Fabulous, Feminist Porn
There can be no equality in porn, no female equivalent, no turning of the tables in the name of bawdy fun. Pornography, like rape, is a male invention, designed to dehumanize women… - Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will (1975)
Feminism and porn are mortal enemies, or so the popular wisdom goes. Ever since the late 1970s, when Andrea Dworkin, Catherine McKinnon and Gloria Steinhem declared pornography to be harmful to women, feminists have lined up to decry sexually explicit material, claiming it causes rape, human trafficking, exploitation and dehumanization. Modern anti-porn activists like Gail Dines maintain the rage, saying porn helps to maintain the patriarchal oppression of women by encouraging men to objectify and hate.
Flying in the face of all this is the feminist porn movement.
A relatively new phenomenon, feminist porn rejects Susan Brownmiller's contention that there can be no equality in pornography. Cheerfully trampling over the Dworkinite arguments of exploitation and objectification, feminist porn seeks to take back the landscape of sexually explicit media, offering a more positive and inclusive way of depicting, and looking at, sex.
The phrase "feminist porn" didn't see regular use until recently, although this kind of pornography has existed for some time. In 2003 a documentary called Hot and Bothered looked at feminist porn filmmakers. The phrase became popular in 2006 when Canadian adult store Good For Her created the annual Feminist Porn Awards. This event, now in its sixth year, has helped to identify and encourage alternative visions of sexuality, with an emphasis on recognising female producers of pornography. In that time, the number of filmmakers, writers and performers identifying as feminist pornographers has grown significantly.
But what is "feminist porn", exactly? What does it look like? What does it depict? And what does it mean?
It's tempting to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, who famously said of pornography: "I know it when I see it". Both words are notoriously tricky to define and feminist porn can be a little difficult to pin down. The genre - if we can even call it that - is incredibly diverse and encompasses a wide range of ideas, sexualities, sex acts and creative techniques. The aesthetics involved can also vary greatly. Indeed, it is this very diversity that is part of what the movement is about.
Thus, feminist porn includes the work of Madison Young, an artist and performer who runs an art gallery in San Francisco and who regularly appears in, and directs, porn films. Her style of porn includes extreme BDSM scenes with straight male, lesbian and queer partners, anal sex scenes or masturbation with female ejaculation. Her films are often shot gonzo-style with hand-held cameras and little set decoration.
Feminist porn also includes the work of Jennifer Lyon Bell, an American director based in Amsterdam. Her films deal mainly with heterosexual sex, have a strong focus on character and setup and they attract praise due to their high production values and attention to detail.
Feminist porn is, of course, feminist. While the definition of feminism may vary and mean different things to different people, it's fair to say that feminist porn seeks to promote equality in the depiction of sex. That equality doesn't just extend to heterosexual, cisgender women but to all sexualities, genders, classes and races. The feminist philosophy behind it is one that rejects rigid definitions of sexuality and sex roles.
Feminist porn is also part of the wider sex positive movement. Being sex positive is about accepting all aspects of human sexuality with an open and positive mind, embracing sex as a healthy activity and promoting sex education and safe sex.
Part of defining feminist porn involves describing what it isn't. Feminist porn is partly a reaction to the existing landscape of sexual media and it embodies a rejection of the negative aspects of much mainstream porn. Often, commercial pornography relies on stereotypes, standardised sexual roles and outright sexism for its content. Racism is common (Oh No, There's A Negro In My Mom!), difference is fetishised and silicon breasts are rife. A great deal of it relies on a male perspective, depicting male fantasies and giving priority to male pleasure. In regular porn, "oral" almost exclusively means blowjobs and real female orgasms are rare.
On top of that, a great deal of standard pornography is done factory-style, shot quickly and as cheaply as possible in simple locations with little concern for aesthetics or lighting. It's often badly edited and shoddily presented. The performers are shown little respect in the way the films are marketed.
In short, there's plenty of awful porn out there.
Feminist porn seeks to forge a new path. Sexual pioneer and artist Annie Sprinkle has best encapsulated that philosophy: "The solution to bad porn isn't no porn, it's better porn."
