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Melissa Gira Grant writes on www.guardian.co.uk – What happens on a porn set has always held more interest for me than what’s in the videos and pictures. It’s what led me to briefly get into porn myself. This was an incredibly minor act in my working life, but it afforded me the chance to look where I most wanted to look: behind the camera, off the screen.
The new anthology The Feminist Porn Book www.amazon.com/The-Feminist-Porn-Book-Producing/dp/155861818X goes fully off-screen and onto the shop floor of porn production. Performers and producers write alongside academics, proposing a shared analysis not just of what it means to look at pictures of adult sexual activity, but also of what it means to make them.
It’s no accident that I had the chance to do so myself in the late 1990s. Digital camera prices were falling, and it was possible to get ahead of the Big Porno curve by learning enough HTML to put your own website together. We pitched our porn – mostly made by women, working informally or running small businesses employing our friends, frequently out of our own bedrooms – not against the feminist anti-porn camp, but against the mainstream of porn.
For anti-porn feminists, the internet serves a sinister function. The same technologies that increased access to porn have also increased the pool of porn producers, and that, too, they say, must be stopped – never mind if these technologies also make it a bit easier for some women to call more of the shots. The same feminists who theorize that porn could never be feminist not only ignore those who have experience in the field; they also want to knock them out of it.
Over a decade has passed since the first gasps of online feminist porn. Now, there are several well-established and explicitly feminist porn production companies, and quite a few start-ups (whose performers and producers feature strongly in the book). Feminist porn is no longer a debatable reality; it has become a matter of discussing how it will be organized, and who will get paid, and for doing what.
Questions of labor, rightly, now come before stakes-free grandstanding about the meaning of a facial cum shot. Why were we so hung up on what’s on a model’s face and how it got there, rather than what’s in her contract and how she negotiated it?
The vast majority of porn performers work as independent contractors, negotiating on a per-gig basis, leaving workplace standards constantly up for debate and mostly up to producers. This is the case even among industry titans that started out “indie”, which made being good to performers one of their marketing lines: like Suicide Girls, who ran roughshod over their founders’ apparent DIY cred to monetize the life out of tatted-up glamour shots and emo online diarizing; and Kink.com, who may have started out as just another San Francisco grad student’s alt-sex side-project, but has become a sprawling empire of BDSM and fetish porn sites catering to audiences straight and gay, which operate out of an actual decommissioned armory.
Kink’s choice of corporate and production digs was a hot shot of gasoline on the anti-porn fire. When James Franco debuted a documentary about Kink at Sundance in January, it was feminist academic Gail Dines alone who wondered why liberals weren’t all over it with the fury they’d directed at Zero Dark Thirty. Kink, she claims, isn’t just producing sadomasochistic images, but is literally engaging in torture.
“Taking a cue from Dick Cheney’s playbook, women are submerged into a tank of water until they start to cough and choke,” Dines wrote, referencing a water bondage site that in no way resembles the CIA’s real-world use of waterboarding against detainees. Still, Dines insists, “Kink.com is in violation of the United Nations Convention Against Torture.”
When all porn is described as violence – or, in this case, as torture – anti-porn advocates may unintentionally provide a way off the hook for those who do engage in exploitative or abusive practices in porn. If porn is abusive by nature, as they say, why bother to identify actual abuse on the set?
Last summer, when performers on Kink.com’s live webcam site found their pay rates slashed without appropriate notice, a few took the issue up directly with Kink management.
“Individually, our concerns were not being heard,” wrote then-Kink performer Maxine Holloway [pictured], “so I decided to reach out to fellow models and call a meeting at my house to get everyone on the same page – to talk about our options and our negotiating power as a united front.” After this meeting, Holloway was fired from Kink.
How differently would anti-porn feminists’ concerns about porn performers’ welfare look if they dared to lend solidarity where performers ask for it?
“That lack of structure or rights in the first place, which is what some of us are trying to implement in the adult industry, makes organizing really challenging,” Holloway told me by phone from the Bay Area. In turn, porn performers end up pitted against one another. “It’s competitive by nature, as much as we want to help each other,” she said. Holloway met with labor organizers to discuss possibilities.
“They didn’t seem to really get it. So the unionization didn’t come as easily as it first started rolling off everyone’s tongues. I realized that’s not my skill set, but I can produce events and make amazing content, so let’s make something myself.”
So, along with adult performer Ava Solanas, Holloway co-founded a live porn production collective called Cum & Glitter, run by the performers themselves.
Until porn performers have the ability to organize formally, taking control of their own businesses is one way they’ve been able to ensure they will be treated fairly.
As Amanda Hess recently wrote, while certain strands of feminism have become consumed with celebrating women assuming positions of leadership in business, when feminists work to ban pornography, they guarantee that porn is one business where women won’t find commensurate power and control over their work.
Of course, just seating a woman at the top is no guarantee of shared power with the women working down below. “When I hear feminist porn,” performer and producer Bella Vendetta told me:
“I imagine porn made by feminists, which makes me believe that I’m going to be treated very well, and be informed about what it is I am expected to do. I expect it will be marketed in a way that doesn’t insult me, and I expect I’ll be paid a fair wage.
“Unfortunately, I have found that if the term feminist porn is being used, I can almost guarantee that it means I will be offered an incredibly low rate. To me, it is not empowering to accept half my rate to have sex on film.”
Like all professional feminisms, there are far more people who want to be doing feminism professionally (clothes off or on) than there are living-wage jobs available. “Feminist porn,” Vendetta concluded, “is a labor of love.”