The Politics of Lesbian Pornography: Towards a Chaotic Proliferation of Female Sexual Imagery
by Kelly McDowell, graduate scholar
AUTHOR'S NOTE: The following paper was developed into a conference talk on the subject of censorship and sex education in schools. The anti-censorship, feminist critique of pornography provided the basis for a discussion of the debilitating effects of censorship on sex education programs and materials. The censoring and banning of informational books and films has had the effect of denying young women access to crucial information about their health, bodies and sexuality. Like the censoring of female dominant erotica and pornography, the result of this has the effect of silencing women and other minority sexual identities.
A phallocentric culture is more likely to begin its censorship purges with books on pelvic self-examination for women or books containing lyrical paeans to lesbianism than with See Him Tear and Kill Her.
Robin Morgan, Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women's Rights, 203
Do we always have to come at things in a reactive way as opposed to a productive, creative way? Do we always have to be reacting to how men define women, how men define porn or how men define sex? Or rather how heterosexual men and women do?
Michelle McKenzie, Sex Exposed: Sexuality and the Pornography Debate, 279
The pro-censorship position asserted by certain feminists in the debate on pornography has shifted the feminist cause from specific targets to a dangerously generalized concept of moral outrage. This has allowed frighteningly effective alliances to be formed between feminists and political and religious conservatives who seek to suppress pornography, but who also staunchly oppose women's rights and feminist agendas. Feminist anthropologist Carole Vance notes: "Every right-winger agrees that porn leads to women's inequality -- an inequality that doesn't bother him in any other way" (Strossen 13). Rather than effectively combating sexism, the pro-censorship feminist critique has fed into a larger critique of moral deviancy which is now being used by the right to mount new arguments, not only against pornography, but also against gays, lesbians and independent artists. The overly broad language of the anti-pornography legislation written by Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon has allowed for attacks against individuals who are not in collusion with the sexist mainstream pornography industry. Anti-pornography feminists emphasize that the breadth of the legislation is a necessity. They claim that because pornography is expansive in its permeation of society, so to must be the sweep of censorship. But this expansive sweep affects not only mainstream masculinist pornographers but also women and other marginalized identities. Marking an ironic moment in the debate, one of Dworkin's own novels fell victim to confiscation in Toronto as a result of censorship legislation passed in Canada which was modeled on the Dworkin-MacKinnon ordinance (Juffer 10). The incident aptly demonstrates the effect of censorship under a patriarchal regime. The untargeted approach is more likely to infringe on the rights of women and other minorities than to affect big-business, mainstream pornography. The pro-censorship position has worked to silence marginalized identities and disallow women to engage themselves politically.
Certain feminists have been barred from or "black-listed" by the movement because of their stance against censorship and their refusal to silence female sexual expression. Photographer Dela Grace, whose work has been criticized by feminists for its graphic portrayal of women in sexual positions, is concerned with "women who feel quite shut out by the women's movement." She explains: ". . . we're are being told that we're not feminist, that we're colluding with the enemy, and I want them to know that that's not the case with everyone. I want them to look at my pictures and see that sex isn't necessarily a shameful dirty secret" (Segal/McIntosh 278). Her comment evokes Michel Foucault's work in The History of Sexuality. Foucault outlines the development of sex as a discourse. He considers the way in which prohibition leads to over-eroticization. By relegating sex to the realm of the violent, immoral and obscene instead of postulating sex as natural and healthy, modern society actually allows for an intensification of sex. Denying sex, through prohibitive practices and norms, allows it to penetrate and control "everyday pleasure." "Refusal, blockage, and invalidation" of sex leads to its "enticement and intensification" (Foucault, History of Sexuality 11). We see these effects in the battle against pornography which has only worked to intensify society's obsession with sex. The sex panic induced by censorship has caused us to become sex-obsessed. As Linda Williams notes, we have become a society which submits sex to the binary system of the normal and the perverse: any sexual expression which does not submit to puritanical and heterosexist norms is deemed perverse and becomes other.
