Feminist Porn Spreads Its Wings
In 2006 April Flores, a young flame-haired BBW, did a few porn scenes out of curiosity. Asked to do a few more, she hesitated. “I had to step back and evaluate how would I continue doing this type of performance. I wondered, is there such a thing as feminist porn? Because if there is, I want to be a part of it.
“So I googled it and found out that such a thing did exist.”
Today, seven years later, Flores wouldn’t have to resort to a search engine to get a handle on feminist porn. It has been very much in the public eye.
The first annual Feminist Porn Conference, held at the University of Toronto in April, basked in a mass media spotlight. It was followed by the 8th annual Feminist Porn Awards, which has blossomed into a major event, and preceded by panels on the subject at the sexuality conference CatalystCon, held in Washington D.C. (it’s next scheduled for Woodland Hills, Calif., in September).
All this exposure came on the heels of the publication of “The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure” co-authored by Tristan Taormino, Celine Parrenas-Shimizu, Constance Penley and Mireille Miller-Young, and the announced creation of a peer-reviewed scholarly journal, “Porn Studies.”
These events are among the reasons that sex educator Carol Queen finds feminist porn to be in a “significant growth period.” Other factors, she says, include “the cultural and media savvy of some of its practitioners; the increasingly diverse and often very good material that falls under the umbrella of feminist porn; the rise of a fundamentally sex-friendly porn-critical discourse; and the increasingly friendly or at least open discourse in the academy.”
The prime pillar of academic support is Penley, professor of Media Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara, who for 20 years has promoted a scholarly approach to porn studies with her pioneering (and well-attended) porn as popculture classes. UCSB also hosted a Feminist Porn Mini-Conference in May.
According to Penley, “All of these efforts are, for the first time, receiving significant and non-hysterical attention from a mainstream press that until now has tended to report the feminist position on porn as if it were no more than a public decency or moral hygiene campaign. Put all that together and it’s a movement!”
That movement has found its public face in Taormino, a well-published sex writer with a porn industry profile as a contract director (of mostly sex-ed releases) with Vivid Entertainment.
She lays out her position succinctly: “Feminist porn is for viewers who want to see porn that: 1) is ethically made and explicitly consensual; 2) features authentic, diverse representations of desire, pleasure, fantasy, and orgasm; 3) is anti-sexist, anti-racist, and anti-classist; 4) challenges societal conventions and norms about sexuality; and 5) is dedicated to creating sex-positive messages that encourage and empower people of all genders and identities.
“Feminist porn seeks to empower the sex workers who make it and the people who watch it. Ultimately, feminist porn considers sexual representation—and its production—a site for political intervention and change.”
Acknowledging divergent opinions, she adds, “While I respect people who don’t consider themselves feminists or their work feminist porn, the people who self-identify as feminist pornographers do agree about what it is.”
Here are some of them:
Jackie Strano is executive vice president of Good Vibrations, the feministcreated, woman-directed retail chain, and also a filmmaker with partner Shar Rednour. For her, “feminist porn portrays sex in a way that is generally focused more on authentic, raw, and sometimes more intimate sex and ethically minded production crews and sets.”
Jiz Lee is a self-described “genderqueer” performer and filmmaker, named Heartthrob of the Year at the Awards. She says she hesitates “drawing hard distinctions between feminist porn and ‘mainstream’ porn; to do so implies that if a film or director or company isn’t lauded by people within the feminist porn movement that it is inherently not feminist. But there are many ethical porn creators who act with feminist ideals even if they don’t use the word.”
She is quick to emphasize that “a work doesn’t have to fall under the guidelines provided by the Feminist Porn Awards—made by a woman, shows female pleasure, or represents sex not traditionally seen in porn—to give it value to feminist viewers.”
Julie Simone creates BDSM fantasies, which she acknowledges is “a tricky area for the feminists”—although she was a winner (”Indie Porn Icon”) at the recent Awards. “I’m not super familiar with the feminist porn movement outside of BDSM,” she says, “but it definitely has progressed from the days of feminists and scholars saying blowjobs and cum-shots are bad, which is a positive thing. It seems to be much more inclusive than it once was.”
While feminist porn’s nature may be open to debate, its origins are not.
Everyone points to Club 90, a porn-star support group formed in the mid-1980s by Annie Sprinkle, Gloria Leonard, Veronica Vera, Veronica Hart and Candida Royalle, as the first stirrings of feminism in the mainstream adult industry.
Royalle went on to form Femme Productions in New York City and produce a groundbreaking series of hardcore films (“Three Daughters,” “Femme,” “Urban Heat”) aimed at women viewers, the first of its kind.
Meanwhile in San Francisco, Deborah Sundahl, publisher of the lesbian sex magazine On Our Backs, and her partner Nan Kinney were busy creating Fatale Video, which produced a series of explicit lesbian-oriented videos, including “How to Female Ejaculate” (1985), the first to show a gushing G-spot orgasm.
Kinney, who was honored with the Icon Award at the Feminist Porn Awards, says, “I thought at the time that we were on the cutting edge of a new kind of porn that would take off like wildfire, and obviously that didn’t happen. It took far longer than I thought it would to develop into what it is today. We really were very much ahead of our time.”
Part of the Fatale team was feminist author Susie Bright, then an editor and writer at On Our Backs. She remembers it as a “phenomenal” period.
