What is Feminist Porn?

 

In addition to this brief history and definition, for more information, see our Resource Guide, Tristan’s Films, and Feminist Porn News.

What Is Feminist Porn?
by Tristan Taormino

Feminists have hotly debated pornography since the Women’s Movement began, and the debate reached an infamous fever pitch during the Feminist Sex Wars of the 1980s. While there is no one production considered the first example of feminist porn (and, in fact, there must be images and films created even before the term ‘feminist’ was first used), feminist porn has its roots in the 1980s. The modern feminist porn movement gained serious momentum in the 2000s thanks in large part to the creation of The Feminist Porn Awards (FPAs) by Good For Her in Toronto in 2006, which put the concept of feminist porn on the map. The FPAs raised awareness about feminist porn among a wider audience, prompted more media coverage (see: Bitch, San Francisco Chronicle, and even MTV Canada), and helped coalesce a community of filmmakers, performers, and fans. There is no easy answer to the question, “What is feminist porn?” because there is no singular definition of feminist porn, but rather multiple ideas and definitions.

Let’s begin with a brief history. Annie Sprinkle began performing in porn movies in 1973. In 1981, she produced and starred in the film Deep Inside Annie Sprinkle, which is described on her website as “innovative for its time, as it showed the women as sexual aggressors, focused on the female orgasm, and Annie spoke directly into the camera to the viewers from the heart.” She also starred in and directed two experimental, explicit, “docudramas” in 1992: Linda/Les & Annie: The First Female-to-Male Transsexual Love Story and Sluts and Goddesses Video Workshop, which are considered cult classics and feminist porn prototypes.[1]

Annie was part of Club 90, a group formed in 1983 of female porn stars that originally included Veronica Vera, Candida Royalle, Gloria Leonard, Veronica Hart, Sharon Mitchell, Sue Nero and Kelly Nichols (Sharon, Sue, and Kelly left shortly after the group’s formation). It’s considered the first place where feminist-identified female performers talked about working in the industry. In 1984, the feminist arts collective Carnival Knowledge asked Club 90 to participate in a festival called The Second Coming; according to Sprinkle, Carnival Knowledge specifically asked the group “to explore the question, ‘Is there a feminist pornography?’”[2] The five members did a performance piece at Franklin Furnace in New York City called “Deep Inside Porn Stars” which was based on their group meetings. In an interview published in 1987 about it, Veronica Hart said, “It’s the first time we’ve ever been invited to work with feminists—which I think most of us consider ourselves to be—in a thing about pornography. All of the contact I’ve had with feminists was always anti-porn. They wouldn’t even discuss porn. And now to find people who are artists and are discussing the issue and getting into it, I think it’s wonderful.”[3] I believe that interview is one of the first instances of the term “feminist porn” being used in print (by the interviewers), although I suspect it appeared in other writings about the festival at the time.

Also in 1984, former adult performer (and Club 90 member) Candida Royalle founded Femme Productions to produce films from a woman’s point of view. “I created Femme in order to put a woman’s voice to adult movies and give men something they could share with the women in their lives,” said Candida. “You’ll find them to be less graphic, and you’ll also find story lines, good original music and real characters of all ages.”[4] Although she did not label or market her films as feminist, she identifies as a feminist, her mission certainly can be seen as feminist, and she is widely considered one of the creators of feminist porn. She is also considered to be a pioneer in the genres of porn for women and couple’s porn.

In the same year Femme Productions was founded, a group of women in San Francisco (including publishers Myrna Elana and Deborah Sundahl, along with Nan Kinney, Susie Bright, and others) published the first issue of On Our Backs, a porn magazine by and for lesbians with the tagline “Entertainment for the Adventurous Lesbian.” They were part of the pro-sex/pro-porn side of the Feminist Sex Wars of the 1980s. In 1985, some of the women involved in On Our Backs created Fatale Video in order to produce and distribute lesbian porn movies.[5] Like Femme, while Fatale was not specifically called “feminist porn,” the films are clearly examples of some of the first feminist porn. Kinney says, “In 1985, when Fatale released Private Pleasures and Shadows, there was no such thing as porn made by and for women. Porn was a dirty word. Now the industry is burgeoning with independent, women-made porn companies.”[6]

