"The women of Bikini Kill let guitarist Billy Karren be in their feminist punk band, but only if he's willing to just "do some shit." Being a feminist dude is like that. We may ask you to "do some shit" for the band, but you don't get to be Kathleen Hannah."--@heatherurehere

Monday, June 17, 2013

Listening to Dylan Ryan: Authenticity in Feminist Porn

Still (slowly!) working my way through The Feminist Porn Book.  Every piece in it has so much going on, I sometimes feel like "summing up" articles here just isn't doing it justice--but I'll live in hope that readers will be tantalized by little tidbits here to read the book for themselves.  Dylan Ryan's piece, Fucking Feminism, is a dense analysis of feminist porn artfully disguised as a lovely memoir piece.  It's downright tricky, this piece, because you're reading along about Ryan's entry into the world of feminist porn, and before you know it, you've read something that takes on many of the main themes of discussing feminist porn, addressing all sorts of anti-porn critiques without vilifying said critiques, or dismissing them outright; Ryan manages to give room for a lot of the complexities of these debates that are often left to the side.  At the same time, she's kind of "just" talking about how she came to be in porn.  And she does all of this in just a few pages.  It's a great stylistic choice, because the more varied stories are told about (feminist and not-so-feminist) porn, the better.

A central theme of Ryan's take on queer and feminist porn is that of "authenticity", which she acknowledges to be a complex concept.  Noting early on in her life as a porn consumer that the sex in much of porn wasn't the kind of sex she was having, or liked to have, and that the bodies (especially female bodies) in porn weren't like hers in various ways, she knew that she could make better porn.  One way to make better (and, as it turns out, more feminist) porn was to better represent sex and the bodies of performers more authentically:
The films Nina [Hartley], Annie [Sprinkle], and others made represented a sexuality that was open, honest, and without shame; they showcased sex that was fun and consensual. They had a sexual agency that I found arousing. It was the first time that I saw sex that resonated with me and that I wanted to emulate...[e]ven with these films though, I still had issues with the bodies: the differences between theirs and mine. I couldn’t relate to the curvaceous body type of Nina Hartley or Annie Sprinkle. At five-feet-ten and 145 pounds, I have been athletic and sinewy for most of my adult life. My breasts are small A cups, and my look is often more androgynous than girly. Like many women, I experienced the simultaneous intrigue and revulsion that can accompany pornographic film watching: of being simultaneously captivated and repulsed by the performers as they embody stereotypical female “beauty” and “perfection.”
 I suspect that many men also feel a similar "simultaneous intrigue and revulsion", at least at times, though of course men have a different relationship to women's bodies, and to their own bodies, than women do.  Still, it's great that Ryan gives voice to this idea. 

Ryan got a chance fairly early on to do some practical tests of her ideas, when Shine Louise Houston asked Ryan to be in what was to be their first porn film.  The film also starred Jiz Lee(!), whose piece in The Feminist Porn book I talked about here.  (The way these folks met and got together to make feminist porn, by the way, is part of the "context" of feminist porn that Lynn Comella wrote about in her piece in the same book.)  As she has continued to make movies, she has continued to consciously use authenticity as a touchstone, which is part of what makes her work, she tells us, subversive of the traditional paradigm.  She says:
When Shine and I first talked, we both believed that the majority of mainstream porn was inauthentic and not in agreement with what we knew to be true of our sexualities and the sexualities of those around us. “Authenticity” took on a somewhat mythological quality and became the Holy Grail in our vision for pornographic filmmaking: if we could achieve it, we truly would have transcended the existing constraints of the known porn world. We considered authentic porn our goal. Even now, this far into my porn career, I still reference the concept of authenticity as a sizeable part of my rationale for the porn that I make. It is a term that I use frequently to explain my position and identity as a porn performer. By situating myself inside my understanding of authenticity and explaining that to interviewers and interrogators, I also protect myself from some of the criticism that dogs other porn performers. Of course, what is “authentic” varies among individuals. When I say I’m making authentic porn, it means I prioritize my sexuality, which has allowed me a much less-criticized position than a female performer who may not have thought as much about authenticity in sexual representation.
In true feminist spirit, Ryan also talks about the limits of her ability to transform porn as a cisgendered, white woman:  
I struggle to blaze a trail for women while accepting my own whiteness and privilege. I “get” to be in porn, to raise my conceptual fist to the mainstream because I am close enough to the mainstream to even be let inside in the first place. This has been a bitter pill to swallow, but it reminds me that the deeper work of change to the representation of women in porn has to occur beyond me. It will come when we have greater inclusion of women of all body types, ages, and ethnicities in porn to counter the dominant imagery.
See! Told you she is taking on all kinds of various complexities!

