Feminism, Porn — January 8, 2013 at 7:49 am

The “P” Word: Accepting Or Rejecting The Porn Moniker

One of the issues I considered when building my new site Bright Desire was whether I’d say it was porn or not. It may seem like a trivial thing, especially given that what I am offering is, you know, porn and all, but it’s actually a bit of a big deal, especially when it comes to feminist or alternative or new-wave porn. Deciding to use the “p” word or not becomes a branding exercise and it can make a big difference to how you are perceived, by your audience, the media and even the law.

Everybody knows what porn is. It’s the movies and pictures you jerk off to or have sex to. It’s images of dirty, hardcore sex, blowjobs and facial cumshots and bukkake and anal sex and tits and ass. It’s the prurient interest; self-gratification, pure and simple. It’s rule 34. It’s what the internet is for.

Porn is also bad acting, bad production values, bad disco music, bad boob jobs. Porn is parking-lot-around-the-back, badly lit, seedy, wrong-side-of-town and kind of smelly. Porn is stereotypes, sexism, racism, degradation, negativity, exploitation. Porn goes hand-in-hand (as it were) with shame, embarrassment, secrecy, lies, “addiction” and sin.

The idea of porn as a low-quality monument to self indulgence has meant the word is now used to describe excess or bad taste in other areas: food porn, architecture porn, fashion porn.

Everybody knows what porn is and they also know, thanks to constant societal pressure, that it’s a Bad Thing. Never mind that most people enjoy it or that studies have yet to prove that using it causes harm, it’s still seen as a naughty, shameful, dangerous form of media.

“Porn” comes with a spectacular trailerload of negative linguistic and cognitive baggage. Using it in your marketing can be something of a poisoned chalice, particularly when you are trying to make a distinction between regular porn – which is often all of the above – and your own positive, ethical, feminist production.

Thus, feminist porn pioneer Candida Royalle refuses to describe her 17 movie titles as porn. She calls them erotica for women and couples and deliberately used the “e” word from the very start in 1984. She knew that women were (and are) often turned off by mainstream porn and figured that stepping away from the term “porn” was the best way to differentiate her work.

Similarly, Dutch director Jennifer Lyon Bell says her production company Blue Artichoke Films is “erotic film for people who like film”. Erika Lust’s Lust Cinema uses the terms “erotic film” and “adult cinema” rather than “porn”. Documentary maker Tony Comstock also refused to use the word, labelling his explicit documentaries as “real people, real life, real sex.”

The very title of Cindy Gallop’s new site Make Love Not Porn is based on the rejection of “porn” as a negative thing. It uses the term “real world sex” to describe the amateur contributions made by non-porn performers and offers an alternative vision of sex which doesn’t rely on the cinematic or behavioural cliches or regular porn content. This is all about “making love” not porn-style fucking and that point of difference is the lynchpin of that site’s sales strategy.

Aside from avoiding the “p” word, many alternative producers also describe their work as artistic. And certainly, some feminist porn seeks to treat sexual content with a different aesthetic approach, moving away from the “traditional” methods of production and presentation. Most alternative producers consider their work to be a form of art; it’s a depiction of a personal vision for them, as well as a commercial enterprise.

Using the term “artistic” is also a handy way to step away from the association with “porn” and all of its sordid assumptions, to create a sort of cultural dividing line that indicates the work is better than the standard stuff. It also creates debate about what is art and what is porn, a question that can never be objectively answered. It invites judgement and creates a false dichotomy wherein “porn” – all porn – is bad and must be shunned. We saw this in the Globe and Mail article about the 2012 Feminist Porn Awards.

Given the negativity behind the “p” word, I do sometimes wonder if I’m doing the wrong thing when I continue to refer to my work as porn. The films and websites I make are different to what most people imagine porn to be. And I don’t want to be lumped in with all the dodgy sexist crap and dismissed, nor do I want to be considered to be a dirty, degraded pornographer. I too consider my work to be artistic and political. I have something to say about sexuality and lust and relationships and I want to say it.

At the same time, I make erotic material that is designed to arouse. It’s there to incite the prurient interest, to titillate and to prompt masturbation. In short, yes, I make porn. And I think that that is part of the reason why I’m happy to keep using the “p” word. I want to be honest about where I sit in the scheme of things. I’m not a Mapplethorpe or a Catherine Briellat or a Bertolucci. I’m not going to pretend that what I’m doing is high art. I want to turn people on, get them off, get them into bed together… and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. It helps if I can be positive and artistic at the same time but in the end, it’s all about arousing the viewer. That is the essence of porn. It’s what I was promoting when I first started out in this industry, making small smutty websites to advertise stuff. Yes, that stuff was for women, it was feminist, it was positive, but it was still porn.

All the other things, the sexism, the dirty adult bookshops, the bad production values… they don’t have to be what porn is about. That is bad porn. I want to make good porn. I want to take back the word from its unfortunate past and create something new with it. Even if that means I have to add extra phrasing – feminist porn, porn for women, new wave porn, female-friendly porn. The “p” word is what people type into Google every day. As long as we’re stuck with it, I want to own it.

And so Bright Desire features the word “porn” in its html title and I use it to describe my films and what I do. I also happily use the words erotica and art as well. I want to cover all bases, I guess.

Of course, if the fundamentalists across the road discover what I do and ring the cops and they come knocking on my door, you can bet I’ll be telling them I make erotica, not porn. Because erotica sells 65 million copies and gets you named as Publisher of the Year and doesn’t seem to bother the Australian censors or police in the slightest. Porn might get you a 6 month prison sentence if you’re unlucky.

Words really do make a difference.

One Comment

  1. If there’s sex positive and sex negative, are you ‘porn positive’? I think erotica is perceived like couture fashion, while porn is like discount clothing. Seems you want to be somewhere inbetween – like a department store? Not sure if ‘premium’ sounds right or just overpriced? Another example of how ad copyrighting and branding are not as easy as most people think!