I can easily recall my first brush with porn, I was seven. My brother and I had set off to see a friend, a boy around our age. When we arrived he asked if we wanted to ‘see something’. We knew it would be good because he was whispering even though his parents were outside, talking over next door’s fence. We followed him to his parents’ room and watched as he pulled up a chair in front of his father’s wardrobe. He had to stand on tiptoe to reach the top shelf. When he clambered down he presented us with a magazine with a pair of bunny ears stencilled upon the cover. It fell open to the centre, and there before us was a technicolour image of a topless woman, her strawberry-blonde hair flowing in the wind, with large pinky-brown nipples. My brother and I looked at one another. We knew that being naked was naughty; but we had also seen our mother’s breasts so we weren’t quite sure why this picture was worth all this secrecy and effort. But we stared attentively nonetheless.
Of course as a child I didn’t understand this image as pornography any more than our friend did. Nor did I know anything about Hugh Hefner’s infamous magazine, created in 1953, long before I was born. We hid the magazine and dispatched it from our minds, dismissing it as yet another one of those mysteries that belong to the adult world.
A decade or so later as a teenager in the late 1970s and 80s, porn seemed the province of sad old men in raincoats who visited barred and grubby shops in London’s seedy Soho. Or it was the stuff that boys at my brother’s school hid under their mattresses. But attitudes towards sex were changing: intellectual people like my parents proudly kept a copy of Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex on their shelves, which taught a new generation how to have a good time.
Inevitably of course this loosening of mores meant that representations of the nude body and sex were more commonplace. But it was only at university several years later that erotica, such as Anaïs Nin’s Delta of Venus or Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden, became part of my friends’ reading repertoire. But porn per se, in magazines or films, had little or no place in my life.
The new libertarianism, however, was having a profound influence on the representation of sex, even if I was too naïve to notice it. In the 1970s, the hard-core film Deep Throat, in which a doctor encounters a woman with no gag reflex, became a huge hit. Its success ushered in a golden age of porn and erotic mainstream films, like Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris starring Marlon Brando.
By the late 80s, I was working at the feminist magazine Spare Rib. I was delightfully out of my depth, but my consciousness was expanding daily. In our Clerkenwell office loft, I was exposed to the debates about women’s sexuality, and the images made of them, that raged across the women’s movement. Theorists like Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon, anxious about the misogyny associated with the porn industry, developed a vociferous anti-porn narrative embodied by their slogan: ‘Porn is the theory, rape is the practice’.
Meanwhile, sex-positive feminists argued that porn was an opportunity for sexual self-expression. It was, they argued, a potentially radical act of self-revelation that allowed many women an independent income, access to an empowering political discourse and the chance to create a sex-positive identity that would enrich their erotic lives. This conflict became known as the sex (or porn) wars, and divides feminist debates on the subject to this day.
By the 90s I was an archetypal third-wave feminist, transfixed by the pleasure-loving, sex-positive model of feminism that the third-wavers espoused. Women, we believed, deserved stimulating material and new sexual narratives. Erotic images circulated around the office, some of them evolving from the material disseminated by American sex educators like Susie Bright and Tristan Taormino. On Our Backs, the first erotic magazine created for women by women, was published in San Francisco. Lulu Belliveau, its art director, was surprised at the furore that broke out as a result of its queer-chic images. ‘I just wanted to make images that I found hot.’ Soon On Our Backs and its British counterpart Quim were a must-read for cool queer girls, and one of my friends was featured, bare-breasted and dressed as an angel, with white widely spread wings.
Feminist erotica was a growing industry, and it became de rigueur to be cool about it. In the mid-90s a friend suggested we get together and watch a film by Candida Royale, a feminist pornographer who aspired to make porn for couples to enjoy. The screening was held at my flat. I bought some wine and nibbles. The invitees arrived and we settled down to watch the video. The event was not a success. The couple on the screen were white, heterosexual and conventional looking, a cast that in no way represented my multicultural group of friends. The director’s approach to sex was so predictable and PC that it seemed almost antiseptic. So it was no surprise that before anyone had a chance to get even a bit aroused the evening fell apart. My partner felt that it excluded lesbian sexuality and stormed off to the bedroom. The black girls felt invisible, the straight girls were embarrassed, and all of us were disappointed. I don’t know what would have happened if we had had a chance to watch the whole thing; but I do remember thinking at the time that the sexiest thing about the event was not the film, but the clandestine nature of the gathering.
