The Feminist Porn Conference

A pic from the closing reception at the Feminist Porn Conference. Facing the camera is Mia Gimp.

After a huge couple of days attending the Feminist Porn Awards events, Saturday the 6th April brought the 1st ever Feminist Porn Conference, held in the cold, church-like halls of the University of Toronto. Based on The Feminist Porn Book, released in February, the conference brought together porn performers, producers, writers and academics to discuss the issues and potential of porn that identifies as feminist.

I was one of the presenters. My talk “My Decadent Decade: Ten Years of Making and Debating Porn for Women in Australia” – an adaption of my chapter in the book – was part of the Ladyporn: Porn for Women session at 3:15 in the afternoon. I’ll talk about it a little later in this post (and the video is embedded below).

The conference, originally planned to be a relatively small affair, drew almost 250 attendees and boasted 45 different presenters across five sessions. Because it was only a one-day conference, each one and a half hour session had to compete with three – and in my case four – others. This meant that attendees had to make a choice as to which session they were most interested in. I found it rather frustrating as there were often multiple presentations that I wanted to attend. I needed a Hermione time-turner so I could go back and see more (because when you can travel through time, naturally you want to go to lessons).

In the end I made the choice to attend sessions by people who didn’t have a chapter in the book. It seemed the best way to hear more ideas, since I’d already devoured the book in the weeks leading up to the conference.

Andrew Owens' presentation on the history of Playgirl magazine

First up I went to the smallest session entitled Lovely Lads and Ladies: Representations of Gender and Sexuality in Porn Magazines. Feminist porn focuses so much on film that I wanted to hear more about the magazine perspective, especially since that’s where I got my start. The session began with Nicholas Matte discussing the representation of trans people in the 60s and 70s in magazines like Female Impersonator. He offered a really interesting history of how trans people created a community through publications whose original purpose was only erotic entertainment. After that student Jennifer Roberton discussed the effects of censorship in Canada using a “photography manual” that claimed to be teaching how best to take photos of two women having sex. The “instructional” nature of the book was a handy ruse that allowed the publisher to pretend it wasn’t porn and get it past the censors.

Of most interest to me was Andrew Owens‘ presentation “Chicks, dicks and contradiction: Reading porn for women in Playgirl.” Andrew gave a fantastic history about the origins of Playgirl and its evolution over time, from a commercial attempt to make porn for women into what’s become an openly gay magazine. Andrew’s perspective is one of skepticism regarding the idea that Playgirl was ever truly a magazine that represented women’s sexuality. Indeed, he appeared to believe that no true women’s porn actually exists. He did, however, discuss the idea that letters to the editor during the early months of the magazine were legitmately from women, most of whom demanded that the centerfolds show full-frontal male nudity.

At midday 150 people shuffled into the large lecture theatre, clutching our sandwiches, to hear the sold-out Keynote presentation by three editors of the book: Constance Penley, Mireille Miller-Young and Tristan Taormino.

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L-R Mireille Miller-Young, Constance Penley, Tristan Taormino at the keynote session

Constance’s chapter in the book is a great read and her talk was just as entertaining. She has been teaching pornography in her film studies class since 1994 and has faced ongoing opposition to this for years. One of the coolest things about Constance’s class is that she insists that porn is just another genre, like horror or action movies – and that’s why its in film studies, not women’s studies. She approaches porn with the eye of a film critic, not an anti-sex or moral perspective, and she encourages her students to do the same thing. It’s a refreshingly grown-up attitude to porn and one that needs to be adopted more often. As Tristan pointed out in the press conference the day before, we shouldn’t be afraid to use the term “porn” to describe our work. To call it something else is to concede that porn is a different, scary thing that needs to be treated as special or walled off. In essence, it shouldn’t be. It’s a genre like any other with its own tropes and audience.

Mireille Miller Young also recounted her experiences studying and teaching porn at university and talked about how the legalities surrounding porn complicate matters. She told an amusing anecdote about being invited to submit a piece on porn to Ms. magazine and how “they lost their minds” when they realised she was pro-porn. She was respectfully told they were no longer interested in her piece.

Tristan once again talked about the need for ethical, fair trade porn, stating that “if you care about where your food comes from or where your jeans are made, you should also care about how your porn is made… [Porn is] a piece of the entire media landscape, it’s a piece of popular culture but it’s also a piece of the labour movement that we need to intervene in.” She also referenced the HuffPost article by Nica Noelle saying that “there is no treating performers with ‘respect’ in quote marks. There’s just respect.”

I must admit, a lot of other things were said and I should have been making notes (although I did video bits of it… watch this space). On the whole the keynote was a little bit rambly and I was eating lunch so I’m hard pressed to offer a longer summary. Suffice to say it was interesting.

