Feminist Porn: What It Is, What It Isn’t and Why It Matters – Intro

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The following is the text of the introduction I gave at the Feminist Porn: What It Is, What It Isn’t and Why It Matters panel, which was one of the opening sessions of the 2014 Feminist Porn Conference in Toronto. The panel also featured Courtney Trouble and Tanesha HD and was chaired by academic Lynn Comella. We were each given five minutes for a formal statement and then the panel became more of a free-form discussion. I want to post my intro in full and then I’ll give a rundown of what happened afterwards.

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The question is often asked in the media “What IS feminist porn. What does it look like?” And the answer is kind of like “how long is a piece of string?” It’s really hard to give a nice soundbite-style answer to that. I could try: Feminist porn doesn’t feature any pizza delivery men. Although that’s not actually true – The appearance of pizza delivery men has happened but usually in an ironic way.

So you could perhaps say that feminist porn is firstly a critique of mainstream porn. It’s whatever mainstream porn ISN’T. It’s an attempt to step away from the very narrow ideas of sex and sexuality that it portrays. It’s saying: OK, we’ve had enough of the white straight male gaze and white straight male fantasies. That extremely narrow view has come to define “porn”. What else can we show?

I think you can tease out the idea of feminist porn by asking who is making it, how is it made and what is it depicting. So:

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1. The filmmaker or creator and/or the performers identify as feminist
2. The film is made consensually, collaboratively and ethically – and those ethics are made explicit to the audience.
3. What is represented shows sex in a positive way, it shows a diversity of sexualities, bodies and perspectives, it makes an attempt to step away from the tropes of “regular” pornography

Beyond those three things we could talk about feminist porn as a movement rather than a genre. And there’s also the way an audience or an individual viewer can define feminist porn but I’ll leave that up to my fellow panelists to discuss.

I also think that part of what we want to talk about on this panel is whether one needs to hit all of those marks to get the “tick of approval” for feminist porn. Perhaps all the filmmaker or performer needs to do is identify as feminist and that should be enough. Perhaps, if you’re feminist, the ethics and the content flow naturally from there.

The other question we often see posed is: “What is feminism doing getting into bed with porn?” Feminism has become so associated with an opposition to porn that some have a hard time coping with the concept of feminist porn. But the truth is there is a long history of sex-positive feminism – including the work of people like Susie Bright, Annie Sprinkle, Betty Dodson and Carol Queen – and what we’re doing at this conference is just the latest extension of that. The Dworkins and the Dines have managed to get more of the attention because an anti-sex anti-porn message is considered to be more worthy and moral… but we don’t agree with that. Freeing sex and sexuality from the partriarchy doesn’t necessarily mean that you cannot depict it in media. Indeed, porn can be a means of liberation and positive re-enforcement, just as it can also be degrading or negative.

And yes, part of feminist porn is the acknowledgement that there’s a lot of sexist, racist, badly made porn out there. We know that there are problems with it. But the difference is that sex positive feminists don’t want to ban porn, they just want to make it better.

The influence of the anti-sex feminists has also meant that feminist porn gets a bit of a bad rap. Assumptions get made: feminist porn is all about hairy-legged, man-hating lesbians, it’s hippies having sex on left-wing newspapers after enjoying a vegetarian meal. This kind of negativity is what leads young women to disavow feminism, to loudly declare that they’re not feminists, even though yeah, of course they believe in equality. Feminist porn faces a bit of an uphill battle overcoming that assumption. And perhaps the lack of easy soundbites doesn’t help.

The reality is that feminist porn is incredibly diverse, it includes the work of bacon-loving straight women (and I’m talking about myself here), queer-identified people, straight men, trans* and genderqueer people, gay men, disabled and able-bodied people. It features all kinds of sex acts, all kinds of kink, all kinds of ideas about what is sexy and what is worth masturbating over. It’s about knowing that people have sex in a million different ways and attempting to find a million different ways to show that. It’s Rule 34 (if it exists, there’s porn of it) with nice serve of feminist politics on the side.

