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The Feminist Pornographer

Tristan Taormino, editor of a new book on X-rated activism, says it's time to find a middle ground in the porn wars.

There was a time, not too long ago, when the idea of making porn for women was unthinkable. It was “completely unheard of,” writes director Candida Royalle in the new anthology “The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure.” She founded Femme Productions in 1984, but when she went looking for distributors for her “female-oriented” films, she was patted on the head and told, “This is a boy’s club.”

Then in the ’90s, fresh off the so-called feminist porn wars, the genre of “couples porn” began to boom. That gave the small cadre of female directors of the time opportunities in the mainstream male-dominated industry — and “porn for women” began to seem less of an oxymoron. The next decade brought an explosion of feminist-minded pornographers — from trans performer Buck Angel to actress-turned-director Madison Young — as well as the creation of the Feminist Porn Awards. Since then we’ve seen the growth of explicit fan fiction — and with it, a greater cultural awareness of female desire for sexual explicitness — which has culminated in the global “Fifty Shades of Grey” phenomenon.

Which brings us to where we are today: We know that an estimated one out of every three porn watchers is a woman. The idea of porn for women is not only thinkable, and heard of, but the phrase is also increasingly being replaced with a more specific descriptor: “feminist porn.” Not that feminism — which, like porn, is not a monolithic entity — is entirely resolved on the issue: That’s why this book, which is filled with compelling essays by porn performers, directors and academics, has appeared now, decades after the “porn wars” began. These are testimonials about attempts to challenge those familiar foes of any Women’s Studies 101 class — from basic gender binaries to every “-ism” out there — but from inside the adult business.

What the book does most beautifully is carve out a middle ground: The unfortunate result of the “porn wars” was “the fixing of an antiporn camp versus a sex-positive/pro-porn camp,” argue the editors, Tristan Taormino, Celine Parreñas Shimizu, Constance Penley and Mireille Miller-Young, in the book’s introduction. “On one side, a capital P ‘Pornography’ was a visual embodiment of the patriarchy and violence against women. On the other, Porn was defended as ‘speech,’ or as a form that should not be foreclosed because it might some day be transformed into a vehicle for women’s erotic expression.” Meanwhile, they say, the “nuances and complexities of lowercase ‘pornographies’ were lost in the middle” — and this book is an attempt to elevate that reasonable center.

I spoke with co-editor Taormino, a porn director, sex educator and author of several books, including ”The Ultimate Guide to Kink,” about everything from sex worker rights to labiaplasty.

First things first, the most basic questions there is: How do you define feminist pornography?

The great thing about this book is that that is one of the central questions it is both asking and answering. One of the things we felt really strongly about is that there is no single answer, which I think is appropriate because there is no single response to,”How do you define feminism?” But I will say generally that I consider feminist porn to be both a genre of pornography and a movement. There are some overlapping themes within people’s different definitions of feminist porn: One theme is exploring the idea of how to make the process of making porn more ethical and addressing the issue of labor, which has always been an issue within feminism. How we can make it fair and consensual and ethical, how we treat the people making it and really raising the standards for how we treat sex workers.

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