Strange bedfellows

How feminism and porn get it on at the Feminist Porn Awards

When I first learned of the Feminist Porn Awards, I wasn’t surprised to discover that Good For Her was behind them. An independently owned and operated sex shop in Toronto, Good For Her’s feminism is as explicit as its inventory, so it seemed fitting that they were the ones to spearhead an annual awards ceremony celebrating filmmakers intent on subverting mainstream pornography.

But, I kept wondering, what on earth is feminist porn, anyway? In an effort to answer that question, I tracked down Chanelle Gallant, the former manager of Good For Her and founder of the Feminist Porn Awards. A past sex columnist for Chatelaine and an unapologetic pro-sex and pro-sex-worker feminist, Chanelle is currently in Southeast Asia writing about issues facing sex workers internationally. Before she left, I called her up to discuss what, if anything, allows feminism and porn to coexist.

Nikko Snyder: So what makes a film worthy of a Feminist Porn Award?

Chanelle Gallant: There are three criteria for the Feminist Porn Awards. The first is that a woman was substantially involved with the making of the film as a director, writer, or producer. The second is that the film depicts genuine female pleasure and that women get their fair share of pleasure in the film. And the third is that it expands the range of sexual expression for women by telling us something new about female sexuality, as opposed to showing us stereotyped representations.

How did the awards come to be?

They actually started out as a response to the racism in the pornography industry. I was talking to a colleague of mine at Good For Her, and we were complaining about how we had to send back all these DVDs because they had the most egregious racial stereotyping in them. We kept telling our distributors that we wanted porn that showed people of colour, and so, in their complete cluelessness, they would send us this stuff that had these really offensive exoticizing stereotypes.

I said, “It’s really too bad that nobody recognizes the filmmakers who are making an effort to do something better”-because there are porn makers who are doing something different, whose approach to race and gender isn’t conservative and offensive. You don’t see them celebrated because people don’t take sex seriously and so they don’t take representations of sex seriously, but I think culture is very important, and that it matters when porn shows women and people of colour in situations that aren’t based on offensive stereotypes.

I realized that we should celebrate the people who are doing it well. And voila! The Feminist Porn Awards were born.

How do your own politics inform your involvement with the Feminist Porn Awards?

I come at it from an anti-racist feminist perspective. It’s so important to me to change the representation of feminism, and to add in those voices that until now have been really marginalized, like pro-sex feminists.

You know, I’ve done a million interviews about the awards, and you’re probably the first interviewer who didn’t start with the question, “Aren’t feminism and porn oxymorons?” I am part of a wave of feminists who insist that sex is part of my feminism, and insist on blending anti-racism, anti-oppression, feminism and a hot sex life together. And I do that shamelessly.

How do you respond to the people who feel that porn and feminism are mutually exclusive?

I don’t at all resent feminists who have a problem with the awards. I actually welcome it. I’ve been a feminist since I knew what the word meant. When I was a teenager I was reading Catharine MacKinnon. When I was in university I cut my teeth on Andrea Dworkin. I used to be an anti-porn feminist. So I’m really happy to engage in those dialogues.

I respectfully disagree with people who think porn can’t be feminist, but I’m really happy to be creating a dialogue around feminist representations of sexuality. I think it’s really important.

How contentious is the concept of feminist pornography at this point?

I would say it’s still not just contentious, but incomprehensible to most people-especially people who aren’t feminist-because they don’t necessarily know about the lesser-heard voices within feminism that have always been speaking from a pro-sex, pro-sex-worker position.

Not incidentally, what the Feminist Porn Awards do is celebrate sex workers. Some people may or may not notice that, but it’s important to me. I think they’ve affected the way feminists think about porn. And they’ve affected the way folks who don’t identify as feminists think about feminism.

Not that I’m the first one to suggest the idea. There have been feminist pornographers for more than two decades now, starting with Candida Royalle, who was awarded our lifetime achievement award in the first year of the Feminist Porn Awards.

I understand that the first awards were conceived as a one-time event. How did they become an annual tradition?