In those days my feelings about pornography remained largely indifferent, and I watched it only coincidentally, for example dancing in a lesbian club in New York’s meat packing district, where X-rated images of leather-clad dykes playing with fire and wax flickered around the room, or in my television job, watching clips of Suburban Dykes, in which a rakish butch teaches heterosexual women how to do lesbian sex. It was so funny and sexy that I had to rethink porn.
By the noughties Madonna, with her perpetual play on the motifs of paid sex and porno images, was my generation’s mascot. We blithely believed in a new sexual dawn. And we were all flirting with porn. My then lover presented me with a copy of Madonna’s coffee table book, Sex, for my birthday. (It is still the fastest selling coffee table of all time.) In retrospect, the book was a case of style over substance; but I can still remember the excitement of tearing open the silver Mylar sheath that covered the huge book. As I turned its heavy pages I felt cool and edgy. The pictures, taken by the fashion photographer Steven Meisel were achingly fashionable; if not at all sexy – it was essentially soft core porn that simulated S & M, bondage and anilingus. As a gesture towards authenticity it also featured real-life porn stars like Joey Stefano, as well as mainstream actresses like Isabella Rossellini and lesser luminaries like the rapper Vanilla Ice.
Not long after this I was commissioned to write a piece about Annie Sprinkle, one of the great doyennes of US porn, who had come over to England to present her new show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. I was excited to meet her: she engaged with feminist issues, and to make the evening more interesting still, there had been a controversy about part of her act. In New York, members of the audience were allowed, if they so chose, to examine her cervix through a speculum, but the British establishment banned this, deeming it obscene. The inevitable controversy that followed about censorship, obscenity and art reverberated through the cultural community and the event sold out.
My partner and I slipped into our seats, beside a man shivering with excitement. He told us that Annie Sprinkle was his favourite porn star. As soon as Sprinkle and her partner, a champion of eco issues, got on stage, hugging and dancing around the faux trees, this man, overwhelmed perhaps by the illicit atmosphere of porn, or the lesbian couple holding hands beside him, began to masturbate. We moved seats quickly, feeling sullied and intruded upon. The incident reinforced the seedy, objectifying image of porn, which this event was meant to belie.
I returned home that night to research the piece I had agreed to write. But when I watched the videos that made up Sprinkle’s back catalogue, they were of the same old formula, replete with all the typical tropes of hard-core porn: vaginal and anal fistings, double penetrations and gang bangs in dirty rooms and urine stained pissoirs. The material grew darker: Sprinkle was being penetrated by the stumps of amputees. This was completely different from anything I had ever seen, imagined or thought of as sex. Clearly the porn industry was engaging in practices that had previously been beyond the pale. I remember breathing in but not being able to breathe out.
What was any of this to do with the erotic, I wondered? Of the sweet, fleshy tumbles with my partner? It was the aesthetics of the freak show. Come, it said, let us watch women’s flesh be poked and prodded, stretched and spread to the limits of what is bearable; a hideous, awful circus that used spurious theories to excuse its profound hatred and abuse of women. When I stopped watching all I wanted was to somehow un-see this material, mercifully wipe it from my mind. But the flashbacks went on for months.
Despite these abominations, pornography, amongst many feminists, was still seen not as a problem but an opportunity. And third-wave feminists like myself dreamt of establishing a utopia where we would be as free as men about our sexuality. It was a vision that entranced my generation; and a feminist porn industry emerged to make it true. Our porn would not be like the mainstream industry that abused and exploited women like Linda Lovelace, star of Deep Throat. Instead this was porn for women by women; a pornographic utopia, where the performers were treated well; and the representation of sex challenged the tedious images that had evolved in La La Land where women’s bodies were merely the landscape, and men’s pleasure the real goal.
I recently travelled to San Francisco, commissioned to explore the city’s feminist porn scene. It is one of the most significant hubs of the contemporary American feminist porn industry, and has produced porn for over a hundred years, ranging from one-reel silent classics, such as A Free Ride where a man picks up a girl in his Ford Model T automobile; to adult productions like smokers, blue movies and stag films.
The city’s alternative porn scene is an industry within an industry, a subset of LA’s dominant porn-valley scene, the biggest porn hub in the world. The San Franciscans specialize in BDSM (Bondage, Domination, Sadomasochism) just as other locations specialize in couples’ porn or other genres.
