Work in Progress Talk

This is the ten minute talk I gave in class today. It was received well, and I got questions about whether I would be incorporating Cathy Acker's work on written pornography (will look into it), whether I would be examining the viewer's role in objectification (yes, but I think objectification is a complex issue), what I mean by aesthetics (I referred to the green light in Fuckstyles as the aesthetic element that got me thinking, but admitted that I haven't done this work yet), and whether I would be examining in any further depth the idea of ethnicity and how/whether that does “recuperate” anything or whether it perpetuates problematic stereotypes (awesome point, will pursue).

Tomorrow is the research symposium and I'll be presenting my poster. Eep! Will report back.

And now, my talk:

My research project, tentatively titled “Contentious Cartography: Defining and Exploring Feminisms in Pornography,” is an examination of the performance of feminism in pornography and an attempt to understand how feminisms are (or aren’t) performed in feminist and mainstream pornography. One challenge is that because there is no single, cohesive definition of feminism, I do not believe there can be a single, cohesive definition of feminist pornography. Where my research project initially proposed an examination of two Feminist Porn Award winners, my recent work has led me to believe that it will be significantly more effective to broaden my scope and compare a variety of feminist porn productions with a matching variety of mainstream porn productions, while maintaining a narrow focus on a few clearly defined tropes.

When I started this project, I positioned myself in opposition to anti-porn feminists. I was, and am, frustrated by sex-negative rhetoric that casts porn performers as victims, porn viewers as dupes, and porn itself as an unmitigated evil. One of my original goals was to find a way to undertake this research without allowing anti-porn arguments to frame the debate. I viewed engagement with anti-porn feminism a necessary evil, a task to be dealt with quickly and dismissively before I could get down to the real work of exploring feminist pornography and feminism in pornography.

However, I have come to recognize that while I still strongly disagree with broad generalizations that attempt to put all pornography under a single umbrella, anti-porn feminists aren’t the only ones doing the broad generalizing. I also realize that the critiques raised by anti-porn feminists, particularly by scholars such as Karen Boyle, do have important insights to offer. Anti-porn feminists condemn porn as reinforcing gendered power relations, setting unrealistic standards of beauty and behaviour, casting women as passive objects whose main purpose is to receive active, aggressive sexual acts from men. This is the theory of pornography that Robin Morgan claims leads to the practice of rape.

And my research has found that pornography can, and does, influence sexual attitudes and behaviour. In “Pornography, Normalization and Empowerment,” Weinberg et al. found a correlation – not a simple or even necessarily predictable correlation, but still a correlation – between porn viewing and shifting sexual behaviours, attitudes, and feelings of empowerment. So there is truth to the idea that pornography presents a theory that results in a practice.

Over the last month, I researched and designed a poster for the Students’ Union Undergraduate Research Symposium. I started with Fuckstyles of the Queer and Famous, initially planning to focus on that single film. I quickly ran into a problem: namely, why does this analysis matter? Into what context am I bringing this analysis, and why am I looking at the elements that I’m looking at?

I focused on four tropes: consent and coercion, agency and passivity, diversity and homogeneity, and intimacy and objectification. Although my initial plan was to acknowledge but quickly dismiss in a small text box off to the side, the anti-porn feminist stance, I realized that the critiques brought to the table by anti-porn feminists were exactly the right measures against which I could test the performance of feminisms in pornography. These critiques became the foundation of my analysis, the litmus test for whether feminist pornography, in Fuckstyles of the Queer and Famous, actually was presenting a different theory.

I brought a mainstream porn production into my poster analysis, Digital Playground’s unSEXpected, and I watched both films multiple times, tallying up the number of times consent or coercion were shown on screen, how many sex acts occurred and what variation existed, how gender was performed, how the camera angles framed the scenes… I found that there were demonstrable differences between the films.

The first trope I examined was the performance of consent and coercion. One feminist definition of consent is the presence of what Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman call “genuine desire for sexual pleasure and the expression of that desire.” Feminist representations of consent are between partners of equal power, who make the choice freely. Ethically produced porn engages in consensual production practices, but feminist performances in porn need to include visible consent in the finished product. Fuckstyles shows verbal consent twice in most of the eight scenes, and over 18 times in the scene between Maggie and Ned Mayhem. In contrast, unSEXpected features explicit coercion in three of its five scenes, with the misogynist insult “pussy” directed at three different male characters to shame them into initiating sex. Although unSEXpected does feature verbal consent in each scene, the majority of scenes begin with coercion and introduce verbal consent after this, which is an incredibly problematic theory of consent to be presenting.

My second trope was agency and passivity. A feminist theory of sexual agency includes giving informed consent to sexual risks through negotiating safer sex, access to mutual sexual pleasure, and the ability to self-pleasure or to seek out pleasurable activities. Feminist sexual agency is also performed through masturbation, ownership of orgasm through self-pleasuring or negotiating acts leading to orgasm, and direction of the sexual activity by women or marginalized groups, such as trans* individuals or people of colour, all present in Fuckstyles. Fuckstyles shows gloves, condoms and lube in most of its scenes, whereas unSEXpected shows no safer sex tools. Neither film depicts the on-screen negotiation of safer sex practices, and dental dams were also absent from both films. These exclusions are important for understanding how feminisms are, or in these instances aren’t, performed in pornography. I think it is unlikely that a film could perform all possible feminisms, and so determining a scale against which the performance of feminism can be measured may be more useful than articulating a single definition.

The third trope, diversity and homogeneity, was where the different theories of sexuality and gender were most obvious. Jill Dolan notes that “playing with fantasies of sexual and gender roles offers the potential for changing gender-coded structures of power.” Fuckstyles “plays with” a variety of roles, separating both sex acts and gender performance from biological sex. The film includes multiple visibly trans* performers while leaving room for cisgender and heterosexual performances by Maggie and Ned Mayhem. This diversity of gender and sex acts allows for, quoting Dolan, “power, sexuality and desire [to be] recuperated from the strictly male domain.” The inclusion of multiple visible ethnicities and body types also “recuperates” sexuality, desire and power from white Western beauty ideals in Fuckstyles. In contrast, unSEXpected presents a homogenous view of beauty standards, ethnicity, gender and sex roles.

Finally, I looked at the trope of intimacy and objectification. Fuckstyles utilizes aftercare as a primary subversion of objectification. This is seen in extended post-sex intimacy, including cuddling, kissing, and exchanging endearments. Aftercare scenes demonstrate performer value beyond their sexuality. Scenes ending abruptly with ejaculation, as all the scenes in unSEXpected do, present performers with no value beyond sex.

Intimacy works as a subversion of objectification because the discourse of intimacy is strongly embedded in North American culture. This discourse is not the only possible subversion of objectification and in defining a scale of feminist performance in pornography, it is important that other exclusions or subversions of objectification are recognized and legitimized.

Moving forward, I would like to take the tropes that were used for the poster and examine more films for these same areas of performance. I would also like to add an examination of aesthetics and gaze to the analysis. Now that I have a structure for my analysis, and a much stronger grounding in feminist theory on both sides of this debate, I think that broadening my range of films while maintaining the narrow focus on specific tropes will result in a much more convincing argument about what is happening in feminist pornography and how this contrasts and overlaps with mainstream pornography. Although I do not anticipate coming up with a concrete definition of feminist pornography, I do think that this approach will allow me to come up with a scale against which the performance of feminisms in pornography can be measured.

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