She even manages to quickly sum up her shift from 'I'm not a feminist, but...' kind of thinking to identifying as a feminist, and as a feminist porn performer:
 It was at some point in those next few moments, on stage in front of hundreds that I came to see myself as so many others had already: I performed in feminist porn, I was a feminist porn performer. I was a feminist. In all those years of crafting my work to represent empowerment, awareness, positive female sexuality, women’s choice, I was representing feminist ideals about sex. After years of believing that all or most feminists disapproved of what I was doing with my life, it took a moment on a stage beneath a bright spotlight to realize that many feminists not only approved of, but appreciated, what I was doing. It was also the moment I realized I had been setting myself up, through all my choices, to be seen that way—as a feminist porn performer.
Ryan is the kind of writer who has clearly thought things out so precisely that I had to resist just quoting the whole text--as it is, I kind of failed, as you see from the swathes of quotes above. I recommend reading the entire article:  The details of Ryan's entry into porn and the way she navigates these complex conceptual puzzles is half of the joy of the article. The other half being reading what is essentially deep feminist theory that reads like a memoir.

Ryan has several interviews which convey some of the themes of her piece in The Feminist Porn Book:
Here's one on HuffPo. 

One from backstage at the Feminist Porn Conference (I think):

And another:

Note: This is one of a series of posts about articles in The Feminist Porn Book. The other posts can be found here.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Feminist Porn In Context

Note:  This is one of a series of posts about articles in The Feminist Porn Book. The other posts can be found here

Lynn Comella has a great piece in The Feminist Porn Book with the lovely (if academese-ish) title "From Text to Context: Feminist Porn and the Making of a Market" in which she gives us some of the historical of feminist porn as part of a way to contextualize current feminist porn.  Interestingly, this is done as a sort of response to some of the usual critiques by antiporn feminists, which are often "essentialist and reductionist".  Comella tells us:
Sex-positive feminists—those who make, watch, study, and write about pornography—are frequently accused by antipornography feminists of lacking any meaningful critique of the mainstream porn industry. And while antiporn feminists may occasionally acknowledge porn made by and for women, they typically do so only in passing before dismissing it as irrelevant. The reasons for this vary, but include the stance that pornography geared toward women comprises such a small segment of a much larger industry that its effects are virtually negligible, or that porn for women apes, rather than challenges, the dominant codes and conventions used by mainstream pornographers whose sole motivation, according to this narrative, is profit. The notion of “sex-positive synergy” challenges these arguments.
I must admit that the phrase "sex-positive synergy" makes me cringe--but "synergy" is being used as a technical term here:  Comella is making a case that the entire history of sex-positive feminism should be taken into account when examining feminist porn.  Feminist porn didn't arrive in a vacuum, and neither did it come simply as an aping of mainstream porn, as is often portrayed by antiporn folks.  It came as part of a cultural package that included other sex-positive facets of culture, including feminist sex-education efforts, feminist sex toy stores, lesbian feminist products and the like.  

Comella traces several threads of this cultural package which I encourage folks to read--I learned a lot about how many feminist porn creators came to be creating feminist porn--and the part that places like Good Vibrations played in all of this.  

