Culture & Conversation Media

How Feminist Porn Is Traversing the Mainstream

S. Nicole Lane

Porn is powerful, but mainstream porn can often exploit and ignore ethical values. Now, a new wave of feminist porn, following in the footsteps of 1980s trailblazers, is serving as the lodestar for consent—for representing safe, communicative sex.

Pornography and erotic film is a $25 billion industry that accounts for 30 percent of internet traffic. Because of its popularity, porn plays a vital role in shaping, and reshaping, culture. Porn acts as a means of sex education. For some, it is a vehicle for exemplifying what it means to have sex and what it means to be intimate.

Mainstream porn is a capitalist industry, meaning that exploitative measures are bound to exist, especially in precarious and vulnerable situations. But where mainstream pornography often ignores ethical values, feminist pornography aims to assure that everyone on set is consensually—and prosperously—involved in the scene.

Feminist porn unites sex-positive people through complex, visually astounding films in the form and genre of smart pornography. It also typically involves respect, proper pay, communication, safety, and consent for performers.

Erika Lust, a Swedish director, producer, and screenwriter, and her production company Lust Films are leading the way in producing feminist porn. For Lust, it’s important that women see their desires being met onscreen. “The most important message is that female pleasure matters,” Lust told Rewire. “Not because male pleasure doesn’t matter; it does too! It is because we’ve been watching for decades a type of porn that completely ignores women’s sexuality. I want to represent women who assert sexual agency, I want women to feel positive after they’ve seen my films.”

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The Early Days of Feminist Porn

Feminist pornography began in the 1980s, around the time when porn stars like Candice Vadala decided to make their own films. Vadala founded in 1984 Femme Productions, a production company that aimed to have safer sex environments and granted women control on set. Vadala contracted other women who were interested in directing, but the rest of the porn industry was appalled by her cinematic approach.

Still, Vadala was a leader in ethical, and feminist, pornography. She wrote on her website that her films were, “more about the quality of the sex rather than how outrageous and violating it can be.”

The 1980s largely ignored feminist pornography, however. The Video Home System (VHS) contributed to easy and accessible porn shot on a very low budget. Renting or buying porn, instead of going to a theater, flipped the porn industry upside down—porn could now be found in the “comfort of their homes,” Lust pointed out.

Because of the technological boom in the ‘80s, porn’s cinematography suffered a great loss from the 1970s aesthetic, or the “golden age” of porn. Unfortunately, this has continued to the present day, where Lust noted, “The mainstream industry has downgraded the artistic potential of the genre itself and I have never understood why. Why do we have to watch sex on screen with zero cinematic values? Sex is key in our lives, it is the source of life. Why is it treated that way then? Why do we neglect the quality of the story, the cinematography and the narrative? Mainstream porn is more about gymnastics now.”

The decline of compelling cinematography, storylines, and plots, and domination of overt racism and sexism, have monopolized porn. Lust explained to Rewire, “It is a problem because this behavior is normalized by its ubiquity and suggests to the viewer that it can be repeated in real life.”

A feminist vision is still needed in mainstream porn. Pornhub, the leading website for watching online pornography, reports that 61 percent of its users are watching on their smartphones, rather than on their desktops. The screens, and budgets, for porn continue to grow smaller as companies such as Lust Films forge their way into the field.

This isn’t to say feminist pornography isn’t on the rise overall. The Feminist Porn Awards, platforms like QueerPorn.tv, and performers like Chelsea Poe are continuing the dialogue about ethical porn, which was something that was just beginning in the ‘80s.

Feminst Porn Versus Mainstream Porn

Porn can serve as the lodestar for consent—for representing safe, communicative sex. Instead, mainstream porn is often representing scenes that encourage violence. A 2010 study found that 88 percent of the most popular porn videos included physical aggression and 48 percent of the videos included verbal aggression. Erika Lust explained that, “Too many times in porn, you see the woman being used as just a prop, a passive object that is acted upon.”

