Sex & Relationships

Strange Bedfellows: Can Feminism and Porn Coexist?

Progressive directors are challenging the misogyny that pervades most mainstream porn. But is it possible to make pornography feminist?
When it comes to pornography, it's safe to assume one thing: Whatever you choose to say on the subject, nearly everyone will disagree with at least part it. Add feminism to the mix and you're pretty much guaranteed a brawl. Chanelle Gallant understands this as well as anyone. "You're probably the first interviewer who didn't start with the question, 'Aren't feminism and porn oxymorons?'" she jokes over the phone. Gallant is the creator of the Feminist Porn Awards, an event held annually in Toronto since 2006. She and the other folks at Good For Her (a feminist-owned and -operated sex shop in Toronto) launched the awards as a response to the racism in mainstream pornography. "We were complaining about how we had to send back all these DVDs because they had the most egregious racial stereotyping in them," she explains. "I said something like, 'It's really too bad that nobody recognizes the filmmakers who are making an effort to do something better.'

The awards recognize sexually explicit films that fulfill at least two of three criteria: first, a woman is substantially involved with the making of the film; second, the film depicts genuine female pleasure; and third, it expands the range of sexual expression for women by telling us something new about female sexuality. Categories range from Hottest Group Sex Scene to Hottest Diverse Cast to Hottest Trans Sex Scene; winning filmmakers and performers travel to Toronto from across North America to accept butt plug-shaped trophies.

Folks working within the adult industry to radically challenge porn's mainstream image is nothing new -- the likes of Annie Sprinkle and Carol Queen have been at it for years. And yet, one pesky problem remains unresolved: the question of what it takes, practically speaking, for feminism and porn films to coexist. If there's no sticker on the front of a DVD identifying it as Fair Trade porn, how can I know if it was produced in a way that I can support? What if I do know it was produced ethically, but I don't find the content compelling or hot? And if I identify material as non-feminist and still find it hot, does that damn me forever to the realm of the Guilty Bad Feminists? Finally, even if by some miracle I manage to reconcile all these contradictions for myself, is the adult industry as a whole showing any indication of evolving past the most token and self-serving co-option of feminism?

I tracked down five of the filmmakers whose work was honored at the 2007 Feminist Porn Awards to find out what they think sets their work apart -- and whether they'd classify it as pornography to begin with. From hetero white men making documentaries to queer black women making mockumentaries, gonzo reality to story-driven hip hop rom-coms, the only obvious commonality is explicit, unsimulated sex -- and for many, that's enough to call them porn. For some, it may also be enough to call them nonfeminist. But in speaking to the filmmakers, it became clear that in the world of onscreen sex, labels are carefully applied.

Venus Hottentot defines pornography as sexually explicit material designed to titillate, and because the intention of her film Afrodite Superstar is to tell a story that happens to involve sex, she prefers the term "sex film." She explains, "I wanted people to engage in an intellectual manner, in an entertaining manner, and then if it was going to titillate that was going to be, quite honestly, the third thing on my list." Tony Comstock, too, finds the term "pornography" troubling. Comstock works with his wife, Peggy, to produce explicit documentary-style features about real-life lovers, and he laments that, "pornography is, in large measure, about what sex looks like, without exploring everything else that sex is. If you want to try to reach beyond that both physically and metaphysically, the word "porn" becomes very limiting."

According to Audacia Ray, director of the The Bi Apple as well as a sex educator and sex workers-rights activist, "Feminist porn is, for me, much more about the production end of things than it is about what is actually onscreen. It's about the ability of the people performing the porn to negotiate what they're doing." For Ray, producing feminist porn involves paying performers above the industry standard, using condoms and covering the costs of HIV testing (neither of which are industry standards), getting input from her cast about what they want to do before they arrive on set, and avoiding surprising actors with last-minute requests.

A discussion of whether the content of a sexually explicit film can make or break its feminism tends to inspire more debate. "Everyone assumes that feminist porn has a specific genre," says Chanelle Gallant. "That [it has] to be soft, that it has to be storyline-based, and that it has to be lesbian. None of that is true."

"For me what makes it feminist is the story," explains Hottentot. "[With Afrodite Superstar,] I wanted to create something about sexuality and self-esteem, and for me those were my first objectives in making this film. When I looked at what is going on with HIV/AIDS in the African-American and Latin communities, I felt like there needed to be a sexual conversation." And it's in that context that Hottentot tells the story of a young woman of color struggling to discover an authentic identity and sexuality in the mainstream hip hop industry.

For filmmakers who are trying to distinguish their work from mainstream porn, expanding how beauty and sexuality are represented onscreen is often as or more important than telling a particular story. Afrodite Superstar directly challenges stereotypical portrayals of African-American beauty by casting women with natural bodies (i.e., no plastic surgery) who are different shades of brown and who have natural hair. Shine Louise Houston, who comes at her work from the perspective of a queer woman of color, says that "The sex is the compelling story," but nevertheless adds "Showing different gender identities, sexual proclivities, different body types, skin colors -- that's all on the agenda." Houston's In Search of the Wild Kingdom creates what she deems "the ultimate PoMo-homo porno" with femmes, bois, and trans models frolicking together in a simple, hilarious story about a straight documentary filmmaker obsessed with tracking the wilds of lesbian sex.

