Revisiting the “Real”

Warning: This entry is ridiculously long and rambly! It was an exercise that was very productive for me, but I’m not sure it works for public consumption. I think I would need to rewrite it, perhaps into a series of blog posts, in order for it to be fully readable. However, one goal of this blog is to reflect the (often messy) process of my academic work and to clutter it up with my actual experience, and not to pretend that my ideas arrived fully formed in my mind and papers. So, here it is!

Earlier in this blog, I talked about The 5 Hallmarks of Feminist Porn, with the first “hallmark” being “Real Pleasure, Real Orgams.” I’m going to revisit my initial response to that  idea here, with some new information under my belt. I found this article (safe for work) by pornstar Zahra Stardust (less safe for work) both interesting, insightful, and challenging to my own biases. The differentiation between “real” and “fake” bodies is one that comes up at almost all the porn viewing parties, in my women’s studies classes, and in discussions about what I and my friends find attractive. I have felt that it is a problematic way to approach bodies for quite a while, and Zahra Stardust articulates clearly and succinctly why that is so.

So where is that challenge I claim I experienced? That paragraph makes it sound like I read the article and just nodded my head in contentment at having my suspicion confirmed. But the challenge is this – I have had this suspicion, but I have also had (and still have) this strong visceral reaction to the six-inch heels, fake tan, thick make-up, cosmetically altered breasts, etc. I find them inherently problematic, emblematic of patriarchal ideals, and outside of my comfort zone. So, I suspect that those feelings are problematic and need to be unpacked but I still have them. And before Stardust’s articulate and “femme-inist” article, I could go about the dainty-stepping around my awareness that my views were problematic without ever actually facing them up front. My inner monologue was something like this – “Wow, that is unattractive and strikes me as problematic. Wow, that is, itself, really problematic! Lalalalalalalalalala moving on.”

So!

Let’s have at ‘er.

On August 5, I said –

The first hallmark of feminist porn: “Real Pleasure, Real Orgasms”

The first porn I ever watched was “Velvet Thrust” and it was a film marketed primarily towards straight women (which is how I identified at the time). The male actors, especially the male lead, were conventionally attractive and were clearly meant to be seen as sexually arousing visual elements (unlike many male performers in porn marketed at straight men – this is a whole other thing to discuss later on). It was pretty decent porn, in terms of representing consent. And although the gender representations were pretty conventional, there was none of the blatantly sexist representations of gender that I’ve seen in other mainstream porn. It was recommended by Violet Blue in her book, “The Smart Girl’s Guide To Porn” (which I read before deciding on which porn to watch for my first time out) and it was alright. It had the desired effect. But there was one scene, which I will never forget, and which makes me giggle to this day, where the female performer was in a ridiculously contorted-for-the-camera position, moaning dramatically, and every time her costar would pull too far back and pop out (which was apparently super easy to do in that position), she sounded completely surprised. “Oooooh, OOoooooh, Oooh, huh? Oooh, ooooooooh Oooh, huh?” It was hilarious. And it made it very clear that the whole scene was pretty fake. There were no “real” orgasms happening for that performer, and the performance was just that – performance.

The article points out that feminist porn has shifted the focus onto “authentic” sexual pleasure. I find the idea of the “real” somewhat problematic. Like Julie Levin Russo, I believe that, “[t]he idea that porn has a special capacity to transparently reflect the real… is necessarily problematic in its erasure of mediation” (Russo, 240).

However, despite my significant side-eye at the idea of “authenticity,” I do think that there’s something here. I think this emphasis on “real” pleasure can be seen cinematically in the use of the camera and the way that some feminist porn gives seemingly equal weight to the pleasure of the performers as it does to the pleasure of the viewer – scenes that are less exposed because less exposure means more pleasure (no contorted-for-the-camera angles that make pleasure virtually impossible) balance the necessarily over-exposed scenes that allow the viewer to see and understand the physical acts being portrayed.

“Real” orgasms are another element, separate (in my opinion) from “real” pleasure. As a person who does not orgasm reliably with a partner and never on my own, I appreciate the few available pornographic representations of sex that do not focus on orgasm. I appreciate porn that represents the range of orgasm styles and allows room for women who have single orgasms, men who have orgasms and continue pleasuring their partners afterwards, etc. Here, rather than “real” orgasms (though I absolutely agree with the author that watching an actual orgasm happen is infinitely more hot than watching clearly faked orgasms), I think what may differentiate feminist porn from mainstream porn is the variety of orgasms represented. Including, but not limited to, the authenticity of the orgasm seen on film.