I am staying at the Geary Street Hotel, popular with fashionable gay men. The furnishings are minimalist and the broadband is super fast. I am going to a feminist porn shoot in the morning, so I decide to watch some mainstream porn, to explore the contrast between the two worlds. I choose a generic but well-known porn provider. The content is classified into numerous categories: ebony, lesbian, gang bang, anal, as well as a couple that I have to decipher by watching, for example POV, which means ‘point of view’, and DP which stands for ‘double penetration’. I start soft with the lesbian category, and open up a tab randomly. I am confronted by a group of three women with dyed blonde hair extensions, matching pink leotards and white fishnet tights, attacking each other with pink dildos. Their nails are long and white and I cannot help but worry as they insert them into each other. The women moan loudly, and I wonder who is fooled by this display especially since there has been virtually no contact with a clitoris. Mainstream porn’s egregious indifference to women’s pleasure is obvious; it is effectively a middle finger up to women and their needs.
I click again. As a black woman, I’m curious about the ‘ebony’ category. I am presented with a series of black women being penetrated by black and white men. The ubiquitous porn aesthetic continues. Almost all of the women have the same hair and nail extensions, the same massive implants and terrible make-up. I click again, disconsolately. The next image is a woman trying to insert a supersized dildo into her own anus. The dildo is hard and inflexible. The pain she is experiencing is evident for all to see. And then surreptitiously, she looks swiftly to the right, and I see a moment of fear pass over her face. I wonder if she is looking at someone, someone whom she is frightened of displeasing, and I wonder suddenly if this is a trafficked woman, deprived of all choice.
The next click and I am in the gangbang section. This is particularly harrowing: the configuration of one woman and four men looks like an attack. The girl tries to accommodate every organ and hand, manipulating her body so as to avoid as much discomfort and pain as possible, while unconvincingly feigning pleasure. The misogyny of mainstream porn has created a sexual narrative that is irrelevant to how women really achieve pleasure. It has enshrined practices like anal sex and shaving pubic hair as de rigueur even though many women do not want to do them. The clip concludes with a predictable close-up of traumatized anuses and semen dripping from faces. It breaks my heart that we are breeding a generation of men who will see this dispiriting spectacle, even before they have enjoyed their first kiss.
I promise myself that I can stop soon. I click again. A tired looking woman in her late forties is ranged across a bed, while a hideous man inserts the handle of a rake into her vagina. I rub my eyes – I am reaching the end of my tether. I click again. This time I am confronted by a woman lying on the ground with a man fisting her while another is pissing on her face. I shut my computer down abruptly, truly shaken. I understand now why some women don’t watch mainstream porn for fear of what they will find. And I recall a quote from a well-known porn director, who once said to the writer David Foster Wallace, ‘Nobody ever goes broke overestimating the rage and misogyny of the average American male.’
It is largely in response to this pernicious industry that feminist porn has evolved. Feminist pornographers emphasize the importance of practicing safe sex, as well as issues of consent, and stress the right of performers to negotiate how they present themselves and what they will or will not do. On a more theoretical level, feminist porn asserts that sexual minorities (for example black, trans or older subjects) should take an equal place in queer porn’s erotic panoply. More profoundly still, feminist porn is an attempt to decolonize women’s imaginations reminding us that we are more than just the object of desire, more than just abject victims of a misogynist culture but active, yearning seekers after sexual pleasure, who deserve erotic satisfaction. Feminist porn urges us to create new sexual scripts and build new imageries that focus less on pleasing men, and how women should look, and more on what truly fulfils us.
I am on my way to my first porn shoot, chauffeured by my cab driver, a young Nepalese man who has won his green card through the lottery, and is struggling to come to terms with this unfamiliar city.
He asks me what I am doing in San Francisco and I tell him that I am writing a piece on feminist porn. He looks at me carefully through the rear-view mirror, and says, ‘No, no, no, we are not involved with that.’ I don’t know what he means by this, but smile politely back, and we both tactfully change the topic.
There is someone else already at the entrance: a young work-experience girl of Ethiopian descent, who wants to know more about working in alternative film. She is the only other interloper on this shoot and we get close over the day. My contact buzzes the formidable spiked gate open and comes to escort us into the Pink & White Productions studio, where filming is to take place. We walk into an unruly cul-de-sac that houses a series of alternative business. Pink & White is situated opposite a music company, beside a Harley-Davidson repair shop.