L-R Shar Rednour, Jiz Lee, Dylan Ryan and Jill Bakehorn

With the third session I opted for To Be Real: Authenticity in Queer and Feminist Porn, mainly because I wanted to hear Jill Bakehorn’s analysis. She was preceded by Jiz Lee and Dylan Ryan who both read from their chapters, as well as Shar Rednour talking about making Bend Over Boyfriend and her other films (Shar’s anecdotes were great and I regret not attending her screening at the first session). Jill discussed the idea that “authenticity” is essentially a construct in porn though of course the pleasure can be very real and there are ways to create sex scenes that ring true with an audience. She also looked at how alternative porn productions make use of the idea of authenticity as a form of legitimizing what is normally stigmatized.

I ducked out of the question time of that session in order to get my shit together for my upcoming presentation. I ended up seeing the last five minutes of Watch and Learn: Sex Education Discourses in Feminist Porn with Kevin Heffernan, Tristan Taormino and Sarah Stevens, and once again, wished I could have seen the whole thing. They were discussing the endless problem of porn being used by young teens as sex education and how to solve this issue.

L-R Nica Noelle, Sophie Delancey, Marije Janssen, Liesbet Zikkenheimer and me

So, on to the Ladyporn session. Aside from me it featured Liesbet Zikkenheimer and Marije Janssen from Dusk TV, Sophie Delancey from TheArtOfBlowjob.com and Nica Noelle as “industry guest”. The crowd wasn’t huge which I guess was to be expected considering we were competing with so many other sessions.

My talk was based on my chapter in the book, detailing the history of porn for women and my part in shaping it online, along with a discussion about why “porn for women” is a problematic label. Squashing everything into 15 minutes was tricky so I decided to ignore film and talk more about magazines and the internet. I pointed out that pornography was historically a male-only space and how the “women aren’t visual” myth began. Into this came Playgirl and other women’s adult magazines and then the internet (which used to only be about text and photos, another form of magazine). I talked about how I decided to make porn because I wanted to change it and how a small group of female webmasters got together to discuss “what women want” on message boards back in the day (2000-1). We shared info about what actually sold well – a limited but useful form of research – and we did our best to convince the rest of the industry that women wanted to buy porn. Over time the idea of “porn for women” became somewhat restrictive in terms of content.

I also talked about how the label causes problems because some see it as saying all women only want one type of porn, or that women only can handle softcore romantic stuff (or pictures of men doing housework). I also said that the new term “feminist porn” may also face issues about what it means, pointing out the quote from the Vagenda writers 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‚Äôs Observer“.

Despite all my best intentions, I suffered from Wobbly Voice. Public speaking is not something this pyjama-wearing, home-office-working pornographer normally does so I sounded pretty panicked. I also went over time. Nonetheless I think I went OK and was much stronger once I was behind the table and discussing ideas in question time. And, if nothing else, my slide show was amusing.

After me came the Dusk TV ladies and they offered a really interesting look at the statistics they’ve gathered over three years about exactly what kind of porn women want to watch. They’ve accumulated this data via panel sessions and also online at Dusk Panel. The participants are self-selecting and largely straight women so the results aren’t comprehensive but they certainly give a good idea of what “porn for women” could be. There’s a demand for realistic looking sex, no overdubbed sounds and real pleasure, among other things. Liesbet also explained their use of the term “porna” to describe the content they offer. In many European non-English languages, words ending in “-o” are masculine while “-a” is feminine. Thus, Dusk doesn’t want to offer “porn-o” but “porn-a”. I really like this idea, even if it disobeys the tenet that we shouldn’t classify our content according to the audience.

Third was Sophie Delancey who is the PR and marketing person behind sites like The Art Of Blowjob and Pornographic Love (which won an award for Best Website). She talked about how parts of the mainstream industry have set out to appeal to women primarily through the creation of more aesthetically pleasing porn. Glamour porn is one of the growth areas right now and it appears to stem from a relatively shallow understanding of “what women want”; often the same porn tropes are used but the lighting is nicer*.

I really liked Sophie’s talk as its something I’ve been seeing for the past couple of years – major porn companies deciding that they want to make “female friendly” titles and primarily producing high-end scenes with good looking people to achieve that. Not that there’s anything wrong with glamour porn per se, just that we’re seeing the definition of “porn for women” shift once again – and once again it doesn’t really do the job because – of course – women want different things. And so do men.

We then answered questions. Nica Noelle reiterated her opinion that men were being left out of feminist porn. I asked if her maybe she was making assumptions about what the term meant and she pointed to the FPA guidelines that require a woman be involved in the production. Sophie pointed out that feminist porn doesn’t have to focus on the woman and gave The Art Of Blowjob as an example.

