Sex Ed(itorial): Does Feminist Porn Have a Place in the Mainstream?

Here Cum the Girls!

  • Graphic Katharine Amyotte

“FUN FRIDAYS: FREE ENTRANCE FOR THE LADIES”, read the sign outside Cinéma L’Amour, Montreal’s most notorious adult film theatre.

“We should go!” said my friend, turning to me.

Having just arrived in Montreal that June, the two of us had rented a room in the Plateau and were looking for cheap things to do in the city. Cinéma L’Amour was local and free, so why not check it out?

I’d never been inside an adult entertainment venue before. Emboldened by a few Boréales and the chance to see hot people having hot sex, I followed my friend inside.

We went through the dark and sumptuous 100 year-old theatre and took our places on a couple of stained red seats in an area cordoned off for “women only.”

Soon we heard footsteps approaching, and through the dark I could make out a crowd forming. Far from attracting many ladies, the “FUN FRIDAYS” audience seemed to be made up exclusively of (older) men, who had now surrounded us on all sides and were watching us intently. When the film started and all attention shifted to the screen, I let out a sigh of relief.

I had high expectations for my first big screen adult flick, but Too Cute For Porn was a lackluster C-grade tack: a childlike actress had been paired with a huge, hairy, and much older male lead, who wasted no time in pulling down his briefs and waving his colossal dick in her face.

The film progressed from blowjob to doggy style to extreme close ups of penetration shots and a well-waxed asshole. The actress’s baby voice commentary and ludicrously over the top groans were annoying and downright unbelievable. “This is so fake,” I whispered to my friend, who nodded in agreement.

It was clear that we weren’t the target audience for the male fantasies being projected on screen. As my friend and I sat there giggling at the pantomime squirting and the actor’s seemingly endless supply of semen, the rest of the audience was stirring restlessly. Men were pacing about, changing seats. There was the unmistakable sound of belt buckles opening around us and tissues rustling. And then, no one was looking at the screen anymore; all eyes were fixed back on us.

A toothless man in the front row caught my eye and licked his lips. At that moment I realized with horror why all women go for free: we were the real entertainment, the “FUN” in the “FRIDAY,” the sacrificial lambs served up at the altar of this masturbation chamber.

By the time we decided to call it a night and had made our hasty retreat out of that dark room full of must and X-rated mystery, I was feeling short changed. Its doors may have been open to women, but the content and community that the porn theatre caters for is almost entirely male.

Cinéma L’Amour, like the porn industry at large, is a world where the judgements and pleasures of men are prioritized. To bring in Laura Mulvey’s well-trodden concept, mainstream porn is a space where women are transformed into sexual objects for “the male gaze”—they are there purely to be “looked at and displayed.”

As the target of this gaze, I certainly hadn’t been aroused and was strangely jealous of those men whose desires had been so well provided for. It was hard to imagine a room full of women watching porn together and getting off on it in the same way.

But then the unimaginable happened—or almost. Fast forward to December and I found myself with the same friend in a tiny and equally dark basement cinema in London. This time we were surrounded by women in their twenties and we were about to watch… feminist porn! The five short films that were being screened were part of a launch party for UK based feminist magazine Ladybeard, programmed by event directors Ellen Pearson and Annabelle Phillips.

The Facebook description promised that the erotic films were “sure to get you nice and hot.” I was willing to give porn a second chance. After the cis, air-brushed, penetrative version of industry standard sex I had seen at Cinéma L’Amour, I was curious to see how these films would be different. What would they look like? Would they turn me on? And most importantly, what made them “feminist?”

The first film, Pouring Pleasures, was part of the XConfessions series by Swedish writer, director, and producer Erika Lust. It answered some of my questions.

Lina and Ramon have energetic, erotic, and fiercely passionate sex in the rain, and it is truly steamy. Think The Notebook, except hornier, wetter, and set in Spain.

The film at Cinéma L’Amour had featured very little foreplay, no emotional connection between the actors, and kept cutting away whenever the actress looked on the point of climax. In Lust’s film, however, all these details were considered.

