Review of The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure by

Book cover for The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure

“My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.”

This powerful statement, first deployed and used in this essay by Flavia Dzodan, is often on my mind. And I choose to open my review of The Feminist Porn Book with it, because that is how I want to position myself. As a white man who tries his best to be feminist, I recognize I have a hell of a lot of privilege in our society. So it is imperative that I remember the importance of intersectionality, and that I work hard not to let my feminist thoughts and statements inadvertently support other systems of oppression.

I choose to open my review of The Feminist Porn Book with this statement, because sex work is a nexus of intersectionality. Sex work requires us to interact with sexism and misogyny, with transmisia and homomisia, with racism and abelism, and with capitalist exploitation. We must engage with all of these issues; we must be intersectional when discussing sex work. So it can’t even be as simple as being “pro” sex work or “anti” sex work or pornography. The issue is far more nuanced than that, and that’s why I picked up this book.

If you want a one-sentence summary: The Feminist Porn Book is a collection of scholarly and personal essays about feminism and porn from people who study, produce, direct, or perform in pornography. Many of the essays are highly academic, both in tone and language and in the sense that they are rigorously cited with endnotes. Many of the essays come from people who have spent most of their adult lives behind of or in front of the camera, directly engaging with pornography and with their own complex feelings about the medium and how it relates with feminist movements. Although certain common themes run throughout some of the essays, and the editors have grouped them largely into four broad topics, each essay is its own revelation given the author’s unique experiences, perspective, and opinions.

This is a diverse book, for the most part. There are cis and trans voices, abled and disabled voices, Black and brown and white voices, straight and queer voices, etc. There are certainly some voices missing from the conversation—in their introduction, the authors admit that this volume focuses on the porn industry of the West: “…for feminist porn to be a global project, more work would need to be done to include non-Western scholars and pornographers in the conversation”. Yet I think it is a good sign of the diversity of this collection that not all of the essays line up behind a single ideology of feminist porn. Or, as the introduction states: “Throughout the book, we explore the multiple definitions of feminist porn, but we refuse to fix its boundaries.” Certainly there are aspects of some essays I didn’t agree with or would critique, others that are oppositional to each other but that I don’t yet have an opinion on, one way or the other. That’s awesome. This is a book that makes you think and question.

The first part of the book provides a bit of history into the emergence of feminist porn. The first essay is an excerpt from Betty Dodson’s memoir. This is one piece that I found both fascinating and occasionally frustrating, for Dodson throws off little nuggets like, “Most men are hardwired to have multiple sex partners…” that set my skeptical-of-evolutionary-psychology-and-gender-essentialism alarm bells ringing. By and large, however, this part of the book is very eye-opening for a younger reader like myself. As someone who came of age online, it’s hard to understand what it would have been like to live in a world that did not have constant, immediate access to porn. I mean, these days it is hard to avoid even with your safe search filter on. I know, in theory, that there existed a time of the porno videotape and the hard copy porno mag, etc.—but I don’t know what that world is like, or what it was like for those people producing porn and trying to make it feminist.

The second part of the book concerns the feedback cycle between watching porn and producing feminist porn. This section truly embraces intersectionality. They approach the question of feminist porn from the perspectives of race, queer identity, therapy, and more. The essays herein really challenge the reader to consider porn beyond the thin veneer of primarily heterosexual, heavily racist, commodified pornography that we often find at the surface of the industry.

One of my main takeaways of this book is that I really still have so much more to learn about this subject. I feel like I might have felt back when I first started learning about sexism, misogyny, patriarchy, etc. I’m still learning the vocabulary and trying to listen to all the various voices of those directly involved and marginalized by these issues. Most crucially, I’m aware that I need to be careful of generalizing about porn. For example, just before I started reading this book, I was having a conversation with a friend about porn (because, yeah, I have awesome friends who will talk to me about porn). I said, among other things, that it’s unfortunate people often get their sex education from porn these days. In some sense, I still agree with that sentiment—the extremely problematic porn I mentioned above, which is so easily available and prevalent, creates so many problems if internalized as a representation of what sex really is. Yet in making that statement, I simultaneously erased the whole part of the industry devoted to creating actual educational porn.

That’s why the third part of the book is probably my favourite. This section examines the intersections of feminist porn and scholarship. Some of the essays are by academics who write and teach about porn, whether it’s in a women’s studies or gender studies or film studies course. It’s really cool to hear about their experiences creating their syllabi, how they teach, the resistance or buy-in they’ve encountered from students or faculty or the public. As an educator, this all fascinates me. Similarly, as an educator and just someone who believes in good sex ed. in general, I loved reading the essays from Nina Hartley and Tristan Taormino, who explain both their rationales and their methodologies behind creating educational porn. This section also includes a standout essay by Ariane Cruz, who examines her complicated and conflicting feelings as a Black woman studying how porn represents Black women as part of her PhD. She explains the way that this has affected her life, her organization of her personal space at home, and how she relates to herself, to others, to her partner, to pornography.

The final section of this book showcases several feminist porn producers and performers, giving them a platform to explain their personal visions of what feminist porn should comprise. These essays are all fascinating in their own right. I have to admit that by the time I reached them, even though I was already reading this book one essay at a time alongside other books, I was feeling a little psychically fatigued, and I probably didn’t give these as much consideration as they are due.

The United States just passed a law (FOSTA/SESTA) heavily constraining the ways in which sex workers can communicate online. It’s ostensibly to help stop sex-trafficking. Being both Canadian and just very busy and unable to keep on top of every American political crisis, I honestly have not paid much attention to this one—but the sex workers I’ve seen speak about it are not happy, charging the proponents of this law with using it to restrict sex work, to legislate morality—and those are the voices I would listen to. While Canada might not have exactly the same issues, we aren’t necessarily better. Here in Ontario we are about to head into a provincial election, and the Conservative party is chomping at the bit to roll back relatively new curriculum with very progressive and healthy guidelines for teaching sex, sexuality, and gender. In some ways we live in a quite progressive era, yet in others we remain incredibly conservative and judgemental.

Whatever your personal stance on porn and sex work, the fact remains it’s a part of our society. There are people who do it. People who are exploited by it, people who exploit it, people who seek to dismantle and turn it inside out and make it feminist. It is, like any other industry or artistic endeavour or social moment, a complicated and diverse and non-monolithic phenomenon that deserves scrutiny, critique, and careful thought. What kind of society do I want? A feminist one. A sex-positive one. A safe one. And that means engaging with sex work and pornography, discussing it, listening to those involved and trying to steer policy in a way that protects vulnerable people without throwing hard-working people under the bus.

So it kind of seems like The Feminist Porn Book is more necessary today than ever. We need to talk more about sex. We need to stop twisting ourselves into contortions to try to sound both pro-porn or anti-porn depending on who’s listening. That isn’t the point. The point is that we should respect the autonomy and agency of sex workers and take our cues from them when it comes to dismantling and changing the problematic parts of their industry. If I want to talk reform of peer review, I’m going to listen to scientists. As a teacher, I hope my words carry weight when we talk about changing education. So if you are interested in learning more about porn and its intersections with feminism, racism, etc., then this is a great place to start.

But it’s only a start.

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