“Don’t Be A Dick”: Applying Wheaton’s Law to Academics and Race

I am working on a major revision of a paper, with an eye to submitting it to the Porn Studies Journal and crossing my fingers that it passes peer review. This is exciting. One of my professors is supervising the revision and helping me figure out how to write a paper for a journal (a different creature than a paper written for a class).

The paper is about the performance of cisgender masculinity in heterosexual scenes in feminist pornography. My hypothesis is that this is a gender/sex performance that is (at least in my existing case study – Ned Mayhem’s performance of masculinity in Fuckstyles of the Queer and Famous) non-normative and one that challenges assumptions of what it means to perform cisgender masculinity. One case study, however, is not enough, and this is where I run into a thorny academic/activist issue.

Ned Mayhem is white. I am also white. Porn studies, along with many academic disciplines, have historically been pretty pale and I am concerned about contributing to an academic exploration of pornography that does not address the many people of colour working within and around pornography. I am also aware that what it means to “perform cisgender masculinity” is different depending on class, race and ability (among other factors). It seems shortsighted and lacking intersectionality to confine my paper to a discussion of only white cisgender masculinity in pornography.

However, what authority do I, as a white academic, have to speak about the performance of masculinity by a racialized porn performer? Not only to speak about, but also to examine through the lenses provided by academics and scholars of colour, and by activist and feminist pornographers of colour.

White academics have committed significant violence against our racialized colleagues, appropriating the intellectual contributions of people of colour without making space for people of colour in the academy. This is evident in the frequency with which Black feminists such as bell hooks and Audre Lorde are cited by white feminists who do not engage with race politics beyond appropriating a brilliant turn of phrase for a facebook status or to hang an academic argument on. (And credit must go to the Black women on Twitter, particularly in the #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag, for bringing this issue up – I had never realized how problematic it could be to take Black women’s words and not engage any further.)

I struggled with this idea in my honours thesis, where bell hooks’ concept of the confrontational gaze formed a critical piece of my analysis. In my thesis, the idea of the confrontational gaze was necessary for understanding how Courtney Trouble re-appropriated the money shot from the patriarchal, misogynist pornography that it originated within. hooks’ insight was invaluable for me. And yet, I was not writing about race and race did not feature with any significance in my thesis. Choosing not to use hooks’ insight would have made my thesis weaker, and avoiding the work of academics of colour is clearly not the answer. This is a tangle I have yet to work myself out of, and one that becomes more and more relevant as I work on this revision.

It is clearly not okay to avoid the intellectual contributions of people of colour in my work as a white academic – doing so would perpetuate an oppressive academic system that consistently devalues the work of anyone outside the select, privileged group. However, I am becoming more and more convinced that it is also problematic to simply take up the lens provided by an intellectual from a marginalized community and use it with impunity.

And this is where I run into a wall.

Jane Doe, MD tweeted earlier in the summer:

 
I think this is sometimes the case with white academics as well. What is meant to be inclusive and intersectional may actually be (mis)appropriative. Where I (from my position of privilege) see the potential for solidarity, and want to say “yes, me too!” to the writing of academics of colour, there is the potential for me to be (mis)appropriative, to claim their words for my own when I actually have no right to them, to pull them out of their own context and into mine, leaving their work behind.

Reading Ariane Cruz’s essay “Pornography: A Black Feminist Woman Scholar’s Reconciliation” as research on this topic, I became aware of a visceral response in myself, a “yes, me too!” when Cruz articulates the complexities of the relationship between pornography and feminism. And yet, Cruz is not articulating the complexities of “the relationship between pornography and feminism.”

She is speaking specifically and directly about pornography and Black feminism. My “yes, me too!” echoes the problematic and on-going process of queer activism and queer theory using Black activism and Black theory as a stepping stone, using the backs of our Black colleagues as a bridge for our activism.[1] I am cognizant of the risk in my “me too!” – the potential for this response to step on and muffle the voice and meaning of Cruz’ work.

I want to find solidarity in the essay, because so much of what she writes speaks to me and to my experience as a feminist and as a scholar studying pornography. Cruz articulates the conflict and complexity of studying pornographies in a way that speaks directly to my own experience of pornography. As I become more and more immersed in both the viewing and analysis of pornography and the scholarship surrounding it, I relate more strongly to her statement that “[s]truggles with how to place pornography in the personal space of my home and in the professional space of my office speak to the broader, yet equally nebulous question of pornography’s place in modern society” (217).

She writes, “I have become less assured of the intrinsic virtues of mainstream pornography – its expression of alternative sexualities, its possibilities of and for sexual pleasure outside of a white heteropatriarchal imagination or fantasy, and its capability for an admittedly utopian construction that I might call “sustainable arousal,” arousal that is not an ephemeral feeling but rather one that endures” (222).