In the mid eighties, adult performer Nina Hartley began producing and starring in a line of sex education videos for Adam & Eve; in 1984, her first two titles were released: Nina Hartley’s Guide to Better Cunnilingus and Nina Hartley’s Guide to Better Fellatio. Nina has openly identified as a feminist throughout her career. In 1992, Hartley used the terms feminist porn star and feminist porn in her piece “Reflections of a Feminist Porn Star,” which first appeared in The Gauntlet. Here is the context:

As members of the third wave of the revolution begun 30 years ago, we need to continue our struggles, in both the public and private spheres, toward equality.  What lies between now and utopia is day-to-day living. We need to do our best to demonstrate compassion toward those in pain—and to recognize when we need to mind our own god-damned business. I suggest we use feminist sex workers and feminist porn as a fifth column and use the erotic medium to change men’s and women’s attitudes at their deepest neurobiological level. We cannot—we must not—be drawn into limiting by law what consenting adults do in private. Don’t worry about how other people enjoy themselves. Instead, turn some energy to providing support to those who ask for it. Take care of your own compost heap before feeling free to meddle in others’.[7]

The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure, co-edited by Celine Parreñas Shimizu, Constance Penley Mireille Miller-Young, and I, was published in February 2013 by The Feminist Press at CUNY. The co-editors define feminist porn in the introduction:

As both an established and emerging genre of pornography, feminist porn uses sexually explicit imagery to contest and complicate dominant representations of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, ability, age, body type and other identity markers. It explores concepts of desire, agency, power, beauty, and pleasure at their most confounding and difficult, including pleasure within and across inequality, in the face of injustice, and against the limits of gender hierarchy and both heteronormativity and homo-normativity. It seeks to unsettle conventional definitions of sex, and expand the language of sex as an erotic activity, an expression of identity, a power exchange, a cultural commodity, and even a new politics. Feminist porn creates alternative images and develops its own aesthetics and iconography to expand established sexual norms and discourses. It evolved out of and incorporates elements from the genres of “porn for women,” “couples porn,” and lesbian porn as well as feminist photography, performance art, and experimental filmmaking. It does not assume a singular female viewer, but acknowledges multiple female (and other) viewers with many different preferences. Feminist porn makers emphasize the importance of their labor practices in production and their treatment of performers/sex workers; in contrast to norms in the mainstream sectors of the adult entertainment industry, they strive to create a fair, safe, ethical, consensual work environment and often create imagery through collaboration with their subjects. Ultimately, feminist porn considers sexual representation—and its production—a site for resistance, intervention, and change.[8]

After the publication of the book and the success of the 1st Annual Feminist Porn Conference at University of Toronto, feminist porn began to gain some serious traction with mainstream media attention in outlets like HuffPost Live, Cosmopolitan, Salon, Melissa Harris-Perry, Joy Behar: Say Anything! and a cover story in XBiz, one of the adult industry trade publications. In September 2013, The XBiz Awards announced several new categories, including “Best Feminist Porn Release of the Year.”

My feminist porn is made under fair, ethical working conditions: all activities are consensual, no performers are coerced; performers set their monetary rates, which are not questioned or haggled over; everyone on the set treats each other with mutual respect; the work environment is clean and safe; performers must present proof of negative STI results with tests that are less than 30 days old (industry standard) or a shorter time of their choosing; and performers are offered the option of using condoms and other safer sex barriers.

I like to collaborate with performers on how their sexuality is represented, rather than giving them a script or a formula to follow. In order for the scenes to be performer-driven, women and men are given choices: they choose who they have sex with, the positions they get in, the sex toys, barriers, and lube they use—all based on what feels good to them, all based on their actual sexuality, not a fabricated script. I want to capture complex, three-dimensional beings, rather than simplistic stereotypes. I want to create an open environment that’s safe for everyone—and especially women—to take charge of their pleasure and be able to express their desires freely.

