Entertainment

04.13.13

Organic, Fair-Trade Porn: On the Hunt for Ethical Smut

Just what exactly is feminist porn? Rachel Kramer Bussel attends the Feminist Porn Awards to find a new generation of erotic performers and producers with a mission.

Feminism has come a long way since Robin Morgan wrote in 1974, "Pornography is the theory, and rape is the practice,"—so far, in fact, that this past weekend saw the eighth-annual Feminist Porn Awards and first Feminist Porn Conference, an offshoot of the just-published The Feminist Porn Book, in Toronto. The mood was celebratory, political, and inquisitive, showcasing a sex-positive feminism that's about far more than leaning in, or even leaning back.

Yet as far as we've come, I still got asked on Facebook when posting about attending, "Is this a joke?" For Toronto sex-toy store Good for Her, organizers of the FPAs, far from it—it's a selling point. While browsing there, I overheard a staffer touting a film by Erika Lust to a middle-aged male customer as an FPA winner. The seven jurors take their work of judging 110 submissions seriously—but not too seriously, considering they award trophies topped with a crystal butt plug for categories such as Golden Beaver (Canadian content) and Smutty Schoolteacher (sex ed), and the event expanded to a new venue to hold the approximately 550 attendees.

The very act of defining "feminist porn" is one that's still up in the air. Certainly it's not the Sheryl Sandberg–endorsed book Porn for Women, with its wink-wink photos of hunky topless guys doing housework, which was exquisitely skewered by online comic xkcd, nor is it “a man and a woman meet at Planet Organic after a gender studies lecture, discuss intersectionality over vegetarian food, and then go back to her flat to bone on last Sunday’s Observer,” jokingly offered up by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter in The New Statesman. Differing definitions were offered by the awards and by the book’s authors, but all agree that a focus on genuine female pleasure plays a role. Conference organizer Tristan Taormino insisted that porn is “absolutely” the right word (instead of “erotica”). “By not using the term porn, we’re caving in to this idea that porn is low class, for men, not by us or for us.” She calls her own porn, such as FPA winner The Ultimate Guide to Pegging, “organic, free-trade porn,” and urged consumers and creators to take a page from the organic-food movement. “We have to make connections between fair labor practices even when the labor being performed is sex. If you care about the conditions under which your food was made and the conditions under which your jeans were made, then you should care about the conditions under which your pornography is made. You should be willing to pay a little more.”

The use of “feminist” was a bit more controversial. Good for Her owner Carlyle Jansen admitted, “People think we’re the Lesbian Porn Awards or the Man Hating Porn Awards; they think feminism is passé. We want women’s, men’s, and trans perspectives; we’re not just looking for what women want.” Not everyone agreed with Taormino on the need to explicitly label their work “feminist porn.” Director Nica Noelle (who caused a preconference stir by writing that she grew up thinking feminists “could use a sense of humor and a few rounds of hot, hair-pulling sex”), argued at a panel entitled Ladyporn: Porn for Women, “I think the term feminism promotes the idea that this is porn created by women, for women.” Instead, she has created four companies, catering to straight, lesbian, gay-male, and transgender porn. Netherlands porn channel Dusk TV uses “porna” as a shorthand for porn geared toward women that’s now become, according to its director Liesbet Zikkenheimer, a household term. Sophie Delancey, PR and marketing coordinator of The ArtofBlowjob.com said, “These are feminist blowjobs. Feminist porn doesn’t need to be about women’s pleasure exclusively. You can have pleasure by giving pleasure.”

So is a pie fight between two women feminist? I’m not sure, but one happens in Sexiest Star Feature FPA winner April Flores World between Flores, a plus-size Latina porn star, and author Christa Faust. Shot by her husband, Carlos Batts, Flores calls it her favorite film, and the only one she’s wanted to watch more than once. “I’m used to expressing myself physically, not with words. Being myself was scary.” That’s the kind of unquantifiable aspect of feminist porn—empowerment via self-expression—that seems to embody the spirit of the awards. It’s not that a pie fight is going to change the world on its own, but that Flores, exulting in being herself, just may encourage other women, plus size or not, to live out their own dreams—whatever they might involve.

