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How I Came to Porn

I never wanted to watch porn. When a former boyfriend years ago showed me some of his “glossier” porn, as he put it, I was completely grossed out. The premise of his porn was that all these Barbie-looking women would seek out a stud residing in this huge mansion, where he would provide them with their ultimate satisfaction by spraying his come all over them, which they in turn would greedily lick and smear all over their bodies. The cliché portrayal of yearning women in need of a man was in itself offensive to me. But it was especially the prolonged scene featuring the guy hosing down a group of women with his ejaculate that turned me off.

You’d think from our pornified culture that we all want porn. But we know that’s not the case. Sure, women represent a large and growing audience for porn, representing at least a third of all consumers, adding up to millions of women watching porn each month.[i] But not everyone is crazy about what they see. Whether it’s “high gloss” or amateur porn, in either case featuring deep throating women who are pumped hard, legs spread wide, all the while moaning for more with come-hither eyes. The stacks of mass-produced porn at seedy superstores off the interstate. Trashy hotel room porn. Online smut catering to any imaginable (and unconceivable!) fetish. And even “softcore” and “couples porn” allegedly improved to appeal to women, but not really. Plastic looks, porny music, bad acting, faked satisfaction.

But then I found something radically different.

What first got me turned on to the feminist potential of porn was actually my research on the literature of prosecuted freethinkers. Picture the poet/writer Christian played by Ewan McGregor in Baz Luhrmann’s movie Moulin Rouge! (2001): fin-de-siècle bohemians who believed in existential liberty and free love for all, women and men. Toulouse-Lautrec, whom Christian befriends in the film, has immortalized the sprit of the bohemian lifestyle through his artwork: posters and portraits of his friends at their many stomping grounds in Montmartre, the legendary artist neighborhood in Paris.

Cut to the US where free-love supporters were persecuted by the social purity campaigner Anthony Comstock. The editor of the free thought journal Lucifer, for instance, went to jail several times for publishing articles by women defending women’s sexual freedom. A freedom that included the right to resist rape in marriage. These women free lovers were first wave feminists advocating sex education, the right to birth control, and the equal right for women to assert an active desire and make their own independent choices. Yet these women’s writings were judged “obscene.”

At the turn of the century in my native Norway, the women and men of the Kristiania bohême were faced with similar acts of prosecution. I grew up in a country that has become known for its relaxed attitudes to nudity and, most would add, towards sex too. In fact, today’s young women are described as a sexually liberated and empowered generation. Yet, a vocal group of young third wave feminists argue that a “horny” woman is still very much taboo. Obscene; too much. These women grabbed the media’s attention recently with Pink Prose: About Girls and Horniness.[ii] Writing from personal experiences, they reiterated a demand for women’s equal right to assert an active desire. Modern women’s so-called “sexual freedom” only goes so far, they argued. A woman is expected to be “sexual,” but only so much. And also not too little. Balancing the speed limits of desire, she risks the labels of either whore or prude.

To this day, there are girls—and boys—who grow up in Norway feeling the pent-up weight of the Lutheran guilt about sex. I was one of them. I will never forget how my mom caught me red-handed one day, touching myself beneath the covers in my bedroom. The look of disapproval in her face. The humiliation I felt. I was maybe ten, and I was home sick from school. Later on my older sister gave me a book about sex and puberty. Still feeling the shame, I threw it to the back of my closet. I never looked at it again.

So I have always empathized with the bohemian free love advocates’ desire to break free, existentially, socially, sexually. In the end, tracing their history led me to look into filmic porn again too. […]

What I have found are films that have empowered and inspired me. 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.

Behind these films are educated women with high ideals and intriguing visions. Women who object to the discriminating portrayal of their sex in porn and popular media, and who speak up for women sexually and politically. Some of them stay clear of the “porn” word lest they turn their targeted audience away from their work. Instead they market their films as “adult,” “explicit,” “sensual,” or “erotic.” 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 am 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. A radically progressive and liberating gender democratic discourse with which to think and approach heterosexuality. Presenting us with intriguing openings of more room for women, as well as men, to explore and expand our sexual play-field. In fact, new 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. […]

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, I am going to visualize the films for you so you can see for yourself.

(Excerpt from the Introduction of After Pornified: How Women Are Transforming Pornography & Why It Really Matters)


[i] Nielsen/NetRatings, a world leader in measuring Internet audiences, first reported this number in September 2003 when they found that 29 percent of all porn surfers are women. Several surveys from around the world, including by Nielsen/NetRatings, have since reported the same kinds of statistics for the consumption of porn.

