The Rise of Feminist Pornography

The Rise of Feminist Porn An Essay by Michael Ellsberg

[Note—most of the links in the article are NSFW—unless you work at a sex-friendly company.]

I’ve been watching porn for thirty years: since I was nine, when I first found a box of VHS tapes buried deep in the basement. In relation to this near-daily habit of mine, over the decades, I’ve frequently felt guilt, self-disgust, shame. My self-judgment doesn’t come from any religious objection to porn. Rather, my shame comes from the fact that most porn—the mainstream porn I’ve watched for most of my life—is skeezy.

            Most of all, by skeezy, I mean disrespectful. Everything about most mainstream porn is painted with disrespect: disrespect towards the female actors, who are often portrayed not as human beings but as walking holes who exist only for male pleasure; disrespect for the male actors, who are seen as little more than one-speed fuck machines; and disrespect towards the male viewers, who are assumed to be a lonely, gullible losers, with no desire for their mind to be stimulated in addition to their willies, just desperate for a quick and cheap wank.

            By skeezy, I mean, the male actors look, act, and talk like douches. The more they speak, the less believable it becomes that any woman would want to sleep with them. And however deep and intelligent the female actors may be in real life, in mainstream porn they are almost always portrayed as two-dimensional. It’s as if it never occurred to anyone in the porn industry that a male viewer might be turned on by a woman’s unique personality, soul, and intelligence, as well as her looks.

In every other type of media I consumed, by the time I was a teen, I craved depth: I watched indie films, read existentialist philosophy, sought out the best jazz records with the most soulful brilliance. And yet, in this one area of my life, I kept coming back to this skeezy, disrespectful content, night after night. And I hated myself for it.

I suppose I could have quit. There is now a bustling “NoFap” movement—detailed in a Time cover story. This movement is comprised of young men who are trying to counteract what they say are the negative effects of porn on themselves—addiction, difficulty getting turned on by real-life partners, erectile problems—by cutting porn and masturbation out of their lives entirely. (The term “fap” comes from the sound of men masturbating—as in “fap fap fap fap fap.”)

But one of my highest values is to never shame my own sexuality, or that of anyone else, so long as the activity is consensual. And to me, the no-fap movement reeks of sexual shame, through and through: the old religious shaming of masturbation, dressed up in new secular garb.

So, I didn’t have a good answer for how to avoid immersing my brain in skeezy, disrespectful depictions of women while refusing to shame myself for my desire to include sexualized imagery as part of my fantasy life. I basically just went on as usual, somewhat guilty, somewhat resigned.

Until I discovered feminist porn.

When I first heard the term “feminist pornography,” a few years ago, I thought—as most people do when they first hear the term— that it must be some sort of mistake, or contradiction. Feminist pornography? Isn’t that like a “feminist frat party?”

Nonetheless, I was curious about it, and I started looking at some sites that catered to a hetero audience. (For a long time, there has been a thriving movement of queer feminist pornography). The more I watched (and, yes, fapped,) the more I realized how radical feminist porn is. It meets us hetero men at one of our most humble moments. (Is there really anything more humble for a man, than hunching over a computer, penis in one hand, mouse in the other, desperately grasping at a few moments of erotic pleasure?)

From this place, it lures us with enough sexual imagery of the kind we normally like to see. And then, it inverts the very patriarchal tropes we’re used to in mainstream porn, showing us (and getting us excited about) the creation of a sexual culture that holds women’s pleasure—rather than hetero men’s pleasure—as central.

At the most basic level, feminist porn taps into the desires, boundaries, comfort, and fantasies of the actual women performing (as opposed to the scripted desires of the characters they’re performing in mainstream porn.) This became clear to me during the first scene of feminist porn I ever watched. It was a Dominance and submission (“D/s”) scene, in a video entitled “Rough Sex 2,” which won “Hottest BDSM Movie” at the 2011 Feminist Porn Awards (now called the Toronto International Porn Festival.)

