Want to be wanted?

When I think about, and especially when I write about pornography, I sometimes want to lean away from the fact that for some people (for me, when I perform for lovers!) the affirmation of sexual appeal is a really huge draw.

I feel like, in order to justify the “goodness” of porn, there must not be anything superficial about the motivations for performing it. If we are performing for our lover’s gaze, if it is not coming from inner motivation, some inner desire, it must be “bad.” Or at least, it will be interpreted as bad. Having internalized the rhetoric of “you must love yourself (or, in this case, find yourself attractive),” I extend that belief to include “you must not need others to love you/find you attractive.”

But that’s ridiculous! As Nina Hartley says, the idea that it is a sign of oppression to think about how others view us is, “a rather self-defeating attitude for someone who want[s] sexual attention” (Hartley 62).

Although the beauty standard is bullshit and objectification on the gross scale of pop culture is vile, there is nothing wrong with wanting to feel sexy and to have that affirmed by an appreciative audience.

Yet, I doubt myself. I wonder if posting this, if saying that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with porn stars doing porn because they like the idea of people looking at their bodies, of having the appreciation of a wide audience, is a mistake. If it will open me up to too much critique, to accusations of being not feminist enough, or not empowered enough, or damaged, or delusional.

In the interest of honesty in this journalling process, I will admit that I feel waves of anxiety about posting this paragraph! I am not as confident as Nina Hartley in owning my own desires, and feeling strong in the knowledge that wanting affirmation is not a sign of weakness!

I don’t do sex work for money right now. I am not a sex worker. I have seriously considered it in the past, and will continue to consider it, because I have an exhibitionist streak that has been present since I was a teenager, and I adore performing, and sex work seems like a really great fit for me. And part of that, if I’m honest, is because I love the idea of people looking at my sexuality and being turned on by it. I love the idea of that affirmation.

Vicky Funari recounts an experience in a peepshow booth:

He pulls out a pen as the shutter slides down, and when it comes back up seconds later he is pressing a napkin to the glass that says, “I love your hair.” He points to my belly, my crotch, my underarms to be sure I understand he means my abundant body hair, not the shiny auburn wig on my head…. While his attraction to body hair is no different in nature than another man’s revulsion, it’s undeniably easier to perform for an appreciative audience. (Funari 22)

Funari does experience men moving away from her window because of her “abundant body hair” but she comes back multiple times in her essay to this moment of acceptance from her customer. I do not believe that feeling good because of that acceptance is wrong. It isn’t bad. It doesn’t indicate her weakness or her patriarchal indoctrination. When my lover told me that my growing armpit hair and leg hair turned hir on because it was so boyish, I finally felt okay about changing this visible and deeply stigmatized performance of my gender. I felt okay about breasts and armpit hair because of that sexual acceptance. Is it different because my lover doesn’t pay to share my bed? I don’t think it necessarily is.

Funari speaks candidly about both the positives and negatives of her experience as a sex worker. She does not sugarcoat the experience or elide the deep impact it had on her sexuality and her life. Her essay conveys the complexity of the experience, and I think is an important look at one person’s time in the industry. She did not enter sex work in order to find affirmation, but the moments where it shows up are meaningful for her.

Writing about a different experience of acceptance within sex work, Cosi Fabian writes:

I did know I possessed a vital and experienced sexuality, but at forty-two I was understandably concerned about my age. Plus I had many typical anxieties of a woman: breasts too small, butt too fat, hair too thin. My experience ultimately proved my mother right who, when I bemoaned my nonclassical face, told me that personality is more important than looks. (Fabian 49)

What I find interesting about Fabian’s account is that she brought her anxieties, “typical anxieties of a woman” – anxieties that I would expect to be made worse by pornography and sex work because of the stereotypes about both – and those anxieties were calmed through her work. She found that her clients accepted her as she was, and appreciated her work and affirmed her sexuality. This is pretty far from the stereotype of johns being interested in only one body type, and I think points to why feminist porn, with its wide range of bodies and diverse gender performances, has much more of an audience than might be anticipated.

She says, “[f]ar from the squalid stereotypes of hooker and john, I participate in honorable interactions between intelligent adults seeking relief from our manic world” (Fabian 51).

Nina Hartley writes, in a sentiment found throughout the book, that “my sex industry experience has also helped decrease my long-standing fear of men and their sexuality… I gained competence and confidence, two things I had always wanted” (Hartley 61) and, “I learned that my body was attractive to many different men, even though I am many inches and pounds away from any magazine model” (Hartley 61).

I don’t know how women find that same affirmation outside of pornography and sex work (though clearly they do – in my case through a lover whose gender is as bendy as mine and who appreciates my deviation from feminine norms). I know that it does seem that women do, find this affirmation in some sex work and some work in pornography. I know that it is not wrong to enjoy, and to desire, that affirmation. And I believe that it is not wrong no matter where you get that affirmation – in sex work or in personal interactions. I also think that is important to leave room for men to desire this affirmation. And for trans* individuals and genderqueer folks and everyone between or beside or beyond the binary.

