learned what it is to give consent."

The biggest flaw is that the book never truly goes head to head with critics who question whether the system itself is flawed. In one of the most unexpected pieces, Christopher Daniel Zeischegg, a.k.a. porn performer Danny Wylde, ponders reading porn critic Chris Hedges' book Empire of Illusion. Hedges quotes ex-porn star Patrice Roldan (a.k.a. Nadia Styles) saying, "I would say the most degrading things I could say about myself because I thought this was what it meant to be sexy and what people wanted to hear . . . You are just a slut to those who watch. You are nothing.” Wylde's best comeback is: "I am a pornographic performer and I do not participate in the exploitation or degradation of fellow performers." His elaboration is important, but doesn't address claims such as Hedges', or critiques of places like Kink.com. That may not be the book's job, but I'd have liked to see these problems tackled more directly.

That being said, Wylde's piece illuminated the male porn star experience, which is crucial if widespread changes are going to be made within the industry. He focuses on working respectfully with his female coworkers, by choosing companies like Naughty America, which doesn't allow male performers to spit on, choke, or slap female performers (if the woman wants to be spanked, she has to explicitly ask for it). Wylde wants viewers to treat their porn-buying with as much care as they do their food-shopping or clothes-purchasing. "It’s time for consumers who want more ethical porn to educate themselves about who’s producing it, and to use their dollars to support it.”

"Women challenge the status quo, because we are never it … Porn hasn’t even begun to leverage the female experience of desire, arousal and sex, through the female lens," Makelovenotporn.tv founder Cindy Gallop wrote recently in The Independent. Yet while there's a lot of work left to be done, these pioneers and their progeny are seeking to create porn in their own images, sourcing talent from within their communities and taking into consideration a host of concerns that go far beyond cash. The Feminist Porn Book is both a scholarly and intensely personal look at what's been accomplished so far, and where feminist porn is going. What the book does best is complicate the intersection of feminism and porn. It refutes those who simply dismiss all female porn makers and viewers as dupes of the patriarchy, making it extremely clear that "porn" is not one monolithic genre, but rather a multifaceted form of art that attracts creators from a range of backgrounds, and that there’s still room for porn to evolve, grow, and change. This is a relatively new conversation that need to be ongoing. On April 6, in conjunction with the eighth annual Feminist Porn Awards, the book's editors will host a one-day feminist porn conference to do just that.

Rachel Kramer Bussel is a New York-based author, blogger, and event organizer. She's edited over 40 anthologies, including Serving Him: Sexy Stories of Submission, Orgasmic, Women in Lust, Twice the Pleasure: Bisexual Women's Erotica, and Cheeky Spanking Stories and edits the Best Sex Writing and Best Bondage Erotica series. She blogs at Lusty Lady and Cupcakes Take the Cake. Follow her @raquelita.

23 Comments / Post A Comment

sintaxis

okay, so iceland actually is not trying to "ban online pornography". for an article about "feminist" porn, you'd think they'd get that right! iceland is looking to ban violent porn that glorifies and sexualizes violence against women.

sintaxis

Oh and Dine's main complaint about pornography is NOT that there isn't enough variety in porn, and in fact her work would show that she is against expanding the range of women's bodies to be exploited. Her arguments are very complex; I would recommend reading some of her books where she is not nearly as limited or edited as in the Guardian.

fondue with cheddar

@sintaxis Ah, that's a much better proposition.

Porn Peddler

I need this book so badly. But should I buy it from the feminist press? One of the hairpin's links? Dear me...as if I have the money for this.

Springtime for Voldemort

@Porn Peddler I got mine in the mail today. So excited!

Miss Maszkerádi

I love Victorian-era porn of the written, narrative variety. At least that of it that I've read, everybody male and female is having a good time, it's often unintentionally hilarious, and one can learn more silly names for body parts than one ever thought possible.

etc etc

@Countess Maritza This sounds AMAZING. Where can I find it?!

fondue with cheddar

@etc etc It DOES sound amazing!

J Walter Weatherman

@Countess Maritza The book of Victorian lesbian erotica I got as a joke Christmas gift one year is one of the best books I've ever received.

sophia_h

I wonder if there hasn't been more push towards feminist porn because the prospective audience has been busy satisfying itself (heh) with written erotica instead. Personally I prefer words over images, plus written stuff allows for things that are physically impossible (including gender stuff), plus it generally incorporates the character/relationship stuff that typical porn leaves out. Basically, I would be the audience for non-creepy porn except 15 years ago I discovered online sources that meet my needs, are free, and even allow me to participate and create it myself.

So, I would be highly, highly in favor of more of the porn that men consume being something that you could label as feminist, or at least not as totally fucked-up on gender equality as it is now, but I think most of the women's needs are already being met with erotica, from the fandom sources I like to the robust e-book industry on Amazon and other sites.

