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‘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.

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