Can pornography be political? Can it be anti-racist? Maybe even feminist?
Film scholar Celine Parreñas Shimizu answers with a resounding YES. At a Stanford talk, Shimizu argued that feminist porn is not only possible, but it is also a genre that challenges and electrifies typical, mainstream pornography. Feminist porn is a political vision. It is a social movement. It actually challenges the exploitative politics of sexuality that incite the vitriol of antiporn activists, including some feminists.
Shimizu’s recent co-edited volume, The Feminist Porn Book brings together the unlikely bedfellows of professors and porn workers, from plus-size star April Flores, to experts on transgender scholarship, to Shimizu herself whose expertise is in race, sex, and film studies.
Feminist pornography moves beyond mainstream kinds of sex, kinds of bodies, and kinds of pleasures. In the pages of The Feminist Porn Book, plus-sized women, disabled women, Asian men, and multi-racial troupes all challenge racist and sexual stereotypes about which kinds of sex are good and which are bad.
Though feminist porn can simply refer to a genre of film created by or for women, Shimizu shows how “feminists have adapted different strategies for subverting pornographic norms.” Female sexual agency is often emphasized, revealing how women, even women of “difference,” enjoy their bodies and their sexuality.Rather than simply being the object of male desire, the actresses often relish in their own desires—and so claim the right to female sexual expression too often considered only the right of men. The stories of two very different porn stars—Asian British actor Keni Styles and African American actress Sinnamon Love—show how both independent and mainstream feminist porn disrupts race and gender stereotypes and, in Shimizu's words, “transforms sexual representation.”
By upending the moral evaluation of “good” and “bad” sex, feminist pornography challenges assumptions about which kinds of bodies can be desirable and demonstrates, in explicit detail, how even the most personal desires are always political.
An essay by actress Sinnamon Love offers her perspective as a black woman, a porn actress, and an activist.
“I don’t think I’ve ever walked on a video set…with the thought of making a political statement,” says Love. But she adds that her long career in the industry gradually taught her to recognize her “sociopolitical stance” as a "black feminist pornographer." Love believes that by emphasizing women's agency, feminist porn can empower them as sexual beings. She believes pornography can be a place for women—as actors, as directors, as viewers—to overturn stereotypes about women as victims of male lust.
For Love, participating in pornography can be "feminist" when the actors feel a strong sense of choice about their decision to participate. She explains that “my belief that pornography [along with bondage and S&M] are not inherently wrong come[s] from my own understanding of the importance of women’s ability to claim their sexuality as their own…. For me it is about agency.”
Admittedly, agency is a tricky concept in the sex work field, in which many women arrive at their careers from disadvantage—poverty, abuse, and sex trafficking often pave the way to sex work. But Love believes that some women can find empowerment in porn. It's “my choice to be tied up” and act in porn films, Love reflects. For her, a woman’s body and sexuality is an issue of choice—as much a part of feminism as a “woman’s right to choose to work outside the home or the right to a safe, legal abortion.”
Even so, Love is not without criticism of the porn industry, and she works actively in the movement for sex worker rights and better sex education. She also criticizes the industry for its portrayal of black women. Her first films, she recalls, had titles like South Central Hookers #10 and Pumps ‘n da Rump. By casting black women in stereotyped roles of prostitutes and marketing the actresses’ “rumps,” porn directors capitalized on the hypersexualization of black women. “Women with bigger butts, curvier bodies, darker complexions, and more African features were relegated to movies with lower production values and often offensive titles,” Love recalls.
In response to this racial typecasting, Shimizu describes how feminist porn calls for an "ethical filmmaking" that will "accommodate the dramas not only of gender but also of race." Shimizu believes she has found just that in the work of Asian-British actor Keni Styles.
Love’s concerns about the hypersexualization of the black body are flip-flopped in Shimizu’s article exploring the “straightjacket sexualities” of Asian men in pornography. Popular culture has long portrayed Asian men as impotent or effeminate. Or, as Shimizu jokes, Asian men are represented as looking, in vain, for their “missing penises.” Both forms of stereotypes, sexual lack or sexual excess, are demeaning, because they play on racist views of sexuality.
Styles has changed much of these stereotypes. “As the first Asian heterosexual porn star in western pornography, Keni Styles may embody the search for the missing penis,” says Shimizu. His films have garnered him a dozen award nominations and legions of devoted fans.
Shimizu explains that even though Styles does fit into established standards of male beauty, he actually expands our criteria of how to measure manhood. “What is more powerful is critique of phallic manhood,” Shimizu writes. “[H]e ridicules the notion of the absence of the penis, or even the importance of penis size.” As such, Styles offers “a definition of manhood that does not strive to macho qualities but includes vulnerability and caring for others.”
Styles crafts his version of manhood not only in his films but also in his self-representation on the internet. His website, for example, offers a sex how-to video called Superman Stamina, which promises viewers that they will learn the virility secrets of male porn stars. In the video, Styles recalls his own difficulties with premature ejaculation, and the sexual stereotypes about Asian men that did little to mend his already bruised ego. He triumphs in this story of, in his words, “manhood control”—ultimately becoming a porn star and thus challenging the asexual stereotypes faced by Asian men. Further, explains Shimizu, Styles's online video diary acknowledges the constricting gender expectations he faces when he meets women on porn sets. That is, “he shares a consciousness around the issues of gender and racial roles that he exposes to readers.” On his tumblr blog, adds Shimizu, “he politicizes his participation in the sex industry by inviting other Asian / American men to reflect on their racial and sexual histories and practices.”
Why does all this matter? Because, as Shimizu says, Styles shows us a type of masculinity that defies the constricting criteria we typically use to measure manhood. He creates a public persona across various internet sites and in his pornography that is at once vulnerable and strong, that rejects racial stereotypes, and, finally, crafts a more complete, inclusive vision of what counts as masculine.
But even if new pornographic films encompass a variety of sexual practices and challenge entrenched racial stereotypes, does this make it feminist? Or could a more “inclusive” porn just be adding new bodies to objectify and demean?
Love and Shimizu feel strongly that feminist porn is possible because, to quote Love, “it’s about agency.” Feminist porn isn’t about good or bad pleasures but a larger political fight—not simply to expand the definitions of sexuality but to upend the moral judgments altogether. According to Shimizu, this kind of pornography “opens up who and how we love and lust; opens up the ways we experience and understand our bodies."