booknotes: after pornified

Anne's daughter Lilly, to whom
the book is dedicated (via)
As readers of this blog know, I spend a not-inconsiderable amount of time reading, writing, and thinking about sexually-explicit materials. Not just histories and health texts, but also works of fiction and nonfiction intended to arouse. In other words: porn.

As as you may also remember, I have little time for categorically anti-porn feminists (e.g. Gail Dines) whose only way of critiquing porn is to attack it wholesale. Pornography -- by which I mean, in the broad sense, material of any medium that is sexually-explicit and intended to involve the reader/viewer on a visceral level -- is, like any other creative medium, a way for us as humans to make sense of our world. And discounting it wholesale seems nonsensical to me. Should we not, instead, engage in a critical discussion about what we do and don't like about the current state of porn (there will, naturally, be differences of opinion here) and what we'd like to see more of moving forward (again, there will be no consensus -- there creativity lies)?

Therefore, I was super excited when I first heard, last year, about Anne G. Sabo's forthcoming book After Pornified: How Women are Transforming Pornography & Why It Really Matters (Zero Books, 2012). A follower of her blogs (Quizzical MamaNew Porn by Women; and Love, Sex, and Family), I knew Anne would have thoughtful and thought-provoking things to say about a genre of porn -- motion picture porn -- that I have had little experience with, and know little about. I was excited enough about the book to press the author for an advance review copy, which she was kind enough to send me (hooray!). Since that exchange earlier in the summer we've actually gotten involved in an ongoing conversation about sexuality and identity -- along with Molly of first the egg -- which has the potential to solidify into a collaborative project down the line.


Ahem. So, yes. It's great to connect with other thoughtful people who believe, as I do, that pornographic materials deserve sustained attention through all manner of lenses: as art, as literature, as cultural artifacts, as evidence of human sexuality, as a medium of communication and (hopefully) cultural change. Which is the story that After Pornified tries -- in part -- to document: How female directors are creating a new kind of pornographic film and how these new films explicitly and implicitly disrupt the conventions of inequality in much of mainstream moving picture porn. In Sabo's own words,
I have found that porn is not inherently bad; there has just been a lot of badly made porn. ... I am interested in the authentic porn made by women who show a sincere commitment to radically change porn, featuring female and male sexuality with respect and realism. Where porn becomes a vehicle for women to explore their own sexuality and define it for themselves (6).
Focusing on specific film-makers, with extensive discussion of the scripts, visual technique, musical choices, and sexual expression and messages of each film, as well as directorial intent, Sabo takes us on a verbal tour of this "new porn by women" and seeks to persuade us that their innovations are worth paying attention to for what they say about both the possibilities of porn and the possibilities of sexual intimacy between human beings. Candida Royalle, Anna Span, Jamye Waxman, Tristan Taormino, Petra Joy, and Erika Lust among others are artists whose work and words are extensively featured in After Pornified's pages (a list of films discussed and an appendix of resources for further exploration are really useful aspects of the book).

In assessing the porn she reviewed, Sabo employed a formal set of criteria which she includes in chapter one. The two axes along which she critiques the films are "high cinematic production value" and "progressive sexual-political commitment," including the values of gender equality and active subversion of received notions of sexual shame and guilt. These two criteria blur together in many cases, as when Sabo considers the way in which camera angle (the gaze of the viewer) reinforces power-over or emphasizes power-with dynamics within the sexual encounter. I really appreciated the way in which film qua film was brought to bear on the sexual messages being sent -- particularly in Sabo's discussion of the sexual gaze. The notion of sexual "objectification" as an inherent and universally-degrading aspect of (visual) pornography is a widely repeated truism within feminist circles, one which Sabo insists on complicating by pointing out instances of the "non-objectifying gaze":
What I find striking about the way the two [characters in the sex scene she has just described] look at each other is the exchange of a desiring gaze while the camera for its part refuses to objectify either [male or female partner]. Instead, 'objectification' here becomes an affirming, adoring act (27).
For the most part, I am not the audience who -- hopefully! -- may be encouraged by After Pornified to think about pornography in new and less totalizing ways. I am already eager to explore the realm of sexually-explicit materials for new sexual scripts, and to participate in remaking what we think we know about what porn is and the ways it can be used in our society. Still, I was pleased, as a reader, to be introduced to a new type of material I have had little opportunity (time and money being the barriers that they are) to explore. While Sabo hasn't necessarily sent me running up the street to our local Good Vibrations to purchase a DVD collection of Erica Lust or Candida Royalle productions, it has given me a sense of what's out there should I decide it's something I want to delve into more intentionally.