Similarly, as I realize that even queer pornography can reinscribe and reinforce dominant ideals of beauty, dominant ideals of gender performance, dominant ideals of acceptable sexual behaviour, I become less and less dogmatic in my belief that pornography (even feminist pornography) is a universal good. We have some views in common, we have some experiences in common. But there are significant differences between my experience of pornography, and Cruz’s. She writes about the specific experience of Black women’s hypersexualization, something that I, socialized as a white woman (though not a woman), have never and will never experience. Is it okay for me to take the parts that fit with my experience out of Cruz’s essay, and leave the rest behind? Is it okay to use her insight, but to only use the bits of it that work for my argument, for my own ends?

In my effort to draw on Black scholarship, to learn from Black scholars and engage with Black thought, there is the potential for me to do harm, to contribute to the ongoing colonization and appropriation of Black culture and thought.

That there is multidirectional flow of knowledge (that Linda Williams is a key reference in Cruz’s essay, for example) does not justify the constant appropriation of Black thought by white academics. Black writers have been actively plagiarized by white writers (most recently Gawker lifted tweets by Black author @wayoftheid word-for-word without attribution). There is a difference between learning from each other and stepping on each other, and because white academics have greater privilege, it is much easier for us to step on rather than learn from.

My “yes, me too!” response is because there is significant value in Cruz’s work. Her essay evoked a wide range of feelings and thoughts – multiple times I had to stop and sit, digest what she had just said. And there are similarities in our struggles. (Not universality, not homogeneity, but similarity.) There are important insights in her work that can illuminate and further both my academic projects and my queer activism.

And yet, this must be done in a respectful and appropriate (rather than appropriative) way.

So here are the two rocks I find myself between, the two rocks I have been wedged between all summer as I struggle with this concept of lateral appropriation, racism, and appropriative intersectionality:

On the one hand, ignoring the presence of race, and the contributions of colored scholars, contributes to the whitewashing of academia that I am so vehemently against. It is not an option.

Yet, on the other hand, appropriating the scholarship and work of scholars of colour has the potential to also be harmful, to speak for or to claim understanding of their experiences and their work, or to simply erase their experiences and claim their voice as my own.

So I can’t write only from and about my own experience because my experience is as a white scholar and that would contribute to the whitewashing of academics.[2] But I also must be careful in how I use the work of scholars of colour in my own academics. This leaves me feeling anxious and uncertain as I move forward with my academic projects, but I think that feeling of anxiety is necessary. It should not be easy to navigate issues of privilege and oppression as the person with privilege. If it is easy, I think perhaps that means you’re missing some critical bits of information. Being in this particular “rock/hard place” is infinitely easier than being in the position of facing systemic racism on a daily basis. I can walk away from this, write whatever I want and continue to appropriate, or just ignore that race is an issue, and at worst I will be a lesser scholar. Academics of colour (people of colour) don’t have the option to walk away from it.

In Jacob Anderson-Minshall’s essay “The Enemy Within: On Becoming a Straight White Guy,” he writes that “The Combahee River Collective’s “A Black Feminist Statement” could have been written about transgender people rather than black women” (29), and goes on to use the language of the text to discuss the oppression of transgender people. It is this type of sentiment and statement that I am wary of expressing, because it decenters Black women as the subject of their own writing. Although I do think that parallels can be drawn, and that these parallels and efforts at coalition are important, claiming Black women’s writing for a different or broader audience risks further marginalizing and erasing the experiences that are unique to Black women, particularly when there is not an acknowledgement of the ongoing, unique issues faced by Black women and other racialized individuals.

Later, Anderson-Minshall writes that “[t]here are a lot of awful problems in the world today, and to solve them we need to make allies and build bridges to other movements seeking change. We need to accept the problems of others as our own” (32). I think there is a danger in claiming the problems of others as our own. Although I agree that we do need to “make allies and build bridges,” I disagree that the way to do this is to claim a universality of experience, a homogeneity of problems. Yes, the kyriarchy impacts all of us, and each point of oppression has ripple effects throughout the rest of society. Misogyny negatively impacts men by cutting masculinity off from any traits that could be considered feminine. Racism negatively impacts white individuals by creating adversarial interactions where collaboration would be not only possible but beneficial. But misogyny does not threaten men – it benefits men. Racism does not threaten white individuals – it benefits white individuals (like myself). These are problems that are unique to the identity category being oppressed, being threatened, and although they do negatively impact all of society, they are not equally available to claim.

Ned Mayhem, later in the same anthology, writes that “[i]t’s easy to talk about how the hierarchy of privilege is bullshit when you’re perched at the top of it, and it’s easy to talk about destigmatizing marginalized groups while belonging to none of them” (81). This insight seems critical, especially when paired with Shiri Eisner’s statement that “[c]onnecting between different struggles is one of the cornerstones to radical political thinking. To acknowledge that all forms of oppression are interrelated is so acknowledge that we all have a stake in each other’s liberation, that none of us is free until everyone is free” (36).

