So I was over at My Sex Professor, and I read an article about wanting to do queer, feminist porn.

And I really wanted to comment on it because it was full of stuff that was… problematic (gods, I hate that word, but here I am, using it anyway…) for me in how it talked about sexwork and NON-queer-feminist porn, but also because it contained stuff that I agree with and want to talk about a little more.  Additionally – and, as this post gets longer and longer, more accurately – I wanted to use the post as a jumping-off point to talk about social perceptions of sexwork and sexworkers.  Partly because (duh) this is What I Talk About Here, but also because I need to write a nine-line poem (for a ‘zine that’s being done up as a fundraiser for POWER) about how sexworkers get held up as voiceless mascots on all sides of the sex-positivity versus anti-porn Feminist “debate” (Ooo!  Scare Quotes!) and, to do that, I really need to write about sexwork and sexworking right now.

So.  Where to begin…

First of all, I link you to a post which I think is relevant to my own history.  [EDIT:  Originally, there were two links.  Unfortunately the contents of one of them — which looked at how we[1] culturally code sex work, women, sexuality, and sex – is pretty-much irrevocably lost.  Alas.  So you only get one of them]

How I Became a Pro-Porn Feminist

Right.  Now that we’ve got that out of the way, on to yacking about the article on My Sex Professor.

The first thing that jumped out at me (okay, the first thing after her statement about being white, middleclass, university-educated and so on — because that jumped out at me mostly due to my going “How is this a problem when it comes to porn?”) was this statement:

Sex workers (especially in feminist/queer porn) are people, just like you and me, who enjoy sex and want to share that enjoyment with the world.

Now, it’s pretty clear from the rest of the article that the author didn’t actually intend to base the presumed agency and humanity of sexworkers on the kind films they make or companies they work for.  But the wording of it basically hit a big, red buzzer for me, so I wanted to talk a little about sexwork as WORK, and then further unpack stuff (in this article, but more-so in Dominant Canadian Culture at large) about how we look at sex, sexual agency, and sexwork in general.

So.  To begin:

Work is work is work.

I know there are porn actresses out there (in/around Toronto, for example) who do the queer-feminist-collective stuff AND who do the hetero-dude-market stuff because, hello, it’s their job.

It’s similar to how I’ll take a job as a figure model in an art class, and follow it up with a job as a lingerie model for an independent, dude-targeting soft-core site, or a super-specific fetish shoot for an individual client, or how I’ll write queer-chick porn for anthologies (in the hopes of getting paid published) and I’ll write paid blog-posts about stuff that interests me and aligns with my personal values and politics, but I’ll also do boring-ass, churned-out, content-mill crap for no reason other than it helps to pay the bills.

Sexwork is like any other freelance job.  A favourite client (whether we’re talking escort-dates, private dance regulars, pornographers, or whatever) may get to be a favourite because they’re awesome to work with, but it’s still a business relationship even when it’s a friendly one.

I think it’s… telling.  I the statement I italicized up at the top of this post is telling of how we[1] view sex, sexwork, and women[2].  The author of the linked article suggests that “People draw most of their conclusions about porn from main-stream, heterosexual porn”.  I don’t think that’s actually the case (if only because a lot of people don’t watch/read porn, or won’t admit to doing so).  Rather, my guess – and, granted, it is a guess – is that many people draw their conclusions about porn from mainstream, heteronormative cultural opinions about porn (and sex, and women, and men).

Like:  In the same way that we’ll code a flirtatious woman as “trying to get men’s attention”, but we’ll code a flirtatious man as “sexually aggressive”, we code other things, too.  For example:

IF

Sex = filthy-bad-dirty-dangerous-death

AND

Women = perma-prey/victims with no agency or autonomy

THEN

Sexwork = a filthy-bad-dirty-dangerous-deadly industry where women with no agency or autonomy are perpetually preyed-upon and victimized.

See how that goes?

And, because it’s a huge part of the culture, it means that we’ve all – even us third-and-fourth-wave feminist folks who KNOW that women have agency and autonomy, and KNOW that sex is awesome and fun and glorious – have still been drinking the koolaid that tells us differently.  Which makes it really hard to catch yourself when you start justifying stuff or saying “this kind of sexwork/porn/etc is okay, but not that kind” – whether “okay” is defined as “feminist” or “socially acceptable” or “not too explicit for me, personally, to be able to handle” or “empowering” or something else.

