What is good porn?

There is currently a debate in UK feminism about ‘rape porn’ and whether it should be banned. I’ve not yet drawn a conclusion on my thoughts around this, but I do have some questions.

I wonder if a lot of the framing of this discussion of rape porn is really about violence. Porn by definition requires consent. The people participating in the scenes are workers. So ‘rape porn’ here is a bit of an oxymoron. As feminists we understand rape to be sex that has taken place without consent. No grey areas. We also know that rape does not always involve violence (the realities of rape are often very divorced from the stereotypical stranger jumping out of the bushes with a knife in a dark alleyway).  It’s really important to stress the point that rape does not always involve violence. My own sexual assault did not leave me with bruises on my body but I suffered the mental health repercussions for a very long time afterwards.

However there is a discussion to be had here about simulated scenes of sex without consent, scenes that sometimes depict violence, enacted by paid actors and if/how this contributes to the rape culture that we live in.

I read this piece by @chiller and it got me thinking.

In it she says “People getting off on abuse is people getting off on abuse, and we need to start calling it.”

Without ascribing a value judgement to this statement I want to explore the implications of a consensus that this kind of porn is bad- a consensus that could become concrete if the government moves to make it illegal.

When we determine the porn that is bad, we may as well go one step further determine the porn that is good. However, I feel that this step is hindered by a further feminist consensus that all porn is bad full stop. Honestly, I don’t think looking at pictures and watching videos of people having sex is a bad thing. But I do have an issue about these pictures and videos created and consumed uncritically, under a white supremacist patriarchy, for profit. If you watch porn you might know the consequences of this- like any visual medium it reflects some of the worst discriminations and prejudices in our society. This made all the more stark when genitals are involved. Sex between women is offered up solely for the titillation of men, sex between white people and black people is classed as marginal and taboo, there are deeply racist narratives regarding white women being debased by groups of black men and a thousand submissive stereotypes of Asian women.

All the while, there has been concerted effort (though not without significant feminist opposition) to create porn that is focused on woman centred sexual pleasure, from queer porn actresses like Courtney Trouble and feminist directors like Anna Span. Whilst I can’t say I’ve watched any of their work, I do think their work is a step in the direction. However, feminist porn is a molehill compared to the mountain of the porn mainstream. It doesn’t seem quite enough.

There is a feminist sticking point regarding what our sex and sexuality looks like divorced from patriarchy. It’s a huge topic, and porn that doesn’t pander to a white supremacist, patriarchal gaze goes some way in covering it. One day I’d like to see us at point where we can own our desires, without patriarchy and without slut shaming.

So this is my question: what does good porn look like?

Write us your thoughts about this post. Be kind & Play nice.
  1. Sam Ambreen says:

    Reblogged this on Left at the Lights and commented:
    A very good question and one I am interested in debating

  2. Simon O'Kane says:

    This reminds me of the controversy over the “violent pornography” laws passed a few years ago under the last government. Did/do you have a position on that issue?

  3. ash says:

    26 y/o mixed race man checking in here. good porn/bad porn, politically correct/not politically correct porn are separate things. good porn often involves transgression eg. teacher/student plumber/housewife. i think this is because some of our primal impulses, which porn cater for, are in conflict with social constructs such as these examples. rape porn is probably an extreme example of this. i’d speculate that it is enjoyed by men who have had difficulty establishing or maintaining healthy relationships with women. perhaps for them, rape porn offers a kind of vent and a way of overcoming a deep frustration over their failures.

  4. MxsQueen says:

    Sorry this is long.

    I think the good/bad binary can only be a fairly rough one highly dependent not just on content and intentions of producers but the sexual culture and context of its intentional and unintentional audiences. In the end this is just another facet of mainstream media, albeit a marginalised one that is taboo to consume (in part because of a strong and continuing fear that sexuality itself is dangerous, and also because of grey/black market stigma and common fears around producer ethics, or around stereotypes involving trafficking or drug abuse all of which frequently seem to marginalise how other entertainments industries also abuse and undermine their workers).

