Definitions and Denials: Feminist Porn As A Label

The closing reception of the Feminist Porn Conference was held in the Chapter House of the University of Toronto – an ancient, circular building dominated by an impressive oval (vulval?) table. As dozens of porn producers, performers, fans and academics gathered in the room, I briefly laughed at the idea of all of us sitting around the table, plotting world domination in a Doctor Evil kind of way, working out how to make Feminist Porn (TM) into the One True Porn.

Fat chance. We couldn’t even organise where to go for dinner.

In the 13 years I’ve been making porn, I’ve repeatedly seen it said that organizing pornographers is like herding cats and its certainly the case when it comes to feminist porn. There’s such a diversity of ideas, creative expression, lived experiences and definitions that trying to pin anything down is naturally difficult.

It’s fair to say that most who identify with the label “feminist porn” are OK with the concept of pornography and don’t find that it clashes with their concept of feminism. Most are attempting to make explicit material that is more inclusive, representative, sex positive and ethical than other porn – this “other” is often referred to as “the mainstream”. Beyond that definitions get tricky. You could say there are “genres” within the broader church and these include instructional movies, gonzo films, artistic features and works that cater to or depict a specific audience, perspective or identity, be they ciswomen, queer, trans or different body types (and all of the above) – but even that is a stretch. A lot of feminist pornographers just want to show hot sex – albeit in a different way to mainstream porn.

The inherently vague nature of defining feminist porn has resulted in several major media articles that seek to use definitions as a nail on which to hang the whole article. Asking “What IS Feminist Porn?” makes for a nice headline and allows the journo to explore the concept via quotes and examples. It also provides an opportunity to question the very existence of the genre since we all know that feminism hates porn, right? (Wheel out common or garden anti-porn feminist to prove point).

The diversity of opinion within the feminist porn community is painted as a weakness, as though our inability and/or refusal to plan world domination around that table is a problem. The truth is that the willingness to accept different points of view and diverse ideas is a major strength of feminist porn because it refuses to settle for black-and-white arguments. There’s room for everyone in feminist porn.

This is why Nica Noelle’s Huffington Post piece Do I Make Feminist Porn? caused a few waves. The piece, published the day before Nica appeared at the Feminist Porn Awards as an honoured guest, appears to my mind to make two assertions. One is that Nica doesn’t consider herself to be a feminist because she has always considered the movement to be anti-porn, anti-men and prescriptive when it comes to women’s choices. The other assertion is that the Feminist Porn Awards has a “dirty little secret” – that it excludes men, even though they are often eager to consume what we consider to be feminist porn and make up a significant part of the audience.

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In her piece, Nica constructs a feminism that is antithetical to both porn and to men. She then denies the label, saying she’s never considered herself a feminist. And fair enough, because I wouldn’t want to be part of that kind of feminism either.

What’s interesting is that Nica’s concept of feminism and her issue with the Feminist Porn Awards don’t line up with what the creators of the FPA think nor with the general ideas that were espoused at the conference.

The fact that so many pro-porn academics, writers, porn producers and performers went to the conference in order to publicly proclaim themselves feminist – and to loudly reclaim the term back from the Dworkins’ and Dines’ of the world – speaks to the fact that there is no one Feminism – only many feminisms, many with differing opinions and definitions. Nonetheless, I think its fair to say that this brand of feminism is NOT anti-porn. And no-one at the awards or conference consider themselves to be separatist or anti-men. Indeed, identifying with feminism includes that idea that men also suffer under our existing patriarchal social system and constructs of masculinity and that changing that will help all of us. Also, one of the issues that feminist pornographers have with mainstream porn is the way that men are treated and depicted. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone in the feminist porn-identified community say that male porn viewers were perverts.

Granted, the focus is often on women, both as performers and consumers. This is fair enough when you consider the historical context of porn as primarily a male pursuit and the ongoing feminist concern surrounding the exploitation and objectification of women in porn. Given feminism’s traditional concern with advancing the cause of women and minority groups, it shouldn’t be surprising that feminist porn seeks to build a better kind of porn than the sort that has typically been aimed at men in the past. But this focus does not automatically equate to excluding or hating men.

Nica Noelle was the industry guest at the “Ladyporn: Porn for Women” session where I gave a presentation. At the panel discussion afterward she re-iterated her concern that men were being left out. I asked her if perhaps she was making assumptions about what feminist porn meant. She responded by pointing out the guidelines under which the Feminist Porn Awards are given out. These guidelines include the idea that that the work be made by a woman.

Carlyle Janson, the owner of Good For Her and the original creator of the Feminist Porn Awards was in the audience. She responded that she considered the FPAs to be an inclusive event and that they had always sought to expand the possibilities of what porn was available to everyone. She said: “People think we’re the Lesbian Porn Awards or the Man Hating Porn Awards; they think feminism is passé. We want women’s, men’s, and trans perspectives; we’re not just looking for what women want.”

The whole issue of labels, intent, shifting definitions and denials is actually part of what I gave my presentation on at the conference. Loosely based on my chapter in the Feminist Porn Book, my talk looked at the history of porn for women and how the phrase is problematic but also useful.