So the shame I feel on behalf of the sex workers and porn performers that I write about, the shame that kept this blog entry in my draft folder, incomplete and waiting, for over a week… that shame is patronizing and inappropriate. If I want my lover to find me attractive, if I want to know that multiple people look at me with lust and desire, does that make me a bad person, or a bad feminist? I’m sure arguments could be made that it does, but I reject them.

I believe that where there is shame and a desire to hide, it’s important to examine not only the thing that I want to hide but also the reasons I want to hide it.

In this case, the thing I want to hide is my secret, shameful desire to be desired, to have my sexuality and my attractiveness affirmed by others. My shame at this secret is exacerbated and projected onto the sex workers I’m reading about who also want to, and do find their sexuality and attractiveness confirmed – and not because they are conventionally attractive – by their work. I extend my own shame and feelings of failure onto these people and it clouds my ability to write about their work and their experiences. I find myself wanting to hide those moments in their writing where they acknowledge how good it feels to see a sign that says “I love your body hair.”

This project pushes me out of my comfort zone in that it requires me to examine these little bits of discomfort – the debris of living in a sex-negative world full of whore-stigma and shame. Defending porn and sex workers rights is very much within my comfort zone, but examining these places of intersection – where objectifying culture meets empowering work… yeesh. It is difficult.

Because I do believe that we cannot discuss how much it is okay to want to be wanted without also talking about how our culture says that women must be wanted. And that to want to be wanted is a feminine trait, so that male performers who express a desire to be desired are seen as less manly, or as effeminate. We need to talk about male gaze and the expectation of sexual availability. It would be dishonest to avoid it.

And yet, when that necessary discussion starts to discount the experiences of sex workers themselves, I am so wary! We need to make space for sex worker voices. We need to trust that their experience is their experience, that they know themselves better than we, we arrogant academics, ever can.

In my secret heart I want to know that when I do pursue sex work, there will still be space for me.

That’s why this discussion is so uncomfortable, because it’s so personal. What’s at stake in my arguments regarding the validity of sex worker experience and empowerment is my own desire to make space for myself in that future dialogue.

That’s the reason I want to hide this shameful thing, this shameful discussion – because I am afraid of the consequences of this discussion. I am afraid that it is too tangled, that male gaze and the demand to be sexually desirable is too tightly wound up in sexuality and that wanting to be wanted can never be empowered or empowering. I am afraid to pursue this too far, for fear that I am wrong and that I will have to hide my sexuality and stop encouraging others to explore and enjoy their sexuality as publicly as they want.

I am afraid.

It is the same fear that kept me from writing my application for this project (it sat on my to-do list for weeks), the same fear that keeps from engaging with some of the heavier academic reading I’m doing in this blog. I’m afraid that I’m wrong. I’m afraid that porn is bad, sex work is bad, and I am bad for loving it.

But if everyone who fears that their unconventional view is wrong keeps it silent, nothing will change.

And, to quote my favourite supervillain (link is SFW), we need to destroy the status quo, because the status is not quo.

Works Cited:

Fabian, Cosi. “The Holy Whore: A Woman’s Gateway to Power.” Whores and Other Feminists. Ed. Jill Nagle. New York: Routledge, 2010. 44-54. Print.

Funari, Vicky. “Naked, Naughty, Nasty: Peep Show Reflections.” Whores and Other Feminists. Ed. Jill Nagle. New York: Routledge, 2010. 19-35. Print.

Hartley, Nina. “In The Flesh.” Whores and Other Feminists. Ed. Jill Nagle. New York: Routledge, 2010. 57-65. Print.

Why make porn?

Instead of being viewed as a trailblazer, many of my sisters view me (at best) misguided and brainwashed or (at worst) as a traitor and rapist. (Hartley 60)

Nina Hartley’s articulation of the response of some feminists to her work as a porn performer fits with what I have encountered in many discussions of porn and the people who make it. I have personal feelings (I have All The Feelings!) about this topic, but before I get into those, I wanted to give voice to a small range of feminist pornographers who have articulated why they do what they do. If we believe their stories (and I feel that we must, because there is no evidence to suggest they are lying or deluded and I believe that honouring the personal story is necessary to creating understanding and compassion in our interaction with those we might consider “other”) then there are many, many reasons to be involved in making porn that are not “misguided” or “brainwashed” or worse.

Nina Hartley is a registered nurse (and graduated with her B. Sc. magna cum laude (Hartley 59)) and one of the most highly recognized porn performers. She has used her work to “promote sexual literacy and tolerance” (Nagle 275). She says, of her reasons for being in pornography:

I believe that sensual pleasure (self-generated or shared) is a meditation, opening a direct path to the life force, i.e. “God.” I do not find it particularly demeaning to make a living with my body, because I don’t think sex is intrinsically bad. I don’t think vulvas and penises are dirty, and I don’t think that lust is horrible or anti-love. Nonconsensuality and self-destructive behaviour are the evils. (Hartley 62)

And:

My life is richer and more rewarding for having chosen a sexually oriented occupation. The main rewards have been increased self-awareness and self-confidence, as well as the pleasure I bring to others. (Hartley 58)

Her essay, “In The Flesh,” is an articulate expression of her own journey, her feminist values, and the process of consciously entering the pornography industry after consulting with her two life partners. She speaks about her long-held fantasies of being watched, and about the benefits she has experienced because of her career choice. She also speaks candidly about some of the problems that new performers can face, such as the temptation to spend the money as quickly as it comes it, and the fact that the industry can be brutish.

