Feminist porn: sex is about female pleasure too

Feminist porn star Annie Sprinkle knows that even though most porn would have you believe it's about male satisfaction, women want more than “as many penises as possible in as many orifices as possible”

Annie Sprinkle became a porn star because of popcorn. It was 1973, she was 18 and working in a Tuscan movie theatre showing ‘Deep Throat’. “The movie was busted by the state of Arizona. I went to court as a witness because I was the popcorn girl – it was really silly. They were trying to decide if porn was legal or illegal”, she tells me.

At the trial Sprinkle met Deep Throat’s director Gerard Damiano. She followed him to New York, becoming his mistress and starring in her first porn film, Teenage Deviant. Fast forward to today and Sprinkle is a 59-year-old porn pioneer turned performance artist, the star of more than 150 adult films and the first porn actress to get a PhD (in human sexuality, of course). She is also considered one of the godmothers of feminist porn, adult entertainment which emphasises female pleasure.

Read more: What is it like being a girl?

Sprinkle’s first forays into feminist porn were inspired by the acrimonious debates which raged in the late 1970s and early 1980s about whether all adult material should be censored. Dubbed the “porn wars”, they divided feminists with some arguing pornography was exploitative, corrupting and unrealistic, while others claimed it could be empowering. Sprinkle listened to the critics and started looking closely at her own oeuvre. “I had done a lot of mainstream porn that was really trying to turn men on.

“I started looking and criticising what I didn’t like about it. And I thought ‘if we don’t like that, let’s make something we do like.’”

So she made 1981’s Deep Inside Annie Sprinkle, which became the second-highest grossing porn film of that year. Add thirty years, the advent of the internet, and a whole new generation of porn performers and you get a movement. Feminist porn stars have walked the carpet at the AVNs, the so-called Oscars of the adult world, and April saw the ninth annual Feminist Porn Awards (FPAs), with nominations including ‘women reclaiming sex on film' and 'best boygasm.' But just what is feminist porn today? For Carlyle Jansen, the Canadian sex educator who founded the FPAs, it’s - broadly - porn where everyone gets “their fair share of pleasure” rather than something that is focused exclusively on male desire.

“It may be lesbian, it may be straight, it might be trans, it might be an orgy, it might be solo. It might be soft and gentle, it can be really edgy. It can be kinky. It can have a lot of story to it or it can have no story to it. Really it is all of genres that are out there but what we’re looking for is genuine pleasure, genuine desire and there’s a real focus on connection and communication.”

Its stars, like director, artist and sometimes performer Madison Young have been known to work in the mainstream. Young’s back catalogue includes ‘Exxxtra Credit’ and ‘She Likes It Big’. So what’s the difference between the two worlds? “One's an industry, one is a movement”, Young, 32, tells me. “I'm a feminist regardless of the type of porn that I am working in and I bring my feminist principles into whatever porn I'm working on.” But what if she encounters misogyny on set, or if her principles clash with the political views of the people behind the camera? “You run into misogyny whether it's on camera or off, amongst everyone. Whether you're in the grocery store, out in the world, we're constantly surrounded by sexism and misogyny so it's not really that different whether I'm sitting on a plane next to someone and they ask me what I do for a living and I tell them and the conversations that we might have around sex and sexuality.”

Pornography itself remains the subject of intense debate. In Britain politicians are concerned about the ubiquity of online adult content, and the effect watching it will have on teenagers and young adults. Feminist pornography is about combating some of those worries not through censorship but by creating work which challenges the idea that, as Jansen puts it, “all women want in the bedroom is as many penises as possible in as many orifices as possible”.

As for Sprinkle, forty years in the industry has taught her that there is a lot of “common ground” between the pro-porn and anti-porn camps. “Feminist porn is very political because sex is very political”, she says. “But we want to make the world safer, more educated, more aware of rape, more aware of abuse and exploitation, too.”

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