In addition, Comella makes one of the most rigorous responses to Gail Dines, who is famous for armchair-analyzing things she doesn't know much about. Just a tidbit, to whet your appetite:  
The seminar Dines references—although did not attend—was one that I had moderated and helped to organize. In fact, joining me on stage were two feminist sex-toy retailers, Jacq Jones from Sugar in Baltimore and Mattie Fricker from Self Serve in Albuquerque, accompanied by Carol Queen from Good Vibrations, Diana DeVoe, a female porn producer, and Greg DeLong, the founder of Njoy, a sex-positive company that makes high quality, stainless steel sex toys. It was hardly the cesspool of women-hating “tricksters” and “predatory capitalists” that Dines describes; rather, the very composition of the panel reflects the kind of sex-positive synergy and entrepreneurship I’ve discussed throughout this essay.
I love that Comella points out that Dines was basically making shit up, while other feminists were actually doing feminist work.  I plan in the future, when folks who "critique" feminist porn by merely saying that it's aping mainstream porn, to quickly point to Comella's article, which soundly undermines such ideas with, y'know, facts and stuff. 

Bonus! Here's a talk by Comella with some of her research:
Lynn Comella, PhD from New View on Vimeo.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Allies of the Ada Initiative

Had the great fortune to take part in the allies track of the Ada Initiative's recent conference, Ada Camp SF.  The Ada Initiative, it their own words:

Open source software and data, like Firefox and Wikipedia, are the foundation of the Internet and modern technology. Companies like Google and Facebook depend on open source software, and popular web sites like Wikipedia rely on open data. Yet women make up only 2% of the open source software community and 10% of Wikipedia editors.

The Ada Initiative helps women get and stay involved in open source, open data, open education, and other areas of free and open technology and culture. These communities are changing the future of global society. If we want that society to be socially just and to serve the interests of all people, women must be involved in its creation and organization.
I can't sum up my conference experience easily, but it was powerful on various levels. This is the first time they've had an "ally track"--apparently in the previous two conferences, there were some issues with even well-intended men changing the tone significantly (one thing I learned at Ada Camp:  Even when men are trying to keep things equal regarding group conversations, they are often misjudging how "equal" things are), so the allies track was something of an experiment. For me, at least, it was a hugely successful experiment. Folks in the allies track had decided through email prior to the conference that women were explicitly invited to all sessions of the allies track, and that if we wanted a men-only session, it would be an exception. 

This played out well, I think. We had quite a few women come to our sessions, and as folks remarked then, it was more than helpful to have them there--it felt more like good teamwork when folks of all genders were talking about ally work.  That said, it was also nice to be surrounded by a bunch of smart men advocating for feminism in tech--I was outclassed a bit, because many of these folks were in some ways superstars of the open source tech world:  They're not only highly intelligent and logical, but they are also used to being advocates for open source, and the energy of that sort of advocacy carried into our interactions quite a bit.  

I hope to write a short series of posts about Ada Camp SF and the allies track, if I can get some of these very busy people to let me interview them, but until then, I'll share tidbits of my experience:

Random things I was pleasantly surprised by (in no particular order):
  • The number of women who came to participate in the allies track.
  • How smoothly an unconference can run, when everybody is earnest and open.  
  • How many folks there who were not only highly motivated and passionate about open source, but were equally as motivated to change open source tech environments so that they are more diverse -- not only along gender lines, but also around race, class, queerness, etc.
  • How many men with painted fingernails I saw. (I have my toenails painted at the moment, but nobody knew that, presumably.)
  • Awareness of the gender spectrum was pretty great, I think; where it wasn't, folks seemed comfortable pointing it out, and folks running things took constructive criticism as constructive.
  • The Julia Morgan Ballroom is feminist friendly. 
  • The levels at which folks want to take the theory (of women-friendly environments, and of feminism) into practice, and want specific guidelines about the best ways to do that (which is what the Ada initiative does! yay!)
  • How much community-building was going on.
  • I doubt I've been in a room with that many feminists who were not female-identified. It was pretty rad.
A few things that were surprising, but not quite as pleasant, exactly:
  • The complexities of implementing something that feels simple, on some level (make tech communities more friendly to women), but kind of isn't.  Even people who really, really want to make this happen have some strong differences of opinion on how to do so, and sometimes feel at a loss as to what, exactly, practically, to do first.
  • How hard a community embracing diversity in gender has to work to have diversity in other areas.  (There were a *lot* of white dudes in that room, just as an example.  The lack of racial diversity may have been only in the allies track, but I suspect that was not the case.)
  • I really don't know enough feminist men. Ok, this isn't that surprising, but hanging out with some really brought it to the forefront. 
Linky Goodness: