Women Making Pornography

artioliNon-Fiction Book Excerpt / After Pornified by Anne Sabo PhD

I never wanted to watch porn. When a former boyfriend years ago showed me some of his “glossier” porn, as he put it, I was completely grossed out. […] But then I found something radically different. […]

What I have found are films that have empowered and inspired me. Films that feature women I can identify with. Mothers and daughters, single or partnered, younger and older, thinner or plumper. Women who confront culturally imposed sanctions regulating their behavior, and deeply felt issues shaping their lives. Women who reject the speed limits of desire enforced upon women. Women who refuse to be labeled.

Behind these films are educated women with high ideals and intriguing visions. Women who object to the discriminating portrayal of their sex in porn and popular media, and who speak up for women sexually and politically. Some of them stay clear of the “porn” word lest they turn their targeted audience away from their work. Instead they market their films as “adult,” “explicit,” “sensual,” or “erotic.” But others refuse to allow men free rein in defining porn, and therefore claim the “porn” word as a way to subversively change its meaning.

This position appeals the most to me. Because words can hold a lot of power.

Whore. Prude. Slut.

Women and men are cursed by words. And women and men have been cruelly labeled by words. In turn, some women and men have claimed words to deny their derogatory undertones.

“Porn” is a loaded word that brings up a lot of negative imageries in our pornified culture. “That’s so ‘porn'” has today become an expression to describe excessive or trashy taste. But imagine if the content and connotations, and even the effects of porn were different: positive and empowering rather than negative and degrading. That’s what I’ve discovered to be the potential of re-visioned and transformed porn by women.

I have found that porn is not inherently bad; there has just been a lot of badly made porn. Postmodern sex-positive performance artist (and former “golden age” porn star) Annie Sprinkle is known for having said that “the answer to bad porn isn’t no porn, it’s more porn.” I would second that but also insist that it strive to be better. And by that I am not referring to big production “high gloss,” or “softcore,” or “couples” porn. Or the mainstream porn industry’s so-called lines of “women friendly” porn that do nothing more than gloss up the picture and soften the plot.

I am interested in the authentic porn made by women who show a sincere commitment to radically change porn, featuring female and male sexuality with respect and realism. Where porn becomes a vehicle for women to explore their own sexuality and define it for themselves. A new language, in fact not found elsewhere, to talk about sex. A radically progressive and liberating gender democratic discourse with which to think and approach heterosexuality. Presenting us with intriguing openings of more room for women, as well as men, to explore and expand our sexual play-field. In fact, new porn by women shines the light on how we can all break free from confining gender roles and erotic conventions, attaining fluidity, democracy, and abundant space and possibilities in the ways we encounter our sexual partners. […]

***

High-profiled journalist Pamela Paul has devoted an entire book to the subject of the pornification of our culture, with porn now seemingly everywhere in our lives. In Pornified: How Pornography Is Damaging Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families (2005), Paul belabors the many negative effects of porn beyond the pornification of popular culture:

Men who prefer the fantasy of porn to the reality of family life. Men who desensitized by what they see turn to ever more extreme porn. Men who feel their self-esteem crumble under the weight of shame.

Hurt and jealous women who feel pressured to pony up. Women who feel expected to be ready for sex at any moment of the day and reach howling ecstasies within two minutes. Women who remark on the lack of foreplay from their porn-watching partners — men who instead push for oral sex, even when she doesn’t feel like giving it.

Sexualized children who grow up with warped ideas about sex. Children who emulate porn and pop stars by posting sexual pictures of themselves on the Internet. Children who act out porn scenarios with even younger kids.

Intimacy disorders and relationships that crumble as trust is replaced by distrust and emotional isolation.[i]

I do not question that porn has an effect on us: quite the opposite. But the porn that Paul refers to has nothing to do with the porn that interests me. Concludes Paul:

The sexual acts depicted in pornography are more about shame, humiliation, solitude, coldness, and degradation than they are about pleasure, intimacy, and love.[ii]

None of this holds true for re-visioned and transformed porn by women.

Re-visioned porn by women shows us sex that is pleasurable, intimate, and caring between women and men we can relate to. They meet their sexual partners on equal terms, and their sexual encounters—giving and receiving—are characterized by warmth and respect, and a mutual sense of adoration and affirmation. In contrast to the depressing porn Paul talks about, this kind of porn offers us heartening stories about real people as they enjoy and explore their sexualities; providing us and our partners with helpful ideas and inspiration for our sexual lives.

As a matter of fact, re-visioned porn by women presents the kind of positive thinking about sexuality and instructive role modeling of healthy sexual behavior that I would want my daughter to be exposed to as a part of her sex education when she grows up.

The great thing about porn affecting us is that it can actually have a positive effect on us. Re-visioned porn proves my point. Re-visioned and transformed porn can change the way we think about and practice sex in positive ways, just as porn up until now has affected the way we picture and practice sex in negative ways.