Feminist photographer and educator Marilyn Zimmerman holds a similar view. She opposes the effects of a sex-negative society which portrays sex as something unnatural and shameful. She resists the witch-hunt tactics used against artists whose work is deemed pornographic based on a constructed definition of "obscenity." She feels that these measures have only perpetuated the beliefs of a "shame-filled" society which is unable of seeing the nude female as "not the bearer of the phallocentric gaze" (Zimmerman 9). She feels that this view ignores the possibility of erotic expression to be healthy, natural and empowering for women. She explains:
We who hone our intuition, develop our "sense-itivity," muscle our right hemisphere of the brain have much to contribute to this Cartesian split- brain sex-negative misogynist society. ........................................................
Radical feminists and the Religious Right find common cause in obscenifying nudity with pornography legislation. The anti-pornography feminists' dictum "porn is the theory, rape is the practice" denies the inherent pleasure, joy, and desire regarding sexuality, and subscribes to a knee-jerk response of action-to-image. (Zimmerman 6-7)
Zimmerman herself was the target of a child pornography investigation when nude photographs of her daughter were misinterpreted by visually illiterate authorities who failed to recognize the artistic value of her work. After the ordeal, she contemplates the irony of the investigation of a feminist educator who teaches her students not only photographic art and method but also responsibility with regard to the perpetuation of culturally oppressive value systems. She works to make her students aware of their potential to transform culturally dominant beliefs through their art. She comments: "Imagine the ironic contradiction of university police crusading pornography charges against a professor of the same institution who teaches students about artists like Judy Chicago, Carolee Schneeman, and Hannah Wilke -- artists who use the female form and their own bodies for reclamation and personal expression" (Zimmerman 10). As Zimmerman's case demonstrates, the sex panic induced by censorship has helped to create a sex-negative environment, one which automatically relegates sex to the realm of the violent and obscene with a disregard for its positive aspects. In collusion with a phallocentric ideology, this has its most profound effect on women. It has the effect of sexualizing women and, at the same time, denying them access to information about their bodies and their sexuality.
Historically, women have had to fight for information about their bodies. Censorship efforts have assisted in retaining a silence about women's bodies and sexuality. On the most basic level, pornography offers information about women's sexuality that is otherwise lacking in society. To attend to this lack is the reason that more women have engaged in the production, distribution and consumption of pornography in recent decades. Many of these women have sought to legitimate themselves as feminists. They assert that their work is politically engaged and carries specific agendas. They insist that pornography has elements which are similar to feminist values. The Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce posits that pornography opens up the possibility that sex need not be tied to domesticity or reproduction, ideas which have historically been used by a patriarchal culture to oppress women. Pornography, through transgression and sexual excess, refutes these ideas. It forces a recognition of sex for reasons other than reproduction. Anti-censorship feminists Lisa Duggan, Nan Hunter and Carole Vance relay the benefits of this loosening of the connection between sex and reproduction:
[P]ornography has served to flout conventional sexual mores, to ridicule sexual hypocrisy and to underscore the importance of sexual needs. Pornography carries many messages other than women-hating: it advocates sexual adventure, sex outside of marriage, sex for no reason other than pleasure, casual sex, anonymous sex, group sex, voyeuristic sex, illegal sex, public sex. Some of these ideas appeal to women reading or seeing pornography, who may interpret some images as legitimating their own sense of sexual urgency or desire to be sexually aggressive. Women's experience of pornography is not as universally victimizing as the [MacKinnon-Dworkin] ordinance would have it. (Strossen 175-6)
Pornography insists on the recognition that women are sexual subjects. It opens sex to public examination and debate. Viewing pornography in this way seems not to contrast feminist values in the extreme way that anti-pornography feminists would have us believe. In fact, it seems to assert the presence of woman in ways similar to feminism. This can be seen in the work of the lesbian pornography production company Fatale Video. Founders Nan Kinney and Debi Sundahl, who are also the founders of the San Francisco pro-sex lesbian magazine On Our Backs, espouse their feminist politics. At the beginning of Sundahl's Suburban Dykes (1990), feminist goals are announced in the form of written text. The message states: "As women and as homosexuals, lesbians deserve to have available to them quality sexual entertainment materials. These materials reflect the feminist right for control over our bodies, thereby promoting female sexual autonomy" (Williams 254). Pornography can work to establish female identity. Asserting a female subjecthood, it can actually function in the de-objectification of women.