You can see this in all sorts of situations.  Like the responses from the author’s friends when confronted with her desire to act in porn:  These very negative views of porn, of sex beyond closed doors, being mixed with the idea that everyone should get to make up their own minds about what they do with their bodies.  Or me, for that matter, years ago, trying to find the words to explain, even just to myself, why I didn’t think sexwork should be criminalized before I even knew the word “sexwork”, let alone had an understanding of how things like social attitudes towards, and expectations about, women’s sexuality play into the way my society views sex, sexwork, and sexworkers.

I think the author is right when she talks about how, in the states (her case) and Canada (mine), women aren’t “supposed” to enjoy sex.  It’s something that is “supposed” to get done to us by men (who do enjoy it) and it’s coded as this very transactional thing where women trade access to our genitalia cunts for romantic/financial security[4]… but only with one person dude.  I think she’s right when she talks about her class-standing (white, middle class, university-educated) and how sexworkers are frequently assumed to be poor and “trashy”, and what that says about how we view both poor women AND openly sexual women[4].

But I’m kind of digressing here.

In the article, the author talks about a friend of hers who describes porn as “mere titillating bullshit” and talks about how she doesn’t want to do porn that’s like that.

And this kind of got under my skin a little because: Hi, there.  I’m a pornographer.  I write explicit sex scenes for other people to read and get off on.  My work is SUPPOSED to titillate my audience, get them hot and bothered without necessarily making them think too much, and help them to get themselves off.

That’s what it’s for.

If it’s not titillating, I’m not doing my job.

The idea that porn made by a feminist organization is somehow serving a different, higher purpose qua porn, while all other porn is just dismissible trash… is… not cool with me.

You can go right ahead and say “Actresses like Jesse Jane and Carmen Luvana don’t do it for me”.  You can say “I like my porn to have seriously couple-y fooling around and a dyke-next-door feel to the cast”.  You can say “Hearing the same tired humiliation-play stuff over and over again in non bdsm porn gets on my nerves a LOT”.  You can definitely say that you’d rather support pornographers whose work centers women’s sexual agency within the plot/action of the film (or the story, or whatever).  Go for it!  Because all of those statements involve specifying what appeals to YOU, personally, without saying (or hinting, or implying) that everything else is automatically drek.

Srsly.  As a porn writer, I draw a distinction between “bad porn” and “porn that I don’t like” (and, okay, “porn that I seriously wish didn’t exist” although that’s a subsection of “porn I don’t like”, so we’ll leave that one for now).

“Porn I don’t like” is basically what it says on the tin.  Sometimes that means “porn that squicks me right out” like stuff that involves non-con or humiliation or other stuff that is kind of triggery for me.  Sometimes it just means “porn that I find boring or annoying or that makes me angry”, like stuff where the lesbians are having sexual reactions to don’t read like girl-sex to me or stuff where the trans women are basically being portrayed as super-elaborate cross-dressers cooing about how, golly-gee, they feel like real women when they put on this lingerie/school uniform/pair of high heels/whatever – which just fucking pisses me the goddamn fuck off[5].

“Bad Porn”, on the other hand, is largely a literary designation and includes things like disembodied extra hands, bad choreography, forgetting which clothes have or have not been removed at this point in the action, and the kind of stuff where “the action” is largely happening inside the author’s head and is not translating onto the page very well, if at all (way more likely to happen in fanfic – unless the anthology editor is also totally crap).  “Bad Porn” basically translates as “Bad Writing” in a specific context.

The whole “mere titillating bullshit” thing actually reminds me a LOT of the porn vs erotica stuff that I used to subscribe to (see my “relevant back-story” link, above).  The idea that “What turns me on is fine — it’s art or it’s non-exploitive (because, obviously, everyone wants to have sex the same way I do), or whatever — but what doesn’t turn me on is clearly low-brow crap and/or made under duress.  Or something.

