Fresh Flowers, Plenty of Lube: Inside the World of Feminist Porn

The growing movement emphasizes diversity in casting and ethics in production – but will it fizzle out just as it comes into its own?

Is there an ethical way to make porn?

The studio lies in a cluster of low, aluminum-sided buildings at the end of an empty street, on the border between San Francisco's Mission District and Potrero Hill. A locked gate blocks trespassers from entering. A little before 10 a.m., porn star Cherry Torn stands on the sidewalk in the rain, wearing ripped jeans and a sweatshirt.

The mechanized gate swings slowly open. The Pink & White Productions studio, home to queer, dyke, feminist, ethical, fair-trade porn is down the gravel driveway and around the corner, past a row of motorcycles belonging to the bikers' club next door.

Torn pushes the door open. Inside, two round paper lanterns and strings of party lights draped along the wooden ceiling beams add warmth to the stark glare from a skylight. Yet concrete floors and a persistent draft make it an environment that encourages layering on more clothing, not taking it off.

Jiz Lee, Pink & White's communications director, greets Torn with a handshake before offering coffee or water. "Make yourself at home," Lee says.

Lee hands Torn paperwork as she settles at a kitchen table spread with goodies: fruit, bagels, chips and salsa, cucumbers, hummus, cookies and bottles of San Pellegrino. "It's two pages, and just give it back with your photo I.D.," Lee says, and sits down at a nearby desk. On the wall hangs a white-board calendar littered with Post-It notes, and California labor law posters.

The second performer arrives – Lilith Luxe, slender in a wool coat and sweatpants with her hair in pigtail buns. She's a video editor and production assistant for the city's famed Kink.com, and has worked on Torn's footage for the BDSM site. Today will be their first on-camera scene together. They hug, and Torn compliments Luxe on her comfy sweats. "I know, this is my rainy-day porn-shoot outfit," Luxe says. She's just going to take it off anyway, she adds, taking a seat next to Torn.

Across the room, director Shine Louise Houston is busy moving between two slim computers at her main work station, a long, standing desk beneath shelves of digital video tapes and DVDs. ("Dead mediums," she explains.) Everything's online now. She wears her hair in an afro, and a silver ring bisects her lower lip. Behind her, a bookcase holds volumes like Man as Object: Reversing the Gaze, The Feminist Porn Book, and Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and the "Frenzy of the Visible." There's also a copy of Lee's first book, Coming Out Like a Porn Star, which was released in October, 2015.

Houston, who founded Pink & White in 2005, and Lee are the only two full-time staff members. Also working today are camera operators Aja and Tristan, both of whom did not want to give their last names.

While Houston and Aja adjust lighting on set, Luxe and Torn change into wardrobe. As Omarion's "Post to Be" plays from a computer, Luxe emerges from the bathroom in a T-shirt, skirt, black floral stockings and Doc Martens oxfords. Torn pulls on a tight V-neck and a black-and-fuchsia houndstooth mini skirt over fishnets and platform shoes with ominous-looking buckles. "I like to wear a skirt mostly because of how you can rip it off," she says. "If there's a graceful way to take off pants, I haven't found it."

After Tristan shoots the performers' profile pictures for the website, they sit down with Houston to plan their scene. She asks whether they have a plot in mind or want to go straight to sex. Torn and Luxe have the idea that Luxe is the shy girl from work who's secretly into Torn. Houston suggests Torn open the door to the bedroom and invite Luxe inside. Then they'll ad-lib a brief dialogue: "I'm so coy, no I'm not – I'm actually a perv," Houston summarizes. "Once you get to the bed it's all you. I'm not directing people, I'm directing cameras."

Houston is preparing to film two new episodes of the Crash Pad Series, which is like an online porn reality show. The premise is that if someone passes you a mysterious key to "the Crash Pad," you can grab a lover (or two) and let yourself in to a secret San Francisco apartment to fulfill your sexual fantasies. Houston plays "the keymaster," deciding which lucky nymphos get access, then filming their unscripted encounters. Fans can already find over 200 20-minute episodes online, showing porn stars of all levels of experience. (The site specifically encourages people who don't see themselves represented in the series to apply.)

