What makes feminist porn feminist?

Last weekend’s Feministing Five interview with feminist pornographer Tristan Taormino raised the question of what it is that’s feminist about feminist porn. It’s a complicated question, because the issue of pornography is such a divisive one in the feminist community, and has been for a long time. There are those in the feminist community who would argue that no pornography can be feminist, and that pornography necessarily exploits human sexuality and dehumanizes the performer. Others would disagree, and argue that there are those who make a free and informed choice to work in the pornography industry, who work in safe and just environments, and who participate in the creation of adult entertainment that they don’t believe is exploitative or harmful. Taormino falls into this second camp. When I asked her what makes feminist pornography feminist, she gave me this very thoughtful answer:

There’s no one definition. The feminist pornographers I know, we all don’t really agree on what that definition is. For me, the emphasis really is on the process of making it, because once I make it and put it out in the world, people can read it and use it in all these multiple ways that I really can’t anticipate.

For me, it’s about creating a working environment that is respectful, consensual, fair, that people have good working conditions, and that their experience of the sex as sex work is a positive one. I also have a really collaborative process with my performers. I’m interested in the performers participating in creating their own images, and participating in creating their own representation. I don’t have an interest in saying, “You, you’re going to fuck this guy, in these five positions, on the kitchen counter, and you’re going to do it for this long.” I want to find out what they’re into. What things they like, what they don’t like, what toys they want to use, what positions they like, what performers they want to work with, and what pieces of their sexuality they’re interested in sharing with the camera. I think it’s important that they also have a voice.

A big part of my porn is the interview segments. A lot of people speak for sex workers in this country, but we seldom let them speak for themselves. And I think it’s important to let them speak, and to let them speak freely, in order to create this three-dimensional image. It’s still an image; I’m not claiming that this is the real person behind the porn star. They’re still performing for the camera. But I do think that it gives people a better sense of who they are as people, as three-dimensional human beings, rather than essentially what I would consider bad porn, which is porn that has sex robots, who arrive, and fuck and then depart, and you don’t know anything about them, or why they’re fucking, or what their deal is. And I also think that I’m dedicated to showing a diversity of female sexuality. I’m interested in genuine female pleasure and genuine female orgasms. Those are things that are missing from a lot of mainstream porn. For me, it’s really about the work process, and an atmosphere and environment where I really value the work that they’re doing, and I want to give them the best possible conditions to do it in.

What do you think? Can porn ever be feminist? And if it can, what does feminist porn look like to you?

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/lisslalissar/ Lissla Lissar

    I certainly think it can be feminist, and I think the above definition is an excellent one. I’ve been a nude model and have done somewhat softcore photos for years, and 90% of my experiences have been great. Everything was friendly, set up for the comfort of myself and other models, etc. At the very least, there can be porn created that even if it’s not necessarily feminist is neutral (not anti-feminist or problematic, even if it doesn’t necessarily come with any kind of feminist/empowerment message).

  • http://cabaretic.blogspot.com nazza

    What I have always found most appealing (and arousing) is that which is not staged. This usually gets labeled “amateur”. But even that which is recorded by non-actors by themselves is not immune to inequality and elements of dehumanization. It completely depends upon whomever has chosen to open up their sex life to the rest of the world.

    But still, it is not difficult to recognize sexual situations based on consent, trust, and mutual desire. I’ve viewed countless numbers of those over the years, and I think the reason I like seeing them is that I can easily imagine and fantasize about what it must be like to be there. I can’t always do that with actors. I suppose I demand realism in such circumstances.

    And I’ve seen far too much bad porn, where it’s quite clear that what I am seeing is someone’s day job. And that’s just downright boring to observe. This may be why I’m resistant to any commercially produced pornography, regardless of how Feminist it may be.

  • http://feministing.com/members/zeenacheda/ Dan C

    For a long time, I’ve wanted some sort of “Feminist Approved” stamp for porn – something that ensures the performers weren’t coerced, treated unfairly, etc. Like a Fairtrade certification. Maybe Tristan is the person to start that movement?

  • http://feministing.com/members/laurenmartin33/ Lauren

    I would also consider more reality-based, women-friendly content to be feminist porn. i.e., not a woman giving a guy a blow job for like 5 hours and being used as a sex toy. Content that, as Taormino said, actually features women experiencing pleasure in a realistic way.

  • http://feministing.com/members/jeremybjohnson/ Jeremy Johnson

    I think this is an interesting question. I believe it is a situation where it will be easier to have a concensus on what isn’t feminist as opposed to what is. Since there is going to be a wide grey area, instead of a firm line, that represents all the possible opinions of whether or not any pornography can be feminist, the answer, as Tristan stated, is in the eye of the beholder.

    In an ideal world, if my ideals of feminism are in line with the women acting and producing the product, and they believe it is feminist, then I feel that it represents feminist take on the subject. That begs the question of how do I know if their perceptions are the same as mine? Given the number of different views and definitions of feminism, I think it is hard to have a consensus on a subject as controversial as this.

  • http://feministing.com/members/kaelin/ Matt

    This response is shaped some by Lissla, but I think the ability for porn or movies or video games or TV shows to be considered feminist is more or less the same… and that sort of depends on your definition. I think any sort of entertainment can show pro-feminist ideas and/or anti-feminist ideas… and/or you could frame it as having feminism-consistent and/or feminism-inconsistent ideas… but the standards you use as for which combination is acceptable are not going to be universal. Is it enough for entertainment to be consistent with feminism even though it doesn’t have a pro-feminist message? What if there is a mix of things that are pro/consistent and anti/inconsistent?

