The Feminist Porn Conference: Thoughts on Labels

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The Feminist Porn Conference in Toronto last weekend gave me a whole lot of brainstorms. Very impressive, considering I was fighting a sinus headache and sore throat and hangover most of the time I was there. (One of the brainstorms I had was that maybe the Feminist Porn Conference should be held on, like, Thursday during the day and then the Feminist Porn Awards should be held on Saturday night so everybody is not a kinda-still-drunk mess at the Conference… jus’ sayin… I’ve been there. It ain’t pretty.) But there’s a whole lot of meaty chunks (or seitan hunks, if you’re a veggiesaurus) that the concept of feminist pornography can offer for brain toothing, and when it’s put onto the table in the first ever conference about the subject, like a big pot roast or something… my brain salivates and slavers and my stomach rumbles.

Ok. Yes. I’m hungry right now. But that’s not the point.

The point is that the Feminist Porn Conference just happened, and it was the first of its kind, and it got all of us who attended to sit around and think, “What is feminist porn? What is feminism? What is porn? How do we feel about this? What does this mean? Are we all on the same page? Or even in the same book?” (Well, kinda, yeah. The Feminist Porn Book. Hah!)

Labeling is a difficult thing. It’s at once practical and problematic, necessary and divisive, frivolous and unifying. A lot of labels got thrown around all weekend: a plethora of acronyms and abbreviations, politically charged and politically correct words, self-identifiers and vagaries. FTM, MTF, trans, intersex, straight, bi, queer, gay, lesbian, dyke, butch, femme, top, bottom, top, sub, Dom, switch, sadist, masochist, Daddy, Mommy, baby, puppy, boi, Tasmanian Devil…  There were more types of people there than you can find in most academic conferences or porn events, or even maybe a packed NYC subway car at rush hour. There were many people who have proudly fought their way through all kinds of obstacles to claim the identities they felt entitled to, or to reach a place where they felt comfortable. There was more courage within the walls of 15 Kings College Circle than you’ll find most days anywhere, and about as much pretension to boot. And there were the curious, the up-and-coming, the confused. It was really incredible to watch it all happen.

And they were all asking the same question: What is feminism? Do we all understand each other when we use this word? To put it simply: No, we absolutely do not. It’s a majorly divisive word out in the world and even within the world of feminists. What does it mean to be a feminist in a world where Sarah Palin and Tristan Taormino both claim the title? What does it mean when Nica Noelle and Wolf Hudson don’t? It means that there’s a big problem in the way the word is perceived in the public (thanks, Andrea Dworkin, you jerk) and from within the ranks. It means that the word has been co-opted by people with a chip on their shoulder and proclaimed to be a banner for division rather than unification. That totally sucks.

I personally believe that feminism can and should and does have in its purview not just promoting the interests of women, but the promotion of the interests of every other disenfranchised, othered group. I think that feminism, at its best, is a banner under which people of all kinds who have felt marginalized can group together and demand the respect they have never been given, as female people are far and away the largest group of marginalized people in the world. 51% of the population. We can rally everyone else who isn’t part of “The Man” at large and form a majority for everyone, under which to demand access to the lives they want. People of different sexualities and genders, of different levels of ability and class background, sizes and ethnicities and races and languages, preferences and creeds. Under feminism’s umbrella, I like to think that the rights of all of us–including men and white people and male white people just as much as poly queer trans women of color, could form a union that would bury its opposition.

But there’s a problem there, in that the word being used–“feminism”–doesn’t on its surface represent everybody. Because it’s such a problematic term, it can alienate people before they even get a chance to hear what it’s standing for. Feminism has often been used as an exclusionary word: “You can’t be a feminist because you’re ____.” Fill in the blank with whatever you want, and chances are it’s been thrown at somebody. And so lots of people think that feminism can mean Dykes-only, Man-Hating, anti-all-kinds-of-stuff. And they don’t get a good look at places like the Feminist Porn Conference, where I saw so many feminist who looked, sounded, and behaved differently, all coming together to discuss the importance of unified acceptance of everybody. Where we moved from one conference room to another to accommodate the few who weren’t able to negotiate the stairs. Where both the bathrooms were gender neutral and nobody got upset or grossed out or assaulted. Where tattooed, pierced genderqueer porn stars of color had measured conversations with white-bread academics, and people took notes and asked hard but important questions.

I guess what I’m saying here is that I’m not convinced that “feminism” is the right term for all the things that my brand of feminism wants to do. But I agree with its principles. Maybe “humanism” would be a better term. Or just “compassion” or “love.” But we’re starting from somewhere. We’re asking the questions and trying to give a good reason for our answers. We’re discussing. We’re coming together to high-five, but also to think harder about what all of this means. And one of the most recurring topics of conversation throughout was that of labeling: there’s an agreement amongst most disenfranchised, marginalized groups that labeling is a double-edged sword: when people band together under one label, it gives them a sense of unity and power that they may not have had before. That’s why “taking back” formerly offensive terms like queer and slut and crip is so powerful. Being the only slut in a room can be agonizing, but being part of a huge crowd of sluts is empowering. And a crowd of sluts can get shit done a lot better than one lone hussy.

But at the same time, labels further “other” people who don’t fit in, or don’t know if they fit in. Like Nica Noelle, who vehemently denies that she is a feminist yet who produced pornography that prioritizes female pleasure and agency. Like those of us who are able-bodied feeling like we can’t relate to disabled people when they get talking about their experiences. It can lead to a lot of politically-correct “Is it ok to want to get involved in this cause if I’m not ___?” pondering. Awkward moments. And there will inevitably be people within every label who positively want to exclude people who aren’t like themselves, just as there will be those who want to collect as many allies as they can.

I guess the point here is: this is really, really complicated. But I think that getting people together who are willing and ready to talk about how complicated it is, giving them forums for that discussion, and letting it happen, is the best way to move through the murky waters of labeling. And maybe together they’ll come up with better labels, or learn to lose them completely. Maybe feminism, and feminist porn particularly, can help facilitate this evolution. And look really, really good doing it.

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