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The Virtues of Watching Feminist Porn With Strangers

Last week, while sitting in an auditorium full of people, I willed myself to not get turned on as I watched a clip from Anna Brownfield's The Band.

Somehow, I'd made it this far in life without ever watching porn in an auditorium packed with strangers. Instead, porn is usually relegated to my private browser history and my own weird internal shame.

I often found myself cross-legged and furiously blushing when I attended the Feminist Porn Mini-Conference last week at University of California, Santa Barbara. The conference was celebrating the release of The Feminist Porn Book, a collaboration between three USCB professors (Constance Penley, Mireille Miller-Young, and Celine Parrenas Shimizu) and sex educator, author, and feminist porn director Tristan Taormino. The book contains essays on feminist porn from both academics and individuals working within the industry and is reviewed in Bitch's current issue.

But what precisely is feminist porn?  Its definition is multifaceted, taking into account working conditions, representations of sexuality, varied body types and—above all else—challenging the dominant porn narrative. Read Taormino's much longer discussion of the definition of feminist porn here. Much like its definition, feminist porn is a conversation that needs many voices, including journalists, academics, and the people who are actually doing this work.

I attended with a friend who writes about porn and sexuality—both topics that are not remotely my area of expertise.  But as a former academic, I was sold upon hearing "feminist conference." One of my main reasons for not continuing to pursue an academic career was my continued frustration with the ivory tower. Many academics (feminist and otherwise) that I had encountered in school had brilliant, heady ideas about social change or sharp, biting cultural commentary but no way to filter it to a mass audience. I would attend conferences and listen to presentations while angrily scrawling response comments about class and accessibility in my notebook. Then I would go home and rant about the insular academic community and their seeming inability to engage anyone else.

So I was both slightly nervous and reluctant to attend the Feminist Porn Mini-Con. But I have never attended a conference where the discourse was as intent upon engaging and educating its audience. Throughout the opening panel discussion on the book and its importance and the closing clip show "The Feminist Porn Show" (porn clips curated by Taormino, grouped into categories such as Ladies First, Queer Factor and Dangerously Diverse) several concepts continued to come up that made me think about the concrete realities of my relationship with my sexuality, my body, and porn.

The discussions kept falling back to the politics of desire, which are intricately tied to porn and porn consumption, consent, and feminist politics. One statement for me particularly stood out when Taormino and company were discussing the idea of what you should like sexually versus what you actually do like. That's a personal conflict that I've been having myself recently.

I've always had a fraught relationship with my body; my stomach has never been flat enough nor my nose small enough. And that personal loathing about my appearance has most certainly affected my sexuality.  Being naked was a huge ordeal. And being naked with another person? Forget about it.  At some points in my life, talking about sex has been a panic-inducing experience. Discussing what I want sexually mainly leads to terror: instead of admitting what I like, I'd just accept what I'm supposed to like. Recently, it just became exhausting being so uncomfortable with my body all the time, never being in the moment during sex, and not asking for the things I want because it didn't fit with my pre-composed sexual script.

I've began trying to change things and, as with any change, it hasn't happened overnight. Having great sex and finally being able to explore what I like and don't like sexually has been a big part of making myself feel better about my body the way it is.

The best part about feeling better about sex is being able to feel better about talking about sex, whether it's with a partner or a room full of strangers while I awkwardly cross my knees. The conference was a place for open, honest and respectful dialogue about the world's most intimate issues, all of which made me examine my own relationship to sex and consuming porn.

As a culture, we have a pretty fucked-up relationship to sex. The conversations at the Feminist Porn Mini-Con and that are started by the Feminist Porn Book are so important because we need to talk about feminist approaches to porn, consent and sex on a societal level and a personal one. These conversations are the ones that will reinvent the ways that we see and critically explore sexuality and porn.  

Plus, we'll all have better sex. And who doesn't want that?

Listen to an interview with Feminist Porn Book author Tristan Taormino on Bitch's "Monogamy" podcast episode

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Comments

8 comments have been made. Post a comment.