Houston's work has been categorized under the broad and ever-widening umbrella of feminist pornography. She prefers to call her work queer porn, but she doesn't place much value on labels in the first place. Fans used to call her videos "dyke porn," she says, before queer became the hot buzzword. Now, "people say it's feminist porn, I say queer. It doesn't change what I do."

Feminist porn has come to encompass all kinds of alternative porn that emphasize diversity in casting and ethics in production. In feminist porn, gender roles are disrupted and women enjoy sex as much as men do – if men are even invited. Yet feminist porn isn't necessarily female-on-female – the Crash Pad's site promises "dyke porn, lesbians, femme on femme, boi, stud, genderqueer and trans-masculine performers," among others. Houston doesn't assume straight men watch her work, "but if they want to they can."

Feminist pornographers agree they want to show real, diverse people having real sex and real orgasms, given that most pornography is not made with women in mind. In mainstream videos, the scene typically unfolds through the male gaze, and women are sex objects at best.

Take Peter Pan XXX, a fairytale parody by Axel Braun that won Movie of the Year at the 2016 Adult Video News Awards. It depicts the boy from Neverland, feather in his hat, grabbing grown-up Wendy's head during a blowjob and aggressively thrusting. Wendy receives only a few seconds of oral sex midway through intercourse.

For a pointedly feminist take, by contrast, there's the first sex scene of Marriage 2.0, which won Movie of the Year at the 2015 Feminist Porn Awards in Toronto (and was, incidentally, directed by Paul Deeb, a man). India, played by India Summer, gets home from work to find her boyfriend Eric (Ryan Driller) cooking dinner. "Oh my God, that smells delicious," she says, tossing her purse onto the couch. "Do I have time to change?"

When she returns in a flannel shirt and sweats, she embraces him from behind, unbuttoning his jeans as he stirs a pot of spaghetti sauce. "I thought you said you were starving," he says. They push the cutting board and partially diced onions aside and passionately screw on the counter – probably not a scene you'd catch on PornHub. 

Pornography has divided the feminist movement since the late 1970s and continues to today. Since many prominent figures like Gloria Steinem and Susan Brownmiller have condemned it as sexual violence in itself, feminist porn can sound like an oxymoron. And working in porn is known to be degrading, even dangerous, for women. The 2015 documentary Hot Girls Wanted, about the industry in Miami, suggested the "shelf life" of a woman in porn is about three months, which pushes them to take undesirable gigs – which could mean performing with a much older man as a partner or doing extreme acts that land in categories like "facial abuse" – to make money and stay employed. (Some sex workers, however, argue that the film misrepresents the industry, in which women have more agency than people think.)

Nevertheless, directors like Houston believe porn can be feminist and ethical both in how it's made and how it engages an audience. "The only way that we're going to change porn is by getting in the game, not being anti-porn," Houston said in 2013.

In the last 20 years, as more directors have joined the feminist porn movement, it has reached a global scale. Today, feminist pornographers work in Spain, Sweden, the U.K. and Australia, as well as Canada and the U.S. According to Google Trends, searches for the phrase "Feminist porn" have nearly tripled over the past five years. Submissions to the Feminist Porn Awards doubled between 2009 and 2015, and the event, which gave four awards in 2006, most recently handed out butt-plug-shaped trophies in 16 categories in front of an audience of around 300 fans. ("We chose the butt plug as the award as it represents sexuality that everyone has, regardless of sex, gender or orientation," its website explains.)

But even as the movement gathers steam, it faces setbacks. "You say feminist, and then you get into what's feminist and everybody fights," says Houston. Last year, some feminist pornographers boycotted the Feminist Porn Awards to protest a sponsor whose website uses language considered derogatory toward transgender people. The event was canceled in 2016 and has yet to be revived.

