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A Review of The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure

Ten years ago, when I was in film school on the East Coast, I studiously avoided the gender studies curriculum. I’d gotten a taste of Foucault and Judith Butler in my liberal arts classes, and if that was what queer theory was all about, then I wanted nothing to do with it.

It seemed so far removed from the ways that my friends and I had sex — or wanted to have sex — that I closed myself off to it. It was all about the “meaning” and “significance” of acts and identities, rather than on-the-ground, practical applications of sexuality. I wanted to read gender theory that spoke in the vernacular, not in the patronizing tone of academia.

It’s only within the past few years that I’ve come across queer and feminist writers that I could relate to: Jane Ward, Kate Bornstein, Julia Serano. These writers were no less “serious” than the ones I read in my college classes, but they brought their own experiences and perspective into their writings in a way that made it easy to follow along with what they were expressing.

And so last month, I picked up The Feminist Porn Book, fearing that it might be too academic, but hoping I might learn something anyway. Except for a few essays later on in the book, I was hooked from start to finish — and wished that it had been on the curriculum when I was in film school.

The first third of the book was, to put it simply, eye-opening. I’d been under the impression that ethical and feminist porn was a recent development, and I’d been ignorant of the history of it — and the hard work that had gone into establishing the genre in the 1980’s and 90’s. Although I’d been aware of Annie Sprinkle’s ecofeminist projects, I was only passingly familiar with Candida Royale, Nina Hartley, Jackie Strano, and Tristan Taormino.

These performers and directors, fed up with the lack of female perspectives in the industry, built the genre from scratch, either pursuing funding from mainstream studios or assembling their own casts and crew from the sex toy shops they worked at or the queer circles they frequented. Royale’s and Hartley’s projects were marketed mostly to women and straight couples, while Strano courted a lesbian audience. More recently, directors like Shine Louise Houston have expanded the circle even further, bringing more trans, genderqueer, and racially diverse performers into their projects.

Reading their stories makes me hopeful that the communities I’m a part of in Portland — the gender-inclusive, kinky, poly-friendly circles of the Pacific Northwest — could be a launching pad for the next generation of queer and feminist indie porn studios, building on what’s already been done.

In addition to the history of feminist pornography, the book includes essays from current directors and performers who give us a glimpse into the future of the industry. There are essays by transmen (Buck Angel) and transwomen (Tobi Hill-Meyer), as well as genderqueer porn star Jiz Lee. April Flores discusses body size, Loree Erickson writes about disability in porn, and Ariene Cruz explores the complexity of black female representation. These writers address the limitations and contradictions of the mainstream industry, while working hard to diversify and expand it.

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Several of the essays in particular stood out for me. Jane Ward, whose book on sex between straight white men offers a unique perspective on same-sex attraction, explores what happens when the things that turn on us in porn seem at odds with our real-life values. How does she explain, for example, her own interest in “reality porn” featuring homoerotic college hazing?

“Intellectually speaking, what interests me about these films is the way they rely upon and promote the notion of homosexual necessity…. I am impressed by the imagination required to manufacture them, the complex rules that structure them, and the performative and ritualistic way that straight men touch one another’s bodies or order others to do so…. Avoiding homosexual meaning requires that heterosexuals must get really creative. And this heterosexual creativity speaks to my queerness, even as it is arguably motivated by heteronormativity, or a seemingly compulsive need to repudiate gayness.”

While other writers have a tendency to pathologize desires that don’t neatly fit into an orientation or ideology, Ward is fascinated by them:

“It turns out that I don’t have only an intellectual interest in these scenarios; I think they’re hot…. I am not particularly interested in psychoanalyzing why anyone desires what they do…. Homosexual sex enacted by heterosexuals … occupies a liminal space within sexual relations, one that sits outside of the heterosexual/homosexual binary and is sometimes barely perceptible as sex.”

Ward’s theories would make great material for a “research study” exploring the topic even further — and I’d gladly answer the casting call.

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Another essay that resonated with me is a piece by Lorelei Lee, who began her career by posing nude for amateur photographers, and later moved on to hardcore sex and BDSM shoots — all the while remaining an outspoken activist for the First Amendment right to produce pornography:

“At first, my experiences posing nude for money were not exceptionally different from my experiences with other kinds of work….The more I got paid, the better I felt about the work…. For the first three years, I didn’t even look at the images that came out of these shoots. The extent of my experience happened in that room — there was the job and then there was the paycheck.”

When she finally did take a closer look at her work, what she saw was very different that what she’d expected. She discovered that the person she was on camera was in many ways distinct from who she was in real life — and that difference allowed her the freedom to play with her identity:

“I learned the transformations made possible by costuming, and the ways that I could make a play out of my gender presentation… without it having anything necessarily to do with my internal sense of self. In other words, I learned who I was — in terms of my sexual and gender identity — by pretending, in a very exaggerated way, to be who I wasn’t…. It wasn’t until I’d tried some things, talked about others, and watched other women perform, that I began to know what kind of performances I wanted to create and how those overlapped and didn’t overlap with the things I wanted to do off camera.”

More specifically, Lee bristled at criticism that the hardcore scenes she chose to participate in were too “extreme” to be feminist. There are many reasons, she writes, that a performer might be drawn to making hardcore content:

“Because we’re interested in pushing our bodies in an athletic sense, or because we want to create a certain kind of performance, or because we believe this kind of imagery is necessary because it more closely approximates our desires. I know that my own on-camera performances didn’t actually become interesting to me, didn’t feel much different from punching a clock, until I began to create performances that felt physically challenging.”

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A third essay that felt particularly insightful was by Jiz Lee, a genderqueer porn performer best known for their work in the Crash Pad Series and a recent appearance on the show Transparent. At one point, Lee, who uses they/them pronouns, thought they might be trans and considered physically transitioning. Starring in porn helped them get comfortable with their gender identity and act as a role model for other queer performers:

“It was within a trans identity that I realized gender is fluid, and that my body, strong in some ways and soft in others, was already perfectly suited for me. It became my canvas for art and sex…. I found it comfortable to explore my femininity in queer porn…. I could look exactly the way I wanted to and others like me would find it sexy. I didn’t have to change a thing.”

Lee bristles at the way that mainstream studios categorize performers, and turns down shoots that expect a “feminine” gender presentation:

“Mainstream porn relies on categories and this naturally involves a lot of assumptions…. My co-stars and I could be perceived many different ways, depending on hairstyle, the lighting, the person clicking the boxes. When am I white? Asian? Lesbian? The labels are quick attempts at descriptions I’m not even sure are useful to a consumer, but it’s fascinating as a performer to be labeled something you’re not, or not completely.

Fortunately, times are changing and indie studios are becoming more open to working with performers who don’t fit into traditional gender roles. More casting calls are open to “all genders” and more performers are willing to work on scenes that aren’t strictly “gay,” “straight,” or “lesbian.”

Lee writes that,

“Being tagged online is not much different than interacting with strangers while walking down the street…. At various times, I’m not sure if I’m being read as something I may or may not be. Queer porn usually doesn’t tag like mainstream porn does, which is why that’s where I feel the most comfortable.”