I am here to see the filming of The Crash Pad series: an ongoing online sequence inspired by Shine Houston’s award-winning film, of the same name, released in 2005. Houston, who has become a formidable figure in the feminist porn industry, evolved the Crash Pad model. Undoubtedly it is genius: born out of the reality TV era, it features an apartment where couples, whether of long standing or recent hook-ups, go to have sex. The space is rigged with cameras, and we, the voyeurs, get a chance to watch.
I am distracted by two women sitting together at a table eating hummus and fruit. I am not sure initially who they are, but suspect that they are the performers (otherwise known as the ‘talent’ or ‘models’) who are scheduled for that morning’s shoot. My suspicion is confirmed when they start on the paperwork demanded by the studio. This may seem dull, but the rigour with which feminist porn producers both inform and legislate their relationship with their workers is one of the most significant differences from the mainstream porn industry, whose exploitation and abuse of their ‘talent’ has been a major complaint of the anti-porn lobby. The team here is very much a family, young and fun and multicultural, but still scrupulous about documenting their relationship with their performers.
Anyone who wants to perform at Pink & White must present their driver’s licence or passport showing their date of birth and legal name. They must sign waivers that give up their right for approval of the finished product, and present a medical certificate of their HIV status. There is another questionnaire, optional this time, which is a sort of getting-to-know-you list with a hippy twist, asking for the performer’s stage name, nickname and Zodiac sign. It asks whether they are ‘tops or bottoms’; that is whether they prefer to be the active or passive sexual partner. It asks whether or not they are in a relationship, and for details such as ‘Turn ons!’ and ‘Who I’d like to meet!’. Finally, there’s a query about ‘Tags, nicknames, and pronouns’, asking performers whether they prefer to be called he, she, we or they; and whether they identify as trans, queer, feminist, polyamorous, butch or femme.
It seems to me that the working conditions at Pink & White represent the best intentions of feminist porn. Most of the staff work on both sides of the camera, and understand the particular challenges of shooting porn. They collaborate with their performers on the choreography of the scenes, as well as dress, make-up and accessories. Indeed the performers are consulted all the way, including how they want to be photographed for marketing material like the DVD covers. It is no surprise that Shine Houston is widely known in the business as ‘the ethical pornographer’.
But it is the wide variety of body types represented in The Crash Pad series that, according to my contact Jiz Lee, most appeal to Crash Pad customers. Pink & White productions include young bodies and old ones, black bodies and white ones, fat ones and thin ones, trans ones and tattooed ones, as well as the disabled. It is an aesthetic that is very different, both from the mainstream porn universe and the wider media in general. It is no surprise that this sublime variety is what provokes the most feedback and gratitude. For if you are one of those people – most of us – whose body style is rarely represented anywhere in the media, it is thrilling to be represented as beautiful and sexy.
The intern and I go outside so she can have a smoke. We are joined by the two performers who have driven all the way from Wisconsin for this. River Stark is a petite dark-haired girl in a wheat-coloured sweater and green jeggings. Her partner is taller, with an equally beautiful face, and dark hair with a strip of pink. It is only her arms, strong and defined, that make me wonder if she might be trans. Her nom de plume (or rather, nom du porno) is Viviane Rex. I ask her why she got into porn. Sucking voraciously on a e-cigarette she replies, ‘I am a feminist. And doing porn is a way of saying “fuck you” to everybody who believes that a trans woman shouldn’t be allowed to live.’
Viviane has a solid porn CV, and works in the mainstream industry as well as in feminist porn. She also runs her own studio. They both talk big, but behind the bravado there is a sweetness about them. They show me their tattoos and tell me what else they want done. And when they discover that I am from London they are thrilled: they love Doctor Who and have a huge crush on Peter Capaldi. Watching their shining faces I realize how young they are, and thus of course how vulnerable.
The performers go to the bathroom and prepare for the shoot. Make-up and fake tan are not compulsory in feminist porn, but this pair prefer to use both. Meanwhile the intern and I are allowed into the set – a bedroom with olive walls and cream curtains over faux windows. The double bed sheet is rust-coloured, one pillow orange, the other yellow. It’s a generic bedroom – but around the bed is the camera equipment to record the sex that that will soon follow.
We return to the main part of the studio since we are not allowed to be in the crash pad while Shine and her team are filming. I tell the intern that I’m a bit nervous. She agrees. Both of us are familiar with the more extreme BDSM that sometimes is part of the studio’s repertoire, including, caning, electric play and bondage.
