Sex-ist: Going Deep at the Feminist Porn Awards
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Sex-ist: Going Deep at the Feminist Porn Awards

Each month, Sex-ist looks at topics relating to sex and sexuality in and around the GTA.

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“Imagine a woman. She’s blonde, wearing a skintight dress. Breasts the size of watermelons.” Erika Lust is on stage at the Royal Cinema, kicking off the 2015 Feminist Porn Awards. Lust, who looks like a teenaged babysitter in her sneakers and jeans, has been directing and producing pornographic films since 2004. “Imagine a man, cock the size of a stallion.” Giggles bubble up around the auditorium. “She’s giving him a blowjob. Why? Because her car broke down.” The giggles turn into full-fledged laughter, and Lust grins. Then the house lights dim.

For the next hour, the audience sits in the dark and watches porn on the big screen. It’s disorienting to watch dirty movies with a crowd. The first time a laugh rings out, we’re startled. There’s a sense of muted camaraderie in the audience: together, anonymous, and maybe a little turned on. For previous generations, movie theatres were the only places to see smutty films, but the Internet and DVDs changed the game. Toronto’s porno theatres have gone dark. The last, Koreatown’s Metro, hasn’t shown movies since 2013. These days, we tend to watch from the comfort of our own homes, and paying for the pleasure has become old-fashioned. With thousands of websites, torrents, and Tumblrs devoted to titillating videos and images, we’ve gotten used to the idea that porn should be constantly available and free.

Carlyle Jansen disagrees. “It’s now assumed to be a free commodity. But someone has to get paid!” Jansen is the founder of Good For Her, a woman-friendly store on Harbord Street that sells a wide range of sex toys, porn, and more. She’s also one of the founders and organizers of the annual Feminist Porn Awards, now in its 10th year. The idea of “feminist porn” sounds like a contradiction in terms, but Jansen sees it differently. The FPAs, as the awards are known, aim for a sweet spot that intersects inclusivity, responsible filmmaking practices, and eye-popping hotness.

“When you say ‘feminist porn,’ a lot of people hear ‘lesbian porn.’ We’re doing whatever we can to emphasize that while yes, there is some lesbian porn, there’s also straight porn, and bi porn, and trans porn. There’s porn that has everybody in it. Other people also think we’re the hugging-and-kissing soft-porn awards. No! There’s soft to edgy. There’s something in it for everyone.” The judging panel looks for films that avoid stereotypes, and that welcome different gender expressions, body types, and sexual orientations. This isn’t lip service, either. The first award to be handed out during the gala goes to “Wall of Fire,” a short film starring the type of folks who don’t often appear in mainstream porn. The two stars, both women, are unabashedly fat. One is an amputee.

Oh, and there’s that other aspect to feminist porn. “It has to be hot! It has to be porn, it has to be hot. A lot of people think that if it’s feminist porn, it won’t turn them on,” Jansen says with a grin. “The perception of feminist porn is that your average straight guy is not going to enjoy it or feel welcome. We’ve had lots of discussions about how we can change the way feminism is portrayed so that people feel like it’s for everyone.” A prime example: during “Wall of Fire,” the women radiate obvious pleasure, both in each other’s company and with what they’re doing.

The awards were initially supposed to be a one-off event called Vixens and Visionaries. “It was the end of the first awards show when people came to us and said, ‘You’re going to do this again, right?’ People were so positive and encouraging. It felt like this was what they had been waiting for. It was electric,” Jansen says. Over the years, the event grew from a single night to a multi-day event. Previous years have also included a conference devoted to sexuality, organized by the American sex educator and pornographer Tristan Taormino. In 2015, the programming included a book release party, Erika Lust’s film showcase, a night devoted to screening the nominated films, and a glitzy gala awards show.