But, like I said, porn is for titillation.  If it does anything beyond that, well, bonus.  But what it’s for is to get people turned on.  That’s the case for “Crash Pad” and “Girlfriends” and “V for Vagina” AND it’s the case for “Girls Gone Wild” and “Gang Bang 49”.  The latter two may not do a damn thing for me, and Crash Pad may make me really happy (YAY girls with tatoos), but it doesn’t change the purpose of the material.  Porn made by a feminist collective featuring unionized workers may have better business ethics behind it.  But that doesn’t make it better porn — at least not if what you’re looking for is “femmedomme forced-animalization hetero humiliation play”, for example, and what they make is “geeky vanilla lesbian sorority bash”.

I’ve got a friend who says “There’s no such thing as ‘porn versus erotica’.  There’s only Good Porn and Bad Porn”, which is her way of getting around that whole “debate” which – I understand now – feeds into/on the sex-negativity in our[1] culture.

Anyway.

I guess this post has kind of turned into a bit of a brain-dump about pornography, sexwork, and social mores or something, and now I’m going “Crap!  How do I wrap this up???”

The author of the article asks her readers for their thoughts on the subject – which I’ve already gone into pretty extensively here – and also on the distinction between het porn and queer porn.

As far as that goes…  I think a lot of that is based on one’s definition of “queer”.  I mean, if “queer” in this context means “dyke”, then of course the gender rolls and power-dynamics are going to be totally different.  You can’t have M/F-specific power dynamics in a situation where there’s no M, right?  One must also ask questions like “Is Bend Over Boyfriend, dude-bottom, chick-top strap-on porn classified as “strictly heterosexual” (because of the fairly standard M/F pairing)?  Is it “queer” (because the woman is on top and/or because the dude likes to get penetrated – both of which seriously queer/twist the heteronormative sexual paradigm)?  What about the home-made (real people having real – unchoreographed – sex) hetero piece on PornTube that features The Woman, joyful and in charge, going down on The Man?  Is that “mainstream” because it’s a dude-bottom, chick-top blow-job?  Is it “queer” because it lacks the humiliation-play aspects – like “come on my face” and “eat it slut” – and, if so… Why can’t “queer” involve humiliation play?

Outside of the question of “was this porn made with a gay/queer audience in mind or a heterosexual/heteronormative audience in mind?” I really don’t think the distinction is simple or easy to make.

In conclusion!

I don’t think that porn is inherently degrading to women.  I do think that, because our[1] culture is both anti-sex and anti-women (yes, REALLY), much of the porn that we’ve made over the centuries has been degrading to women.  I also think that it takes a lot of willingness to Think About It to find those anti-sex, anti-women sentiments that have been embedded through acculturation on one’s own head, and that it takes active work to change those ideas in oneself, let alone create porn (or anything else) that challenges those sentiments openly.

And there you go. 🙂

–          Cheers,

–          Ms. Syren

[1] “We” being, in this case, mainstream/dominant white-heteronormative-etc Canadian (etc) culture.

[2] Ever notice how you pretty-much NEVER hear about *dudes* being exploited in the sex industry?  That silence tells us fuck-all about how/if dudes get (or don’t get) exploited in the sex industry.  But it tells us a metric fuck-tonne about how we[1] view women as lacking autonomy and agency and code them (us) as victims/prey.  (Hint:  Julia Serano has an awesome breakdown of the dude/chick preditor/prey thing in Whipping Girl.  Go check it out).

[3]  There is a big, huge, giant post lurking in here somewhere, about non-monogamy and how the business-transaction (property rights over a given woman’s sexual availability and reproductive abilities) of Marriage got mixed up with this new-fangled idea of True Love to result in the enshrining of Monogamy as the One True Way while, at the same time, demonizing women who turn that transactionality to their own advantage – women who do sexwork.  It drives me utterly fucking bonkers that trading sex for financial security is upheld as appropriate womanly behavior when the trade is permanent and made only once, but is held in the worst, most violent, contempt possible when it’s done repeatedly.  Aaargh!!!  Etc.

[4]  FYI:  The designations of “poor” and “trashy” and “sexually available” have been – and still are – heavily intertwined in many cultures, including my own.

[5]  No, really.  Tell us how you really feel…