There is a difference, I think, between acknowledging the interrelatedness of problems, and claiming them as our own. It is a small difference, but seems, to me, to be critical.

Ned Mayhem writes about the challenges that he faces in the porn industry, particularly around expectations of masculinity. However, these challenges are not the same challenges that someone with a different body would face. He writes, “[b]eing Caucasian in porn means that I don’t have to look for work exclusively on sites that fetishize my ethnic background. Being cisgendered and having a normative body type means that I am offered more work, and I am not publicly mocked or insulted by the same companies that hire me” (81). It is this acknowledgement of privilege, coupled with an awareness of other groups’ problems and their interrelatedness to his own struggles, that makes his essay feel more inclusive to me.

In the case of my paper, I still think that it’s important to include a case study that looks at a racialized cisgender male performer in a heterosexual scene, in addition to the case study of Ned Mayhem in Fuckstyles of the Queer and Famous. I haven’t picked the scene yet, but I have started reading everything I can get my hands on about racialized masculinities. I’m also reading about race in pornography, and trying to get a handle on not only how race is represented in pornography, but also on how academics and activists of colour are responding to those representations.

This process has been daunting, but incredibly valuable. In reading about Black scholar’s responses to Black bodies in pornography, my own thoughts about genderqueer bodies in pornography have been deepened and become more nuanced. There are interconnected elements in the various relationships between pornography and marginalized and oppressed identities. I think that learning from each other is important – beyond important! I think it is critical.

But our learning cannot come at each other’s expense. And too often, it is too easy for white academics like myself to wiggle off that hook and thoughtlessly trample on the work and writing of our colleagues. We must apply Wheaton’s Law to our academic life as much as to the rest of our lives.

 


[2] Longest footnote ever: It occurs to me that it is not actually true that writing about white experience necessarily contributes to whitewashing. Writing about white experience as though it were universal is whitewashing. If I wrote about white experience as white experience, that could be valuable and legitimate.

Hmm.

And yet, I don’t want to write about whiteness. Whiteness is not the identity category that I struggle with (a factor of my privilege as a white person). I want to study and write about my genderqueer identity, my bisexual identity, my polyamory, my kink, my neurodivergence, my invisible disability.

I read somewhere that ‘straight white men are the only group that actively seeks marginalization.’ I think perhaps I am experiencing/performing a little bit of this problematic “seeking marginalization” – I don’t want to write about my whiteness because I don’t want to write about my experience as a person with privilege. It is more interesting and more rewarding to write about my experiences of marginalization and oppression. Because my whiteness is invisible to me, because I feel my oppression but I do not feel my privilege, those points of oppression are infinitely more “real” and more “writeable.”

This is a difficult realization.

I wonder if it is possible to critically engage with my whiteness, to write about my privilege from within my privilege, while still maintaining my focus on the areas that interest me more – my orienatation, my neurodivergence, my kink, my poly, my gender identity. To incorporate an engagement with (or at least an active and aware acknowledgement of) my whiteness and how it impacts my scholarship and life into my practice of academic writing. To not let it be invisible.

Works Cited:

Anderson-Minshall, Jacob. “The Enemy Within: On Becoming a Straight White Guy.” Men Speak Out. Ed. Shira Tarrant. New York: Routledge, 2013. 28-33.

Cruz, Ariane. “Pornography: A Black Feminist Woman Scholar’s Reconciliation.” The Feminist Porn Book. Ed. Tristan Taormino et al. New York: The Feminist Press, 2013. 215-227.

Doe, Jane. Tweet from @DrJaneChi. Twitter.com. 28 July 2013.

Eisner, Shiri. Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution. Berkeley: Seal Press, 2013.

Mayhem, Ned. “Male and Queer in the Porn Industry.” Men Speak Out. Ed. Shira Tarrant. New York: Routledge, 2013. 80-86.

Feminist Pornography (and why watching it can be good for your self-esteem)

(This was originally posted on BeauCoo – an awesome trans*-inclusive, body-positive site – on July 30, 2013. I made one correction, updating my original language of “a visible minority” to the more appropriate “racialized” regarding Creative Xicana.)

Ellen Page recently responded to a question from feminist pornographer Courtney Trouble (and sent the internet into a tizzy) by saying that “feminist porn is crucial.”

I think that she’s right.

If we don’t fit the standard beauty ideal (and who among us does?!) then it can be hard to imagine ourselves as confident, attractive, sexual individuals. We don’t get to see ourselves as the romantic lead in the movies and TV shows that we watch. We don’t see ourselves represented in ad campaigns – we don’t even get to sell ourselves the products that companies expect us to buy! Sex sells, and we’re not selling, so how can we be sexy? We’re often the sidekicks, the token addition to the cast, the butt of the joke. Most media presents a fairly narrow slice of body types and gender expressions as being the norm.

