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Kelly writes: "In the last few decades, the number of feminist pornographers has multiplied; their creations are now widely available online and at adult toy stores that attract female customers..."

The 5th annual Feminist Porn Awards in Toronto. (photo: Gustavo Thomas/Flickr)
The 5th annual Feminist Porn Awards in Toronto. (photo: Gustavo Thomas/Flickr)



Can Porn Be Feminist?

By Maura Kelly, The Daily Beast

22 April 12

 

Filmmakers gathered in Toronto this week for the annual Feminist Porn Awards. Maura Kelly reports on the films, the followers - and the critics.

o kick off the annual Feminist Porn Awards on Wednesday night, adult filmmaker Buck Angel screened his documentary Sexing the Transman XXX to a cheering crowd at a University of Toronto lecture hall. In the movie, Angel talks to female-to-male transsexuals, like himself, about their sex-change experiences. Then he films them masturbating, with and without dildos.

Welcome to feminist pornography, a genre of sex films designed to appeal to people who feel put off by mainstream porn. In the world of feminist porn, women come in all shapes, sizes, and sexual orientations. The actresses don't necessarily conform to the typical big-boobed, tiny-waisted ideal; some sport armpit hair. They look more like the average woman walking down the street or standing in line at Whole Foods than "porn stars."

Angel's documentary is one of 41 films from eight countries being celebrated at the annual awards event, which features several days of screenings and presentations, including an awards ceremony, held last night. Award categories include "Hottest Lesbian Feature Film," "Sexiest Straight Movie," and "Smutty Schoolteacher Award for Sex Education."

Some feminist porn movies look like art-house movies - and meander, plotwise, like them too. Take Emile, for instance, one of this year's contenders. Made by Canadian director N. Maxwell Lander, the movie features a zaftig woman in a silky robe getting herself off, and doing a lot of sexy cigarette smoking, too. There's more of a narrative in Erika Lust's Cabaret Desire, another nominated film, about a bohemian gathering spot where people go to hear erotic tales. Lust's plot-heavy films typically appeal to straight women and couples.

In contrast, director Nenna Joiner's oeuvre - including her latest work, Hella Brown - attracts and features gay women of color. Sex-ed students, meanwhile, might appreciate Gush: The Official Guide to the G-Spot and Female Ejaculation, also a nominee, a film produced by Good Vibrations, a San Francisco-based company that sells adult toys and educational materials.

The Feminist Porn Awards, now in their seventh year, are the brainchild of Carlyle Jansen, owner of Toronto adult toy store Good for Her. Filmmakers submit their movies for consideration; winners are chosen by a jury. This year's jurists include Eden Baylee, a writer of literary erotica; Lorraine Hewitt, a burlesque performer known as CoCo La Creme; and Sheila Cavanagh, a gender and sexuality-studies professor at York University in Toronto, and the author of Queering Bathrooms: Gender, Sexuality and the Hygienic Imagination.

Jansen says the awards are a way to "acknowledge, celebrate, and endorse films and filmmakers that are redefining what porn can be." For a film to qualify, a woman must have played a significant role in the making of the movie - in the production, writing, or directing. The film must also challenge stereotypes found in mainstream porn about what's beautiful or sexy, and depict women or transsexuals experiencing genuine sexual pleasure.

Feminist porn has been around since the 1980s, when pioneers such as Annie Sprinkle and Nina Hartley began making it. Sprinkle, for her part, had been a stripper before becoming a pornographer. As she puts it, "I was tired of simply exploring other people's fantasies, or performing other people's fantasies, and wanted to explore my own."

In the last few decades, the number of feminist pornographers has multiplied; their creations are now widely available online and at adult toy stores that attract female customers - Good Vibrations in San Francisco, Toys in Babeland in New York City, Good for Her in Toronto. "Feminist porn is still a small but growing segment of a huge porn industry," says Jansen. She says the mainstream porn industry has been hurt by the Internet, because there's so much free porn, but that the Internet has actually helped feminist porn. Why? For the small companies that make feminist porn, it's easier to reach viewers through their computers than to produce and distribute large quantities of their films, she says.

If feminist porn sounds relatively wholesome to you - if you're picturing sex that might be graphic but is also gentle and romantic, the kind of lovemaking that might have occurred on that beach in From Here to Eternity if the camera never cut away from Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster to the waves - you might be getting the wrong idea. Some porn that's considered feminist depicts women who are hog-tied while having sex that looks painful, or women who are suspended from the ceiling while men penetrate them. That's feminist?

