By David Rosen / Alternet
The 8th annual Feminist Porn Awards, held in Toronto, April 4 to 6, were organized by Good for Her, a Toronto-based, women-orientated, sex paraphernalia store. Some 110 programs were submitted for such categories as Golden Beaver (Canadian content) and Smutty Schoolteacher (sex-ed).
When Carlyle Jansen started Good For Her in 1997, there were a very limited number of porn videos that appealed to her customers. “There was a narrow selection of videos, in particular those highlighting people of color, gays and lesbians, transsexuals and women with a variety of body types and desires,” she recalls.
The Feminist Porn Awards (FPA) grew out of discussions among the company’s employees to host an event that would acknowledge and celebrate diverse ways to sexually represent people, particularly women. Jansen noted that her customers wanted porn they could identify with. “They wanted movies, high-quality productions,” she said, “that did not feel degrading, were not misogynistic and turned them on rather than off.”
The FPA was launched in 2006 and has grown ever since; it’s now a two-night event that includes a separate, more academic conference organized by activist and educator Tristan Taormino.
Jansen readily acknowledges that much of conventional porn is degrading toward women and that sex trafficking can happen in the industry, but she believes sweeping generalizations about the industry are unfounded. With feminist porn, which she says is a “small but growing market,” she notes that “women with larger bodies are not fetishized and people of color are not stereotyped.”
“The growth is due, in part, to the drop in the cost of production,” she says. High-performance cameras are more affordable, editing systems are cheaper and easier to use and online distribution is a game changer.”
She believes that feminist porn has an often-unacknowledged aspect: education. She notes that feminist porn shows viewers how to enhance their lovemaking, how to communicate in the moment and “how to put on a condom without breaking the flow.”
Jansen says that feminist porn is based on three key factors: choice, diversity and respect. “Choice,” she argues, “is about personal preference, which safe-sex practices are used, with whom they want to perform, and sometimes even the food on the set.”
“Diversity,” she points out, “is an acknowledgment that every female actor is not a skinny white woman and male actors are not only guys with rock-hard penises. It also expands the types of desires and expressions on film beyond the stereotypes.”
And respect, she adds, “includes how performers are paid, treated and performing what turns them on.” Together, these factors help define and illustrate an actor’s consent.
The feature-length and short-subject works shown during the Feminist Porn Awards illustrated the creative range of feminist porn. For example, April Flores’ World features Flores, a plus-size Latina porn star. Krutch stars Mia Gimp, a disabled performer.
One of the big winners at the FPA is Juicy Pink Box, a “feminist” porn company specializing in lesbian erotica.” It won awards in 2011 for Taxi and 2012 for Boutique for “best lesbian series.”
The company was founded and is run by Jincey Lumpkin, its “chief sex officer.” Lumpkin came to feminism and porn late. “I grew up in Georgia,” she says, “and was raised thinking feminists were man haters.” “I always wonder why there was a sexual double-standard,” she recalls. “Later I realized that feminism is about equality.” “Male-initiated sex was acceptable; guys were just being guys,” she argues. “But women who were sexual, who initiated, were dubbed ‘sluts.’ Why?”
Lumpkin started her company five years ago in order to, she says, “undo generations of anti-sex media, especially about women.”
However, it was not an easy first few years, and many of her friends wondered why she would undertake such a challenging effort during the recession. But Lumpkin felt that a new sexuality, especially among women, was emerging and represented a real business opportunity. The spectacular success of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, which has sold some 20 million copies in the U.S., opened a door into a long-hidden aspect of American culture, women’s sexual fantasies.
Lumpkin believes that a new pornography is emerging, whether called feminist, sex-positive or pro-sex porn. She calls it “ethical porn” and says it’s based on a belief that the values displayed on the screen are the values behind the camera. “I’m a third-wave feminist,” she insists. “I run my business with one set of values, whether involving the workplace or the aesthetic values depicted on the screen.”
She makes her movies based on three principles: 1) everyone, whether talent or production team, has to be comfortable with each other; 2) everyone gets a fare wage; and 3) all actors are tested for STDs at the company’s expense.
