Porn and Feminism, Feminist Porn, Women and Feminism

Paper doll graffiti in a public street. Rome. Photo credit to The Plaid Zebra.

Paper doll graffiti in a public street. Rome. Photo credit to The Plaid Zebra.

We live in a high-time when media is quickly taking over mainstream culture and popular figures are beginning to declare their feminism. But, can porn and feminism really go hand-in-hand?

Sleazy. Degrading. Dirty. Abusive. Inappropriate.

These are all terms oftentimes associated with the adult-film industry. Though, as easy as it is to take things at face value, one of the greatest challenges is in finding anything positive about an industry that has been hush-hush for so many years.

Growing up in this post-feminist kind of society where people are challenging each other with what is considered feminist and what is not, further blurring the lines between its actual definition and what is just “rebellious behavior,” it is interesting to see how we live in a high-time where women all over the world are just fighting for their voices to be heard and respected.

As female porn stars are often seen as airheaded Barbie dolls and sex objects, I have found that there can be a great level of intelligence in both the industry and its workers—when you look in the right places.

Feminism, to me, is about advocating and supporting the equality and rights for all women—including being each other’s support systems and lifting each other up, not down. I believe acknowledging what women have done throughout history, from fighting for their right to vote to working in the same place as men, can make one feel grateful for where women stand today.

I first started to get interested in feminist issues as I became sensitive to others’ behavior towards myself as a woman. Experiencing numerous events of men trying to make advances or take advantage of my womanly assets, I grew uncomfortable with my own body. Growing up Catholic in a small-town also led me to become very sheltered in that female sexuality was hardly talked about, let alone accepted. But, as I grew older and began to create my own definition of self-respect, I found it in my heart to know myself before I could expect anyone else to know me better.

My attitude towards porn changed when someone told me to “know your vagina so you don’t have to rely on a man.”

Seeking to debunk the stereotypical myths of the adult-film industry and, more specifically, the women who work in it, I took up an interest in that world and its people.

The moment that first inspired my interest in accepting the “most degrading” line of work women may involve themselves in was when I stumbled on a 2013 article I saw on Yahoo’s front page entitled, “Porn Stars Without Makeup: Before and After Pictures by Melissa Murphy” from the Huffington Post.

I held my own assumptions about porn for many years, but it was at this moment that I saw a different light to the industry. Behind society’s assumptions of porn stars being dirty, washed-up or coming from broken homes, these photos showed how entirely real and beautiful these everyday women naturally looked. These photos humanized them.

While sexual intimacy is one of the most natural and beautiful acts to express love to a partner, the porn industry seems to make this entirely private act into something doggedly intrusive and mortifying. But, after reading and watching interviews from stars who share their thoughts on the industry—from how they got involved in their line of work to expressing the politics behind it—I’ve found that there are respectable women in the industry. Veteran performers Samantha Ryan, Stoya, and ex-performer Sasha Grey have actively participated in interviews and other social media to convey their thoughts on women and workers’ rights in the industry.

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Samantha Ryan | Porn Star Vignettes

In Porn Star Vignettes, a 2012 video-series by writer and former pornographic actress Julie Meadows that aims to humanize workers involved in the industry, star Samantha Ryan, who entered the industry at the age of twenty-six, reveals that she had the chance to struggle and figure herself out before going into the industry.

Noting that she had worked as an engineer, Ryan expresses, “I had bosses that were complete idiots and never knew the value of my work because they didn’t understand the work that I was doing.” She adds, “I just went through all these things in my life and—they weren’t failures—it was just things happened in these careers that I tried that made me realize that either I didn’t want that or it wasn’t gonna be for me or it made me realize more of what I wanted.”

Entering the porn industry was moreso a positive option for her than a negative.

She states in a 2005 interview with Gene Ross, writer of AdultFYI, “I saw how [porn sets are] very technical and in a lot of ways close to mainstream in how it’s filmed.” She adds, “It’s not as sleazy as people think. … There are good people. I had fun and everybody loved their job.”

Being active in the industry for nine consecutive years, starring in more than 400 movies and having won numerous AVN (Adult Video Network) Awards over the years, Ryan has become a notable and well-respected performer.

But, in her interview with Meadows, she states that “[this] is still an industry that you have to navigate. It’s tough and you will deal with not so great people and, you do run into the girls that are doing the drugs because they don’t know how to handle it.” She adds with conviction, “That shouldn’t be how it is.”