So hard to read this article because of the site design

Such a shame that the design of this page makes it so very difficult to read. I don't have a defined visual impairment, but reading the main body of the text against the grey lines is incredibly difficult. And the green links are illegible to me. The only way I could read it without concentrating really hard Is to cut and paste it into Word. I may do that as it looks really interesting. And I would like to read more of Bitch, but not sure how far I will get with that if I have to copy and paste the whole time!

I agree the text on this page

I agree the text on this page was way too small for me to read comfortably. If you are on a mac, the 'command' and '+' keys will increase the text size on web pages nicely, as well as 'command' and '-' zooms you back out. .

Thanks for the feedback

We're actually in the middle of an overhaul of our website—we'll keep your comments in mind! Sorry it's hard to read the text.


Bitch Media Online Editor

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porn = sex-ed?

why do we need "feminist approaches to porn"? isn't that a paradoxon?
my understanding of porn is, that it is another capitalistic and patriarchal industry that exploits people for profit by selling the consumer of porn all kinds of fantasy that they demand (so i think we already have diversity). it is not about the fantasies of the people in front of the camera, it is not about their well-being, pleasure, satisfaction. isn't that why they are called actresses and actors? cause they act. how can that be educational for people? to me that makes as much sense as to say that watching capitvated animals in the zoo will teach you about their behavior in nature. in both situations you have to consider the circumstances. i think it is no wonder that there are pages like "make love not porn" that try to make people realize that porn is a fantasy. shouldn't sex-education be thought elsewhere, differently, without objectifying people and an industry that is more interested in money than anything else?

Problematic, but still worth discussing

While porn obviously raises a lot of problematic questions for feminists and anti-capitalists alike, I think it would be equally unhelpful to dismiss it all as worthless. No, we shouldn't be using porn as sex education, but we have to address the fact a lot of people, men and women, do use it, and they're not going to stop any time soon. Since cavepeople first drew erotic stick figures on cave walls, or the Greeks painted some naughty goings-on on vases, human nature has been drawn towards wanting to look at sexual images. Women as consumers have been written out of the porn landscape, and the accompanying assumption that it's only men who get off on looking at sex reinforces patronising ideas about female sexuality (that we get turned on by love/romance, not sex, or that we're 'just not visual creatures'). So I think conferences like the above are very valuable, and I wish I still lived in LA so I could have attended!

Yes, porn is a fantasy. It's nowhere near reality, and more work needs to be done to remind people - especially children and teens - of this before they start shaping their sexuality around it. However, fantasies are also a natural and healthy part of sexuality, and women are still too often treated as if they shouldn't have them, or should only exist to respond to male fantasies. Anything that encourages women to acknowledge their own fantasies, and pursue their pleasure while not worrying what they look like (which hopefully is what the body-diverse nature of feminist porn helps with), should not be dismissed.

C, your understanding of porn

C, your understanding of porn is a little too black and white. While plenty of porn is purely about making money and some of it may be sexist, exploitative or simply stupid, that's not always the case. Those who are making feminist porn are trying to move beyond that, to create depictions of sexuality that go beyond cliches and stereotypes.

I have a chapter in the Feminist Porn Book, I make feminist porn and one of my clips is shown in Tristan's show. I create porn for a number of reasons. These include a desire to make something that I personally would enjoy and that I think others like me would watch. I deliberately avoid many of the tropes you see in regular porn and I have a real desire to show sex in a more realistic way. I mainly work with real-life couples in an attempt to capture that authenticity.

I also insist on treating my performers ethically: that means involving them in the production, paying them properly, treating them with respect. I ensure they know exactly what we plan to do beforehand, I don't step beyond their boundaries and I make certain that they are consenting and completely clear about what we're trying to do. The performers are paid for what they do but they also enjoy it. They have agency, they make their own choices.

C, I would recommend you read the Feminist Porn Book or check out some feminist porn to see how different it is. There's a list of good sites/films at feministpornguide.com

Nice to know

"porn is usually relegated to my private browser history and my own weird internal shame." Spot on. Pun unintended.

However, do note that having an MA and teaching Freshman Comp at Community Colleges hardly makes you a "former academic".

hmmm

how incredibly rude, unnecessary, and negative.