This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

November-December 2008

The new face of porn

Alison Lee

A new generation of feminists are reclaiming porn, both as consumers and producers. A (very) intimate journey

Erika Lust on the set of "Barcelona Sex Project," her "erotic experimental film" that exemplifies the style of the new crop of feminist-identified pornographers.

Erika Lust on the set of "Barcelona Sex Project," her "erotic experimental film" that exemplifies the style of the new crop of feminist-identified pornographers. Photo courtesy Lust Films.

The first time I remember thinking critically about pornography, I was 15. It was the early 1990s, and my friend and I were going through a stack of discarded magazines, undertaking the well-loved teenage art of collage. Between the Cosmos and National Geographics was this out-of-place porno, just stuck in there. We made awkward jokes while flipping through it, and found a fake advertisement for “Gash Jeans,” which depicted a naked woman bent over with her pants around her ankles. We added it to our collage, and next to it scrawled our own teenage thoughts about porn and sexism.

I’d seen porn before, having snooped through friends’ parents’ stashes or the collections kept by families I babysat for. But this was the first porn I remember laying eyes on after learning about feminism. Inspired by the punk-feminist Riot Grrrl movement of the early ’90s, I took books out of the library by feminist thinkers such as Andrea Dworkin, Catherine McKinnon and Robin Morgan, whose statement that “pornography is the theory, rape is the practice,” summed up the attitude of many feminists of the previous generation.

By the time I found feminism, and started organizing rock shows featuring female artists and making zines, the anti-porn stance had fallen out of fashion in academic circles. But my local public library wasn’t exactly on the cutting edge of feminist theory — the information I had access to uniformly condemned pornography as an industry that fed male depravity and encouraged violence against women. Growing up on the bridge between second- and third-wave feminism was a puzzling thing. I revered the anti-porn feminists who gave me my early education in women’s studies — they knew, like I did, that women were being systematically harmed, and that it had to be stopped. At 15, I thought that watching porn made you hate women.

By 16, I wasn’t so sure. Younger feminists were taking a broader view of sex and sexuality, including a more open attitude toward porn. Third-wave feminists were more concerned with fighting for sex workers’ rights than condemning pornography as a whole. While these schools of feminism weren’t mutually exclusive, I had a hard time holding them both in my head without it raising significant questions. Was I supposed to support the hard-working woman in front of the camera, or feel repulsed and sorry for her as an exploited sex object? Since that collage-making session, I’ve looked at a lot of pornography in a lot of different contexts. I now see porn as a positive extension of human sexual expression, but I still have a lot of questions about big-picture issues around pornography and society.

I’ve searched for answers in a lot of ways: as an undergrad studying sex and gender; as a sex store manager trying (unsuccessfully) to get porn in stock because my female customers demand it; and as a staff reviewer for a website that informed readers about where to get the best quality blowjob videos online. I’ve looked critically at sex, society and porn for years now, and I still maintain that sex is an amazingly telling lens through which to view the world.

This continues today, with my work as manager of Good for Her, a Toronto-based feminist sex store, where I also organize the Feminist Porn Awards, which honour the hard-working feminists who are revolutionizing the porn industry. If the very idea of someone who cut her teeth on anti-porn theory now handing out butt-plug shaped trophies to pornographers doesn’t make Andrea Dworkin spin in her grave, I don’t know what would.

Today, one only has to turn on the TV, walk down the street or type “free porn” into their web browser to see how unsuccessful the anti-porn movement was. Where anti-porn feminists of the past condemned the entire industry — often with valid reasons — their dogmatic view failed to take into account that sexual imagery can be positive, and that porn is sometimes created by people acting of their free will, who feel good about what they do and who hold pleasure in high esteem.

Now there is porn for everyone. Literally. There are websites that have audio recordings describing pornographic websites for blind people ( [obviously, all these sites are likely to be Not Safe For Work—depending on your workplace]), porn full of saucy deaf people getting it on and using sign language to express their desires ( and sites that cater to everything from our fear and fascination with Middle Eastern and Muslim women ( to snot fetishes (seriously: see if you dare). There is now porn about pretty much anything that a person could ever think of in a sexy way — and plenty that most of us would never find erotic, either. And, of course, there is pornography made specifically for women, who, according to a recent survey by Internet Filter Review, visit adult websites at a rate of one for every two men. Looking back to the time when feminists viewed pornography as an instruction manual for the degradation of women, the biggest irony may be that sexually empowered feminist women have gone from being critics of pornography to being major consumers of it. Pornography, like sex itself, is fraught with complexity and contradiction, but the failure of anti-porn feminism was ultimately positive. Out of its ashes came a new culture of porn that is serious and steadfast in its dedication to pleasure and politics.

