‘F*ck-ing the Record’: On Year 7 of the Feminist Porn Awards – Bobby Noble

Like many other masculine-identified folks, I think about sex pretty much non-stop. I’m lucky (and privileged) enough to get paid for this too. As a university researcher on a project studying the production, distribution, and consumption of feminist porn (the Feminist Porn Archive and Research Project), I spend a great deal of time thinking about sex by consuming feminist porn. I’m thinking too non-stop about the imagined self-evidence of both of these terms; that is, about both ‘feminist’ and ‘porn,’ about the ‘feminist-ness’ of these practices but also about their ‘porn-ness.’ Of course, the nature of what counts as porn-ness has been up for debate for as long as the category has existed. According to our genealogists, the very emergence of the ‘pornographic’ as category marks a complex battle over where lines should be drawn as well as in whose interests – capital or otherwise. Anyone seeking to secure a definition through content-as-criteria, then, will invariably be caught in a ‘porn vs. erotica vs. bad sex vs. good sex’ loop in perpetua. Porn is neither made nor broken in its content, and history bears this out. So too does the really stunning work of N. Maxwell Lander.

Even more troubling is the nature of the work accomplished by porn’s methods when hailed as feminist. What is it that makes anything feminist, especially if we are committed, as we should be, to trans-feminist practices of thinking, writing, and talking – in ways that at least try to refuse the categorical shorthand of differentiating ‘feminist’ porn from ‘mainstream’ porn by arguing that “women had a hand in the making, selling, distributing of the product” or “women’s desires are featured prominently in the form” . This is not at all to criticize the folks putting heart and soul into organizing the Feminist Porn Awards (FPAs), quite the contrary. The FPAs remain committed to, and exemplary of, trans-positivity and trans-literacy. Kudos and recognition earned and given. But refusing such shorthandedness might mean instead that we begin to give up the larger narrative of liberal-feminist transgression and replace it with a committed political practice of contradiction and incoherence if we want to continue to think sex in more complicated ways. Even though trans-literacies are a vital foundation of sex-positive counterpublic cultures, do we not duplicate the very conditions that work against such trans-literate spaces by continually marking as ‘feminist’ only those spaces that have ‘women’s desires’ at their centre? Of course this logic begs a question that I do not want to ask, one I do not believe to be true: are ‘men’s desires’ are inherently anti-feminist? I don’t believe that this is true and I don’t think that the Feminist Porn Awards would agree that they are, either. But what narratives (about feminism, about porn, about gender, about bodies, and about transgression) are reproduced when feminism cannot shake off the overdetermined proximities to ‘women’? I think we can do better.

Something else nags at me as I emerge on the other side of the FPAs. In full acknowledgement that the ‘business’ of porn often sets the terms used and the terms troubled by what might count as ‘feminist’ porn, I continue to wonder if this isn’t, in fact, just a little bit of history repeating itself. I worry that inside the cultures of feminist porn making, the term ‘feminist’ is becoming synonymous with all things ‘queer’ and transgender. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; in fact, if this is the case, this might well be yet another interesting and successful layering of ‘feminist,’ one that not all of its practitioners will embrace. For the record, the FPAs are a tremendously queer and trans-positive space. This goes without saying even as it bears constant iteration. But what I continue to notice, this year more than any other, is the degree to which heterosexuality itself comes to be positioned as a productively impossible problem within these complex logics that also privilege particularly conventional forms of categorical crossing and binarized sex logics as their calibration of transgression.

By heterosexuality, I do not mean heteronormativity – this we want as a problem. But I do mean the depiction of gendered sex play that is taken up by bodies across the spectrum of sexes and genders, including those cis-, and including play with what I am going to risk calling cis-dick. Before I say more, let me just acknowledge the complexity of the world in which we live. Transmisogyny abounds. Trans-femininities are either fetishized or completely demonized, at times simultaneously inside and outside of feminist cultures. Trans-women bear the full brunt of misogyny, transphobias, racism, and often, feminist transphobias. Trans-men also carry the weight of being deemed not inherently real men. At the same time, at what point can we begin to develop the language of a critique of cis-squeamishness? To frame this differently: if a self-avowed feminist cis-gendered male pornstar won ‘Heartthrob of the Year’ at the Feminist Porn Awards, how differently would this make both the ‘feminist’ and the ‘porn’ of this event signify? The last two Heartthrobs have been hot and well-deserved. And I’m troubled about the winner of ‘Movie of the Year’ – a heterosexual filmmaker might be reluctant to claim a place, seemingly acknowledging instead her gratitude for winning an award at ‘your event.’ That she might well have intended a local or national event doesn’t bode any better. What kinds of non-shorthand work would ‘feminist’ do if we could acknowledge the hot porn-ness of cis-heterosexual bodies in feminist porn? And more interestingly, what happens to the distinctions a priori between ‘feminist’ and ‘mainstream’ in such a rendering? Are we not, in some important ways and for the record, forced to develop a far more nuanced and precise accounting of the kinds of ways we hope feminist sexualities and a feminist pornographics might emerge if we reorient cis-dick – and its feminist appreciators – as part of the buffet? This is something Shine Louise Houston knows beautifully well.