Porn, especially feminist porn, is different, and that’s why it’s crucial.

As a genderqueer person, Jiz Lee’s pornography and their blog (NSFW) was revolutionary for me. Before realizing that my gender non-conforming body could be amazingly hot (like Jiz Lee’s!), I struggled to even imagine what kind of sexual possibilities were available for me. Stepping outside of the gender binary, and therefore being outside of the societal norm, I lost my template.

The same is often true for other non-conforming individuals, whether we are fat (Kelly Shibari talks about being a fat Asian porn star, link is mostly SFW), disabled, trans*, racialized (Creative Xicana reviews award-winning porn Hella Brown, NSFW) or some other marker that singles us out from the perceived norm. The beauty of feminist pornography, and other forms of ethical pornography being created by marginalized groups, is that we can see ourselves represented in ways that are respectful and hot.

Defining feminist pornography is challenging. Autostraddle put together an excellent article earlier this year, interviewing multiple queer and feminist pornographers and providing some excellent definitions and resources.

It’s not just self-identified feminists who are making good porn for a wide variety of people (though self-identifying as a feminist is almost always a good sign!). Nica Noelle, who makes trans*, lesbian and straight porn rejects a feminist label (SFW) but makes ethical porn that features hot sex between individuals who might not otherwise get a chance in front of the camera.

“So what do you look for? Where do you go for porn that will represent you in a respectful, ethical, fun and hot way?”

Start with the Feminist Porn Awards (SFW). Other sources for good porn recommendations areMs. Naughty and Violet Blue’s blog Tiny Nibbles (both NSFW).

It’s also a great idea to do some social media research first. Follow pornographers on their blogs, Tumblrs and Twitter feeds. Start with some of the performers and producers like Jiz LeeKelly ShibariCourtney TroubleNica Noelle, Erika Lust, Shine Louise Houston, Sinnamon Love, Ned and Maggie Mayhem (my favourite nerdy porn couple!), or Tony Comstock. Find out what they think about the porn that they’re performing in and producing, and if you agree with their politics then chances are you’ll enjoy their porn. If you’re a bit of an academic, grab a copy of the Feminist Porn Book and read essays by producers, performers and the feminist academics, then look up the porn they’re discussing.

Feminist pornography offers a rare opportunity to see ourselves represented respectfully, consensually and ethically in situations that are smokin’ hot and a real turn-on. We’re sexy. Let’s celebrate it!

You’ve Got Something On Your Face – final draft. Eep!

I presented this at the 2013 English Honours Symposium. It went well!

It seems somehow appropriate to end this symposium with a discussion of the money shot.

This iconic pornographic trope, the cum shot onto a face or body that often signals the end of the sexual act or scene, has been subverted and reimagined, and finally excluded, in Courtney Trouble’s queer feminist pornographic film, “Nostalgia.”

It is relevant to this discussion that Trouble’s feminist pornography is queer. There are no biologically male performers in “Nostalgia” and this necessarily shifts the focus away from male ejaculatory orgasm, onto alternative ejaculatory imagery, active participation of all the sexual players, and ultimately the decentering of orgasm as the end-goal of pornographic sexual scenes. It is critical to recognize that Trouble’s queer feminist pornography is not the only iteration of feminist pornography, and that not all feminist pornography is queer and not all queer pornography is feminist. Alison Butler has said that “women produce feminist work in a wide variety of forms and styles,” and this applies to feminist pornography as much as to any other feminist cultural practice. It is important that we not look for all the answers in Trouble’s film – she cannot represent the heterosexual feminist in this film, or answer the question of where the biologically male penis fits within feminist pornography. These are important questions regarding the role of ejaculation and ejaculatory imagery in feminist pornography, but they won’t be addressed here. In fact, I believe that the issues of the heterosexual feminist and the biologically male performer within feminist porn are areas that are chronically under-theorized. Within an academic discipline that is itself full of gaps and areas that demand further thought and critique, feminist academic writing needs to someday wrestle with the acceptance of heterosexuality into a pro-porn canon that often conflates queerness with feminism and problematically excludes heterosexuality.

But for now, an examination of Trouble’s queer feminist pornography.

Nostalgia reimages four scenes from iconic, “Golden Age” pornography. Her film is framed by transitional shots of Trouble and her girlfriend watching porn together. This is an important insertion of Trouble and her girlfriend as viewers into the pornographic scenes, and implicates us, as viewers, as active participants in the same pornographic scenes. Active participation is a theme throughout Nostalgia, and is important because of how it subverts the ejaculation trope of the active male penis ejaculating onto the passive female body. A trope that is pervasive in the scenes that Trouble reimagines.