We’re going to go bit by bit through that, using Zahra Stardust’s article to provide new context.

The first porn I ever watched was “Velvet Thrust” and it was a film marketed primarily towards straight women (which is how I identified at the time). The male actors, especially the male lead, were conventionally attractive and were clearly meant to be seen as sexually arousing visual elements (unlike many male performers in porn marketed at straight men – this is a whole other thing to discuss later on).

Okay. I will admit, I find this difficult to revisit because in coming back to these couple sentences, I wonder about how much I choose to share about my own sexual journey in what is an academic blog, which will be read by both classmates and professors. On the one hand, I feel that contextualizing my current views in light of my history is important. I think that we often hide our personal stories because it makes us “more academic” or more acceptably academic. My history of exposure to porn does influence my current experience of porn, so I feel it’s relevant. Do you need to know that I used to identify as a straight female and now identify as a queer genderqueer? I don’t know. Do you?

Using Zahra Stardust’s article as a lens, it seems like maybe this personal information is sometimes important in that it tells the reader what the writer considers important about themselves. In her bio blurb after the article, Stardust reveals that “Zahra Stardust is a Penthouse Pet, award-winning stripper, pole dance champion and queer femme-inist porn star. She abandoned a legal career in favour of pole dancing, and has run for Parliament three times as a Candidate for the Australian Sex Party (she is currently campaigning for Lord Mayor of Sydney).” – This is relevant because it positions her as intelligent (she had a legal career), ambitious (she has run for government multiple times), and it also concisely locates her feminism. She isn’t a “feminist” – she’s a “femme-inist.” This places her in opposition to femme-phobic iterations of feminism (as her article does) but reclaims her space within feminist dialogue.

So my own personal revelations – what do they say? Not as much, and not as well. But my orientation is a big deal to me, and the fact that I am no longer the person I used to be. Also, I immediately position myself as someone who watches porn voluntarily, and who appreciates some of the aesthetics of porn (I found the male actors attractive, for example). Also, my use of words like “clearly” and “conventionally attractive” say more about my own views than they do about what may or may not be clear or conventional. These word choices indicate that I have an idea about what “conventionally attractive” looks like, and I think everyone else does, too.

Moving on.

It was pretty decent porn, in terms of representing consent. And although the gender representations were pretty conventional, there was none of the blatantly sexist representations of gender that I’ve seen in other mainstream porn. It was recommended by Violet Blue in her book, “The Smart Girl’s Guide To Porn” (which I read before deciding on which porn to watch for my first time out) and it was alright. It had the desired effect.

Again with the “conventional”! Here, I’m trying to articulate, without actually examining what I mean by it, “conventional gender representations” and that’s a huge problem. As Stardust points out in her article:

At the same time, websites that purport to depict ‘real’ or ‘redefined beauty’, often seem to be just as conventionalised as the mainstream genres they criticise. ‘Alternative’ nude modelling site Suicide Girls gives calculated instructions on their website about the kinds of photos, make-up and aesthetic sets they accept: ‘tasteful’, ‘picture perfect’ shoots with ‘a little bit of face powder and mascara and freshly dyed hair’, but specifically not ‘cheap wig[s]’, ‘top hats’, ‘stripper shoes’, ‘food’ or things that look ‘cheesy’, ‘gross’ or ‘creepy’.

Similarly, the ‘girl next door’ look of the Australian all-female explicit adult site Abby Winters represents an alternative to glamour photography, featuring make-up-less, ‘amateur’ adult models – but models are still required to cover up hair re-growth, remove piercings, and not have any scratches, marks or mosquito bites for the shoot in order to appear ‘healthy’.

So “conventional” is entirely contextual. Is it the alt porn conventional idea of gender that I’m articulating? Mainstream porn’s conventions of gender? Stardust is talking about conventions of acceptable femininity, of gender, and how they differ from context to context. When I say something like “the gender representations were pretty conventional,” that’s a statement that requires much more unpacking and contextualizing. In this case, I don’t even actually know what I meant. I meant “mainstream-ish porn marketed to straight women” but that is a fairly specific context and I am not familiar enough with it to be able to have a clear idea about its conventions. I moved on pretty quickly to queer porn, and my idea that Velvet Thrust represented gender in “conventional” ways comes from my defining “conventional” as “different from what I see in my queer porn.”

On that topic, Stardust says, “these [alt porn] sites produce bodies of a particular class, size and appropriate femininity, which are marketed as ‘real’, but which are equally constructed, conventionalised and cultivated. This fear of replicating ‘cheesy’, ‘predictable’ mainstream porn means that depictions of ‘real’ sexuality are often similarly clichéd, albeit with a different set of aesthetics.”

