Spotlight TEDx Talk: Can feminist porn help us have better and safer sex?

Olivia Tarplin at TEDxJerseyCity

Olivia Tarplin at TEDxJerseyCity

“People have been looking to porn to find out about sexuality and their bodies for a long time. We learn a lot about sex from porn, good and bad, whether we like it or not. So why don’t we think about porn as educational?” says researcher Olivia Tarplin at TEDxJerseyCity. The gender and media studies scholar says that while mainstream porn teaches us about sex, too many mainstream porn videos portray a very narrow perception of sex, one that favors the desires of the few over the many — white male heterosexuality over all else.

To counter this mainstream trend, Tarplin suggests that we advocate for an alternative to mainstream porn, something that focuses on healthy, positive, equal sexual experiences. This, Tarplin says, is feminist porn.

“Feminist porn is ethically-made porn,” Tarplin says. “It is porn that prioritizes enthusiastic consent. It’s porn that’s made for all genders and sexualities. And it’s porn that tries to overcome all the issues that feminists have been critiquing in porn for so long.”

Mainstream porn has been criticized for sending the wrong cultural messages of sexuality, Tarplin says, spreading narrow ideas on gender, power and pleasure, promoting violence towards women and not accurately reflecting the sexual fantasies and desires of women. With feminist porn, women (and others) can create porn that combats these cultural and sexual norms, show more realistic portrayals of pleasure and reach a diverse audience.

Aesthetically speaking, feminist porn differs from mainstream porn in terms of production, the targeted audience and treatment and creative freedom of the actors, Tarplin says. She argues that producers of mainstream porn predetermine their work based on profits from a straight, white male audience.

“Feminist porn doesn’t have this prearranged script … so you end up with something that is a lot more organic and catered to a much wider range of people — [who] have often been ignored by the mainstream porn industry,” Tarplin says.

Although there already is some diversity in porn, Tarplin suggests that it is typically used as a tool to further satiate the desires of white men, rather than cater to the gaze of marginalized people. Women of color, queer women, full-figured women and trans women are all present in porn, but are often fetishized, used or degraded. Feminist porn uses diverse actors to break stereotypes and have a wider array of cultural and sexual representation.

Olivia Tarplin at TEDxJerseyCity

Olivia Tarplin at TEDxJerseyCity

Feminist pornographers build a relationship with their actors, and ensure that they are paid fair wages and are comfortable and consenting in the acts they perform, Tarplin says. “Directors will get to know their performers before filming starts. They get to know [actors'] sexual desires and preferences. Performers often pick who they’re going to have sex with … what sex acts they’d like to do, what sex toys they’d like to use. They’re often encouraged to lead the actions themselves, in order to give them agency over the sex they’re having. Something quite simple is actually revolutionary,” Tarplin says.

Tarplin asks us to think of feminist porn as conscious consumerism: “Feminist pornographers like to the link the porn they make to the organic fair trade food movement … They want you to think about where your porn comes from, who’s making it, under what conditions the porn is made and who is profiting from your porn.”

Tarplin knows that for some people, feminist porn sounds too “soft” and romantic — which it can be — but not all of it is this way. She explains that although some feminist porn can be romantic or couple-focused, others do include elements of BDSM. “The point of feminist porn isn’t to take out anything hardcore or kinky. It’s more about providing a space in the industry (again) where women and men can, if they like, explore those areas of their sexuality … in a safe environment, and so do of their own volition — not because they’re being told to by a producer or director.”

However, that doesn’t mean that feminist porn follows a specific rubric of “acceptable” and “unacceptable” sex acts. Feminist porn doesn’t aim to police what sexual acts are feminist or not.

Tarplin says that feminist porn can be positively educational. “Porn has always acted as a kind of sex education, and one of the most unique things about feminist porn is its ability to change culture and educate people,” she says. Due to the accessibility of porn, and the inevitability that most youth will seek porn in order to satiate their curiosity of sex, feminist porn can serve as a more accurate and culturally-inclusive informational guide to sex, especially for people within the LGBTQ community, she says. Educationally speaking, feminist porn can provide people with important information regarding responsible sex, consent, how to pleasure a man, woman or transgender person and how to have healthy sexual relationships or experiences.

Most schools in the U.S. do not require sex education, Tarplin says, and if they do, they mostly teach abstinence and not about healthy sex practices, and do not require accurate medical information regarding HIV. Even if more comprehensive sex education is available, she says, the course is usually brief and teaches teens the technical, medical and biological sides of sex, rather than the emotional or practical sides of sex. Because mainstream porn shows teens so much about sex, they often use it as a guide outside of the classroom, and this guide is far from ideal, she says.

This reality is fraught with peril, Tarplin says. “The defense has often been, ‘no matter how degrading or misogynistic porn is, it’s just fantasy,’” she says. “In theory, sexually-active adults should be able to tell the difference between their sexual reality and their sexual fantasies … In theory, they should be able to assume that porn does not depict real sex. But what happens if people can’t make that distinction, because they have been denied comprehensive sex education that teaches them about sexual reality, and are overstimulated by the fantasy that porn provides?” Tarplin says that this could lead to unhealthy, dangerous and damaging sex lives for young adults and their elders.

“Imagine if you could’ve learned about sex from ethical feministic porn, as well as from a really comprehensive and sex-positive education,” Tarplin asks. “We can’t fight the fact that pornography has become one of the main ways we learn about sex, so why not use it as a tool to show really healthy, varied, interesting examples of human sexuality … and revamp sex education to be comprehensive, sex-positive and talk about the issues of porn? That way people not only will watch porn, but understand porn in the larger context in their sex lives and society as a whole.”

For more, watch Tarplin’s whole talk below:

Insight from the TEDx office — why we like this talk:

The speaker is a researcher in gender and media studies, with a specific focus in issues concerning gender, sexuality, politics and pornography. Tarplin has spent the past two years studying how feminist pornography can be used as a tool for cultural change and sexual education. In her effort to persuade the audience to rethink feminist porn, she also reaffirms the idea that feminism is about more than women’s rights — it is about consciously reforming culture, media and society to include more realistic representations, conversations about or stories from people of all sexualities, races, cultures and abilities.

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