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Feminist Porn Enters the Mainstream

But just what exactly is it?
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A scene from a movie by Amsterdam’s Blue Artichoke Films

Earlier this spring, feminist pornographer Madison Young stood on stage at the 9th Annual Feminist Porn Awards in Toronto, Canada holding a trophy topped with a handcrafted dildo. Young had just won the award for “Hottest Lesbian Vignette,” and her excitement was palpable. “We can change the world,” she announced to the audience as she accepted her award. “We are changing the world, one fucking orgasm at a time.”

In other contexts, a nod to the revolutionary potential of pornography might seem strange, but on this night, to this crowd, which included some of the most notable names in feminist porn, it made perfect sense.

The definition of feminist pornography is likely to differ depending on who you ask. But at its core the genre, which has been around since the early 1980s, is interested in expanding the types of sexual images seen in porn: challenging stereotypes, depicting scenes of genuine pleasure, and showcasing bodies not typically found in mainstream porn—transgender bodies, fat bodies, disabled bodies. For some, it’s also about making pornography that is ethically produced, what director Tristan Taormino has described as “organic, fair trade porn.”

Spurred on by the awards, which were founded nine years ago by Toronto sex toy store Good For Her, feminist porn is starting to reach a wider audience. While sales figures as a percentage of the adult market are difficult to measure, in January the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo and XBiz 360, the industry’s two biggest trade shows, both featured panels devoted to feminist pornography. XBiz also added a new category to its awards show, “Feminist Porn Release of the Year.”

“The amount and quality of content has skyrocketed just in the past few years,” says director Shine Louise Houston, whose film Bed Party won a “Best Boygasm” award this year for its complex portrayal of male sexuality. “What we are looking at now is a new Golden Era of porn.”

So, what does a feminist porn set look like? For starters, directors often collaborate with performers beforehand about what scenes they will shoot, and stick to the agreement once filming starts. Many pledge to pay performers fairly and promptly, and provide them with amenities that would be standard on a Hollywood film set but aren’t always available to people who get naked and have sex on camera for the enjoyment of others—a clean environment, secure storage for belongings, an ample supply of water and healthy snacks. It’s “treating people the way they should be treated,” says adult performer and director Jessica Drake.

Filmmaker Courtney Trouble tries to keep in mind diverse audiences and their sexual interests—filming wide and medium shots of men in boy-girl scenes, rather than the disembodied penises often seen in adult flicks aimed at straight men.  Oh, and Trouble continues filming after the male orgasm “to gently remind people with penises that sex isn’t over by default after they’ve come.”

Feminist porn, in this sense, is about “broadening the language” we have to talk about sexuality, says Jennifer Lyon Bell, who runs Blue Artichoke Films in Amsterdam and holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Harvard and a graduate degree in film studies from the University of Amsterdam. “Sex is a conversation,” says Bell, who uses the language of cinema to build chemistry and empathy on screen. She shoots close-ups of people’s faces and of their skin, and doesn’t edit out moments of sexual awkwardness and communication, all of which help to create a greater sense of intimacy and authenticity onscreen.

But figuring out what exactly constitutes an “authentic” sex scene can be tricky.

“Some feminist pornographers make luscious, cinematic short films with great lighting and meaningful or emotionally-driven content,” says Trouble. “Other feminist pornographers point their handycam at two people having sex and put it up unedited on the internet for money.”

When Australian pornographer Ms. Naughty decided to capitalize on the commercial success of Fifty Shades of Grey by shooting a BDSM scene, she envisioned something sensual and light, with a character (like the one in the book), who was a sexual ingénue. Her performers, on the other hand, wanted to talk dirty and have rough sex.

“The focus on ethical work practices in feminist porn puts emphasis on making sure performers are comfortable with what they’re doing,” the director wrote in a blog post about the experience. “But what happens when the scripted scenario doesn’t work for those who are enacting it? Does it matter? Should we be concerned if performers are only acting, especially given that they are being paid for what they do?”

Such questions will likely continue to come up as feminist directors work to redefine porn, and grapple with perhaps the biggest challenge of all: how to attract new viewers and make money in an industry where stereotypical, airbrushed fantasies are still the norm.

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