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The Feminist Porn Awards claims to offer an alternative to the mainstream problematic porn industry. But does it?

This article contains sexually explicit material.

The first person to open up to me at the tenth annual Feminist Porn Awards is, funnily enough, a man.

I’ve arrived late, underdressed and dateless, and I’m leaning against a pillar at the bar, straining to hear what’s being said onstage. The venue is divided into two sections—seats in the front and bar in the back—but the space has high ceilings and a vast echo. There are enough people talking and laughing at the back that the whole place is awash in chatter, white noise. Everyone seems to have known each other for years, and few people appear to be paying attention to what’s going on onstage.

I’m struggling to hear what the presenters are saying when suddenly, I sense someone standing very, very close to me. When I look up, there’s a broad-shouldered man in a polo shirt sidled up next to me, grinning. “You’re here by yourself?” he asks.

I nod, and he launches into a monologue about his thoughts on the ceremony. His name is Mike, and unlike everyone else I’ve met at the awards this evening, he’s not an industry insider or somebody’s date. He’s just a fan of feminist porn. When he first heard about the awards six years ago, “I thought: ‘Porn from a woman’s perspective, that’s good, that’s interesting. I want to support them.’”

But this year, Mike is convinced that the event has grown in size without improving in its professionalism. “If you look around at something like this—” he gestures toward the stage and the presenters, hopelessly trying to capture the audience’s attention—“it’s just disorganized,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s like: Who are you doing this for?”

There’s an obvious joke to be made here, about a man who literally walks in off the street and immediately gets mad about how the Feminist Porn Awards don’t meet his exacting standards. As it happens, though, Mike’s concerns actually intersect with a broader question that’s been hanging over the evening. That question is about which communities the Feminist Porn Awards exist to serve, and how they’re going about serving them.


The Feminist Porn Awards, or FPAs, is an event organized and hosted every year in Toronto by the feminist sex store Good For Her. It began in 2006 as a small event designed to showcase erotic films featuring women of color and LGBT people. Now celebrating its tenth anniversary, the FPAs has grown in size and scope, with 17 different categories and a long list of nominees.

The night before the awards ceremony, I went to a screening of clips from some of the nominated films hosted by the organizers at Toronto’s Bloor Cinema, where I saw everything from a BDSM scene filmed at a real play party (Alias and Knives) to a clip that featured performers dressed as Barbie dolls penetrating themselves with actual Barbie dolls (Fuck Dolls)  to the hottest sex scene involving a wheelchair I’ve ever seen (Going Here).

The Awards started small. In 2006, there were only four categories, and the ceremony was a decidedly more intimate affair. Now, with the increased availability of software and shooting equipment, making a feminist porn film—or any kind of porn film, for that matter—is easier than ever before, which means that theoretically, anyone with a bit of time, tech and resolve can commit their fantasies to film.

It’s also never been easier for viewers to find feminist porn on the internet. As both feminism and mainstream adult film have become more widely pervasive in popular culture, feminist porn has become something of a buzzword for women who might want to explore their sexuality without feeling guilty about being turned on by some of the more problematic values propagated on film.

The rise of feminist porn inevitably means that some of the women making it no longer quite exist on the fringes. Filmmakers like Jacky St. James, whose film The Sexual Liberation of Anna Lee was honored at the Feminist Porn Awards, have been credited with bringing female-friendly porn into the mainstream, while Erika Lust, whose crowd-sourced fantasy website xConfessions (NSFW) was also honored at the Awards, has become something of a feminist porn media darling after having been profiled on sites like Vice and Buzzfeed.

The Feminist Porn Awards has grown accordingly. It now spans three days of events, with the actual ceremony held at a large Toronto event theatre and a queer play party the next day. The pre-awards show screening I attended on Thursday night was obviously carefully engineered to show off the diverse range of genres, styles, sexualities and gender identities at play in the range of films nominated this year.

But behind the scenes, there’s been controversy over this year’s FPAs and the way the event’s organizers have been handling the transition from a smaller, more industry-oriented event to a larger, more outward-facing one. This year, the Awards lost the support of several performers and directors who feel the show is becoming less responsive to the concerns of the feminist community.

In late March, actress and producer Kitty Stryker posted an open letter on her blog explaining that she wouldn’t be attending this year’s ceremony. Stryker criticized the awards’ refusal to distance themselves from several controversial performers, directors and sponsors, including performer and director Lily Cade (who has been accused of transphobic casting policies), performer Christian XXX (whom Stryker said has “a terrible reputation in the industry, especially with trans women”), and director Madison Young (who has been accused of “bragging about sexual assault” in an interview).

Stryker also expressed concerns about “the various ways in which respect for trans women is being pushed to the wayside” in the awards, including new sponsorships by several websites that use derogatory terms like “she-male” to refer to trans women.

Kitty Stryker/Facebook

Although the argument could be made that the definition of what constitutes “feminist” porn varies for everyone, and that it’s impossible for the Feminist Porn Awards to adhere to everyone’s standards, Stryker maintains that is not the case.

“We would expect a place that markets itself as “free range” or free trade” to hold a specific ethos, so I think using the term “feminist” to describe a brand of porn suggests certain expectations can be had,” she told the Daily Dot via email.

“Of course I believe you can make and consume pornography in a way that is centering being politically responsible and accountable. But if you are intending to be a feminist alternative to ‘mainstream,’ then I think it’s vital to address issues like representation and rape culture in your work. Otherwise, aren’t you just mimicking what you’re claiming to be divesting from?”

