Can porn empower women?

Last Sunday I sat on a panel at the Women of the World festival to debate “can porn empower women?” In my three minutes I didn’t have time to go into the full complexities of the question — and boy, is that question complex.

Debating “porn” is difficult because the word means different things to different people. Some people use it to mean “sexy media I don’t like”, and the word “erotica” to mean “sexy media I do like”. So I want to start out with a definition: porn is media that is intended to sexually stimulate the viewer. It doesn’t necessarily have to involve nudity, or sex (whatever THAT means).

Porn can be in the eye of the beholder — you might watch a circus performance, get aroused and tell your boyfriend “Whoa, that was porn for me”. (I may in fact have done this last week.) But death of the author notwithstanding, when I talk about porn I’m mostly talking about media intended to arouse — content published as wank material.

When someone talks about “porn” they probably have a specific vision in mind, and that vision may not match someone else’s. Here is a fact: you cannot possibly imagine all porn. Whatever you envisage when you think of the word, it is not representative. No porn is representative of “all porn”, not even the sort of porn we might call “mainstream”. Porn is bigger, and has more potential, than any of that.

Porn is not monolithic, and it’s not even a genre — it is a medium. Yes, a lot of porn is sexist and too much of it has historically been made by men for men, but claiming that all porn is sexist because you’ve only seen the worst of it is like saying that all TV is sexist because you’ve only ever watched Top Gear.

What is your vision of “porn” based on? Have you ever shopped for porn for yourself, gone out in search of erotica marketed to you personally, chosen something that looked appealing, and paid for it? Chances are, there is some porn out there which you would love, which would make you feel affirmed and safe and sexy, but if you’ve never looked for it, how would you know?

If your idea of what porn looks like is based on a lazy trawl of the free sites, you need to do more research.

Most of the material on free tube sites is from big mainstream companies who churn out formulaic material for a mass audience. A lot of the content is from the 90s when the dot com boom happened and the old big studios sold their back catalogues en masse for cheap. Small, new, independent sites who are doing something different or innovative are less likely to end up on there — because it takes time for porn to trickle down from the rooftops it’s originally shouted from to the gutter of the tube sites. PornHub and YouPorn are the lowest common denominator of porn, and it’s not even up to date; they don’t represent the current state of porn, let alone the future of it.

The future of porn is feminist. Let’s take stock. The Feminist Porn Awards is now in its ninth year and the feminist porn movement is growing in its visibility and influence. Last year the second Feminist Porn Conference was held at the University of Toronto, alongside the launch of the brand new Journal of Porn Studies. All of these projects focus on radical, political porn that critiques the industry and offers an alternative vision. This is a growing movement, it’s exciting and it’s happening now. I was at the Berlin Porn Film Festival in October last year, a global gathering of erotic film which does not identify in any way as a feminist film festival — and yet half the films were by female directors, with a diverse and inspiring range.

Compare this with Hollywood, where a tiny percentage of film directors are female — fewer than 8% of the top-grossing films in 2014 were directed by women — and yes, this inequality is reflected within the porn industry, but the fact that porn that empowers women is a minority is a symptom of the wider sexism in our society, not a cause. We might as well ask, can film empower women? Does the film industry as a whole empower women collectively? But Women’s Hour didn’t think that debate was worth holding.

Gender inequality in porn is rife, and it’s a problem we need to solve, just as we need to solve sexism and the imbalanced sexual objectification of women in advertising, in Hollywood, in TV, in the art world and in every other creative industry. All of these issues are shocking (in my opinion advertising is by far the most pervasive and damaging) and all of them perpetuate sexism to some extent, but not one of them, not even porn, is a root cause — they all emerge from a systemic inequality that goes far deeper than the media we create.

Actually, porn is one creative medium in which women increasingly have more power than in other industries. Female directors are gaining more influence within porn than their Hollywood counterparts. If you dismiss all porn as inherently degrading, you are dismissing the work done by the amazing feminist porn activists and revolutionaries who are working to make porn that serves women, both those making it and those viewing it — porn that celebrates and reflects authentic female sexuality and desire.

Empowerment is subjective

The Woman's Hour debate subtitle was, “can porn liberate, celebrate or enhance, or does it enslave, debase or corrupt?” Whew, talk about a loaded question. Are those really our choices?

Taking a step back from the moralising categories of “debasing” and “corrupting”, the opposite of empowered is disempowered. We know when we are empowered, when we have the power to make our own choices, when we feel free to act in our own interests, when our choices are respected. Empowerment can be social — do I gain more social standing, more respect, more reach? Are people more likely to listen to me when I speak, do I have a platform to make my voice heard? Empowerment can be financial — can I afford to pay my bills, to be self-sufficient, to make my way independently in the world?

