When "Porn" Becomes Positive and Empowering Rather Than Negative and Degrading

6 years ago

When I first showed a former colleague some of the re-visioned porn I write about in my book, his response was: "But this isn't porn! It's film!" Others have since reacted the same way and many have asked me, "Why do you keep calling it porn? Why not call it 'erotic' or 'explicit,' 'adult' or 'sensual,' or whatever, just not 'porn'? You're going to turn people away from your work," they would warn me.

So why do I insist on using the "porn" word?

Porn has gotten a bad rap for good reasons. And in fact, several of the female (porn) filmmakers whose work I look at in my book stay clear of the “porn” word lest they turn their targeted audience away from their work. Instead they label their films with the terms that I have been recommended to use too.

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’m 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. Presenting us with intriguing openings of more room for women, as well as men, to explore and expand our sexual play-field.

In fact, re-visioned 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.

I use the term "re-visioned porn" to highlight how radically different these films are as opposed to the revised lines of “couples” porn. I got the term from film scholar Linda Williams who in her landmark analysis of porn, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible” (1989) borrows it from famous poet and feminist Adrienne Rich. “The added hyphen,” notes Williams, “suggests the revolutionary potential of “the act of looking back, of seeing again with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction.”

Porn has traditionally been a “male genre,” by men for men. In fact, sex has historically been defined and discussed from men’s point of view. Men are the ones who have speculated about women’s sexuality; women have never had the opportunity to define it for themselves.

If re-vision is for women within a male dominated economy “a necessary ‘act of survival,’ in order to be able to create at all,” it is within porn, as Williams points out, “that the idea of re-vision is most compelling: ‘survival’ here means transforming oneself from sexual object to sexual subject of representation.” (p. 232)

The re-visioned porn films I have looked at have empowered and inspired me as a woman and as a sexual subject. They are 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.

Whether you’re into porn or turned off by it, my goal with my book is to show you the potential of re-visioned porn. How it can empower, inspire, inform, and reform. How rather than leaving men in charge of the production of grossly discriminating porn that is leaking into the pornified representation of ourselves in advertisements and popular media, re-visioned porn by women is transforming porn as we know it. In fact becoming a real counterweight to the negative sexualization of women (and men!) perpetuated by the entertainment industry and all other porn.

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 (2006), 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. [paraphrased]

 

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. (p. 275)

 

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, my book visualizes the films for you so you can see for yourself.

Pictures from Erika Lust's Lust Films & Publications and Jennifer Lyon Bell's Blue Artichoke Films.

Read more at Lust Films: Modern and Urban Porn and Blue Artichoke Films: Cinematic Quality Porn.

(Sections of this post are adapted from my book.)

Originally published at New porn by women.

Quizzical mama, aka Anne G. Sabo, PhD, is a former academic turned mama and sex blogger who recently founded LOVE, SEX, AND FAMILY, a site devoted to progressive human sexuality information. As a college professor, she taught numerous courses in women's and film studies. In her New porn by women blog she writes about sexual politics and re-visioned porn. Her Quizzical mama blog is an educated and personal approach to the politics and philosophies of parenting, often addressing controversial issues and reflecting on different cultural values and practices in the US and her native Norway. She lives in a small Minnesotan college town just south of the Twin Cities with her husband and their toddler daughter. (Photo: Agnete Brun)

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