At first glance, the scene I watched seem an unlikely candidate for an award from a feminist organization. It shows an example of a particular BDSM fetish called “pony play”—in which a sexual partner is made up to be a pony. The scene opens with a man “training” a woman who is in pony-like fetish gear. She is outfitted in boots with pony-like hoofs for soles, a butt-plug with a pony tail, and is chomping on a bit. Attached to the bit is a rope, and on the other end of the rope is a man who is ordering the “pony” to trot around a real-life horse pen. She follows the order of her master, scratching her “hooves” and making pony sounds as he smacks her butt with a stick. The scene moves onto progressively more explicit fare.

A feminist critic of pornography might have a field day with this scene. Could there be anything more patriarchal than a woman objectified as a pony and dominated aggressively by her male master?

But on closer glance, the scene is targeted dead-center at subverting the very patriarchal tropes it plays with. The director, Tristan Taormino ssays the video’s aim was to showcase the real-life fantasies of the female performers. In a pre-scene interview, the performer, feminist porn star and producer Madison Young, describes in excited detail exactly how this pony scenario is one of her greatest submissive fantasies. “I like heavy D/s, and I like to be dominated psychologically,” Young tells Taormino. This is the kind of talk that would get any hetero guy into dominance fantasies hot and bothered.

Yet the scene isn’t about male fantasies; it’s about Young’s fantasies. And this is exactly Tamorino’s vision.

“I’m not interested in picking two people I think would ‘look hot’ together and then telling them what to do. I create my productions around the people in them. They get to pick the performers they want to work with, what they do, the positions they get into, the sex toys they use, the kinds of stimulation they focus on…. This counteracts the notion that everyone in porn is being objectified, and has no subjectivity, no power, no agency to intervene in this process.”

Tristan Taormino

Lucie Blush, the star and producer of her own feminist porn site, LucieMakesPorn.com, places similar emphasis on depicting what the female performers (including herself) actually want in her work. “I choose what I do on camera, I make the decisions, I know the people, I hire the people. It’s all my choice—and the choice of the other performers—which is the base of feminist porn,” Blush said. “We talk a lot before the shoot to make sure that it’s going to be fun for everyone. . . . I send them the script, and they give me their feedback, and then I change it until it makes everyone happy. I work with female actresses who are tired of being treated the same way in mainstream porn. They write me and say, ‘Hey, I want to try feminist porn, because I’m really not having fun anymore in the mainstream studios.’”

Lucie Blush

Blush, Taormino, and, others feminist directors reject the conventional wisdom that sizzling hotness for the audience (much of which is straight and male) and feminist ideals about women’s sexual autonomy are inherently opposed. Instead, they point toward a possible integration of straight men’s sexual fantasy and women’s sexual agency.

For example, Tristan Taormino’s “pony” scene cedes no ground whatsoever, in boldness, to the most aggressive forms of mainstream BDSM porn that anti-porn feminists routinely criticize.

And yet, this scene is entirely centered on the woman’s real-life pleasure. The scene does not end with the fabled “money shot;” the male performer, Nathan Menace, does not even have an orgasm in the scene. Rather, the scene climaxes with Madison Young’sclimax: two extremely explosive orgasms, one after the other, as Menace penetrates her with a dildo. (And we can be sure they were real—that’s a major point of feminist porn, unlike mainstream porn, where women’s orgasms are routinely, and understandably, faked.)  And then, they cuddle a bit sweetly, and the scene winds down—without a drop of male cum in sight.

Part of the genius of feminist porn is that it subverts male viewers’ sense of sexual entitlement. It installs feminist messages about women’s sexual agency in our male minds, while we desperately jack off to these very messages. There is no better time to get a man’s attention­—for some feminist-friendly rewiring­—than when his penis is erect and he’s about to orgasm.