The feed starts, and the pair begin to kiss, like they really mean it, a kiss that promises real love-making, people in search of real pleasure. They are a beautiful couple and it is a pleasure to watch them. I have seen River’s body earlier when she dashed onto the set and it is not a porn body, more a dancer’s body with perfect champagne-cup breasts and a thin landing strip of hair on her pudenda. They undress and get into bed. I knew that Viviane was trans but I had assumed she was post-op. I was wrong: she has a penis, and not a modest one, either. This is a really impressive schlong.
For a second I am not sure how things will work, until the pair really begin to get it on. The real penis competes with a variety of sex toys, whose use is encouraged by the studio, perhaps because of sponsorship deals. They are confident in this scenario, especially Viviane who works a lot for the big mainstream porn studios. River reaches for her partner’s surgically enhanced breasts. (She will later tell us, to our amazement, that the mainstream porn merchants have encouraged her to have more surgery, because apparently her DD cups aren’t big enough.) It is easy to tell that they are comfortable with each other; there is enough affection between them to make the sex feel genuinely passionate. Certainly watching this is much more enjoyable than watching the mainstream fodder on the Internet. But I can’t help but notice that there are tropes from the parent industry that I wish weren’t there: the over-speedy thud thud thud of penetration (whether with penis or dildo), the random face and bottom slapping. I get a sense that the San Francisco producers are worried that lesbian sex is too soft and girlie to be cool; and that it needs to be roughed up and sped up.
All of a sudden the sex talk is interrupted by the sound of revving engines from the bike shop, but the two concerns have lived beside each other for a long time and happily work around each other. Someone is sent to ask them to desist, for the time being anyway. Filming is resumed and the sex heats up. Then all of a sudden the feed goes down and we can no longer see the action. All we can hear is River’s ululating cries. They rise up and down like scales on a piano, and I realize, as the crescendo of the oh, oh, oh, ooh’s of her pleasure reverberate in my head, that for me this sound bereft of images is the most exciting moment of all.
The afternoon shoot is very different. Two French girls, Moriah and Riley Saint, arrive. There is a lot of whispering in corners and strained voices. One of the girls keeps disappearing and there are numerous outbursts of tears. I wonder if one of them, or both, has cold feet. Inevitably some of those who agree to do a porn shoot as a sort of pair-bonding exercise find that they cannot go through with it. This does not surprise me. It is a brave – perhaps even a foolish – act to enshrine an image of your passion on the Web. Once uploaded, it is virtually impossible to erase. So in the end one of the girls pulls out and the other, make-up free and hair pulled into an unglamorous top knot, diligently masturbates for the required time, and gets paid the standard fee: four hundred dollars. Her partner, meanwhile, is sobbing outside.
I feel wrung out by the day, particularly this last scene. Despite the porn industry’s assertion that sex is a spree, something to merely bring us off, I am aware that porn plays with dangerous toys, not just dildos and whips, but love and desire, fidelity and betrayal. I can imagine myself in that girl’s position, feeling, in a moment of bravado, that I could do this thing, and then realizing that I couldn’t; that this very private act was now to become a product completely out of your control, something anyone could share, buy, watch and judge. What might a transient act like this do to one’s relationship, to others that love you? Would it break the spell of love, or cement it?
How and why does a woman get into the business? As much as it seems a cliché, a lot of them still seem to be recruited from the vast number of females who, like the wannabe starlets of old, migrate from small towns attracted by the beacon of Tinseltown; hoping to be dancers, singers, or other kind of performers. A much smaller number actively seek out the porn industry hoping to become famous – but there are no stars in porn anymore.
In order to understand the decision to work in porn, I interview the gender-fluid performer Jiz Lee, who prefers to be referred to as ‘they’. Jiz is described on the Pink & White rota as a production assistant, but this modest title belies the significant position in San Francisco’s porn scene that Lee has occupied: ten years of work, and more than two hundred projects across six countries, winning numerous awards. As well as working in LA’s mainstream porn industry, including hard-core gonzo productions, Jiz has also worked extensively in queer and independent porn.
We grab a chance to talk whenever there is a rare break in Lee’s duties:
‘How did you get into the porn industry?’ I ask.
‘I was a dancer in LA and I needed to make money. And it seemed as if it was a chance to use my body and support myself.’
‘You started in LA’s mainstream porn industry. Did you have any bad experiences?’
Jiz hesitates for a moment and replies: ‘Well there were some not so awesome moments.’
There is a long pause. I am not surprised. Reticence regarding the ugly side of the mainstream porn business is something that I experience again and again when I talk with porn actresses who have worked in LA’s porn valley. I cannot help but wonder if there is a desire to play down the bad stuff, so that civilians won’t blame them for being involved in the business in the first place.