The mainstreaming of porn, which, as an industry, rakes in billions and billions of dollars a year, is still primarily a male-driven phenomenon. This doesn’t mean it’s a boys-only club though — sites that cater specifically to women like and (a reported 70 percent of women keep their use of internet porn a secret) are doing swift business. The very emergence of a category of “porn for women” or “feminist porn” as a respected and understood niche within the mainstream industry means that somebody is paying attention to the demands of women as consumers of porn. As if more proof were needed of pornography’s widespread acceptance, supermodel Tyra Banks recently devoted an episode of her daytime television talk show to the subject of women who watch porn, and the merits of mainstream porn versus porn made by, and for, women.

While pornography’s normalization is relatively new, anti-porn crusaders have been around for as long as humans have been casting their sexual dreams and desires into images and print. Rightwing and religious groups have been long-standing enemies of pornography and obscenity, their concerns based on morality and fear that porn would cause the downfall of Western civilization by pandering to base desires — which are supposed to be ignored, of course.

During the late 1970s and 1980s, many feminists began to pay attention to pornography with a different focus. They believed that the growth of porn, popularized in film and magazine form, indicated society’s growing tolerance for violating women and reducing them to objects. If we are to pick a year when pornography began its rise, 1953 is a solid one. That’s when Hugh Hefner founded Playboy, which featured risqué pin-up images — that actually look pretty quaint by today’s standards. The industry didn’t take off in earnest, however, until the early ’70s and the advent of feature-length porn films. (Until that time, stag reels — short films usually free of much story or context — were kept out of sight in adult theatres or passed from hand to hand by enterprising men.)

Films such as Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door, both from 1972, sent audiences flocking to theatres. And these crowds were comprised of couples and other curious customers, not just stereotypical raincoat-wearing perverts. The sexual revolution, which espoused free love, the Pill and an increasingly open view of sex and sexuality — from swingers’ parties to gay liberation — all set the scene for porn entering the mainstream. The truly explosive growth spurt happened in the ’80s with the advent of the VCR: home video technology made porn private and easily accessible. Feminists revolted. Influenced by growing feminist academic study of rape, battering and trafficking in women, community groups sprang up across North America to protest the proliferation of porn and its perceived effects. In 1979, Women Against Pornography (WAP, one of many groups with such acronyms — there was also Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media, and Women Against Violence Against Women), famously began one of the most visible means of anti-porn protest and education at the time. WAP led tours of the traditionally male domains of the sex underground for women, to give them the opportunity to have a first-hand look at sleazy “adult novelty” shops, dirty bookstores and porn theatres.

Anti-porn activists also circulated petitions, ran slideshows of pornography in consciousness-raising sessions and actively attempted to shut down theatres and video stores. Their success was often limited, but according to one activist credited only as “R,” there was “one video store owner who gave us his 52 tapes, and refused to sell porn.” Other successes could be measured by “the number of people who turned out in support, by the number of men we stopped from going into the shops, by the amount of media attention we got for our analysis on pornography, by the number of small groups that formed to organize against pornography in their area as a result of contact with us.”

The movement was heated and heartfelt. Some anti-porn activists looked to the principles of direct action and engaged in more overt protest. In 1982, a group calling itself the Wimmin’s Fire Brigade attempted to simultaneously bomb three Red Hot Video outlets in the Lower Mainland and Victoria, B.C. Ann Hansen, a member of the Brigade (who was also a member of the “Squamish Five” — famous for bombing a Toronto factory that was manufacturing cruise-missile components), claimed the group targeted Red Hot Video because it was selling “very violent pornography.” She said the chain’s rapid expansion into suburban neighbourhoods was normalizing porn in areas that previously had little access to sexually explicit material.

While not every feminist with concerns about pornography pursued radical direct action, the bombing captured the sentiment of many women at the time. The British Columbia Federation of Women issued a statement the day after the bombings that stated, “Although we did not participate in the fire bombing of Nov.22, 1982 … we are in sympathy with the anger and frustration of the women who did.” The views were not uniform, but in broader society, feminism had become synonymous with anti-porn attitudes and activism.

