2013, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 55, fall 2013
Reviewed by Erica Rand
Fuck me like I saw it there
Review of The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure. Edited by Tristan Taormino, Constance Penley, Celine Parreñas Shimizu, and Mireille Miller-Young. New York: The Feminist Press, 2013.
I’m one of those people that anti-porn activists warn about. Porn profoundly transformed my life, starting, at least arguably, with a childhood encounter. It depends partly on whether you’d label as “porn” a short passage from a novel if the passage or novel aims for more than sexual arousal. Censorship decisions often rest on such calls, although an abstract principle is largely irrelevant here. I encountered the text, at least conceptually, as a stand-alone sex story when The Godfather passed from desk to desk in my middle school classroom, circa 1970, with the whispered directive “read page 27!”As Susie Bright indicates in her memoir Big Sex Little Death, kids often considered the novel itself insignificant. The friend who slipped it to her—similar age, same era, 2000 miles west— was surprised when Susie wanted to read the rest,
“‘But there’s nothing after page twenty-seven!’” (Bright, 2011, 64).
It also depends on what I took from the scene. Correlation never equals causation but even if it did a lot interrupts the path from the text to my tastes. I remember the scene as the one where some guy [Sonny Corleone] fucked a bridesmaid up against a door until her insides felt like spaghetti. I can connect that to my fondness for certain locations and positions, for being the one in the skirt, for liking sometime to feel it the next day. But the bridesmaid’s thrill in gigantic flesh cocks didn’t transfer, nor a taste for voluminous dresses, nor a desire to be shredded like spaghetti. I didn’t start loving to get fucked until well into an active adult sexual life, by which time a lot had happened that I can confidently label transformative, like encountering butch/femme erotics represented and in person.
Besides, I remember the scene all wrong: the pasta, the people, the circumstances, who started it. The pussy was like overcooked macaroni, not spaghetti, which think I had pictured more al dente as if Sonny’s cock functioned a bit like a cheese grater. The pussy-turned-pasta belonged to Sonny’s wife Sandra, not the bridesmaid Lucy, who had actually orchestrated her own seduction. Having been humiliated but also enlightened in college when her second lover, as unexciting as the first, “had mumbled something about her being ‘too big down there,’” she’d been tantalized by Sandra’s tales of overuse. I don’t remember those details at all, although they grabbed Bright, whose one-sentence summary differs immensely from mine:
“On page twenty-seven, this guy Sonny is seduced by a woman whose vagina is so big that only a gargantuan penis can satisfy her.”
Page 27, which might or might not count as porn, might or might not have turned me into the particular pervert that I am. But porn definitely turned me into the particular scholar that I am: a lapsed art historian turned ethnographer with a pornographer side gig. I was in grad school, learning to derive meanings from objects and contexts, when something in the writings of anti-porn feminists started to nag at me. While I initially considered their arguments compelling, I frequently found myself turned on by the passages cited as evidence that pornography promotes violence against women. I had the same reaction to some of the “Nude Women and Clothed Men In 19th-Century French Art” that I expected to analyze in my dissertation for the paintings' horrendous sexism. I didn’t like the orientalist slaughters that fascinated the painter Delacroix or the naked model sharing a picnic with Manet’s proto-hipster artists. It was those damsels chained to rocks and such: being in their position held a certain appeal.
I could barely admit that to myself, but it also made me think. If I liked such material yet felt secure it would not make me want to perpetrate, condone, or experience violence against women, then perhaps I couldn’t discern porn’s effects on other consumers by its apparent content. The essays in Joanna Russ’s 1985 book Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans, and Perverts further convinced me. Russ, who fantasized about rescuing those damsels (Russ, 31), combined extremely informal consumer/producer study—I’ve got a friend who, I heard about a woman who, I am a woman who, I participate in a community that—with convincing arguments about why we can’t read the meanings or effects of porn from plotlines and surface content.
In one essay, originally written well into the famed feminist sex wars and republished in Jump Cut, Russ also called on feminists to recognize that the intensity and ugliness of the battle over porn both reflected and obscured that the realm of sexuality was “inescapably double” for women: sometimes “ecstatic, autonomous, and lovely”; sometimes “violent, dangerous, and unpleasant” (107). That dual context became even more vivid to me when, like a number of feminist porn enthusiasts eager to see better products, I decided to participate in making them, and joined the founding editorial board of a sex magazine, Salacious, which we bill as queer, feminist, and anti-racist “radically sex positive thought provoking superhot porn.”