The roots of feminist porn can be traced to the 1970s when feminism and sexual liberation both became popular social movements. Helen Gurley Brown's decision to feature a naked male centerfold in the April 1972 edition of Cosmopolitan was something of a milestone. Originally intended as a one-off, the uber-sexy foldout image of Burt Reynolds nude on a bearskin rug soon inspired others, with Australian magazine Cleo producing their own centerfold of actor Jack Thompson in November 1972. Less than a year later, Playgirl, the first magazine entirely devoted to female sexuality, had been launched.
These magazines marked a moment when women stood up and claimed for themselves the right to look, not just to be looked at. They created a space for women to discuss sex and to actively admire men, an activity that many assumed was not inherently female.
The idea that "women aren't visually stimulated" originally came from the research of Alfred Kinsey in the 1950s. In Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female, Dr Kinsey reported that 88% of women "never" responded to nude photographs. He concluded that: "...many females find the male genitalia ugly or repulsive in appearance... there seems no doubt that these reactions largely depend on the fact that most females are not psychologically stimulated, as males are, by objects which are associated with sex."
He also said: "It seems likely that most females are indifferent or antagonistic to the existence of such material because it means nothing to them erotically." He did, however, concede that there was no erotic material actually designed for women.
Despite the arrival of Playgirl, the "women aren't visual" myth remained entrenched. In 1984 when ex-adult actress Candida Royalle set out to create female-friendly erotic films, she faced enormous negativity from within the adult industry. Her insistence on catering to a female audience and her desire to leave out industry standards such as external ejaculation shots led many to predict her failure. Her first film, Femme, was a huge commercial success and she has subsequently directed and produced another 17 films, all of which consistently sell well, years after their release.
Candida could well be seen as one of the "founding mothers" of feminist porn, along with a collection of other well-known sex positive activists who were busy during the 80s and 90s, envisaging new ways to present sexuality and erotica. Author Susie Bright co-founded the lesbian sex magazine On Our Backs in 1984 and created the Herotica series of erotic short fiction in 1988. Academic Marianna Beck, along with partner Jack Hafferkamp, founded Libido, the "journal of sex and sensibility" in 1989 and made six erotic films from 1999 to 2006, including Orgasm: Faces of Ecstasy, a film that showed only faces during the moment of climax. Nan Kinney (who also co-founded On Our Backs) was the creator of the first authentic lesbian adult film Private Pleasures in 1985 . Nan co-produced Bend Over Boyfriend, the first instructional sex video about "pegging" (female-on-male strap-on sex). That film's creators, Shar Rednour and Jackie Strano, went on to create S.I.R. Productions and released seven independent dyke feature films.
Annie Sprinkle is another founding mother thanks to her sex positive advocacy and open discussion of her sexual experiences. Annie made her name as an adult star in the 70s before transforming into an artist and sex educator in the 1990s. Her 1981 film Deep Inside Annie Sprinkle showed a female porn star clearly in control and enjoying her work - a long way from the degraded and exploited victims claimed by anti-porn activists. In her film Herstory of Porn and her 1995 Post Porn Modernist show she deconstructed her role in porn and prostitution, simultaneously embracing her past and questioning it. Annie offered an alternative feminist vision of porn, one that refused to roundly condemn it yet sought to find a more spiritual and meaningful side to it.
The rise of the internet has undoubtedly been the catalyst for the growth in female-friendly and feminist porn. The anonymity and privacy of the web meant that female porn lovers were suddenly free to explore explicit material in a safe environment, away from the dingy sex shops. The ability to deliver content to an unlimited audience also meant that issues of distribution and niche appeal were no longer an issue.
The first adult paysite for women, Purve.com, launched in 1999 and was called "something of a cultural milestone" by the New York Times. A collection of similar sites followed - including my own site ForTheGirls.com, launched in 2003. There are now numerous adult sites that aim to cater to, or include, female-identified porn lovers and a growing awareness in the porn industry that men aren't the only consumers of adult material.
Online delivery and distribution of films and DVDs, along with the ability of filmmakers to connect easily with their audience (and discuss upcoming projects) has meant that the number of feminist filmmakers has boomed in recent years. Early pioneers such as Tristan Taormino, Anna Span, Petra Joy and lesbian BDSM auteur Maria Beatty have been joined by a host of other filmmakers such as Shine Louise Houston, Anna Brownfield, Erika Lust (who released her first erotic film, The Good Girl, under a creative commons license in 2005) and Courtney Trouble.
The range of subjects, sex acts and creative sensibilities in the films by those filmmakers alone is incredibly diverse and again reveals the difficult-to-pin-down aspects of feminist porn.
