How to Make a Feminist Porno

Reina Gattuso

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By Diane Yang

“I want to shift the cultural dialogue around sex and sexuality,” Tristan Taormino says.

A self-identified feminist pornographer, Taormino works to communicate her feminist vision in a particularly contentious sphere of representation: pornography.

In a culture saturated with objectifying depictions of women—depictions that all too often normalize and perpetuate gender-based violence—activists are taking back the cameras. Their work, increasingly defined as ‘feminist pornography,’ seeks to challenge dominant conceptions of sexuality and power, reclaiming porn as a medium for feminist expression.

Taormino began making porn in 1999, when she co-directed a film adaptation of her book, The Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Women. A writer, college lecturer, and sex educator, Taormino didn’t initially believe that producing pornography would be a major focus of her career, but, realizing the profound potential of her work, she soon began directing in earnest.

“I want to challenge what we consider to be sex, what we consider to be quote-unquote ‘normal’ sex,” Taormino says.

Since feminist directors and performers like Candida Royalle, Nina Hartley, and Annie Sprinkle arrived on the scene, feminist pornography has been making waves in the world of adult entertainment; as of 2006, the genre even has an annual awards show.

“We don’t use the word feminist to mean a certain kind of sex, essentially, or a movie that just has a lot of story, or a movie that doesn’t include kink,” says Lorraine Hewitt, Artistic Director of the Feminist Porn Awards. “We want to really acknowledge that women are varied, that their desires are varied, that there is also intersectionality.”

Taormino agrees. “I don’t think there’s any such thing as feminist sex,” she says. When discussing her work, Taormino resists the notion that certain sex acts are inherently empowering or degrading. Instead, feminist porn, she summarizes, is “ethically-produced porn that challenges conventional and stereotypical depictions of gender, sexuality, race, class, ability and other identity markers, and speaks to the power of both the workers who make it and the viewers who watch it.”

For Taormino and other feminists involved in making and studying pornography, sexually explicit media provide an opportunity to critically engage with the relationship between identity and agency. By subverting and diversifying the often-stereotypical portrayals of sexuality found in much mainstream media, feminist pornographers invite traditionally marginalized audiences to connect with sex as a medium of pleasure and power. These explicit portrayals, grounded in a cognizance of pornography as both an industry and a cultural form, empower viewers to take charge while getting off.

1. Don’t

Q. What would you say to anti-porn feminists?

A. I would say that they should watch some.

Lorraine Hewitt

“I survived the sex wars,” Annie Sprinkle says.

A legendary adult performer and prostitute, a self-described ecosexual, a performance artist, and the first porn star to get a Ph.D., Sprinkle spent much of the eighties on the front lines of the contentious feminist pornography debates.

Starting in the late 70s and continuing through the 80s, the Sex Wars of the second wave polarized feminists along “anti-porn” and “sex-positive” lines. Iconic feminists like Andrea Dworkin argued that pornography and sexual practices such as BDSM were predicated upon the domination of the male viewer or participant, and thus inherently hostile to women. Sex-positive feminists, on the other hand, believed that stigmatizing kink and suppressing pornography would only encourage repression of female sexuality and sexual expression.

A writer, activist, and professor of journalism at The University of Texas at Austin, Robert Jensen, author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, is often cited as a notable contemporary anti-porn feminist. When telling the history of the anti-porn crusade, Jensen stresses the movement’s roots.

“It’s important to recognize that the feminist critique of pornography came out of an anti-violence movement, and that critique of pornography was just one aspect of a critique of culture that was providing a cultural support system for that violence,” he says.

Jensen argues that this cultural support system hinges on the conflation of masculinity with domination and sexuality with violence. Pornography, Jensen argues, which largely caters to a male audience, reinforces and perpetuates this ideology by portraying women as sexual objects of male pleasure and control.

For anti-porn activists like Jensen, the association of sex work with violence extends to the treatment of performers offstage, leading to what he terms a “sexual exploitation industry.”

“That doesn’t mean that every single woman performing in every single pornographic film is being exploited,” Jensen says. “Obviously, there are lots of differences depending on the level at which each woman is working…But we’re talking about thousands of women. And I think [that in] the data on their experiences, while not uniform, there are clear patterns.”

Jensen further argues that many female performers are especially vulnerable to exploitative labor practices because of their lack of other options.

“When young women enter Harvard, and they are thinking about the professional future, how many give serious consideration to porn, prostitution or stripping as a life’s work?” he asks, drawing attention to the constraints that motivate some women to pursue careers in porn.

Sprinkle takes umbrage with the implication that she had little agency in deciding to work in porn. “I had lots of options—I could have gone and done all kinds of things—but I chose that work,” she says.

While many feminists involved in pornography acknowledge that social stigma and oppression can lead to unsafe working conditions, they argue that the answer to this problem is not to prohibit sex work but to legalize and regulate it.

