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Introducing the female gaze

Posted at 14:04 on 28 Jul 2013 by Pandora / Blake

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to speak at Gender Sex London on the topic of the female gaze in kinky porn, alongside male performer Michael Darling. It was a great evening, with a really positive reception and lots of thoughtful contributions from those who attended. You can read a storify of live tweets from the evening here.

I'll post the text of my one-hour talk in two parts.


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Tags: Anna Span, Annie Sprinkle, Body positivity, Dreams of Spanking, Fairtrade porn, Female gaze, Gender politics, Kink activism, Lucy McLean, Lust Films, Madison Young, Nimue Allen, Nimues World, Northern Spanking, Politics, Sarah Bright, Sites and studios, Spanking Sarah


Why opt-in filters for "adult content" are misguided and dangerous

Posted at 23:16 on 17 Oct 2011 by Pandora / Blake

Last week, the government unveiled a deal with four of the UK's biggest internet service providers - BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin, collectively comprising about 90% of the market - which will oblige new subscribers to "opt in" if they want to view web content which has been categorised as sexually explicit.

I wrote about this in December last year when the Tory proposals were first publicised. This is part of a large-scale campaign against the so-called "sexualisation of children" which include such regressive proposals as Nadine Dorries' sexist plans for abstinence-based sexual education for teenage girls, and which collectively poses a significant threat to fans of sexual freedom, civil liberties and digital rights.

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Tags: Anna Span, Brooke Magnanti, civil liberties, in the news, Kink activism, Politics, rant, Violet Blue


#ladypornday: Porn as a public service

Posted at 23:47 on 22 Feb 2011 by Pandora / Blake

Today is Lady Porn Day, a new initiative organised by sex blogger Rabbit Write to encourage and empower women to share and discuss porn. Rabbit describes the project to the Huffington post as follows:

Lady Porn Day is essentially to celebrate porn and masturbation. I'm inviting everyone to talk about their porn experiences, share stories and to ultimately share their porn recommendations. This is about not only opening up a dialog about how porn is good, but also how porn is hard, how it can be an issue for women, in terms of dealing with guilt or body image or their sexuality.

I haven't really participated in the twitter conversation, which is still going strong if you want to pitch in, but I'm thinking of using the excuse to write a few blogposts this week about what the concept of "porn for women" means to me (actually I'm quite liking the coinage 'ladyporn', I might start using that more regularly). The page on Rabbit's site seems to be acting as a hub for contributions, and her interview with Jiz Lee today (the most recent post as I type this) is well worth a read. Jiz talks about the positive social contribution ethical and queer porn can make and has made, emphasising its role in education (for example in normalising safer sex practices) and in personal affirmation and validation, reassuring people that their sexuality and orientation is normal and okay.

This is obviously very close to my own relationship to porn. Looking at porn gave me the vocabulary and courage to think about - and come to accept - my own queerness and my own kink. Working in fetish and spanking porn has expanded the way I think about my kink, improved my relationship with kink and my body, helped me make more sense of what I like and how I like it, introduced me to more and more things that it turns out I like, improved my confidence, my physical fitness, my professional skills, my writing, my self-knowledge and self-belief. My relationships have benefited. My mental and physical health have benefited.

My inbox is a testament to how valuable what I do is to other people. This is pretty amazing given that what I do is essentially self-indulgent. I like performing, I like recording experiences through creative media, and I like spanking, D/s and BDSM. I've been writing scene reports for as long as I've been playing. The urge to record, share and discuss my sexual and kink experiences is not a commercial one - it's an essential component of those experiences. The fact that I can get paid for performing my fantasies on camera, and the fact that men and women across the globe find those performances affirming, reassuring and empowering continues to baffle - and delight - me. It feels like the biggest stroke of luck in the world that doing this thing I like doing can bring pleasure and validation to other people. But after receiving countless emails from people who have been affected by watching me reflect their own fantasies, who have been helped to understand that those fantasies are normal, healthy, less unusual than they feared, I'm no longer in any doubt that porn can have enormous social and personal benefits, particularly to people with alternative sexualities.