Moreover, feminist porn faces the same struggle as mainstream porn and other media: how to make a profitable product when consumers expect content for free. Its creators worry feminist porn could fizzle out just as it comes into its own.

• • •

After the kitchen sex scene in Marriage 2.0, renowned porn star Nina Hartley has a cameo as India's sassy, sensual mom. She's at home getting a professional massage from a young hunk when she turns suddenly onto her back, removing the white sheet and exposing her full-frontal self. "Enough chit-chat," she says, presenting a condom. "Deep tissue massage." But sex on the massage table proves disappointing. "Men!" she huffs, pulling on a robe. She later explains to her daughter, "Tony isn't a lover. He's more of a self-guided dildo."

For Hartley, making pornography is her biggest act of feminism. She has performed in hundreds of films, both mainstream and underground, since the mid-1980s. She's appeared in the Crash Pad Series, too, including a special 100th episode with Lee.

An outlier among more methodical feminist porn directors, Hartley believes that every scene she stars in is feminist porn, since she's a feminist. This approach allows her to pay the bills by appearing in mainstream films. And overall, she says, the industry has been good to her. "I've had pretty good experiences on most of my sets. I've made over a thousand movies. I've had horrible misogynistic experiences on maybe 10 of them."

Ever since the porn wars of the Seventies and Eighties, anti-porn feminists clashed fiercely with sex-positive feminists over a key question: Does porn harm women? While both sides agreed that the way men made porn did women little service, so-called sex-positive feminists in the industry saw an opportunity for women's sexual expression. Someone like Hartley, for instance, thinks censoring pornography stifles female sexuality. "If I have the right to choose birth control, to choose abortion, then I have the right to choose to fuck for a living," she says.

For directors like Houston, making porn is as much about First Amendment rights as sexual expression. Porn, she has said, is "pushing that boundary of free speech. It's keeping the arena open for everybody who wants to talk about sex."

Hartley performed in her first film in 1984 with director Juliet Anderson at a time "woman porn director" was hardly a common phrase. While shooting Educating Nina, centered on a woman learning about sex and sexuality, Anderson "made sure work conditions were good and people liked their partners," Hartley recalls. "She was concerned with not just the end result, but the experience of the people making the film." Such ethical standards would become a basic tenet for future feminist porn.

That same year saw the first discussion of whether there was such a thing as feminist porn, in a performance by feminist art collective Carnival Knowledge and porn industry support group Club 90, whose members sought to present pornography as an empowering art form for women.

The emergence of couples porn in the early 1990s finally acknowledged female viewership, and in 1995, Hartley released the first in a series of about 40 educational films, Nina Hartley's Guide to Oral Sex, considered an early example of feminist porn. In it, she gives a classroom-style lecture and demonstrates techniques on live models. Hartley says both sexes enjoyed the film, but her intention was to give women, in particular, tools and permission to be a little adventurous.

Other feminist directors have since added to the sex-ed genre with films combining practical instruction and pornographic fantasy scenes.

Director Tristan Taormino, who co-edited The Feminist Porn Book (2013), released her first film, The Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Women, in 1999. "When I did my first two movies, I thought of myself as a feminist making porn. Feminist porn as a category didn't exist," she says now. But the movement was growing.

By the early 2000s, artists like Buck Angel, Courtney Trouble and Madison Young were identifying themselves as feminists and many – like Houston – were creating porn by and for transgender, lesbian and queer performers and audiences, as well.

Establishing the Feminist Porn Awards in 2006 gave the group a legitimizing boost. "That was a real catalyst," says Taormino. "It was naming it, acknowledging this body of work, celebrating it, rewarding it and also just putting it on the map in a totally different way."

Carlyle Jansen, a co-founder of the Feminist Porn Awards who runs the sex shop Good For Her in downtown Toronto, says she and her staff wanted to honor feminist porn and other work that subverts common stereotypes. They hoped to introduce their customers to alternatives they might enjoy more than traditional erotica.

