What I learned at the Feminist Porn Awards

In mid-April, Toronto was host to the 7th Annual Good for Her Feminist Porn Awards. The four-day event included a screening and discussion of Buck Angel's documentary, Sexing the Transman; a film night featuring the work of four feminist directors; the official awards gala hosted by Elvira Kurt; and a sex party to bring the whole thing to a highly appropriate finish.

Among the nominees and winners are films catering to the diverse tastes and pleasures of feminists and queers. After attending the awards, and mulling things over, here's some of what I think I've learned. 

A lot of porn is bad, here's some that's not

First, I found out about some really good porn. Everything I saw (even the straight films) looked good, but here are my picks for this year's must-see feminist skin flicks. Winner for "Most Deliciously Diverse Cast," Courtney Trouble's and Tina Horn's Fuckstyles of the queer and famous (NSFW) delivers on the variety and versatility of queer pleasure.

The "Most Tantalizing Trans Film," Buck Angel's Sexing the Transman (NSFW), is a groundbreaking porn and sex education project that explodes the category of hardcore porn featuring transmasculine actors, and fuels the development of an erotic discourse that includes trans men and their sexualities.

Nenna Joiner, honoured for Hella Brown: Real Sex in the City (NSFW), brought an all-people-of-colour cast to the screen for 2012's "Hottest Dyke Film." The scene screened for the film night showed Brooklyn Skyy and Choclate Chipp engaged in passionate fucking, in front of an open window with the sounds of the city drifting in. There is porn available to fuel just about any queer or feminist fantasy, but those are the ones that most deftly tickled my fancy.

But it wasn't all wet seats and wanking. You probably have to like awards shows in the first place to get the most out of the awards gala. But the film screenings and discussions - critically watching and talking about porn in public - are what really make the Feminist Porn Awards worth seeing. The Awards reflect the potential of public sex to change how we think about both pornography and public space. Public porn and, more generally, public sexuality matter for queers and feminists, especially as we face a new wave of cuts to women's public funding and an ongoing campaign against the very existence of the public.

What is feminist porn?

The first two questions for feminist porn-lovers are what makes it feminist? and what makes it porn?

Some feminist porn looks nothing like 'mainstream' heteronormative porn, but some of it seems to deliver exactly the same images - so how do we know what's the feminist kind? In the scene from Hella Brown I watched at the film screening, I saw safer sex negotiations that would not have made it into mainstream porn. It was quick: in the middle of a scene, Chocolate Chipp stopped the action and said, "I do prefer to use gloves [for fingering]." Brooklyn Skyy apologized, put on a glove, and got back to business.

Whether through feminist scripting ('faking' the negotiation) or through feminist editing (choosing not to cut the 'blooper'), the scene normalizes and eroticizes negotiations of safer sex and consent. As a speaker, Nenna emphasized production and distribution as elements of her feminist practice, and this is an example of how feminist production makes a feminist film.

Perhaps more pressing is the question of what makes the films pornographic. Few feminist porn films deliver the same understanding of what sex is and what it means as in dominant culture. Directors at the film night were asked to explain whether their movies are really porn, or art. Swedish filmmaker Erika Lust suggested that if porn "shows sex," then feminist porn "eroticizes porn." That is, feminist porn ties the display of sex to the bodies and lives of the characters on display. Describing her porn as "story-driven," Erika said she attempts to answer "who are these people and why are they having sex?"

Feminist porn changes the rules about what can register as erotic, as sexual, and as pornographic. It makes evident the gaps in our cultural capacity to narrativize our sexual experiences and fantasies, as well as in our ability to describe the products of that labour.

Inadmissible narratives

Blurring the boundaries between art and porn may do more than just give the filmmakers a chance to pull at the seams of sexual discourse. As Buck describes, porn work is still heavily stigmatized. "The title of porn star is like having a disease," he told the audience at Toronto's Hot Docs Cinema. "Nobody wants 'the man with a pussy' speaking at Yale [...] Don't call yourself a porn star if you want to do anything else." (And in fact Buck received death threats regarding his speaking engagement at Yale.) But for Buck, whose project is as much sex education as pornography, and for others the stories they have to tell are sexual stories.

"I knew kids who wanted to be whores, to be in porn [...] I wanted to own an adult store," Nenna explained. There is little room outside of porn to speak about these kinds of desires: the things we want that we can't admit to, and that can't be admitted into dominant culture. And these are only the tip of the iceberg of queer desires, non-normative and marginal ways of being in the world, inadmissible understandings of self, pleasure and sex.

