HAPPY PEOPLE FUCKING

Keeping it Playful with Spit Magazine’s Feminist Porn

by Maddy Macnab

 

My friends and I talk about sex. We’ve got each other’s backs when it comes to creating a fun, silly, non-judgmental space to say whatever clumsy things we’re feeling about the sex we’re having, have had, and might like to have. This is an awesome and decidedly privileged space—and a private space, I might add.

We talk about porn too. But in these conversations, I feel a little less inspired. Though I do my best to approach the sex I’m having with enthusiastic consent, my relationship to porn, as a viewer, has been a little less straightforward. The best I can come up with is, typically, “This is probably the least worst thing I’ve seen lately.”

I don’t need to tell you where mainstream pornography disappoints. Vaginas with the labia photoshopped out; unrealistic, relentlessly rock-hard dicks; the exclusion of any body that is not thin, shiny, hairless and cis-gendered (unless that body is being fetishized); the casual and constant presentation of female bodies as objects of male pleasure; the normalization of sexual violence; a disturbing lack of communication and explicit consent between partners. These are some of the toxic currents that run though mainstream porn. Duh. This has been unpacked eloquently and often by many sex-positive, feminist folk who are vastly better-versed in the topic than I am, ever since the so-called “feminist sex-wars” of second-wave feminism.

But what sex-positive feminist folk stop short of is writing off porn entirely, and that’s where I’ll stop too. Sex-positive feminism emphasizes sexual agency and pleasure for women. Embracing porn as a valid part of that pleasure is more important than any impulse to prescribe the source of that pleasure. Besides, that prescriptive and paternalistic impulse is alive and well elsewhere (see: recent UK porn legislation). Where mainstream porn gets an A for effort is in the space it creates to explore sexuality, fantasy, and kink, in our bedrooms, imaginations and beyond. And, of course, for supporting self-loving souls far and wide in their endeavours to jack (or jill?) off.

Beyond the bedroom is a generous assessment—when it comes to the shadowy, unarticulated world of mainstream porn, we’re still talking baby steps. Enter: a burgeoning group of smut enthusiasts from across the globe, undertaking the very sexy and very political project of feminist pornography. Among them are the co-founders of Toronto-based alternative porn site Spit Magazine, Caitlin K. Roberts and Jesse Rae West, who shared their project and their thoughts with GUTS for this issue.

launch-66

What is feminist porn? For some broader context, sex educator Tristan Taormino’s backgrounder on the movement is a great starting point. She insists that there is no easy definition, but nevertheless teases out some common threads. She reveals a history of feminists and sex workers (the two labels often overlap) contesting the space of erotica as an oppressive one. Crucially, it has largely been porn performers who, since the 1980s, have taken the lead in dismantling the conventional language of porn and have begun the work of repurposing “the erotic medium,” as performer Nina Hartley called it, as a place for public discourse and political agency.

I posed the question of definition to Spit’s Roberts and West. “A lot of it is about choice,” Roberts began. West pointed to the necessary intersectionality of any feminist project: “We’re always trying to feature people who are marginalized or who are underrepresented.” They mentioned their focus on female pleasure: “Our website is pretty low in content that features men ejaculating everywhere.” But then after reflection, that was also qualified: “But we’ve got nothing against cum shots, we love them!” And on we forged from there, spending the better part of an hour discussing and unpacking what feminist porn means to them.

Like the genre itself (which has really only gained serious momentum since the 2000s), Spit Magazine is young and still figuring out its identity. The founders are still negotiating Spit’s approach to representing queer, non-normative sexualities, and sex-positive encounters. “We have a very connected community,” Roberts shares. “We were witnessing a lot of happy, positive sexual interactions around us, realizing that there wasn’t a platform for it, for other people to see.” They began photographing, and later filming, the bodies, sexualities, kinks, that they weren’t seeing represented in mainstream porn. Photo sets featuring BDSM begin with a shot of the performers, looking pumped, holding signs along the lines of: “I 100% consent enthusiastically and with vigour to do sexy things with this guy.” Labia of all shapes and colours, cunts of all degrees of hairiness, men and women cis and trans, chest binding, strap-ons, and lots of real orgasms grace the pages of this members-only site.