As we worked to consensus on each submission, we faced numerous problems and contradictions. What makes queer sex and queer gender visible as such? For example, strap-ons got big play. Hot, yes, but strap-on after strap-on can get a little cock-centric. How can BDSM porn interrupt sexism and racism? Casting the dominated as tops hardly served everyone we want to please, and it’s not as if dark-skinned vixens having their way with white people have no place in lexicons of bigotry anyway. So many decisions have politics: Oxford comma: clarity or elitism? Super-lush detail: queerly florid or tediously distracting? Precarious body position x, y, or z: ill-considered choreography, deliciously controlled scariness, or the would-be contributor’s disinterest in meaningful consent? Messy submissions: lazy entitlement or an opportunity to mentor someone ill-served by under-funded public education and privatized opportunities to train in visual production? “Cougar”: merely distasteful to me or despicably ageist crap—and should my argument for the latter get a little extra weight if I’m the only editor old enough to be called one?Performing, thinking, writing
Feminist porn, write the editors of The Feminist Porn Book, takes on just those problems and contradictions: “[Using] sexually explicit imagery to contest and complicate dominant representations” feminist porn
“explores concepts of desire, agency, power, beauty, and pleasure at their most confounding and difficult, including pleasure with and across inequality, in the face of injustice, and against the limits of gender hierarchy and both heteronormativity and homonormativity” (9-10).
Feminist pornographers also work to reshape labor norms:
“they strive to create a fair, safe, ethical, consensual work environment and often create imagery through collaboration with their subjects.”
Some people, of course, including some feminists, believe that no authentically feminist relation to porn exists other than to condemn it, to disabuse its deluded apologists, and to rescue its victims. So a feminist book about feminist porn—a Feminist Porn Book and Feminist Porn Book—must also argue, directly or indirectly, that there can be such a thing as feminist porn and such a person as a feminist pornographer. The Feminist Porn Book’s convincing success at doing so depends partly on one of its greatest strengths: the inclusion of essays by both practitioners and scholars. I do not mean here to separate the practitioners from the people who write or study by trade. Some contributors do two or more of those. Nor do I intend to imply that the practitioners tell stories that the academics analyze. All the writers offer theorized, analytic reflection and many of the scholars reflect on their own relationships to porn. The result is a richly detailed look at feminist porn grounded in diverse personal involvements and critical perspectives.The angel is in the details
One of my favorite aspects of the book is the way that interesting tidbits ground insightful elaborations of history, memory, insight, and advice. Betty Dodson, famed early champion of female orgasm, pleasure, and masturbation, remembers crashing a Women Against Pornography conference. She and her co-crasher, both decked out as (unwelcome) leather dykes, interpreted the fancy sound system and fliers, far different than the usual low-budget feminist mimeographs, to signal secret right-wing funding (27) and not so secret unfortunate bedfellows.
Sinnamon Love, “Retired Hall of Fame Adult Film Star, Radio Personality, Writer, Feminist, Mother & Educator” as she describes herself on her website, points out that the practice of giving Black and Latina women stage names based on food, exotic countries and cars—Sinnamon, India, Mercedes—makes it harder for them than white Jennas or Brittanys to move beyond a porn market later (101). She also explains that the ability to work in accordance with her values depended on developing both political consciousness and economic savvy:
“Today, I make distinctions based on socially conscious thought rather than the fantasy of sexual exploration [one early motivator for her] and the reality of economics. . . . I learned to diversify my income streams, which makes it easier to decline work that I feel goes against my core values and political beliefs” (103).
Performer Jiz Lee describes the joys of coming to the identity “genderqueer” after considering female, male, or transgender—“What a discovery to find that gender could be a tool, even a sex toy!” She explains how context and control affect her relation to gender markers like body hair. Lee, who writes “I found it comfortable to explore my femininity in queer porn,” sometimes chose to shave for queer films, but refused a shoot for a mainstream porn producer upon being told to shave “everything”:
From different angles
“[H]ere we see cisgender pressures based on my perceived female presentation for (queer-phobic) male consumers; these companies want me to look more like a woman” (276-77).