    To me, besides support for worker self organisation and control of working conditions, I don’t think there can really be a prescriptive framework for liberating non-oppressive porn. It’s so subjective. I do however feel that the only way we can shift sexual culture towards liberation away from glorifying abuse is by engaging with sexual culture and glorifying consent, communication, positivity about sexual diversity without suggesting ppl are getting it wrong for being deviant or normative or whatever else. Like with the entire entertainment industry things generally seem to be at least a little bit better as people who’ve been bottom level workers in it and people who are from various marginalised communities start to gain the power and means to control the material they produce (certainly I’ve seen an amount of trans stuff which whilst a lot of trans people would find it offensive and fetishising, is produced and controlled by trans people and in my experience seems a damn sight less oppressive in content and just the tone of the whole thing than the traditional “shemale” porn tropes. I’m also aware a number of performers of colour have spoken out against tropes they’re expected to participate in and I suspect that, again, an improvement in general conditions, agency, labour power of POC workers will enable more POC porn workers to create material that doesn’t rely so hard on racist tropes, because a lot of this shit is about who’s got the money to call the shots.

    One of the things that has come up repeatedly is the use of inaccurate language (“rape”) for content (people roleplaying forced sex). I think this misses the point of the performers being actors altogether. The plot they’re acting might stretch credibility, most likely (being porn) it’ll be as true to real life experience as their fetishized images of plumbers, teachers, burglars, babysitters, trans women and their surprise penises, people of colour and whatever else. I think this naming controversy doesn’t help much and I’ve seen ppl struggle to find alternatives, applying terms which seem far more dangerous (like “consensual non-consent”, which utterly messes with the idea that consent is a thing and non-consent is a different thing, and ignores the fact that the actors are theoretically acting a piece of fiction according to whatever agreed boundaries, direction and plot has been planned.) Noone says the rape scene in Thelma & Louise isn’t a rape scene, because that’s what it’s depicting (even usually rape is nothing like the scene in Thelma & Louise).

  5. I’ve seen some good BDSM porn before where the actors talked to the camera as themselves, out of character, before and after the sexy-time antics. While the porn itself could be brutal and not exactly politically correct (as Ash discussed) it was a very simple technique to humanise the actors and to emphasises the fact that they are pretending. Not sure if that’s perfect porn, but I found it a lot less problematic than most of the mainstream vanilla stuff.

  6. Shane Thomas says:

    In terms of “What does good porn look like?”, I imagine it’s a subjective viewpoint, depending on the person. Like sex, what lights one’s candle is different to what lights another’s. I think as long as porn is manufactured, free of kyriarchal states, such as racism, misogyny or ableism, then it’s not objectionable.

    But these are a few nebulous musings, as it’s a tough question that I don’t have a clear answer to, either.

  7. earnest reader says:

    Everyone but (some ) rapists know rape to be sex without consent, without exception. Not sure why you link that knowledge to feminism.

  8. The question of what constitutes ‘good’ porn is a problem because apart from obvious signs of consent being impossible (ie. the involvement of children, animals, or the dead) the content bears little resemblance to the conditions of production. For example, porn actors like Sasha Grey have explicitly consented to some scenes that appear very violent whereas Linda Lovelace claimed her involvement in Deep Throat was rape, but it barely goes beyond the level of softcore by most standards. You can no more tell from looking at the resulting films who chose it and who was coerced than you can tell what clothes were made in a sweatshop by looking at the style of them.

    In general if something is legal to sell in the US it has already conformed to laws regarding proof of identity and age of the actors. Even apparently gonzo porn has to do this – here is an interesting piece on what a Public Disgrace shoot is like. http://blog.sfgate.com/steinberg/2009/04/29/the-truth-about-kink-com/

    Any discussion of the content and ethics of porn has to take into account the rapidity with which the business is changing, and that has to go beyond “omg internet? 10-year olds looking at bukakke!” level of commentary. While the Louis Theroux tv documentary revisiting porn actors ten years on was incredibly patronising and annoying, it did at least expose the idea of giant studios churning out expensive productions for the myth that is.