“If you are intending to be a feminist alternative to ‘mainstream,’ then it’s vital to address issues like representation and rape culture in your work. Otherwise, aren’t you just mimicking what you’re claiming to be divesting from?”

Performer and producer Courtney Trouble was the next big name to pull back from the awards, posting a list via Stryker’s tumblr of suggestions for improving the event. These suggestions echoed many of Stryker’s concerns, calling for the events’ organizers to be more accountable for the people they nominated and to “center the voice[s] of sex workers/performers.”

The question of whether feminist porn can truly be all-inclusive was reflected in the ceremony itself. For instance, when performer Tobi Hill-Meyer accepted Trouble’s award for Hottest Trans Vignette on their behalf, she talked about the importance of engaging with and responding to the criticism surrounding the Feminist Porn Awards.

“As the feminist porn community has been centered around an awards show, we’ve gotten very good at celebrating each other’s victories,” Hill-Meyer said in her speech, according to an outline that she later tweeted. 

“But there’s been little or no room for critically engaging with our own or each other’s work…I think it’s time we all engage in some self-evaluation to remind ourselves what is really important about the work we do. It can’t be enough to say our porn is feminist because the director identifies as feminist, because feminism is more than an identity, it’s a practice.”

The issues Hill-Meyer addresses in their speech recall Stryker’s broader concerns about the awards’ judging criteria. This year, the judging criteria listed on the FPAs’ website placed an emphasis on production quality, saying that “editing, framing, lighting, sound and overall production value” are key factors, and that “earnest feminism is not enough” for a film to qualify for nomination. 

Stryker’s letter points out that this requirement necessarily privileges filmmakers who have access to expensive equipment or who work with bigger production companies. Sometimes, Stryker points out, when a filmmaker can’t afford to make a slick-looking production, “earnest feminism is all they have.”

In many ways, this split seems like the crux of the issue. The FPAs’ organizers issued a statement the day before the awards responding to some of Stryker and Trouble’s concerns, without mentioning either of them by name. With regards to the question of performers who’d been accused of transphobia or abusive behaviour off-set, they explained that “when we evaluate a film, most often, all that we can fairly review is the end-product of the film itself. We cannot be on set, nor can we realistically evaluate the off set behaviour of performers or production staff.”

Depending on what you think the goal of the Feminist Porn Awards should be, this is either a perfectly reasonable statement or one that completely avoids a number of crucial questions. When Courtney Trouble suggests that the awards’ organizers “make sure [their] sponsors and nominees live up to [their] code of activism and feminism in general, not just in their film submission,” Trouble is essentially asking for the Awards to be a different organization working toward a different set of goals than what it seems to be doing now. 

If the Feminist Porn Awards took Trouble’s and Stryker’s criticisms to heart, it would be an organization that prioritizes accountability to performers, sex workers and community members above all else. But they also probably wouldn’t be able to nominate as many films.

In the Feminist Porn Awards’ official statement, the show’s organizers said that “our goal is that our event, as a whole, contributes to the discussion around definitions of ‘sexy’ so that consumers have a wider selection of desires and images to watch that hopefully reflect their own.”

“Our goal is that our event, as a whole, contributes to the discussion around definitions of ‘sexy.’”

I was sent to the FPAs with the goal of asking whether it’s possible to have truly inclusive or ethical feminist porn, but the more time I spent there, the more beside-the-point those questions seemed to be. The fact that there’s enough material out there for this event to exist at all is enough to demonstrate that it’s certainly possible to make porn with ethical, inclusive and feminist goals in mind. The real question is, what happens to all that political conviction when you’re trying to make something that appeals to a broad range of porn “consumers”—when you’re trying to fit feminist values into what is essentially a capitalist framework?

If you’re a person who didn’t win the straight/white/cis/male jackpot from birth, there’s a very good chance you’re familiar with the complex emotional experience of enjoying (or being aroused by) stuff that isn’t really made for you at all. Being any kind of “other” and just trying to exist without hating every single cultural object—books, music, TV, movies, porn—that you come across often means you’re stuck trying to shoehorn your politics into an uncomfortable set of conditions or leave them at the door entirely. We try to enjoy things like “normal human beings,” but trying to enjoy something like a normal human being often means having to forget about the kind of human being that you actually are.

Watching porn under these conditions is a very particular and acute kind of bummer. Everyone deserves a space for sexual fantasy and exploration that doesn’t make them feel as though they’re violating their own morals or betraying some core part of themselves. This is why the idea of a thriving and diverse feminist porn industry—one where the work is both hot and ethical, one that prioritizes a diverse understanding of sexuality and gender and puts performers’ rights foremost—is so exciting. But making the feminist porn industry more like the mainstream porn industry—presenting it in a way that appeals to a broader audience whose political concerns might not necessarily be radical or specific—also means that at some point, the philosophical ideals behind the Feminist Porn Awards will be subsumed by the slow churn of capitalism.

Buried at the bottom of the Feminist Porn Awards’ judging criteria, there’s the question: Who are the Feminist Porn Awards for? The answer the organization gives seems cheery and inclusive: “The movies and websites that we select are for everyone. We wish to introduce all kinds of different people to all kinds of different films… this includes EVERYONE from suburban soccer moms to downtown radical hipsters and all folks in between!”

It’s an admirable goal, and ultimately, one that works great for people who just want their porn with a bit of a conscience. But for activists like Trouble and Stryker who want more than a generalized commitment to diversity, the Feminist Porn Awards might not be able to give them what they want any longer.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Tobi Hill-Meyer used the pronouns “they” and “them.” Her pronouns are actually “she” and “her.”

Screengrab via IntimateFilm/YouTube

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