While reading my copy of After Pornified, I jotted down a few questions that the manuscript provoked for me -- questions that I didn't expect Sabo to answer within limits of a single text, but which I hope we will all think about as we carry this important work of re-thinking porn forward:
  • There's an assumption running through After Pornified that men have, historically, been the makers and consumers of porn and that as women viewers and film-makers enter the porn market the content will shift because what women want in terms of porn is different. This is an assumption that many feminist thinkers (both pro- and anti- porn) share. One of Sabo's interviewees, for example, relates her attempt to create porn films with "content that would appeal to women" (55). I find myself wondering what the basis is for our assumption that women want different things from men, porn-wise, and whether evidence bears this out? My guess is that women and men actually want more similar things in porn than the mainstream media would have us believe.
  • Building on that, I wonder whether female film-makers (the focus of Sabo's study) are more likely to make feminist porn (using her criteria) than male film-makers? Can men make feminist porn? Are there examples already out there of men involved in feminist porn? It would have been interesting to hear from men involved in some of the films Sabo reviews, to find out what their intentions and experiences were, and what sort of porn they found satisfying to make.
  • Again, this is beyond the scope of Sabo's study, but I found myself wondering about two constituencies while reading the book: Men who are ill-satisfied with mainstream porn and women who like porn that wouldn't make the cut, so to speak -- porn that wouldn't fit the "new porn" criteria Sabo has laid out. In most feminist discourse about pornography, as I observed above, men are treated as satisfied customers. Porn is a genre catering to "men," the narrative goes, and women are the tag-along partners or feminist trail-blazers. I would be very interested in research that complicated men's experiences of pornographic material (without the shame/blame framework) and explored what they, too, may want that the current mainstream fails to provide. Similarly, I fear that a focus on "new porn" that is feminist and egalitarian could ignore the fact that there are people, including women, for whom certain aspects of mainstream porn are deeply satisfying. This book wasn't the place to explore that in-depth, but I do think it's important not to simply replicate a "good porn" (feminist/egalitarian) "bad porn" (all other stuff) dichotomy -- something feminist history tells us is a trap all too easy to fall into.
  • I found myself thinking a lot about issues of access. Many of these films sound great, but they are often independently produced and distributed, subject to censorship laws, behind pay walls online, etc. Making money as a film-maker is obviously not a bad thing, but it's interesting to think about the economic aspects of distributing "new porn by women," and to think about where people who don't have the funds to invest in a feminist porn collection might access pornographic materials. I haven't looked into amateur porn sites much, but it would be intriguing to see if feminist sensibilities were seeping into home-made video smut the same way queer and feminist sensibilities are blooming within fan-fiction communities. As a general rule, I've had much better luck finding well-written, queer-progressive smut in fan-fiction spaces than I have in published erotica anthologies, even from imprints like Cleis Press.
  • Queer porn as a subgenre is not tackled in this book as queer porn, which Sabo elsewhere has acknowledged is a deliberate decision. She's trying to encourage us away from queer sexuality vs. heterosexuality to just talk about sexuality -- a goal I really appreciate. However, sometimes leaning away from speaking explicitly about "queer" or "lesbian" or "gay male" porn has the effect of erasing those perspectives; the majority (though by no means all) of the films Sabo discusses are about male/female encounters, and those which do feature women-on-women action or male-on-male action still seem to center around a heterosexual encounter as the driving force of the plot. So I guess -- as someone who's gotten a lot out of queer smut over the years -- I wonder what's going on in this "new porn by women" that so much of it is centered around male-female encounters? Perhaps it's part and parcel of trying to figure out how to women and men can have equitable sexual intimacy in a culture that constructs them as inherently unequal?
Finally, I appreciated Sabo's discussion, in her afterword, of how we bring our embodied selves into our work and scholarship. "There's somehow something incorrect for a scholar to be turned on at work," she observes -- pointing toward the discomfort many of her colleagues have expressed (including those in gender studies) when she discloses that she studies porn (202). I was reminded of bell hooks' piece on the the erotics of teaching, "Eros, Eroticism, and the Pedagogical Process" (in Teaching to Transgress, Routledge, 1994). hooks observes:
Entering the classroom determined to erase the body and give ourselves over more fully to the mind, we show by our beings how deeply we have accepted the assumption that passion has no place in the classroom (192).
hooks is writing more generally here about embodiment and emotional investment, about being full persons within an academic setting (the same could be observed about the workplace), rather than narrowly about being a sexual person. However, I see our discomfort with sexual topics and the notion of a person whose work turns you on -- or has the potential to do so -- as part and parcel of this separation from the self. Full persons, after all, experience arousal. We should not feel required to cut ourselves off from that feeling -- we only need to learn how to express it appropriately (for example, it's probably not a good idea to flirt with a student or share detailed stories of your sexual experience with an employee). As a culture, we seem incapable of recognizing the experience of arousal without picturing immediate sexual acts speaks to our broader cultural impoverishment when it comes to discourse about sexuality as an integrated part of our lives.

After Pornified is determinedly both scholarly and passionate, and thus a valuable contribution to the ongoing conversation about pornography's place in our culture -- both what it is and what it should or could be. I'm looking forward to seeing what sort of discussion it sparks, and where the work of feminist porn-making and porn critique goes from here.


  1. Thank you, Anna, for your truly thoughtful and engaging review! I love your questions too and have lots to say in response. I think I'll compose a blog post in response (thanks for the inspiration!). I'll post a link to it here once it's up for those who're interested.

    1. How wonderful! Once you've posted your thoughts, I'll update the post to include the cross-link. Looking forward to reading :) ...

  2. I just found your blog, dear Anna. I am so glad! I'm interested in sexual identity and sexuality. It took me YEARS to feel a sense of freedom about my own sexual self and to recognize the ways I express sexuality. Writing Fan Fiction in my 30s freed me up in so many ways....Also, my husband's best friend Amy and her partner Mary introduced me to vibrators, which was a ... pleasant discovery! I hope all is well with you: Sounds as if you have a lovely life!