Feminist Porn: Is it a Thing?

10th Annual Feminist Porn Awards

10th Annual Feminist Porn Awards

By Njeri Summey (FGS ’17)

NOTE: This article is an extended version of the article published in the Block 2 2015 issue of The Monthly Rag.

With porn that’s diverse, empowering, ethical and inclusive, all while being focused on female pleasure, there’s no overstating how powerful these messages can be for women.
Nora Stone

Often, feminism and porn are thought of as two mutually exclusive things. Anti-porn feminists and feminist groups have spoken out against porn and its consumption for decades and have received a lot of publicity for doing so. Groups like Women Against Pornography (WAP) held conventions, meetings and demonstrations during the 70s and 80s and although the group no longer exists, their ideals have been carried into the feminist ideals of many people today. In “Porn Wars,” Betty Dodson gives an account of her experience at a conference organized by WAP that she attended in the 1980s: “The WAP conference featured many speakers. Each gave a brief, personal history, and nearly everyone had a horror story of sexual abuse at the hands of a father, brother, husband, lover, or boss…Each speaker’s words and tears were firing up the group into a unified rage” (27). According to Dodson, every woman who spoke blamed the actions of their abusers on “disgusting, filthy pictures,” otherwise known as pornography.

The women of WAP haven’t been the only people who have spoken out against porn. Many feminist scholars and academics have written and spoken about the supposed negative effects that porn has had on women. In “Sexuality, Pornography and Method: Pleasure under Patriarchy,” Catharine MacKinnon, a notoriously anti-porn feminist scholar, discusses porn and how in hers and many other feminist’s opinions, pornography is inherently oppressive and even deadly to women as a whole, especially women of marginalized groups. She argues that pornography portrays women as “battered…tortured…hung…,” the way that men want to see them, and asserts that pornography both perpetuates the oppression of women by giving men what they want and acts as a reflection of how men want to see women (327). She ends her argument by stating that “pornography is a means through which sexuality is socially constructed,” thus we are oppressing our women by socially constructing sexuality as a violent act against them (328).

Arguably, MacKinnon is not totally wrong in her claims about pornography, and of course the abuse victims of WAP are entitled to their pain. It’s true that in some types of porn, women are shown as beaten and treated in sexually violent ways that they may not have fully consented to[1]. It’s true that in most cases in mainstream porn, proper consent is not given on camera, which can lead to wrong assumptions in viewers’ minds regarding how to fuck respectfully and safely, which can then lead to abuse and unhealthy sex practices. It’s definitely true that pornographic images play a huge role in how we construct sexuality in our cultures and society. But, these women’s analyses fail in that they are doing what most anti-porn feminists do in these arguments: speak out against porn without defining it, and furthermore speaking of porn as what feminist porn producer and sex educator Tristan Taormino would call “porn with a capital P” (Vasquez 33). The reality is that “there is no monolithic one thing called porn with a capital P,” and “porn” encompasses many different types of images (Vasquez 33). According to Nora Stone in “Breaking Quarantine: Complicating Our Concepts of Pornography,” “If mainstream media and culture paint a monolithic portrait of pornography, they also paint a depressingly uniform portrait of women as the victims of pornography’s increasing availability” (5). Unfortunately, we see this played out in the theorizing of WAP, MacKinnon, and many others who are avidly against pornography.

Feminist Porn Book

Tristan Taormino

What if porn could reach beyond the boundaries of showing non-consenting women as “battered…tortured…hung…?” What if porn could move away from tired racial and sexual stereotypes and patriarchal ideals? What if porn could show much more and be much more than “what men want?” These are questions that pornographers like Tristan Taormino and Shine Louise Houston asked themselves before they began creating the type of porn that they do. Feminist porn. Feminist porn is defined in The Feminist Porn Book as a medium that “uses sexually explicit imagery to contest and complicate dominant representations of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, ability, age, body type, and other identity markers. It explores concepts of desire, agency, power, beauty and pleasure at their most confounding and difficult, including pleasure in and across inequality, in the face of injustice, and against the limits of the gender hierarchy and both heteronormativity and homonormativity. It seeks to unsettle conventional definitions of sex, and expand the language of sex as an erotic activity, an expression of identity, a power exchange, a cultural commodity, and even a new politics” (Taormino, Parreñas Shimizu, Penley, and Miller-Young 10). In other words, feminist porn works to serve those of us that are not usually served in mainstream porn. People of marginalized groups: trans people, people of color, people with disabilities, queer people, even women, can see images of themselves in porn that aren’t stereotyped, fetishized or degraded. It shows those of us that are usually portrayed in a one-dimensional way as real, sexual beings with valid desires and needs. As Catharine MacKinnon stated, pornography is a means by which we shape our cultural perceptions of sex, so why not make porn that encourages healthy sex practices and represents the real people who are actually watching it?