The study also discovered that in 94 percent of the scenes, most of the aggression was directed toward women. Moreover, young adults are exposed to erotica and porn as young as 10 years old—and many believe that what happens in porn is realistic.

Feminist porn does not eradicate violent fantasy, aural play, and bondage. In fact, it celebrates and encourages individuals to radically traverse their fantasies and indulge in them, explore them, and legitimately defend them. Feminist porn does not dismantle fantasy. Actresses are hog-tied; they can be submissive. Annie Sprinkle, the author of Hardcore From the Heart: The Pleasures, Profits, and Politics of Sex in Performance, said, “Sex doesn’t always look politically correct.”

So, what makes feminist porn different from mainstream porn? The performers typically choose their scenes. It is important to note that mainstream porn is often non-unionized and without benefits, which creates ground for exploitation.

Erika Lust explained that her production company provides an environmentally, emotionally, and physically safe space for everyone involved in production. She said, “Ethical porn is adult cinema that [is] guaranteed to have been made with the consent of all parties involved. In ethical porn, boundaries and personal limits are respected. This environment emphasizes safety and mutual respect.”

Feminist films also “make sure women are behind the camera and get to make active decisions about how it is produced and presented.” Lust explained that feminist sex scenes represent, “female sexuality, pleasure, and desires.”

Of course, feminists are not a monolith. The question of whether porn can even be feminist is still argued among differing groups of feminists. Anti-porn feminists, for example, believe that sex work and pornography is harmful, while pro-sex feminists see it as a person’s right to choose. Meanwhile, many feminists, who largely agree that mainstream porn is problematic in production and direction, believe that there is a gray area in between.

The subjective gray area of sexual fantasy—for example, rape fantasy—can even represent a feminist dilemma for the viewer.

The Feminist Porn Book reminds us, “In the midst of this dilemma, I think it is important to point out that porn is still a form of entertainment.”

“Feminist Erotic Heterotopia”

Celine Parreñas Shimizu, a Department of Cinema Studies professor at San Francisco State University, said that feminist pornography “opens up who and how we love and lust; opens up the ways we experience and understand our bodies.”

To that point, feminist pornography includes a variety of bodies, identities, abilities, and orientations, creating a challenge for mainstream porn to meet in standards of inclusiveness. “The more diversity there is in pornography, the more perspectives, the more the viewer can see there are other realities and open their minds to the huge range of different sexualities and identities out there,” said Lust.

Lust’s XConfessions, which Lust started in 2013, is a component of her production company where viewers can pitch ideas and stories for what they want to see in an erotic film. Each month, Lust picks two of her followers’ stories and turns them into erotic short films. “I have a commitment to diversity, so having a lot of different perspectives is priceless. They inspire me! It’s when the stories hold something really unique that they intrigue me and make me explore a kink that I have never even thought about,” said Lust about the project.

Released today, XConfessions Vol. 11 includes Lust Film’s first trans actress.

Porn is powerful. As Lust explained, it has the power “to make a statement, an idea, to express ideologies and values, and also opinions about sex and gender.” Porn’s power involves the boundless ability to say, “this makes me feel good,” and “move this way to achieve pleasure,” and “my god, remember foreplay.” Porn shapes erotic tastes.

Feminist pornography is heterotopia, a space where sexual exploration is demystified and celebrated. A feminist erotic heterotopia offers perspectives that extend beyond the viewer’s immediate gaze and on to the physical set of the film. It advocates for diversity within orientation, agency, ability, race, and size.

Like Naomi Wolf said in her highly criticized book, Vagina: A New Biography, “Porn puts people to sleep, conceptually and politically as well as erotically.”

Erika Lust is here to disrupt that assumption.

“I am aiming for the overall change in the adult industry to be made where there are more images of women owning their own pleasure and taking control of their sexuality,” said Lust.

Contemporary feminist erotic producers, photographers, directors, and performers are challenging mainstream media and introducing an image that isn’t entirely new—as Vadala’s legendary path proved in the 1980s—but is disseminating the power of sex, and the power of safe and enjoyable sex.

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