[ii] Original title of this anthology is Rosa Prosa: Om Jenter og Kåthet (Oslo: Gyldendal, 2006). It has not been translated into English.

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When My Husband Came Out as a Woman

My husband came out to me as a woman this summer, three days after our five-year wedding anniversary. We were supposed to have our first date with a babysitter that night, but she bailed on us. Instead, we went out as a family for an afternoon drink at the local pub, fresh from the pool where I spent pretty much every day this summer with our four-year-old daughter.

It was a damn good wedding anniversary. I think we were both feeling that our marriage had arrived at its strongest ever. He gave me a delicate diamond ring; my own, my style, as opposed to the hand-me-down I got from his mom when we married. And he read me the vows that afternoon in the sun at the pub’s deck over beers; the vows he never got around to writing five years before. It was precious.

Sitting on the couch together those three nights after, he didn’t tell me “I’m transgender.” Honestly, it took me a while until I understood just what he was trying to tell me. But when he started talking about remembering as a young boy, maybe at four or five, going to bed choking his head into his pillow, desperately wanting to wake up as a girl — well, then I understood.

When you really love someone, you want them to feel good about themselves and to be happy in their skin. The overpowering feeling I had that night was simply this: “darling; this will be okay!”

That following month, all I cared about was empowering him to feel good about himself presenting and coming out as a woman. I suggested he start by telling our four-year-old; the following week we did and they played dress-up together. It was sweet.

At the end of that month, we had an amazing first couple’s only vacation in Denver, Colorado while our little girl was with her grandparents. We went out together like we never have before, staying out late, dancing and drinking, both in dresses and heels.

Tension was beginning to accumulate between us though because while he didn’t feel ready to come out, I was going crazy not being able to talk about it with anyone, or to write about it. I write about what I care and think about. Focused on supporting and encouraging my husband and also reflecting on what this meant about my own sexual orientation and gender identity, any other writing plainly lost its relevance to me. I’d sit down to do some planning for the launch of my After Pornified book, or write something for Good Vibrations Online Magazine, or for my Love, Sex, and Family site. And I’d mentally compose posts for my blogs at New porn by women and Quizzical mama, but instead I’d open a Word document, and I’d write about Coming Out.

In hindsight, I wish I’d been better about articulating my need to process and share the news with others. I grew up not having my needs met, so needs were something one better not have. Having needs was being needy. Not a good thing. So he wasn’t ready to come out, fair enough; but this was about me too, and I had a need to process it.

I never got around to articulating any of that until after things got sort of out of hand. After our vacation in Colorado, he began to tell his best friends from college. A cryptic post by me on Facebook, tagging one of the friends he’d told while expressing how proud and excited I felt for my husband, sort of tipped the glass over. Furious at what he saw as my betrayal, he left the room in a huff, and called both his parents to tell them.

As it turns out, he would feel good about this heat-of-the-moment coming out episode; suspecting that it otherwise might have dragged out before he’d come around to telling his parents. This way he was done with it and it was out there.

Things began to roll fast. He told me beginning of July. We got back from our vacation end of July. A month later, he had his letter in hand from his psychotherapist that he was ready for hormone treatments. A lot of research had gone into getting that far. Firstly, how to avoid the requirement that one before receiving hormone treatment presents as the gender one wants to present as for an entire year while also seeing a therapist to prove one’s commitment to transitioning; a brutal thing to require for someone who feels they don’t look or present right and who’s eager to adjust their looks and presentation to make them feel more at home with how they feel about themselves.

My husband was lucky and found a consent program in Minneapolis through a clinic that offers a consent program to transgender youth. He only had to see the psychotherapist four times before receiving the letter, which he was able to do within four weeks, receiving his letter the Friday before I left for my first big trip overseas to promote my book in Europe.

August was intense. I was getting anxious with my book coming out, but whereas he’d always been my trouper, cheering me on, helping me out — just as I’d been his trouper, cheering him on, helping him out earlier that summer — I now found myself lonely and unsupported, a growing abyss between us. One giving birth to finally presenting as the gender he’d longed to present as throughout his life, the other giving birth to being a published author; a dream that I have had since I was a child.