As with any other career in the film industry, it is important to recognize that the porn industry is a job and they still work professionally. In particular, it is an especially physical and emotionally-demanding job, which is why many new adult-film starlets do not remain in the industry for very long.

“The agents see them as fresh meat! They know the industry. They know that the majority of girls are in-and-out in a year. So, what’s gonna be most beneficial to my pocketbook?” Ryan expresses. “Getting that girl to do everything that I can in that year.”

Although there are many thoughts about the industry and the way in which they treat its performers, adult performer and model Stoya, who entered the industry at the age of twenty-one, is an active social blogger and online-user who has been very vocal in sharing her thoughts to defend the views and ethics of women in the industry.

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Stoya | Hysterical Literature

“Nothing about the pornographic material I perform in does anything to intentionally further feminism,” she writes in her VICE column entitled “Feminism and Me.” “It is bluntly superficial entertainment that caters to one of the most basic human desires.” She continues, “I see it as neither inherently empowering nor disempowering. Showing up on set and doing my job is not an act of feminism.”

The idea of glorifying porn stars seems outrageous, though I find that their motives can oftentimes be positive for many young women. Rather than scolding these female performers, I think using their work as a tool to know and grow more comfortable with our bodies, as well as creating conversation about them, can help debunk myths of pornography being a negative industry.

Ex-adult-film star Sasha Grey, who has made close to 300 adult films and won numerous AVN Awards since entering the industry at the age of eighteen, speaks about the erotic novel phenomena that is The Fifty Shades of Grey and her own novel The Juliette Society, in a 2013 interview with The Daily Beast entitled “Hollywood’s Favorite Ex–Porn Star: A Chat With Sasha Grey.”

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Sasha Grey | LAVSHLV

“I always go back to this idea that women aren’t allowed to be proud of their sexuality or their sexual fantasies.”

A strong advocate for sexual positivity, she asserts, “We’re allowed to prance around in tops that almost show our nipples and miniskirts that show our butt cheeks, but God forbid we talk about anal sex or blow jobs.”

As an act of feminism, women should feel empowered to speak about their bodies and openly embrace their feelings of pleasure or displeasure.

But, the porn industry seems to cross a heavy line between representing women as sexual objects and offering a space for women to feel comfortable about their fantasies.

Grey continues, “It’s a great thing to allow women to feel liberated with their fantasies and not feel inhibited by them.”

And that should be the focus people take on pornographic work.

Women, both in porn and in the workforce, are often seen as less in character and less in number in many male-dominated industries. As society has hyper-sexualized the identity of women, enforcing the use of women as objects of visual pleasure, it has also concealed the presence and credibility of many women in these industries. So, it is no wonder that in the Academy Awards—a major outlet for distinguishing the “best” in media—77 percent of voters and 99 percent of “Best Director” winners are both male (“The Diversity Gap At The Academy Awards Is As Hugely Discouraging As You’d Expect”). The visibility and demand for female voice and representation is gravely low.

But, as pornography and sex-centric works are never going to go away, so are the women who perform in them.

As women have continually been told that sexuality is bad, I feel it is our job—in the effort to promote equality—to change our attitude towards how we view women who work and perform in these industries that tend to promote women as sex objects. If women cannot even embrace and take ownership over their sexuality, what makes us think men can?

The mere act of performing any sort of creative work does not send any sort of message. The message stems from what people do with that work and what feelings are produced to inspire and motivate others from that work.

As the use of love, sex, romance and violence have all been tactics of the media to grab people’s attention, I feel we ought to use that power to harness positive change.

In creating change, the first step is in getting one’s attention–the next step is in holding it. When we can hold one’s attention and create a louder demand for change–whether it be in holding our arms, voicing our thoughts and standing up together–only then can we take action to make change happen.

As Stoya writes, “The messages I get every week saying that seeing my body or vagina portrayed as some kind of sex symbol made someone feel more comfortable about their own body,” she expresses, that is what keeps her doing her job.

Whether someone was drawn to her looks, her uncanny smile, her way with words, her sense of dark humor, or what have you–she stole our attention.

“But,” she continues, “let’s not pretend that performing in mainstream porn is any sort of liberating act for all womankind.”


 This article was published in Exhibit at UCI’s 2014 Issue [pdf]. It is also a re-worked version of my original blog post, “What for Feminism, Humanizing Women in Porn, and Getting and Holding Attention for our Good.”

One response to “Porn and Feminism, Feminist Porn, Women and Feminism

  1. Pingback: What for Feminism, Humanizing Women in Porn, and Getting and Holding Attention for our Good | beauty within·

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