In terms of aesthetics, the range is great. Erika Lust's films are high-end, film-style productions that make use of DSLR cameras, beautifully dressed sets and carefully designed lighting. Anna Span and Courtney Trouble, meanwhile, often make use of simple gonzo techniques, shooting with a single video camera and available light in existing bedrooms or outdoors. Tristan Taormino's films are backed by a major studio and thus are high-budget but she also makes use of the gonzo style, which includes interaction with the stars and acknowledgement of the camera and audience. Petra Joy makes use of vignette-style scenarios set in heavily-draped rooms, sometimes awash with coloured lighting and occasional soft focus. In short, feminist porn can't be defined by any single aesthetic style.
Similarly, the sex depicted varies markedly. An assumption exists that porn made for a female audience is "soft", with lots of candles, romance, kissing and minimal hardcore sex. Yet the women making and watching feminist porn have shown themselves to be eager for all kinds of sex acts and sexual pairings. Beyond the "standard" male-female heterosexual sex, feminist porn cheerfully depicts lesbian, gay, transgender and queer sex, fisting, female ejaculation, BDSM and power play scenes, rough sex, group sex and solo masturbation scenes, among many others.
It has also eagerly broken taboos, usually enforced by the corporate porn industry. A fear of scaring off homophobic male customers has ensured rigid dividing lines that separate depictions of male-male sex from "straight" (hetero and "girl-girl") sex in mainstream films. Yet numerous feminist porn films include a mix of gay and straight sex without apology. Sometimes it's due to the pansexual political outlook of the director, where sexuality is a continuum and attraction doesn't take gender or orientation into account. At other times it's due to a desire to depict a previously unseen female fantasy, that of male-male sex or threesomes where the men sexually interact with each other.
Indeed, in the last few years it has become increasingly apparent just how much female viewers enjoy watching gay porn. It's appeal lies in seeing two (or more) good-looking male bodies without female interference - much the same way that "girl-girl" porn is popular with straight male viewers. Female gay porn lovers also report that this style of media lacks the sexism that is often inherent in straight porn and they feel more comfortable watching it. Written erotica in the form of "slash" fiction (sex stories featuring love affairs between characters from films and TV shows) is also very popular.
Feminist porn also showcases a wide variety of body types, with many films making use of amateur performers who don't fit the blonde, plastic mould of the typical porn star. There is no set "look" for feminist porn performers. A willingness to perform and to have an authentic sexual experience is considered to be more important than appearance. Similarly, there is no artificial distinction between the races of individual performers and an effort has been made to include more authentic depictions of people of colour and different ethnic backgrounds.
Ethics and Authenticity
Given the variety inherent in feminist porn, it can be hard to identify one common characteristic of the "genre". What does unite all feminist porn is a commitment to ethics and authenticity in the production and presentation of the product.
A common criticism of pornography is that it is exploitative, that the participants are victims who have been badly treated or wrongly coerced into performing. This claim is often loudly refuted by the porn performers themselves. Queer star Jiz Lee has said "the only time I've felt exploited in porn is when people don't pay for the final product." Porn is one of the few industries where women earn more than men and every film set requires performers to sign legal consent forms, yet the insinuation remains that female porn performers are always exploited in some way, even if they say otherwise.
Feminist porn stars explicitly reject this sort of false consciousness argument. They say it refuses to accept that they have made an informed choice; in effect, they say that anti-porn feminists are actively infantilising them and denying them agency.
It has become one of the hallmarks of feminist porn that performers are openly included in the planning of sex scenes. Stars are often asked who they would prefer to perform with; this not only gives the star agency, it also ensures there is more chemistry between the performers on set. If the scene is a gonzo-style pairing, the performers are the ones who direct the action. They choose what happens and when, with their pleasure being the ultimate aim, as opposed to the artificial constructs of pre-planned positions or timing.
A lot of feminist porn now includes interviews with the performers, either before or after the scene. The benefits are threefold: first, it personalises the performer, allowing the viewer to get to know the stars, who they are and what type of sex they enjoy. In effect, this humanises the stars, removing the dreaded danger of "objectification" from the scene. Secondly, it enhances the whole scenario because the viewer knows what works for the star - and can consequently empathise or tune their arousal to the circumstances of the scene. Lastly, interviews provide all-important context for the scene, letting the viewer know the motivations and reasons behind the sex.
