Cece Devlin: Feminism + Porn @ Cherchez La Femme

Cece Devlin: Feminism + Porn @ Cherchez La Femme

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I arrived at Belville and joined the throng of bodies gathered for last Tuesday night’s ‘Cherchez la Femme: Feminism and Porn’. There are few things that get me quite as excited as talking about feminism and erotic pleasure, and if the sold out event is any indication; I am not the only one. In fact, this month the Cherchez la Femme team have encountered a first: they’ve had to create an entire extra show due to an overwhelming interest in the topic.

Lead by our illustrious host, Karen Pickering, the evening begins with quite a lengthy disclaimer. There are to be no misconceptions about the direction of the discussions to come. Karen firmly informs the audience that anyone expecting an anti-porn approach would be better served seeking out another forum (and my, are there plenty to choose from). Rather, tonight is about critically discussing our understanding of and access to feminist pornography. It’s about how to get hot, without letting our ethics go cold.

When the panel is introduced, my excitement spikes. I have been really looking forward to insights from queer and feminist porn makers Gala Vanting and Aeryn Walker on the alternative porn scene. The choice to also include children’s educator and CEO of Seed Workshops (Self-Esteem Education for young people) Catherine Manning, and researcher/provisional psychologist Natasha Smith is sure to make for a diverse collection of perspectives on the terrain ahead.

As we begin to interrogate what porn is (or, more importantly, what it can be), and our complex relationship with the erotic, the strands of individual and collective experience become intertwined. It is this symbiotic relationship that makes pornography such a slippery concept to tackle. On one level, as Natasha Smith points out, the equation is a simple one. Engaging with sex-as-performance by establishing a link between arousal and spectatorship reinforces the behaviour on a physiological level, especially if we get off while logged on. On another level, however, the clash between bodies, erotic subjectivities, and value systems is bound to be messy. In attempting to discuss what constitutes “ethical” or “feminist” porn through some kind of specialised, Bechdel-style test, we not only have to consider what arousal means for different people, but also whether casting such a net is plausible. In the same way that expecting complete unanimity on what we consider ‘feminist’ is unhelpful, it seems far more pertinent to talk about the ways in which we can make active improvements to our consumption of pornography. As feminist consumers, we have the ability to maximize the potential for agency, labour rights, and a respect for women and their bodies within the industry, while reaping the benefits of the varied, subjective experiences of sexual pleasure we seek.

So, how best to apply a feminist framework to the spectacle of sexy bodies and the heightened, constructed nature of the pornographic material they appear within? The first step, Vanting suggests, is to acknowledge the facts we often tend to (in)conveniently overlook: porn as media, as representation, in whatever form it takes, does not exist in a vacuum. It seems simplistic to say that a lot of mainstream porn is sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, sizeist (etc, etc) because our society continues to rely on these systems of oppression, and yet I can’t recall ever hearing this crucial point articulated so clearly. As the literal manifestation of disadvantage and privilege, our bodies are the vessels through which our values and understandings are carried, experienced and lived out. Perhaps porn itself could be understood as an illumination of how the very acts we consider ‘intimate’ defy the very definition of the word. Sexualities in action can never be cut adrift from our social context and cultural realities and this truth holds as many dangers as it does opportunities for redefinition.

Discussing the pragmatics of this process of redefinition is probably my favourite part of the evening. The audience are guided through some machinations of the porn industry via enlivened, informative contributions from Walker and Vanting. Both women had overwhelmingly positive experiences to share in regards to making ethics titillating and making the titillating ethical through their own self-made approach to sex work and erotic film production. Composed by a combination of feminists in the adult industry and feminist porn academics The Feminist Porn Book was raised as one useful resource and starting point, outlining the cornerstone principles of authenticity, established and enthusiastic consent, storyline and production value as key for many performers and producers in the community. Here, the importance of making unequivocal consent integral to porn production was given a satisfying amount of airtime. I can think of few more convincing endorsements of the positive potential to be harnessed within the porn industry than the ability to demonstrate, again and again, just what consent between sexual partners looks like. Even in the case of scenes where non-consent is part of the constructed narrative or fantasy (for example, particular scenes of a BDSM nature), Vanting discussed the importance of additional material such as post-production or “director’s cut” segments featuring the performers in candid conversation. It is partly the fact that much of the free porn made available on websites such as Pornhub and Redtube is edited to an abridged format that can often lead to problematic omission of certain reality and ethics checks. Rather than simply bonus ‘extras,’ Walker explains that such material furnishes our understandings of safe, sane, consensual sex and humanises the performers whose bodies we seek to enjoy.

Credit: Cherchez la Femme
Credit: Cherchez la Femme

Despite the prevalence of these extra features in their own business endeavours, both women were quick to recognise the difficulties in making their work sustainable. Challenging a common myth regarding sex work and autonomy, Walker explained that her career frustrations, rather than being located within ‘the industry,’ were largely leveled at those existing outside of it that fail to show her profession understanding and respect. The ignorant or exploitative consumer who steals material for purchase, restrictions placed on trading independently and freely as an adult performer, and a general lack of education about how to be a better consumer were all cited as major bars to expanding what continues to be a niche and under-resourced market. As far as giving feminist porn a better platform as a small fish in a vast pond, the answer should be glaringly obvious: support your local feminist pornographers, and pay them for the work they create! Additionally, as Smith noted, we need to begin talking more freely about our engagement with porn. Discussing what we enjoy and our sources with others as we would a good book, as well as assisting to circulate useful (and at times, difficult to locate) information, can play a role in de-stigmatising the industry and directing dollars to performers. The notion of swapping sexy recommendations with friends is so genius, this audience member wonders why she hasn’t been doing it for years.

An invigorated, more accessible feminist porn industry holds some pretty thrilling potential for conversations with young people too, and Manning does an excellent job of turning the common child-corruption panic on its head. She provides a smart, sensitive take on what it means to be a parent and educator who wants to create safe spaces for children to foster positive relationships with their sexuality. Working against a mainstream discourse that saturates the media with sex, while constantly reinforcing that women are not the intended agents of their bodies or pleasure, Manning’s attempts to counteract such conditioning have been no easy feat. Sharing an anecdote about her son’s early discovery of explicit sex, Manning discussed her child’s emotional response to the material he accessed online, prompting each of us to consider what it could mean to have the children and teenagers who inevitably go looking for information on sex more protected and supported not by preventative tactics, but through an increased knowledge of and access to depictions of non hetero-sexist porn.

As the night draws to a close I feel (and certainly not for the first time at a Cherchez la Femme event) that the discussion could continue long into the night. I would have particularly loved to hear more from Vanting and Walker on their experiences, their practice and their respective journeys into porn production on their own terms. Despite my knowledge of all things erotic and feminist, it strikes me that on the subject of pornography, I have often been overwhelmed by not only the question of where to turn, but the sheer magnitude of untapped potential for exploration and, well, FUN. After tonight, however, I feel better equipped to get savvy about my search for the good stuff, and open up discussions with other feminist pals about how to do the same.

That feels pretty damn hot.

The podcast of the event is available here.

If you’re looking for more info, try these links:

http://www.sensatefilms.com/ (Gala Vanting)
http://www.lovehardthefilm.com (Gala Vanting)
http://naughtynerdy.com/ (Aeryn Walker)

Words: Cece Devlin 

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