FOR WOMEN

04.21.12

Can Porn Be Feminist?

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

To 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.”

“In the world of feminist porn, women come in all shapes, sizes, and sexual orientations ... They don’t conform to the typical big-boobed, tiny-waisted ideal.”

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.