Considering the feminist agendas of women who engage in pornography, it is crucial to acknowledge them politically. These women have been declared anti-feminist by the pro-censorship camp. They have been charged with collusion with the sexist patriarchy. As a result, they have not been legitimated as theorists on the subject. Their views have been deemed irrelevant. There is a need for legitimation within feminism of women who engage in pornography while asserting their feminist status. In Feminism and Pornography, feminist Drucilla Cornell asserts this need, emphasizing the political engagement of pornographer Candida Royalle:
My affirmation of the representational politics of 'femme' pornographers such as Candida Royalle also expresses the emphasis in my own feminism on unleashing the feminine imaginary, rather than on constraining men. I place myself on the side of those feminists who have stressed the importance of expanding the horizons of feminine sexuality.
Candida Royalle's films should be understood as a form of feminist practice. Without new images and new words in which to express our sexuality, we will be unable to create a new world for women. (553-64)
Viewing the work of women pornographers such as Candida Royalle in this way suggests that there is, in fact, a feminist pornography. And, with its focus on female subjectivity, this type of pornography has more in common with feminism than with mainstream pornography.
As feminists, we must always be wary of a politics of control. It is politically crucial to allow women access to the avenues for expression which are available to men. Equality will not be found in saying "no" to pornography, but in allowing women access to it as a means of sexual expression. We must engage in a project which will not inhibit the agency of women and other minorities within the domain of sexual representations. This will be found in an alternative to censorship, in the proliferation rather than the limitation of visual representations of female sexuality. This is the concern of this paper. I propose a deregulatory politics. To support this position, I consider the political import of pornography and its possible strategic uses. I consider the efforts of politically engaged lesbian pornographers Shar Rednour and Jackie Strano, who feel that it is crucial to assert the presence of women's sexuality through pornography. Through their films, they hope to offer sexual images which serve to empower women and to establish sexual identities which are marginalized in mainstream pornography. I consider what their effort means as a form of resistance, one which is does not follow the reactionary tactics of censorship but works to combat sexism in productive and creative ways. In the conclusion, I consider the idea that the way to gender and sexual equality is through the encouragement of a more chaotic visual environment through a proliferation of images of female sexuality, one which has the effect of diversifying and further obscuring the terms by which women are identified. If, as feminist Jeanie Forte notes, "it is female desire which is most disruptive" (259), then perhaps we should use it.
Lesbian Pornography: Unleashing Female Desire
What would it mean to attend to the problem in a manner which, rather than focusing on limiting visual representations of women's sexuality, concentrates on asserting the female sexual presence and legitimating female desire? This is the question which concerns certain pro-sex feminists. These feminists have chosen to combat the problem of sexism in mainstream, masculinist pornography by means of countering it with a proliferation of female dominant sexual imagery. It is not just that they offer a female-focused pornography (mainstream pornography has been female-focused in a way which objectifies women). Rather, they transcend mainstream sexual representations to offer images of women which assert a subjecthood and establish a female sexual agency. This is the work of Fatale Video. The company was founded in the 1980s and has served as an innovative leader in the arena of lesbian pornography. The first of its kind, Fatale sought to establish a cultural space for its work. Discussing its struggle for legitimacy, founder Debi Sundahl explains that the company was rejected by Ms. magazine for being overly sexual and, thereby, not fitting its feminist definition. Trying to find a place for the new product of lesbian pornography, Sundahl approached mainstream pornography distributors. Here, too, Fatale was rejected, this time for being an "all woman product" (Juffer 174). Rejected by feminists as well as the pornography industry, Fatale was left to struggle independently to make itself known. Sundahl comments: "Producing our own porn has not been on the number one hit parade of important endeavors by lesbians. It's not an easy thing to do, especially not that easy to get distributed; there's not a lot of money in it, so it's really kind of a labor of love" (S.I.R. home page).
