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Don't ask if porn "empowers" women - instead, ask if your feminism does

We don’t demand that waitresses feel "empowered" in their jobs for us to recognise their agency in choosing the work, and we don’t tell other workers who serve male customers that they can’t be feminist.

On International Women’s Day "empowerment" was a word I heard a lot. It makes sense - as feminists we know that power is not distributed fairly, and we are concerned with challenging those oppressive structures. But I was disappointed when, as part of the Women of the World festival last week, Woman’s Hour decided to debate the question “can porn empower women?”

This question not only relies on misguided assumptions that limit the framing of the debate, it also misses the point. I could tell you that I have felt empowered by both watching porn and making it (which I have), but the truth is that it doesn't matter. When we are talking about the porn industry as a site of labour, it doesn’t matter whether porn performers are empowered or not by their work – they still have agency, and they still have rights.

Porn is one of the least marginalised jobs within the sex industry, but it still suffers from the same fallacy as every other discussion about sex work - the idea that it is only a legitimate choice if it is ‘empowering’. We don’t hold other industries to this standard. Fewer than 8 per cent of the top-grossing films in 2014 were directed by women  and Hollywood movies perpetuate just as many toxic narratives about sex and relationships as porn, and yet we are not asking “can film empower women?”

We don’t ask this question of other industries because it assumes - falsely - that they are monolithic. Porn is a creative medium, as varied as any other. Like most of our entertainment media, a lot of porn is sexist and too much of it has historically been made by men for men, but claiming that all porn is sexist because you’ve only seen the worst of it is like saying that all TV is sexist because you’ve only watched Baywatch.

Why do we only expect "empowerment" of sex work, and not of other jobs? In this patriarchal society a lot of labour is gendered, most of it in service industries of one sort of another, from nursing to child care. We don’t demand that waitresses feel "empowered" in their jobs for us to recognise their agency in choosing the work, and we don’t tell other workers who serve male customers that they can’t be feminist. The empowerment fallacy is only applied to the sex industry - and it’s deeply insidious.

We all sell our labour to pay for food and shelter. Some of us, like me  - the lucky ones - would do the work we do for free sometimes, but we wouldn’t do it this much, or in exactly the same way, if we didn’t have to pay the rent. If anything debases us it is capitalism, not our individual choices within it.

Our society has huge structural inequality, decreasing social mobility, an increasing wealth gap, and limits and expectations imposed on us by our gender, race, class and plenty of other factors we can’t control. Most of us have felt degraded or exploited in the workplace at some point - and the fewer options we have, the more likely that is. Demanding that porn "empower" performers is deeply classist.

Empowered workers are usually privileged workers, but all workers deserve basic labour rights. Personally, I love shooting porn that expresses my authentic sexuality, and I love that I can get paid doing something so rewarding. But I’m well aware that my experience has been empowering because I benefit from an intersection of race, class, cis and body privileges. Only giving airtime to "empowered" sex workers perpetuates the oppressive structures that feminism should be fighting against. When I, rather than a more marginalised worker, am invited to debate porn, and then I am told that I am "not representative", my opponents are using the empowerment narrative to silence and dismiss all sex workers.

Even if a performer hates doing porn, if they grit their teeth through a long day of hard physical labour which bears no relation to their own sexuality, they still had their reasons to choose the work and they deserve to have that choice respected. We all deserve decent working conditions, to keep our job and get paid without being criminalised, and to find our own way through capitalist patriarchy without being told that we are "brainwashed" and "harming women" just because we need to pay the rent.

If you truly care about empowering porn performers, start by reducing poverty. Fight to improve our welfare state, for a citizen’s basic income, for more flexible working options for parents and people with disabilities, and for decreased tuition fees for students. It is possible to work full time in this country without earning a living wage, while others who want to work full time may not be able to. If you want to make someone more empowered, you need to give them better options, not fewer options.

In my ten years shooting porn I have had varied experiences, most good, some bad. What I discovered was that the more creative control and choice I had on set, the more empowered I was. That's why I started directing - to take control of the means of production, and to create a new kind of gender-critical porn that is authentic and performer-driven. And that’s the beauty of the feminist porn movement; when performers are empowered, viewers are empowered. Ethically-produced porn not only affirms and celebrates the performers who make it, it makes for a happier viewing experience - porn that enriches not just women, but humanity as a whole.