When I started making online porn for straight women in 2000, the “genre” didn’t really exist as such. There was Playgirl-type magazines and Candida Royalle films and that was it. I and a small group of female webmasters set out to make porn for women who were like us, without any real research. We only had a million ideas and then the subsequent statistics of what sold subscriptions. We built websites according to what we thought women wanted and what sold well. Originally it was a new and exciting idea. A feminist idea. I personally defined it in very broad terms – porn that sought to speak to women as an audience, that sought to show female pleasure, that gave a female perspective of sex. I later learned that not everyone defined it so broadly.

Over time, as more people in the porn industry realised that women did want to buy porn, that solidified into a relatively narrow set of prescribed sex acts and aesthetics. “Porn for women” as a label evolved as a commercial concept and has often (but not always) conformed to the stereotype – romance, candles, softcore, men doing housework. And many people have since said they oppose the phrase because it is too prescriptive or insists that women only like one kind of porn, one that treats them with kid gloves. I understand and acknowledge that complaint.

And yet, I keep wanting to defend the phrase. Typically, someone will say “porn for women” is only a certain type of porn, then they get angry with the phrase and demand it not be used. But I’ve never defined porn for women that way and my porn sites don’t fit into their narrow definition. My intent was never to create a pornography for all women. I’m an exception to their rule and that’s why I’m still OK with it as a label (also… it’s useful as a search term and the commercial realities of Google must be acknowledged). I think definitions and intent can make a difference to what a label means and whether its viable or not.

So, take the label argument and transfer it over to “feminist porn”. Same shit, different day. Nica Noelle says it excludes men. The Vagenda writers joke that feminist porn is “a man and a woman meet at Planet Organic after a gender studies lecture, discuss intersectionality over vegetarian food, and then go back to her flat to bone on last Sunday’s Observer.” Anti-porn feminists say its an oxymoron and that porn is always exploitative and can never be feminist. Others assume its only about lesbian porn, or queer porn. Meanwhile, the FPA creator and everyone at the Feminist Porn Conference see things differently.

When I see sites like Jezebel denouncing the concept of “porn for women” using the headline “Ladyporn is not a thing”, I still get a little irritated. You’ve got it all sideways, dammit! MY ladyporn is different! Nonetheless, it’s important to consider criticism and see another perspective. So yes, Ladyporn when it’s constructed as a softcore, romantic thing that ALL women want is not a thing. Good point, I agree. I’ll try not to depict my porn in that way. I’ll try to be more careful with my language. Maybe I should find new ways to describe my porn.

Hell, maybe I’ll start a new site called Bright Desire that doesn’t rely on the old labels.

Now that the phrase “feminist porn” has its critics, its worth thinking about how people are seeing that particular label. What can we learn from this and how can we expand the phrase to make sure its as inclusive as we want it to be? If nothing else, it’s an opportunity for another conversation.

If Nica Noelle is asserting that men are left out, it’s worth asking: are they? Is it fair to continue having a focus on women, given that the Feminist Porn Awards are now in their 8th year? Or is it ridiculous to say that men deserve a place at the tiny Feminist Porn table when they already occupy most of the dining hall? And if it’s just a misconception, well, what can we do to make sure people know feminist porn is truly inclusive?

If Vagenda is joking about vegan food and intellectualism, how can we overcome the idea that feminist porn is too earnest to be hot? Is it worth changing this attitude? Does it matter if people think feminist porn is elitist?

If the assumption is that the FPAs are only about lesbian and queer porn, is that indicative of a bias? Is there a kind of “porn affirmative action” involved? Or is it another case of the majority demanding a place at the tiny table when they already control the restaurant?

Labels matter. Definitions matter. And yet phrases can take on a life of their own and popular perception can change the meaning of a label, as can commercial reality. “Feminist porn” is just as much a marketing phrase as “porn for women”, even as both are also signifiers of meaning, intent and purpose. How it’s used in the future may depend on the conversation we have about it right now.

Nica Noelle is entitled to her opinion. Her post-conference tweets seem to indicate she wants nothing more to do with feminist porn and that’s fine, though I think its a shame. I have long admired and promoted her work. I’m not sure what she now makes of the fact that she has received three feminist porn awards. Perhaps she’ll send them back.

I do think that it’s a mistake to say that this example of dissent is indicative of trouble within the feminist porn movement or confusion over what it’s all supposed to mean. Most people I met over the course of the weekend were happy to discuss differing opinions in an open and friendly way. And yes, there are differing ideas about how this all should proceed. I too think there are flaws in the movement and awards night… but I’m not going to stop saying I’m a feminist pornographer because of that. Better to be part of the discussion than not involved at all. Walking away solves nothing. If Annie Sprinkle said “The only solution to bad porn is better porn” then I think it’s fair to say that continuing to fly the feminist porn flag in our own individual ways – and continuing the conversation – is the best way to make things better.
* Note: I’ve seen it said we should be using the word “humanist” rather than “feminist” because its a non-gendered term. It’s an appealing idea because it sounds more inclusive.

I suspect, though, that the Humanists may have an issue. Humanism has its own very definite definitions and I can imagine going there creates yet another shitfight over labels.

To quote The Life Of Brian: “There’s just no pleasing some people.”

 

Quote image is from this page which talks about young women not wanting to use the term.

Lynsey G has also written a thoughtful post on the feminist porn conference and labels here.

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