Due to financial troubles, the company released its final film Safe is Desire in 1993, which left an enormous gap in an already struggling market. This gap has recently been filled with the effort of lesbian pornographers Shar Rednour and Jackie Strano and their production company S.I.R. (Sex, Indulgence, and Rock 'n' Roll). Rednour, who emerged from Fatale, joined with Strano to continue the effort to forge a cultural space for lesbian pornography. The women are respected sex educators known for their pro-sex feminist politics. And they are part of the radical Bay Area sex-awareness scene from which emerged Susie Bright, the San Francisco Sex Information hotline and the feminist sex shop and women-owned worker cooperative Good Vibrations. Their company is known for its focus on female dominant sex and working to create a new legitimacy for lesbian pornography.
S.I.R. has far exceeded the couple's expectations with films shown around the world at gay and lesbian film festivals in cities such as San Francisco, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Paris, Berlin, Vancouver and Sydney. The company has also received a deluge of critical acclaim from newspapers and magazines such as The Village Voice, On Our Backs and Adult Video News. Rednour and Strano feel that the recognition of S.I.R. also stands as a long-overdue recognition of women as consumers of pornography. In the article "Pucker Up: Desperately Seeking Dyke Porn," which appeared in The Village Voice on April 26, 2000, Tristan Taormino describes this effect:
In general, women aren't seen by the eyes of the mainstream (and, in turn, we don't see ourselves) as consumers of pornography and other sexually related products and services in the same way that men are . . . Women aren't seen as sexual predators, sexual aggressors, as wanting sex for sex's sake, like men are . . .
Most producers are only recently (and slowly) acknowledging women as porn viewers and buyers. The lesbian porn market is even smaller and less recognized. On Our Backs is the only dyke porn magazine, and by-and- for-dykes porn video is a rare treat.
It's a miracle that S.I.R. video exists, and that it shows no signs of slowing down. (S.I.R. home page)
Recognition such as this is a welcomed legitimation to Rednour and Strano and to lesbian pornography in general. It marks an unprecedented breakthrough for marginalized identities which have historically been excluded from mainstream pornography. Adult Video News Editor Susie Ehlrich commends S.I.R. for their determination in an arena in which "there's so precious little of this subgenre available" (S.I.R. home page). S.I.R. foregrounds the importance of sexual expression in the development of a politicized lesbian community. Rednour and Strano feel that it is politically crucial to assert lesbian sexuality through pornography. They legitimate lesbian desire by bringing it to the fore through pornography.
The Films of S.I.R.: A Diverse Realism
S.I.R. offers representations of lesbian sexuality, which has gone grossly ignored and unappreciated in mainstream pornography. Lesbianism has been present in mainstream pornography, but it has been portrayed in a way which highlights the phallus and privileges the male viewer. Linda Williams notes that lesbian scenes have become almost a requirement in post-1970s mainstream pornography, but these scenes have been shot for the obvious visual pleasure of men (252). Lesbian sexuality has existed for male entertainment, contained and consumed by masculine, heterosexual frames. Rednour and Strano attend to the need created by this inaccurate and unsatisfactory representation of lesbian sexuality. Rednour says: "What we do, we do because we don't get excited about the porn that's out there." Strano adds: "I produce porn because the images that I was seeing were only half way there . . ." (S.I.R. home page). The couple works to assert a lesbian sexual subjectivity and agency. They interrupt and manipulate the male gaze with a refusal to be contained by established heterosexist norms. Theirs is a pornography by-and-for women. The lesbian sexual encounters in their films are there for their own fulfillment, rather than for voyeuristic male pleasure.
