Can porn be feminist? In conversation with Dr. Rebecca Saunders.

DG: We all have different turn-ons.  What kind of porn do you find sexy – and why?

Powerful performances that show the depth of human connection and that throw off basic, limited ideas about how bodies should look and act, are intellectually sexy. Other kinds of sexy: nunna ya goddam business!

Feminist porn director Erika Lust & team. Photo credit: Erika Lust.

DG: Ethical porn-makers claim that consent, sexual health and comfort of the performer, including pre-authorised sexual acts and fair pay all add up to ‘feminist porn’. Do you agree?

These things are essential if you want to watch porn and not be a horrible person who’s condoning acts of rape and violence through your consumption (paid or not!). A living wage, safety and respect make porn production less exploitative and alienating as a type of work.

But for porn to be feminist I think it needs more. It needs to purposefully show types of sexual interaction and sexual identities that counteract deeply embedded, oppressive ideas about what a woman is.

Everyone should watch Eléonore Pourriat’s ‘I Am Not An Easy Man’ (it’s not porn, I’m afraid). It reminds you of all the ways that femaleness is built in society: that the way women understand themselves, conduct their lives, have sex, live in the world, are so shaped by the history of institutionalised brutality and judicial, economic and political oppression that this group of people have suffered.

Porn could be a useful ally in counteracting dangerous and stupid ideas about women’s roles and rights in society.

DG: What kinds of porn do you consider feminist? 

Films that have a clear message about equality and female power. I wouldn’t say stuff like pegging is feminist in itself, but those are the kind of role reversals that porn is particularly useful for, because it’s really the only place where the possibilities of sexual interaction are shown in such stark and unabashed ways.

 

From a film by Maria Beatty.

DG: The Feminist Porn Awards, founded in 2006, are often given to films with ongoing interviews with the performers (as in Aiden Starr’s work) or emulating real life, e.g. a young married couple try a swingers’ party for the first time, get turned on while discussing it in bed at home, before returning for a condom-wearing gang-bang.  Audiences are filmed watching the actors, adding to the ‘reality’ of the event. Does incorporating reality in these ways liberate women?

Not necessarily.

I think the idea that women require contextualisation to enjoy sex is part of a broader cultural expectation that women like foreplay and men don’t, women’s sexualities are subtle and require a story while men’s are simplistic and all about penetration etc. But I’m not sure of the helpfulness of branding films with a meta-element or plots, realistic or otherwise, as inherently liberating or feminist. Or of aligning ‘real life sex’ with feminism and more unlikely fantasies with maleness.

But certainly it’s great to counteract the idea that pornography is reality, by showing a performance of all the discussion and emotional and physical preparation that would go into something like a gang bang for a real couple.

DG: Old-fashioned, patriarchal culture requires women to justify sexual activity in terms of a romantic story. Porn sites for female users, like hotmoviesforher.com, arguably provide more honest & liberated options around female arousal.  Does the whole set-up of digital porn deliver more of what women want, with the proliferation of home-made movies and search terms like ‘threesomes’, ‘MILFs’, ‘dad-fucks’ and ‘girl-on-girl’?  Does digital porn give women more control?

Jessica Drake, director, producer & sex educator, talking here on piracy and digital porn. Photo from The Daily Trojan.

There are loads of cool sites and types of sexual representation that have been made possible by the Internet. But conglomerates like MindGeek and Vivid Entertainment still dominate the digital landscape of porn, especially for young people who are only going to watch what’s free.

The majority of freely available porn serves to legitimise misogyny and I think has fostered an awful synonymy between misogyny and female empowerment. The idea has developed, in porn and in the media more broadly, that if you’re down with fish hooking, deep throat and being slapped in the face, you’re necessarily a woman in control. No! That is absolutely not to say that there are certain sexual activities which are ‘good’ and others are ‘bad’ (I’m thinking of the 2014 Audiovisual Media Services Regulations that banned, amongst other things, pornographic representations of spanking and female ejaculation) – but there needs to be clear emphasis on consent and production context for aggressive acts towards women. Most often, there isn’t.

From ‘Jessica Drake is Wicked’.

DG: Eastern women’s bodies are sexualised to subjugate them.  Breaking those laws supposedly contributes to horrific, gender-based murders.  Western women can  sexualise themselves as a sign of socio-economic achievement – but even for the small percentage of privileged women, does porn and sexualisation reduce us to commodities?

I’d say, incidentally, that there’s more crossover there. The sexualisation of non-Western women and women of colour is presented as a positive, empowering thing, the most significant source of a woman’s identity; and equally there’s a huge problem with gendered violence and murder in Western Europe and America.

But yes, so much porn presents women in terms of their use as objects. I think that comes ultimately from an understanding of the female body and female sexuality as something which is either clean or dirty and, paradoxically, highly sexualized and non-sexual at the same time. So if you’re a woman who’s happy to build a career out of doing sexual things, there’s something tainted and dirty about you anyway, and so you’ve given up your right to be treated well. And that commodification of the woman is always about the woman’s reduced status as a purchasable object; there’s no responsibility placed on the (male) consumer.

When sharing porn with a lover, it can be hard to remain centred on each other.  Does porn mitigate against intimacy?

Depends on the porn. Stuff that eroticises sexual violence and misogyny is going to screw up your understanding of sex: it’s toxic.

But stuff that caters to some specific niche of the two of you, could foster intimacy I suppose. Though interacting with/via screens might be less intimate than actually focusing on each other!

Dr. Saunders was in conversation with Soma Ghosh.

Photo, courtesy of Rebecca Saunders.

 

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