By Nanette Ashby
How did you first learn about sex? Where did you learn the most about sex? You probably didn’t learn it from your parents or in a classroom. Maybe you found a magazine you weren’t supposed to have and hid it under your bed? Or re-watched the scene in The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain in which people orgasm when your parents were out. If you grew up with the internet you most likely first encountered a hardcore porn video when surfing the web. What you might not have found at first glance was feminist pornography. The values depicted and lessons that the viewer takes away are very different! Feminist pornography might seem paradoxical, feminism stereotypically implying an aversion to men and pornography being associated with female objectification. Neither is true for feminist pornography! This article will explore some of the reasons why the production and distribution of feminist pornography is important.
What is feminist pornography?
It is a film genre produced by and for people who believe and fight for gender equality. The original purpose was to encourage women to pursue their freedom by exploring their pleasure, sexuality and equality at the same time. Feminist pornography is an umbrella term that includes indie adult cinema. The short version for now is: feminist porn is devoted to social justice and gender equality whilst empowering the performers producing it and the people consuming it.
Representation is vital!
The first reason why feminist porn is important is the representation of all bodytypes, genders and races in an empowering and respectful manner. This niche of the porn industry is moving away from over-fetishization of body types or ethnicities and more towards equal representation. The “concept of representation refers to ensuring that women are present in political and other public bodies”(Buikema 83) such as pornography. “Representation refers to the act of making present what was absent”(Buikema). Authentic female pleasure is rarely shown in mainstream porn. Through lack of representation female pleasure fades out of public knowledge, which has consequences on how women are treated in and out of the covers. Same goes for minorities such as black people, gay and trans people. Many kinds of alternative pornography highlight diversity in casting and narratives. The performers bodies aren’t the focus the film anymore. The narrative doesn’t revolve around the performers belonging to a certain race, gender, ethnicity or body type. They are just people (BOOTY). This is a key difference. Yes, fetishes are still displayed such as foot fetishes, variations of BDSM, however the performers are not chosen so the video can fit into a certain category. The categorisations concentrate on the sexual acts performed and not the physical stereotyping of actors themselves. This also opens up the possibility to normalise different body types and create a representation which is not degrading but empowering. Feminist adult cinema prides itself on showing authentic sexual encounters and real sexual pleasure. Additionally, through diverse representation of genders and sexualities it fills the void of queer representation and is often made by the community for the community.
Bring back female pleasure!
Another vital reason why feminist porn is important is because it shows the female gaze and focuses on real female pleasure. “Of course porn is supposed to arouse you but it also tells you something about masculinity and femininity”(Lust, Loots) and the roles that people play. Pleasure should be for everyone, no matter their gender. However in mainstream pornography women are shown to be sex objects only there to fulfil men’s desires and not their own. Contrary to popular belief, women like to have sex and are just as entitled to feel pleasure and enjoy having sex. Feminist porn has created a space inside an industry which used to be exclusively for men. One of the common ideas in mainstream films is somehow “punish fucking” women. It is seldom about lust, passion or intimacy nor about having consensual equal sex which focuses on both parties having a good time. Often in main stream porn the women involved are the focus of the lens and the male body is just a means to an end. Feminist porn is characterised by beautiful images of not just female bodies, but also men’s physicality. Erika Lust said in an interview that she wants to show what sex feels like and if you want to do that you have to get close and have to feel the skin. This genre of pornography is called feminist because it shows the female perspective, made by and for women. On sets by Erika Lust 90% of the production team is female. This automatically creates a different view point. “Because the camera looks along with the male character, the viewer is invited or rather forced to adopt a male position” (Buikema 197). The reverse works in the same way. Pornography is a discourse about sexuality and men are the main participants, mostly “chauvinistic, narrow minded men, men with little sexual intelligence” (Lust). The role of women have been challenged in all aspects of life but in porn. Feminist porn steps up to the challenge.
What are we teaching people through porn?
Pornography is often used as only form of sex education and providing a more gender equal alternative is believed to lead to healthier and more equal relationships. Porn makes up one third of internet traffic and every fourth search request on google is pornography related. Porn sites welcome more visitors on their sites each month than Amazon, Twitter and Netflix combined (Lust). Since it is so easy to access, it has become the main source of education for young people. A young person gets exposed to adult content usually by the age of eleven. Most of the first encounters involve quite nasty imagery. And what is taught? Women are being objectified and men are portrayed “as some kind of penetrating sex machine” (Lust). The sexist and chauvinistic values embedded are imprinted on the young viewers who have no other frame of reference. Parents usually shy away from questions around porn or talking about a sex in general. Young people are led to believe that the only role that the woman has in these situations is to please and nothing else. And they don’t question it. What we consume changes the way we see and feel about sex or any other topic for that matter. The values taught through porn also spread into other areas of life such as the work place. Women are being mistreated and sexually assaulted at their workplace. Feminist porn on the other hand tries to not just arouse, but also inspire and educate by showing gender equality and diversity. It demonstrates that men and women are equal human beings and are able to have a pleasurable experience for all parties involved. “The sex can stay dirty but the values have to be clean” (Lust).