“If I have one great project in my life, I want to make feminism popular. And I believe feminist porn is central to that project,”

said Constance Penley, professor of Film and Media Studies at UC Santa Barbara, and co-editor of The Feminist Porn Book. She teaches one of the original courses in the new and controversial field of “porn studies.”

 “In the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, and until now, so many people think that feminism and anti-porn are one-and-the-same, and I knew that was not true. So I thought, I want to get a different image of feminism circulating. The feminist porn project, for me, came out of that. What are all the ways we can put feminism and porn together? The discourse has so often been focused on the anti-porn voices within feminism. Because it’s so much more exciting to write about feminism degenerating into a moral-decency or public hygiene movement, as in the 19th century, rather than writing about the range and complexity of feminist thought on sexual expression,” Penley said.

Amarna Miller , who stars in both mainstream and feminist porn, and produces her own feminist porn, echoes this call for a more nuanced, complex, and layered take on women’s sexuality, than that offered by feminist critics of porn. “Porn reflects a patriarchal society, in which the power figures are male. Our sexual fantasies don’t come out of nowhere; they reflect the society we live in. So, if we live in a patriarchal society, it’s understandable that many women’s sexual fantasies are patriarchal. I don’t have any problem with fantasies of male domination; in fact, I find it erotic. That’s why I also work in mainstream porn—because I think it’s hot. The problem with porn is when no other visions of female fantasy are represented. I’m not against mainstream porn—in fact, I love it. What I’m against is that it’s the only representation out there. I want there to be other options,” Miller said.

“I think a lot of women who are feminists have problems regarding their own fantasies,” she continued. “There’s this huge debate within feminism, about whether we should try to change our fantasies. If my fantasies are based in patriarchy, should I try to change them? My answer, for me at least, is no. When you try to change your fantasies, or repress your fantasies, you start to have problems regarding your own body and your own sexuality. Instead of trying to repress my fantasies because they’re based in the patriarchy, why don’t I just acknowledge that of course my fantasies are going to be that way and just try to enjoy them, knowing where they come from?”

Miller bristles at the critique that porn is mis-educating people about sexuality, and that it’s somehow the job of porn to re-educate people. “We have to understand that porn is not a role-model. If I have a kid, and I take my kid to the cinema to see the latest Batman, when we get out of the cinema, I explain to my kid that he cannot just wear a cape and kill people on the street, right? I would teach my kid that that’s fiction.”

She believes the real problem is not porn, but lack of comprehensive sex education: “the lack of education from power figures—our parents, our schools, high schools, the universitieswhoare not teaching us the right models of sex. When you start to grow up and have questions, and you don’t have anyone to ask your questions, because your parents have this wall in front of them and won’t talk about sex, and the same goes for your educators, then your only resources are your friends, and the Internet. And the first answer when you look on the Internet is porn,” she said.

“The problem is not that porn is teaching us a model that is not correct. The problem is that our lack of [sex] education is making us look for things in the wrong places. I go to the cinema to see something fun, I don’t go to the cinema to learn; if I do learn, that is secondary. And I look at porn to enjoy my sexuality and my body, I’m not watching it to learn. If you want to learn, there should be other resources. The root problem is, we don’t teach sexual education to our kids. That’s what we have to talk about, not the problems with porn.”

While respecting the work of their colleagues who produce feminist porn, some women in the porn industry, who consider themselves feminist, are ambivalent about the concept of “feminist porn” and don’t identify with it. To them, it sets up a false dichotomy, in which any producer or actress whose content doesn’t explicitly and intentionally advance feminist consciousness is seen as “anti-feminist.”

Ela Darling, a pioneer in VR porn, does not view herself as creating feminist porn, but rather views herself as a “feminist who creates porn,” a subtle but meaningful distinction. She said: “I’m honestly tired of the expectation that my job must be inherently empowering. Do you ask your barista if she feels empowered or exploited by making you coffee? Do you thank your hair stylist with a glint of shame in your eye for exploiting her for using her body and skills to offer you a service? Of course my job is empowering. I earn a living from it, and isn’t that the very essence of empowerment? And of course I sometimes feel exploited in my job. I’ve never had a job, from waiting tables at Waffle House to running grant programs at a library, where I didn’t feel exploited sometimes. The idea that the adult industry can or should be a paragon of empowerment is baffling to me.”