S.I.R. works to establish female sexual subjectivity through its commitment to realism, which is characteristic of women-produced pornography. Cathy Winks, author of The Good Vibrations Guide to Adult Videos, notes that one of the important differences between mainstream pornography and women-produced pornography is the concern for realistic portrayals of female sexuality. She commends Candida Royalle and her company Femme productions for "featuring actresses who beak the Barbie-doll mold -- women with real bodies who aren't all under thirty . . . " (Winks 30). Women-produced pornography tends to contain varied representations of women, with diverse voices and bodies. The films feature images of women which do not submit to sexist norms of beauty. This kind of representation promotes an acceptance of women's bodies that is not to be found elsewhere in society, definitely not in fashion advertisements such as those found in Vogue and Victoria's Secret which perpetuate a societally-accepted female oppression. By offering diverse images of women, women-produced pornography asserts the identities of many who have been silenced because they do not fit the mainstream's narrow definitions of beauty.
Rednour and Strano break from the cliched images of sexist, mainstream pornography. They work to present a sexual subjectivity that can be identified with by "real life" lesbians. Their films feature local lesbians with natural and diverse bodies, including Rednour and Strano themselves who often act in their own productions. Many of their actors are amateurs, whose "real-life" occupations include house painters, bartenders and social workers. The sex accessories used in their films come from women-centric shops such as Good Vibrations, items used by actual women in their actual sex lives. Consequently, their films can be used as guides to authentic lesbian sex, which is impossible to do with mainstream pornography's inaccurate representations. The films offer realistic portrayals and believable sexual encounters. In an article which appeared in GV Spot, the Good Vibrations on-line newsletter, Sarah Burgundy quotes Rednour who says: ". . . we really want . . . to show authentic, earnest sex scenes between women"(S.I.R. home page). Rednour's intention has been well-received. In an article which appeared in the feminist pornography magazine Scarlet Letters, Heather Corinna describes the effect of S.I.R.'s commitment to realism:
Every film the fabulous dames put out is always a far cry above absolutely anything out there, as far as I'm concerned. Everyone in them actually looks like someone I'd hang out with . . . Even more important, the majority of people they put in their films are people whom I'd want to sleep with and fantasize about. That may sound fairly common, but rest assured it isn't. To an urban, fairly off-the-wall pornographer like myself, the average porn star just won't even come close . . . the fake breasts, bleached out hair, or that awful expression many of them seem to be able to hold for the entirety of a sex act in which they appear to have been hit on the head with a two-by-four . . . But alas! Hope springs eternal! Flip on a S.I.R. Video tape and you get . . . butches and dykes of every conceivable hue . . .sexy, funny and real all at once; dyke porn that's as real as my bedroom. (S.I.R. home page)
The belief in realism is also held by the actors of S.I.R. films. Rednour and Strano like to select their actors from the "real life" lesbian community. They look for actors who are politically engaged and believe in the cause of establishing lesbian sexual identity. Phyllis Christopher, a writer for the online film review Spectator.Net, quotes S.I.R. actor Tina D'Elia, a "self-professed Proud Latina Lesbian Power Femme," who says:
I wanted to contribute as a Power Femme Latina Feminist Dyke, my realism/my reality, giving a sense of my sexual power is really important and still very ground-breaking in the categories of dyke/lesbian porn. I wanted to show hot, sexy, positive, politically consciously thought-through dynamics and [the] reality of butche-femme -- a realism that historically has been exploited by straight men for straight men . . . I [am] an actor contributing to what I want to see as a dyke and share with other queer women. (S.I.R. home page)
The films of S.I.R. promote realism in the way in which they portray the sexual relationship between lesbians. The films have a narrative quality that is borne of the "real life" experiences of Rednour and Strano and others of their community. Rednour says that the couple mixes sex and drama (S.I.R. home page). The characters in their films relate to each other; they go through the ups and downs of relationships. They experience "crushes" and passionate attractions as well as arguments and dysfunctional breakups. Scarlett Letters writer Corinna commends S.I.R. for making films which portray "believable relationships" and "fun, creative sex and dealing with your ex." She says: "They even manage to argue . . . Gosh, people do that? Who knew? The characters and their bodies are real and divinely sexy . . . " (S.I.R. home page). In their films, Rednour and Strano explore the connection between sex and other facets of relationships. They feel that it is important to celebrate all aspects of lesbian relationships in order to provide the lesbian community with quality sexual entertainment materials. Their intent is understandable considering the way in which mainstream pornographic films have historically positioned lesbian sex as a side-item or an addition to the heterosexual act, lesbian sex existing for the primary cause of male pleasure.