The mix of contributors also sometimes productively brings different approaches to the same material or phenomenon. In one essay, Tristan Taormino suggests criteria for making feminist porn based on her own experience as a producer. They range from nutritious snacks on the set to having performers choose their acts, partners, and toys, “all based on their actual sexuality”:
“When the sex on screen represent the experience of the performers (no one is ‘faking’ anything) and that experience is set up to be positive and supportive, sex is presented as joyful, fun, safe, and mutually satisfying” (260-61).
In another essay, Celine Parreñas Shimizu evaluates the race politics of a scene in Taormino’s Rough Sex 3: Adrianna’s Dangerous Mind, especially regarding Keni Styles, the one Asian actor among the four men fucking the white Adrianna in a locker room. Noting that his lack of face-to-face intimacy with Adrianna and limited fuck time might, in one reading, conform to stereotypes about Asian men (Parreñas Shimizu), she concludes that “feminist porn is not a utopian site for representations of race” (301).
Another example: two essays discuss insights gleaned about contorted positions that often appear in porn. In “Pornography: A Black Feminist Scholar’s Reconciliation,” Ariane Cruz recounts that studying porn contributed to her ambivalence about it when she started to recognize that some less-than-satisfying features of her own sex life featured also in the “visual and physical lexicon” of mainstream porn, including
“crazy positions that require ample physical dexterity and produce a high visual impact yet yield a low return on pleasure” (216).
In “Fucking Feminism,” Dylan Ryan describes the “‘aha’ moment” during her first porn shoot when she realized that porn had contorted positions for the sake of the camera. The shoot was for Shine Louise Houston’s movie The Crash Pad, which initiated the widely praised Crash Pad series, and Ryan’s account of what the shoot looked like in retrospect also gives a feel for the work atmosphere:
“I have watched the outtakes and behind the scenes . . . many times. Each time I am struck by how much hilarity there was. We, the performers, were naked, brand new to porn, and trying our best to be sexy, yet we were angling arms and legs behind heads and up on apple boxes, feet being held off camera by a production assistant who was trying not to laugh” (124).
These multiple, overlapping takes on porn show what feminist porn is, can be, and isn’t yet. Acting in feminist porn can enable you to explore and expand your own sexuality. April Flores (Figures 15 and 16), also the first person acting in BBW (Big Beautiful Woman) porn to have a sex toy cast from her vagina, writes that the “powerful, consensual experiences took place in safe, controlled environments,” allowing her to explore her own fantasies and discover that her sexuality did not depend on the gender of her partner as she had previously thought (281). Feminist porn’s feminist agenda depends on context at every stage including production and selling, as Lynn Comella documents in her essay, and also viewing. Ingrid Ryberg discusses a situation in which the friend sitting next to her in a theater had a fundamentally different experience because of an unwelcome stranger overreaching the friend’s armrest (146). Even feminist and queer porn can be “Where the Trans Women Aren’t” or aren’t much, even when trans men seem to abound. Tobi Hill-Meyer writes of being happily surprised once performing for The Crash Pad Series to learn that that the casting coordinator hoped to involve more trans women but also notes that neither history nor outreach advertised this interest:
“Unless it is explicitly stated—and not just in the small print—it’s not unreasonable for potential models or audiences to wonder if trans women are actually welcome and included as equals” (162; figure 19).
The essays also model, separately and in conversation, an interest in balance, research, and evidence that stands out in an arena of debate where those have sometimes been in short supply. Anti-porn activism has long had a reputation for shoddy research. As Patrick Califia pointed out when the Meese Commission Report on Pornography appeared in 1986, even the sociologist the Commission hired to review extant studies, Edna Ensiedel, could not find convincing support for the Commission’s claims that pornography directly causes harm (Califia, 100). (A fascinating tidbit from Ensiedel’s report concerns researchers’ attempts to protect supposedly vulnerable populations during experiment design. One study excluded sexually inexperienced females based on previous work suggesting that after watching sexually explicit material “their sexual anxiety decreased and their expectations about engaging in sexual intercourse increased” (Ensiedel, 269). Apparently that was a problem.) Today, according to Clarissa Smith and Feona Attwood in their contribution to The Feminist Porn Book,
“anti-porn feminism is increasingly rejecting academic terrains of analysis and debate in favor of appeals to common sense and emotional intelligence, precisely because this is the ground on which their arguments find most fertile purchase” (47).