When I watched the original porn films that Nostalgia is based on, Behind the Green Door, Deep Throat, Babylon Pink and The Devil in Miss Jones, I thought two things. First, I was incredibly grateful to be studying feminist pornography instead of this type of mainstream porn. It was necessary to watch these films in order to understand Trouble’s reimagining of them, but if my only material was this racist, misogynist and heteronormative… I would be studying something else. Second, I thought wow. That is a lot of semen flying through the air! Behind the Green Door features a 7-minute, slow motion, psychedelic money shot montage that I found both surreal and disturbing to watch.

It was the narrow fixation of the original porn films on the money shot – to the extent that the scene in Babylon Pink actually does not include any female orgasm or even attempt to reach orgasm, and centres solely around two men ejaculating onto a passive woman’s face – and the complete lack of this fixation in “Nostalgia” that lead me to the topic for this presentation.

I wanted to know what Trouble was attempting to say about ejaculation, and about its place within queer feminist pornography. She chose four films that explicitly centre around male ejaculation, and she called her film “Nostalgia”! In fact, Deep Throat is cited by Linda Williams as the first significant instance of the money shot, the first time that ejaculation onto a woman’s face or body was given pride of place in the scene, and it along with Behind the Green Door and The Devil in Miss Jones make up the 70s porno-chic triumvirate. What is Trouble nostalgic for? The original scenes are horrifying in their representation of passive feminine sexuality as little more than a receptacle for male sexual pleasure. But, Deep Throat redefined the focus of pornographic depictions of sexuality. And that ability to redefine is what Trouble is nostalgic for and what she attempts to accomplish in Nostalgia.

The first scene that Trouble reimagines is from Behind the Green Door. In the original, the main character is abducted and “ravished” for the enjoyment of an audience that is commanded to be silent and still while they watch. She is restrained through much of the scene, passively but without any indication of active consent, and in the context of having been abducted, and the scene climaxes with 7 minutes of cum.

Nostalgia’s reimagining of this scene, more than any of the other three, closely mirrors the format and structure of the original. However, in Trouble’s remake, there are significant differences. The audience claps and participates – the viewer again brought into the scene. There is no abduction, and the main character is submissive, but she is not passive. She is actively engaged with the sex acts throughout the scene, actively participates in her own pleasure and orgasm, and when two female characters ejaculate onto her torso she makes eye contact with them, she is not restrained, and non-consensual passivity is replaced with consensual submissiveness.

This scene centres around ejaculation, echoing the original. Female ejaculation, yes, but still fully embodied – still a body ejaculating bodily fluid onto another body. And still the climax of the sexual scene.

The second scene in Nostalgia is the reimagining of Deep Throat. Deep Throat is the infamous “clitoris in the back of her throat” film. It was, and is, a controversial film and one that exemplifies the abuses we often associate with the porn industry. Linda Lovelace, who stars in the original, suffered incredible abuse on the set. Trouble’s choice to include Deep Throat in her nostalgia gave me pause. It is a ridiculous and cheesy film, and I found it disturbing to watch. Linda Lovelace is “fixed” when the doctor discovers her clitoris deep in her throat, and she experiences an orgasm that is marked by bells ringing and rockets literally taking off when she deep throats him and he ejaculates on her face. This language of being “fixed” implies that the inorgasmic woman is broken and requires a penis to fix her. She goes on to fall in love with a man whose fantasy is to be a rapist, and who complains that she’s not afraid enough. Her response is that he’s just so manly, and she’s so turned on by him that she can’t fake the fear.

In Trouble’s reimagining of the scene, the casting is important. Madison Young, who not only performs but also directs her own feminist pornography, plays the role of Linda Lovelace. Young is vocal about her enjoyment of fellatio – not just in this scene where she plays the part convincingly, but also in her life, where she gives workshops and presents talks on the topic. Jiz Lee and Syd Blakovich, the two other performers in this scene, are also known for their work as performance artists and activists, as well as porn performers. This casting of three highly recognizable performers who do work on and off-screen mitigates the potential for the implication that Trouble is mirroring not only the film but also the production practices. These three, perhaps more than any other three performers could, make it clear through their acting and their identities, that this is a fully consensual performance.

The doctor finds Young’s clitoris in her throat, just like in the original. And just like in the original, this causes her to orgasm. Rather than rockets launching, however, this orgasm involves glitter. A lot of glitter. Earlier in the scene Young says that she wants to squirt glitter, and the orgasm features glitter fireworks on the screen, and ends with glitter all over the doctor’s condom-covered, silicon cock and Young’s face. It is unclear where the glitter ejaculate comes from. Clearly, throats do not ejaculate. Neither do silicon cocks. Certainly not when they’re wrapped in a condom. This ejaculatory scene, then, shifts the focus away from the fully embodied, supposedly “natural”, ejaculatory orgasm, to an ambiguous, winking, sort-of embodied ejaculation.