Yes, proponents say. What makes these films "feminist" isn't just that they feature performers who are more diverse in shape, size, sexual orientation, age, and race than in mainstream pornographic movies, but that the performers engage in sexual behaviors they enjoy. The directors and producers often "ask the actors what they like to do," says Jansen. In mainstream porn, the performers don't have any say in the matter.

"Some women are turned on by being submissive," Jansen explains. "We need to respect that their choice for themselves is not degrading or sexist." She adds, "There is so much shame and negativity around sex already. People need to feel positive about their desires."

Critics contend that porn simply cannot be feminist, no matter who's making it or how enlightened the directors think they are. To begin with, there's the question of objectification. "Anyone willing to feed off women's bodies and use them as raw materials to make a profit has no right to call themselves feminists," says Gail Dines, an anti-porn activist and the author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality. "Even porn without overt violence is a form of exploitation since it reduces women to a series of body parts."

And feminist pornography doesn't preclude overt violence. In fact, Dines argues, feminist porn is getting horrifically brutal, just like the mainstream stuff - so much of which, she says, features women being forced to perform oral sex until they gag, or to endure men going straight from penetrating them anally to orally, with no break in between. Feminist porn is "increasingly copying the big boys," Dines argues. She points to a site called Sex and Submission, which features previews of films that she says are considered feminist porn but that show women performing as sex slaves, strapped to boards or chained up, while men - sometimes more than one at once - have aggressive sex with them.

How is this feminist?

Because some women are into rape fantasies, feminist porn enthusiasts would argue. "Some feminist porn has violence and sadomasochism in it, no question," Jansen says. "Some women like sadomasochism and enjoy that fantasy - the popularity of the 50 Shades of Grey books are the latest evidence of this. Some like to play the dominant role, some like the submissive role, regardless of sexual orientation." Nonetheless, she notes, violence is not the norm; the sadomasochism enthusiasts make up a very small portion of the feminist-porn audience, she says, and there's plenty of softer feminist porn.

Jansen reiterates that "the important thing to note is that the actors in feminist porn are asked what turns them on. If they like being submissive, then they can choose that role and play out their fantasy - and get paid for it."

Annie Sprinkle, the author of Hardcore From the Heart: The Pleasures, Profits, and Politics of Sex in Performance, makes a similar argument. "Sex doesn't always look politically correct," she says.

Gail Dines might add that it doesn't always look feminist, either.

 

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+14 # Robert B 2012-04-22 08:03
To say that pornography and feminism cannot go together is to assume that women are prudes, like Santorum. Women are real people all the way through, and they enjoy their erotic entertainment, too. There was an article in Ms. Magazine 40 years ago about "What Makes Women Come?" Even feminists sometimes have rape fantasies. Real life is not always politically correct. Nancy Friday, Erica Jong, Anais Nin and many other women have very potent erotic thoughts and desires. The thing is: If women are truly liberated and free to pursue their own happiness, they should not have to conform to somebody else's ideals of what they ought to do and think. Isn't that what feminism is?
 
 
+5 # Montague 2012-04-22 08:09
As a man, I'm always amused when I see the lingerie posters on London subway escalators that have been defaced by 'feminists' with the words "get your eyes off my body" - did the defacer pose for the ad? No. The body belongs to the gal in it. When I worked at Penthouse in the UK, my 2 bosses in the editorial dept were a porn model and a classics grad, both women. I recall when younger attending a ball for architectural students when a young stripper was reduced to tears by a young man screaming in her face "Sexist shit!" By what right? He was probably hoping to get laid by a right-on sister. Women have all kinds of views on porn, not always politically correct ones either. It's time we got used to it.
 
 
+12 # jgerard 2012-04-22 08:56
I hesitate, as a male, to join this discussion but it seems to me that a woman who enjoys being humiliated or brutalized sexually may not really be exercising free choice; she may rather be manifesting the assimilation of cultural or familial values. Fantasy is one thing; one has control over that and can end the fantasy before being "hurt." But actually acting out a role in which one experiences pain or harm or real loss of control doesn't feel "liberating" to me. Again, I do not intend to presume that my instinct is valid. Men cannot speak for women.
 
 
+7 # Glen 2012-04-22 11:21
As a man, jgerard, you quite possibly have a lot to say, and I agree with what you actually did post. Pornography of the type described in this article rather much represents a neurosis or pent up sexuality that might be quite healthy had the individuals had the opportunity to express their desires when mature enough to do so, without brutal takes on their bodies and minds.

Sex without accoutrements and the need to be subject to that rough stuff, whether male or female can be pretty damn great. Wish more individuals had the opportunity to grow into their sexuality without religious guilt about it, or the influence of predatory males or females who enjoy making money with the vulnerable who often mistake their aggressive desires for anything other than being vulnerable.
 
