What Feminist Porn Is REALLY Like

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A friend recently forwarded me a tweet that said, "My aunt is really confused by the concept of feminist porn. 'Of course it's sexist,' she says. 'It's for GUYS.'" Most people I talk to about feminist pornography are often equally bemused by the concept. The idea of sexual imagery made by feminists — full of sex-positivity, body-positivity, queer-positivity, and authenticity — can be difficult to reconcile with common images of porn.

Identifying what makes porn feminist can be almost as complex as identifying feminism itself. I recently attended the Feminist Porn Awards and Feminist Porn Conference in Toronto, where I spoke to some of the several hundred attendees and watched some award-winning sex scenes. I learned about feminist kink shoots and the history of sex work activism, and I came away with a deep respect and appreciation for how feminist ideals can be represented in pornography.

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The Beginning
To start, where did feminist porn come from? Queer BBW porn starlet Kitty Stryker says, "I think it started in the '80s, with people like Betty Dodson, Annie Sprinkle, Candida Royalle, Susie Bright, Deborah Sundahl, and others. Businesses like Femme Productions and On Our Backs catered to women's desires and gazes for the first time." Director and producer Courtney Trouble echoes this, including long-time porn star Nina Hartley in the list of notable feminist porn icons, and adding, "They wanted to make porn that showcased female desire and real orgasms, which altered the path of many porn companies."

Iconic director Shine Louise Houston points out that the "feminist porn" label itself originates from sex toy store Good For Her, which launched the Feminist Porn Awards, now in their ninth year. Other stores notable for promoting healthy representations of sexuality are Good Vibrations, Early to Bed, Blowfish, Smitten Kitten, Adam and Eve, and Babeland, all of which inspired pornographers to let feminism infuse their work.

Diversifying
Since then, feminist porn has expanded from a relatively homogenous space to one that is inclusive of a wider range of sexual experience. Stryker says, "Feminist porn started with white, cisgendered, middle-class, articulate women who were already working in the adult industry and considered ‘marketable.’ It has slowly brought in trans men, trans women, people of color, people with disabilities, and plus-sized people." The subject matter of the porn may not follow any particular guidelines, and can belong to any subgenre; kink, lesbian, fetish, and even heterosexual porn can all be made with feminist ideals. Producer and actor Pandora Blake explains, "'Feminist porn' used to be more or less synonymous with 'porn for women,' but nowadays I think it's more like porn for everyone. It's expanded, and in the future, I think — and hope — porn that is now considered 'feminist' will be the default, and radical porn will need to seek out new boundaries to explore."

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Seeking Authenticity
A common buzzword in discussions of feminist porn is "authenticity." Everyone I spoke with in Toronto believes feminist porn is somewhat "authentic" in that it encourages mutual consent and prioritizes performer preferences in terms of partner, scene, etc. However, several stressed that a truly "authentic" situation cannot possibly be created for a marketable product. Shine Louise developed and produced The Crash Pad Series, a seminal work of feminist queer porn, and says, "It's hard to talk about authenticity in film. The footage that you have at the end of the day is very much removed from the actual experience. In the edit process, I try to stay honest." Kitty Stryker expands on this idea: "It's still a job and performative in nature, and that needs to be acknowledged."

The Issue Of Exploitation
While a focus on sex workers’ rights has informed a lot of feminist activism, it can also be a divisive topic. Some feminists believe that all pornography is inherently exploitative and therefore, by nature, cannot be feminist. Others, including those with whom I spoke at the conference, believe that feminism must make space for healthy, varied expressions of sexuality. Many porn performers view their jobs with pride and respect, yet their ability to identify as service professionals delivering a quality product is hindered by perceptions that pornography isn’t legitimate work.

Feminist pornography often stresses a belief in the rights of workers; as a result, feminist porn shoots are often safer, cleaner, and more respectful than mainstream ones. Shine Louise points out that "directors are taking more positions of power, such as becoming producers and heads of distribution channels, which means we have people higher up who are approving projects that take more risks and show things that are quite unconventional."

Why Be A Feminist Porn Star?
Performers become involved in feminist porn for many reasons. "I believe strongly in being the change you want to see in the world," says Stryker. "If I want to see more fat bodies in porn, I will be one...I teethed as a feminist on sex-negative writers, and while I agree with many of their critiques of porn under patriarchal capitalism, I want to disrupt that mainstream narrative by being a performer that challenges those expectations."