Trouble then takes the scene in a direction that does not in any way mirror the original. Both the doctor and the nurse are wearing strap-ons and, critically, Madison Young is active in asking for what she wants and directing the action to achieve her own orgasm. This orgasm, entirely glitter-free, is the result of penetration and clitoral stimulation – inserting the biological female body into a scene that fantasizes about the misplaced clitoris. This is important, because the misplaced clitoris fantasy allowed the original Deep Throat to completely elide actual female pleasure and to place male ejaculation as the primary focus of the scene.

By placing the two orgasms in the Nostalgia reimagining side by side, the one clearly fake, with ambiguously originating glitter ejaculate and dramatically acted porn-orgasm screams, and the other involving no ejaculate and a much more seemingly authentic orgasm, Deep Throat’s original act of placing ejaculation as the focus and the point of the pornographic scene is undone. Trouble pulls the rug out from under this trope by contrasting the two orgasms, highlighting the ridiculousness of the money shot, particularly when it does not include any efforts at mutual pleasure and active participation by all sexual players. This scene also moves away from closely following the original, as the first scene did, and towards more radical revisioning of the original texts.

The final two scenes barely even resemble the original texts.

Babylon Pink, the third scene in Nostalgia, originally featured a short scene of a woman fantasizing about being placed on a table at a dinner party and having two men ejaculate onto her face, with two women also present. In the re-imagining of this scene, the woman having the fantasy is an active participant in the sex acts with her two female companions. The sex acts are widely varied, with elements of dominance and submission and each character playing both dominant and submissive roles. The scene ends with the woman whose fantasy we are watching smearing cake onto the faces of her companions. This is fully disembodied ejaculatory imagery – moving further and further from the phallocentric focus of the porn films being reimagined. Most interestingly in this scene, none of the performers in this scene appear to orgasm, or at least their orgasms are not the focus of the scene. Rather, the focus is on power exchange and the interactions between the three women.

This shift in focus from orgasm as an end-goal to sexual pleasure as an on-going process allows Trouble to interrogate the purpose of pornographic sex. The ejaculatory moment in this scene, with cake being smeared across two women’s faces but nobody experiencing or performing orgasm, challenges the idea of ejaculation as proof of pleasure. The cake-ejaculate is constructed, manufactured, and fully disembodied. In fact, it is vegan cake, which takes it entirely out of the realm of bodies and their products. It is the moments of sexual interaction – the active participation of all performers in the sexual act – that are given the weight of authenticity.

Finally, Nostalgia ends with The Devil in Miss Jones. Both the original and the reimagining begin with Miss Jones’ suicide and her arrival in limbo. These are the only things that they have in common, and it is relevant because unlike the abduction that is removed from the reimagining of Behind the Green Door, Miss Jones’ suicide is an act of personal agency. It is a choice that she makes. In the original, she is given the opportunity to experience lust before going to Hell for her sin of suicide. In Nostalgia, she is also given the opportunity to experience lust. She and the angel that meets her in limbo are transported into the room with Trouble and her girlfriend. This is important because it highlights the point made by Trouble in her framing of the film as interactive, that the viewer is part of the pornographic process. That we shape the porn that we watch through our choices in what we watch, and how we respond to it.

There are no similarities between the pornographic scene in Trouble’s bedroom and any scene in the original film. There is no sadistic teacher, there is no ejaculation of any kind, and there is no punishment. The four women engage in a variety of sex acts, experience or perform orgasms that do not appear to be the focus of the camera or the scene, and end the scene and the film tangled together asleep on the bed.

There have been moments in porn that shape cultural ideas about what sex is and how we do what we do when we get in bed together. Deep Throat, Behind the Green Door and The Devil in Miss Jones are considered the three most influential films of 70s porno chic, they changed how we film sex. They situated male ejaculation onto female bodies as the critical, defining moment in the pornographic scene. And we still see the money shot as the most common ending to scenes in heterosexual mainstream pornography. This focus on the money shot, and on the active male sexuality that it evokes, is about power.

A fundamental argument underpinning the anti-porn feminist critiques that were sparked by films such as the Behind the Green Door, Deep Throat, Babylon Pink and The Devil in Miss Jones is that pornography is about power, and that it is about male power over women. The image of the passive female recipient of the explosive male ejaculate isexactly what feminists like Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon were enraged by. And yet, thankfully, not all pornography is about the passive female and the active male.

Not all pornography is straight, for one thing. And some feminists responded to the appalling state of mainstream heterosexual pornography by creating their own pornography. Annie Sprinkle said that the answer to bad porn is not no porn, it is more porn. I would add, better porn. Feminist porn.