The Portrayal of Butch/Femme Sex
One of the most obvious and important ways in which the films of S.I.R. differ from mainstream pornographic films is in the company's commitment to include butch lesbians and to focus on the butch-femme sexual relationship. The presence of butch lesbians, nearly unheard of in mainstream pornography, has the effect of destabilizing the norms of femininity present in mainstream pornography's cliched representations of women. But, more importantly, the highlighting of butch sexuality destabilizes norms within the lesbian community itself. In an article which appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian on January 31, 2001, writer Michelle Tea explains, "Butches are supposed to be the silent, non-glamorous types, while their femme counterparts get all the eroticizing attention" (Tea 27). Foucault discusses the normalization which occurs within identity categories. This normalization occurs even with marginalized identity groups. It is reflected in the establishment of norms and "roles." As Tea's observation suggests, the butch-femme relationship is vulnerable to normalization in the sense that there are established "roles" for butches and femmes. Femmes behave one way, butches another. The development of a role-identified community places restrictions on individual expression. The view that butch lesbians are silent and do not draw attention like their femme counterparts, can affect butch sexual identity and inhibit sexual expression. S.I.R. breaks established norms of butch identity. Rednour and Strano bring butch lesbians to the foreground of their films. They give much attention to butch sexuality and highlight the erotic aspects of butch identity.
S.I.R. actor Johnny Freemont feels that it is important to educate other butch lesbians about their desirability as does actor CC Belle, whose ambition is to teach queer youth. Belle hopes to continue to be a part of creating the images that she was unable to find while she was discovering her own butch-lesbian sexuality. She explains the significance of an affirmation of butch sexuality: " . . . the idea of being a porn star had only existed for me in the fantasy realm. Making it a reality was about affirming for myself that being a sexual person is okay and wanting to receive sexual attention is natural and healthy . . . Yipee for bold, hi-lighted agendas" (S.I.R. features page). S.I.R.'s focus on butch desirability is groundbreaking. The company is working in very new territory. San Francisco Bay Guardian writer Tea explains the significance of the company's agenda of eroticizing butch women:
San Francisco is known throughout queer U.S.A. as a hotbed of foxy butches. No other city allows girls who don't feel girly the freedom to crack open their psyches and draw out their inner cowboy, leatherman, hesher dude, or nerd boy, while still finding employment, let alone safety. In a place where butchness is sexy and revered, it often feels like the butchest girls win. The reality of womanly curves and soft flesh can feel like betrayals to dykes cultivating a tough machismo. But the point of butch-femme sex, as portrayed in Rednour and Strano's videos, is that what's essentially hot about butches, and what is often absurdly forgotten, even by dykes, is that they are women -- women who wear masculinity better than men. (27)
Tea brings a crucial point to the fore, one which is often acknowledged in women-produced pornography, that gender and sexuality are constructs which can be "put on" and "performed." They, in fact, depend upon their performance. Building on the concept of identity construction in Foucauldian and Althusserian theory, Judith Butler applies it to gender in her famous model of gender performance. According to Butler's theory, "gender is in no way a stable identity or a locus of agency from which various acts proceed; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time -- an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts" ("Performative Acts and Gender Constitution" 270). There is no truth or essence of gender; it is a construct played out in performance. Mainstream society may be late-coming to this realization, but it is something that the cross-dressing community has always known. And it is something which Rednour and Strano use in their attempt to eroticize butch women. Allowing butch lesbians the freedom to play with gender and sexuality offers the prospect of great empowerment. It complicates established notions of butch identity and destabilizes norms, of mainstream society as well as within lesbian and, more specifically, butch-femme society. This marks the transgressive power of S.I.R. Their films works to dispel normalizing beliefs on numerous levels.
