Can porn be feminist? These woman directors say yes, if it’s honest, respectful and authentic

The Netflix series Hot Girls Wanted shines a light on the growing amount of feminist porn making its way into the mainstream – but not everyone is convinced it’s a positive development

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 June, 2017, 8:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 June, 2017, 8:01am

There’s a new F-word in the porn industry: feminist.

Last year, women accounted for 26 per cent of all traffic worldwide for pornography site Pornhub. As viewership has increased, so has the desire for adult entertainment that emphasises female pleasure and mutual respect in the bedroom.

Spearheading this movement is erotic filmmaker Erika Lust, who featured in Rashida Jones’ recent Netflix docuseries Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On, which explores the relationship between sex and technology.

Porn made with feminist values “is about showing an authentic representation of human sexuality”, Lust says. “Mainstream porn is full of repetitive codes and tiring power tropes that are all about [female] genitalia and body parts, yet nothing about the woman.

“For the men who dominate the industry, pleasuring women normally entails rose petals and silk sheets. Oh no – women like sex just as dirty, kinky and exciting as men do. That’s a myth mainstream porn has set out for us and it’s completely untrue.”

With her XConfessions project, which she started in 2013, Lust creates short films based on erotic fantasies submitted anonymously by fans and followers on her site, featuring both heterosexual and lesbian partners.

The Swedish director takes pride in the movies’ high production values – lush cinematography, eclectic music and sometimes exotic locations – but also her efforts to create safe spaces on set.

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“I don’t direct the sex at all, so they have total freedom and are in control the whole time,” Lust says. She typically tries to find actors who already know each other and have a connection.

In one of her short films, Feminist and Submissive, performers Owen Gray and Lina Bembe begin by discussing their upcoming bondage scene while fully clothed: approving safe words and body signals to use if they’re uncomfortable, and listening in detail to what the other enjoys.

“I felt it was super important to show my audience Lina’s full consent, as well as a long discussion of the intricacies and personal kinks of her fetishism,” Lust says. “In this particular case, they both wanted sensual, passionate and fun play, rather than only focusing on pain or degradation.

“I agree with what Owen told me in an interview, which is that being feminist means that a woman should have the power to pursue her own desires without the criticism of others – including other women – because what may be empowering or desirable is going to be dramatically different for all individuals.”

Key characteristics of feminist porn include clear verbal consent, sex positivity and inclusive casting of women that encompasses different ages, body types and ethnicities.

Australian pornographer Ms Naughty creates erotica that is “smart, sensual” and “fun” for her site Bright Desire, which highlights intimacy between partners and doesn’t use derogatory terms in the video descriptions.

“I find the most interesting porn involves seeing people’s faces rather than their genitals, so we focus on faces and hands, and then genitals if we are able to get the shot,” she says. “I don’t insist performers are ‘open to the camera’ because those positions often aren’t comfortable and don’t produce as much pleasure.”

I used to find it hard to find things that I like and turn me on, because it did feel like those tube sites are flooded with this abusive imagery
Rashida Jones

Female-run Tumblr pages such as Lady Cheeky, Her Lust and My Feminist Porn Blog similarly promote imagery – primarily GIFs – that are respectful, body-positive and inclusive of both straight and LGBTQ couples.

“It’s hitting a mainstream stride now, where I’ve noticed that more people are doing this and more pages are popping up,” says Lane Moore, Cosmopolitan’s former sex and relationships editor and host of Tinder Live!, a comedy show. “There’s a huge market for [feminist porn]. I have friends who run a lot of sites like this and have a huge audience.”

The fact that more adult entertainment is catering to a female audience should come as no surprise. According to a survey of 24,000 women by free pornography site YouPorn released in April, 18 per cent say they watch porn daily and 63 per cent watch weekly or a few times a month.

Almost 90 per cent say they watch it without their partners, while 34 per cent say they tend to select videos featuring participants they can relate to (similar in age, weight, ethnicity and so on). The study also found the second-most popular factor in women’s porn selection is that it “has a female lead or dominant character”.

But according to a Marie Claire study in 2015, 56 per cent of more than 3,000 women surveyed admitted they’re conflicted about watching porn because of how the adult entertainment industry treats women, as well as the negative stereotypes such videos can perpetuate.

Jones – who co-created Hot Girls Wanted with Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus – is among those who has been dissatisfied logging on to “tube sites”, which are mostly free porn websites that feature user-uploaded content, much of which depicts women in degrading, sometimes violent scenarios.

If you got rid of poverty and racism and global capitalism, and weren’t really desperate for money, I wonder how many women would really volunteer to be in porn
Dr Gail Dines

“I used to find it hard to find things that I like and turn me on, because it did feel like those tube sites are flooded with this abusive imagery,” Jones says. “I think that’s a reason why women are not as comfortable accessing porn, because the first thing that comes up is not necessarily the thing that is going to turn you on.”

The debasement of women in porn means that there is no way it can be feminist, argues Dr Gail Dines, a professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College, Massachusetts, and author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked our Sexuality.

“The core of feminism is that you can’t engage in any activity that hurts other women,” Dines says. “We know that being in pornography has a profound impact on a woman’s emotional cognitive well-being, we know that it can cause post-traumatic stress disorder. Not to mention all the STIs, all the harm done to the body.

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“I can’t imagine a feminist world where you have a flourishing porn industry. It’s part of a patriarchal society where men get women where they want them to be: flat on their backs, legs spread.”

The only way it could potentially be feminist, she continues, is if women did porn solely out of want, rather than need.

“If you got rid of poverty and racism and global capitalism, and weren’t really desperate for money, I wonder how many women would really volunteer to be in porn,” Dines says. “There’s a reason you don’t have women with PhDs and law degrees lining up to do porn, and that’s because they have options.”

Outside of porn, celebrities are helping broach once-taboo topics of female sexuality and desire through pop culture. TV comedies such as Inside Amy Schumer, The Mindy Project, Broad City and I Love Dick are all created by women, and feature empowered female characters casually discussing – or in the act of – masturbation and watching porn.

Media has had an incredibly negative role in suppressing female sexuality for generations
Amanda de Cadenet

Having women behind the camera is crucial to more realistic representations in porn, says Amanda de Cadenet, who conducted Marie Clarie’ssurvey and runs a foundation, Girl Gaze, that supports female photographers.

“Media has had an incredibly negative role in suppressing female sexuality for generations,” de Cadenet says. But now, “these are women that are using the media to flip that script and say, ‘We’re not buying into that any more. Now that we’ve got a platform, get to write our shows and have a voice, this is one of the things we’re going to draw attention to, to change the stigma.’ I think people are trying to normalise [watching porn], as they should.”