To my surprise, the Cambridge University Student Union recently agreed with me. The House voted in favour of the motion that "pornography does a good public service" by 44 votes. Feminist pornographer and former Parliamentary candidate Anna Span led the team debating on behalf of the motion, and feminist anti-porn writer Gail Dines spoke in opposition. I can recommend Anna Span's write up of the debate for AVN News. The BBC World Service invited Span and Dines to recreate the debate on air, and you can listen to a six minute excerpt from the show here.

Anna Span's initial answer to the question of how pornography does a good public service was that "it democratises the body" - otherwise known as the Rule #34 Social Benefit (list that one under phrases I never thought I'd type). If you don't like an aspect of your body or sexuality, she says, Google it plus 'sex', and you'll discover sites which think this is the most attractive thing about you. Anna Span argues that porn is much more varied when it comes to body type, gender and types of beauty and sex appeal than mainstream advertising, films, TV, fashion photography and the other images we are surrounded with in public spaces. It is also broader in its representation of alternative sexualities. There is porn for everyone, if you care enough to put a little effort into finding it.

Span cited the recent UK study Comparison by crime type of juvenile delinquents on pornography exposure, which found no correlation between exposure to pornography and sexual violence. Both USA and UK governments have funded extensive studies into the social harm of porn, with no conclusive findings.

Gail Dines responded that mainstream porn isn't varied, and is often violent, dehumanising and debasing to women. To which of course the answer is: support indie, queer, feminist and alternative porn! As Lynn Comella writes for Las Vegas Weekly,

Dines takes a slicethe world of hard-core "gonzo" porn, which, according to her, is porn that depicts hard-core, body-punishing sex in which women are demeaned and debasedand presents it as emblematic of an entire industry. This is akin to talking about Hollywood while only referencing spaghetti Westerns; or making sweeping glosses about the music industry when what you are really talking about is hair metal. Its an approach that makes for neither a sound argument nor good sociology.

When Gail Dines says "porn" she means the stereotype of porn, the sort of thing you get in top shelf magazines or if you type "porn" into Google; big-busted, narrow waisted female bodies; big cocks; shaved genitals; simplistic storylines and limited dialogue; straightforward, vigorous penetration; cum shots; unconvincing expressions of pleasure.

When Anna Span says "porn" she seems to mean what I mean - a broader spectrum of possibilities including all representations of human sexuality; incorporating indie, alternative, amateur, kinky and feminist porn. Mainstream porn might be easiest to find, and, statistically, the thing new viewers are likely to see because there's more of it and it's been the 'norm' for longer. But that doesn't mean it's sensible or useful to assume that all porn should be judged by the same standard, or to ignore the ever-increasing range of alternatives which are available.

Instead of railing against the evils of sexually explicit imagery in general, anyone dissatisfied with mainstream porn is better off creating or supporting better, healthier alternatives; porn that's more ethical, interesting, humane, respectful and egalitarian. Which is exactly what Anna Span - and I, and the long list of positive porn projects endorsed by Lady Porn Day - are trying to do.

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Tags: Anna Span, Gender politics, Lady Porn Week, Politics


Anna Span's pornography may not always be serious, but it is absolutely political

Posted at 19:44 on 12 Mar 2010 by Pandora / Blake

The news this week has been full of stories about Anna Arrowsmith, the former porn director who is now running as a parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Democrats.

Perhaps surprisingly, most of the coverage has been positive. Heresy Corner has a rundown of the response from most of the major papers - it seems everyone's covered this one, from the Guardian to the Daily Mail. To me, this makes far more exciting news than the mere fact of her candidacy. Quite apart from the wider social implications, if Anna Arrowsmith can run for parliament, it bodes well for the potential impact of my current career on any more public endeavours I might undertake in the future. Kink is still considerably less permissible in our society than mainstream sex, but the details of Arrowsmith's career have promising implications for my own situation.

Bloggers on leftie news site Liberal Conspiracy suggest that "she seems like someone with a real belief in personal freedom and choice rather than some sorry mens mag sleazoid, like, well, the owner of the Daily Express". The distinction between 'good' and 'bad' porn implicit in much of the discussion is made explicit by the Heresiarch, who opines:

Perhaps it's Span's much-vaunted feminist beliefs that afford her the benefit of the doubt - this isn't just porn, the subtext reads, this is serious political porn (even though in all honesty it isn't). Would a male pornographer who put himself forward for election attract quite such positive publicity, I wonder?