Making sex work safer!
Another vital reason in favour of feminist porn is the way it is produced. Feminist pornography is made in a humanitarian and fair manner, where performers are respected, protected, get payed reasonable salaries and their consent and well-being is the highest priority. Every person involved wants to be there. Feminist porn is also referred to as ethical porn since its directors and producers respect the performers and treat them fairly. In an interview with Shan Boody, Erika Lust explains that it is not the norm that performers are provided with all the information regarding the shoot upfront. Large production companies don’t provide any sort of information before hand. Thereby performers can end up in vulnerable positions they might not have consented to be in otherwise. It can be hard to say no or stop what is being done to you during a shoot. “Performing porn is a brave act”(BBC Three). Often people shy away from performing because it doesn’t feel safe to work in the mainstream porn industry. During the making of ethical porn the performers are fully informed from the get-go, respected and asked about their preferences and an active part of the creation of the movie. Erika explains that she asks performers who they would like to be together with and what positions they would prefer to be in. Since feminist porn tries to show the most authentic expression of lust, the performers need to feel comfortable and able to do their job as best they can. Terms are agreed upon beforehand so everyone feels safe. Sometimes you will see interviews with the performers as part of porn videos or films in which the conversation about consent is shown. “It’s not only about empowering women, it’s about empowering everyone” (Lust, Loots).
Let’s make it aesthetic!
Another defining feature is the aesthetic value. Pornography is usually defined as “the representation, without aesthetic or sociological justification of sexual acts with an intensive vividness, which offends commonly accepted standards of decency”(Webb). However that is not the case of feminist pornography. Going by Webb’s definitions it will fall into the category of erotic art: “Art on a sexual theme related specifically to emotions rather than merely actions, and sexual depictions which are justifiable on aesthetic grounds”. The pornography produced by directors like Lust are short films, mainstream porn produces videos. There is a narrative, a story, context around the characters. “Pornography can be appreciated as a means of arousal and art at the same time, e.g. narrative pornography”(Kieran). They are even being recognised for the cinematographic excellence by film festivals and academic institutions. Alternative adult filmmakers such as Four Chambers are „specialising in highly-stylised erotic shorts”(Ashley) and exploring “sexuality with a keen eye for aesthetics. Textures, nature and the anatomy are shot seamless to highlight organic shapes, pleasure and sex”(Ashley). The audio visual aspects are just as important as the sex act itself. Music, cinematography, graphic design and poems create a harmony of art forms. Yes some production companies to be found on Pornhub use similar techniques, however not as elaborately as independent makers. “The nature of symbolism is so important to us because it allows the viewer to take away more than the immediate surface. The nature of a short film means we get a small amount of time to tell a story and with Four Chambers we try to give a slice, leaving more space for imagination to create the rest of the narrative, subjective to each viewer“(Ashley). Feminist porn is important because it is not only sexually but also aesthetically stimulating.
Putting gender equality on screen – one orgasm at a time!
Another important aspect to feminist porn is that it starts discourses around gender equality and social justice. Performer and producer Vex Ashley said in an interview: „I think there’s a lot of interesting discussion to be had by appropriating roles and themes from history and culture in a modern, sexual setting”(Ashley). The short films produced in this genre often have more layers to them than just the act of sex itself. What is also worth mentioning is that the “attempt to legislate pornography potentially could close off any and all dialogue that might give women a much needed sexual language with which to communicate our ideas, desired, and practices. Such an attempt could also maintain our oppression in a patriarchal society through fear and misinformation”(Concepcion 98). Thus feminist pornography is doing an important job not only providing alternative adult content for women but also works as a tool for education and empowerment. At the same time it also opens discourse about all different kinds of expressions of sexuality and helping to normalize all types of sexuality and desires through representation.
