What is Feminist Porn?

I'm going back through pieces I published elsewhere and picking some to repost. This article was originally published on April 8, 2014, and has been lightly edited for this reposting.


Last weekend, I was in Toronto at the Feminist Porn Awards and the first day of the Feminist Porn Conference. I managed to snag tickets from a friend who had won them as a raffle, and basically told me, “If you can get to Toronto, you can join me at the awards and conference!” Well, obviously I took her up on that. The awards were a ton of fun, and it was interesting seeing an industry celebrating itself like any other. But the conference really got me thinking about issues of porn and feminism, so I figured I’d organize and share my thoughts a bit.

The biggest question that came up as I was getting ready to leave – from friends and family and people on Facebook – was, “Um, what is feminist porn, exactly?”


Defining Feminist Porn

The first panel was helpfully named “Feminist Porn: What It Is, What It Isn’t, and Why It Matters.” Moderating the panel was professor Lynn Comella, along with porn star Courtney Trouble (main site is actually relatively SFW), producer Ms Naughty (Twitter link), and academic and porn viewer Tanesha HD (Twitter link).


A brief roundtable discussion on defining feminist porn came up with a bunch of definitions: it’s a genre, an industry, a worldview, a framework, a political movement, and more. It’s a critique of mainstream porn. It’s whatever mainstream porn isn’t. It’s Rule 34, with a dash of feminism.


But the definition I liked the most analyzed whether or not something is feminist porn by asking three questions:

  1. Who is making it?

  2. How is it being made?

  3. What is it representing?

Let's try to tackle those questions, one by one.


Who is Making It?

The short answer is, glibly, “feminists.” More broadly, people who are working within a sex-positive feminist framework and are able to acknowledge and push against (or at least be mindful of and not ignore) racism/sexism/transphobia/fatphobia/misogyny/etc/etc. Feminist porn doesn’t necessarily need to be made by the minorities impact by those overlapping systems of oppression, but it definitely needs to have their voices present in the creative process; i.e. a movie starring trans people should involve trans people in its creation, ideally the same trans people who will be getting naked on screen.


Put another way, porn is being made by people with agency. (‘Agency’ being an idea I’ll come back to.)


How is it Being Made?

Again, a short answer: Feminist porn is being made ethically, and under feminist principles. But both “ethical” and “feminist” are debatable term, so I’m going to borrow from notes taken at a later workshop, “Evaluating Outcomes,” which attempted to more closely examine how people (producers, pornographers, audience, consumers, feminists, all of the above, etc) can and should look at porn production from an ethical feminist framework.


The most in-depth answers came from former porn star Danny Wylde (Twitter link) and current porn star Dylan Ryan (Twitter link). Their answers boiled down to issues of consent/boundaries, and pay/treatment:


Consent and Boundaries

Here, they discussed the idea that info on what will be expected of performers is presented prior to getting on set, and that it matches what actually happens on set. This parallels ethical constraints in any form of sexual activity. I’d argue it also mirrors ethical constraints of any sort of labor or work, period: You should know what’s expected of you before you show up on a job, and what is actually expected of you should match what you were told.


In addition, Danny talked about how – as a male performer – there was the assumption he’d be up for anything. Boundaries were considered much more with female performers, although even then not as much as they should be. So boundaries of what act(s) a performer is willing to do, who they’re willing to do them with, whether or not they require barrier protection, etc, should all be taken into account.


Pay and Treatment

Both Danny and Dylan agreed that ethical feminist porn needs to strive to pay its performers fairly, although they also agreed that “fair” is a totally subjective term. (This – that people should be paid fairly – also mirrors what labor rights activists have been saying for a century or more about ‘work’ in general. I certainly hope said activists will push for fair pay for sex work and pornography, too.)


The idea of fair treatment falls under the same category, although everyone acknowledged “fair” can mean different things to different people. One person might not consider a 12 hour work day fair while another might, but only if there’s ample food and time for breaks. In either case, it links back to the idea of consent: does the length of the work day fall within what you were told? If not, are you compensated fairly for your additional time?


Again, I feel that all these issues – consent, boundaries, pay, and treatment – can and should be viewed as labor rights issues, not distinct issues that just face sex workers. I think we, as activists, are doing sex workers a disservice to say otherwise.

What is it Representing?

Feminist porn is that which represents sex and sexuality beyond and outside of cultural expectations of straight (cis, able-bodied, white, etc, etc) male fantasy. It allows porn to move from work about certain bodies (for example, “BBW/big beautiful women” porn or “tranny” porn) to porn by people with certain bodies; porn which expresses body positivity and isn’t solely interested in fetishizing or objectifying. Feminist porn is allowing for anti-oppression-based representation in the same way that feminist literature or feminist film might do. (And, oh yeah, there are hot people having hot sex in it.)


Linking back to the idea of agency, feminist porn also allows for the representation of people who are expressing their own autonomy. People who can link their political voice with their pornographic representation (via social media, personal websites, conference appearances, etc). As Courtney Trouble put it, “fucking on film to change the world.”


Now What?

The idea of feminist porn presupposes that porn is not inherently evil or dirty or anti-feminist. I (obviously) agree with that mindset, but it’s still one that continues to be debated in certain feminist circles. If one would argue all porn is inherently anti-feminist, then talking about any porn as feminist porn is going to be a contradiction in terms. I have difficulty wrapping my head around anti-porn feminists, both from ideological and pragmatic standpoints, but they certainly exist.


It’s also possible for a piece of porn to meet some – but not all – of the ideologically ideal qualifications for The Perfect Requirements For True Feminist Porn. That work – even if it’s not perfect – can definitely still fall under the umbrella of feminist porn. For example, when asked about how to rank the ‘feminism’ of a piece of porn, Courtney Trouble and Kitty Stryker (semi-SFW) talked about the idea of a scale or point system. That’s because not every single production may be able to hit every single aspect of what I discussed above. For example, Production XYZ may not be able to pay performers as well as they deserve, but will treat them really well and create porn that pushes against cultural representations. (I can certainly relate to being underpaid in the pursuit of work I believe in.) On the other hand, Production LMN may pay its actors really well, but portray a relatively boring (albeit not actually offensive) version of human sexuality. Both of those productions are arguably better than mainstream porn, even if they aren't perfect.


I’m still processing the idea of feminist porn, but love the framework provided and will definitely use it to evaluate my porn consumption habits.


Ending note in 2019: Attending this conference definitely did make me change how I talk and think about porn, but--if I'm being honest--it did not make me start regularly paying for porn.

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