Her gender is certainly worthy of comment. Like the mainsteam film industry, porn is still male-dominated with a lot of entrenched sexism. Female directors and producers are a relatively recent phenomenon, and Anna Span was the first in the UK. It certainly seems as though her particular approach to pornography has gained her political currency with most commentators; however, her approach is still unusual enough that this may also have been true if she was male.

In an industry as historically misogynist as pornography, Arrowsmith's gender is radical in itself, but the ethos of her productions also stands out from the crowd. The Heresiarch may sneer at the implication that her work is "serious and political", and I'll concede the former - from the stills and descriptions on her website, her productions seem joyous and informal, full of real smiles and infectious laughter. But viewed in the context of the industry, her films are absolutely political.

Arrowsmith wrote her BA dissertation in 1997 on what a female perspective on porn would look like, and those ideas have clearly informed her work. She wanted to make the industry more accessible to women - in other words, increase the proportion of fair trade productions which respected women and catered to their desires, compared to the tired male-gaze tropes which still dominate the industry. This was absolutely necessary, and while Anna wasn't the only woman setting out to revolutionalise porn, she was part of a movement that has had a huge impact. Female directors are no longer isolated rarities, and all manner of indepedent, creative companies are producing porn which celebrates female perspectives.

Easy on the Eye is feminist, cutting-edge and very political, not only because it is (was) woman-led, but because:

  • It focuses on the female perspective - not only in having a female director, but in the stories themselves. Beautiful men are displayed as sexually interesting; most of the stories are told from the female protagonist's point of view; friendship, intimacy and humour are as present as much as tits, legs and ass. The resulting productions are warm, glowing with good energy, and hugely respectful in their presentation of the male and female actors who took part.

  • It celebrates a range of skintones and body types, including the squashy female bodies which are so rare outside the BBW niche.

  • It features believable characters with interesting back stories.

  • It is set in the day-to-day, diverse London world Anna inhabited, rather than the unattainable fantasy lifestyle presented in so much mainstream porn.

  • Her scenarios involve interesting, entertaining and often unpredictable storylines - for example:

    I visit Ava's house in South London one stoned late summer afternoon to see Nadia helping Ava paint her squat-like bedroom. The painting becomes labourious in the sun and the conversation turns to sex and past partners.

    The two of them 'start fucking about' and the paint gets spilt all over the place. Ava settles for a green room with a large stripe of the previous magnolia showing through.


    Stumbling back from a club at 6 in the morning. My friend Linda has pulled the DJ. She has, however, forgotten to buy the cigarettes - even though we went out of our way in a cab to a petrol station. Luckily the bloke hasn't had his shag yet, so he's feeling all gentlemanly, and goes out to get some.

    Meanwhile, I get chatting with Linda. Well... does she like him? On Mickey's return I make myself scarce to give her the chance to pounce as I can see that she is ready. And pounce she does. Mickey's a goer - an East End boy that likes it hard, and he gets it that way.

  • The productions are full of warmth, laughter and silliness. This may not be an explicit item on the feminist agenda, but it's a notable feature of most women-driven porn. Not only does this stick a well-deserved finger up at the stereotypes about women and humour, it suggests that everyone involved was having fun, which is, in my opinion, one of the sexiest things money can't buy.

Some pro-porn feminists may find things to criticise - there's a healthy dollop of male gaze mixed in, as well as a smattering of tired pornographic stalwarts, like double penetration scenes or the blowjob-and-big-eyes shot of a woman's face. But Arrowsmith was a pioneer, and her work set the stage for the increasing number of independent, women-driven, female-gaze porn which have been gaining momentum ever since.

As a fellow feminist, liberal activist and aspiring producer, I wish Anna Arrowsmith the best of luck in this election - even though it sounds like her seat will be a tricky one to win. Even if she doesn't, her candidacy has generated some excellent publicity not only for the Lib Dems, but for feminist porn. Weeks like this, it feels like social change may be possible after all.

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Tags: Anna Span, Body positivity, Gender politics, in the news, other pictures

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