“And serendipitous—so many of us on the same page at the same time. Radical women had something to say and were tired of waiting around for someone else to say it. We weren’t focused on who was gay, bi, straight. We were all worldly, experienced sexual women, sympathetic to each other.”
Although often mischaracterized, Bright says, “It was always Feminist Porn as far as the innovators who made it. It was only the distributors and marketers who softened it to ‘Women’s Erotica’ or ‘Couples Videos.’”
The torch was hoisted within the mainstream industry by superstar Nina Hartley, viewed by Taormino as “an outspoken feminist and sex-positive activist,” even though “she didn’t label her films as such.” Her “Guide To” sexed line for Adam & Eve kept the flame burning through the ’80s, and it was stoked by the independent likes of Annie Sprinkle who documented on video her move into sexual performance art.
As the century turned, more indie women filmmakers began to emerge, including Strano and Rednour, whose SIR Video produced both lesbian (“How to Fuck in High Heels”) and heterosexual (“Bend Over Boyfriend”) movies, and a San Francisco-based coterie of filmmakers: Shine Louise Houston, Courtney Trouble, Madison Young, Dana Dane.
Taormino made her first movie, “The Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Women,” for Evil Angel. And in France, porn star turned radical feminist Ovidie made a mark with her own brand of hard erotica (“Infidelité” was named Movie of the Year at the Awards).
Feminist porn has become more than just a splinter of the industry. Its influence permeates a great deal of what is produced and consumed online and on DVD and includes a considerable number of performers who are feminists even though they don’t put that tag on their work.
Taormino includes in this group Joanna Angel and her Burning Angel Productions, BDSM and fetish-oriented creators Simone, Maria Beatty and Kelly Shibari, and what she calls “self-identified feminists working in mainstream porn: Bobbi Starr, Kimberly Kane, Aiden Starr, Jacky St. James, Jessica Drake, to name a few.”
But who is their audience? Says Taormino, “Everyone and anyone who likes it. Some people have grossly and inaccurately represented feminist pornographers as man-hating lesbians. How old school!”
Good Vibrations’ Strano agrees. She created the company’s VoD website, Good Vibrations After Dark at GoodVibrationsVOD.com, as a destination for “folks seeking feminist porn and women-friendly porn.” Its audience, she says, is “similar to our sex toy customers but probably skews a little younger and reaches hetero as well as queer audiences. All of the above: lesbian, queer, hetero, couples, men, women, trans, gay, everyone.”
Looking into the future, her partner Rednour says, “If feminist porn were a mind it would be a mind that continues to open. The integrity stays, but how to think about it and approach it evolves.”
“I’m optimistic,” says trailblazer Kinney. “I think the genre can only grow. I hope that it keeps expanding, with more people coming into feminist porn with their unique perspectives and expressions.”
Fetish performer Kelly Shibari, a Feminist Porn Award winner in 2011, supports the movement but says she hopes it “moves away from just calling itself ‘feminist’ and becomes more about ‘diversity’ or ‘humanist.’”
Sinnamon Love, a 20-year porn veteran who only “came to identify my work as feminist in the past couple of years,” says she hopes the movement “doesn’t become just another niche promotional tool. One thing is for certain, feminist porn is starting to emerge in a manner that makes it clear to a younger generation that they do not have to separate their sexuality from their politics.”
“What I’d like to see the movement do,” says Taormino, “is bring issues that have always been central to feminism—about labor, politics, power, and representation — to pornography. I’d like us to set some standards for fair, ethical working conditions that we hope others will adopt and performers will come to expect.”
“Ultimately,” says Jiz Lee, “I hope this results in a number of positive outcomes, ideally mirrors an end to the ‘ghettoization’ of adult businesses, and overall a move towards a sex-positive culture that decriminalizes/legalizes sex work, stops slut-shaming, honors the rights of women, queer and trans people to sexual health and equal human rights. “Porn is entertainment, but in a society that lacks media literacy, not to mention comprehensive and age-appropriate sex education, it can also be an unexpected ‘Trojan horse’ for some of our most personal and political struggles.”
Queen cautions, “This is still a sub-cultural kind of porn, and with only a few exceptions it is not adequately funded, which limits the degree of mainstream attention it can seize, in my opinion — and accounts for any vulnerability, legally. But it’s powerful beyond its economics because of the ways it speaks to large socio-cultural issues.”
She asserts that this “radically re-imagined pornography” will continue to include “more diversity (bodies, races, gender representations, etc.) than mainstream porn does. This is one of its core values.”
Adding with a wink, “I’m looking forward to the first celebrity feminist porn. Who will it be?”
April Flores not only learned about the feminist porn movement but married one of the relatively few men active in it, photographer/filmmaker Carlos Batts (“I’m proud to be a part of it,” he says). Their artcore release “April Flores World” was named Sexiest Star Feature at this year’s awards.
One of the most popular BBW stars, Flores says she continues to do porn to “use my body as a tool to make a statement to the world and to other fat women that we can be desirable and we can be sexy and we can feel confident in the bodies that we have right now. Feminist porn has been a good medium for me to make those ambitions come true.
“I won’t say I wish more women in the industry would get involved. I just want everyone to be making choices in their work that they are proud of.”