    Regarding porn in particular, the working environment does seem like something that can be dealt with, although judging the content itself would be tricky. You have to navigate a reality that female/male pairings where the participants prefer roles with uneven “power,” but it may be worthwhile to evaluate what each person is putting in and getting out… and whether the content has enough integrity to present that information.

    That said, I’ve never watched anything beyond a couple ecchi series and erotic short stories, so I’m not well-qualified to discuss this topic. But it is still sort of interesting (just so I can give ~feminism a fair chance in any social discussion/debate).

  • http://feministing.com/members/mysticdoula/ Sarah

    This is something I’ve considered and the definition here is really great. One thing I would like to add to it though –

    Many women who end up working in porn tend to come from backgrounds of abuse, or a background where the opportunities to choose between porn and a more mainstream career might not have been present. I feel like those women are still being taken advantage of even if the working conditions are safe and supportive of her.

    I’m not sure what kind of childhood Montana Fishburne had, but perhaps she is an example of someone who came from a home that didn’t have the kind of abuse that left her with no other choice.

    For me, feminist pornography would also need to be with people who are doing it because they actually want to, and enjoy it, and not because their upbringing left them emotionally damaged in a way that made it all they felt they could do.

    • honeybee

      The problem is however, it’s impossible even for oneself to truly know where ones motivation for doing something truly comes from.

      So while I understand your sentiment, I think really it still just boils down to the consensual nature of the arrangement. As long while at work and while dealing with anyone involved in the production there is no coercion by those involved in the production and everything is done based on free will, the root of the motivation for doing it is irrelevant. Otherwise you’re essentially saying that women who have suffered abuse should be given less options in life then those that haven’t, which would be the opposite of a feminist position.

    • http://feministing.com/members/lisslalissar/ Lissla Lissar

      Though I’d like to add that a background in abuse does not necessarily make someone incapable of wanting to do porn and enjoying it.

  • http://feministing.com/members/bellecloche/ Emily Sanford

    While Taormino focuses chiefly on the experiences of the workers, I’m more concerned about the consumers and the way pornography is being marketed to them (and thus essentially shaping their concepts of sex and sexuality). As with prostitution, what upsets me most about the porn industry is the way in which the marketing implies that only straight, cis-gendered, domineering men crave sex for pleasure and women are the supply that should meet this demand. Porn becomes feminist for me when it evenly provides erotica for ALL the different paths to pleasure that actually exist – no matter how covertly – in our society. I don’t mind that some people want to see women in submissive roles or made up like Barbie dolls as long as there is a healthy, unabashed and out-in-the-open supply of porn for those who want to see women who are dominant and empowered and without makeup, etc., which – in the mainstream – there is not.

    • honeybee

      I think that’s pretty debatable. 20 years ago maybe, but now in today’s age there are many feminist porn producers and actresses, shops, stores, etc. so finding such material is not that hard anymore.

      In addition, demand must always be considered. So while I also believe that material for everyone should exist, it doesn’t mean that the same amount of each type of material needs to exist. After all, if there are 100 million guys interested in X, and only 50000 women interested in Y, it stands to reason that more of X should and will be produced, since ultimately this is a business which needs some form of compensation to survive.

      • http://feministing.com/members/bellecloche/ Emily Sanford

        Finding feminist porn is indeed easier now than it used it be, but it’s certainly not as openly marketed or discussed compared to the men-desire-submissive-stick-thin-women stereotype. How many people have heard of Hugh Hefner compared to Taormino?

        As for the workings of supply and demand, that’s an argument that can go on forever. A large part of my feminism is founded in my belief that media and marketing create much more demand than they answer to, which is why misogyny, lookism, ableism, racism, homophobia, etc. thrive as gloriously as they do across America. It’s a big topic and I don’t want to derail the porn discussion because of it, but I know from personal experience that there are loads more people who are into non-heteronormative, non-macho sexual fantasies than the market suggests, and loads more who *would be* if they weren’t shamed into repressing those desires by the homophobia, misogyny and lookism that is so loudly trumpeted across our culture and into the ears of every 12 year-old starting to explore their sexuality.

      • http://feministing.com/members/calieber/ Hershele Ostropoler

        As with mainstream entertainment I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say that the range of works available shapes as well as reflects the market. The 100-million-versus-50,000 isn’t an immutable law of nature.

  • honeybee

    I think she gave an excellent answer. And certainly I believe feminist porn exists, I think it exists alot more then some give it credit or think.

    Regarding focusing on female sexuality and pleasure, I personally believe in a balance. Not every scene must focus on this just like not every scene should focus on the male experience. It should be balanced. So if in one scene it’s a girl getting a guy off – that’s fine – so long as there is another scene that does the opposite. (And across all of this I strongly agree with her position on the working conditions and free will, I take that as a given).

  • cheyanneaura

    I agree with the definition provided by Tristan Taormino, but she didn’t really touch on the way most women in porn are still subjected to strict beauty standards especially regarding body hair. I would love if more porn featured women who defy those standards. Maybe by making it more commonplace people wouldn’t be so turned off by something that is completely natural and beautiful.

  • http://feministing.com/members/weildable/ Weildable

    I think feminist porn is real possibility, but I’ve never seen any. I think if you could find men and women who were in pornography because they want to be, not because of some childhood sexual trauma or coercion, or whatever other negative motivation there could be, and those people respected one another mutually … sure. I just have a hard time believing that the situation exists.