A huge aspect of feminist porn is that it is made ethically. All performers get paid adequately for their time and work and the viewer can watch the material and be sure that all participants have fully and enthusiastically consented to what they are doing. The majority of the time, there are even interviews with the performers before and after the scene where the performers speak about their feelings regarding their performance, what they liked and didn’t like and what they’d like in the future. Authenticity is another aspect in this type of porn that is highly valued, so safer sex practices are often encouraged, used and deliberately shown in the films, just like you would see in an ideal sexual situation off camera, as are conversations of consent, use of lube and even “mess-ups” (laughing, awkward moments, etc.).

As discussed earlier, one critique of mainstream pornography that MacKinnon and others have expressed is that it portrays women being treated in ways that are perceived to be violent. It’s important to note and to make very clear that porn labeled as feminist absolutely can include scenes like this. Kink is often explored and there still may be scenes that are hard to watch for some. The difference between portrayals of kink in porn labeled feminist and some of the porn that MacKinnon is referring to is that, as stated earlier, all performers are usually interviewed before and afterward on camera expressing their satisfactions and/or dissatisfactions with the scene. For example, the ethical porn site Kink.com shows all kinds of kinky activities from extreme bondage to double penetration, to electrocution, often times, but not always, performed on women by men. The following is an example of a performer expressing her satisfaction with her work and her scenes, which are often very intense kink-wise, given by Tina Vasquez in “Ethical Porn”:

Dylan Ryan, a crossover star who began her career in independent queer productions…now regularly performs for the very extreme, ethical site kink.com, where it is not uncommon to see her tied up or sexually engaged with several partners. Interviews that follow these performances feature a blissed-out Ryan gushing about how she loves her job because it allows her to fulfill her deepest fantasies. (33)

Although it is seen by many as violent, kink is a realm that has been thoroughly explored by queer, feminist and ethical porn producers. Which brings us to another flaw in anti-porn feminists’ argument, which is that it ignores the fact that many women really enjoy kink and exploring that area of sex with their partners.

Shine Louise Houston

Shine Louise Houston

So who is making feminist porn and what does it look like in action? Shine Louise Houston is the creator of Pink and White Productions, a porn production company that specializes in queer and feminist porn. She claims that “by featuring interviews with the performers and featuring real bodies having real sex, we’re showing the mechanics of what the mainstream has always tried to hide” (Vasquez 34). Houston works to create porn that pushes past the boundaries of the mainstream and very clearly falls under the definition of feminist porn. In episode #48 of her Crash Pad series, two cisgender female performers, Casey Gray and Tina Horn perform a scene where Gray plays the dominant mistress, while Horn plays the role of her sub. Gray is punishing Horn for her bad behavior by tying her up, spanking her with both her hands and a belt and then penetrating her with a strap-on. This scene can be labeled as feminist porn for many reasons. First, the scene takes place between two women who actually identify as queer. They are performing sex acts and portraying a dynamic between women that is not often represented in mainstream porn. The women involved are performing a dom/sub relationship that is represented authentically in the sense that they perform in ways that people do off camera and real orgasms are had during the scene. The authenticity is apparent in the fact that safer sex practices are used openly throughout the scene. Grey never penetrates Horn without first putting on a rubber glove, and the box of rubber gloves is on the bed and in plain view of the camera for the majority of the scene. When a vibrator is used a visible condom is wrapped around it and a condom is put on the strap-on as well. The authenticity of the scene is enhanced by the fact that they use a substantial amount of lube and reapply during sex. These are things that are not often seen in mainstream porn because they may not be seen as sexy by producers and even by viewers, but they are things that real people do when they are having sex off camera. This is what feminist porn looks like, representations of real people with real desires performing real sex acts and being respected by their partners.