Overall, the three-day affair showed more solidarity than anything else. A Thursday-night screening of film shorts introduced viewers to films like Krutch, in which disabled performer Mia Gimp is seen walking the streets of Manhattan interspersed with using her crutch as a sex toy. When an audience member asked panelists at If I Had a Hammer: Reclaiming Feminist Porn as a Tool of Political Activism about the need for porn featuring those over 50, Courtney Trouble giddily reported that she was trying to get porn pioneer Carol Queen to shoot a scene for her. Bisexual male performer Wolf Hudson made it clear that feminist porn isn’t just for women, stating that when he did mainstream straight porn, “I didn’t feel it fully represented who I was.” It wasn't until he shot a film for director Noelle, who encouraged eye contact and passionate chemistry, that he felt he could relate to the values being shown on camera.

“These are feminist blowjobs. Feminist porn doesn’t need to be about women’s pleasure exclusively. You can have pleasure by giving pleasure.”

While the awards featured burlesque, XXX clips, and glamorous outfits, the conference veered from the academic to the practical; during one session block, a speaker at Toward a Pussy Oriented Pedagogy quoted French feminist Luce Irigaray while down the hall The Queercrip Politics of Re/Making Feminist Porn asked what tools disabled people would need to actually create their own porn. One of the most practical and timely panels looked at California’s passage of controversial law Measure B, requiring condom use in porn. The panelists were all against its passage and got down to the nitty-gritty; Arabelle Raphael recalled a gang-bang scene she shot where confetti drifted down over the performers, getting into her anus and causing health problems, something not addressed by the H.I.V.-focused Measure B.

The event did not escape without criticism, but it’s clear these critiques are being heard. Said Trouble, whose Lesbian Curves won Hottest Dyke Film, “I wrote a complaint to Good For Her last year after being fat-shamed by two of their industry guests, so I think not only did they make a concerned effort to think critically about how size was represented at their event, but also porn directors made some really great fat-positive porn this year and they had more to choose from.”

Attendee Seska Lee, who did online amateur porn from 1998 to 2010, found the conference a welcome change. “I’m used to porn-industry events with a heavy heterosexual male presence and a focus on making money with little consideration for performers and their working conditions, and a strong sense that the selling of sexual content is about exploiting consumers’ shame for a bigger bottom line. With this conference, there was a recognition of economic realities and political themes.”

While no panels were specifically devoted to it, technology is perhaps the unsung hero (heroine?) of the new vanguard of feminist porn, as evidenced by a film screened Thursday night, Because I Want You to Watch, featuring a pierced, tattooed woman masturbating—shot entirely on the iPhone 5. For its director, the Madame, a cofounder of SlutWalk Toronto, “creating porn means that I can ‘fix’ what I find to be broken in the mainstream industry. My sex education involved Playboy and VHS tapes. My son’s will be quite different, and I’d like to ensure that he’ll be an educated consumer.” Trailblazer winner Nan Kinney, a founder of pioneering lesbian-porn magazine On Our Backs as well as porn company Fatale Media, recalled, “If it wasn’t for the Mac, we wouldn’t have been able to survive past the first two issues.” Taormino stated, “At this moment, anyone can be a pornographer, and that is a feminist’s best friend.”

When accepting her award for directing Hottest Kink Movie 50 Shades of Dylan Ryan, dressed in a black-and-white bra and skirt, Madison Young jumped up and down and gave her own twist to Emma Goldman’s famous maxim, stating, “If I can't f—k, it’s not my revolution.” Yet the scope of the awards and conference prove that the issues addressed are broader than sexual expression. They encompassed diversity of many kinds, sex-worker rights, and labor rights. And that’s smut we can get behind.

Editor's Note: Due to a transcription error Tristan Taormino’s quote was written as “organic, free-trade porn” when it should have read “organic, fair-trade porn.” We don’t know if she also believes in “free-trade” porn.