I do want to quickly address the question: is feminist porn the same as “porn for women”? The answer is no, but they’re closely related.

When I started out in 2000, the term “feminist porn” didn’t really exist but “porn for women” did.  I’ve always identified as a feminist and when I started making porn, I wanted to create stuff that catered to women, mainly because most porn ignored us as viewers. The language didn’t speak to women, the imagery was created for a male gaze, the vision of sexuality seemed to revolve around straight male fantasies. And 14 years ago, people just didn’t believe that any woman would even watch porn. The myth that “women aren’t visually stimulated” was accepted without question. So I wanted to do something different, I made porn for women and I saw that as a feminist endeavour.

Since then people have criticized the term “porn for women” as being flawed. It suggests that there is a kind of porn that all women want and it’s come to be associated with a rather narrow kind of content: straight, soft focus, romantic, vanilla. Understandably there were a lot of women and women-identified people who felt left out of that phrase.

Hence, we have feminist porn, which aims to be more inclusive. I think you could consider “porn for women” to be a progenitor to today’s feminist porn. It paved the way because pioneers like Candida Royalle and Nan Kinney set out to make something different. And that desire to do something different is really at the heart of feminist porn.

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So… this panel was really interesting to me and I was honoured to be a part of it but unfortunately I had a very serious flu that meant I wasn’t as on the ball as I should have been. I’ll admit some bits of it are a vague in my memory. But here’s what I do remember:

Tanesha HD made an excellent point when she said that the viewer can be the one who decides if the porn they’re watching fits their feminist ideals. It’s important to remember that what the audience makes of media can be different to the aims and purpose of those who made that media. Tanesha also talked about inclusivity and finding ways to ensure that porn is more diverse. Tanesha’s perspective as both a sex educator and an avid porn viewer and critic made the panel really interesting.

Courtney Trouble approached the panel mainly from the perspective of a performer although she also brought hints of her keynote speech into the discussion. For Courtney, feminist porn is primarily a movement, one where feminism should inform the actions of producers and audience alike. She also talked about finding a way to create porn that makes money but also distributes that money fairly throughout the industry, particularly with regards to performers.

There was some discussion of labels and the pros and cons of using them. Certainly the mainstream porn industry perpetuates racism and stereotypes through their use of terms like BBW, interracial and “shemale” and Courtney argued that avoiding them is important. I then talked about the way the need for traffic and Google ranking means that keywords can dictate what we produce and how we describe our porn to a potential audience.  I also talked about issues of balancing the need to make money on Bright Desire with the desire to create whatever I wanted.

We had a few questions from the audience and one that stood out for me was what to do when mainstream porn decides to co-opt feminist porn for its own gain. This was a vexed question for me because I felt that – in theory – we actually want mainstream porn to pay attention to feminist porn and take up our focus on ethics and non-oppressive representation. We don’t want feminist porn to be some exclusive club that doesn’t allow white cismale mainstream porn people. At the same time, we don’t want “feminist porn” to just become an empty marketing term used for short-term profit.

So… I’m sure there were other things discussed but illness has made me unable to remember or articulate it clearly. I actually videoed a fair bit of it and I’ll upload that soon (it seems to feature a lot of me coughing and sneezing, I look dreadful and vanity demands this never see the light of day!) [EDIT. Turns out I wasn’t supposed to be filming so I can’t upload the vid. There will be an audio version of this panel and transcript released soon]. In the meantime, I hope this gives a brief look at what happened at this panel.

Read my full wrap-up of the awards and conference here.

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2 Replies to “Feminist Porn: What It Is, What It Isn’t and Why It Matters – Intro”

  1. I’m going to link to this whenever anyone asks me “exactly what IS feminist porn?” Great job – and I’m sorry I wasn’t there to see this!

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