In other cases, filmmakers focus on creating context as a way to expand their representations of sex. In her reality series Chemistry, Tristan Taormino places her cast of professional adult performers in charge of how, when, why, with whom, and how often they have sex, and then interviews them about everything from the racism in porn to what they like to perform. For Taormino, the collaborative aspect is a crucial part of what makes her work feminist. "I want viewers to get to know the performers and get a more three-dimensional character, as opposed to [a] one-dimensional sex robot." Creating context is also how Taormino responds to the dominant imagery in mainstream porn. "When something comes up that could possibly reinforce a dominant image -- like, for example, in Chemistry 3 there was a bunch of rough sex -- [it's] really important to, in my interviews with people, have them specifically talk about why they like rough sex, how they obtain consent, what their boundaries are, and how it relates to their sexual expression."

Like Taormino, Comstock's films combine interviews and sex as a way to capture aspects of sexuality that go beyond the physical. But he aims to capture the erotic and emotional intimacy of couples that would be having sex with each other regardless of whether or not he was filming them. "I don't think there's anything wrong with jerking off to visual material, per se," says Comstock. "But that's a very narrow frame inside of which to address sexuality for me. I want to see sex dealt with in a way that [captures] what I really like about it, which is how connective and nourishing and compelling it can be."

But even with all the context and consent in the world, some sex acts are just more contentious than others. Perhaps the best example is the "facial," the ubiquitous mainstream porn moment in which a man ejaculating onto a woman's face or into her wide-open mouth. Some argue that if you're going to peddle facials in your film, you might as well forget about calling it feminist. Others argue that facials reflect the authentic sexuality of some women, and that in fact it's impossible to call any sex act inherently nonfeminist. Says Ray, "It makes me angry when people makes lists like, 'Oh, a woman receiving cunnilingus is feminist, but a woman receiving a facial is not feminist.'" Taormino felt strongly enough about the image to leave facials out of her Expert Guide to Oral Sex instructional sex videos, but subsequently decided that her performers' ability to make their own choices and contextualize them onscreen was more important than axing any one image, and thus facials make an appearance in her reality series. Whether specific sex acts can be considered feminist or nonfeminist is, simply, murky territory. As Gallant puts it, "[For] every single piece of porn ever made, there's a woman who will like it."

Whatever it looks like and however it's produced, the adult industry seems more than willing to embrace the feminist-friendly part of its image, likely because the market for it is undeniable. "I think our porn sales more than tripled," says Gallant about Good For Her's business in the wake of the Feminist Porn Awards. "It was this crazy increase because people want to find porn that they can enjoy." And there is evidence that the mainstream adult industry is paying attention. Not only did Taormino's Chemistry 1 win 2007 Feminist Porn Awards for Hottest Gonzo Sex Scene and Hottest Diverse Cast, it also won an AVN award (the Oscar of the hardcore industry, conferred annually by Adult Video News) for Best Gonzo Release, the first female director ever to do so.

This win was, to put it mildly, unprecedented. "Gonzo" technically refers to a style of porn that places the camera directly into the scene, but in recent years the term has become shorthand for films that depict women being choked, insulted, spit on, and worse. "It's essentially become an antiporn feminist's worst nightmare come true" says Taormino. "I've always made the joke that if you're going to go to all the trouble of sticking my head in a toilet -- a dominant image in some gonzo porn -- at least I better get a really good orgasm out of it. But we're seeing this pent-up aggression and hostility towards women; [there's] rough sex, but it's not clear that they're consenting to it, and it's clear that they're not getting off on it, because we never get to see their pleasure."

And with titles such as Attention Whores 6 ("We are just sex toys sent here for your amusement") and Teens for Cash 7 ("Nothing can stop these dirty old men from finding dumb and desperate teens who will do anything for a little bit of dough") competing in the same category, it's pretty easy to imagine Taormino's film sticking out. "It was truly, truly shocking," she laughs. "It was a surprise to everyone in the industry."

So what does any of this mean for smut-inclined viewers? The way each of us perceives sexually explicit work is ultimately wholly subjective, which is perhaps what makes feminist porn so fascinating and simultaneously confounding. "Don't try to make it objective," Gallant chastises me when I try to tie up this undertaking in a neat little package. "I mean, why try to create the final word on what's feminist? I think it's okay for us to have varying ideas about what constitutes feminist porn."

Still, being able to agree on at least part of what can make porn feminist is a useful thing, whether you're a porn producer, performer, consumer, or critic. By suggesting some basic criteria and resources, the Feminist Porn Awards seem to strike a good balance, challenging us to move beyond assumptions and into real dialogue. But for her part, Gallant isn't content to have us stop at being ethical consumers. If she had her way, feminists everywhere would be taking it one step further and tackling the power imbalances that continue to lie at the very heart of mainstream pornography. In other words? "Go make your own," she dares."