If it was true in the pornography of the time, as Catherine MacKinnon said, that “women/men is a distinction not just of difference, but of power and powerlessness . . . power/powerlessness is the sex difference,” then feminist pornographers such as Courtney Trouble and others like her – Nina Hartley, Jiz Lee, Madison Young, Erika Lust, Tony Comstock, Buck Angel, Tobi Hill-Meyer, Shine Louise Houston, Ned and Maggie Mayhem… These pornographers are smashing that binary. Imperfectly, incompletely, but resolutely.

There is power in pornography; this power is obvious when we look at the long legacy left by Deep Throat and the introduction of the money shot.

Courtney Trouble was nostalgic for that power, for the ability to redefine how we think about and perform sex in pornographic scenes. She took four films that shaped pornography and reimagined them through her own queer feminist lens. This is what feminist porn does, and why I am happy to study it and support it. To be the active participant that Trouble imagines.

Talking about feminist porn when I might mean ethical porn

The poster’s done, so we can move on.

I have appreciated Furry Girl‘s work for many years. She does amazing sex worker advocacy, and I think she’s brilliant. She’s also an “ex-feminist” and her arguments are among the reasons that I struggle with maintaining a feminist label for myself. (Collapsing much internal debate to a single paragraph: I still identify as a feminist, specifically a sex-positive, queer, intersectional feminist, because I think that systemic gender-based oppression and the devaluing of anything deemed feminine is still a real, significant issue, and calling myself a feminist is one quick, short-hand way of saying “I think that’s fucked up and I will be vocal about my feelings on that topic.” HOWEVER, the argument that feminism means too many conflicting things to be meaningful really resonates with me, and I do really worry that when I say I’m a feminist someone will think that means I agree with Gail Dines. And that makes me sad. And Furry Girl is also a vocal and effective advocate for gender equality and anti-sexism, so a feminist label isn’t actually necessary for the work I want to do.)

Furry Girl wrote a post about “the red herring of feminist porn.” It’s a good post. It raises some relevant points. She says that we should be talking about ethical porn, because talking about feminist porn ignores all the ethical porn being made under anything but a feminist label, and implies that only feminist porn can be ethical porn. I do not believe that porn must be feminist in order to be ethical. I also have some concerns about my own research project because I worry that some porn producers that would not be happy with a feminist label (like Furry Girl herself) are being appropriated under the feminist porn label because my project is feminist porn so the porn I’m looking at must be feminist. I hope that I am not being so arrogant, but I worry that I am.

I also worry about this because Courtney Trouble has gone on the record (I think in Herizons, but I’d have to look it up) as saying that her porn is not feminist porn, it’s queer porn made by a feminist. But she won a Feminist Porn Award for Fuckstyles so I’m writing about her porn in my project on feminist porn. Is that an inappropriate appropriation? Does the fact that she won (and accepted) an FPA mean that I can legitimately write about her porn as feminist?

In my poster, I talk about the fact that my research is not looking at production practices (the treatment of performers that Furry Girl rightly says is critically important). I am limited by what my supervisor has asked me to do in this project, and although I had originally hoped to look at production practices, I can’t. I am doing a film studies-style analysis of what is being performed on screen. Specifically, I’m looking at tropes (things like consent/coercion, agency/passivity, diversity/homogeneity and intimacy/objectification – Furry Girl disagrees that objectification is a thing, and I’m still processing that). I’m looking at how feminist principles are being performed on screen in pornography, both “feminist” pornography and mainstream pornography.

I phrased it as “how feminisms are performed” in my poster because there isn’t a single universal feminism. I was trying to address that issue that Furry Girl brings up so often, about feminism’s fragmentation into too many divergent camps.

I don’t have an answer to this question. I am concerned about generating an ethical research project, which does not just appropriate material under a feminist label because I think that a feminist label is the only way to legitimize it. I would like to find a way to work with my material in a respectful manner, using language that the producer would be comfortable with but still coming up with something coherent.

As is always the case with labeling, whatever I use as a label will, unless I’m very careful and possibly even if I am, end up excluding or devaluing things that are labeled in other ways. I don’t want to pretend (and it would be pretending, because I do not believe it) that feminist porn is the only ethical porn. Just like I don’t believe polyamory is the only ethical non-monogamy.

I appreciate Furry Girl and the discomfort her writing generates for me. I do still use a feminist label, I do still think that my research has value and validity, I do still think that it is reasonable to talk about how porn performs feminisms on screen, but I am aware that there are flaws in my logic and holes in my plan. I think that would be true no matter how I approached it, and I think that’s somewhat inevitable, but I don’t think that absolves me of my responsibility to make sure I face these tough questions rather than avoiding them because they are uncomfortable.

I think feminism is still important.

But I think Furry Girl, and others like her, have some really valid and valuable critiques, and I think that we can’t talk about “feminism” without telling a lie. We are talking about feminisms. Very different, very contradictory feminisms. Some of them are important, I think. Others are incredibly damaging. How do I navigate that? Carefully. And with a lot of transparency about my own positioning, so that there can be no misunderstanding that I am not speaking about feminism in general or feminist porn in general, and so that it is clear that although I’m writing about feminisms in porn, I don’t think that feminist porn is the only ethical porn.