This “different set of aesthetics” is marketed as “more real” and that marketing has been successful, at least with this viewer! But it is still marketing. It is still a convention, still a mediated body conforming to established standards. Declaring something “conventional” without providing context implies that there are things which are not conventional (there may be, but we haven’t got to them in this post), and that “conventional” is a bad thing. It requires further context before those arguments can actually be made, if they ever can be.

Similarly, my statement that “it was pretty decent, in terms of representing consent” needs context. What does “pretty decent” mean? There was no forced sex, and although not all of the consent was explicit verbal consent, it was all clearly indicated through body language and sometimes words. Why did I say “pretty decent” instead of something less wishy-washy? I would like to say that I’m not sure, but I believe, on reflection, that the reason is because this porn is straight and somewhat mainstream and I want consent to be somehow better in queer porn. This is a recurring theme in my academic process – I keep running into this prejudice that I have against straight, vanilla mainstream pornography. It’s a problem. Hopefully if I can continue to be honest about when I run into it, I can start to shift it. But this kind of thing is sneaky. The problems with using the phrase “pretty decent” are easy to miss in my initial self-critique. What this process is teaching me is that the writing of my honours thesis on such a controversial and complex topic will require revision and revision and revision and a fuck of a lot of self-reflection.

But there was one scene, which I will never forget, and which makes me giggle to this day, where the female performer was in a ridiculously contorted-for-the-camera position, moaning dramatically, and every time her costar would pull too far back and pop out (which was apparently super easy to do in that position), she sounded completely surprised. “Oooooh, OOoooooh, Oooh, huh? Oooh, ooooooooh Oooh, huh?” It was hilarious. And it made it very clear that the whole scene was pretty fake. There were no “real” orgasms happening for that performer, and the performance was just that – performance.

Okay! Here my original post and Stardust’s article really collide.

My language is incredibly judgemental. The performer is “ridiculously” contorted, it’s “hilarious” and it’s “pretty fake.” But, okay. Have you hear Stoya in some of her scenes with James Deen? I’ll let you google that because I’m sitting in Starbucks. But trust me when I tell you that she has one of the squeakiest orgasms I’ve heard in porn. And because I adore Stoya, and I think she’s brilliant, and I read her blog and just generally have a massive crush on her, I do not interpret this as “fake” or “hilarious.” I do feel that the scene I’m describing was more staged and less engaging than many others I’ve watched, but my language is pretty harsh and I’m using words that have specific, hurtful meanings. Especially, in context of Stardust’s article, the word “fake.”

She says, “As someone who works in the sex industry – in spaces that purport to be ‘real’ as well as spaces that are accused of as being ‘fake’ – it seems like there is no distinct line between the two. As someone who works with a body that is sometimes perceived as ‘real’ and other times read as ‘fake’ – it seems that the bodies which move across these spaces are equally fluid.” I have no idea who the performer I’ve judged as fake is. I don’t remember her name and I don’t recall seeing her in anything else. For all I know, she could, like Stardust, inhabit a body that moves across spaces, a body that is sometimes read as “real” and sometimes read as “fake.” It was the performance that I wrote about reading as fake rather than the body, but if I am honest part of the reason I read the performance as fake was because I read the body as fake. I don’t know, and it would be disingenuous to guess, if I would have had the same reaction to a performer who was not bleached blonde, large-busted, and wearing the thick make-up and 6-inch glittery heels. Stoya does not look like that, and I do not read her as fake. Is it because I know more about her as a performer? Or is it because I am more inclined to read her body as “natural” and therefore her performances also?

Stardust says, “Sure, we may play with, embody and embrace hyper-femininity, but we are no less ‘authentic’, or political, or real, because our lip gloss is hot pink instead of ‘nude’. We don’t need to ‘tone-it-down’ to be any more queer, radical or ‘real’. Our bodies may look ‘unrealistic’ to you, but the labour of preparing for work gives erotic performers a sentient, working knowledge of gender performativity.”