This last point is vital when it comes to depictions of BDSM or rough sex. Anti-porn feminists claim that porn enacts violence towards women and they often use BDSM as an example. Although this shows a misunderstanding of the politics of role-playing sex scenes, it does reveal one of the problems of visual representations of BDSM: it can be difficult to depict the negotiation and planning that goes into the scene or to accurately capture the delicate relationship that underlies the sex. Feminist porn makes an effort to make the negotiation explicit.
An example of this occurs in Tight Places: A Drop Of Color, a queer film by director Nenna. In one scene Brooklyn asks her submissive partner Vai if she wants to put her head in the toilet while she is being fucked with a strapon. After asking if it's clean, Vai consents. In the scene that follows, Vai is essentially degraded by her partner - the sort of thing that anti-porn activists loathe. The difference is that Vai consents and gets off on the degradation - and the film makes sure the viewer is aware of the power play involved.
Similar scenarios occur in Tristan Taormino's Rough Sex series, which make heavy use of pre-scene interviews. All the performers discuss what is going to happen beforehand and it's made very apparent that the "victim" is always in control. They plan the scene based on their own sexual fantasies and it's apparent that the scene will be stopped at any time, should the performer so wish. Given the sometimes violent nature of rough sex, this kind of context and indication of intent is vital.
Interviews have also been used effectively in the documentary style films of Tony Comstock. In his case, he wanted to capture a more expansive view of sex by framing it within the context of a relationship. In each of his six films, Comstock features extended footage of each couple talking about how they met, why they love each other and what they enjoy in bed. Beyond giving depth to the ensuing sex scene, Comstock's films leave the viewer in no doubt that the performers were eager to appear in the film, were actively engaged in the production and were wholly consenting participants.
This focus on the ethical treatment of performers is twinned with a determination to present participants in a respectful way. Beyond the inclusive way the films are shot and edited, the language used to describe the performers in feminist porn is usually positive. There is none of the usual "stupid sluts" terminology - unless, of course, the performers choose to use those terms themselves. On the whole, feminist porn treats performers as equals, people who should be thanked and applauded for sharing their sexuality with the viewer.
What happens next with feminist porn is anyone's guess. It's growing in popularity and influence, with more major porn studios beginning to take notice of the trend, but porn is at something of a crossroads at present, with declining revenues thanks to piracy and flailing world economies. Most feminist porn productions are independent, created on shoestring budgets and without major distribution outlets. Clearly, profit margins are a factor in the continuing growth of this kind of porn.
Whether it continues to be known as "feminist porn" is another question. The moniker is useful but it excludes other alternative porn filmmakers who are following similar paths yet do not identify as feminist.
It may also seem to exclude male viewers, even though this is not actually the case. No doubt there are plenty of male porn viewers who are also seeking more positive and inclusive representations of sex, yet the movement's inherent female-oriented focus could be seen as a barrier. Similarly, "feminist porn" is increasingly equated with queer porn, as many queer companies and producers proudly use the phrase. In the same way that the words "porn for women" came to be associated with flowers and softcore sex, "feminist porn" could become closely tied to queer content and perhaps lose its inclusiveness
Of course, labels don't necessarily matter in the larger scheme of things. What is more important is a desire for change. In the last ten years, pornography has become ubiquitous and the associated moral panics that accompany it are becoming larger. In a political landscape which still seeks to censor speech, representations of sex that are positive, inclusive and respectful are increasingly important. Feminist porn and the ethical and political vision behind it show that depictions of explicit sex are not inherently evil or morally corrupting. Indeed, it reveals just how important visual and written representations of sex can be to culture and to society.
Ultimately, feminist porn is a flagship for the future of pornography.
by Ms. Naughty (previously known as Louise Lush)
Ms. Naughty is a filmmaker, author, webmistress and feminist. She has been making porn sites for women since 2000 and runs Bright Desire, a new wave feminist adult site featuring her own films. She also jointly runs ForTheGirls.com, a large adult website for straight women. She blogs at MsNaughty.com. Her films are listed in detail at Indigo Lush. Several of her short films have been nominated for Feminist Porn Awards.
This article originally appeared in the German film magazine Schnitt in October 2011, to co-incide with the Berlin Porn Film Festival. Here's the original article in German. Note: It uses my old pseudonym of Louise Lush