We shouldn't be afraid to discuss female pleasureAnna Palma Balint

When did you last have sex? When did you last watch porn? What kind of porn was it? Despite the well-trodden feminist slogan that ‘the personal is political’, these kinds of questions might seem far too invasive. It’s tempting to try to cordon off sex-talk as ‘strictly-not-to-be-subjected-to-feminist-critique’. But granting sex immunity from feminist critique like this is a mistake. It might be uncomfortable, but being unwilling to subject our sexual habits and tastes to scrutiny is a huge barrier to gender equality. We can’t just cleave matters of sex from matters of equality. Recent allegations against Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo campaign that followed are clear indicators of this. How we think about sex seeps into our other behaviour; it affects how we treat people in the bedroom, the boardroom, and on the streets.

In turning a critical eye to sex, porn is an obvious place to start. Increasingly, porn functions as sex education for young boys and girls. A 2013 report of the UK Children’s Commissioner surveyed students, aged 14 to 18, about their attitudes to sex. Young men commented that porn was a key source of information for them about ‘the way people have sex’, and that they used it to learn ‘new moves’. In principle, there’s no problem with porn being a source of sex education – sex education in schools is notoriously bad, particularly in schools with religious affiliations. In practice, though, mainstream porn isn’t an accurate or positive representation of how people do have sex, or should be having sex. This is the heart of the problem.

“‘Porn sex’ is a carefully constructed myth”

Porn – that is, Internet mainstream porn – is unrealistic about people’s bodies. The lack of diversity is stark. The women in porn are generally slim, white, with perfectly even labia and a lack of pubic hair. It’s unrealistic about orgasms. Men sustain erections for long periods of time and ejaculate on demand; women have multiple screaming orgasms through little-to-no stimulation. It’s unrealistic about safe sex, too. How often do you see a condom in porn? Not to shatter any illusions, but this isn’t what sex, real sex, is like. ‘Porn sex’ is a carefully constructed myth. Then there are the more explicitly gendered and racial issues. In porn, the culmination of most scenes is male ejaculation. Women’s pleasure is depicted primarily as a means to that end. Men in porn ejaculate on women’s faces, breasts and bodies; they call them ‘sluts’, ‘bitches’ and ‘whores’. Porn also fetishises people of colour, subjecting them to stereotypes by which they are categorised.

Anna Palma Balint

Creators of feminist porn seek to create a new kind of porn, which distances itself from the misogynistic, racist and inaccurate practices of current mainstream porn. Multiple production companies of this kind of content exist (Dane Jones, Pink and White Productions, Bright Desire) and are appreciated by their consumers. But their success thus far has been limited to certain groups. This stems partially from reluctance to change, which in turn stems from reluctance to admit that there’s a problem. Paradigmatic here is the claim that porn is ‘just a fantasy’. Well – that may be true, but I doubt that it’s any real vindication of mainstream porn. Isn’t it a problem, at least to some degree, if our fantasies consistently include seeing women slapped, dressed as schoolgirls, ejaculated on, and called ‘sluts’? If we’re turned off by the prospect of masturbating to a woman with pubic hair?

“Feminist porn is about ‘promoting a sex-positive sphere for women to reclaim the narrative around female sexuality’”

A larger part of the problem, though, are misconceptions about what feminist porn really is. A key move in popularising feminist porn will be to set the record straight. According to feminist magazine Unbound, feminist porn is about ‘promoting a sex-positive sphere for women to reclaim the narrative around female sexuality’. In feminist porn, actors are paid fairly and female directors are heavily featured. Female pleasure and orgasms are central points of focus, and diversity is not just shown but celebrated. Feminist porn features women of different body types, sexual orientations, ethnicities and ages. It doesn’t heed gender roles – men can be submissive and women dominant without falling into the ‘dominatrix’ trope. The women depicted in feminist porn display sexual desires, and play active roles in leading and initiating sexual interactions. Scenes of non-consensual sex, gratuitous violence or degrading language are omitted, though there is a place for (consensual) BDSM in feminist porn.

Described like this, feminist porn doesn’t seem that revolutionary at all. Why should women’s pleasure not be central? Why should a range of actors not be featured? Why should women not play active roles in sex, and why shouldn’t we find this sexy? Feminist porn is a much better, more accurate depiction of how real, healthy sexual encounters go. The irony of it being characterised as ‘niche’ porn would be laughable if it weren’t so wounding.

Not all feminists are on board with feminist porn. Some worry that gender inequalities will only be further entrenched, this time under the guise of being ‘feminist’. This may be a valid worry, but I think a dose of pragmatism is healthy. People aren’t going to stop watching porn, any more than they stop having sex. And while that’s true, feminist porn is a far better alternative to the kind of porn that dominates the Internet currently, both as a tool for sex education and as content that we implicitly sanction as sexually arousing. Of course, the hope is that one day we won’t need these kinds of labels, and porn that centralises women’s pleasure alongside men’s will be the norm and not a niche. A more intermediate goal is motivating this change – as with any ‘recovery’, the first step is admitting there’s a problem. Once this step is successfully taken, and other misconceptions cleared, I think feminist porn stands a better chance of wider success

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