Come September a new feeling arrived: that of grief. It took me by such surprise! I had been so excited for him, for us! I’d been writing enthusiastically about teaching young kids about sexual fluidity and I had no doubt about my own sexual fluidity as a woman and how cool that someone so easily dismissed as a privileged, cisgender, heterosexually married mom could finally come out and prove her real queerness. I mean, all my life my writing has been about freeing ourselves from stereotypes and conventions — cultural, existential, sexual. Whether I was writing about Friedrich Nietzsche or transformed porn by women. True, I had never been with a woman before; but wasn’t that perhaps because being with a woman gave me cold feet because I couldn’t perform “the script”? For years since my sexual debut, I’d thrown myself into sex with men not always only for the pure intention of pleasure, but also and sometimes more to be “rescued, saved and held.” The way I never was a child. With a guy you can fake the script, perhaps I was thinking; but with a woman? I wasn’t so sure.

But perhaps this wasn’t what was going on at all those few times where either I approached a woman (granted: always while intoxicated and I always retreated), or when I was approached by another woman (an each of those times always intimidated me, I mean; those women were all way too sexually confident for me — I would have had no idea how to proceed with them.)

Nevertheless. I had researched and written numerously about women’s sexual fluidity compared to men’s and in my everyday life I have certainly come across women who just exudes this something that makes me feel a little weak around them in some way or another. And I have no doubt about women’s openness in terms of what they desire and what gives them pleasure.

So, if I had some interest in exploring being with a woman, what better safe route could there possibly be than in doing it with your husband presenting as a woman?!

Well, the exuberant excitement of that kind of thinking was gone in an instant as soon as the feeling of grief arrived.

It’s been two months now since the grief arrived, and I’m still sick with it. In other words, while celebrating the launch of my After Pornified: How Women Are Transforming Pornography & Why It Really Matters book this fall — a book about women who have seized the means of representation to create something that’s positive and empowering to them — I have also been sick with the feeling of loss, grief, sadness and pain. So in my book I write about how this transformed porn by women really matters, and not just in speaking up for actual female desire, but also in how it is all about freeing us from gender stereotypes and erotic clichés, opening up more play-field for both women and men to explore, define, and enjoy their bodies and sexuality. I completely disagree with the growing tendency of seeing only queer porn as cool, progressive and feminist; the porn that interests me shows how sex between women and men doesn’t need to be heteronormative and conventional. The porn that interests me takes the “hetero” out of heterosexuality, breaking down gender roles as it too embraces a sexually fluid and democratic plurality. Where women and men don’t perform sexual scripts but come together as individuals.

And well, so here I am this fall on tour in the US and Europe, at launch party after launch party, and people are talking about how cool to finally have someone speaking up for a progressive heterosexuality. Which is what I thought I had in my own life with my husband too. But then at the end of the night, I go back to my room and I Skype call home to my husband, and what I see is a woman. A woman who’s wearing even frillier shirts than even I would ever do!

2006

So despite all my progressiveness and fluidity and screw-gender-and-let’s-think-about-ourselves-as-people kind of mindset, I find myself mourning my husband’s male body. I love beautiful male bodies; my book is also an ode to beautiful male bodies — we need to free our minds and bodies not just from the stereotypes about women, but also from those about men. Men are not just stupid studs with a hard dick that’ll fuck anything. My book is also about freeing men from discriminating ideas about what it means to be a man; dangerous myths about “boys who can’t help themselves” that continue to saturate college campuses.

This is where I’m at right now. Obviously, a person is more than a body and I love my husband, my spouse, my soon-to-be my wife, and not a he but a she, and not Leighton, but Elle. But a person is also a body, and I met Leighton just as I had finally come into my body and was beginning to fully claim, savor and enjoy it, exploring and experiencing what it truly desired and what gave it pleasure.

2005

At the peak of my pleasure quest, I found Leighton. Eight years younger than me he was the sexiest most handsome most just ah, gotta-have-that-man kind of man to me. An adonis! I loved everything about his strong slender sinewy body; the feel of his flesh and the hair on his skin; the way his breath smelled in the morning, the salty taste of his armpits and chest, the curve around his hip bones, the tickling sound of his voice.

It’s all gone now.

And I don’t know if we’ll be okay or if we won’t, and there’s a huge sense of panic and groundlessness and what the fuck is home feeling in that. So I try to just breathe. And I know that I have to give it time. To see which feelings are going to outlast the others, knowing that many new ones might still arrive too.

If I’d been free to write about this in July, this would have been a quite different post; an exuberant one! And not one about groundlessness and grief. But if my politics at first got ahead of me, I’m hoping that my personal might eventually catch up with it. Because I don’t want to lose this big love, my best friend, my child’s other parent, my spouse, my lover.

