Just over ten years ago, in the spring of 2006, I was managing a small feminist sex shop in Toronto called Good For Her and I came up with the idea for the feminist porn awards. That idea inspired legions of smut-makers, two conferences, a book, feminist porn awards in other countries and plenty of controversy before going on hiatus. Looking back, I can see how my feminism was out of touch with the sex industry and why that matters to sex workers—and to everyone.
Good For Her is the kind of feminist sex shop where you can browse BPA-free vibrators over a cup of tea and sign up for a class on oral sex. We were always receiving shipments of new sex toys or lubes or books that promised some improved way for women get off. Hemp lube! Solar powered vibrators! 100 new sexual positions! Not the porn though, the porn stayed the same—a clichéd candy-coloured landscape of identical straight white cisgender dude sexual fantasies pumped out by corporate porn studios. Like Hollywood basically, but with less clothing.
I’d always be calling up some guy named Mike or Rocco who worked for XYZ Adult Films and trying to explain “Mike, we want films with people of color in them.” Then Mike or Rocco would say “ok, got it, I’ll send you some new releases that I think you’ll like!” and then he’d send us “Jenna’s Inter-Racial Gang-Bang 17.” That really wasn’t what we meant.
We knew that women were watching porn and that their numbers were growing. (Today roughly a quarter of all porn viewers are women. As of 2015, 24 percent of visitors to Pornhub, the largest pornography site on the internet were women). We also knew that women’s desires are wildly diverse ― but between all the sexism, the racism, the cheap fetishization of fat women and trans women, it was obvious that the pornosphere was not made for us.
At the same time, there was always this thin but steady stream of women and queer people doing it differently. Directors like Shine Louise Houston and Tristan Taormino were building on all the work that feminists in the sex industry had done before them and envisioning a diversity of viewers, including women, with imaginative and sometimes deliciously filthy sexual tastes.
So one day in spring 2006, standing in the shop’s tiny office, I said to my colleague at Good For Her “We should really celebrate the ones who get it right. Lift them up and make their work more visible. Like an awards ceremony or something.” I searched the phrase “feminist porn awards” figuring someone else must have already gotten the jump on this. They hadn’t.
In the months leading up to the first event, the staff, owner Carlyle Jansen and I collectively developed the criteria to determine which videos would qualify as feminist porn and chose cheeky award categories like “best smutty schoolteacher”. Lorraine Hewitt was our resident porn expert and reviewer and had the broadest, (and most sex-work positive) understanding of porn. She was instrumental in developing what we understood feminist porn to be and in all of the FPAs that followed, eventually becoming their creative director.
A few months later, in June 2006, we brought together a group of badass feminists in the sex industry like Tristan and Shine as well as Candida Royalle and Abiola Abrams to show them respect and appreciation. Though I was originally worried that no one would come, the event (which was called “Vixens and Visionaries: Female Erotic Directors Revolutionizing Porn” in its first year) sold out and resulted in global media coverage.
After that second year, I left the store to live and travel abroad and the awards continued on without me, under the able direction of Good For Her. After 10 years the awards producers decided to end their run—maybe because the awards had done their work in the world now.
Our sexual desires and fantasies deserve so much more than the largely crappy, racist, male-dominated images being produced.
As for me, I’ve had 10 years to reflect on what became of an idea to lift up feminism in one sector of the sex industry. What effect did it have? What did we miss? Does it still matter?
With the awards, the idea of feminist porn exploded into the media as stories were published from New York to the Hindustan Times. Most of the reaction was shock. At least a dozen reporters quizzed me with the same opening question: “But isn’t feminist porn is an oxymoron?”
What the FPAs announced is that women are consumers in the sex industry too and that our sexual desires and fantasies deserve so much more than the largely crappy, racist, male-dominated images being produced. The awards announced that women deserve to make, watch and get off on porn that likes us back.
Defining Feminist Porn
The FPAs were also designed to recognize sex work as skilled work and to reward that skill. And I think that’s where we stumbled and missed an opportunity to further the rights and respect for the people we’re paying to watch: the sex workers.
Here are the criteria for the awards as they stood after 10 years. They have been altered over the years to become more expansive and intersectional but the core elements remain the same.
1. Women and/or marginalized people were involved in the direction, production or conception of the work
2. Genuine pleasure, agency and desire for all performers, especially women and traditionally marginalized people
3. Expands the boundaries of sexual representation on film, challenges stereotypes and presents a vision that sets the content apart from most mainstream pornography. This includes depicting a diversity of desires, types of people, bodies, sexual practices and/or an anti-racist or anti-oppression framework throughout the production
In a nutshell, we wanted to see that marginalized people in the porn, especially women, were having a good time, getting to express the full range of their sexuality and exerting control over what got made. I still think those are pretty decent aspirations.