That year marked a turning point for the anti-porn movement. In 1982, Barnard College in New York held an academic conference on the subject of “pleasure and danger.” The purpose of the conference was to investigate how to expand the boundaries of women’s sexual freedom and desire, while preserving the feminist project of eliminating sexism and violence.

Topics for discussion at the conference included “correct/incorrect sexualities,” teen sex, abortion, disability and race, and some anti-porn feminists attempted to shut it down, believing the presenters to be perverts and sex deviants. One of the organizers of the conference noted that Women Against Pornography were particularly outspoken in their protest of the event, and greeted the more than 800 attendees with leaflets proclaiming the content of the conference as “anti-feminist.”

The event marked a pivotal point in the war against pornography, as anti-porn feminists moved their battle from culture to the courts. The terrain shifted from pro- and anti-pornography to pro- and anti-censorship. And it was an enterprising man from Winnipeg who inadvertently set the stage for the battles to come.

In 1987, Donald Butler was arrested on 173 counts of obscenity, just days after opening an adult video and novelty shop. Butler’s entrepreneurial zeal (he re-opened the store and then faced further charges of obscenity), convictions and journey to the Supreme Court of Canada led to Canada’s current obscenity laws, which are based on the Butler decision.

That decision was the culmination of years of anti-porn activism and state intervention. The Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund played a significant role, and intervened in the Supreme Court hearings to show the harm that came to women from the production of pornography. LEAF’s pro-censorship argument was based on the idea that sexually explicit materials were a form of hate speech against women. The group’s intentions may have been good, but the law backfired: the first obscenity case following Butler resulted in the banning of the lesbian magazine Bad Attitudes because of a story depicting a sexual encounter that started off as non-consensual. The magazine was confiscated from Glad Day bookstore in Toronto in the spring of 1992 and ignited similar problems with other gay and lesbian establishments, most famously with the bookstore Little Sister’s in Vancouver, whose war against Canada Customs, and its restrictive policies on importing gay and lesbian material, raged on for more than 20 years.

The unintended effect of Butler turned out to be a disproportionate number of charges against queer artists and representations of queer sex, including bondage and sadomasochism. LEAF may have been attempting to limit exploitative and abusive practices, but that wasn’t how the law came to be used in practice. Instead, cops, customs agents and judges found many aspects of gay and lesbian sexuality to be inherently demeaning and used the law to harass sexual minorities. For example, anal penetration was initially one of the criteria that could have materials banned. Ironically, it was backlash against these kinds of decisions that put feminists on the other side of the censorship debate. In opposition to this increasing reliance on state censorship that many anti-porn feminists were employing, the Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force formed in 1984. This group, and other feminists, were increasingly concerned that their anti-porn colleagues were acting out of simple prudery and that they were seeing nothing but violence in all depictions of sex, regardless of context. That, in fact, their views had morphed from being anti-porn to anti-sex.

While anti-porn attitudes dominated the late 1970s and early ’80s, with little attention paid to expressions and depictions of women’s sexuality from a feminist point of view, the rest of the ’80s and early ’90s became a hotbed of discussion and theory around getting it on. Self-identified feminists were strutting their stuff and actively showing the many different ways that positive, empowered sex could be showcased.

But that’s not to say that all porn magically became so enlightened.

After moving to Toronto in 2005 I’d been out of work for almost five months when I found an intriguing help-wanted ad on Craigslist. The company was looking for writers to review adult websites. With a deep breath and undying love of ridiculous situations, I sent my resumé. The company owner explained the site’s concept to me a few days later. My job was to give positive reviews of websites to direct online traffic to such enticing sites as “Black Dicks, White Chicks” and “Big Tits, Round Asses.”

As someone who strongly identified as a feminist, I knew taking this job did not reflect my politics. I still felt the sharp division between “good” porn and “bad” porn, and this was definitely bad porn. I had no idea what to expect. The offices were nice, and the project was backed by a semi-retired millionaire who fed his love of toned Latino men by starting several small-time softcore gay websites. I expected that the job would be strange, and an experience unlike anything I’d ever done before, and it was. But I wasn’t prepared for the overwhelming boredom that awaited me.

A year and a half into the gig, I was closing in on my 1000th review; it was becoming difficult to differentiate between websites. The names were nearly indistinguishable, the performers generally looked the same, and the content was often not just similar, but exactly the same, just sold under a different title in order to grab customers with an appetite for whatever niche the sites were selling. The work at this point was automatic. I could do it in my sleep: count the videos and photo sets, document the frequency of updates, and offer some kind of snappy line that made yet another mundane site sound sexily appealing.