"It's important for people to feel like their desires and their sexuality are represented onscreen," Jansen says. She speaks to lots of women who don't watch porn because they can't identify with it. "What is out there in the mainstream is not very diverse. It doesn't showcase different kinds of bodies, people or sexualities."

• • •

Two weeks before today's shoot at Pink & White, performers got a call sheet by email. It confirmed the times (three hours for each scene, 30 to 45 minutes of which will be sex) and rates ($400 by check before performers leave the studio). It also asked about dietary restrictions (since Houston provides snacks) and invited performers to bring sex toys, from vibrators to strap-on dildos and bondage restraints. It advertised the studio's cache of free safe-sex supplies (lube, condoms, gloves, dental dams) and offered arrangements for performers with disabilities, like a sign-language interpreter for a hearing-impaired performer and assistance for one in a wheelchair. It also noted that performers could pause or cancel the scene at any time.

Before beginning filming, Houston gives a quick safety spiel: In case of fire, earthquake or other act of God, use one of the two exits and convene in the courtyard so they know everyone is safe. In the scene, no blood, no feces, no crying, and try to stay away from closed-fist punching or hitting.

"Is fisting OK?" Torn asks. It is. "If we need lube, it's OK to show that?" It is. Some mainstream pornos try to hide the lube, Torn says, to make it seem like the participants aren't using any. "Stop making it look like you can stick that in her butt without warming her up," she says. "Lube is helpful!"

The so-called Crash Pad is a bedroom closed in by two moveable walls; framed pictures stand out against the rich gray paint like stock hotel art. The bed is in the center of the room so the camera crew can walk all the way around it. In one corner, a glass-doored chest displays a collection of sex toys for performers who don't bring their own: dildos, vibrators, barriers like gloves and condoms.

Before filming, Houston paces around two cameras on tripods, moving lamps and tweaking camera settings. Tristan stands ready to shoot photos. Aja rolls away the space heater that has been warming the room, and steps into place behind a tripod.

The performers wait outside the bedroom door; Lee monitors the live stream from the front desk. Tristan snaps a clapperboard for "Action."

Feminist directors often collaborate with performers about what to do on camera, encouraging them to explore their own fantasies. In Houston's series, performers are mostly on their own to come up with plots and to decide whether they want to ad-lib a few lines of dialogue or go straight to sex. They also have whatever kind of sex they want to.

Luxe has worked on sets – Houston's is only her fifth shoot as a performer – where directors craft a scene around her preferences, but this represents a new level of freedom. "This is the first one where they are just like, 'Go do your thing.'"

When Torn opens the door, in character, the duo breezes through an ad-libbed opening, sitting on the edge of the bed facing the cameras as Luxe admits she's always had a crush on Torn, but "didn't want to seem unprofessional" at work. As clothes start peeling off, Houston directs the crew with a hand motion to move to the other side of the bed.

Luxe and Torn's is a BDSM scene. Luxe wears heavy metal nipple clamps connected by a chain that Torn tugs on during the scene. Sometimes Luxe pulls the chain herself. "You are a little pain slut, aren't you?" Torn says. She uses a dildo that administers electric shocks while Luxe is on all fours. Luxe brought the toy herself, and asks Torn to turn it up higher until she orgasms for a second time. The first came during – yes – the fisting, when Torn eased her whole hand inside Luxe's vagina.

When both performers are spent, they end the scene with kisses, then collapse into giggles after the cameras cut. "We didn't talk about how to end it!" Torn says. Lee bursts in the door with two glasses of water.

"Thanks, Cherry," Luxe says. "Thanks!" Torn replies, and they hug. "That was so fun."

"This is the first time I've made lesbian porn not for dudes," Torn adds.

Despite what laypeople may assume, feminist pornographers don't always portray romantic stories that pause for gentle lovemaking. Often, anything goes as long as performers choose it and agree to it. A note on CrashPadSeries.com reads, "If you see a sex act on the site, it's because the performers wanted to do it and the crew consented to film it."