If you dismiss all porn as inherently degrading, you are dismissing the work done by the amazing feminist porn activists and revolutionaries who are working to make porn that empowers participants and viewers alike -  porn that challenges gender expectations and subverts stereotypes. Feminist pornographers know that misogynistic male-gaze porn does not serve us as a society. Rather than complaining about it, we are putting our energies to creating something better.

This is a global movement, and thanks to the internet it has gained huge momentum. Feminist porn now has its own category, Feminist Porn Release of the Year, at the XBiz awards. The Feminist Porn Awards is already in its ninth year, and in 2014 the University of Toronto hosted the second Feminist Porn Conference alongside the launch of the Journal of Porn Studies. All of these projects focus on radical, political porn that critiques the industry and offers an alternative vision. Nearly half of the films screened at the Berlin Porn Film Festival last year were directed by women. This is an oceanic shift.

If you don’t think the porn industry empowers women, help us change it. Look at the nomination lists for film festivals to see what’s worth watching. Buy ethical porn direct from the makers. Don’t rifle through the bins and then decide there’s nothing in the supermarket to suit your taste - go inside, read the labels, and vote with your wallet, just as you would with any other fairtrade product.

Feminist porn is the future of porn.  In a few more decades, it will be mainstream. Are you with us, or against us?

 

Editor's Note: This article was updated on 10 March 2015 to correct a reference to the AVN awards. It is the XBiz awards which have the "Feminist Porn Release of the Year" award.

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Meet the Brits protesting Donald Trump’s inauguration this weekend

The British campaigners joining in international anti-racism, pro-women’s rights demonstrations against the new US President.

On Friday 20 January, across the UK, in cities spanning York, Aberdeen, Bradford, Cambridge and London, huge banners will be dropped from bridges, emblazoned with the words: “Bridges Not Walls”.

A tightly coordinated direct action, the intended message is one of solidarity: by standing up for one another’s rights, we can prevent the further marginalisation of vulnerable groups of people. “In London, there are about ten bridges,” says Harry Jefferson-Perry, a 23-year-old gay man who’s involved in the organising. “There’s a bridge run by people fighting Islamophobia, an LGBTQ bridge, and a women’s bridge. It’s about smashing borders – physical and metaphorical. It’s a form of protest against the rise of the far right everywhere.”


Harry Jefferson-Perry. Photo: Malaika Ibreck

The #bridgesnotwalls protest is one of several nation-wide actions taking place in the UK this weekend as Donald Trump is ushered into the White House and attends his first day of presidency. The campaign group Stand Up To Racism is holding a rally outside the US Embassy in London on Friday evening, the day of Trump’s inauguration, with more than 3,000 people confirmed to attend on Facebook and 20 corresponding sister marches set to take place around Britain.

On Saturday, the international Women’s March is scheduled in approximately 600 sister locations and counting, in all 50 states of America, and countries spanning Norway, Nairobi and Japan. In London, around 30,000 people have confirmed attendance to the march, the real number expected to be much higher.

The goal of the Women’s March is a street-level demonstration that women’s rights are human rights. Their manifesto maintains that they’re not directly targeting Trump (it seems they wouldn’t want to give him the credence), but to the kind of racist, sexist and homophobic ideology his presidential campaign spun.

The demonstrations are bigger than the man himself, as illustrated by their apparent global appeal. “It’s about bringing the point home that just because equality is an everyday issue, and it doesn’t go away or rise and fall with who’s in government, that doesn’t mean it’s not urgent,” says Isabel Adomakoh Young, a 24-year-old British-Ghanaian student and activist from West London who will be attending the Women’s March on Westminster this Saturday.


Isabel Adomakoh Young​

Adomakoh Young says she heard about the original Women’s March on Washington in November via black feminists she follows on Twitter. For her, going along to the London march is, in part, an act directed at the US government. “Between Trump and Brexit things aren’t looking good for people suffering oppression,” she says. “As a queer, black, cis female, I’m worried that Trump normalises unacceptable behaviour. He’s also seemingly immune to journalism, fact-checking and video, so I think people being in the street is going to hit home harder than op-eds in middle-class newspapers.”

The second reason she’s going, she says, is to show solidarity with other women: “With social media and technology people get lonely. You read the news and you think you’re the only person having feelings of isolation or, specifically as a woman, feelings of diminishment.”