The all-female audience seemed to approve. I could almost hear the collective nodding of fifty heads when Ramon went down on Lina before she went down on him. Most strikingly, the woman was the central character and her pleasure was not only depicted as important, but real and brought about by real agency.

As Lust told The Guardian in an interview, “In mainstream porn everything is about male pleasure and women are objects. Oral sex for men can last forever. […] Female orgasms are not an issue in most of the films.”

Indeed, research shows that only 18.3 per cent of women, compared to 78 per cent of men, were shown reaching orgasm in a study of online pornography. (Orgasm inequality is real, ladies!) Lust’s project not only addresses this imbalance but tries actively to create porn made for women, by women, that will change the dominant discourse.

The second film to be shown was Shine Louise Houston’s CrashPadSeries. The series revolves around a fictitious secret apartment in San Francisco where its guests engage in hot, queer sex. Jiz Lee, a genderqueer performer in San Francisco, takes us behind the scenes of a shoot.

The film shows sexy, intimate, and oftentimes tender scenes that expose the complexities of queer sexual desire, with the cast reflecting today’s blurred gender lines and fluid sexualities. In fact, the actors having fun in the apartment looked a lot more like the women who sat around me than any I’d seen before in porn.

While Lust’s XConfessions films are crowdsourced fantasies based on what we want as female consumers, the CrashPadSeries puts a greater emphasis on the production side of porn. It stresses transparency in the production process as well as collaboration. Performers choose what they want to do on camera so it’s common to see things like safe sex, role-play with onscreen check-ins, and communication, strap-ons, kink, BDSM, and aftercare.

This is not only feminist, but consciously “ethical porn”—like eating organic, if you will. It demands that you think more about what goes on behind the camera.

The CrashPadSeries website features sections which disclose its rules on performer agency and consent, sexual health, and equal pay regardless of gender, porn experience, how naked you want to get, or what kind of sex you choose to do on set. At a time when inequalities in the porn industry mirror those elsewhere—women of colour in porn are paid half to three-quarters of what their white counterparts make—new models of inclusivity and representation in the production as well as consumption of adult films are more important than ever.

Then there were the aesthetically more focused films like In Bloom by Sophie Malpas and Adam by Evelyn Ross, both of which depicted innovative bodily aesthetics through animation.

Finally, the screening ended with Walerian Borowczyk’s Immoral Tales. Its perverse, incest-heavy, dreamlike sequences spoke most to my own experience of discovering erotica as a teen (I was an avid, if at times confused, reader of Anaïs Nin).

This film, however, was by a male director, which got me thinking whether or not feminist porn can only be made by women. Is it ultimately the audience who determines the interpretive value of a film? Does watching pornography in an all-female space immediately render it a “feminist” act? And does the creation of a safe space for feminist-identified consumers necessarily allow them to actively explore sexual practices and develop sexual subjectivity?

Just like feminism itself, I realized that applying a one-size-fits-all definition to “feminist porn” wasn’t helpful. It includes all types and tastes and the internet seems to be opening these up further. The numbers are showing that people are more interested than ever before in “porn for women,” making this the top trending search throughout 2017 on Pornhub (along with fidget spinners, hentai, Rick and Morty, and British amateur dogging).

In this climate of curiosity and increased choice, DIY online eroticism like the CrashPadSeries is taking off, while sites like Bellesa.co, a Montreal based site specifically for “porn for women” are becoming increasingly popular.

Porn does not have to be a cause or symptom of a wider culture of misogyny; in fact, it can be at once part of, and a robust challenge to, mainstream representations of sex. Feminist porn culture emphasizes alternative body type tolerance, amorphous queer sexuality, interesting art works, and visions of straight, queer, and non-binary sexual activism.

While you may be unlikely to see female friendly versions of Cinéma L’Amour opening in high streets near you, the feminist and indie porn industry is growing bigger than ever and demanding at least a cyber space in which ethically made and consent-based porn can flourish.

Correction: A previous iteration of this article stated that CrashPadSeries is directed by Jiz Lee, and that Lee is from Toronto. In fact, the series is directed by Shine Louise Houston and Lee is from San Francisco. The Link regrets these errors.

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