Some directors bar certain sex acts from their sets. Pink & White's rule against blood, feces, urine and tears is a practice imposed by its credit card processing company. (Lee thinks it's wrong to forbid menstruating women from performing, but the company doesn't have a choice.) Petra Joy, however, a German director who has won multiple Feminist Porn Awards, refuses to show "forced fellatio, extreme anal sex, or cum shots in a woman's face," her website explains, "as they can be perceived as degrading towards women."

Hartley, on the other hand, insists that degrading is a relative term. People who find a certain act misogynistic are projecting their own preferences, she argues; she finds their attitude far more repulsive. "When it comes to consensual sexual behavior, a lot of that is self-identified," she says. "I am not identifying as someone who has been degraded or demeaned by having someone put semen on my chin."

Feminist porn demands not just equality but diversity. Last year, filmmakers took home Feminist Porn Awards in categories representing trans, kink, lesbian, straight, BDSM films and more. The judges looked for movies that defied stereotypes, co-founder Jansen says, not just of gender but also of sexual orientation, race, body type and physical appearance.

Mainstream porn often portrays Asian women as submissive and black men as animalistic, for example, and most performers are able-bodied with conventionally hot figures. Worse, according to Taormino, racial minorities can receive unequal pay in mainstream porn, and scripts frequently fetishize them. "I don't make, like, All-Black Call Girls Number 27 and put all the black performers in that," she says.

Lee describes Pink & White's mission as adding more diverse examples of sexuality to the porn landscape. "We hire people who wouldn't have a chance to do what we want to do [elsewhere]."

After each shoot, Houston films the performers in conversation, reflecting on the experience. She prompts them with questions like, "Why do you still do porn?" Cross-legged on the bed, a mic clipped to her bra, Luxe explains that porn showed her that other people had the same sexual urges she does. "Seeing BDSM in porn – seeing queer BDSM in porn – I didn't know how to find that in the real world," she says. "Porn was the only way I had of recognizing that that was something other people really enjoy, too."

• • •

Although the feminist porn world offers a cozy and sheltered niche for its practitioners, looming financial realities raise questions about how long the genre can last. Last year, Joy created an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to try to raise £6,000 (today about $7,500) for postproduction on her seventh movie, Come Together, which premiered in February. The film encompasses four short stories: "Genderfuck," about gender-fluid sex; "The Lesson," in which a couple experiments with dominance and submission; "Blue Belle" about a woman who makes love to nature; and "Honey, I'm Home," where the stay-at-home husband pleasures his wife with food and sex; Donations fell far short, however, and Joy wound up paying for the film the way she usually does: with a bank loan.

Joy treasures the artistic freedom of being an independent director, which allows her to make more avant-garde work. But hiring a cast and crew at a day rate means that shooting a single scene over a weekend can cost $5,000, she says. Once a film is complete, she estimates she needs to sell at least 10,000 DVDs to make a profit. She's recently launched a streaming site, but doubts she can generate enough profit online, either.

Alec Helmy, publisher of the trade publication XBizNews, says the porn industry must change to survive. "We've bottomed out," he says. In the last five years, hundreds of tube sites, which aggregate free porn videos, have sucked up much of of the Internet's porn traffic.

A 2010 study of online porn economics found that over 90 percent of the approximately 35,000 sites they analyzed and could classify were free photo or video galleries designed to direct traffic to for-pay sites. Visitors to YouPorn and xHamster, for instance, can sometimes follow links to the paid sites that originally posted the videos, though with access to thousands of free clips there is little incentive. And some of the videos are pirated. Lee says when working for big production companies, sometimes the scene they shoot appears on a tube site before the performers even get a copy of the DVD.

Three years ago, Houston's company launched a video-on-demand site, Pinklabel.tv, which not only sells Pink & White's work but also incubates others'. Clients pay to use the platform to host their own videos. "It has a very generous split between the filmmakers and us," Lee says. "We take on credit card processing and technical support." The visibility of porn on tube sites makes it tempting to share trailers so people know queer porn exists, but Houston has said that would be "dancing with the devil." She prefers to maintain complete independence. A loyal subscriber base has supported the company so far.