I also talked about the idea that the desire to make money from porn doesn’t necessarily have to clash with one’s feminist principles. It can be tricky finding a balance but the desire for profit doesn’t automatically debase the ideals. There’s a huge blog post that I need to write about that.

I could have raved on for hours, to be honest, but it was soon time to move on to the next session. I do want to say thank you to everyone who attended the session and it was an honour to be asked to speak (even if said speaking was horribly nerve-wracked).

Madison Young during question time. Speaking is Gala Vanting. The nipples are mosaiced because I put this pic on Facebook

For the final session I decided to attend Madison Young’s The Politics of Kinky Porn and Feminism but I ended up missing half of it due to the amazing discussions I became caught up in in the foyer. Mireille asked me to sign the copy of Connections that she’d just bought and I expressed amazement at having sold my first ever DVD. So we got chatting and then Sinnamon Love came along and talked about her recent visit to Australia (“there’s no black people!” she said) and I could have just hung out and talked for the rest of the afternoon, to be honest. Then Liesbet asked me to do a quick interview for Dusk and everyone headed off to their sessions so we tiptoed into Madison’s presentation.

We came in as she was discussing filming pre-scene interviews where the performers express their hopes for the scene and really talk about what they want to do. I really like that idea and I may have to steal it. Madison also gave us a glimpse behind the scenes of her Real Sex episode on HBO. She and Kimberley Kane were glammed up and told to act nice but they just fucked each other as usual and left the HBO camera crew to try and get whatever softcore shots they could… and good luck because I don’t know how they did it. It was an amusing scene.

Madison was keen to keep talking but it was time for drinkies at the closing reception. If you’ve seen Spinal Tap you’ll remember the bit where the band gets lost backstage and they all wander the corridors, shouting “rock and roll!” while going in circles. That was most of us trying to find the reception in the Chapter House at the university, if you can imaging academics and porn producers shouting “Porn! Wine!” But we got there eventually.

April Flores and Courtney Trouble at the closing reception

The circular room was impressive, a huge dome above us, stately portraits on the walls and the giant oval (vulval) table in the middle. We snaffled up nibblies and wine and got down to the important business of talking – and signing each others’ books. That was my second “first” of the day – signing an autograph. Felt weird but I was very flattered. I got chatting to Constance Penley who had edited my chapter and also had a really good talk with Seska Lee, one of my contemporaries from the early days of online porn. I also talked to Jiz Lee, Toby Hill-Meyer and Rachel Rabbit White. Around us, conversations blossomed and everyone had a wonderful time.

And then they kicked us out. Too soon! Too soon! I’d only just settled in and suddenly it was over (before I’d got a chance to really talk to – and interview – the huge list of people I wanted to meet). I did a quick interview with Sinnamon Love before a group of us headed back to the hotel. In the lobby Prof Kevin Heffernan did his best to organise us into having drinks or dinner. It took a LONG time to get people on board (herding cats!) but eventually we went into the Italian restaurant next door, where Carol Queen, Constance and Lynn Comelia had already retired for drinks. Thus Luke and I shared a wonderful evening with Kelly Shibari, Lisa Vandever from Cinekink, Princess Kali from Kink Academy and Kevin.

Kelly and I had a great discussion about the business aspects of online porn and we both agreed we’d love it if the conference expanded to include business and filmmaking at some point.

In the end they kicked us out of the restaurant, though we didn’t want to leave. 1.30am saw Kevin and Constance kick on at another bar while I gave in and went to bed, my head whirling with ideas and conversations.

The conference was too short and I’m sad that I missed so many good sessions (Shar’s, Shine Louise Houston’s and the feminist identity one especially) but I had a ball. Living in a small town means I’m isolated from this kind of thing but when I get a chance to talk with peers I suck it up like a sponge. I don’t know if the money situation will allow it but I know I want to be back next year if I can.

 

* I had a glamour porn company ask me to be an affiliate so I could promote their porn on my female-friendly sites. I pointed out that most of their scenes cut the guy’s head out of the frame. They said they’d look into changing that.

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4 Replies to “The Feminist Porn Conference”

  1. Great overview! It was jammed packed with such interesting topics. I’m so glad to have met you in person!!! Please do put up your slides. I think looking back helps us to understand what is going on now and to look to future. Pornographers, marketers and webmasters as well as consumers who are 20-30 now will not necessarily understand how much has changed and how minimal our visual options were – especially for straight women.

    1. It’s funny, in a way my talk is a little bit Grandma Scrotum: “In MY day, we didn’t have tube sites! We had to knit our own porn using dried seaweed and snot!” *shakes walking stick*

      And dare I say, I may be suffering a little from nostalgia. When you had to construct a fantasy using photos, not video, the scope for imagination was broader. I kind of miss that. And at the same time I’m excited about the possibilities that making erotic films is offering me.

      It really was good to chat Seska. We definitely didn’t get enough time.

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