It's April 2011, and in the dark of a very small room about 70 people are watching porn together. There's a scene in which the vagina of genderqueer-identified porn performer Jiz Lee is positioned over the face of trans performer Billy Castro, giving him a mouthful of ejaculate. It's the queer reimagining of the "money shot," and for many in the room it's the first time they've ever seen anything like it.
The scene plays out as part of the QSpeak series at The Center in Long Beach, California, and on this night there is a viewing and discussion with Jiz Lee and performer/producer/ pornographer Courtney Trouble. Her websites NoFauxxx.com and QueerPorn.TV have helped popularize the term "queer porn" that has been instrumental in the expansion of the female-to-male transsexual porn niche. Trouble's handpicked, self-produced selections are definitely hot and steamy, but to the discerning eye they're also politically charged. Over the past 10 years (and without really intending to do so), the young filmmaker has increased the visibility and social legitimacy of sexual and gender minorities who, until very recently, were treated as mere fetishes for straight male porn consumers.
"Queer porn is made by the sexual fringe. It's sex-positive portrayals of fluid sexuality, diverse genders throughout the spectrum, couplings and co-partners you wouldn't expect and sex acts that represent personal authenticity. Queer porn is people being true to themselves and being very out, loud and proud about who they are and how they fuck," Trouble says.
Watching Trouble's porn gives viewers a glimpse not simply of queer sexuality, but of real sex. For many viewers it will be the first time they see people like themselves represented in porn. For many, it will also be the first time they see people who look like their friends, lovers and partners. In other words, it's realistic in that it features people with realistic bodies of various sizes and various racial backgrounds experiencing sexual pleasure.
While Trouble is a director, she doesn't direct her subjects. There is no script, no must-have camera angles, no artificiality. The people she films are real-life partners in one way or another; their chemistry is apparent, their passion genuine.
Welcome to ethical porn, where the performers' experiences making the film are just as important as the final product. In ethical porn, everything is safe and consent is part of the narrative, which enables viewers to watch whatever plays out guilt-free. Ethical films produced by feminist pornographers such as Tristan Taormino even include interviews with the performers, which lends to the understanding that they actually enjoy what they're doing and feel empowered by it.
"A lot of people that I know in the industry use 'ethical porn' to describe their work, whereas 'feminist' is a more specific kind of work," Trouble explains. "A majority of us identify as feminists, but my work specifically doesn't inherently speak to feminist issues. My own work is ethically made, queer--and yes, I am a feminist--but I don't think my goal with making porn is to address feminist issues."
Feminists have had a very complicated relationship with pornography and, to this day, anti-porn activists often showcase the most violent or kinky porn they can get their hands on--images of women being degraded, humiliated and beaten--in order to illustrate how innately anti-feminist pornography is. This judgment about pornography can also reinforce the idea that some forms of sex are inherently unethical and non-consensual, leading women who enjoy rough sex or BDSM (bondage, dominance, sadism, machochism) feel they have something to be ashamed of.
Dylan Ryan, a crossover star who began her career in independent queer productions, including those made by Trouble, now regularly performs for the very extreme, ethical site kink.com, where it is not uncommon to see her tied up or sexually engaged with several partners. Interviews that follow these performances feature a blissed-out Ryan gushing about how she loves her job because it allows her to fulfill her deepest fantasies.
Unless porn is specifically advertised as being ethically made, however, there's no way of knowing whether or not what you're watching was produced under conditions that were agreeable to and consensual for the performers. In this way, the real issue for feminists should not be trying to determine whether porn is degrading to women, because as sex educator and film director Tristan Taormino says, "There is no monolithic one thing called porn with a capital P." The more important issue, she says, is whether pornography is made ethically.
Trouble suggests being entirely anti-porn is akin to being anti-feminist.
"I am a fundamental protector of sex workers within the feminist spectrum. I believe that women, as all of us do, have the choice and the option to take on whatever jobs we want to do. Sex work is a viable choice for women, as well as a high-paying one. I don't consider all mainstream porn to be anti-feminist or degrading to women. I actually find it
degrading when women try to tell other women what kind of jobs they should and should not have. Feminism is about equality and it's also about choice. This is my choice--respect it," Trouble says.
Just as it's often assumed that anything characterized as feminist porn is ethically made, it's often assumed that all mainstream pornography is degrading and unethical. Before feminists and queer women got into the business, that might have been a safe assumption. But because women like Taormino embrace the label of feminist pornographer, that is changing. Taormino is part of a group of women who have successfully created ethical feminist pornography for mainstream companies like Vivid Entertainment, the company she partnered up with for her Expert Guide series of educational adult videos geared towards heterosexual couples.
"My main frustration with anti-porn feminists is that they get a lot of air time," says Taormino. She believes healthy sex education and ethical porn produced by queers and feminists can be antidotes to the unhealthy images and messages contained in mainstream porn. "I lecture a lot on college campuses and the anti-porn feminists on panels with me drill it into young women's heads that porn is ruining their sex lives. I want young women to know that there are alternatives out there, that porn can be fun, sexy, empowering and feminist. For me, it's very important to identify my work as feminist porn because it is political and it encompasses my mission to showcase genuine female pleasure. I'm invested in feminist porn as a concept, a genre and a social movement."
