Women in Lust – The Sex Goddess Project

In April of this year, I attended the Toronto International Porn Festival.  I spent a few hours watching films – and clips of films – curated from the last ten years of feminist pornography.  I am not a consumer, but I figured any sex educator worth her salt should dip in every now and again.  I’m glad I did: There was fun; there was joy; and consent was the order of the day.

My views of pornography had evolved over the years.  Consumer prevalence remains high.  An article in the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality reports that, when asked about their recent online solitary arousal experiences, 91.7% of the men interviewed said they had watched sexually explicit videos involving men and women; and 47.4% of the women.  The sample: 239 young adults at a Canadian university.  Current mainstream heterosexual pornography, where the scenes are rough and misogynistic, appeals particularly to young adult males.  While they work for self-pleasuring, they are not so good at helping men figure out how to be good lovers.

There is quite a difference between what one considers to be great sex and popular depictions of sex aside from pornography.  On TV doc-and-police shows, the scene goes straight from the mutual recognition that two people want to get it on, to ripping off each other’s clothes at the nearest opportunity.  No slow build and little context.  And standard, gorgeous bodies.

In the new TV series, The Good Fight, so far, there is only one loving, ongoing intimate relationship – