The Feministing Five: Tristan Taormino

Tristan Taormino is a feminist pornographer and sex educator, and the author of half a dozen books, including the acclaimed The Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Women. Taormino is also the editor of the annual anthology Best Lesbian Erotica, which she has worked on for many years. For nine years, she was a syndicated sex and relationships columnist for The Village Voice, and she still offers relationship and sex advice to readers at her website. She is also responsible for the new DVD “The Expert’s Guide to Female Orgasm,” which, according to Miriam’s review earlier this week, is very, very hot.

Taormino has her own film production company is called Smart Ass Productions, which allows her the freedom to make feminist porn. Taormino’s pornography is feminist, by her definition, because it focuses on female pleasure, and because she strives to make porn that humanizes the performers and takes their desires into account. This is partly because this is the kind of porn Taormino believes in, and partly because she knows there’s a segment of the porn-watching public who are “tired of seeing videos where the women either don’t come or their orgasms are clearly fake.” To that end, Taormino makes porn with a “focus is on fresh and accessible performers, hot, spontaneous sex, real chemistry and real orgasms for everyone.”

Taormino also travels the country speaking and giving workshops, and she’s going on tour next month. Check out her schedule to see if she’s coming to a city near you.

And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Tristan Taormino.

Chloe Angyal: How did you get into feminist pornography and sex education?

Tristan Taormino: Well, I was supposed to go to law school, and that didn’t happen. I went to Wesleyan University in the early nineties, and it was this hotbed of activism, and I did a lot of LGBT activism and lived in a special interest house called Womanist House. I really imagined that I was going to go on to law school to do public service for people who didn’t have access to the system. And I had really good grades, and a really great resume and recommendations, and I had average LSAT scores and everyone told me not to worry. But in the spring of my senior year, I was rejected by all thirteen schools that I applied to. I was in a panic, and I went to see my thesis adviser, Professor Claire Potter, and I was crying, saying, “This was the plan, this was the plan, I have no plan now!” And she said, “Tristan, I don’t think you want to go to law school, and I don’t think you want to be a lawyer. I think you want to write about sex. And I think you’re really good at it.” I had written about sex in my senior thesis project, which was about lesbian sexuality, but it never occurred to me that it could be a job. I got off the wait list for one school, and she encouraged me to defer admission for a year and figure out what I wanted to do. I never went to law school, and that amazing teacher really changed the course of my life.

I started writing about sex as fiction, really writing about my own sexual experiences and changing people’s names and descriptions to protect their privacy. In 1996 I started my own zine. It was called Pucker Up, and it was all about sex and gender and radical sexuality and identity. People contributed fiction and non-fiction, and poetry and photos. That kind of put me on the map, and from that I got my job doing the anthology Best Lesbian Erotica for Cleis Press. At that point, there just wasn’t a lot of lesbian erotica on the shelf, so it was a risk for them, for sure. After I’d been working with them for a year, they sent out a call saying that they were looking for proposals for books about a single sex topic. They didn’t want a broad sex how-to book, they wanted to know what single sex topic we would focus on if we could. I thought about that question and I had the answer right away, which was that I wanted to write a book about anal sex, and I wanted it to be for women. They didn’t anticipate that that’s what I’d say, and I didn’t think they’d anticipated that this would be the first book they would publish in this series that they went on to do, but they’re a queer, feminist, sex-positive press, and they really believed in it when bookstores and others were a little bit freaked out about it.

So I started teaching workshops all about anal sex, based on my book. I got up in front of a room full of people, most of them strangers, I talked about anal sex, and the very first time I taught a workshop was a light bulb moment, like, “This is where I’m supposed to be, and this is what I’m supposed to be doing.” So from there I expanded my repertoire of teaching, I went on to write my column for The Village Voice, and then I wanted to make a video version of my book. I knew I wanted it to be really explicit, and I knew that would automatically put it in the territory of porn, of hardcore, explicit sex. I pitched it to a bunch of really mainstream adult companies. All of them turned me down, and then John Stagliano called a couple of months later and said he wanted to make the movie. So I made my movie The Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Women. I kept doing my sex education work, and then in 2005 I came back to porn, because I felt like there still wasn’t enough educational porn out there. I wanted to see if I could put my own stamp on it, and I was also interested in making porn that wasn’t necessarily educational, that wasn’t framed as educational, but that represented the kind of porn that I wanted to see but didn’t feel was on the shelf.

CA: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?

TT: I think it’s the Wicked Witch of the West, from Wicked the book and the musical. She’s also known as Elphaba, or the Green Witch. She’s always struck me as a really strong character. She’s an outcast, yet she has this tremendous confidence and self-assurance to stand up for what she believes in. She defies The Wizard, with a capital W. And she does it not by pitting herself against another woman who’s different from her, but by joining forces with this other woman, who’s different and has had a very different life experience. And I was raised by a gay man, so I love musicals.