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50 Shades of Obsessing with Spanking

The current Fifty Shades of Grey mania has apparently gotten more women into spanking lately. Sex-toy shops gleefully report an increase in sale of bondage toys; even hardware stores are reporting an influx of new customers — mostly women — shopping for rope.

People are drawn to bondage for all sorts of reasons. In our stressed out culture, surrendering control can appear highly appealing. Others might be drawn to it because a blindfold and intenser sensations can help them focus. Some may be drawn to it as a path of psychological transformation. And to some it may be a fetish that stems from childhood experiences of abuse.

What we conceive of as erotic often stems from childhood experiences or simply living in the culture we live in. I recently returned from Oslo, Norway where I attended the annual Cupido Festival for health professionals working with sex related issues. Two leading professors of sexology, one a medical doctor and therapist, the other a psychologist, presented a talk on how erotic fantasies and fetishes are formed, essentially reiterating this point. “‘Patterns of desire’ can be developed through everyday life and experience; through pleasure; or through trauma and pain (‘forced learning’). Based on cultural values and practices, some patterns of desire are more common, others less so.”

There is no wonder women and men today are turned on by power and submission. It’s how sex and the relationship between the sexes have been conceived for thousands of years.

But today, we strive for a gender equal society. And so my concern is that if we do not pause to consider what feeds these fantasies of power and submission, we may end up blindly perpetuating the gender stereotypes that these fantasies thrive on.

So how do we move forward?

What intrigues me is how some of the female porn makers I look at in my book After Pornified: How Women Are Transforming Pornography & Why It Really Matters appropriate and play with power and submission fantasies. In consensual play with erotic fantasies, no matter how stereotypical and cliché, we do not bind ourselves to the fantasy but free ourselves from its hold, creating room for something different.

Where perhaps domination and submission is replaced by power as a creative energy. Where erotic fantasies feed on new understandings of gender that do not rest on old-fashioned gender stereotypes that cast women as submissive and passive and men as dominant and active.

What concerns me about Fifty Shades of Grey is that it lacks a more reflective, playful approach to power and submission, instead blindly reinforcing old-school stereotypes about gender and romantic clichés, as I’ve noted in my New porn by women blog and as Kaitie Roiphe pointed out in her much-noted Newsweek cover story that I quote here. (There are also other problematic messages about domination and submission in the book that I address in this post. As others have said, the book isn’t intended to teach people about BDSM. That said, if this book is readers’ first exposure to it, well, then there is in a sense a lot of responsibility on it now.)

At the Cupido Festival, I also presented Cupido’s first Film Award which I curated, nominating six of the films I talk about in my book. The short film “Handcuffs” directed by Erika Lust won. Interestingly, it features domination and submission — but not without a notable amount of clever playfulness.

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Talking Sexual Fluidity with My Preschooler

(click here for the full-size image)

I’ve had an ongoing discussion about her body and sexuality with my daughter before she could verbally talk. Most recently, that conversation has broadened to address the wide range of sexual fluidity among people. The “new” normal is that there is no “normal,” as Dr. Peggy Drexler points out. People experience a wide range of gender identity and sexual orientation, and expressions of gender and desire vary.

Yet, people have an urge to label; to fix into neat categories. I get that “labels can be a good way to build community and find yourself, but they can become a problem if someone feels restricted or constrained by them,” as the blogger of “monochrome in the 1960s” puts it. I’ve always felt constricted by them. When I was doing research on gender and sexuality in Norway a few years back, I came across the term gender claustrophobia. And not just among women and men feeling pigeonholed as “cisgender” or “straight” — walking manifestations of a heteronormative culture — but among queer women and men who felt constrained by limited understandings of lesbian and gay, even within their communities.

The beautiful thing about talking sexual fluidity with a four-year-old is that she totally gets it. She gets that we can look female and feel male inside. She gets that the object of each person’s affection can manifest immensely differently for that one person. She’s not confused by our friends who are currently same-sex partnered while previously opposite-sex partnered. She’s unfazed by the prospect of a woman gradually changing to look more like a man and vice versa.

It’s not like I’d be doing my daughter a disservice by not teaching her that the “new” normal is that there is no “normal;” she already gets this. Children already get sexual fluidity. Ignoring or pretending there is no such fluidity would constitute a disservice; closing their minds and hearts off to that wonderful plurality of gender identity and sexual orientation that exist among us.

(Crossposted on Love, Sex, and Family.)

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