Helmy noticed feminist porn surging a couple years ago – XBiz dedicated a whole issue to the genre in 2013 – but he worries that despite isolated success stories, it hasn't found its footing. "It's not like there haven't been enough players actively pursuing this market," he says. But "Tristan [Taormino] herself hasn't figured out a way to create a profitable movie or website."

Taormino, however, considers feminist porn a movement, not a product, a sentiment that may embody the genre's most pressing threat. Courtney Trouble, who won three Feminist Porn Awards for best dyke film, similarly prefers to categorize her work as fine art, not commercial filmmaking.

But that doesn't help directors avoid the impact of proliferating free online porn. In fact, feminist directors' standards – paying performers decent and equal wages, providing meals, setting reasonable work hours – also undermine their odds of profitability given today's fast, cheap online competition.

"There's an entire generation of people who believe porn is free because their first exposure to porn was free. It's really hard to get those people to pay," Taormino says. If survival involves creating porn quickly and cheaply, "I have to figure out ways I can keep my labor practices and my standards in a world that wants it made fast," she says. "I don't want to make that kind of porn."

Accordingly, Taormino hasn't made a film since 2013. "I haven't announced my retirement, but I haven't been shooting and don't have plans right now." Instead, she's focusing on her work as a sex educator. She hosts the online radio show Sex Out Loud on Internet radio network VoiceAmerica and gives talks at colleges.

It does not help that the Feminist Porn Awards won't take place again next year. They require too much time and money for one small sex shop to maintain, says Jansen. But another reason for the cancelation is that Trouble and several other feminist pornographers boycotted the 2015 event, protesting that a main sponsor, the production company Grooby, uses "shemale" on its website to describe transgender performers. "We've run up against the reality that capitalism isn't a feminist's best friend," Trouble says. She hopes the awards will return soon – minus Grooby, or at least its objectionable terminology.

Jansen hopes so, too – but she'll need to revamp it. "We're going to figure out how we can do it where it at least breaks even," she says.

Jansen acknowledges "feminist" doesn't fully cover the range of films it has come to represent. Maybe the event will return as the Intersectionalist Awards, she jokes. But that doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.

On this rainy Saturday at the Crash Pad, the afternoon's performers – Lyric Seal and Vai – incorporate nature into their scene. Seal, a writer for feminist publication Harlot, arrives in a wheelchair; Vai, who performed in the 2010 movie Tight Places: A Drop of Color, which won a Feminist Porn Award for diverse casting, enters with a backpack full of organic material: horsetail reeds, sticks and stinging nettles, plus bones and antlers. This is all stuff they use for "skin play": scraping, beating and rubbing each other's bodies.

Avoiding staged dialogue, they just start talking and touching each other, Vai in an armchair and Seal in the wheelchair, before moving to the bed. Seal is leery of the nettles, but Vai lies on a pile of the leaves until an allergic reaction causes red bumps to erupt all over the performer’s back and arms. "You're so beautiful," they tell each other repeatedly, caressing and stroking each other's arms and chests.

Seal sucks Vai's "cock," a black Coke can of a dildo that Vai wears in a harness, they touch each other wearing Latex gloves. The shoot ends with Vai pouring a pitcher of water over Seal's bare chest, one of the few moments planned ahead of time with Houston. Seal is surprised when colorful wildflowers pour out in the stream.

"There's flowers!" Seal squeals.

"Fuck yeah, there's fucking flowers for you!" Vai says, scattering the petals over Seal's naked torso. Houston captures the shot in up-close slow motion. Moments later, Lee opens the door: "Who wants water?"

"That is the realest shit I've filmed in a while," Aja says as Houston and the performers prepare for the post-sex interview.

"That was my intention," Vai says.

Seal asks for a towel. The bed is soaked. The room smells like a garden.