H.E. Ladypants

@sophia_h Yes! I have also long been fascinated by the communal nature of a lot of online erotica. The existence of anonymous "kink memes" where people can request various plot lines and then have them filled is just remarkable to me (for a lot of reasons, actually.) There's just this element of communally constructed fantasy that I find really appealing. Rather than someone with a camera saying "okay, THIS, is supposed to be sexy" people get to talk about their weird inner desires, see them realized (in words), and maybe even have some laughs in the process. It's just so... completely not top down in any way, shape or form.

sophia_h

@H.E. Ladypants I'm never sure if it's a difference in how each gender is wired, or what -- I mean, I enjoy a picture of a person I find attractive, but I've never gotten off to one, because I need the words and the internal stuff and the "flavor" of a scene/relationship, but obviously guys have been into still images for millennia. I guess there's some interactiveness for guys with the rise of cam girls, so they're kind of participating in what they're seeing, but then there's the whole creepy "paying a woman to do sexy things on request" aspect of it. I do know guys who enjoy written erotica, and you'd think the participatory nature would interest more of them, but for now it seems like something pretty much exclusively female. (Which is fine. I've had creepy requests and comments on my writing from straight guys who do not really get the environment, so they can just stay away unless they're willing to learn.)

Springtime for Voldemort

@sophia_h I've found that the more and more visual porn I find that really accurate portrays my desires and doesn't trigger any of my issues, the more and more I find visual porn hot and something I want to consume. The problem is, if I want porn with accurate, cunnilingus that leads to orgasm portrayed in a non-fetishized, face-sitting way, I'm statistically much more likely to find that in written porn than visual porn.

Cliterary Device

I am a big fan of Jizz-Lee, and I like that she doesn't shave her eagle bald.

I've actually tuned out of porn for the longest time because the mainstream het and lesbian porn I always came across was so... unsatisfactory. To the point that it would make me as dry as the Sahara. Seriously, gay porn was the only thing that would get me off for years. I thought my lack of desire towards pornography in video and print made me defective and it really lowered my sexual self-esteem.

And then one day I had an epiphany!

I discovered that I will never not be a pervert, and mainstream porn is not going to suit my needs. In that time, and although I'm straight and cis-gendered, I also discovered more to my sexual identity along several axis (axes, axeses?): I'm a fetishist, a Switch, an occasional sadomasochist, I like weird goofy shit in my porn (laughter helps me along immensely), and I thoroughly enjoy seeing men take it up the ass by a woman.

It took me until my late twenties to figure all this out, which makes me insanely envious of women in their teens and early twenties who know this about themselves from the jump. Better later than never I guess.

Cliterary Device

@sophia_h:

In my case, and I suspect in a lot of other women's cases, giving up on porn completely seems to be a common enough phenomenon (my own anecdata).
-----
That being said, I feel that in the adult entertainment industry, there are these separate non-overlapping islands that mainstream porn actresses have to navigate all the time:

1. How they can get through the scene in the most pleasant way possible without showing too much of the wrong bodily reaction. (flush but don't sweat, be wet but not profusely lubricated)

2. How can they show (pretend) that they are aroused and really into the scene. (take whatever she's getting, but don't interfere with the man/Top?)

3. Performing in ways that they 'think' are going to be titillating for the audience. (moan, hiss, open mouth, purr, pretty much any noises but intelligible ones).

I feel that this is why so much of the connectivity that women need to get stimulated gets lost... if we go beyond the male lens. This is even true in lipstick lesbo porn.

H.E. Ladypants

@Cliterary Device Blarg yes. Every once in a while I decide to take a stab at watching porn again. Half the time what is happening to the woman just seems SO physically unpleasant, (Dude, did you really FLICK that woman's clit?) I end up being revulsed rather than aroused.

Cliterary Device

@H.E. Ladypants: Yep, watching a woman's partner being painfully aggressive in the I-know-you-didn't-ask-for-this-but-SURPRISE! way to her anatomy, and expecting her to stay pretty and cum on camera is not exactly my cup of tea either.

Ten bucks says he didn't even know what the whole concept of a clit was.

Ian Jade@twitter

I'd argue that insisting on "an awesome orgasm" to justify more intense physical play is to fundamentally misunderstand the pleasure derived from the play itself. Feminists can be kinky too!

glitterary

@Ian Jade@twitter Yes, that's what I thought too. I don't really consume much visual porn, partly because (as people have mentioned above) written erotica fills my needs better, partly because I'm concerned about conditions for participants (especially when it comes to kinky porn). But what I've recently realised I would like to see more of is aftercare--not the post-scene bathrobed "I liked that!" snippets, but the cuddling and catharsis itself. And from my admittedly limited perspective, a lot of porn seems to be unrelentingly intense--shag shag shag spank spank whip shag shag spank spank--without all that much scene structure and emotional involvement, and lacking many of those little moments of quiet tenderness in the midst of the pain that are a) super sexy, and b) show the connection and care between the people having sex. I would probably be more reassured that the participants were having a good time than by orgasms. But like I said, I've not seen much porn, so I'd love someone to tell me I've just missed it and that's definitely out there.

bryan low@twitter

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