Our discussion continues the following afternoon at a bar near San Francisco’s LGBT centre, a building in the Mission District of the city. Emboldened by mojitos, I ask the question that I am most curious about: ‘Are you out as a porn star to your family?’
The pause is prolonged, before Lee responds: ‘. . . not all of them.’
My next interview is intriguing. It is with a female academic I shall call ‘B’ who has been interested in porn, as an intellectual issue, for some years. After much thought she decided that she wanted to do a porn shoot, but her partner was not happy about her doing it without him. They decided that they would do the porn shoot together, and chose a well-established film maker who prefers to work directly with couples; or would matchmake those who didn’t know each other, making sure that they genuinely fancied each other.
B was reassured by how collaborative the process was. The couple discussed what they would or wouldn’t do. An attractive house was rented. There was good catering and champagne. Silly porn names were chosen. Discussions were held with the director about how they wanted to do it. A minimal crew was used to make the pair comfortable. ‘At first it was awkward,’ she said. ‘I thought about everyone and everything. But very soon I forgot and got into the situation . . . I am very good at focusing on my own pleasure. It was fun. We felt like naughty kids, doing something rude and kinky.’
The result was something of a surprise. The film was a revelation: ‘To see our sexuality on screen – the rapport that we had built together – made me proud; we were beautiful. And the dance that our bodies made on film was lovely.’ Watching herself was a surprise, she said. ‘I always wondered about how I looked when I was having sex, but my body was fine.’ And like most people she was curious to see what her face looked like when she came. She was reassured. ‘In a film you can see yourself being desired. Best of all, looking back at the rushes, I could see the way that he looked at me, how truly he desired and loved me.’ I asked her if she would do it again.
‘Maybe a couple of times but no more than that,’ she said, almost to herself. ‘Then it might become routine; and our actions self-conscious.’ She hesitated again, shook her head, and added, ‘No – I have got what I wanted.’
B’s experience fascinated me. It illustrated that it was not that she had been filmed having sex which was the issue – indeed for her that was liberating. It was that she didn’t rely on the porn business for her bread and butter, that she was already a financially independent, professional woman who could chose to do this or not. She could remain largely anonymous, and thus avoid the taint (however unfair) associated with sex work. It illustrated, in other words, that a woman can only be sexually free if she is also in control of the means of production.
It made me wonder whether, in these, the best of circumstances, whether it is more rewarding to be the performer than the voyeur; doing, living and touching, rather than merely passively watching. In an age where more and more of us conflate doing with watching, it is important to remember that porn is not sex; it is merely its fleshless representation.
San Francisco, the metropolis that once nurtured the feminist porn industry, and previously one of my favourite cities, is changing. Once the Mecca to which gay, lesbian and trans folks flocked to find their queer tribe, San Francisco is now one of the most expensive cities in the United States. Queer seekers are priced out of the market, and go elsewhere, to Oakland across the bay, for example, or to other American cities like Seattle or Austin; their place in the city taken by young people with more prosaic goals. In this newly gentrified and increasingly conservative city, it is no surprise that San Francisco’s last lesbian bar closed down in 2015.
Despite feminist porn’s influence on the media, art world and academia it has never been a financially viable undertaking; not least because women are not interested in buying porn in large quantities. The free products available on sites like Porn Hub are a disincentive, too, to pay for porn of any variety. And so the huge and thriving alternative porn product that the San Franciscans dreamt of generating simply has not come to pass. Piracy, too, which is rife online, has had a hand in undercutting the monetary stream that should fill the coffers of feminist pornographers. A sign of the industry’s stagnation is the fate of the Feminist Porn Award designed to recognize the talent of the sector – it has not been put on for a few years now. A number of notable feminist porn producers, too, who once aspired to make a living in this milieu, have moved on to other professions.
The great black feminist poet Audre Lorde once wrote that ‘the masters tools will never dismantle the master’s house’. But feminist porn director Shine Houston countered this by saying: ‘What I’ve learned in this business is that you absolutely can dismantle the master’s house using the master’s tools.’ Houston’s retort was made in the hopeful days of the San Franciscan feminist porn scene, when practitioners believed that they could establish a thriving feminist porn industry. But this has not proved to be the case. The master’s tools have not dismantled the master’s house. And the dominion of the mainstream porn industry is unassailed.
Photograph © Laura-Lynn Petrick