I want to create porn that does not demean women or men. I consciously work to create images that contradict (and hopefully problematize) other pornography that represents men and women as one-dimensional objects where men are sexual robots and women are vehicles for their pleasure. Feminist porn is porn that empowers viewers, both women and men: it gives them information and ideas about sex. It inspires fantasy and adventure. It validates viewers when they see themselves or a part of their sexuality represented. It counteracts the other messages we get from society: sex is shameful, naughty, dirty, scary, dangerous, or it’s the domain of men, where only their desires and fantasies get fulfilled. It presents sex as joyful, fun, safe, mutual and satisfying.

That’s one definition, but I think it’s useful to offer definitions by other people and groups:

“In order to be considered for a Feminist Porn Award, the movie/short/website/whatever must meet at least one of the following criteria: 1)  A woman had a hand in the production, writing, direction, etc. of the work; 2)  It depicts genuine female pleasure; and/or 3)  It expands the boundaries of sexual representation on film and challenges stereotypes that are often found in mainstream porn. And of course, it has to be hot! Overall, Feminist Porn Award winners tend to show movies that consider a female viewer from start to finish.  This means that you are more likely to see active desire and consent, real orgasms, and women taking control of their own fantasies (even when that fantasy is to hand over that control).” —Feminist Porn Awards Criteria (2006)[9]

“Feminist porn is inclusive of all genders and sexualities and focused on authentic pleasure, featuring real orgasms. It’s consensual, sober, often (but not always) women-directed, features genuine performer chemistry and promotes safer sex… Feminist porn often features queer and alternative performers and sex acts, making this genre a great place to find tattoos, piercings, fluid gender pairings, kink and taboos like fisting. There are exceptions, however; there’s feminist porn for all tastes.” —Yana Tallon-Hicks, Valley Advocate (2011)[10]

“Feminist porn is not necessarily directed by women or only aimed at women. But what feminist porn does do is take women into account as viewers. So even if they’re not the sole audience, I think that one of the things that is considered is whether it’s something they think that women might enjoy.” —Alison Lee, Director of The Feminist Porn Awards (2011)[11]

“Let me break down these criteria into more specific sub criteria that works for me.

High cinematic production value: The acting is strong and convincing (as paradoxical as that may sound here). The manuscript builds the sex into a realistic context. The settings and costumes are realistic. The musical soundtrack complements and even adds to what is seen. The sighing is truthful and balanced as opposed to the exaggerated moaning often heard in mainstream porn. The lighting supplements the atmosphere. The picture quality presents what is seen esthetically. The cinematography and directing is done with an eye for the right shots and frames. The editing is done with an eye for good cuts and transitions, splicing together the right shots for best effect.

Progressive sexual-political commitment: The camera shots, angles, and movements all capture and frame the bodies and their sexual encounters democratically, i.e., presenting a new language for gender democratic sexuality. The film presents us with a gender democratic gaze of devoted mutuality as opposed to the objectifying gaze on the woman in mainstream porn. The film legitimizes consensual voyeurism and affirms the satisfaction in being seen, as well as the pleasure in seeing (scopophilia). The film illustrates the use of a subversive role-play, critically appropriating, revising, and playing with erotic fantasies. The film suggests an alternative symbolic to portray sexual agency, desire, and pleasure than the focus on erection and money shot in mainstream porn. The film confronts political censorship and the historical baggage of guilt and shame around sex. In line with social and political trends, the film portrays a society with increased gender equality, including a growing specter of diverse forms of intimacy, where women and men have a larger play-field to practice their sexuality, even as sexual taboos linger and narrow gender categories continue to confine the experience of gender and sexuality for many.” —Anne G. Sabo (2011)[12]

“Feminist porn represents a diverse cross-section of people and is woman-friendly, queer-friendly, open to many interpretations of beauty, and is, at best, political and woman-owned.” —Kaelyn on Feministe.com (2008)[13]

This only traces the history and definitions of feminist porn in the U.S., and I hope to explore its history in other countries on this site in the future. Feminist porn continues to evolve, so look for updates to this article and others.

 


[1]“The Sprinkle Story,” accessed September 5, 2011, http://www.anniesprinkle.org.

[2] Annie Sprinkle, Post-Porn Modernist: My 25 Years as a Multimedia Whore (San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1998), 149-151.

[3] Annette Fuentes and Margaret Schrage, “Deep Inside Porn Stars,” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media 32 (1987): 41-43, http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC32folder/PornWomenInt.html.