As well as lobbying with a gender equality campaign group called 50:50 Parliament, for whom she’ll be making a speech in Trafalgar Square on Saturday, Adomakoh Young is also an organising member of the activist group Sisters Uncut, who focus on fighting domestic violence.

However, it’s clear that many of the people who are attending marches and rallies this weekend don’t come from an activism background at all, but have been moved by recent political events to seek out a way to protest. Kimberly Tyler-Shafiq, 41, from Texas, lives in Surrey and works in HR. She is married to a British-Pakistani man with whom she has a four-year-old daughter. When we speak on the phone she tells me that she hasn’t been to a protest since those against the war on Iraq in 2003.

“After the election results I felt devastated,” she says. “We were on the precipice of having the first woman president in the US and I was so happy to cast my vote for a woman. I know I’m from a conservative state but when I saw Texas come in red it still lit a fire in me – people cannot be allowed to get away with what Trump has in terms of racism and sexism. I started looking for groups on Facebook and found the Stand Up To Racism rally.”

Tyler-Shafiq wanted to meet, “likeminded people who want to make a change”, and in this online group she found people with the same agenda. As she sees it, Friday night’s demonstration isn’t an act against democracy, just a message that people “are not going to roll over and play dead”. Tyler-Shafiq plans to take her four-year-old to the event with her.

Over in Ireland, American Fanya O’Donoghue and her Irish husband Donal have similar motivations to Tyler-Shafiq. “After the election I was so stunned and embarrassed for my nation that it spurred me into action,” says Fanya. “I’ve always felt strongly about immigration because that’s affected us. Now I feel like, if we were to go back to the US, what would my husband’s green card mean?”

O’Donoghue decided to set up her own Women’s March on Galway as a response to these feelings. Again, like Tyler-Shafiq, she’s been uninvolved in politics before. “This is the first time I’ve been active like this because it’s the first time politics have made me cry,” she says.

To register her sister march, she contacted the US March on Washington team, and they added her to the admin groups, global Slack messages, and emailed over organising kits, press kits, posters and guiding principles. Then she reached out to Irish non-profits who might be interested in spreading the word; anti-racism groups, pro-choice campaigners and the like.

When asked why the march is relevant to Ireland, Fanya replies, “the rights we want to defend for America apply to every country where women are paid less, have unfair maternity rights or experience sexism”. That’s every country in the world then.

She sees the action as “linking arms”, and wholeheartedly believes that when the 600-odd marches happen on Saturday, people will be forced to pay attention. “Women are like a sleeping giant,” she tells me passionately. “It’s like they say – if you want something done, ask a busy person – and the busiest people are mums and working women. It’s important for my sons to see how powerful a woman is.”

She passes the phone over to her husband and he reiterates her sentiment: “Our kids are half American so they’ve had a bunch of questions about the election at school. We thought: what better way to show them that democracy is an active process than organising our own march? Change starts with people coming together and fighting for their beliefs.”

It’s yet to be seen how many people around the globe attend Saturday’s Women’s Marches, but from estimated attendance it currently looks set to be the biggest global demonstration since the anti-Iraq war protests that Tyler-Shafiq and millions of others attended.

Perhaps it is the open-door policy and lack of specificity that’s seen the marches seized upon by so many disenfranchised groups around the world. “I don’t think people feel obliged to read up or be intellectually infallible before they go,” agrees Adomakoh Young. “It’s just for anyone who is pro-equality. A universal cause to rally around.”

Likewise, Jefferson-Perry encourages anyone to get involved with #bridgesnotwalls. “Look on the website, see who you affiliate, drop in and join them,” he says.

For Tyler-Shafiq, the march will, she hopes, be an outlet for the frustration that her and many other Americans in the UK are experiencing. “It’s hard to sit over here watching what’s going on in my homeland and feeling helpless.” And yet, while it’s “good to be involved as an expat”, she is aligning herself with likeminded Britons who want to influence UK leadership to stand up to homophobia, racism and sexism too.

“We can’t allow ourselves to be complacent about how Trump’s agenda is trickling into British politics because of the close relationship between the two countries,” she says, before adding that this weekend cannot be a one-off. “It’s good that people are making a stand, but it’s important that we get organised all over again when Trump decides to visit the UK.”