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Pandora Blake adds that she was sick of seeing consensually produced kinky porn that was "sold as if the non-consent fantasy was actually true — pretending the performers hadn't really consented." Courtney Trouble says, "I am an artist and a feminist, and porn is just one of the media in which I work. I want to change the world with what I am doing. Porn is a really powerful form of subversion: You can influence the way people see your kind of body or your kind of sexual preferences by creating positive pornography that represents something genuine and respectful."
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How Do You Pick Your Porn?
So, let's say you wanted to watch some feminist pornography — how would you know where to find it? My interview subjects were as supportive of female porn consumption as they were of positive depictions of female pleasure in that porn. Diverse casts that show a wide range of sexualities are also par for the course in feminist porn. Even the language used in marketing is a giveaway: "Avoid companies that use offensive terms," advises Trouble. "Avoid porn companies that don't have people of color, people of size, or transgender performers on their site."

Feminist porn also promotes and supports positive communication between performers and producers. Performers are paid well, and there are no surprises when they arrive on-set. Blake adds, "Once the footage has been captured, the edit is done in a way that is honest and representative of what actually happened. Full credit is given to everyone involved and the product is sold in a way that respects the performers' professionalism, agency, and personhood."

As consumers, we also have a responsibility to act ethically. Trouble realizes that "some consumers are looking for BDSM, rough sex, kink, or other 'taboo' fantasies... Even if it doesn't look like feminist porn, it's still feminist to support the people who have made what you like to watch.” She stresses that “we don't need to further marginalize sex workers by saying what kinds of sex work they do are more acceptable or less acceptable." So, how can consumers give feminist porn performers the credit they deserve? As with any other industry, you can vote with your feet (and your dollars) by paying for feminist porn rather than the mainstream stuff.

Why Join The Movement?
Just as there is vast variety in feminist sexual preferences and ideals, everyone engaged in the feminist porn movement has a different reason for doing what they do. Being a feminist is the unifying factor, but even that can mean something different to each person. Nonetheless, everyone at the porn conference was engaged and enthusiastic about the possibilities for further communication and growth in the field.

Courtney Trouble's keynote speech was particularly inspiring, as is Shine Louise's description of screening her film, Bed Party, at the conference: "A gentleman in the audience who was practically in tears commented that he 'felt seen.' For the first time, he watched a representation of a sexual encounter that resembled his personal experiences. Being able to evoke an emotional response from your audience is priceless."

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Interview Subject Bios

Shine Louise Houston is the founding director of Pink & White Productions, the company that jump-started the queer porn movement with the cult classic film, The Crash Pad, and created a sustainable independent business model for queer porn with CrashPadSeries.com, which inspired a new wave of adult filmmakers. (Note: The Crash Pad was honored at the very first feminist porn awards, and Shine was recognized in 2010 as the Feminist Porn Awards' "visionary" director.) Here's a complete list of winners (2006-2014).

Pandora Blake is a feminist pornographer, sex worker, adult performer, and blogger based in London, U.K. She’s 29 years old and has been working in the adult industry since 2005. She is the creator of DreamsofSpanking.com, an adult paysite which launched in 2011 and produces gender egalitarian, fair trade, spanking porn for men and women. Pandora is an enthusiastic switch in both her professional and private lives, and enjoys making spanking videos with her real-life partners and lovers. She also writes the blog Spanked, Not Silenced on kink, porn, and politics.

Kitty Stryker is a fat queer femme as well as a lecturer, writer, porn performer, and consent activist based in Silicon Valley. She’s spoken at a range of venues, appearing on the University of Birmingham’s "Consent" panel and covering sex work and social media at SXSW. In her day job, Kitty is the PR and social media kitten at TROUBLEfilms and she writes on geek culture, current events, the adult industry, and intersectional politics. She’s currently pitching her first book based on Consent Culture, a website supporting survivors of assault and abuse within alternative communities. Her side project? A queer My Little Pony porn parody.

Courtney Trouble is a porn star, photographer, award-winning pornographer, and founder of TROUBLEfilms, IndiePornRevolution.com, and QueerPorn.TV. The director and creative force behind over 22 queer porn films and endless online content, Courtney is the recipient of numerous Feminist Porn Awards and countless adult industry honors, including eight XBIZ 2014 nods (a first in queer porn history). She also won Director of the Year at the BBW Fan Fest Awards in 2013. Courtney’s films speak to an extremely fluid, authentic, and hardcore version of graphic sexual imagery and feature queer, trans*, and genderqueer performers as well as performers of color and size. Courtney has spoken on feminist porn, queer porn, genderqueer identity, and body politics everywhere from the Berlin Porn Film Festival to the National Conference for Organised Resistance to universities, queer film festivals, and conferences.