Though young pornographers like Trouble and Taormino are trailblazers, they have the likes of Annie Sprinkle, Candida Royalle and Nina Hartley to thank for paving the way. In the 1970s and '80s, these women were some of the first feminist-identified performers in the porn industry. In 1992, Hartley wrote an essay entitled "Reflections of a Feminist Porn Star."
The rise of ethical porn produced by young feminists today is the direct result of their coming of age during the '90s when feminists really began to embrace sex-positivity and a punk, DIY ethic with the mandate that if you didn't like what you saw, it was your obligation to create something new to look at. Ethical pornographers also took a cue from Annie Sprinkle, who famously said, "The answer to bad porn isn't no porn, it's more porn."
Trouble has been her own boss since she was a teenager immersed in Washington's riot grrrl/DIY scene, with the only "real" job she ever had being at the feminist On Our Backs magazine. On Our Backs is also where Taormino got her start in college. It was her first introduction to pornography that was sex-positive, ethical and feminist.
The fact that these women were also the first generation to utilize new technology and the Internet can't be overlooked when discussing the explosion of ethically made queer and feminist porn. Shine Louise Houston, owner of the porn production company Pink and White Productions, first noticed that most major porn distributors had a women's line about 10 years ago, when she was working at the sex toy retailer Good Vibrations in San Francisco.
"To be honest, the porn specifically being marketed to women at the time was really bad," Houston recalls. "Not only did my generation grow up in the post-second wave, where sex wasn't taboo, but we also really understood the importance of technology. Each year it just gets easier to get your hands on affordable video equipment. All of these young people making porn may not be making a ton of money, but their access to media-making technology and their newfound ability to self-distribute their work is changing the porn landscape. And mainstream companies can't even wrap their heads around what we're doing."
As a film school graduate, Houston decided to create the kind of porn she believed to be lacking in the market--porn that featured different genders and queer people of colour and that reflected different types of sexuality. Her first film, Crash Pad, made a huge splash, allowing Houston to produce more films and to create her own production company. But her goals have changed.
"In the early 2000s, there was this upsurge in 'dyke porn,' but then it disappeared," Houston recalls. "I wanted to make a sustainable company, and because of the accessibility of new technology I was able to start this queer economy, which is a really important concept. We're a real company. We have a payroll, we pay taxes, we have insurance.
"We're also able to deliver the ethically made queer porn that our subscribers can't really find anywhere else," she says.
Houston says she isn't out to change the minds of anti-porn feminists. "I respect their opinion," she adds. "My jumping-off point was sex-positivity. I basically realized that I can fuck with the industry by being in the industry. The mainstream is all about illusion, but by featuring interviews with the performers and featuring real bodies having real sex, we're showing the mechanics of what the mainstream has always tried to hide," Houston reports.
GOOD FOR HER
One of the most important developments for pornography occurred in 2006 when the Toronto-based sex toy company Good For Her launched the Feminist Porn Awards. It is a yearly event that honours the year's best feminist porn offerings. The store was already progressive-minded in its offerings, making sure to promote pornography that women and people of colour as well as queer, trans and members of other marginalized groups found fun, sexy and empowering. Enterprises like Good For Her come from a place of extreme sex-positivity, promoting pleasure and using education to help their patrons unlearn the body negativity that has become so commonplace.
The mainstream porn industry is just getting to a place where it's willing to work with women like Taormino, while also recognizing the work of independent pornographers like Trouble, whose work was recently nominated for an AVN Award (essentially an Oscar in the adult entertainment industry).
The reason the Feminist Porn Awards are so crucial is that they only recognize films that appeal to people who are not served by the mainstream industry. The Feminist Porn Awards value women as viewers and showcase their pleasure. They recognize the social and even political value of showing people of colour enjoying sex without stereotyping them. They showcase authentic queer and transgendered sex that is made by and for queer and transgendered people. All of the films featured at the Feminist Porn Awards must be ethically made, which means all performers are fairly compensated, treated respectfully and given agency and input on how they want their scenes to play out.
Lorraine Hewitt, who has worked at Good For Her since 2004, serves as the Feminist Porn Awards' creative director. The awards are now well-respected and well-attended, but when they first began six years ago, Hewitt found herself having to combat stereotypes about feminists and sex. There was a belief overall that the idea of feminists making and enjoying pornography was akin to a fish riding a bicycle.
Obviously, there are still many issues that make the mainstream porn industry problematic from a feminist perspective. However, the work of feminist and ethical pornographers like Trouble, Houston and Taormino is arguably changing the industry. With porn that's diverse, empowering, ethical and inclusive, all the while being focused on female pleasure, there's no overstating how powerful and political these messages can be for women.
"One of the wonderful things we're doing is showing that porn is simply a medium that reflects our desires," Hewitt says. "Women and other marginalized groups have felt victimized by pornography in the past, and that's understandable. But we have also been hurt by books, mainstream movies, art, etcetera. By promoting this work, I think we're showing anti-porn feminists that, just as with those other mediums, we can still utilize porn that has positive results for our communities."
The aim of feminist porn, for Hewitt, is not only to broaden perspectives and make alternatives more available, but also to influence the mainstream industry to incorporate feminist ideas into its films, such as by encouraging it to showcase genuine female pleasure.
"The industry doesn't have to be homogenous," she says. "We're just fighting for the desires and perspectives of women and other marginalized groups to have equal status and wider visibility."