This point is critical to unpacking my problematic reading of bodies that Stardust describes as “hyper-feminine.” By reading these bodies as “fake,” as I admit that I do later in this post, I am denying the “sentient, working knowledge of gender performativity” that these women have earned. I am denying that their work has value, and saying that there is acceptable femininity and unacceptable femininity, only when I say that I think it’s okay because I mean the opposite of what society has meant for so long. But that’s bullshit, right? Because there is no “acceptable” femininity. This isn’t any kind of radical revelation within feminism, we’ve been saying this for years. But I’m realizing, as I watch more porn and uncover these ugly truths about my reactions to various bodies, that I’ve only been paying lipservice to the idea that there is no “acceptable” femininity and that women can choose their gender performance regardless of what that choice ends up being. Stardust makes a relevant and insightful point – the work that goes into hyper-femininity can provide a deep, personal knowledge of the performativity of gender.

Then I said:

The article points out that feminist porn has shifted the focus onto “authentic” sexual pleasure. I find the idea of the “real” somewhat problematic. Like Julie Levin Russo, I believe that, “[t]he idea that porn has a special capacity to transparently reflect the real… is necessarily problematic in its erasure of mediation” (Russo, 240).

This is important in my revision process, because here is where I am starting to grasp at concepts that I hope will become clearer and clearer as I move forward in this endeavour. I have the beginnings of a grounding in the theory that supports writing by performers and sex workers like Zahra Stardust. I know that these ideas are out there, and I know that they are valid. There is no unmediated “real” in pornography, but I need to take the extra step of recognizing that the flipside is also true – “fake” also becomes a slipperier category.

Continuing:

However, despite my significant side-eye at the idea of “authenticity,” I do think that there’s something here. I think this emphasis on “real” pleasure can be seen cinematically in the use of the camera and the way that some feminist porn gives seemingly equal weight to the pleasure of the performers as it does to the pleasure of the viewer – scenes that are less exposed because less exposure means more pleasure (no contorted-for-the-camera angles that make pleasure virtually impossible) balance the necessarily over-exposed scenes that allow the viewer to see and understand the physical acts being portrayed.

I still feel this, or at least an iteration of this. I recognize the problematic nature of the idea of the “real” but the concept of performer pleasure is an important one for me. However, Stardust problematizes it when she says, “I experience pleasure at work in the mainstream sex industry that I certainly perceive as ‘real’. This pleasure comes from physical sensations (lactic acid, endorphins, sweat, carpet burn, whipping hair, a double ended dildo angled against my g spot, real orgasms) but also from the thrill of voyeurism (exhibitionism, cameras, being naked in front of thousands of people).” When I define the only acceptable pleasure as the physical pleasure, that’s problematic. So although I still believe that performer pleasure is important, I can recognize now that when I narrowly define what types of pleasure are acceptable and what types are not, I dismiss an entire category of enjoyment.

Then:

“Real” orgasms are another element, separate (in my opinion) from “real” pleasure. As a person who does not orgasm reliably with a partner and never on my own, I appreciate the few available pornographic representations of sex that do not focus on orgasm. I appreciate porn that represents the range of orgasm styles and allows room for women who have single orgasms, men who have orgasms and continue pleasuring their partners afterwards, etc. Here, rather than “real” orgasms (though I absolutely agree with the author that watching an actual orgasm happen is infinitely more hot than watching clearly faked orgasms), I think what may differentiate feminist porn from mainstream porn is the variety of orgasms represented. Including, but not limited to, the authenticity of the orgasm seen on film.

If I take Stardust’s article seriously, and I think that I should, then the representation of sex, gender, orgasm that is seen in mainstream porn (recognizing again that my wording is problematic and this needs to be contextualized to have any real meaning) is a valid representation. It doesn’t really work for me, but that doesn’t make it “fake.” And the things that do work for me aren’t necessarily “real.” They are just difference. So I ask for diversity, and I say that perhaps diversity is more the hallmark of feminist porn than reality, and I think perhaps that’s true (though I need to give it more thought). But the idea in this last paragraph needs to be more fully examined and articulated. Earlier in the original post I absolutely DID make the mistake of calling “fake” the performances and by extension the bodies of mainstream porn actors.

Stardust says, “It is an important goal to make sexually explicit material that does not prescribe unrealistic standards, perpetuate hegemonic gender stereotypes or marginalise diverse sexualities. But many of us in the sex industry will tell you that those stereotypes and marginalisation come – not from audiences or clients – but from public reductive readings of our work and stringent legal frameworks.”

I agree.

And I would add that perhaps the academic framework, even when someone as well-meaning as I would like to believe I am, also contributes to this. Creating a binary between mainstream porn and feminist porn (like creating any binary, whoddathunkit?!) is problematic and it falls apart under close scrutiny. And close scrutiny is exactly what we, as academics, should be applying. Even when it’s embarrassing to admit our failings. Even when we have to pick our words and our stereotypes apart (especially then).

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