Feminist Porn 101: Your Guide To Empowering Sexytimes

I first heard about feminist porn in a sociology seminar during my senior year of college, and my relationship to it began much like my relationship with the black-tie jumpsuit hanging in my closet: a knee-jerk “HELL YEAH”, followed by months of wondering, “Can I really pull that off?”

The idea of feminist porn was incredibly intimidating to me. Mostly, I was afraid I wouldn’t like it — and that if I didn’t, it would mean that I’m a Terrible Feminist. (This is beyond silly, as the qualifications for a Good Feminist, or even an Acceptable Feminist, are a controversial, labyrinthine mystery.) Criticisms of feminist porn and its pornographers also put me off. 

What I’m trying to say is, I could have used a freaking manual. With that in mind, I’ve compiled an FAQ — Feminist Porn 101, if you will. It just might be your first step toward more ethical O-time. Who doesn’t want that?

 A still from Erica Lust's "Cabaret Desire." via cabaretdesire.com

1. What is feminist porn?

Well, the jury’s still out on the term “feminist,” especially as it relates to sexuality. There are anti-pornography feminists, who argue that pornography is harmful because it dehumanizes women and encourages sexual violence. Countering that position are the sex-positive feminists, who argue that pornography can be a useful tool through which women can express themselves and reclaim their sexuality. And, as you may have guessed, between those two camps lies a whole lot of gray area. 

Feminist pornography is porn made by self-identifying feminists. It is also the space where the sex-positive political movement and a controversial genre collide. Tristan Taormino, an eminent feminist pornographer, sex educator, and author, says that the goal of feminist pornography is to empower its performers through ethical work practices (fair pay, consent) and its viewers through depictions of sexuality that differ from the norm. 

2. Is it the same thing as porn for women?

Not exactly. Because female empowerment is an important focus of feminist pornography (duh), it could be described as a type of porn for women. But the wider umbrella of “porn for women” doesn’t necessarily share those same goals of empowerment through bucking the mainstream – in fact, a porno for women could easily play right into preconceived notions of gender and sexuality

 Nina Hartley, a pioneering feminist pornographer

3. So there are two sides to feminism and sexuality, but feminist porn is mostly a good thing, right?

Wherever you side on this issue, it’s damned hard to deny that a lot of good has come from feminist pornography and sex-positive feminism. In tandem, they have called attention and added complexity to the dialogue surrounding women and sexuality. As a result, we have an enriched (if less clear-cut) understanding of consent, bodies, and pleasure. These movements have fought for the possibility of ethical sex, and for a woman’s right to feel empowered, not ashamed, by her desires.

4. But isn’t feminist porn still inherently exploitative and objectifying, because all porn essentially is?

According to anti-porn feminists — Gail Dines, Catharine MacKinnon, and Alice Schwarzer, to name a few — even feminist porn is problematic. It might not even be all that feminist, as the genre is increasingly including depictions of subjugated women. Does it really matter if the actresses in the film chose to be subjugated if all we’re seeing is their subjugation, not their choice in the matter?

As with all sensitive issues, context matters. Though you could argue that, within the context of feminist porn, all sexual actions rightfully should be viewed as empowering, you could just as easily point out that a film’s viewers hold interpretive power. And with any piece of media, doesn’t the perception of its consumers matter more than the intent of its makers? (See: accidental racism.)

 A vintage shot of Annie Sprinkle. via anniesprinkle.org

5. What are some ways feminist porn attempts to subvert expectations and norms?

Without being too reductive of an entire genre, here are some things you might see in a feminist skin flick: an emphasis on female pleasure, obvious consent, and representation of marginalized groups that, if done correctly, does not fetishize those groups. All different kinds and sizes of bodies feature. Even BDSM-centric films — or perhaps especially BDSM-centric films — are likely to highlight the sexual agency of the women involved, whether through backstory, dialogue, or cinematographic techniques.

6. Um, nice words, but where’s the fun stuff?

Here’s the catch — more likely than not, you’ve got to pay up, buttercup. Yes, feminist pornography is a philosophy and a classification, but it’s also very much a business, and one that corners a fairly niche market, at that. With that in mind, here are some pay-to-join sites to get you started: Lust Cinema, Crash Pad Series, The Art of Blowjob, and Ruby's Diary.

Main image: Robert Bejil photography/Flickr

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