For me, one of the most moving things about the first awards was the way they affected the filmmakers. That’s the reason I did another one. The filmmakers were so moved that somebody was finally recognizing them, so I thought, we have to do this for the filmmakers and we have to do this for the audiences who absolutely flock to us.

Good For Her’s porn sales more than tripled after the first awards. People-women and men-want to find porn that they can enjoy guilt-free. We’ve had really positive feedback, and folks always flood into the store in the days and weeks after the awards looking for films that have won. And I’m so happy that we can provide that.

When I’ve talked to filmmakers who are making feminist porn, they say that what qualifies it as “feminist” for them is often largely or exclusively the production-for example, if a film is produced ethically, if the performers are treated fairly and empowered through the process. How important is the production end of things for the Feminist Porn Awards?

What I’m interested in is content, because that’s the only thing I know about. I don’t know about the working conditions. The directors do, and I applaud them for using their feminist principles to make films that are respectful of the people involved. But as a consumer, I don’t necessarily have access to that information, so what I look for is the other side of the equation, which is the content.

Sure, but the content becomes very subjective, and there seems to be a debate over whether any specific content can be deemed feminist or non-feminist.

Subjective as opposed to what? I don’t believe there is anything objective about anything. From the Good For Her standpoint, feminist content is what we see as feminist content. And that’s just the best we can do.

But content seems like the most contentious thing when it comes to defining feminist porn. For example, there are some feminist filmmakers who won’t use certain dominant images like facials in their films because they feel it crosses a line.

That’s correct. It’s totally subjective, but I think everything is. I mean, we’re talking about politics-there are no hard and fast rules. I think it’s okay for us to have varying ideas about what constitutes feminist porn.

Feminist porn resists easy categorization. Everyone assumes, for instance, that feminist porn has a specific genre. Some of the media coverage of the awards gave the impression that feminist porn had to be soft, that it had to be storyline based, and that it had to be lesbian. But none of that is true. Feminism does not have a genre. Feminism exceeds genre.

Certainly it does. But now that we’re labelling things “feminist porn,” what does that actually mean?

Don’t try to make it objective, Nikko. I mean, why try to have the final word on what’s feminist? God, why would we want to do that? It’s just a label that, for myself as someone who’s pro-sex and who is sex-worker-positive, I’m just going to demand, the same way I’m going to march right into feminism and demand a space for myself and other women like me.

It certainly is a needed space. But you can’t deny that pornography is one of the most divisive issues in the history of feminism.

It is one of the most divisive issues. And I think that’s really screwed up. That doesn’t reflect well on feminism. I can’t believe that feminism wasted a whole decade fighting about porn instead of fighting about things like child care and reproductive justice. I mean, really?

It’s interesting to know that racism in porn was a driving force behind the Feminist Porn Awards.

It was. The race politics in mainstream porn are unbelievably bad. Not that you can’t have stereotypes in porn, because actually, you need to have stereotypes in porn. For most of us, our eroticism is intrinsically tied up in stereotypes. But I really want to challenge some of those destructive stereotypes so common to mainstream porn.

I went to my local sex shop and asked for some of the titles that have won Feminist Porn Awards, but no luck. I guess they still really aren’t the norm when it comes to pornography.

That’s why we do so many online sales, because everyone who’s outside a major urban centre doesn’t have access to these titles, and they have a right to! You have a right to porn. And if you’re going to watch some, why not watch some that makes you feel awesome about yourself, your body, sex? Porn’s okay, so how about we just get access to some good stuff?

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Yeah! Go make your own. Ladies, take over the means of production! And I use the word ladies ironically. (Laughs.)

The third annual Feminist Porn Awards will take place on April 4, 2008, in Toronto. Check out www.goodforher.com for more information.

Nikko Snyder makes her home in Regina, where she has recently founded the Saskatchewan Feminist Erotic Lending Library with the press sampler DVDs she acquired during her recent research into feminist pornography. Check out more of her musings on feminist smut in the Spring 2008 issue of Bitch magazine.

Nikko Snyder pursues small-scale farming, filmmaking, writing and food activism from her home in rural Saskatchewan. She recently spent three months working on an organic farm in B.C. in exchange for room and board.