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The stated aim of Good Porn is to make pornography more accessible to women, and, throughout the book, the author is keen to present the volume as a contribution to debates from intellectual feminism. Erika Lust is herself a pornographer who aspires to make explicit films that reflect modern and diverse perspectives on sexuality rather than perpetuating an impoverished and chauvinistic depiction. Lust sets out her stall early on with an open letter to the 'men who produce porn', accusing them of paying insufficient attention to female desires while conspiring to prevent women from entering the business. 'The new films that women are making for women are all about intimacy and relationships. The films that men make are about ass fucking and ejaculations' (16).
This assertion needs some unpacking. Lust begins with a more general defense of pornography and its potential role as 'an instrument of education and liberation for women who are still struggling with shame, guilt and sexual repression' (26). Such a view accords with what some sex-positive feminists think, though the author does not engage with anti-pornography feminists like Dworkin, MacKinnon or Morgan. Considering the way in which Lust positions this book, the failure to provide a stronger or more distinct defense of porn from a feminist perspective seems quite a significant omission. Little more than five paragraphs are given over to discussing feminism, all of which are very general and don't really address the morality of pornography from a feminist point of view.
Lust is undoubtedly correct to caution the woman who aspires to become a consumer of pornography about the skewed representations of sexuality that abound in the mainstream. Lust often describes male-dominated porn in familiar clichés in order to explain the exploitative and sexist nature of mainstream pornography. Yet the reader is later told that they shouldn't worry about people being exploited in porn because regulation ensures that there has been no coercion or similar bad treatment and that performers are age-verified and tested for STDs (59-60).
These kinds of tensions abound throughout the book, and are likely to confuse the reader. Most significantly, the author ultimately does exactly what she accuses 'bad' pornography of doing: homogenizing the sexuality of a large and diverse group. Ironically, this is done to both male and female sexuality in this volume. According to Lust, female sexuality is too diverse to be 'pigeonholed into a single monolithic category' (28) and, in any case, sweeping statements about what half the human race is like are bound to be so general as to lack either insight or nuance. However, this does not prevent her from making such judgments about men and the kind of pornography they watch. (A charitable reading might characterize this as a kind of ironic reversal which shows men what it is like to be on the receiving end of sexual stereotyping. Yet this is not really plausible in a book which is explicitly aimed at women, not men.)
This also has a bearing on Lust's account of feminist pornography, which she defines as any film that 'simply isn't sexist' or 'where no sexist ideology is reproduced on screen' (40). The example she gives is from one of her own films which plays on the hackneyed stereotype of a delivery guy who finds himself confronted with a sexy woman while on the job. This is how Lust describes the scene.
'It's archetypal porn, all the way to the grand finale, in which the delivery guy comes on her face, but that's something she herself wants, and it only happens after she's had her orgasm.' (40)
This seems to be a pretty flimsy way of identifying pornographic material which is less repressive, since everything is the same apart from the desires of the characters depicted. While she acknowledges that sexual preferences – like everybody's – are personal and subjective, Lust does not appear to recognize that her own predilections are apparent at important points in the text, and does not consider the arguments (made by many feminists) that the very idea of a feminist pornography is oxymoronic.
Because Lust does not do enough to distinguish the sexuality of men in general from the sexuality of men who produce mainstream pornography, any genuinely inclusive message about the potential relevance of pornography for those interested in exploring their sexuality through film is undermined. That said, the book is much stronger when discussing more convincing alternatives to straight pornography, such as queer, bi, polyamorous, transsexual and BDSM porn. Lust is an enthusiastic writer whose matter-of-fact approach is ideal for describing and explaining pornographic and adult material which could intimidate. A (very) brief history of pornography begins with Classical culture and brings the reader up to the present day, discussing some of the major legislative and stylistic landmarks along the way (43-56). The educational tone continues with a fairly comprehensive and unflinching dictionary of sexual practices (71-79) and the largest chapter of the book is devoted to guiding the reader through the various kinds of mainstream porn and vintage erotica, as well as more savory material including fetish, Japanese animation, gonzo, alt-porn and 'New Wave' movies. The information provided seems generally well researched. Though not much is provided to help the curious do further research themselves, Lust's guide is undoubtedly a useful starting point.
It should be noted that the vast majority of the links and information provided pertain to commercial pornography, and there is very little discussion of porn which is shared or distributed through non-commercial avenues. Instead, whole chapters are devoted to providing information on where and how to buy porn, sex toys and other adult merchandise. Despite the fact that the author seems genuinely interested in liberating female sexuality, it's hard to escape the impression that sex-positive feminism is being used here as a marketing tool as much as a reassurance to the tentative. It's tempting to think that Lust understands sexuality primarily in terms of consumption, as the vagaries of the 'sexual consumer' (41). We might expect this from someone who makes a living by producing and selling pornography, but it's important to note that this is only one (and many would say a restricted) way of understanding pornography.
Readers expecting a more academic justification for pornography, or a nuanced account of what feminist pornography might look like are likely to be unsatisfied by this book. But what it lacks in rigor it compensates for with earnestness, openness and good faith in the ability of freethinking women to negotiate the complex topography of pornographic material unaided. In the short manifesto with which the book concludes, Lust encourages women to 'take a critical approach to porn, constantly analyzing and challenging the values that porn transmits' (231). Surprisingly, the book ends with the counterintuitive suggestion that the reason for all this might be to make it easier to explain female sexuality to men. Lust asks, 'what better way to help them grasp something that we all know about, but that they find so hard to understand?' appealing once more to clumsy and crude stereotyping (231). More significantly, the suggestion that female sexuality is something to be explored so that it can subsequently be explained to men is a bizarre note on which to end a book which considers itself feminist.
© 2011 Robert Farrow
Dr. Robert Farrow, Institute of Educational Technology, Milton Keynes, UK