[4] About Femme Productions, accessed September 5, 2011, http://www.candidaroyalle.com/.

[5] Susie Bright, Big Sex, Little Death: A Memoir (Seal Press, 2011) and Susie Bright, “A History Of On Our Backs: Entertainment for the Adventurous Lesbian, The Original: 1984-1990,” http://susiebright.blogs.com/History_of_OOB.pdf.

[6] “About Fatale Media,” accessed September 5, 2011, http://www.fatalemedia.com/about.html.

[7] Nina Hartley, “Reflections of a Feminist Porn Star,” The Gauntlet (1992), http://www.redgarterclub.com/AJK-Multisite/about/1304-2/. Reprinted in a different form in Frederique Delacoste and Priscilla Alexander, Eds. Sex Work: Readings by Women in the Sex Industry (San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1998).

[8] Tristan Taormino, Celine Parreñas Shimizu, Constance Penley and Mireille Miller-Young, The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure (New York: The Feminist Press, 2013), 9-10.

[9] Feminist Porn Awards, accessed September 5, 2011, http://goodforher.com/feminist_porn_awards.

[10] Yana Tallon-Hicks, “Feminist Porn,” Valley Advocate, May 5, 2011, accessed September 5, 2011, http://www.valleyadvocate.com/article.cfm?aid=13502.

[11] Alison Lee quoted in Adam Polaski, “Feminist Porn for a Male Audience,” Good Men Project, April 28, 2011, accessed September 5, 2011, http://goodmenproject.com/good-feed-blog/feminist-porn/.

[12] Anne G. Sabo, “Part I: My Very Brief Guide to Feminist Porn,” Good Vibrations Magazine, April 4, 2011, http://magazine.goodvibes.com/2011/04/04/part-i-my-very-brief-guide-to-feminist-porn/ and Sabo, “Part II: My Very Brief Guide to Feminist Porn,” Good Vibrations Magazine, April 19, 2011, http://magazine.goodvibes.com/2011/04/19/part-ii-my-very-brief-guide-to-feminist-porn/.

[13] Kaelyn, “Feminist Porn: Sex, Consent, and Getting Off,” Feministe, July 23, 2008, accessed September 5, 2011, http://www.feministe.us/blog/archives/2008/07/23/feminist-porn-sex-consent-and-getting-off/.

Further Reading:

Angyal, Chloe. “What Makes Feminist Porn Feminist?” January 12, 2011. http://feministing.com/2011/01/12/what-makes-feminist-porn-feminist/.

Britton, Patti O., Jennifer Maguire, Beth Nathanson, Feminists for Free Expression. “The Free Speech Pamphlet Series: Pornography.” Accessed September 5, 2011. http://www.ffeusa.org/html/statements/statements_pornography.html.

Fischer, Jessi. “The Porn That Could Be.” The Sexademic, February 22, 2011. http://sexademic.wordpress.com/2011/02/22/the-porn-that-could-be/.

McDonald, Alyssa. “Feminist Porn Faces Hardcore Critics.” The Sydney Morning Herald, May 6, 2011. Accessed September 5, 2011. http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/movies/feminist-porn-faces-hardcore-critics-20110506-1eb1y.html.

Nagle, Jill, “First Ladies of Feminist Porn: A Conversation with Candida Royalle and Debi Sundahl.” In Whores and Other Feminists, edited by Jill Nagle, 156-166. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Silverberg, Cory. “What Makes Pornography Feminist?” Last modified May 18, 2011. http://sexuality.about.com/od/eroticmovies/a/feminist_pornography.htm.

Snyder, Nikko. “Strange Bedfellows: Can Feminism and Porn Coexist?” AlterNet, April 7, 2008. http://www.alternet.org/reproductivejustice/81655/.

Taormino, Tristan, Celine Parreñas Shimizu, Constance Penley and Mireille Miller-Young, eds. The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure New York: The Feminist Press, 2013

Vork, Lauren. “Feminist Views on Pornography: It Has Gone Too Far.” Helium, January 27, 2009. http://www.helium.com/items/1314882-porn-pornography-sex-women-feminism-feminist.