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.