Pornography as a community effort
Feminist porn has a big community aspect tied to it, as well. Productions like Four Chambers or XConfessions rely heavily on the support and input of their viewers. “There is a growing community of people exploring creative depictions of sexuality outside of what is easily accessible on the surface on free porn tube sites”(Ashley). Four Chambers is crowdfunded and thus can stay as independent as they want to be. The project XConfessions goes a step further. It was created in 2013 by director Erika Lust and is based upon peoples sexual confessions. The most intriguing submissions are turned into short films. “Initially it was an online space for people to share their sexual confessions, but over the years it has grown into a global community of people who adore sex and film, and have always hoped for a new kind of erotica. Now the site is home to filmmakers, performers, artists, and you; the most important part, the people behind the confessions”(XConfessions). Also worth mentioning is that Lust works with non-actors which makes the movies even more authentic. “Erika’s groundbreaking XConfessions project is the first crowdsourced erotic film series in the history of adult cinema”(XConfessions). Thus communities make erotic art for their community which is not catered to properly by mainstream pornography such as the queer community.
What do feminists think of their own pornography?
One would expect after reading this far that all feminists are uniting behind this new niche, however that is not the case. There is a divide between second and third wave feminists and feminists in general however on the topic of pornography. Feminist pornos thematized in this essay are produced and encouraged by third wave feminists since they are open to the idea that entering the adult entertainment workforce can be a way to find freedom and sexual equality as an individual. The older generation however only see the oppression, sexual objectification and exploitation of women in all kinds of pornography. Feminist porn originated from the passionate debates during the so called feminist sex wars of the 1980s. Three feminist organizations WAVAW, WAVPM and WAP “led the anti-pornography movement during the 1970s and early 1980s“(DeCesare). Twenty years later feminist porn started spreading its legs and creating a broader audience. In 2006 Good For Her founded the Feminist Porn Awards in Canada which led to even more exposure.
Is there good or bad porn?
One problematic aspect worth mentioning is the actual differentiation between feminist porn and mainstream porn. Calling feminist pornography good and demonising mainstream porn “reinforced the idea that porn is somehow bad and reproduces a stigma against sex workers and porn performers and against sex in general”(BBC Three). On the right set with the right people it “can feel empowering to be a porn star”(BBC Three). And this is the overall goal to make the performer who produce it and the viewers feel empowered.
Feminist pornography as a counterbalance
It is estimated that the whole porn industry makes 15 billion dollars in profit a year. The market is growing which allows independent creators to make a living even though they are a tiny percentage of the market. In summation feminist pornography is important because it demonstrates sex as a healthy, natural part of life worth celebrating whilst placing female pleasure at the heart of it. With its sex-positive, progressive and powerful representation of women, feminist porn is an ethical alternative to counterbalance mainstream pornography.
Ashley, Vex, Erika Lust. Vex Ashley: A Four Chambered Heart. Erikalust.com, 16 March 2015. https://erikalust.com/vex-ashley-a-four-chambered-heart/
BBC Three. The Porn Star Feminist: What I Wish I’d Known About Porn. The Narrative, 23.05.2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pPskxt6sgmQ
BOODY, Shan. Working in Porn with Erika Lust. 29.05.2018 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lCO0pb04DaE
Buikema, Rosemarie, Liedeke Plate, Kathrin Thiele. Doing Gender in Media, Art and Culture Book, A Comprehensive Guide to Gender Studies. Second Edition, London and New York, Routledge, 2018.
Concepcion, Consuelo M.. On Pornography, Representation and Sexual Agency. Hypatia, Vol.14, No. 1, Winter 1999. https://www-jstor-org.ru.idm.oclc.org/stable/pdf/3810625.pdfrefreqid=excelsior%3A1be3b34f37aec2b8d7bcb0aa92b14883
DeCesare, Michael. Battling Pornography: The American Feminist Anti-Pornography Movement, 1976-1986. Social Movement Studies, Vol 14, No.5, Department of + Sociology, Merrimack College, North Andover, Massachusetts, USA, 2014. https://www-tandfonline-com.ru.idm.oclc.org/doi/full/10.1080/14742837.2014.971738
Kieran, Mathhew. Pornographic Art. Philosophy and Literature, Volume 25, Number 1, The Johns Hopkins University Press, April 2001.
Lust, Erika. It’s time for porn to change | Erika Lust | TEDxVienna. Tedx Talks, 03.12.2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z9LaQtfpP_8
Lust, Erika, Erik Loots, Linda Vermaat. Erika Lust – Fix The World and Make Money – Documentary. Twentie Four, 24.10.2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LQGZLN4AsM8&t=2s
Webb, Peter. The Erotic Arts. New York Graphic Society, First edition, 1975.
XConfessions. XConfessions. April 2020. https://xconfessions.com/about-xconfession