Life and Love

These women are making female pleasure a priority in porn

Women who are making female-focused and feminist porn

  Source: Getty Images

Life and Love

These women are making female pleasure a priority in porn

It's a new day.

In 2018, pornography is still a dirty word. You’ve watched it. So have all your friends, but likely only the most outspoken of them have copped to it — and then probably only after a glass or two. Such reluctance is understandable. Despite today’s increasingly sex-positive movements, traditional porn still feels sleazy and misogynistic. The Internet may have made an old boys’ club once based on back-alley video swaps and X-rated shops more accessible to women, but it can be hard to find something that turns you on (or that you’ll admit turns you on) in an ocean of increasingly hard-core porn made for men by men.

“Sex is one of the biggest pleasures in life, but so much has happened in the past 10 years with online porn,” says Erika Lust, part of a small group of women who are trying to carve out an online market for female pleasure. “It has grown so fast and become so violent; go to any mainstream porn site and you’ll see this extremely misogynistic, racist language.” Lust runs XConfessions, an erotic-short-film website with over 100 videos inspired by the fantasies of anonym­ous users. Notably, her production crew is 90 percent female. “Most of the pornog­raphy we see today is made and distributed by men,” says Lust, whose films focus heavily on female pleasure. “As a woman, you want to see your sexuality reflected, and obviously women are the best ones to achieve that.” Elsewhere, women-led sites like Ersties and Bright Desire are presenting similarly titillating female-first narratives. “If you go to any mainstream porn site, they present fake female pleasure — women screaming from nothing and they’re not even touching themselves,” says Lust. “And you go ‘No, my body doesn’t work that way.’”

Then again, the perspective of women hasn’t ever, um, come first in traditional porn. And porn has been around a long time — like, almost dawn-of-time long. Images have been traced back to the prehistoric era (ac­tually), and the earliest porn films date back to the end of the 19th cen­tury, almost immediately after film was created in 1895. Since then, it has largely been naked women having sex for the gratification of men. Perhaps the most notorious example of this is the 1972 film Deep Throat, in which a woman can only achieve orgasm by giving oral sex. (Insert eye roll here.) The wild wild west of online porn has played into this male fantasy. A particularly seedy aspect of the industry was explored in the Netflix documen­tary Hot Girls Wanted. The Rashida Jones-backed doc sheds a mostly negative light on “barely legal” pornography, honing in on the increasingly violent, forced nature of scenes in amateur porn. “Here’s the key point: You’re never fully engaged,” one director instructs a young female performer, telling her male co-star, “You never even really get that full ‘yes.’”

 

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Photography, Getty Images; Collage, Danielle Campbell

 

That’s not to say there haven’t been women on top over the years; in the early aughties, Jenna Jameson took ownership of her popularity and launched a lucrative streaming website. And, lest we forget, a sex tape kick-started the Kardashian empire. But while these women were in the driver’s seat, their bodies of work (if you’ll pardon the pun) were still made for the male gaze —  even though the seeds of female-focused porn had been planted decades before. Director and actress Annie Sprinkle put women’s pleasure front and centre in many of her films, including the groundbreaking Inside Annie Sprinkle in 1981. In the late ’80s, Susie Bright pioneered feminist sex writing, reviewing porn for Penthouse Forum and founding Herotica, the first women’s erotica book series. Books, of course, were for most of us the entry point into exploring our sexuality — as anyone who has hidden a dirty novel under their mattress will attest. “Women have been taught to privilege story over image,” says Emily Witt, author of Future Sex, a book about women and sex in the digital age. “Romance novels or erotic stories are more socially acceptable forms of fantasy.” Then came video streaming in 2005. Technology, Witt points out, gives women the ability to explore visual sexual fantasy and learn what turns them on in a private way.

But fantasy shouldn’t be a replacement for sex ed or a manual for what should be happening in your bedroom. That’s in part why, in 2009, Cindy Gallop launched the website MakeLoveNotPorn.com, which features videos of real people having real sex. Gallop, a former advertising executive, had encountered porn-influenced sexual behaviour first-hand by dating and bedding younger men. “I realized I was experiencing what happens when today’s total freedom of access to hard-core porn online meets our society’s equal total reluctance to talk openly and honestly about sex,” she says. Today the site has over 400,000 users, both male and female. “The wonderful thing about our videos is that nothing is through the male lens,” adds Gallop. “I would say our videos reflect a gender-equal lens because what you see is an equality – both of them making sure the other has a wonderful time and that they’re having a wonderful time themselves.”

But can porn be explicitly female friendly? And, even more complicated, can it be feminist? The difference is fuzzy, even to those in the industry. “I am a feminist, but it’s very difficult to label feminist porn,” says Lust. “I think that what people mean by feminist porn is that there’s someone behind it who is aware of the society we live in, of power structures, gender roles and diversity, and wants to work for a more equal society.” For adult-film actress Maria Riot, the answer is also complicated. “I don’t like to divide the bad porn and the good porn because that makes enemies when, really, we are all in the same industry,” she says. “I don’t label myself as a fem­inist performer — I think it’s more ambitious to change the per­ception that people have of porn in general.”

There’s also the question of desire. “Part of being a feminist is being okay with stuff that turns you on that doesn’t represent gender equality,” says Witt. “You can hold two ideas in your head: ‘I’m the owner of my sexuality. I’m going to be honest about what excites me. It’s not the dynamic I want to exist in the world, but it’s hot for me.’” As for the future of porn? “I think it will be less male-centric and more diverse in general—the range of fantasies is going to be wider,” says Witt. “To truly free porn from its negative associations, it can no longer be a male-dominated space.” We’ll drink to that.

 

This article first appeared in the February 2018 issue of ELLE Canada

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Life and Love

These women are making female pleasure a priority in porn