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.

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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.