P1030348

Spit has rules for their performers: they must be sober; they must establish clear consent boundaries before the shoot; and they must not fake it. They have rules for themselves as directors and producers as well. An important tenet of most feminist porn is an insistence on an ethical working environment for performers. In the case of Spit, they consider the environment wholly collaborative, and respectful of performer’s rights, boundaries, and creative agency. Roberts explains, “A lot of our shoots are based on what naturally happens. If someone’s not doing something, we wouldn’t step in and be like, ‘OK, can you try to do this?’” This last rule is more of an anti-rule, safeguarding their project and the very loaded label of “feminist” from creating a new set of norms around what sex should or shouldn’t look like. West emphasizes, “The most important thing is autonomy. Whether that can be categorized as feminist or not, allowing someone to do what they want to do in the bedroom consensually, is important to us. We try and feature things that actually happen.” For example, a recent shoot featured a couple who had had sex multiple times before, “but he had a hard time getting erect, so it was just an hour of him going down on her and it was great!”

The ideas that drive feminist pornography, and the solid ethical and political standards that guide Spit’s work, should make a lot of feminists want to raise their fists and shout, “Fuck yeah!” But there is another criterion by which we clearly need to determine “good porn,” feminist or not: is it hot?

Spit’s videos are certainly full of happy people, fucking joyfully and healthily. The sex they portray is communicative in all the right ways. West says, “In our videos you’ll see people giggling or tripping. Just the natural parts of sex that are clumsy and weird and awkward, that are actually really sexy.” It is hilarious and affirming to see performer Calvin Inclined giggling as she adjusts her strap-on during one queer sex scene. In a video that features some BDSM play, there are natural pauses, a whisper in a partner’s ear to check in, and an eager smiling and nodding in return. These candid, clumsy bits, which can be sexy in that they are refreshing and relatable, give way to some seriously hot moments. Spit’s videos do not shy away from the graphic: cunt close-ups, lovingly portrayed, fill the screen. Sometimes the shot dwells on an enthusiastic tongue down below, other times on some version of penetration (real and strap-on dicks, gloved and ungloved fingers). All variations are a lot of fun.

The real highlight in nearly all of Spit’s videos is the way they dwell on female orgasm. In the absence of the easy physical manifestation of pleasure that comes with the male orgasm (i.e. the ubiquitous money shot), Spit rises to the challenge of creating a space for the viewer to spend some time up close and personal with the physicality of female orgasm: improbable, unguarded facial expressions; a tensing of muscles; an arching; a jerking; and sometimes even a squirting. These are real, hard-won orgasms (as per Spit’s “no faking” rule), and this is where we find the sweet spot, at least for this viewer: moments that are “fuck yeah!” feminist, authentic in the way that a lot of feminist porn strives to be, and also a major turn-on. In the video “Calvin Gets Inclined with Chai,” for example, which involves two ladies and a lot of cunnilingus, there is some serious lingering—nearly half the video—on one performer’s face and body as she reaches climax. Though perhaps torsos aren’t your typical turn-on, watching this performer’s stomach muscles quiver was intense—and convincing.

untitled-280

There are some aspects of the videos that I found less engaging. The music chosen distracted from rather than enhanced the scenes, and in almost every case, it largely masked or took the place of any sounds the performers might have been making, or dialogue they might have been having. I also found myself craving more framing, or any storyline to tell the viewer the who, what, and why of the performers in the scene.

I’ll chalk most of this up to technical limitations and budget limitations—Roberts and West themselves admit that the technical side of producing video has been “a long learning process” for them, and the site also offers a great range of photo sets—but it does raise an interesting question about the purpose that pornography serves. Anecdotally, I’ve heard from a lot of friends who call themselves feminists that “feminist porn just doesn’t do it for me.” They question whether their politics and their clitoris can truly agree. My own criticisms of this particular site mainly centre around production value, and I wonder why this is important. Do I want porn to remain an identifiable fiction? Is the conceit of porn—the performative, polished, finished product—perhaps as hot as or hotter than any authenticity it might achieve? Even if alternative porn strives to be authentic, to what degree do we actually want porn to look like the real-life sex we’re having? Roberts sympathizes, joking, “I have a dark closet of fantasies that I would never actually want to happen. They just sit there nicely tucked away.”

Authenticity is an important standard of good smut for the ladies of Spit, and, West thinks, a preoccupation of feminist pornography. “A lot of people believe that porn cannot be authentic. Which partially is true. It’s a set, there are people watching, they know that what they are doing is going to be consumed by other people.” However, she goes on, “I think a lot of people’s sexual identity is partially based in performance.” By West’s definition, authenticity and performativity are not mutually exclusive in porn. Even “authenticity,” when it comes to pornography, doesn’t and shouldn’t quite mean the sex you are having in your bedroom. When private sex becomes public sex, things change. Crucially, this is also true in the other direction. Representations of sex can actually change the way we have real-life sex; and when the toxic aspects of mainstream porn are the bulk of what we’re seeing, our understanding of sexuality suffers.