Because Rednour and Strano do not focus on male desire or entertainment in their films, the phallus functions in a very different way. The phallus, which is used in mainstream pornography to assert sex, as the truth and signifier of desire (Williams 253), takes on a very different role in the butch-femme role-play of S.I.R. films. The phallus, like gender and sexuality, is a construct to be literally "strapped on." It can be put on and taken off. It is an option in sexual play, not a necessity. It offers no assertion or truth of sex, nor does it function as a standard or measure of desire. Linda Williams comments on the significance of this different role of the phallus. She explains that the "strap-on phallus" does not function as a ". . . substitute for 'real thing,' but rather the proof that there is no 'real thing' based in biology." She continues:
It is ironic, of course, that such a blatant phallic symbol should be the tool of the subversion of the phallus by aiding the assertion of woman's sexual sufficiency. But we are in the realm of the erotic organization of the visible, where impossible attempts to show the elusive and impossible 'it' abound. What is significant about this 'it,' however, is just how (literally) detached from biological gender it is. (Williams 256)
Furthering the idea of the construction and performance of gender and sexuality, Williams draws attention to the significance of a phallus which can be "put on" and "taken off." Power is exchanged between characters who alternately don the "strap-on phallus." This demonstrates in a clear way the phallus' construction. It refutes the idea of the phallus as an assertion of sex by suggesting that "there is no real thing." The butch-femme role play of lesbian pornography functions as one of the most demonstrative examples of identity construction and supports the theory of gender and sexual performativity which has been crucial for feminist advancement.
In Conclusion: "A Theory in the Flesh"
"A theory in the flesh" is taken from This Bridge Called My Back by Cherrie Moraga (de Lauretis 26). The phrase provides a useful description for the intersection of feminism and pornography. Pornography does, indeed, present the possibility of a theory quite literally of the flesh. But, beyond this, the phrase alerts us to the necessity of a bridging of theory and practice ("in the flesh"). The political engagement of S.I.R. demonstrates the need to look beyond the academy in the study of pornography. As we have seen, popular culture can produce theorists. These theorists deserve legitimation within feminism. Women who work in or intersect with pornography in some way have the most to tell us about its effects. Declaring them anti-feminist and their views irrelevant silences the voices of the experts. These women deserve not to be barred from or "black-listed" by the movement. How are we ever to truly know the effects of pornography on women unless we open academic forums to those who are most affected by it?
Feminism and Pornography (2000), the latest book in the Oxford series which explores feminism's engagement with other social formations, ends with a comprehensive listing of resources for women working in or affected by pornography, including a global list of organizations for sex workers. Editor Drucilla Cornell is sensitive to the need to bridge theory and practice in the study of pornography. Feminism, itself, is forced to work in the realm of the material in which the "personal becomes the political," as the well-worn, almost cliched saying goes. However, unlike many issues which can remain trapped in the academy, pornography forces a bridge between feminism and other social formations. In her essay "The Politics of Postmodern Feminism: Lessons from the Anti-Pornography Campaign," Mary Joe Frug posits: "The anti-pornography campaign allowed MacKinnon and others to dramatize what this theory means in practice, through its focus on a complex cultural phenomenon which is exclusively devoted to sex, a cultural practice consumed with depictions of what 'the oppression of women through sexual subordination' means. In pornography, women get fucked" (260). Frug's uncompromisingly blunt play on words expresses the necessary connection between theory and practice in the study of pornography. Ironically, MacKinnon herself failed to recognize this connection during a symposium on prostitution which occurred at the University of Michigan in the spring of 1992. Artist Carol Jacobsen was invited to curate an exhibit for the symposium which included her own work Street Sex (1989), candid video interviews with Detroit prostitutes as well as other works which chronicled the lives of prostitutes, homeless transvestite street hustlers, sex worker organizations leaders and porn actresses. MacKinnon encouraged the removal of the exhibit and, thus, helped to silence the voices of real-life prostitutes and other sex workers. Artist and ex-porn actress Veronica Vera responded to the act in a letter to the University of Michigan newspaper: "If you were trying to study any other subject, you would study the experts. Carol Jacobson offered you practical experts" (Strossen 213-4). Unfortunately, the experts were ignored. The incident marks the failure of the anti-pornography position to consider the valuable practical experience of those who work in the field. Although it further complicates the debate, the hope and promise of the study of feminism and pornography is found in the possibility of venturing outside of the confines of the academy to hear the voices of those who are usually excluded from academic forums.