For Buck, "once I got to start explaining why I push buttons, people realized I had more to say." Feminist porn's blurred boundary between art and pornography can be seen as a kind of survival strategy, a way of opening the door for the supposedly private realm of inadmissible desire to enter the sphere of the public and political.

From a more practical point of view, getting feminist porn to its audience can be a challenge. Asked what she learned, Nenna answered that "distribution and marketing of porn is hard." People of colour are still left behind in access to technology - because it is expensive and because of uneven technology infrastructure and education - and for Nenna, one of the challenges of pornography production has been to make her films accessible to her own community.

"Just to see a cast that's all of African descent is very powerful, but very foreign to queer communities," said Nenna. After the film screening, Nenna and I talked about the attitude of disbelief in porn by and for people - and especially women - of colour. Can porn be healing, if the images of racialized women in porn are predominantly racist? Nenna says that in any porn, race "has to be fetishized to create a fantasy," but the dominant narrative, like any fantasy, is not whole, rational or unquestionable. Feminist anti-racist porn "draws at the soft spots" of those narratives, illuminating the fact that they are not the only ones possible. "I hate to be the only one" making anti-racist, all-people-of-colour films, says Nenna - but someone has to be the first.

"Public sex: I'm for it!" -Elvira Kurt

Watching porn in public is a bit of a different thing from watching it privately for sexual pleasure, but not because sexual pleasure is absent from the experience. Toronto photographer N Maxwell Lander suggested we should "feel free to giggle. It's weird sitting in a room watching porn with other people. You can tell when everybody's turned on because they get quiet." (That's true. Maxwell's winning film had me quiet as a mouse.) It's the ways the public opens porn to critical inquiry, as well as the ways sex changes the constitution of the public, that make it different.

The public event helps to build a community of desire. Unlike the largely-anonymous mainstream porn industry, says Nenna, queer pornographers "stand in front of what we do." Queers' personal and political identities are a part of our sexual and pornographic performances, as creators and as audiences. And performance can be a way of establishing and confirming the existence of queer lives.

As Buck told me, "public sex matters for me because people don't know about guys like myself." Showing sex in public can be sex education at its most fundamental level - making space for knowledge of the existence of sex, the existence of marginalized sexualities.

Nenna told me a public screening can validate and promote good porn - the kind of porn that "needs to be seen to be believed." Public sex "legitimates and adds trust value" to emerging and marginal filmmakers and the narratives they have to share. As Elvira Kurt expanded, "when you're queer, you suppress yourself in all ways. This makes you feel less alone. It's liberating [...] even though I'm not having sex right now, I feel like if I wanted to, I could."

Kurt's on-stage line, retweeted by the in-person audience and those watching the livestream (at least until it was banned by the hosting site for showing obscenity to the public!), captured the spirit of the event: "being in here makes up for the tedium of being out there."

Kurt's statement about what it's like "out there" brings me to my final questions about feminist porn, and the queer and feminist politics behind it. Especially at the awards gala, I had a hard time getting over the divide between the celebratory, protected atmosphere of the renovated Berkeley Church, and the poverty of the Moss Park neighbourhood just a stone's throw away. Of course, I know very little about the neighbourhood, except that to describe it as impoverished is probably too reductive to reflect a community with a diversity of strengths and challenges, and that it is one of a few downtown Toronto neighbourhoods being squeezed from all sides by gentrifying development.

I'm not sure if I would advocate more visible signage or a louder, rowdier outdoor event in this neighbourhood for the Feminist Porn Awards. Keeping it indoors may have been a good decision to avoid being invasive. And it is often just a matter of necessity to make queer spaces separate and protected, so the women and queers using them can feel safe, normal and welcome. But with such a sharp divide between "in here" and "out there," I wonder how much I can really call the event public.

There are a lot of queers still living "out there," including the sex workers being squeezed out of east downtown neighbourhoods in Toronto, for whom the luxury of protected queer spaces is unaffordable. (I certainly couldn't have afforded to attend the awards if they hadn't let me in for free as the media.) And there are a great many more who aren't in major urban centres, who are combating uneven technology infrastructure and anti-sex terms of service to be able to access this kind of community-building.

My intention here isn't to put the responsibility for being everything to everyone on this one event. But what I want from feminist porn, what I love about it and what I want to see more of, is its potential to bring "in here" to "out there." The queer and feminist politics that built feminist porn are all about remaking the personal and private as political and public.

 

Sarah M. is a student in the Master of Arts - Integrated Studies program at Athabasca University, a sex worker, and a sex workers' rights advocate. She watches porn at home, at school, at work, in private, in public, with friends, strangers, her mother, her research supervisor. Sometimes, it even turns her on. Sarah can be contacted at .

 

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