“The idea that there can’t be agency also means that there can’t be rights, that there can’t be safe work environments, that people can’t have a say in what they do,” Taormino says. “To me supporting folks who are working in sex and trying to change it from within is an amazing, amazing feminist act.”

When it comes to pornography, however, Jensen doesn’t buy the argument that one should attempt to make change from within.

“Why do we assume we always need more media? Why do we as a culture feel compelled to have ever-more sexually-explicit images, independent of the ideological nature, whether they’re patriarchal or feminist?” he asks.

He continues, “When the so-called solution to a problem starts to look a lot like the dominant culture’s material, then I get nervous about what the effects of it will be.”

2. Represent

When Hollywood rewrites and recasts our experiences, and schools ignore our histories and sexual education, queer porn is one of the few mediums that can explicitly tell our stories.

Jiz Lee, Feminist, Porn Performer (exerpted from The Feminist Porn Book)

Feminist pornographers argue that the sexually explicit media they produce allow them to represent themselves and their bodies in an industry––and a culture––saturated with alienating imagery.

“In general, I think it’s important for communities to self-represent, or other people who are essentially outsiders tell your stories,” says Shine Louise Houston, a pornographer. “So in that sense, it’s taking back the power of the visual narratives.”

A queer black feminist, Houston is often lauded as a director and producer whose work, such as her award-winning “Crash Pad” series, has transformative potential for an adult industry dominated by the desires of straight,white males.

A self-identified black feminist performer and director, Sinnamon Love also uses her work to combat the racialized sexual stereotypes often found in pornography. These stereotypes range, she says, from “ghettoized” depictions of black people to “assimilative images of black women,” describing a market that favors light-skinned women with thinner bodies and “European features.”

“Producers and directors are playing with these stereotypes in order to appeal to their buying population,” Love says, noting that producers often target their products toward white men, who are more likely than black men to purchase, rather than rent, porn. “It’s something that I personally, at this age, this stage of my life, don’t want to be part of.”

Like Love, who works to produce a more accurate image of black women in her pornography, Dylan Ryan, a queer-identified performer, has found value in producing sexual media that feel inclusive of her community.

“I was looking to create a genuine sense of my own…sense of sexuality, agency, sexual confidence and physical embodiment,” she says. “I had seen a lot of work that didn’t feel very true to me and my experiences, so I was really inspired to go out and represent my experience.”

And when performers feel they are accurately represented, audiences respond.

“We’ve kind of become a role model for younger people who are questioning their orientation or their gender identity,” says feminist performer Jiz Lee, who identifies as genderqueer. “We’re there because there aren’t other voices in the larger media.”

However, activists on both sides of the debate stress that porn made by female filmmakers is not automatically feminist.

“Some women have made really misogynist porn,” Sprinkle says. “Feminist porn can be made by anyone—it doesn’t have to be a woman.”

3. Question power, Empower Labor

 Feminist porn is a genre that is a social movement, and it’s seeking to take a kind of film and attach it to politics in this really great and complicated way.

Dylan Ryan

A common theme in many feminist porn movies is an overt acknowledgement and negotiation of consent, as performers and directors collaborate on the content of films.

In her movies, Taormino includes confessional-style interviews with performers to provide viewers with insight into performers’ desires and negotiations. This tactic, says Taormino, “establishes consent in a really explicit way, and it also establishes the level of sexual agency the performers have going into the scene,” allowing viewers to comfortably “surrender to the fantasy.”

According to Taormino, on-tape negotiation becomes especially important in scenes that depict overt play with power dynamics, like those featuring BDSM or other historically controversial sexual practices.

“Male domination and female submission by itself isn’t automatically anti-woman or anti-feminist, especially if the people involved are consenting to what they’re doing,” she says.

Anti-porn feminists, however, argue that performer consent doesn’t negate the potential psychological effects of viewing sexually aggressive content.

“I don’t think it’s healthy for a society to constantly present sex as fused with domination and subordination,” Jensen says. Even when a pornographic scene is “shot with people who understood it, negotiated it, consented to it,” Jensen continues, “What is the effect of constantly reinforcing the fusion of sex and domination?”

Yet for Taormino, respecting the agency of her performers means privileging their comfort and desires over her own conceptions of what those desires mean.

“It’s pretty patronizing for me to ask someone to assert their opinion and their desire and then shut it down or shame it in some way, because I have a different opinion or a different preconceived notion about what things should look like,” she says.

4. Act/Activism

Labor has always been a feminist issue. Sex work is a feminist issue. It’s time that we really enacted those [ideals] within pornography, which is one form of sex work.

Tristan Taormino

“We devalue sex work and sex in our culture,” Taormino says. “We denigrate and stigmatize the people who make porn while simultaneously voraciously consuming the product that they make.”