To other female porn producers and actors, the term and concept of “feminist porn” implies an overly narrow and restrictive image of female sexuality, which denies the way their own sexuality and aesthetics might align with mainstream aesthetics.

Joanna Angel, pioneer in the field of “punk porn,” which features tattooed women in hardcore porn, said: “I don’t make porn that I don’t want to watch, and I don’t like it when women look like they aren’t enjoying themselves. That’s my own personal way of making feminist porn. But I feel like there’s now some sort of doctorate when it comes to making ‘feminist porn.’ I’ve been told before that my porn isn’t feminist because I like to dress girls up in high heels and stockings and have them wear lots of makeup. But I like that glamorous part of porn. . . . Is a feminist not allowed to wear lipstick? . . . . Some people think in order to make feminist porn there has to be pegging in it. In order to be an empowered woman, does that mean you have to stick a dildo in a guy’s ass?”

Darling and Angel see their feminism expressed not through any intentional political content in their porn, but through the fact that porn affords them an independent, entrepreneurial lifestyle as businesswomen. Darling, who has a Master’s in library science and once worked as a librarian, told me, “I’ve felt objectified in every job I’ve ever done to some degree, because that’s what a fucking job is! That’s what work is! At least now, I am my own little system. I am my own brand, I am my own business, I’m my own everything. If I were an a librarian, I wouldn’t have had the time, the capital, the drive, or the connections, to start my amazing tech-start-up VRTube. This whole company we’ve started comes from me touching other people’s junk.”

“I’ve had people try to save me,” Darling continued.

“I’ve had people offer me a job at their store where I’m going to work, what, forty-hours a week at some shitty wage that is nothing near what I’m making in porn? People assume that, because they have these hang-ups about sex, that I must also. To them, that’s the worst-case scenario they can think of, that they would have to have sex with strangers. For me, the worst-case scenario I can think for my day-to-day life is having to go, day-after-day, to work for someone else, to build their company, with no equity, with no residuals. That’s a fucking nightmare to me. Fuck that. But they think I’m a victim because to them what I do is unfathomable.”

Speaking with Darling, I realized: whether a man watches porn that is explicitly feminist or not, the most feminist act a man can make, in relation to his porn viewing, is to pay for it. There is nothing that reeks of male sexual entitlement more, than expecting women to expend their labor starring in or creating porn, without being compensated for that labor. I realized that, insofar as “revenge porn” is porn that was shared without consent, then in its own way, pirated porn on PornHub is akin to revenge porn: it’s porn shared (illegally) in a way that the performers did not consent to.

While I have happily added explicitly-feminist porn into the oeuvre of porn I watch, the biggest shift my own foray into this world has made in my porn-viewing habits has been to be conscious of supporting the performers and producers whose work I fap to, financially—with a focus on supporting indy performers’ and producers’ content.

I have added to my porn viewing habit sites like ManyVids.com and AmateurPorn.com, where performers produce their own work and sell it directly to fans, keeping the lion’s share of profits themselves. I have started buying and subscribing to content directly from performers’ own sites, where they control the distribution.

And, if I do watch free porn on tube sites (where they vast majority of porn gets watched these days), I take care to make sure I’m watching it on the official channels of the producers/performers themselves, where it’s not pirated, and where they get to choose what and how much they share for free, as enticement to their paid sites.

Joanna Angel, referring to her own production company Burning Angel, whose videos she also stars in, told me: “I’m a woman who earns her living getting to fuckwhichever men I think are hot. In fact, I write the fucking checks to these men. And then I profit from their labor, because I own the fucking business. Doesn’t that qualify as being feminist?” she said, laughing.

Laughing all the way to the bank.

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