It’s easy to spot feminist and queer porn if it’s labeled as such, but what if the material isn’t labeled as queer and/or feminist and isn’t backed by a production company that necessarily has feminist ideals. Can images like these still be considered feminist porn? For example, Sinnamon Love, a now retired Black porn performer has worked with many companies that do not advertise themselves as being feminist and don’t necessarily hold feminist ideals, but she still describes herself and her work as “absolutely” feminist (Love 103). In one of Love’s films, Fun with Teacher (which is found on Pornhub.com, a site that has never claimed to be feminist), she plays a teacher and an unnamed Black male performer plays the track coach of the school. The basic premise is that one of her students who also happens to be a star on the track team is failing the class. She and the coach come to an agreement that if they (she and the coach) have sex then she will pass the student and he will be able to run again. The track coach comes over to the teacher’s house and they honor their agreement. All of the typical sex acts found in mainstream heterosexual porn are performed in the order that has been accepted as normal for porn films. It starts with oral sex for both partners, then he penetrates her in multiple positions and even penetrates her anally. Some oral sex is sprinkled throughout the scene, and, of course, it ends with him ejaculating in Love’s mouth and on her face.

Sinnamon Love

Sinnamon Love

At first glance, the performance itself doesn’t seem to go against any norms, and therefore may not be seen as feminist. There is no on camera discussion with the performers before or after the scene, there is no condom present or apparent lube use, and both performers are presumably cisgender, able-bodied people participating in heterosexual sex. Is it possible that even this scene could be feminist? Why and how could Love consider her work feminist? In “A Question of Feminism,” she discusses her stance. She talks of her first impressions when she began in the industry at the age of nineteen, and how women of color, specifically black women, were, and still are, often stereotyped. She states that she “quickly saw that the images of women of color in porn were directly related to what the predominantly white male directors thought was sexy and what they believed their (predominantly white) male audience would find sexy” and that “as a result, the majority of African American women on screen were put into one of two categories: assimilated to appear as close to white as possible…or completely ghettoized to reflect debased images of Black culture” (99). In Fun with Teacher, Love is neither assimilating to appear white, nor does she appear as a “ghettoized” caricature of Black culture. Later in her piece, she speaks to the fact that these things are deliberate:

I find myself more concerned with the representation of black women’s sexuality than making a statement only about my gender. Perhaps this is because so many people fight the good fight on behalf of (white) women and so few are fighting for Black women like me…there are countless examples of white women’s sexualities portrayed in porn, but very limited images of African American women. (98)

Love purposely performs in a way that deviates from the way that Black women are portrayed in mainstream porn. She works to “fight the good fight” on behalf of Black women, who, as mentioned before, have had their sexualities condensed into one or two stereotypes in porn. Is that not feminist? It may be difficult for us to see this work as feminist at first glance because it is not labeled as such. But in “A Question of Feminism,” Love does refer to herself as a “black feminist pornographer” and as Vasquez writes, “It’s often assumed that all mainstream pornography is degrading and unethical. Before feminists and queer women got into the business, that might have been a safe assumption. But because women…embrace the label of feminist pornographer that is changing” (33).

Feminist porn comes in many forms, and the term “feminist porn” embodies many types of images, so it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what feminist pornography is and what it looks like, but we can say this: feminist porn is about women’s pleasure. It’s about consent and respect and claiming one’s identity and image as their own. Most importantly, feminist porn is about power. Creating images that portray marginalized people enjoying sex without being stereotyped or demeaned puts the power in their hands. In “Breaking Quarantine,” Stone reminds us that “women are not docile drones in service to a singular, patriarchal pornography—they shape their own representation on-screen in myriad ways, and they put porn to use in their own lives and careers” (5). Anti-porn feminists disregard that women can and do create pornography that serves them. Women have taken action in order to change the idea of what pornography looks like and in turn have taken huge strides in changing ideas of what sex and sexuality looks like. We are not merely victims. We are and have been active participants in shaping how we are perceived and treated sexually.

[1] Consent in porn is complicated; if a person is getting paid as much as they need for their rent for something they don’t really want to do. Is this consent? What if the person is being coerced into certain sex acts?

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