Pornography is one of the more controversial issues in feminism, and the Ms. Blog has published many posts on the topic. Here, a writer goes directly to a feminist pornographer to get her take on how the industry intersects with women’s issues.
In her keynote address at the 2014 Feminist Porn Awards, pornographer Courtney Trouble opened by saying, “I am a white North American descendent of European settlers. … I identify as a non-binary femme-masculine genderqueer. But today I speak from the point of view of a queer person who’s been socialized, raised and perceived as a ciswoman.”
Suffice it to say Trouble breathes new life into the concept of self-reflexivity. In her work, she has found a way to alchemize shame and taboos into pleasure and innovation. She shows how it’s possible to rejoice in the porn-industrial complex while reinventing it. “We are the feminist porn movement,” she told her fans at the Feminist Porn Awards. “We aren’t just here for porn: we’re here for the fucking feminism.” I had a chance to ask Trouble some questions about her vision, her politics and how she got into the porn business, so I’ll step aside now and let her do the talking.
Whiskey Blue: What were your first encounters with feminism? How did feminism come into your life?
Courtney Trouble: I feel like my dad was my biggest role model, as he raised me as a single parent for most of my upbringing. I know he always instilled in me this sense of entitlement akin to the way a father would raise a son. I could have whatever job I wanted, whatever life I wanted, I could rise above our poverty, I could rise above our circumstances. There was never any talk about how I should act “as a woman,” and in fact, when I first heard about feminism, my response was, “I don’t need feminism, I’m just going to walk this world knowing that I can achieve whatever I want, no one will stand in my way.” I ignored feminism for a long time. It wasn’t until I started doing phone sex and interacting with men—with real entitlement issues—that I started to realize I needed political activism and gender theory in my life. I’m also a survivor of multiple rapes and sexual abuse, and around the age of 15 I started to really get into the riot grrrl movement and all of its complicated beauty and pain and expression. Bratmobile [a riot grrrl band] brought feminism to the forefront of my mind, but I never really thought of myself as a feminist-by-trade until I started taking naked pictures of people.
WB: How did you start in this industry? What drew you to it?
CT: As a teen I was really into DIY publishing, like zines and photography, mixtapes and making web sites. I’ve also always been a sexual person, always curious about what other people are into and what I’m into. So when I was 18 I started doing phone sex. I kept up with the photography and website making and made a web zine called Fat Girl Break Down, for young plus-size femmes to meet and talk and work on fat acceptance and activism. There was a part of the site where people would post their selfies, and they kept getting dirtier and dirtier. Especially mine—my photography just kept getting more and more naked, more and more sexual. So I made a [porn] site, NoFauxxx.com, [in] 2002. It started to make sense to me that the world puts a lot of our “worth” on our sexualities, so for a queer fat girl to step up and make porn of herself is saying, “I have the same worth as others, I am worthy in this society.” This translates in ways outside of just sex.
WB: Can you speak to the assumptions often made between abuse and entry into porn?
CT: Is there a connection between abuse and entry into porn? No. Abused women get into all sorts of work. Offices, food, retail, labor and yes—also sex work. There’s no causation. Porn’s not an abusive industry and there’s absolutely no proof that more abuse survivors enter sex work than other fields of work, or that porn is the kind of bottom-of-the-barrel last-chance kind of job that only survivors are entering. It’s actually a great job that requires a lot of dedication and enthusiasm to get and keep. The assumption that a woman has to somehow be broken or damaged to have sex for money negates everything that feminists have been trying to fight for—that women are autonomous beings that are capable of making their own decisions and deserve the same respect, protection and opportunities that men have—regardless of the industry in which they work. Women get into porn for the same reasons men do. To make a living, to have sex, to be seen, to survive, to thrive, to have a job, to be a part of an entertaining world full of outcasts, artists and sex-positive perverts. Entry into porn is more indicative of a healthy relationship to sex than a negative one.
WB: In an interview with The Manitoban, you said, “I can see future correlations between the feminist porn movement and reproductive health politics, queer rights, trans health, consent culture/ending rape. It may take some time, but I think porn is laying some groundwork for serious political evolution in the future.” What possible correlations do you imagine between the feminist porn movement and reproductive health politics?
CT: It’s a shaky theory, but I feel like the connection is this: I find a feminist porn scene that has someone who looks like me, being embodied and sexual and vulnerable and beautiful and happy. It makes me feel like I’m not alone. It helps my self-esteem. Right? Being a fan of feminist porn begins to strengthen my sense of visibility, and I begin demanding respect from my partners/lovers in the ways I see in this porn, and out in the world—that self-esteem starts to affect how I live my life. How I respond to cat calling, how I respond to unwanted advances. It challenges me to see others in the same way I see myself. I see the connections between who I am, and who you are, because we are both being naked and vulnerable and open in this porn we watch. I start to respect you, I start to desire you. This changes everything about the way we interact with our world as fat people, as trans people, as systematically oppressed people. When we start to see ourselves reflected back to us in such positive ways, we start to feel that way ourselves. I see this as the path to political evolution in sexual representation. Sex affects everything. The way we see our own bodies affects everything. The more chances we get to see ourselves represented as strong, powerful creatures, the more we will fight for what we need—whether or not it has anything to do with sex.
WB: How about consent culture/ending rape—in what ways would you say feminist porn fights the good fight?
CT: For me, I want my porn to set examples of consent—both visual and verbal—in everything I do. I encourage my performers to communicate on screen, and to let me affirm their on-set boundaries through my direction. I want to show people how to ask for things, and how to stop things. I think feminist porn is one very small part of ending rape culture. Not all porn is sex education, but all porn sets trends. I see feminist porn as setting good trends for sex.
WB: What do you think the future effects of representing feminist and queer desire in porn might be on girls, on young queers, on culture at large?
CT: I have 3-year-old twin sisters, and a 26-year-old little sister, and part of my own artistic and political vision is to make enough of a dent with my own art that when my baby sisters turn 18, they won’t have to be afraid of coming out as queer, as trans, as kinky, as poly, as fat, as whatever they become. I want to help create a world where girls can feel truly free to be themselves. I am my 26-year-old sister’s biggest fan; I am there for everything she does in this world. I would give my life to give her safety, to give her happiness, and freedom from rape and abuse. If my art can have even the smallest effect on the way someone thinks of consent, or queerness, or sexual deviance, or sexually outspoken women—any of it—I’ll have done my job to protect my younger sisters and future generations.
Photo of Courtney Trouble courtesy of Chloe Aftel.