My heroines in real life are easily. Susie Bright, Betty Dodson, Annie Sprinkle, Nina Hartley. These are women who really broke ground in the field of feminist porn, queer porn and feminist sex education. I feel like, individually, each of them kicked down so many doors, and that I wouldn’t have the career that I do without all the work that they did, and that they continue to do. These are women who are still writing, teaching and educating, and creating really necessary work, and are really the founders of the modern sex-positive movement.
CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?

TT: A better question is, is there a recent news story that doesn’t make me want to throw my computer across the room? It’s a little depressing, and there are times when I have to turn away from CNN because it makes me so crazy. The one that comes to mind is that at the very end of the year, there was this Gallup poll released on the most admired women on 2010. And Sarah Palin was on the list. And I think she was second – above pretty incredible, kick-ass women. I’m still entirely baffled by how Sarah Palin is on the national political stage. I’m sure she’s a nice enough person, but she has a political background that’s sketchy at best – there’s a lot of rumors and scandals swirling around her political career in Alaska. She’s not that bright, and I personally want my leaders to be smarter than me. And she spouts this pseudo right wing-feminism, and it’s entirely perplexing to me that people buy it. I guess I just can’t understand what people see in her, because I don’t see it.

CA: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?

TT: There seem to be a lot of them. On the one hand, there are some amazing young feminists. They’re a different generation than I am, and they’re living in a different time, and we need to really listen to them. But on the other hand, there are all these young women who I meet at colleges who don’t identify as feminists. And I feel like they take for granted some of the things that past generations really fought for. They don’t have a sense of history. It’s like everyone skipped Women’s Studies 101. So I’m perplexed about why young women shy away from this label, “Feminist.” And the irony is that feminists fought so hard and made so much change – they sort of fought for your right to be so blasé about not identifying as a feminist. And that’s a weird paradox to me.

The other piece of it is that the why our media culture is now, everything feels very black and white. Everything feels structured around debates. And to me, feminism is about complexity and different voices, and it’s about me and Catherine MacKinnon both considering ourselves feminists, and disagreeing, rabidly, about some major issues. I feel like feminism is about nuance and layers, and I don’t know how to translate that into the media culture we have now, where it’s all about soundbites and where you stand. You’re on one side or the other. I was interested to see Jaclyn Friedman take on Naomi Wolf and provide this nuanced point of view. She said, “Do I think the charges against Julian Assange are politically motivated? Yeah. But do I think that there’s also some really fucked up shit being said about rape? Yeah!” But in some ways, there’s no room in mainstream media outlets to say that. You’ve got to be on one side or the other. And that’s not my idea of feminism, and I feel like feminism is in conflict with this entirely soundbite-driven media culture.

CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?

TT: Chocolate shortbread cookies from Soma in Toronto, freshly squeezed lemonade and the feminists who are in my Buddhist book club – Alice, Amber and Wyndi.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted January 8, 2011 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    Regardless of how wrong it is, the stigmatization of Feminism and feminists exists. We can attempt to reclaim the word in its rightful context, but Ms. Taormino seems instead to frame the debate in terms of young women lacking courage to self-identify as such, while not granting due respect and recognition to feminist elders.

    I would disagree. While it is true that we quickly forget our history and the notable people that made it, it’s not necessarily offensive to appreciate their struggles while in the process of still struggling with owning an identity that is so stigmatized. In certain protected circles and contexts, there is nothing wrong with saying that one is a feminist. But outside of these, the word invokes strongly negative images. Younger feminists have tried to change the word to reflect favorable terms, but we still have an uphill battle ahead of us.

    And I think also that in general it is good for all of us to look beyond ourselves and our own ideas. We often have a tendency to live in a bubble. We have our own terms, our own favored causes, and our own initiatives. All of them are beneficial and I appreciate the passion and creativity that goes into each and every one of them.

    But I still know this. The books written by Taormino, plus the editors and regular contributors of this site are pigeon-holed in bookstores into one specific section. They are labeled Women’s Studies, Feminism, Queer Studies, or a variety of related subject headings, but one must dig to look for them. And one must often be in the know first and foremost. Sometimes a feminist work strikes a chord enough to reach a widespread audience, but only very rarely. So it would seem to me that continuing to brainstorm and use our creativity to reclaim and redefine what to many has become a deeply offensive word might be the best course of action going forward.

  2. Posted January 9, 2011 at 3:26 am | Permalink

    I’ve been a fan of Tristan’s since high school, and appreciate her and her work so much more now that I’m in college and a feminist. She is truly a bright star, and I’m so excited to see her on the Feministing Five. Love you, Tristan!

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