Generally I didn’t feel sorry for the women in these pictures, but to tell the truth I didn’t really think of them all that much — the naked bodies blurred together. But then I came across photos of a woman I knew. Her face and naked body brought me back to reality: We’d had drinks together, talked feminist politics. I was shocked by the reminder that these were all real people with jobs that put them in the strangely public/private realm of porn. Viewing this content day in and day out, my desire to learn about porn as a cultural force and to think about it critically had been overrun by my blasé attitude. There was a difference between what I was viewing and the kind of porn that could be empowering and celebrated, and the difference was suddenly glaring.

My time writing about porn sites often left me feeling conflicted — how feminist was it really to be making money off of the labour of (mostly) women? Could I still call myself a feminist if I was looking at naked ladies all day and not using my position to criticize the glaring sexism and racism that I was constantly viewing? I couldn’t help but be disturbed by the sheer number of “reality” porn websites that had premises based on the idea of “tricking” unassuming women (who were obviously actresses following a script) into performing sex acts with promises of money or fame or sometimes just rides to their jobs, and then quickly yanking away these opportunities at the end of the scene. At the end of the day, I knew that what I was looking at was fantasy — a world built up of erotic shortcuts created to arouse (mostly) men. I took this job not so that I could call out the fucked-up parts of the industry, but so that I could pay my bills, and gain more knowledge about the wide world of porn.

What struck me most often when looking at these websites was how frequently I was left feeling sad that this was all that men were being offered. In my time working in sex stores, my own personal goal was to crack open the infinite world of sexuality for people, and especially for women, who are the primary clientele of the shops I’ve worked in.

Seeing the world of Big Porn showed me that not only are women left out, but men are presented with an incredibly bland palate to work from and to mold their own sexuality. I left my porn review gig believing that the world of porn shouldn’t be eradicated, but that it should instead live up to the boundless possibilities of the erotic, and that it should, and could, be able to reflect the diverse bodies, desires and dreams that make up human sexuality.

I’m fortunate enough to be working in a place now where I can more easily reconcile the split between porn and feminism. At Good For Her, a staunchly feminist sex store, I’m partly responsible for stocking our shelves with independent porn (with occasional big studio features) that live up to the promise of erotic materials that address women as viewers.

This spring I organized the third annual Feminist Porn Awards, held in Toronto to recognize filmmakers who are doing it right, showing sex as positive and healthy, with categories such as Fiercest Female Orgasm, Deliciously Diverse Cast, and Most Tantalizing Trans Film. The films all depict consent and active desire, with women as agents of their libidos, rather than being shown as racialized or inferior objects. Leading up to the awards, which attracted an audience of upwards of 450 women (and even a few men), the bulk of my work hours were spent on trying to get the word out — I conducted many interviews with journalists who were confused by the very idea of feminists honouring porn flicks. A healthy part of my day became the Google search, looking for mentions in the media and on blogs. Most of the coverage I found was positive, and the negatives were hard to separate from online trolls looking to bait anyone with a different opinion. But the criticisms that I read most often, primarily on feminist blogs, focused on the impossibility of there ever being any such thing as feminist porn. The belief seems to be that recording a woman in a sex act was inherently degrading; the thought that any woman could choose to star in, or write and direct her own porn is unfathomable to these critics. For all the problems that mainstream porn presents, I knew that women can — and do — choose to be involved in the industry, either within big productions or in their own indie affairs. I knew this because I’d been talking to many of these women for weeks, and asking them to be a part of these awards. I was talking directly with the vanguard of the new porn revolution.

One such woman is Erika Lust, a 31-year-old mother of an incredibly cute toddler, and a pornographer. When Lust started making films, she wanted to provide something she couldn’t find anywhere else — porn targeted at straight women. “I want to make movies for straight girls because we are a big group of people and we are supposed to go with the mainstream heterosexual porn, made by men for men,” she says. “Lesbians, gays, trans — every group lately has their own porn, and I felt that nobody was thinking about the needs and desires of heterosexual women. We are supposed to be happy and satisfied with Sex and the City, Desperate Housewives or Playgirl movies, but we need more than that!”

Her debut film, Five Hot Stories for Her, has won multiple awards (including a Feminist Porn Award for Movie of the Year in 2008). Her latest project is premised on the idea that female audiences want to get to know the subjects they are watching more intimately than standard porn allows for. Barcelona Sex Project shows three men and three women being interviewed and talking about their sexual tastes and fantasies before they engage in some sultry solo sex.

