Feminist Porn: Imagining Beyond Western Patriarchy

Édouard Henri Avril

by Kathleen J. Woods

Pornography has long been a topic of impassioned debate among Western feminists. Anti-porn feminists argue that porn’s representation of degrading language and behavior is harmful to women. They believe that porn is a tool of the patriarchy that normalizes the subjugation of women and the violent power of men. As Robin Morgan concisely stated, “Porn is the theory, rape is the practice” (The Feminist Porn Book 10). Anti-porn feminists have supported legislation banning or drastically limiting the production of pornographic materials.

On the other side of the debate, pro-porn feminists have argued that anti-porn rhetoric reproduces shame around sex and sexual pleasure. These feminists warn: “Criticism of pornography or of any consensual sexual practice could result in the judgment, marginalization, or even criminalization of sexual subcultures.” Pornography, they argue, does not have to be a site of male domination and female suffering—it can represent radical feminist visions. In its narrative form, its explicit and transgressive content, and its creation of fantasy spaces, experimental pornographic literature written by women is a tool of Western feminist rebellion, a genre through which women can resist patriarchal power structures and create room for those on the margins of society.

The Feminist Porn Book introduces a comprehensive definition of feminist porn:

[It] uses sexually explicit imagery to contest and complicate dominant representations of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, ability, age, body type, etc. It explores concepts of desire, agency, power, beauty, and pleasure at their most confounding and difficult … against the limits of gender hierarchy and heteronormativity and homonormativity. It seeks to unsettle conventional definitions of sex, and expand the language of sex as an erotic activity, an expression of identity, a power exchange, a cultural commodity, and even a new politics. (10)

Despite gradual change in the last decade, American culture still veils sex in secrecy and shame, especially if that sex occurs between individuals who do not meet standards of white masculine and feminine beauty, do not have heteronormative intercourse with one person at a time, or who find pleasure in mixing sex with pain, domination, taboo bodily excretions (e.g. urine), or anything else in the vast world of fetish. Heteronormativity remains compulsory.

Frustrated by the way an interviewer twisted her words to fit a Western narrative of black hyper-sexuality, bell hooks calls women to write explicitly about sex. In her essay “Talking Sex,” hooks says such writing can provide “counter-hegemonic evidence to disprove the popular sexist stereotype that women in the feminist movement are antisex and antimen,” a stereotype that allows men to control the discourse of sexuality by fetishizing women and/or stripping them of sexual desire and agency (79). hooks continues, “By conceding the turf of sexuality to the phallocentric sexist media, feminists … become complicit with the conservative repression of public discourse of sexuality,” a repression that denies a “feminist vision of the sexual imaginary” in which “sexual pleasure can be sustained and ongoing, so that female agency can exist as an inalienable right” (79-81). By writing their own narratives of sex, women can open the doors to the long-denied feminist “sexual imaginary.” As a genre of play, rebellion, dirtiness and pleasure, feminist pornography can be a site of productive and inclusive fantasies that shake existing perceptions about gender and sexuality while confronting hegemonic structures of oppression that make certain bodies abject or invisible.

The sex writing hooks advocates can take many forms. The pornographic novel itself is not a genre without variation, though it does have a few common characteristics, many of which are mentioned in the definition of “feminist porn” above. In “The Pornographic Imagination,” Susan Sontag argues that pornographic literature can indeed be art and should be discussed as such:

The books generally called pornographic are those whose primary, exclusive, and overriding preoccupation is with the depiction of sexual ‘intentions’ and ‘activities’… everything must bear upon the erotic situation (111-112).

In other words, pornographic literature typically deals explicitly and directly with sex and sex acts without allowing the readers (or the characters) much time to catch their breath. Every scene and every exchange between characters is sexually charged, and the author presents and explores ideas through an erotic lens. While a novel cannot provide visual or auditory stimuli unlike a film, it can enter and engage with bodies more closely than a camera can. Language can enter a vaginal canal, describe the sensations of the tissues—the smell and taste of a body, the feeling of moisture and sweat—and linger over one sex act for paragraphs or pages, using intense detail to incite physical arousal. Legal restrictions limit film, but the novel has the power to push fantasy to its farthest boundaries and represent every kind of person, fetish and desire without ever subjecting any breathing human to harm. Nothing, no matter how illegal, taboo, dangerous, or obscene, is off limits. In the realm of the “sexual imaginary,” the rules set by patriarchy can be subverted, challenged, or simply ignored.1

In “The Force of Fantasy: Feminism, Mapplethorpe, and Discursive Excess,” Judith Butler critiques anti-pornography feminists’ distinction between the “fantasy” and the “real.” Addressing the claim that derogatory representations harm women, Butler writes:

This formulation of representation as injurious action operates through an implicit understanding of fantasy as that which both produces and is produced by representations and which, then, makes possible and enacts precisely the referent of that representation … the representation becomes a moment of the reproduction and consolidation of the real (185).