Empowerment can also be something more abstract, more subjective. When we feel empowered we feel confident, strong, affirmed. We feel like we have worth, like we have the right to take up space. We feel like we deserve happiness, freedom, and rights, and that we have the power to claim those things for ourselves. Porn can empower individual female workers in all three of these ways. But it’s a collective empowerment for women that feminist porn envisions — porn that serves and affirms female sexuality, desire and sexual experience in the way that male-gaze porn has traditionally served men.

Social and financial empowerment might be possible to measure to some extent, but subjective empowerment is personal. No-one has the right to decide whether anyone else feels empowered, or what will make someone else feel empowered. Which is why the whole concept of “porn for women” is problematic — not all women are served by, or will feel empowered by, the same kind of porn. For this reason a lot of feminist porn producers prefer the identifiers queer, ethical or fairtrade. But all feminist pornographers are seeking to create gender-critical media that challenges, rejects or subverts the structures that have been used to oppress us.

Porn can empower porn workers

The first erotic labour I ever performed was unpaid, taking sexy selfies for my boyfriend in the holidays during my first year at university. We’d stay up late after our parents had gone to bed and snap flirty pics of ourselves — making cute faces at each other and occasionally daring to shed our tops and pose in our underwear. I loved playing with light and shadow to create aesthetically appealing images, and I loved the way that the self-portraits not only gave me and my boyfriend a way to sustain our intimacy and desire during the weeks apart, but it also helped me see my body in a new light. Like most young women I struggled with low body confidence. Creating erotic media for my own enjoyment was a healing act.

As a post-grad, I was chatting to a photographer friend at a club and he was very excited about the new lights he’d just bought. “I can’t wait to test them out”, he said. “Hey, do you want to pose for some pictures?” I did. By then I was in the honeymoon phase of my first dominant/submissive BDSM relationship, and I showed up to the shoot with a collection of kinky toys that expressed my identity — collars, cuffs, corsets. The photographer hadn’t asked me to — in fact it made him blink a bit — but that was what I wanted him to capture.

On that shoot I learned that even with someone else taking the shots, the performer retains an awful lot of creative control. It was my body that made the shapes in the composition; my facial expressions that set the mood. I was able to choose what I wore, and how much; even what genre we were shooting was a collaborative decision, because both posing and lighting affect whether an image is art nude or glamour.

I had always loved creating visual media and now I had a new way to do so: modelling. I loved the pictures that resulted from that first shoot, and my friend suggested I create a profile on a modelling website and see if any other photographers would be interested in working with me. Until I did it myself, I hadn’t appreciated that a model can be a creative director, that I could make images that said something true about myself.

This experience was unaltered the first time a photographer paid me for my time, except that I felt more valued for my contribution, and I had more money that month. I was a post-graduate student with only part-funding, working part-time around supervisions and essay-writing to pay my rent and tuition fees. Getting paid to do something this fun seemed too good to be true.

Making porn gives me the chance to express myself, to celebrate my sexuality and my body. It gives me confidence, pleasure and creative satisfaction — and, yes, it gives me financial independence, which is empowering in a different way.

It’s over ten years now since that first paid photoshoot, and next year will be my ten year anniversary of shooting my first porn video. In that time, some shoots have been more empowering than others. I have felt disempowered from time to time: for instance, if the script has been changed without consulting me, or if I’m asked repeatedly to do something I’d rather not. On a couple of stand-out occasions a producer has pushed beyond my stated physical limits, and only once in ten years has a producer reacted badly when I called them on it. While not every shoot I’ve done has been perfect, to be honest I’ve felt abused and exploited far more in the office jobs I’ve held, and in my interactions with the mainstream media, than making porn.

Here’s when making porn is empowering to me as a performer: when I’m given control over my experience. I am empowered when I can collaborate creatively, write my own storylines, choose my own co-performers (and work with friends and romantic partners), when the roles I play are ones I can relate to, or the stories I’m telling say something true about my own sexuality. I am empowered when my boundaries on the day are respected, my co-performer and director are considerate and attentive. It makes a difference when the language and atmosphere on set is relaxed and safe, without anyone patronising me or making sexist jokes, and when everyone treats each other with courtesy and respect. I don’t just feel empowered, I feel bloody spoiled when the producers provide yummy food and drinks and comfortable accommodation and fun evening parties, and go out of their way to make us feel like superstars. I’ve been lucky to work for producers who have set this gold standard, giving me the tools to critique those who offer their performers a less empowering experience.