    Finally I think it’s dangerous to support some kinds of porn but not others based on assumed content without having watched any of it. We need to engage with culture to critique it. Otherwise there’s the danger of basing opinions on assumptions of what the business was like in the 70s and 80s (as Melissa Farley, Gail Dines, and virtually everyone else in mainstream media do), or pulling a Caitlin Moran who for years now has been going on “what if there was feminist porn?” and fully ignores the many, many people who point out to her that it already exists. Without watching porn we get people still perpetuating the myths that pubic waxing and breast implants are being driven solely by this industry, and much else. It would be like critiquing hip hop/metal/emo without ever listening to the music or having more than a glancing acquaintance with it. Sure people do that; doesn’t make it good practice.

    Furrygirl has written a good piece on the feminist porn red herring here: http://www.feminisnt.com/2010/musings-on-ethical-porn-feminist-porn-and-the-red-herring-of-violent-porn/ and I wrote about it in my last book. In the end labels like “feminist” are always going to be arbitrary. Buy what you support, whatever that happens to be.

    • geekyisgood says:

      You’ve said the very thing which first sprang to mind when I was trying to answer this question, good (or maybe a more specific term would be ethical?) porn cannot be observed in what the viewer sees because we can’t know that we’re seeing a true portrayal of the working conditions (we don’t see contracts or negotiations, even if we see interviews before and after the main shoot).

      There is the question of how a specific piece of porn deals with stereotypes and tropes which are related to or a part of structural discrimination and oppression. I think this can be trickier with porn than with regular media, because the “wrongness” of these tropes can be part of what makes them sexy to some people, but different people can see the same work and one person will consider that it plays with the tropes with awareness while someone else sees a perpetuation of wider societal problems. In the end I think it comes down to the distribution and norms in porn, and particularly what ends up being considered mainstream and hence is more easily accessible or visible.

      Personally (and based on no good evidence) I suspect most problems which people blame on porn are actually do to mainstream media’s reporting of porn.

      • Derrington says:

        Ultimately, porn refers to females as sluts and whores and various other names of contempt. It portrays rape frequently as sex where the female agrees and then lies about consent and so therefore falls into messages of contempt and hatred of equal human rights for all humans. Media that portrays attitudes of hatred towards a particular defined group of people is propoganda, and in its current form, porn largely falls into this category and use of media. The effectiveness of this undermining of equality in how porn portays rape and other acts of sexist violence cannot be dismissed when we live in a society where 1 in 3 females have been subject to sexist violence in the home from male members of their own family and 90per cent of females experience sexist intimidation on the streets. The personal is political, especially in porn.

  9. You are what you consume says:

    Porn is a crutch.

    We could have the same conversation about enabling recreational drugs.

  10. Derrington says:

    A media that debases a specific group of people, that expresses contempt for their equal humanity by referring to them by terms that express hatred and contempt such as slut, bitch, whore, cumbucket etc and that reports them as enjoying violence done to them is bad for the same reasons that media that villified and promoted violence against a given group of people did in 1930s against Jews or more recently in Rwanda, Bosnia etc. It goes beyond the question of whether the people participating in it have consented, and centres more on the ideas it promotes to wider society and the impact it has on mainstream attitudes towards members of the debased race or gender. Would we debate whether a mainstream media that showed films of black people being tied, bound, gagged, beaten and dressed as slaves whilst being called dirty nigger was ok whilst 1.2m racist attacks occured in the home annually or would we say that promoting such behaviour via mainstream media was having a dramatic effect on the way people regarded black people? The actors may consent, but the real life recipients of sexist violence in the home do not. We have outlawed subliminal advertising for the very real effect it has on people’s subconscious and then conscious behaviour … and yet sexist promotion of gendered violence is treated as if it doesn’t adhere to the same laws of biological science that the rest of the media has been observed to follow. Oxygen works the same in France as it does in the UK and so does media, whether it be sexist media or racist media.


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