 
+1 # shraeve 2012-04-23 23:15
I see. If a woman does something of which you disapprove, then she cannot be exercising free choice. The implication is that you are then justified in "rescuing" her from this terrible activity that she could not possibly have chosen for herself.

That is the rationalization of every witch-burner, imperialist, slave-owner, and crusader in history. It is a patronizing excuse to control women's bodies.
 
 
-1 # Glen 2012-04-24 14:18
I don't know who you are replying to, shraeve, but if you will go back and read carefully, you will see that your response is not appropriate for either my or jgerard's comments. There is nothing there about disapproval or an effort to rescue a woman. Re-read, if you will, our comments. Hopefully, you will then see that there is nothing close to what you depict as a desire to "rescue" a woman of free will.

The question is: what is free will?
 
 
0 # shraeve 2012-04-24 21:30
Basically I was replying to jgerard, but you agreed with him. He said, "a woman who enjoys being humiliated or brutalized sexually may not really be exercising free choice". How was my post not germane to his comment?

No jgerard did not use the term, "rescue", and if I implied jgerard advocated it, I apologize. But many others, if they believe that a womon is not exercising free choice, will advocate for government action purportedly intended to "rescue" her. Actually it will be to promote their sex Nazi agenda - they do not give a damn about rescuing or helping anyone who is not in their social circle.
 
 
-1 # Glen 2012-04-25 12:51
Did you read any of my other posts? Have you watched much pornography? Did you read the article?

Much of pornography is nothing more than a way to make money. Have you engaged in a pornographic film? If so, you did it for money. Nothing more. Most folks don't even know the meaning of pornography.

Sure, women have the right to choose their sexual preferences, but that has nothing to do with the industry of sexual pornography. Have you ever researched Berlin prior to the Nazis putting the hammer down on Germany? The scene was sadistic, masochistic, brutal, and pornographic. Pornography can lead to some pretty horrible stuff.
 
 
0 # shraeve 2012-04-25 20:07
I just went back and read everything you posted. Here are some of your statements. I don't think I took anything out of context.

"Get to the heart of much pornography and you'll find distortion."

"Pornography of the type described in this article rather much represents a neurosis or pent up sexuality that might be quite healthy had the individuals had the opportunity to express their desires when mature enough to do so, without brutal takes on their bodies and minds."

"Have you ever researched Berlin prior to the Nazis putting the hammer down on Germany? The scene was sadistic, masochistic, brutal, and pornographic. Pornography can lead to some pretty horrible stuff."

You seem to be disapproving of pornography, but you do not say or imply that censorship would be good.

What is wrong with doing things for money? Most human activity is done for money. So what?

I can't understand your comment on porn in pre-Hitler Germany. Most of the Weimar stuff I have seen was quite tame compared to what we have available now. What about the Nazis "putting the hammer down"? Are you saying that porn will lead to totalitarianism ? Or that the Nazis were good guys in this matter?
 
 
-2 # Glen 2012-04-26 14:17
"If feminist porn sounds relatively wholesome to you - if you're picturing sex that might be graphic but is also gentle and romantic, the kind of lovemaking that might have occurred on that beach in From Here to Eternity if the camera never cut away from Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster to the waves - you might be getting the wrong idea. Some porn that's considered feminist depicts women who are hog-tied while having sex that looks painful, or women who are suspended from the ceiling while men penetrate them. That's feminist?"

You might want to peruse Voluptuous Panic, The World of Weimar Berlin, if you are at all interested in the extremes of pornography. And no, it does not mean it leads to totalitarianism . You can bet Hitler would have enjoyed some nastiness.

Nope, I am not against censorship, but am advocating for healthy sex. Is your sexuality for sale? That's what it means to do things for money. What is NOT up for sale? How about health and dignity? Do you advocate for women being penetrated anal and vaginal with brutality? Go for it. But you might also enjoy great, healthy sex with a man who enjoys women.
 
 
+1 # shraeve 2012-04-27 21:11
We do not have to choose between either romantic erotica or violence porn. There can be porn depicting unemotional, frank, straight-to-the -point sex-for-the-sak e-of-sex, between adults who are obviously consenting. What about porn showing someone masturbating? Where is the romance there?

Many women enjoy SM, either as submissives or dominants. I met a woman who said she enjoys being spanked really hard by her husband. I met a hetero woman who said she really enjoys watching lesbian SM porn. Implying that everyone who likes violence porn or degradation porn is either a victim or a victimizer is like saying everyone who has ever watched an action film is a killer. It is fantasy.

You said you are not against censorship. Well, I am. It is an intrusion into my life.

