Feminist Porn: Re-imagining Parameters of Sex and Sexuality

In the early 20th century tucked away inside the waiting rooms of French brothels, the first pornographic films ever made began to be screened. Shot in black and white, these films were designed to excite clients before meeting with women, presumably making the sex workers’ jobs go quicker. Featuring naked men pretending to be fawns for women to gigglingly tickle or waitresses serving up sexually erotic food before joining patrons for ‘dessert’, (1) these films overwhelm viewers with a sense of the natural.

Participants laugh, frown, chatter and smile their way through filming, and it seems, believe it or not, that they actually enjoy sleeping with each other! Lacking the contrived shrieks from perfectly painted mouths that seem to be littered all over modern-day porn, these early vintage films feature, above all else, a genuine sense of pleasure.

But vintage is passé unless it comes to clothes, and with newer and better technology creating hyper-real sex scenes of everything you could (or couldn’t) imagine, these black and white moments of erotica, where sex was witty and fun, are relegated to the dustbins of history.

Or are they?

What is feminist porn?

Picture this scene: a curly haired woman shot in black and white lies on a bed in her underwear. You hear the voice of a man, talking to her. You think, “Yeah, I know where this goes”. But unexpectedly, she bursts out laughing, giggling into her hands. The camera zooms into her face. We look at her face for a long time, through the eyes of the man who is looking at her. She smiles, she pouts, she talks. It’s beautiful, it’s well-acted, and it’s sexy.

Suddenly, the scene changes so we see the whole room in colour: a woman on the bed, and a naked-from-the waist-up man smiling down towards the camera he holds, gently directing her. His smile is real (and as we later learn, so is his penis size).

This is the opening scene to award-winning director Candida Royalle’s porn film “Under The Covers”. Featuring a series of erotic encounters, this feature length porn production transports us back to the days of vintage porn, except this time around, the film quality looks like it belongs in a modern day cinema hall.

Welcome to feminist pornography. And no, if the description above was not clear enough: it’s not “porn for women”.

Started unofficially during the “feminist sex wars”:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feminist_Sex_Wars of the 1980s — debates that split feminists into pro-sex and anti-porn/ prostitution groups — feminist pornography has its roots in both lesbian porn and porn for couples. However, its reach is far wider. Although there’s no standard definition for it, feminist porn generally responds to how sex is represented and experienced in mainstream (pornographic) culture: gender-unequal, contrived and something that puts profit and size way above pleasure and rights. If you were ever a little worried by how every guy in a regular porn film maintains a superhuman erection and every woman gets an orgasm at least five times during a single sex scene, feminist porn rids itself of the expectations around sex that mainstream porn tends to both create and entrench. Penises are of different sizes and shapes, as are breasts and legs and bodies. Participants vary across race, class, gender, (dis)ability, age and cultures, and tend to be represented as full human beings; as way more than the sum of their body parts.

And before you begin to think that this all sounds a little stale and boring, consider that with the saturation of mainstream pornography across the Internet, the element of excitement, of the new, is almost entirely missing.

In her book “One Dimensional Woman”, Nina Power writes, “Contemporary pornography has more categories than there are dirty thoughts in the world, and yet it fails in one crucial respect – it can no longer surprise. You could be into women who look like cats who specialise in shaving biscuits whilst bouncing up and down on trampolines, and there’d probably be a website that could cater to your needs, but once you’ve seen a couple of cat-women shaving biscuits whilst bouncing on trampolines surely you’ve seen them all“. (2)

The saying, “If you can imagine it, it’s on the Internet” is nowhere truer than in the online porn industry.

Feminist porn and fair labour

In a bid to re-establish the rules around which porn was made — perhaps harking back to those first black and white French film strips made at a time when there were no rules — various film-makers of all genders sought to carve out new spaces of erotica, putting pleasure at the heart of their pursuits. In their anthology “The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure”, editors Shimizu, Miller-Young, Penley and Taormino say of feminist pornography: It seeks to unsettle conventional definitions of sex, and expand the language of sex as an erotic activity, an expression of identity, a power exchange, a cultural commodity, and even a new politics. (3) In this way, and contrary to many commonplace notions about feminism and sex, feminist pornography becomes the site for re-imagining the parameters of sex and sexuality.

Some of the problems with a lot of mainstream pornography centre on the fact that it exists within murky areas of legality with practically no regulations governing its production. What often tends to happen is that the labour rights of porn actors and actresses are ignored. As there is still a lot of shame around the idea of people, especially women, using their sexuality or having sex to make money, many people within the industry find it difficult to publicly advocate for fairer working conditions. As a result, and despite the fact that porn is a multi-billion dollar global industry, staffers may find themselves underpaid and subject to unsafe, potentially violent working conditions.

Therefore, one of the central tenets of the making of feminist pornography is a commitment to fair treatment, pay and labour rights. A lot of feminist porn is made through a collaborative process with porn actors and actresses, where the environment in which they work is safe and consensual. This mode of working has a hugely positive outcome on the final product, say many feminist porn film-makers. Writes porn director Tristan Taormino on her website Pucker Up, “I like to collaborate with performers on how their sexuality is represented, rather than giving them a script or formula to follow… they choose who they have sex with, the positions they get in, the sex toys, barriers, and lube they use – all based on what feels good to them, all based on their actual sexuality”. So if you’re looking for porn where a scream of pleasure is actually pleasurable, you’ve come to the right place.

The future

The idea of feminist porn is new for many of us, especially when we live in parts of the world where pornography itself is deemed illegal or morally questionable. It is, however, a steadily growing area of film-making, and this year saw the first Annual Feminist Porn Conference in Toronto. The Feminist Porn Awards, established in 2006, were also a crucial step towards recognising people working in the area of sexy, well-paid and gender-equal erotica.

If you’re still thinking, “But regular porn gets the job done, doesn’t it?”, well, you’re not entirely mistaken. But if sex is only a job to be done, it’s possible that we have forgotten why we were here in the first place. As Nina Power poignantly writes, “Contemporary pornography informs us of one thing above all else: sex is a type of work, just like any other… Almost any genre and type of sexual taste is catered for, just so long as you aren’t looking for anything as recherché as sweetness or wit”. (4) Feminist porn takes us back to a time when the rules of pornography weren’t solidified in a bigger-is-better approach, and puts pleasure at the heart of its politics.

Still not convinced?

Want to know more?

The next post in this series will look at some myths and facts surrounding feminist pornography.

Image: A still from silent hardcore porn film “Mousquetaire Au Restaurant” (Musketeer Restaurant) shot in 1920. It is one of 300 films compiled into The Good Old Naughty Days (French title: Polissons et Galipettes). Via film archive at the Wikimedia Commons.


(1) Scenes from “The Good Old Naughty Days”, a collection of 12 French pornographic movies made between 1905 and 1930 and curated by Michael Reihlac. As cited in Power, Nina. One Dimensional Woman. Winchester: O Books, 2009

(2) Ibid. pp 54-5

(3) Tristan Taormino, Celine Parreñas Shimizu, Constance Penley and Mireille Miller-Young, The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure, New York: The Feminist Press, 2013), pp 9-10.

(4) Power, Nina. One Dimensional Woman. Winchester: O Books, 2009. p 55


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