Ann Renee was a teenage sex worker, and is now a counselor, writer and mother, and an advocate for women’s sexual rights (Nagle 278). On that issue of protection of sexual rights, she writes:

I am an advocate for shifting the locus of control. I vehemently protect women’s rights to choose how they employ their sexuality. By the blood and bruises of sexual violations that I have suffered, I advocate protection for consensual sexual expressions of all kinds. For all genders. I advocate amnesty for all manifestations of sexual rapture. I willingly offer myself as an instrument for the dissolution of systems of shame. (Renee 56)

I found her piece, “A Sex Protector/Pervert Speaks Out” particularly powerful, because she manages to articulate why allowing women to work as consensual sex workers is so important to ending the culture of shame that enables so much silence around nonconsensual sex trafficking. The two issues are linked, and not because they are the same thing. In her piece she talks about how it can go wrong, and why that means that we must “shift the locus of control” so that it can also go right.

Marcy Sheiner, a well-known writer and editor of erotica and written pornography, as well as a phone-sex operator writes:

Contrary to the opinions of the conservative antisex faction of the women’s movement, I no longer doubt that I am a feminist. Ironically, this “F” word has fallen into almost as much disrepute as the original “F” word, but I consider feminism a core part of my identity as well as an honorable philosophy to espouse. To me, feminism means a belief in a very basic goal: full equality of women. I don’t see pornography or sexual pleasure as undermining that belief or that goal. Like everything else, it can certainly be used destructively – but it isn’t an inherently negative force.

Au contraire. Writing and reading pornography has been, for me, fun, exciting, creative, illuminating, empowering and lucrative. And I feel no qualms or contradiction when I say that I am both a feminist and a pornographer. (Sheiner 43)

Justin Jones, writing in a different book (the above quotes come from “Whores and Other Feminists,” Jones is anthologized in “Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Rent Boys”), offers a different perspective:

Ok, I admit it. Even before I plug it in, that smooth little ball-camera made my dick jump. Turns out I’m not only a closet homosexual but a budding exhibitionist to boot. And thirty minutes after rubbing my junk into the little glass eye, my inbox is clogged with guys around the world telling me that I am hot. (Jones 250)

He writes about the glamour and affirmation that he finds in the lifestyle, and the way he fell into it and why he stays in it. I appreciate the reminder that performance appeals to people of multiple genders, and that sometimes wanting the affirmation of being told “you’re hot” is okay.

The reason I think these sex worker voices are so necessary in any discussion of pornography, and the reason I am pro-porn and pro-sex worker is partly because I am a sex radical and activist first, and my engagement with academia is a result of my activism and flows from it. I’m only here because I was already interested in queer theory and feminist theory, and I believe that activism and academia can be linked together to create more effective activism and more accurate academic engagement. I do not believe that we can understand an issue without engaging with the people impacted by it.

I agree wholeheartedly with Carol Queen when she says;

Sex radicalism means to me that I am automatically on the side of the minority sexual viewpoint or behaviour; because our culture carefully and narrowly circumscribes what is acceptable, much of the sexual world gets left on the wrong side of the fence. Sex radicalism also means that when I hear the voices of those who have been left out of the discussion, I choose to believe what they tell me about their own lives, even if it contradicts some “expert’s” opinion; it also means that I maintain my own sexual integrity, if not cultural popularity, when I follow my own desires and trust where they lead. (Queen 127)

What she said.

Works Cited:

Hartley, Nina. “In The Flesh.” Whores and Other Feminists. Ed. Jill Nagle. New York: Routledge, 2010. 57-65. Print.

Jones, Justin. “Casting Shadows.” Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Rent Boys. Ed. David Henry Sterry and R.J. Martin. Brooklyn: Soft Skull Press, 2009. 248-252. Print.

Renee, Ann. “A Sex Protector/Pervert Speaks Out.” Whores and Other Feminists. Ed. Jill Nagle. New York: Routledge, 2010. 55-56. Print.

Sheiner, Marcy. “Odyssey of a Feminist Pornographer.” Whores and Other Feminists. Ed. Jill Nagle. New York: Routledge, 2010. 36-43. Print.

Queen, Carol. “Sex Radical Politics, Sex-Positive Feminist Thought, and Whore Stigma.” Whores and Other Feminists. Ed. Jill Nagle. New York: Routledge, 2010. 125-135. Print.

Whores and Other Feminists

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.)

Works Cited:

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.