This year, the FPAs weren’t without controversy. In 2014, Jansen’s team re-wrote the judging criteria, which Jansen says “clarifies” what they were looking for. In the past, the criteria was much more laissez-faire. Films were asked only to ensure their performers were over 18, and that they included an element of eroticism. Now, the FPAs explicitly judge on four criteria: quality, inclusiveness, hotness, and “the it-factor.” The independent porn community’s concern was that now, only big-budget productions could hit that quality mark.

Jansens stresses that, in practice, nothing has changed, and films with smaller budgets will still be considered. “We think the films that win are watchable. We wanted people to pay attention to the lighting, and make sure we hear can the performers. We’ve seen submissions that have a great message behind it, but it gets lost.” The event seems to make good on her word: when The Madame collects her dildo-shaped trophy for her Steamiest Straight Movie win, she tells the audience that while Erika Lust might have a budget of $10,000, she shot her winning film on an iPhone “and the whole thing cost about $200.”

There were other issues as well. One of the event sponsors, Grooby, is a Los Angeles-based production company whose niche is transgender performers. Samantha Fraser, the founder of Toronto’s annual Playground conference and the co-founder of the Tell Me Something Good sexy storytelling series and podcast, says that Grooby uses “transphobic slurs.” (Indeed, their “Tranny Awards” were only renamed the “Transgender Erotica Awards” in 2014.) Other nominees generated concern for a variety of reasons, including allegations of sexual assault and making on-camera jokes about rape. In the weeks leading up to the event, the FPAs received many critical and questioning letters, both private and public. Fraser says, “I recognize that the private response behind the scenes was quite active, but the public-facing discussion was slightly lacking and a bit late in its arrival. Personally, it was disappointing to have one of my favourite annual events resting underneath a dark cloud of controversy this year.”

Unsurprisingly, Jansen can relate. “It has drained us. Every year, I wonder if I can keep doing this. We do it because we love it, because we love making a difference. The very public, very negative shaming tone is heartbreaking.” She is visibly shaken when the topic comes up. “It’s not that we don’t want to work with people or talk to people about their concerns. But this all surfaced about two weeks before the awards, and we have other things on our minds!”

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At the Friday night awards, there are a few notable faces missing from the crowd, but the party is in full swing regardless. The gala, held at the Capitol Event Theatre in midtown, is a who’s-who of directors, performers, educators, writers, and podcasters. It is unabashedly glamorous. People wear sequins, black leather, sky-high Lucite heels. The room is bathed in purple light. LL Cool J and Leshaun coo at each other on the PA system. Everyone seems to know everyone, and there’s a dull roar from the bar throughout the entire night. The hosts are silly and fun, peacocking in gold lamé and delivering terrible puns. “The FPAs are like Christmas and New Years all rolled into one,” says Fraser. “It puts Toronto on the map as a sex-positive hub.” Fraser started as event volunteer; this year, she co-presented three awards. “It’s always felt like coming home. Year after year, it’s indirectly helped me on a personal level to examine my own feelings about feminism, body positivity, and sexuality, which has been tremendously important to me.”

The influence of the awards is starting to spread beyond Toronto. The awards categories at the FPAs included trophies for Best Boygasm, Hottest Trans Vignette, and Heartthrob of the Year, won this year by 50-year-old Australian performer Morgana Muses. Elsewhere, the XBIZ Awards now has a category for Feminist Porn Release of the Year, and Adult Video News’ AVN Awards has started to include a BBW (that’s big, beautiful women) prize. Jansen says, “Mainstream filmmakers are picking up on this. They’re recognising that there are plus-sized people out there who want to see themselves on film.” It’s a statement that feels revolutionary only when you realize that, for decades, overweight people had no real place in the popular pornographic imagination. They were either fetishized or ignored.

Jansen sums up what the FPAs are going for in this way: “It comes back to making sure everybody feels included in sexiness on screen. Whether you want to create something, perform in something, or watch something, everybody feels like they have a place, and that they’re not excluded.” Judging by the expressions on people’s faces at the end of the ceremony—that particular blissed-out look, common after a good sexual romp—the Feminist Porn Awards are satisfying their mandate.

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