The end of April is an exciting time for the filthy-minded folks in this city. It’s the moment when producers of erotica grab a posh frock (or their best set of leathers—it varies) and fly in from all over for the annual Feminist Porn Awards.
Run by the Good for Her sex shop and now in its seventh year, the awards attract upwards of 500 people to their yearly distribution of glass butt-plug trophies to worthy feminist filmmakers. There are also panel discussions, porno screenings, and parties—like TIFF for the feminist porn crowd.
Broadly speaking, I’m a supporter of anything that recklessly mixes high heels, alcohol, and novelty glassware, but here, I’m stuck on one question: What the heck is feminist porn?
Feminism has always had a fraught relationship with pornography. You don’t need to dive deep into the internet to find a blogger who sees porn as degrading, exploitative, and a product of the patriarchy. On the other hand, you just have to look down the list of nominees for the Feminist Porn Awards to realize that there are a lot of female, male, and trans filmmakers out there who think porn and feminism make good bedfellows.
There are over 40 films and 16 websites on the nominees list, and creative director Lorraine Hewitt says the Feminist Porn Awards deliberately cast their net wide. “It’s not just stuff for straight women,” she tells me, “but also for people with different body types and trans people—stuff for people who are generally ignored in mainstream porn.” Basically, anything that is produced by women or shows women genuinely having fun while not being exploited is eligible for consideration, which is why there’s room on the list for titles like Babes in Bondage 4 and Submissive Slut.
One of the special guests at this year’s awards will be Swedish-born filmmaker Erika Lust, who will be discussing her film Cabaret Desire at a special screening. Lust is strident in her opinions about the need for feminist porn, telling me from her office in Barcelona that she thinks some men are bothered by female sexuality. “Very few men like thinking about the sexuality of their mothers, sisters, and daughters,” she said. “Yet the fact is, we’re all sexual beings, not just the Jenna Jamesons….Our society has a tendency to dismiss porn as marginal and insignificant. But porn isn’t just porn. It’s a discourse, a way of talking about sex.”
Cabaret Desire is available online, so I whipped out my credit card and settled down to an evening of Euro feminist discourse.
Complex and artistic are not words you ever expect to write about porn, but in this case they’re warranted. Lust’s flick is the only porno I’ve ever seen with multiple interwoven timelines, voice-over narration, and a musical number. It flits between a 1920s nightclub, a contemporary downtown bar, and a bedroom where the sheets are startling, both for their whiteness and tendency to billow artistically. When the deeply-in-love couple—a pretty brunette with breasts of decidedly average size and a clean-cut doe-eyed guy—get it on, female pleasure is front and centre. While she’s on top, looking and sounding like things are hitting exactly the right spots, doe-eyed guy lies there appearing a bit stunned by it all. Once they’re done, she has a smoke and he reads the paper.
The entire set-up seems designed to appeal to women on multiple levels—visual, emotional, sexual—yet Lust says that 60 per cent of her customers are men. It’s hard to know what to make of that. Are they enlightened men, or douchebags hoping to ply their girlfriends with porn and get them in the mood for sex?
The feminist-porn-as-art theme is one taken up by Parkdale-based erotic photographer and filmmaker N. Maxwell Lander, also an award nominee. “For me, my filmwork is an extension of my photography. Its main purpose is art,” says the photographer. But while admitting that Toronto is a great city in which to make naughty art, Lander has few good things to say about the government’s attitude towards erotica—even feminist erotica—complaining, “In Canada, art grants all exclude pornography, like art isn’t all about sex anyway.”
To be honest, it’s a bit surreal to hear an erotic filmmaker bitching about the state of arts funding (especially one who, a few sentences later, confesses to a passion for “dirty, graphic gay-man porn”), but it seems an apt illustration of the only point on which each feminist filmmaker I contacted seemed to agree: Feminist porn is all about having an alternative view.
Feminist Porn Awards, Berkeley Church, 315 Queen St. E. 416-588-0900. April 20, 9 p.m.