A feminist revolution in porn? There’s still a long way to go

This year, Europe’s largest erotic festival rebranded itself as a feminist rebuttal to mainstream ‘hetero-basic’ industry norms. But, as porn faces its own #MeToo moment, how much work is left to do?

The first thing I saw when I stepped into Barcelona’s Erotic Salon this October was a large plasma screen displaying the words “Más feminismo” (More feminism) in large, pink letters.

Two hours later, that very same screen was broadcasting a live sex show that was unfolding directly beneath it: two hulking men in nothing but combat boots, wearing expressions somewhere between ‘orc in combat’ and cinnamon challenge, pumping up against either end of slight blonde woman on all fours to a techno remix of ‘Bittersweet Symphony’.

At their feet, a compact huddle of some 40 bodies pressed up against the stage, phones and cameras brandished above their heads like a mass of swaying alien eye tentacles. It was a crowd that consisted exclusively of balding, middle-aged men.

The Erotic Salon is Europe’s largest porn festival, drawing around 30,000 between October 4 and 7 this year. The lineup tends to feature anything from live sex shows and pole dancing contests to swingers’ workshops. Now in its 26th year, it typically elicits sighs for promoting the kind of raunchy, “heterobasic” sex described above. (“Big dudes, hot girls and penetration,” as one particular performer put it).

But this year, the festival decided to rebrand itself as a “feminist” rebuttal to the mainstream porn it’s been trotting out for so long. And it had reason to.

In April, a high-profile trial known as the Wolf Pack Case saw a young woman accuse five men of gang-raping her during Pamplona’s 2016 Running of the Bulls. The case concluded with the men being acquitted of rape, and the ruling conceded that, while the plaintiff had undoubtedly suffered abuse, she had not been violently coerced into the act – thus downgrading the crime from rape to “abuse.” Women throughout Spain revolted, launching the country’s own #MeToo moment.

As the movement gained ground, some prominent feminists began pointing fingers at pornography for normalising the kind of consent-less sex at the heart of the case. The duo Towanda Rebels – social media darlings best known for their YouTube takedowns of prostitution in Spain – claimed that porn is “what educates Wolf Packs” in a widely shared video. So, in late Spring, a group of women who’d previously worked at the Salon met to lay down some new rules. First, there would be no rape scenes or anything depicting coercion on stage this year. Second, there would be hourly sex-positive workshops. Third, for the first time in the festival’s history, female producers and directors would be at the head of every major department.

In September, the team rolled out a gritty promotional video showing the festival’s artistic director – acclaimed adult actress Silvia Rubi –  denouncing mainstream porn as a principal source of gender violence, most notably the Wolf Pack case. The message? If kids are getting their sexual cues from porn, it’s up to the industry to provide feminist content to prevent future violence.

While many local feminists applauded the video, many others were quick to denounce what they saw as the porn industry’s shameless attempt to capitalise on #MeToo. Porn is the patriarchy’s plaything, was the general consensus, and that’s that. “People who say that are just lazy,” Rubi tells me. “We can’t change macho porn, but we can work to stop it from being the norm.”

The organisers I speak with are under no illusion of the gargantuan task they’re undertaking. “The reality is that this is still a business,” Canela, a former porn actress who now heads a sex consciousness site, explains. “Even if we make more room for alternative expectations, we still run up against that reality. Change doesn’t happen overnight.”

On the Thursday night I attend the Salon, it’s hard to find anything feminist about it. Female performers are pounded onstage. Act over, they totter off and are immediately accosted by zombie-like hordes of men, cameras at the ready. Some gingerly place their arms around the performers’ shoulders; others pose lewdly or shove selfie sticks between the women’s legs when their backs are turned. Women in the audience, me included, get leered at more often than we’d hoped.

“I haven’t seen anything that would approximate feminist, ethical porn,” Flor Coll, the founder and editor of a feminist publication, Femiñetas, tells me. She was invited to add some feminist weight to the festival and is selling her newspaper in a booth by the entrance. She managed to sell a few copies when the doors opened, but the sex couch booth next door has ended up proving too great a competitor. “They told me this year there’d be a feminist perspective,” she says. “I haven’t found it yet.”

There are some glimmers of it, however. This year’s Performance Award has gone to Eva Autumn and her partner Lilyan Red, whose elaborate routine was more performance art than boot-knocking. (Autumn had Xs taped across her body “as a sign of rejection of who I am” then was consoled by Red who performed a sensual striptease.) “It was very erotic, and there was never any sex,” Autumn says. “If Silvia Rubi hadn’t been the artistic director, we would have probably just gotten laughed at when we presented the idea.”

Feminism, if it is here, is in the details. A sex toy stand advertises a variety of contraptions for women’s health and pleasure. Menstrual cups are prominently displayed. During an amateur sex show, a moderator instructs a man forcing a woman’s head while she fellates him to let go, intoning in a singsong baritone, “She knows what she’s doing, let her do it.”

A tantric massage workshop is filled to the brim with young couples, who watch a professional gently massage a tired-looking performer. A young woman swats her boyfriend to make sure he’s watching.

“No one’s teaching us, explicitly, how to have sex,” Lidia, a 22-year-old teacher in line for another Tantra workshop, answers when I asked why she’d come. “Our points of reference are porn, and it can be really machista.”

“There’s very little sex ed in school,” Montse Iserte, the Salon’s pedagogical director, confirms. “It’s generally focused on sexually transmitted diseases and methods of contraception. That’s not enough. We believe that from the time kids are young, there should be education on not just sexuality, but also communication, the emotional side of it.”

Iserte is particularly pleased with the sex-positive workshops’ turnout. For the first time in the festival’s history, the workshops are equally as popular as the sex shows. In time, she hopes, the workshop goers will become the majority, which in turn will help transform the live sex shows from the raunchy affairs they are now into the more ethical and feminist presentations Iserte and her colleagues aspire to.

Notably absent is feminist and ethical porn heavyweight Erika Lust. Though she wasn’t invited this year, she admitted she’d attended a few times in the past and hadn’t loved it. “Too much macho porn,” she tells me, over email. She has a different take on porn’s educational mission. “I don’t think it’s the mainstream industry’s responsibility to provide feminist sex education,” Lust explains. “Porn is made for entertainment. It exists in the realm of the imagination.”

While the industry – both indie and mainstream – should be responsible in its messaging, Lust believes what should really be happening is government spending on sex-positive and consent-based sex ed programs.

“Porn is often used as a scapegoat for violence because it’s easy to point fingers at an industry that people don’t like to speak about,” she says. “But actually, gender violence comes from a society that has historically always prioritised the male experience over the female. The vast majority of mainstream porn fantastically mirrors our society, blatantly showing the neglect and misrepresentation of female pleasure and consent.”

It comes down to a chicken-or-the-egg debate: does porn merely reflect social mores regarding sex and power, or does it inform them? The unsatisfactory answer is probably, both. And while the women heading this year’s Salon have their hands tied in many ways – it’s hard to start a revolution against an industry that best marries patriarchy and capitalism – the small ways they’ve tried to protect women’s dignity are baby steps in the right direction.

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