Lumpkin recognizes that marketplace differentiation, aka branding, plays a critical role in a company’s success. Her company’s videos do not use a conventional plot structure or a script; rather, they build on atmosphere, the interplay of place and character, to show, as Lumpkin says, “the deeper human connections that define the sex act.”
Diane Duke is head of the Free Speech Coalition (FSC), the adult entertainment industry’s trade association. She identifies four rules that define the official, professional porn business: (i) participation must be consensual; (ii) participants must be 18 years of age or older; (iii) no one is on drugs or drunk when performing; and (iv) no one gets hurt. Duke, who joined the organization in 2006, previously worked for Planned Parenthood. “A woman’s sexual choice about porn, and sexual practice, is as much a personal right as an abortion,” she insists.
She’s a strong believer in feminist porn or what she refers to as porn that “adds to self-awareness and empowerment or is empowering.” She continues, “I like to think of the adult entertainment field as a huge restaurant with menu items that go on forever. And customers see things they like and other things that do not appeal to them.”
Duke believes that “porn allows women to explore their sexual pleasure and learn about their own bodies.” Such porn, she adds, “gives a woman permission to step beyond the traditional moral injunction between what’s ostensibly ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and decide for herself what’s right.” At its best, she alleges, “porn can almost be a form of self-love.”
Duke reminds people that the porn business is one of the few industries where female actresses make more money then male actors and where men have to work harder and longer. And given the nature of sexual fantasies, it’s one of the only areas of the movie business where “large-size” women or women with disabilities can get regular employment.
Girlfriends Films, based in Los Angeles, is a porn production company specializing in lesbian porn, yet the company was founded and is run by a man, Dan O’Connell. A former banker, O’Connell took a film program at UCLA to engage the more creative side of his personality. He worked on a documentary, Lesbians Uncovered: The Naked Truth, that changed his life. “I found a new calling,” he recalls. Founded in 2002, Girlfriends Films has released 400 films. Its films are more traditional, decidedly not “gonzo” porn; they tell a story, rather then simply showing people having sex. “Our films are based on a coherent storyline and a sense of seduction,” O’Connell claims. “Sex is context, not simple anatomy, and our films provide context, a realistic context.”
“We promote safe sex,” O’Connell says, “and no smoking, no hurting,” he insists. Girlfriends Films exploits a wide range of genres, from seduction fantasies to nurses in uniforms to a 1950s takeoff. As a “sin” industry, it’s nearly impossible to get reliable market-research data on the porn industry. O’Connell, however, has broken down his customers with regard to DVD sales data, giving some insight into one slice of porn purchasing habits. The largest segments of his customers are men (50%) and the other half is divided equally between couples (25%) and single women (25%), both straight and lesbian.
Chauntelle Tibbals, a sociologist and visiting scholar at USC, believes that more ethically minded lesbian porn is currently experiencing wider growth margins than other adult content genres. “Companies like Girlfriends Films and Juicy Pink Box,” she says, “are reaching new audiences—people who, perhaps because of various perceptions about adult content, maybe hadn’t pursued porn previously.”
Tibbals is the first to warn that her assessments about adult content sales and consumption trends are merely informed hunches. “The sex toy industry has figured out how to reshape and rebrand many of its products, giving them broader appeal,” she observes. “Toys that may have been perceived as intimidating have been remarketed, and many current cultural trends are being engaged – nowadays, you can find organic lube and rechargeable ‘massagers.’ These trends in production and novelty are all, in part, efforts to reach new consumers.”
Tibbals offers a more fine-tuned definition of “gonzo” porn. “Gozno is not a genre,” she claims. “It’s a film form characterized by the presence of a ‘talking camera’ – interaction between the person filming and whatever is going on in front of the camera is part of the final product.” In this way, it is possible for any adult content to include moments of gonzo filmmaking.
She also points to deeper cultural trends that are contributing to the emergence of a new sexual climate. Fair-trade products and sustainable energy are two examples of this trend. “Our culture is maturing,” she says, “getting sexually richer. People are increasingly willing to acknowledge that just because I like one thing doesn’t mean someone else has to.”
The porn industry is, as Tibbals says, “one mirror of our contemporary culture.” “Porn is the result of a symbiotic relationship existing between performers, producers, consumers, and wider culture. The manifestation of this relationship is always shifting, and it’s never created in a vacuum.”