For women to be harmed by pornographic representations, there must be a fixed notion of what a woman is that may or may not be able to be accurately represented. If fantasy can misrepresent something or someone real, there must be a reality that is objectively distinct from fantasy. By pointing to the “real,” anti-porn feminists both confirm and recreate a reality in which women are sexual victims. Butler continues, “The real that is thereby designated would also and at the same time be restricted to a pre-given version of itself” (186).

The “real” then, is a self-perpetuating mechanism, a concept that denies (even while its re-creation2 confirms) constructionist visions of the world, in which there is not an objective “real” but rather a cultural, political and historical creation of conditions that come to be called “real.” To oppose pornography due to its harmful representations is to affirm that there is a real that can be damaged at all, an affirmation that limits the vast possibilities of fantastical thinking that seeks to re-envision the world.

Fantasy does not, however, exist without straining against restrictions or limits. Butler writes, “If the phantasmatic remains in tension with the ‘real’ effects it produce—and there is a good reason to understand pornography as the erotic exploitation of this tension—then the ‘real’ remains permanently in quotations” (192). Through production and engagement with fantasy, and by causing physical arousal in those participating in the fantasy, the pornographer stresses the tenuous nature of the real. As the reader is enticed and welcomed into the sexual fantasy, the real is made unstable, opening up the potential for change.

In her 2004 book Undoing Gender, Butler expands on the potential of fantasy:

The struggle to survive is not really separable from the cultural life of fantasy, and the foreclosure of fantasy—through censorship, degradation … is one strategy for providing for the social death of persons. Fantasy is not the opposite of reality; it is what reality forecloses, and, as a result, it defines the limits of reality, constituting it as its constitutive outside. The critical promise of fantasy, when and where it exists, is to challenge the contingent limits of what will and will not be called reality. Fantasy is what allows us to imagine ourselves and others otherwise. (28-29)

Fantasy, then, is a site of resistance and a space in which the marginalized can survive—or, at least, envision the survival of future generations. Its production is a mode of refusing the boundaries of a reality that appears static and unchallengeable, but which is constructed by what has come before, the location of power, and the limits of imagination. Pornography, according to Butler, is a form of fantasy that subverts power relations and gendered expectations to expose the ways in which they are constructed. By failing to correspond to social positions and refusing the validity of such hierarchal dualities as male and female, homosexual and heterosexual, and white and non-white, fantasy can challenge the oppressive structures of “reality” at is exists now, making it clear that it has not always been and need not always be.

The story of white, male, heternormative, Western domination is just as much a fantasy as a story in which intersex people do not undergo surgery at birth and instead revolutionize America’s understanding of sex by seeking pleasure without shame. Restricting or ignoring the expression of fantasy in all of its extreme forms narrows the imagining of a better world, and without that imagining, how can a better world ever come to be?

Gustave Courbet

In “The Force of Fantasy,” Butler argues that fantasy can reshape static understandings of subjectivity: “Fantasy enacts a splitting or fragmentation or … a multiplication or proliferation of identifications that puts the very locatability of identity into question” (189).

In fantasy, there are no stable structures of power to demarcate one’s positionality, and a fixed sense of subjectivity disintegrates. Even in the consumption of porn, in which a reader ostensibly selects a representation of sex that she desires, “the subject cannot be collapsed into the subject-position of that fantasy; all positions are the subject, even as the subject has proliferated beyond recognition” (189). The self-reflexive thrall of fantasizing “recasts the Other within the orbit of [the] scene” (189). The subject is no longer a distinct entity, no longer an individual situated in culture, politics and space. When engaging with sexual fantasy, one becomes part of others’ experiences of desire, perceiving the possibility of experiences that are not one’s own. For example, even if one reads BDSM scenes because one is aroused by domination, it is impossible to become aroused without encountering the pleasure of submission. Sontag argues:

The physical sensations involuntarily produced by … reading [pornography] carry with them something that touches upon the reader’s whole experience of … humanity­… Pornography is one of the branches of literature … aiming at disorientation, at psychic dislocation (94).

