From the introduction to Whores and Other Feminists:
A central problem for feminists of all stripes, including feminist whores, is opposing the nonconsensual treatment of women as only sexual bodies while simultaneously challenging the cultural hierarchies that devalue and stigmatize sexual bodies. To come at it from the other side, how do we value our sexuality when “to be valued for our sexuality” is a primary instrument of our oppression? (Nagle 6)
This is an issue I struggle with in trying to comes to terms with what “feminist porn” is, what it means, how it is produced and consumed, and the cultural context within which it exists. Feminist porn, as I conceptualize it, is pornography that works toward the feminist goal of equality for all genders and orientations (my feminism has queer overtones). Feminist porn values sexuality – the spectrum of sexuality!
Unlike mainstream porn, which often seems to value only a very narrow and restrictive expression of sexuality, feminist porn makes room for a wide range of sexual expression. It represents a wide range of bodies – various forms of gender expression, weight, colour, age, and subculture. It represents the range of femininity and masculinity, and gender performances that exist beyond the binary. It celebrates those differences. There is room for female submissiveness and high femme, for male dominance and butch masculinity but those are not the only performances (or even the most common). Rather than being the norm, those potentially hegemonic performances are on equal footing with butch femininity, femme bois, genderqueers, trans* folks, and anyone else. And that, to me, is what makes it awesome and feminist.
But feminist porn exists in the same cultural context as mainstream porn. You might find some feminist porn on porntube or redtube or on your tumblr dash or wherever you get your porn. But you might not. And you might not know whether what you’re watching is feminist porn, because the other element that makes porn feminist, in my mind, is the treatment of the performers. Are they paid fairly? Are there acceptable workplace safety standards in place? Are the acts consensual? Really consensual? (This is an excellent post about consent. Although it focuses on consent in BDSM communities, I think it is also relevant here. Consent can only be truly consensual if there are not severe punishments for saying “no” – to a scene, an act or a costar. Link, as usual, is NSFW.)
You’ll know if you buy your porn directly from a feminist producer like Courtney Trouble or Erika Lust or Candida Royalle or if it features a feminist porn activist like Nina Hartley or Jiz Lee or Annie Sprinkle (all links NSFW), but realistically, a huge amount of porn consumption does not include purchasing the product directly from the producer.
So feminist porn exists alongside mainstream porn and it is not always possible to tell it apart without digging into the details of how it was made, especially if you’re watching a clip taken from a larger production. You can often tell when porn is NOT feminist – when the sex appears imbalanced or the motivation of one character doesn’t make any sense, when there is a fetishization of young women with older male costars, with no empowerment in their role (but that’s so subjective. I see it when it’s happening and it’s bad, but it’s hard for me to clearly articulate what’s going wrong when I see it going wrong. Hopefully as I work through this course that will get easier.)
So the question posed in the introduction to “Whores and Other Feminists” – how we can celebrate our sexuality, when to be celebrated for our sexuality is a major component of our oppression, is incredibly difficult to answer. There’s nor really a feminist porn utopia, untouched by the misogyny and homophobia and sex-negative depictions of sexual acts that taint so much mainstream porn. Unless you can afford a subscription to CrashPad and Digital Playground and Adam & Eve and Lust Films and Met Art (I’ll talk about them soon!), it is going to be very difficult to maintain entirely ethical porn consumption. (But for those of us who are trying, I *highly* recommend Violet Blue‘s blog – link is NSFW. She has high standards for the companies she affiliates with and the porn she links to, and I trust any link I follow from her site.)
On the other hand, the fact that feminist porn exists alongside mainstream porn seems like a positive thing, to me. While my happy porn-time might be tragically intruded on by a scene that makes me shudder, it also means that people who would never seek out feminist porn are sometimes exposed to it. And this, I think, is a great thing!
In their article, “Pornography, Normalization and Empowerment”, Weinberg, Williams, Kleiner and Irizarry claim that pornography has the ability to expand the available sexual scripts for consumers (1390). Porn normalizes the viewed sexual practices and this can empower some consumers, particularly if they have not been exposed to the sex acts being depicted (1394-5). The positive influences of pornography viewing can include “a qualitative broadening of sexual horizons, such as learning new forms of sexual behaviour or finding new resources for fantasy construction” (1390).
So it seems reasonable to conclude that the edges where feminist porn and mainstream porn overlap, and where consumers of mainstream porn are exposed to feminist porn, have empowering potential. If new sexual scripts are written – scripts which emphasize active consent, negotiation in sexual contexts, acceptance of alternative gender performances or sexual preferences, female sexual autonomy and empowerment, and actual bodies having actually enjoyable sex for both (or all) parties – that is a good thing. That is how I would answer Jill Nagle’s question – that when we value our sexuality, we can change the context within which being valued for our sexuality is so oppressive.
But it still gives me Conflicted Feelings. (Especially when I see things like nothing-but-hetero sex in feminist porn, even though I know that heterosexuals can be feminists too! But that is a whole other post.)
Nagle, Jill. Whores and Other Feminists. New York: Routledge (2010). Print.
Weinberg, Martin S., Colin J. Williams, Sibyl Kleiner and Yasmiyn Irizarry. “Pornography, Normalization, and Empowerment.” Archives of Sexual Behaviour 39 (2010): 1389-1401. www.springerlink.com. Web. 25 Feb. 2012.