If you consider all porn to be inherently degrading, debasing or exploitative, then on the rare occasions a porn worker is treated badly, you will think that’s just par for the course. What else should they have expected? The only way we can create a consistently empowering working environment for porn performers is by admitting that some working environments are more empowering than others — and improving working conditions to give performers more power.

Every porn performer deserves to do their job without exploitation. Porn doesn’t only need a female-gaze overhaul, it also needs a culture shift on set. We need to support porn performers when they demand that the terms of contracts be respected, that their negotiated boundaries and limits be respected. We need to create a culture of respect in porn production and that starts by admitting that porn can be produced in a respectful way.

I started directing porn for three reasons: because I loved performing in porn so much that I wanted to do it fulltime; because I was overflowing with ideas for scenes and I wanted full creative control over them; and because my feminist critique of the genre I was working within had highlighted some obvious gaps in the market, and I wanted to fill them. I knew I could have a good time shooting traditional male gaze sexist porn if the director and crew were nice, but once I realised how few people were shooting BDSM porn for a queer or female audience, I knew that was what I was going to do.

When I started directing my own films, I took control of the means of production. As a performer being employed by different studios, it was sheer luck whether any particular producer offered decent working conditions. Of course you take notes, you swap them with other performers, and you try to avoid the dodgy producers — but then you need money and you’re offered work by a producer who compromises your empowerment, and you take it anyway because you need to pay the rent.

As a feminist porn director I join an activist movement striving to set a new standard for working conditions in porn. My first priority is to empower the performers I work with. I not only want everyone on set to have fun, I want to devolve as much creative control as possible to my performers, to create a space within which they can authentically express themselves. My second aim is to raise the level of transparency regarding production ethics within my industry such that this becomes the norm.

But all of this is missing the point.

The problem with all of this personal empowerment discourse is that “can porn empower women?” is the wrong question to be asking. Every word in this question relies upon misleading assumptions that limit the framing of the debate. It’s almost impossible to answer this question without tacitly reinforcing those assumptions. I want to unpack each of these terms in turn. Let’s take them in reverse order.

Why only “women”?

Why does the debate about whether porn empowers women only want to talk about female performers? What about challenging the unequal sexual objectification of female bodies that permeates our entertainment and advertising industries, and starting to create erotic media that focus on male bodies as objects of desire? What about equal pay for equal work, increasing the demand for male performers in the porn industry, and presenting a more diverse range of bodies of different sizes, shapes, colours and genders as sexy? As a feminist pornographer I’m working to destroy the assumption that only (white skinny able-bodied cis) female bodies are sexy.

I work with all-female, all-queer crews behind the camera and the porn I shoot includes male/male scenes shot for the female erotic gaze. Your question about whether porn “can empower women” doesn’t even acknowledge that male/male porn exists — let alone how many women choose to watch it.

If we’re talking about whether porn empowers women, both performers and viewers, does that include all women? When you say “women” are you including trans women, women of colour, women of size, working class women, and migrant women, and are you actively campaigning for their empowerment too? If not, perhaps you should consider whether your feminism really serves all women collectively, or only women like you.

And don’t even get me started on the way that a discourse of “empowering women” upholds the gender binary and excludes those who identify elsewhere on the gender spectrum — and who are also not served by male-gaze heteronormative media.

Empowerment doesn’t matter

The problem is that ‘empowerment’ is meaningless when we come down to the question of basic human rights. Are we saying that porn is only a legitimate industry if every worker within it feels personally affirmed and empowered by every moment of their labour? If so, why do we only hold sex work to this standard, and not other industries?

We don’t need to feel ‘empowered’ by the work we do in order to have the right to do that work and get paid without experiencing violence at the hands of the state, our managers, our employers or our customers. Porn is one of the least marginalised jobs within the sex industry, but no sex worker deserves stigma, harassment, exploitation, abuse, arrest, detention, or deportation. Can we talk about that, please? Because I think state violence against marginalised women is more important than whether watching porn makes you feel icky.

The problem with the ‘empowerment’ narrative is that it’s deeply classist. If I argue that porn — and all sex work — is a legitimate form of labour because I personally feel empowered doing it, my argument falls apart the moment someone steps forward whose work in porn doesn’t empower them.

I’m not naive — I’m aware that my experience has been empowering because I benefit from an intersection of race, class, cis and body privileges. Power engenders power. The empowerment narrative ignores the fact that people with privilege are more likely to feel empowered. It also creates a hierarchy in which “empowered” workers are seen as more deserving of respect, platforms and rights, and marginalised workers are dismissed and silenced.