And what of the historical record – the monuments literal, epistemological, and discursive – that such feminist pornographics might erect and/or leave behind? I am reminded of the axiomatic from Derrida’s Archive Fever on the imperative of the record, the archive, one which feminist porn workers, producers, and researchers alike would most certainly share:

There is no political power without the control of the archive, if not of memory. Effective democratization can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation in and the access to the archive, its constitution, and its interpretation.

Given such political, historical, and discursive stakes, there are key questions which continue to press upon feminist porn as a project of record. Foremost for me is a contradiction that hovers around the very imperative for which I advocate. Isn’t the category of ‘porn’ itself already the content and effect of archivization processes that do not have transparency as their central logic? Isn’t this why my palms get sweaty, my heart-rate skyrockets and I feel very old when I hear smart folks talk porn and authenticity or porn as/not as art, as if this isn’t overdetermined in the way the question is framed? If we study the racialized, gendered, sexed, classed politics of this archive so naturalized that we do not see them, then isn’t it already both product and classificatory system unto itself? For the record: Might we not, then, ask questions about how to work artifice (by which I mean anything achieved with the mediation of a camera) against artfulness (by which I mean constructed by a subtly hegemonic classification project that has produced the ‘pornographic’), and both tautly against the authentic-as-truth-effect of biopolitics?

And second, where to house the public record of sexuality, more particularly, as archives of porn that always already gesture to an archive of an archive, given the degree to which histories repeat themselves in but also as imagined public cultures of feminist sexual transgressions? Private businesses? Universities? Online? How to record and document the need to archive? When it comes specifically to questions of how to house that record of a feminist porn counterpublic, then archival/recording fevers become blushingly urgent in their own need. The Feminist Porn Archive and Research Project takes such blushing urgency as its raison d’être but only insofar as we can invert the logic, taking collection as content and porn texts as method, in order both to record the complexity of the fever to erect and, one hopes, to simultaneously render impotent the archival assemblage and its categorical imperatives in the first place. This is the shift: from thinking of porn-as-object to porn-as-method to porn-as-deconstructive-archive. The effect is an archivization of a feminist qua feminist insistence on the right to represent that which cannot be easily thought or seen even within its own terms: the constitution, access, interpretive record and, even, for me as educator, pedagogical necessity of urgent, blushing, impatient sexual need as feminist praxis regardless of its ‘orientations.’ The archive as record becomes porn’s public-room-of-one’s own. But, whither its home in the house of capital?

It seems to me that the urge to record signals, to risk an overused concept right now, the continued avowed need to occupy these public records – these publics as records, forms, spaces – in order to aggressively disorient the kind of work they do. But recording this counterpublic is not simple for anyone despite the ever-persisting presence of brilliant filmmakers and their high-tech cameras, not to mention the mass of recording on smart phones at these events (what happens to all that footage?). How to retain the edge of that occupation is going to be a tricky question for the FPAs as they move toward over the next seven years; how to do this work when success itself – a nasty cousin to happiness – almost always comes around to bite one in the ass (and not in a good way)? This I don’t know yet. I’m pretty sure that we do not yet have very many answers. But I’m more certain that we still haven’t articulated the complex questions that we hope feminist porn can answer beyond the party, hot bodies, kick-ass shoes, and dazzling hot leather both on and off the stages. It remains vital to the project, at least seven years in, that we get these questions out, for the record. What does persist in this oversexed brain-of-no-inherent-gender is that the placing of these two terms – porn and feminist – together remains a sticky, fascinating business.

Image Credit: N Maxwell Lander www.maxwellander.ca

Bobby Noble is Associate Professor of English, gender and sexuality studies at York University (Toronto). He works through cultural studies approaches on contemporary constructions of sex, sexuality, bodies, race, gender, masculinity, feminist porn as well as transgender and transsexual identities in culture and social movements. Bobby has published numerous articles and has published two monographs: Masculinities Without Men? (UBC Press, 2004) and Sons of the Movement: FTMs Risking Incoherence on a Post-Queer Cultural Landscape (Toronto, Women’s Press, 2006). He is also co-editor of The Drag King Anthology (Haworth Press 2003). Currently, he is the principle investigator on a 3 year SSHRC funded Standard Research Grant studying feminist porn (the Feminist Porn Archive and Research Project).