I want to show you this. And because too many porn debates are based on assumptions about what porn is all about; and because porn critics and anti-porn activists tend to hijack the media with shocking tales of the porn industry’s abuse of women and the revolting things they are made to do for the camera, I am going to visualize the films for you so you can see for yourself. […]

***

Nielsen/NetRatings surveys have repeatedly found that women represent approximately a third of all online porn consumers. A new major international research project on people’s everyday uses of porn (in any format) also quotes this number in a preliminary report, which furthermore reveals that younger women show significantly greater interest in porn than do older women, suggesting a generational shift that may eventually “reduce the overall differences between male and female interest in pornography.”[iii] In 2010, the UK-based edition of the women’s magazine Cosmopolitan found that 60 percent of its readers have watched porn and an additional 14 percent said that they were open to the idea.[iv]

Nevertheless, a “woman watching porn” is still surrounded by a lot of social stigmas. Even researching porn is not a neutral topic. I’ve received many awkward reactions, unwelcome solicitations, and unkind rejections from people when they find out about my work on porn.

Even fellow gender studies scholars have snickered at my porn research. A man—an internationally recognized American masculinities scholar—has behaved towards me as if I am ready for sex at any point, with any person.

While on sabbatical and researching feminist porn at University of Oslo’s Centre for Gender Studies, I remember colleagues sheepishly asking after weekends and vacations if I’d watched any porn lately. The question everyone had on their mind but nobody dared to ask was if watching porn turned me on.

There’s somehow something incorrect for a scholar to be turned on at work. But as film scholar Linda Williams points out, the intention of porn is to stir a physical reaction, just as tragedies strive to induce tears, and horrors goosebumps.[v] In an updated version of Hard Core, Williams encourages us to think more about such visceral viewing experiences.[vi]

The answer is yes; I often get turned on when watching porn. During my sabbatical, I preferred to watch it at home, after I’d returned from my office, or during weekends and vacations. I would watch it on the television or my laptop when working more intently, sometimes taking notes, other times just absorbing it, and on occasion masturbating.

It was shortly after my sabbatical that the man who is now my husband moved in with me. You know how it’s so exciting to share everything about yourself in those first intoxicated days, weeks, and months of love? Well, for me, that included good new porn by women. Since my earlier experience watching porn with an ex boyfriend had been so uncomfortable, with my husband I started out by casually passing on to him a few films. Not feeling myself judged and noticing his positive reaction, I began to hang around on the couch while he was watching. My husband is really good at talking film and has a good eye for style, so we began discussing what we were watching. Just listening to him could turn me on. Then he even began to find stuff that he’d pass on to me, or invite me to watch with him.

We’ve since become parents of a toddler daughter who is not fond of sleep, so we haven’t had the time to watch much of anything together, that is to say not just porn. In fact, since my daughter was born, I have watched a lot of porn at the college library where I go to write. Perhaps at home when she naps. I like finding short vignettes online or new trailers from some of my favorite porn makers, because I can actually squeeze those into my limited time.

If my husband and I have time together at night after our daughter is asleep, we often sit next to each other on the couch working on our laptops. Sometimes one of us will find a sexy short video that we can watch together, perhaps to consider featuring it at my online resource site Love, Sex, and Family, or at my New porn by women blog. Sometimes my husband will take a look at and comment on a film I’m writing about. And now and then this leads to more. In our case, though, the point is that we are able to integrate porn into our daily lives in a way that is meaningful to our work and to our sexual lives in general; we do not section it off as something that is forbidden or taboo, or in any way limited to utility and thus brought out of the closet at necessity. The kind of porn we watch is capable of inspiring us in a multitude of ways. This can be true for you too.

I was recently filling out a survey for the abovementioned international research project on the everyday uses of porn.[vii] One of the questions was about what I would miss if I were not to watch porn in the future. I responded that I would miss the opportunity to see sexual imageries that can inspire new ways of thinking about and experiencing sex, broadening our minds and liberating more space to define and express our sexuality. And truly, one of the things that I find so stimulating about new progressive re-visioned and transformed porn is how it has that potential. The inspiration I have received from what I have watched of re-visioned porn is with me, even in those periods when I’m not watching a whole lot of porn.

Excerpt from After Pornified: How Women Are Transforming Pornography & Why It Really Matters by Anne G. Sabo, Ph.D.


[i] Paraphrased from Pornified: How Pornography Is Damaging Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families (New York: Times Books, 2005).

[ii] Pornified p. 275.

[iii] This extensive research project is led by three UK-based researchers: Clarissa Smith, Feona Attwood, and Martin Barker. Their preliminary report (“Pornresearch.org: preliminary findings,” October 2011) is available online in PDF-format: http://www.pornresearch.org/Firstsummaryforwebsite.pdf (last accessed February 16, 2012), p. 3.

[iv] Cosmo Team, “The Cosmo sex survey results are in!” Cosmopolitan UK, June 9, 2010. Online: http://www.cosmopolitan.co.uk/love-sex/tips/the-cosmo-sex-survey-results-are-in-101510 (last accessed February 16, 2012).

[v] Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible” (1989) p. 5.

[vi] Hard Core (1999) p. 289-92.

[vii] The project’s survey is now closed. More than 5,000 people filled out the survey. Responses are currently being analyzed. Results will be presented and published in a variety of ways, and a digest of the main findings will be posted at the project’s website: http://pornresearch.org/ (last accessed February 16, 2012).

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