Feminist Porn Awards Asks the Existential Question: Is There Feminist Porn?

Applying a one-size-fits-all definition of what feminist porn is or isn't doesn't feel right. It would be more beneficial to concentrate our efforts on reducing the stigma around porn and figuring out new models of inclusivity and proper representation.

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Apr 27 2015, 8:38pm

Still via A Four Chambered Heart

"First off, I have to insist that there's no such thing as 'feminist porn,'" explains Jiz Lee, a genderqueer performer whose work made several appearances at this year's Feminist Porn Awards in Toronto.

"'Feminist porn' is a buzzword concerning important conversations and analyses of pornographic films. It catches people's attention—and it should!—because society needs to understand that sex work and feminism are not polar opposites, but are attached at the hip. While "feminist porn" is a powerful phrase, to simplify it as a genre or proclaim that only a select few produce it, does the industry a disservice in implying that all other porn is inherently misogynist, and I don't believe that at all."

I thought I had a very good idea of what "feminist porn" looked like and what it didn't look like. But after attending the 10th Annual Feminist Porn Awards and talking to Lee, I wasn't too sure those labels worked anymore.

When we talk about porn, we often talk about it in large, sweeping generalizations. The porn industry consists of producers who are greedy and exploitative of their performers. Porn is violent. Porn isn't for women, etc. But the criticisms of porn aren't specific to the porn industry, as these are criticisms that are prominent in an inherently patriarchal, capitalist society. However, there are new models of porn that go by a number of different names—alt–porn, indie porn, ethical porn, porn for women, and feminist porn, for starters. For the most part, these sub-genres share a common goal, and that's not to draw a line between "good" and "bad" porn, but rather, to break down the stigma that complicates our understanding of the monolithic genre of porn by showcasing different types of bodies and ways of having sex.

The success of mainstream porn relies on a tried-and-true formula of assumptions and categories. Popular porn tube sites obsessively categorize porn to help sell a predictable product. There are no surprises when someone clicks on the "BDSM" or "Asian" category during their search for pleasure. The titles used on popular porn tube sites leaves little to the imagination. With the major studios, where pleasure for profit is one of the primary motivators, there are common looks, titles, and sex acts that sell. As long as these commonalities continue to be profitable, they will always be produced. This cycle makes it very difficult for alternative types of porn to infiltrate the mainstream.

"Labels and definitions encourages typecasting, which is a vastly divisive and complex issue," explains Vex Ashley of the DIY erotica project A Four Chambered Heart. According to Ashley, the purpose of these tropes and stereotypes are twofold. First, it can give a chance for performers from minority groups to profit on what is usually determined by society to be a "disadvantage" for their own personal financial gain. But Ashley further explains that "it can also leave people performing a sexuality and a stereotype that's dictated to them by the fucked up systems of power and control that we all exist in without options for self-determination."

Labels can be beneficial when it comes to giving visibility to marginalized performers and sexualities. They can also be harmful, if these labels are used to reinforce reductive ideas and beliefs about bodies and sexualities. Diversity in representation of minority and marginalized groups is an important issue that goes beyond just porn. My initial qualms about feminist porn were centred around the belief that feminist porn was the kind of porn that only white, able-bodied cishet performers could participate in. Self-agency was an important topic that Lee and Ashley touched upon in our interviews. Being able to perform according to your own ideas of identity is important. However, not everyone has the privilege and freedom of doing so. White bodies are free of associations; others bodies, unfortunately, do not have that sort of agency.

However, diversity in porn goes beyond just seeing LGBTQA-identified or Asian bodies on screen. It includes showing off different types of sexualities and sexual interests that are not easily determined by outward physical appearances. According to Lee, this is when categories can be useful.

"Categories can help people find others like themselves, which for those who don't often see themselves represented with desire and sexual agency can be incredibly validating," Lee says. "Tags can help bring up search results for people looking for performers with disabilities, for trans performers, for performers of colour, or for sex acts not often seen in pornography, such as the use of dental dams."

But looking at the Four Chambers body of work, you cannot search through the videos based on what you're looking for. There is no actual descriptor that makes one video different from another. "We're not defined by a single sexuality or level of explicitness. We don't refer to our performers as anything other than their name," explains Ashley on how she displays the videos released under the Four Chambers project. "With Four Chambers, we wanted to create a space outside of descriptions where the viewer doesn't clearly know before clicking play what they're going to see, meaning they don't get a chance to instantly dismiss [it] because it's shows a particular body or idea or sexuality that they don't think they enjoy." By being "deliberately ambiguous," Ashley hopes Four Chambers becomes a space where performers aren't defined by their physical appearances and there is a sense of curiosity from the viewer's perspective.

Applying a one-size-fits-all definition of what feminist porn is or isn't doesn't feel right. The politics of categorization complicates our understanding of feminist porn versus other porn. Instead of debating whether or not watching, producing, or taking part in porn is "feminist," it would be more beneficial to concentrate our efforts on reducing the stigma around porn—regardless of sub-genre—and figuring out how we can create new models of inclusivity and proper representation of porn. Lee says that as the conversations around porn develop, "It becomes clear that the topic is not black or white. This logic expands to encompass the sex industry at large, effectively reducing the stigma around not just "porn" but in commercial sex work at-large and bringing about the consent and sexual agency of all genders.

"That's feminist."

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