“The Feminist Porn Book” Focuses on Her Pleasure

In an era where pornography could be considered the greatest manifestation of modern freedom, it’s unsurprising that The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure has shown up on the shelves. Edited by Tristan Taormino, Celine Parreñas Shimizu, Constance Penley and Mireille Miller-Young, The Feminist Porn Book is a collection of writings by sex-positive feminist pornographers and academics discussing the stigma of having sex on film against the struggle to define, explore and express female agency in a male-dominated industry. Between batting down antiporn feminist viewpoints and tackling the evangelical prescriptions for female sexuality, this book gives a wide-ranging, albeit liberal, description of what feminist pornography is and can be.

Broadly defined, feminist pornography is first described using decidedly essentialist terms tapping into our culture’s assumptions about who women are and what women do. Some of the articles in the beginning of the collection center around a desire to explore “female-oriented” sex and tap into women’s “unique sexual nature.” In this way, feminist pornography is a product that caters to women’s experiences in sex; namely, her pleasure and her orgasm. While this sounds simplistic and perhaps too individualistic, the authors complicate this by acknowledging that “porn for women” can limit our understanding of the range of desires women have, implying that women “can’t handle the hard stuff.”

Later in the book, the authors collectively build a more theoretical foundation as they balance an examination of the social constructions of gender, sexuality and desire with the real-life experiences of those who buy, sell and create pornography. Themes of pleasure, authenticity and consent abound as the authors discuss the positive expansion of sexual representations and labor beyond the limited horizon that mainstream pornography offers. As an example, Mireille Miller-Young, an associate professor of feminist studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, encourages readers to consider the ways feminist pornography helps us to rethink pornography as a site of Black women’s “intervention, imagination and activism.” Her argument is compelling as she navigates the terrain of transgression and restriction for Black women who work in an industry that capitalizes on sexualized racism. Black women’s bodies become a site for cultural constructions of deviance and pathology, and Miller-Young encourages Black women to take control of these representations by moving behind the camera to direct their own films.

The politics of producing pleasure has a lot to do with capitalist consumption, and while most of the authors in this book acknowledge that the supply of images reflect these underpinnings, Ms. Naughty still jokes in one essay: “I am an evil, capitalist pornographer, after all.” Few of the pornographers in this book hide their motive for profit and even fewer got into the industry with the intention of making “feminist” films. However, the feminist pornographers and academics are truly committed to advocating for more representations of bodies and fighting against the idea that sex is inherently oppressive to women. The overarching message is that the limited visual discourse of mainstream porn ignores and represses the sexuality of women. In addition, the book captures and explores the existence of genderqueer and trans pornography to show how the porn industry has opened up in some ways to alternative bodies and pleasures.

The Feminist Porn Book is a good read for the narrative, and the authors do a good job weaving through the personal and political aspects of their journey towards and within the pornography industry. But for a substantive exploration of why pornography is empowering, readers are left to wonder. It’s assumed in the text that the antiporn feminists get it wrong, but I’m still not convinced. The authors come close to suggesting (with Gayle Rubin, who provides the axiom for the sex-positive feminist understanding of pornography) that if one is displeased with pornography the reason must be sexual repression, discomfort with one’s body, religious mores or all of the above. This can be dangerous territory when the capitalist underpinnings of the pornographic empire continue to (re)produce racist, sexist and heterosexist fantasies because of consumer demands. When pornography is taken seriously by those who watch, study and make it, it’s not hard to see that pornography can never actually be considered the problem, but similarly this book leaves you wondering if it can really be considered the solution either.

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Cecili Chadwick teaches women's studies at California State University, San Marcos, where she also coaches the dance team.