It did not escape my notice that Woman’s Hour invited a white, cisgender, middle-class femme with a post-graduate degree to speak on their panel. This is one of the ways that anti-sex-work feminists weaponise the empowerment narrative against us: it enables them to claim I am selfish and naive, and “not representative” of all those poor degraded victimised working class porn workers they didn’t invite. (If they invited them, they’d have to listen to them, and then they’d no longer be able to speak for them and use their supposed lack of empowerment in their argument).

Even if you hate doing porn, even if you grit your teeth through a long day of hard, painful physical labour which bears no relation to your own sexuality, you still have agency and you still have rights. You deserve decent working conditions, you deserve to have a job and get paid without being criminalised, and you deserve to find your own way through capitalist patriarchy without anti-sex-work feminists telling you that you are “brainwashed” and “harming women” just because you need to pay the rent and porn earns more than working behind a bar.

Which brings me to my next point: why porn?

Look, why are we just talking about porn here? Why are we not asking this question of other industries? Can retail empower women? Can waitressing empower women? What about care work, nursing, childcare? Can any work that is gendered under patriarchy truly empower women — and can any paid labour under capitalism truly empower anyone?

I have been told by anti-porn feminists that any feminist who earns a living serving men comes across as conflicted. How many industries is that true of? What about the executive assistant who has to pander to the whims of a patronising, over-privileged boss? (A job I have also done; porn is way less degrading.) What about the nurse who wipes the bums of aging pensioners? Why aren’t we asking these workers if they ‘feel empowered’? There are lots of service industries, and sex work is only one of them — but we don’t call other workers who serve male customers ‘alleged feminists’.

Sex work is work. We should not hold it to different standards than other forms of paid labour. Capitalism is inherently degrading, and most people don’t feel empowered by their job. We all need to pay for food and shelter and the cost of living is going up and up. Sure, some of us — the lucky ones — would do the work we do for free sometimes, but would we do it this much, or in this way, if we didn’t have to pay the rent? We all sell our labour because we have to. Under capitalism none of our choices are truly free.

We are born into a society with huge structural inequality, decreasing social mobility, an increasing wealth gap and limits and expectations imposed on us by our gender, race, class and plenty of other factors we can’t control. Few of us have never felt degraded, debased or exploited in the workplace. If you want to truly empower porn performers, start by fighting to improve social security and to reduce poverty. Campaign for a citizen’s basic income, for more flexible working options for parents and people with disabilities, and for decreased tuition fees for students. It is possible to work full-time in this country without earning a living wage, so if someone chooses to earn ten times as much shooting porn for a day, don’t you dare tell them that they are “debasing” themselves or all women by doing so. If anything debases us, it is capitalism, not our individual choices within it.

‘Can’ porn empower women?

Of course it can, individually. Any job can be empowering or degrading, but regardless of how subjectively empowered any porn performer feels, we all have the right to decent working conditions and labour rights. As a feminist porn director I want to empower the performers I employ and the viewers who buy my products, and as feminists we should be working together to hold all porn production to the same standard.

But does porn empower women? That’s a different question. Taking the medium as a whole, no, not yet; but that is a symptom of our patriarchal society, not a cause of it. There are feminists working to improve every industry, and if you have problems with porn, trust me: feminist pornographers are on the case.

Feminist porn not only demands empowered performers, but empowered viewers; to create porn that affirms, celebrates and validates the humans who watch it, and our humanity as a whole. Feminist porn producers have done the analysis and the cultural critique, and each of them has a different angle, something new they are offering, a unique spin that challenges gender expectations and subverts stereotypes. We know that misogynistic male-gaze porn does not serve us as a society. Rather than complaining about it, we are putting our energies to creating something better.

Our tastes are not collective — they are beautifully, impossibly diverse. Luckily, so is porn. If you don’t feel empowered by the porn you’ve seen so far, keep looking. Don’t rifle through the bins and then decide there’s nothing in the supermarket to suit your taste — go inside, read the labels, and vote with your wallet, just as you would with any other fairtrade product.

If you don’t think the porn industry serves women collectively, help us change the industry. Feminist pornographers have been working on it for a few decades already, from Annie Sprinkle and Candida Royalle in the 70s to Maria Beatty, Petra Joy, Anna Span, Jennifer Lyon Bell, Ms Naughty, Shine Louise Houston and Courtney Trouble and countless independent creatives making the changes they want to see. Check out the nomination lists for porn film festival awards to see what’s fresh and worth looking at. Buy porn direct from the makers. The internet has lowered the cost of entry and now huge numbers of porn performers and cammers are turning producer, crafting their own DIY clips and taking part in a grassroots worker-led porn revolution that, yes, empowers women.

Feminist porn is the future of porn — in a few more decades, feminist porn will be mainstream. But the only way it will become mainstream is with your help.