"Healthy sex" is a cultural construct, not a biological reality. At one time not so long ago homosexuality was considered unhealthy. At one time masturbation was considered unhealthy. We have a culture that medicalizes deviance, in order to make social control seem like a matter of scientific fact instead of what it is, namely social custom and prejudice.
 
 
+7 # seeuingoa 2012-04-22 10:23
"Men cannot speak for women"

But they most often do !
 
 
+7 # Regina 2012-04-22 10:37
Porn is one-sided -- no matter which way it's slanted, it demeans women. When are women going to wake up to the grim fact that they're being used when they stoop to play the same games that the good ol' boys indulge in?
 
 
+12 # Glen 2012-04-22 11:30
Men refuse to admit it, but porn demeans men, also. Most of the folks I've known who were really into porn had a hard time being comfortable with nudity in the real world or with their own healthy desires, for many many different reasons. Porn for them was an escape, a cave to hide in, rather than having a healthy relationship of their own. Or they were really young guys having no idea what the hell they were doing.
 
 
0 # Montague 2012-04-22 11:15
Regina, you don't say why porn always demeans women. There's a scene in the 70s porno Baby Face, where a girl goes to a male whorehouse and demands more and more partners until she's having sex with a large number of guys at the same time. Unlike many trite erotic films, this differs because the girl is quite obviously not faking her enjoyment and is literally having the "ball" of her life. I can't see why a female enjoying sex on camera is wrong by definition. I know many people think sex is private, or that porn automatically degrades those involved, but can't see why it bothers people what others do with their bodies.
 
 
+3 # Glen 2012-04-23 04:56
The key word here Montague, is MOVIE. It is a movie, not necessarily a real and enjoyable experience. It isn't what people are doing with their bodies, it is the money making scene, using those bodies that can be disturbing.

It has nothing to do with being "prudish", but that is what most girls and women were labeled as, when protesting exploitation and the fact that a lot of their men preferred the porno to the girl or woman, or needed the porno to get them "in the mood" for the girl or woman. That's pretty insulting, don't you think?
 
 
+5 # grindermonkey 2012-04-22 12:53
For men women represent the future and by the future I don't mean fantastic and prolonged sexual acrobatics. Women have a far more important role to play than pandering to brief fantasy encounters. Of course women despise me because I take them seriously so pay me no mind.
 
 
0 # corals33 2012-04-22 15:27
what are we going to do with all those empty cigarette shelves...now let me see!
 
 
0 # corals33 2012-04-22 15:28
down your load folks, down your loads.
 
 
0 # corals33 2012-04-22 15:30
do you think the animals like it? now there's a brilliant marketing opportunity
 
 
0 # Rick Levy 2012-04-22 17:11
So the chickens have come home to roost for the anti-porn feminists. What a howl!
 
 
+1 # Montague 2012-04-22 19:56
Strange how progressives, so freedom-loving on virtually all other issues, when it comes to pornography line-up with the Santorums and Tea-Party types of the world.
 
 
0 # Shanti 2012-04-23 07:35
Interesting piece and interesting comments.
 
 
0 # Montague 2012-04-23 10:52
Glen, the reason that movie stands out from a lot of porn is precisely because the bunch of male and female participants, while obviously in a scenario for the cameras,clearly ARE enjoying themselves. A lot of porn has girls with fake breasts pouting and narrowing eyes as if to suggest, lamely, sexual fervor, but in that scene the people are laughing and so obviously getting off that it leaps off the screen. This is the opinion of critics of erotic movies and the scene has become somewhat legendary as a benchmark of sexual joy onscreen. Porn can be helpful for people who, for various reasons, have no chance of real sex, but I'd agree it's sad if people get addicted and prefer images to their real partners - but people get addicted to all kinds of things. I've had girlfriends who enjoyed pornography, and they were also the most sexually uninhibited partners I've had too. Free your mind and your ass will follow, as they used to say. To be honest, I don't expect many of you reading will agree with me. That's okay. To each his or her own.
 
 
0 # Glen 2012-04-23 14:19
The topic is complicated. On the one hand, there is the phoney scenario set up for folks, and then there is fun. Certainly, there are folks who enjoy a gang bang. No big deal if that is an open and honest desire on the part of mature adults. If it is an exploitation, then there is nothing to say but bullshit.

My point is that much of pornography is a construct. It is a means of making money and nothing more. The flip side, as you say, is that there are those who, due to disabilities, have no alternative. In my experience, those who indulge in pornography are rather much repressed. BUT that is not to say there are mature adults who can indulge in porno and enjoy it freely. That is the exception.

Sexuality is not as healthy as it might be, however. Consider the church and all things related that have hindered normal, and really great sex. Get to the heart of much pornography and you'll find distortion. The real deal is much greater than the image.
 

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