While there is a history of women writing stories and taking pictures and even making movies that have been intended or used to fuel erotic fantasies, it’s only been recently that these have been marketed as porn for women. (Exceptions include Candida Royalle, who started in 1984, and is especially well known in the world of porn for women; her softer-focus flicks show female characters that have an equal stake in their sexual encounters.) Women have claimed a stake in the means of production in what has traditionally been a male-dominated industry, and they are finding success both in and outside the larger industry. Tristan Taormino, an acclaimed sex-columnist turned director, makes educational titles, such as Tristan Taormino’s Expert Guide to Anal Sex, as well as racier projects. Her just-released Chemistry Volume 4: The Orgy Edition takes six porn stars and puts them up in a house for 36 hours, Big Brother-style, giving them the power to script their own scenes, and take part in the filming as well. The performers get a lot of say in how they want to be represented and exactly what kind of sex they want to engage in.

This is not to say that everything is always perfect in feminist porn land — as has always been the case with feminism, there is never one solid vision of what “feminist” is, and what calling yourself a feminist pornographer really means. And there are disputes. Lust and another female director, Petra Joy from the U.K., were involved in a minor skirmish in the feminist porn blogosphere when Joy disputed the application of the feminist label for certain sex acts caught on film: “If you want to show come on a woman’s face that’s fine, but don’t call it feminist,” she wrote on her website. Lust took offense to this and shot back a passionate response in her blog, saying she was sad that “certain women devote their time and energy to pulling down the work of other women, instead of focusing on empowering our different approaches and points of view.”

While Joy made sure to say she believed that any feminist could show whatever she liked in her films, the sentiment remained that there were, or should be, rules in place. Is showing semen on a woman’s body inherently demeaning? If a performer is choosing to engage in these acts, and states either that it doesn’t bother her or more, that she relishes it, can we condemn the result?

When I was a teenager making my first dives into feminism, I couldn’t always wrap my head around the divides within pornography and notions of sex-positive expression in general. Even now, the call to support sex workers is too often predicated on getting them out of sex work, even if that is where they want to be. The idea that feminism was going to “save” women, either from performing in porn or from experiencing the presumed violent effects of porn still smacks too much of paternalistic control. Women need to be supported in their decisions and choices around sex and sexuality, and that includes appearing on websites some find gross, or checking out porn on cable channels and finding new ideas and acts that turn them on — even if it’s porn free of politics.

Anti-porn feminists had (and do have) their hearts in the right place. The problem remains that sex and porn are not inherently bad; it’s exploitation, unsafe working conditions, coercion, and advocating violence that are never okay. Feminist porn producers already depict women as active participants in their own sexual fantasy. The project going forward will be to continue to ensure safe, appropriate working conditions for those who appear in and produce porn, while continuing to work on traditional feminist goals, including eradicating the exploitation of women. Erika Lust’s film company, for instance, donates five percent of its revenue to Equality Now and Womankind Worldwide, non-governmental organizations combating sexual exploitation.

On the production side, more women are taking the reigns with distribution, ensuring that they remain in control of how and where their work is displayed. With the success of porn on the web, performers running their own sites are increasingly able to reap a larger percentage of the profits and maintain creative control in ways that wouldn’t be possible in the mainstream.

Feminist porn may not be the answer to all of the critiques of pornography as a genre and an industry, but it is a start that looks to the infinite possibilities the future holds for porn. Access to porn is expanding every day: Canadians will soon have a cable channel with 50 percent Canadian programming — mandated by the CRTC.

Film festivals are popping up from New York to Berlin to showcase erotic work in legitimate venues, and the Feminist Porn Awards are marching into their fourth year. Adult trade magazines are paying increased attention to independent porn marketed towards women, and the mostly-untapped female audience is being specifically wooed more and more.

Consumers have the opportunity to demand better porn, and we are doing just that on a larger scale than ever seen before. The new face of porn has an opportunity to disrupt stereotypes and address new viewers, all while creating a feminist view of sexuality. As Erika Lust says, “porn and feminism must be allies: they have to fight together against the conservative notion of considering [sex as something] that has to be only related with reproduction, and labeling [sexually] active women as whores. Both feminism and porn can help liberate women from what society expects from us: to be good, quiet nice girls, not complaining, not arguing, not fighting, not enjoying sex, not being powerful and provocative.” Women can watch and make porn as a powerful statement against the status quo, one dirty DVD at a time.

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