Which brings us back to the political potential of public sexuality. Sex worker’s rights activist Sarah M’s 2012 piece on the seventh-annual Feminist Porn Awards spoke eloquently of this potential:

The public event helps to build a community of desire. Unlike the largely-anonymous mainstream porn industry, queer pornographers ‘stand in front of what we do.’ Queers’ personal and political identities are a part of our sexual and pornographic performances, as creators and as audiences. And performance can be a way of establishing and confirming the existence of queer lives.

When it comes to building community around positive and healthy sexuality, Roberts and West definitely live their politics. In addition to producing porn, they run a sister company called I’d Tap That, “a sex + queer positive community based resource.” Their mission statement reads, “We want to provide a sexy, shameless, guilt-free environment…to ensure people’s self-worth is not determined by the kind of sex they have or who they are having it with, but on the integrity of their choices.” They host parties, ranging from dance parties with a sex-positive flair, to full-on play parties featuring live porn shoots. Beyond the cyber space of online porn, Roberts, West, and their sexy community are regularly intervening in Toronto’s public spaces to “stand in front of what they do.” This is a lived, bodily resistance to conventions around sex, and it is exciting.

To return to an earlier thought: mainstream porn may have taken sex a few steps out of the bedroom, yet it continues to reinforce itself as a societal taboo: something to be watched but not talked about. When we open an incognito window, dive into the dark corners of the Internet, and click on that hasty, all-caps title, the cultivated thrill of the taboo is right there with us. Of course there is an undeniable link between sexual desire and transgression. But thinking about sex solely as a mysterious, thrilling secret does none of us any favours. In the fetishized, shrouded space of mainstream erotica, sex risks being drained of its real, fleshy human-ness. In the spaces between the words that we should be hearing in depictions of sexual encounters (“Is this OK?” “I like it when you do that”), consent gets lost. Rape culture flourishes.

Projects like Spit show us what happens if we take sex and erotica beyond shame into a new, public, spoken-out-loud space: West says, “I think it allows for people to have healthy relationships with themselves. Porn and sex are such a big part of people’s lives, and if it’s occupied by so many people that aren’t like us, then how are you going to feel like you relate?”

So when alternative porn like Spit’s fundamentally de-fetishizes and de-escalates sex, insisting that sex is a lot of things, and it really isn’t that big a deal, what happens to that transgressive thrill? Can it turn us on to transgress…er…hegemonic structures instead?

Dungeon-501

I’ll give Spit’s Caitlin K. Roberts the last word on the brain/boner conundrum:

We have to become as informed as we possibly can, but remain naughty. You can play with things. You can be aware that BDSM in certain porn can be really damaging, but once you know all that, you can still be really naughty! We couldn’t have sexy without having some sort of mysterious little naughty thing—the capability of turning all your knowledge into something that is playful.

Stay playful, folks. Taking sex down a notch in our collective psyche, from a thrilling/terrifying taboo, to an everyday/awesome encounter, is a great first step (and, I’ll admit, a pretty recent epiphany for yours truly). Thinking about sexy community is another; a community can create discourse around representations of sex and who gets to participate, making room for queer and trans folk, people of colour, and bodies of different sizes and abilities. With any luck, like the founders of Spit and a growing community of sex-positive educators and activists and performers worldwide, by finding ways to speak our sexualities out loud, we might see what a “community of desire,” as Sarah M called it, can achieve. ♦

 —

“Happy People Fucking” is from our Sex Issue (winter 2014/2015)

 

Recommended

The Latest

Editorial Note: Love

The GUTS editorial collective reflects on our seventh issue, LOVE.

In Defence of the Wastelands: A Survival Guide

Erica Violet Lee, Nēhiyaw philosopher queen, writes on environmental racism, colonial borders, and the love, knowledge, and beauty found in the wastelands.

No One Makes It Out Alive

"There will always be power in reading our trans lives into stories not intended for us": Casey Plett and Morgan M Page's trans reading of Little Shop of Horrors.

Making Threats

Rebecca Jade on how rapes within intimate relationships are actions in the state’s favour.

Our Sunday Links

A weekly roundup of feminist links.

Suturing the Split: Coda on the Couple-Form

A rejoinder to the 2012 essay, "Against the Couple-Form," Suturing the Split takes a psychoanalytic turn and reevaluates intimacy, emotion, and political action.

Gay Best Friends

Can we stay friends with our former partners? Charlotte Bondy on love-as-friendship

When Love Goes Undercover

Hana Shafi on the emotional labour of dating while belonging to Middle Eastern and South Asian communities in the West.