Listening to the silenced voices of women who engage in pornography opens us to the possibility that all pornography is not degrading to women. S.I.R. demonstrates the political engagement and feminist value of certain forms of pornography. Lesbian pornography works from within the dominant power structure of mainstream pornography to undo its own established norms. It appropriates the apparatuses which have been used to dominate women and resignifies them in accordance with a female subjectivity. This demonstrates the unfixity of power and the possibility for its re-appropriation. For Foucault, subversion is possible within the terms of power through the possibilities produced when power spawns unexpected mutations of itself, versions of itself which contradict or oppose its purpose. The disciplinary apparatuses of power automatically bring into discourse the conditions for their own subversion. As Judith Butler notes: "The strategic question for Foucault is, then, how can we work the power relations by which we are worked, and in what direction?" (Psychic Life of Power 100). The possibility to re-work power has been crucial to feminism and queer theory alike. It is demonstrated through lesbian pornography's re-appropriation and resignification of the dominant power mechanisms of mainstream pornography.
Because of the feminist value of this type of female sexual expression, there is a need, as Linda Williams urges, "for a complication of the feminist binary of sexual difference with other binaries of difference that are not grounded only in gender but in sexuality as well" (248). She goes on to say: . . .
it is precisely in the proliferation of different pornographies . . . that opposition to the dominant representations of pleasure can emerge. It is thus in the profusion rather than the censoring of pornographies that one important resistance can be found to what many feminists have objected to in the dominance of the heterosexual masculine pornographic imagination. For it is because moving-image pornography became legal in the USA that the once off-scene voices of women, gays, lesbians, sadomasochists and bisexuals have been heard opposing and negating the heterosexual, males- only pornography that once dominated. (262-3, emphasis added)
The effort of Shar Rednour and Jackie Strano demonstrates the need recognized by Williams to allow women access to pornography for strategic political uses. An encouragement and exploration of female sexuality will allow for resistance to the masculinist heterosexist pornographic imagination. Feminist Elaine Marks stresses this need for exploration. Teresa de Lauretis relays Marks' proposition: ". . . Elaine Marks proposes that to undomesticate the female body one must dare reinscribe it in excess -- as excess -- in provocative counterimages sufficiently outrageous, passionate, verbally violent and formally complex to both destroy the male discourse on love and redesign the universe" (27). These counterimages will work to complicate and dismantle the patriarchal norms of female sexuality.
Counterimages can only be deployed through a deregulatory politics. Feminism must be willing to loosen its grasp on female sexual imagery. Judith Butler encourages a loss of control by feminism. She believes that this will allow for greater possibility for female agency and will serve as the most productive form of resistance. She explains:
. . . it is important to risk losing control of the ways in which the categories of women and homosexuality are represented, even in legal terms, to safeguard the uncontrollability of the signified. In my view, it is in the very proliferation and deregulation of such representations -- in the production of a chaotic multiplicity of representations -- that the authority and prevalence of the reductive and violent imagery produced by Jesse Helms and other pornographic industries will lose their monopoly on the ontological indicator, the power to define and restrict the terms of political identity. (Butler, "The Force of Fantasy" 504)
The exploration and proliferation of female sexual identity is a complicated and risky enterprise. But, as Butler suggests, perhaps this is the very point. Perhaps the power lies in keeping female sexuality in flux, mobile and constantly changing. Perhaps the way to empower women is to refuse a single definition of women's sexuality and, instead, to keep the terms floating, unable of being captured, owned or named. Feminists must be willing to take the risk of engaging in experiments toward resignification and liberation. The way to sexual equality will be found in these experiments, in the further obscuring of the terms by which women are identified. If women's sexuality is too diverse to name, the conservatives as well as the pornography industry will have a difficult time controlling it. This effect will come through a proliferation, rather than a limitation, of images. The power, then, lies in the creation of a more chaotic environment, full of diverse images of female sexuality.
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