What was missing? The work/labour of porn.
The Work Of Porn
The awards were conceived of as a fan-event, not an industry event—kind of like the People’s Choice Awards of porn. Fair enough—but if you’re going to call something feminist, it means addressing the question of ethical working conditions, labour standards and wages for sexual and emotional labour.
I’ve been a sex work activist for 12 years now and I can’t believe I didn’t insist that we include fair working conditions and fair wages as an intrinsic part of feminism. That is sex work feminism 101. In fact, it’s working class feminism 101—pay women well for work that is feminized, undervalued and often precarious, like sex work.
Keep in mind that in 2006 Good For Her was (and is) a small sex shop very far from where any of this porn gets made (in a different country in fact) with absolutely zero influence on working conditions for sex workers in the adult industry. Having said this, the issue here is a missed opportunity to at least link feminism in sex work to labour conditions.
Since the FPA’s, some sex workers have reported that some independent porn production companies have offered much lower (or even no) pay to them because the porn being made was described as “feminist porn” and so of greater cultural than economic value. There are folks who want to perform in porn even when there are low to no wages. I have no complaint about that and think that some amazing badass work has come out of that. The fact that there are non-professional performers who don’t need to rely on sex work as their livelihood shouldn’t serve as an excuse to underpay sex workers though. Specifying “fair pay or compensation” in the criteria would have helped lessen the likelihood that commercial porn companies could use their fake-ass feminism as a pretext for poorly paying sex workers. Paying sex workers is feminist.
Porn, labour and bosses
What we did specify is that feminist porn should support marginalized filmmakers, especially women. Because it’s all fine to have porn that represents women and other marginalized people screwing six ways from Sunday.
But when we forget about porn as a job, we lose sight of whether the filmmaker was the boss/employer and if so, whether they were a good boss/employer who created a fair workplace. Women can be bad bosses too and I think we should have been clear about the importance of labour practices and working conditions and to ensure that we aren’t just handing out awards to bosses but recognizing performance as well.
Pleasure and sex work
Speaking of performance, the second nagging concern I have about the idea of feminist porn is this idea of genuine pleasure and desire. Again, I like seeing people in porn having a ball, sexing in exactly the ways that get them off.
Here’s my problem: When we feminists expect porn performers show their own personal desires and pleasures, we are holding those performers to different standard than non-sexual performers and erasing their skill at sexual performance.
A porn performer is at work, acting. Why do they have to show you their own real sexual pleasure anymore than Gabourey Sidibe did in her ground-breaking sex scene in Empire? Why is performing sexual pleasure an accepted part of acting when it’s for Hollywood but a sign of sexism when it’s in porn? This is a double standard for sex workers. If an adult film performer has a perfectly-timed orgasm that is of little personal interest to them, but they feel respected, appreciated and valued for their work, to me that’s feminist.
So many feminists casually look down on the appearances of women in adult films as nothing more than “fake boobs, fake hair, fake nails” and assume they have a vastly superior feminist analysis. So much of the snideness toward mainstream porn performers and their work is just veiled hatred for femininity and sex work, the old trope that femininity is always suspicious and duplicitous. Like any purely capitalist venture, mainstream porn can be a hot mess of oppression abuse and violence (see James Deen). It also includes many queer feminist women, some of whom have fantastic talon-like nails that I would personally like to have scraped across my back.
When we made “genuine pleasure” a requirement for feminism in porn, it contributed to a larger cultural logic that pits mainstream porn performers with their “fake pleasure” (aka performance) against the “real feminists” with their “genuine pleasure.”
Starting with intersectional sex worker feminism in the FPAs would have meant explicitly tying feminist porn to sex-worker movements for fair working conditions, industry standards, decent pay and control over their image—for example in how performers images are marketed and distributed. As Zahra Stardust put it “although women now have greater access to the means of production, we cannot say the same for the means of distribution. As long as male-dominated corporations own and control the infrastructure, men predominantly make the money and female producers are encouraged to work for free.” Intersectional sex worker feminism means letting sex workers take the lead on defining feminism in their industry (because no, it doesn’t just mean banning facial cum shots).-
Talking with Lorraine Hewitt about the FPAs recently, she said “I love porn and the way it presents such a richness and diversity of sexual performance. With the FPAs I loved being able to showcase the talent, effort and thought that goes into creating it. People don’t generally give credit for that. People look for and find feminist porn now because the awards put those words out there. I’m proud of our contribution to that. “
*Thank you to the adult performers and Lorraine Hewitt who spoke to me about this piece.