By shifting the conditions under which one encounters desire, the pornographic novel works to destabilize a static sense of self. Destabilizing subjectivity is a radical move toward dismantling the structures of power and denaturalizing the social positionings that inform that subjectivity. In her essay “Utopic Futures of the ‘Other,’” Taine Duncan argues that the right to write, direct, star in, or consume pornography must be protected as important sites of the imaginary for women. A woman engaged in erotic fantasy, may become unfixed from her social and cultural position and better able to imagine possibilities for her life and her world:

By depending on the fundamental relationships between vulnerable bodies, pornography can be a site for witnessing intersubjectivity. In its tendency to tarry with the liminal, the taboo, and the boundaries of norms, pornography may be able to serve as one of the many gateways into greater social emancipation, particularly for the marginalized Other. (258)

Pornography can represent difference while rebelling against the hegemonic powers that demarcate that difference. Feminist pornography presents a fantasy that opposes the all-encompassing fantasy of straight, white, cis-gender male power—the imaginary that masquerades as the real. Through inclusion of diverse bodies and transgression of polite sexuality, feminist pornography rejects that dominant fantasy in favor of a new vision.

In their insistence on disintegrating subjectivity, these arguments may come dangerously close to erasing the particular oppression of certain marginalized groups. However, the vision of feminist pornography is not homogeneity—it is radical inclusion. By celebrating fantasy and destabilizing subjectivity, pornography does not ignore the effects of oppression. Instead, it reveals that “reality” and “subjectivity” are always unstable, as the subject is always being actively created and shaped by the dominant narratives and hegemonic structures of the world in which she lives. Pornography makes visible the continuous act of becoming while it offers the subject a mode of resisting those structures that would demarcate, categorize and subjugate her.

In her essay, “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves,” Ariane Cruz examines pornography that black women write, direct, produce and star in to defy dangerous racialized and gendered stereotypes of the hypersexualized black woman. She writes, “These women produce … black feminist activist pornography—that which aims to transform prevailing paradigms and shift how we see black female sexuality, black women’s bodies, and black female sexual desire” (243). These women refuse to remain oppressed subjects and silent objects. They take control of their own sexual narratives and retell them in a direct, public way. In creating a pornography in which black women pleasure black women and reclaim power through acts such as consensual BDSM play, these pornographers use the imaginary domain to project a new reality that does not forget past oppressions, but denies the lasting power of those oppressions.

Despite its potential to enact change, pornography can still be used degrade and humiliate women, especially those who are intersex or transgender. In “Where The Trans Women Aren’t,” trans-activist Tobi Hill-Meyer writes about her experience filming for websites with names like “ShemaleYum.com.” Frustrated by mainstream porn, which used derogatory terms and insisted on normative gender performance, and feminist porn, which was slow to include trans women, she set out to make her own pornographic film, Doing It Ourselves. Upon the film’s completion in 2010, she received letters from fans, some saying that her film “helped them process their own experiences around sexuality,” others that they were “simply happy to have had the first opportunity to see someone like themselves in a positive sexual representation” (163). In her own pornography, Hill-Meyer claimed ownership over her sexual representation, producing an imaginary in which she can exist. While the pornography industry is flawed, especially when it discriminates in the name of capitalism and profit, Hill-Meyer still created a fantasy space in which trans women exist and have agency over their own sexual pleasure. Especially for those young transgender viewers who felt alone or invisible, she unapologetically expanded the “real” and gave them a place in it.

In the production of feminist pornography, actors, directors, and writers cannot reproduce one vision of sexuality and the reader or viewer will not encounter just one form of pleasure. They cannot remain comfortable in their social position, sense of self or understanding of reality while participating in the erotic fantasy. Pornography strives to pull its spectators in deep, producing arousal without apology or shame. In fantasy, the boundaries of the real begin to disintegrate. All forms of pleasure are possible.

End Notes

1. At least, these rules are ignored to the extent that one can ignore them. The very act of writing the imaginary space indicates that the author is well aware of patriarchal power. While the author must always be writing from within the oppressive culture (even when her work is an act of resistance), the imaginary allows a space for play, a space in which fictional characters might know nothing of patriarchy even while its influence leads to their creation.

2. By recreation, I mean the ways in which the “real” is continuously made “real” by the mechanisms of politics, discourse, narratives, etc. The “real” is always constructed, though it appears to simply exist.

Resources

The Feminist Porn Book edited by Mireille Miller-Young, Constance Penley, Celine Parreñas Shimizu and Tristan Taormino. The Feminist Press.

The Judith Butler Reader edited by Sara Salih. Blackwell.

Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations by bell hooks. Routledge.

The Philosophy of Pornography: Contemporary Perspecitives edited by Lindsay Coleman and Jacob M. Held, MD. Rowman & Littlefield.

Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille. Penguin Books.

Undoing Gender by Judith Butler. Routledge.

 

Kathleen Woods sexual fictionKathleen J. Woods is an M.F.A. candidate in Creative Writing from the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she also teaches and serves as the assistant editor of Timber Journal. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bartleby Snopes, Paragraphiti, Paper Tape, Vannevar FortyFour, Cavalcade Literary Magazine, and others.

 

 

Images:

Gustave Courbet, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Édouard-Henri Avril, PD-US, via Wikimedia Commons

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