Fans and defenders of porn have needed more to go on, too. A dissent written by two of the four women on the Meese Commission—who also joined with a third to protest “judgmental and condescending efforts to speak on women's behalf as though they were helpless, mindless children” (Becker, Levine, Tilton-Durfee, 194)—hypothesized that the stigmatization of liking porn contributed to keeping happy, undamaged representatives from “millions of apparently satisfied consumers” from coming forward (Becker and Levine, 196). Now there exists much easier access to porn, more visibility of some satisfied customers, and seeming less stigmatization for consuming some of it. On the “Fifty Shades of Katie” episode of her daytime talk show, Katie Couric projected nonjudgmentalism (albeit of the giddily clueless “oh how interesting, exotic animals with strange habits in the zoo” sort) when she interviewed author E. L. James and the presented-as-ordinary audience members ready to tell the world about how James’ ubiquitous Fifty Shades of Grey spiced up their marriage and whatnot (CBS, 17 September 2012).
Yet, as with any complex body of material wide-ranging in production, medium, content, and audience, so much remains to learn. This is partly, I would argue, because how porn (or any cultural product really) influences consumers remains hard to access, maybe fundamentally unknowable, at least in terms of any formula or decoder ring that could translate representations into meanings into beliefs, desires, or actions.
Even my sample size of two yielded vastly different accounts of what even happened on page 27, despite also yielding by happenstance a longitudinal view with nicely spaced data points indicating that Bright and I developed some similar erotic tastes. In the early 1990s, as a consumer of the writing that Bright discusses in the Feminist Porn volume, I learned that the fifteen lesbian stories that she “simply would not exist on a desert island without” included many of my favorites (Bright, 1990). In 2009, visiting my neighbors, Bright sketched out a lovely fantasy birthday fuck for me that retains a recurring place in my erotic life.
Add to divergent readings that might not reflect divergent take-aways the vagaries of memory both immediately and later. Add in that people deliver accounts cued to various purposes and perceived audiences, whether they are answering a survey or offering up an unsolicited anecdote. Add that, as Joan Scott importantly emphasizes, people’s accounts of their experiences are never raw data but always their interpretations requiring our interpretations. Add, too, the political imperative of bringing to attention what is nonsimplistic about sex, representation, and pleasure and the contribution of The Feminist Porn Book, which build on important literature that the editors discuss in their introductions (13), stands out all the more.
Of my two small critiques, one relates to the caution about mistaking experience for pre-interpreted data. In distinguishing mainstream porn requiring actors to perform acts that they might not enjoy from feminist porn attentive to the performers’ own interests, a number of essays advance a notion of sex in the latter as authentic, true, and real that risks obscuring the more complicated relations between sexuality and representation. As other essays, and usually those same essays, indicate, people develop and recognize even identities, pleasures, and practices that feel inherent in relation to external influences—influences including, sometimes, watching or performing in porn.
My second critique concerns the organization, specifically the placement together at the end the book of the essays in the section “Now Playing: Feminist Porn.” The book’s introduction explains that the essays explore
“questions of hypercorporeality, genderqueerness, transfemininity, feminized masculinity, transgressive racial performance, and disability.”
That they do and extremely well. But reading a sequence of essays each focusing on, and usually written by, a person representing one of those characteristics, reminded me of syllabi revised to reflect changing canons by adding “diversity” to the last few weeks. I had to look back to reconfirm to myself that, in fact, the book does not defer those questions. Quite to the contrary, anyone who reads the book cover to cover will have been well prepared by previous writers to continue thinking about them at the end. Individually, and taken together, the essays in The Feminist Porn Book offer multidimensional and accessible approaches to porn that point readers to important issues, to key players, and, happily, to hot material.
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Becker, Judith and Ellen Levine, “Statement of Dr. Judith Becker and Ellen Levine” in Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography (Meese Commission Report). Vol. 1, Part 1, Section 3: Individual Commissioner Statements. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, 1986.
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The Crash Pad (2006) and The Crash Pad Series (2008 through the present). Produced and directed by Shine Louise Houston. San Francisco, CA. Pink and White Productions. DVD and web.
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Russ, Joanna. Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts: Feminist Essays.
Trumansburg: The Crossing Press, 1985.
Scott, Joan W. “The Evidence of Experience.” Critical Inquiry 17 (1991):773-797.
Stone, Thomas E. “Page Citation, the Book vs. the Electronic Book. The Godfather, page 27.” The Books in my Life (blog), February 16, 2011. http://www.thebooksinmylife.com/2011/02/page-citation-book-vs-electronic-book.html.
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