In response to what many perceive as the adult industry’s cavalier attitude toward labor practices, a number of feminists involved in pornography have become staunch activists for sex workers’ rights.

Sprinkle, who has been involved with the movement since 1974, notes that the manifold problems faced by sex workers often result from efforts to enforce laws criminalizing prostitution.

“There is a war on whores, big time,” Sprinkle says. “Women can’t go to the police to report that they’ve been raped or robbed while doing sex work because they are afraid of being arrested.”

Ryan, who advocates for prostitutes as a social worker, notes that stigma against sex workers exists even among people who work in porn. Unsurprisingly, she says, class discrepancies are often at play, reaffirming a “hierarchy within sex work.”

“When I speak out for the value of street-based sex work as something that needs to be…socially supported and made safer, I think that’s when I get into a lot of trouble—because of all the ho-hating porn folks who are out there who would really say, well, I’m not a sex worker,” she says.

For Ryan, this lack of solidarity is shortsighted at best. “A sex worker is a sex worker is a sex worker,” she says. “Criminalizing one aspect really does impact and ultimately trickle down to all the other aspects in terms of how they’re viewed, what working conditions are like, how many rights and possibilities there are for women involved, that kind of thing.”

On a personal level, Ryan says, her identity as a porn actor who has chosen and enjoys her work allows her to break down some negative stereotypes of sex workers.

“It’s continually exciting and fun to either talk to somebody, a social work person, and tell them about sex work, or drop that in conversation,” she says. “It’s all about shattering stereotypes.”

5. Critique

My policy is subvert from within. Be the change.

Shine Louise Houston

While feminist porn undoubtedly has as many definitions as it has viewers, a driving principle shaping the genre is the belief that explicit depictions of sexuality have the ability to critically engage with the culture surrounding gender, power, and identity—and, ultimately, to change it.

Considering the historical contentiousness of feminist engagement with pornography, the designation of a specific approach to porn as “feminist” is something many still take issue with. Yet there is an undeniable power to those who have historically been the object of a sexualized gaze—women, queer people, people of color—becoming the agents of their own desire. In a culture inundated with media that misrepresents more often than it validates, there is perhaps no medium more appropriate for this intervention than the screen.

For many feminists who engage with the genre, the politics of pornography are about more than getting off to images viewers can identify with. Rather, feminist pornography represents a framework for conceptualizing identity, power, and desire, a lens through which to engage and critique culture.

Taormino, for one, is staunch in her belief that pornography can be transformative. As she writes in The Feminist Porn Book, an anthology she co-edited on the genre, porn can play a much bigger role than simply providing pleasure:

“I think that sex can change the world.”

11 responses to “How to Make a Feminist Porno

  1. Someone who has sex for money on the street is a criminal. On the other hand, having sex for money while someone records isn’t. At the risk of sounding prude, i think porn and all sex work should be subject to the standards of OSHA. As it stands society would rather pretend sex work doesn’t exist by not acknowledging it as a business transaction. Of course, once government regulators come on board to “protect” workers, they’ll probably expect to tax them too. If society acknowledges sex work with the kind of legitimacy you’re asking for, then they’ll have to take some responsibility for it. Unfortunately, it’s the puritans and prigs that keep it underground by damning it.

  2. [“I don’t think it’s healthy for a society to constantly present sex as fused with domination and subordination,” Jensen says. Even when a pornographic scene is “shot with people who understood it, negotiated it, consented to it,” Jensen continues, “What is the effect of constantly reinforcing the fusion of sex and domination?”]

    What is the effect of constantly mis-representing an entire class of people?

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  8. I applaud the writer for tackling this fraught topic, and in such a well researched, thoughtful, and even-handed way. It would seem the true definition of feminist porn should be that women were not harmed or exploited in the making regardless of content since what “turns someone on” is deeply personal and individual. My reservation to this statement is its lack of responsibility to the viewer. This issue is widely debated in regards to video games where there continues to be concern for a possible link to addiction, aggression, violence, stereotyping and sexual exploitation.
    The hesitation with the first part of my statement that women not be harmed or exploited is the difficulty in regulating this. My initial thought was that having the pornography made “by women, for women, about women” essentially would help guarantee this. Unfortunately, there are plenty of examples in big business and elsewhere of women in exploiting other women.
    Despite the legal system’s protection of pornography under the first amendment’s right to free speech while outlawing prostitution, I agree with Dylan Ryan’s sentiments regarding sex workers. There is something deeply flawed about a system where people are exploited and prosecuted without protection from harm.
    Perhaps, the open acknowledgment and discussion of women’s sexuality, normalcy of our desires, individuality of what turns us on, and the sexual power we hold, will be the true legacy of a feminist embrace of porn. We need to move away from a society where we snicker about women reading Fifty Shades of Grey on their Nooks or accept only some idealized image of a sexually desirable woman or act.

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