Poster prep

My application to the SU Undergrad Research Symposium was accepted!

This means that I’ll have a poster in the symposium on November 29. It’s due November 23, and I’m prepping. I’ve never designed a poster for an academic symposium before, and it’s a tiny bit overwhelming. It’s also amazing and fantastic and exciting. This will be my first poster session! The first of many? Hopefully! (Well, I prefer talks and papers to posters, I think. But, still. First of many academic presentations in symposiums and conferences.)

I had a second viewing of Fuckstyles of the Queer and Famous with my porn viewing group. That group consistently blows me away with their insightfulness and humour. Before we started the film we had a brainstorming session. I read them my abstract and we talked about potential layouts for the poster. We came up with a set of criteria to watch for in the viewing, talked about how to track them, and came up with some really exciting design ideas.

One thing I really loved was the idea of incorporating holistic/organic design elements, similar to this poster. I pictured a bubble describing the anti-porn feminist stance, and then spinning off from that bubble information about the evolution of the gaze within feminist pornography, aesthetic choices, gender roles, representations of consent, negotiation, safer sex practices and pleasure… Someday I would like to design that poster, but it won’t be this time. Challenging the format of the poster session is not something to do my first time out. Especially not when my content is also challenging. I backed away from the experimental, design-focused idea and came up with something much more restrained (with some help from my design-guru friend).

I sent my supervisor a rough mock-up yesterday. You can see it – Hot and Sweaty v01

It’s very rough. BUT! It got the wheels turning.

Tonight I’ve made a lot of structural changes, and tomorrow I’ll start building content. It looks very different now (but needs content).

I also e-mailed Courtney Trouble (link NSFW) and she emailed back and gave me permission to use any images from the promo site for Fuckstyles. She also said she’d like to see the final project (both the poster and the thesis) and that is very exciting! I have been so impressed with the generosity of the people I’ve reached out to in the feminist porn community. In addition to Courtney Trouble’s generous response, both Ned and Maggie Mayhem tweeted back to me on Sunday! (They were big hits in the viewing group. I love them.)

The biggest change I’m working on is shifting from focusing solely on Fuckstyles to doing a comparison between Fuckstyles (as a representation of feminist pornography) and unSEXpected (as a representation of mainstream pornography). I think I will extend this comparison beyond the poster into my thesis, since Stoya’s account (link NSFW) of behind-the-scenes on unSEXpected indicates that the backend of the production had good consent practices (making it comparable to the consent visible in Fuckstyles) but the frontend, the product seen on screen, is drastically different from Fuckstyles. The fact that Stoya is a feminist herself also makes this a reasonable comparison – I am not comparing an explicitly feminist production with an explicitly UNfeminist production. Rather, it is a comparison between an explicitly feminist production and a mainstream production.

I am concerned about comparing an award-winning feminist pornography film with a mainstream production that has not won any awards. However, I do think that it is a fair comparison because of the background information provided by Stoya. (Also, I own that film already because we watched it in my feminist porn viewing group and I don’t have enough time to order another DVD before the poster is due. Of the mainstream porn that I own, this seems like the most fair and reasonable comparison.)

I will post content as I generate it.

I also got my copy of Porno? Chic! in the mail yesterday. I’m pretty excited to dig into that, and will post responses as I read.

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).

Maggie Mayhem talks about Gail Dines

I squeed about the Mayhems yesterday, and here is Maggie Mayhem talking about porn, anti-porn feminist Gail Dines, and politics (link is NSFW for the pics on the blog, but the post itself is all text and SFW). It’s pretty rad. I found this point particularly relevant to my own feelings about the porn debates –

“6. Despite being a Marxist, Gail Dines repeatedly favors women with academic credentials over women without them. Ivory Towerism doesn’t exactly fit in with Marxism in a time when a college education comes at the expense of a lifetime of debt. This means that only women who can afford tuition for graduate education and receive tenure are real “porn academics” and the study, research, and real life experiences of people performing in and making porn are nothing more than bouncing and saying, “Porn is empowering! Porn is fun!” Then again, a woman who prides herself on not researching her fellow panelists shouldn’t be expected to create anything more than a caricature of anyone who makes her job more difficult.”

I strongly believe that we need to stop privileging certain forms of knowledge over others, because that kind of academic wankery is counterproductive. It’s ridiculous. And it silences so many people.

This is one of my primary concerns in my own academic engagement with the topics of sex work and pornography – I am wary of relying too heavily on peer-reviewed, academic sources and ignoring the voices of sex workers and porn performers themselves. I think it’s easy to do in academics, because that’s how we are trained to research our topics. And I understand that there are reasons for that, but I think it’s frequently misused.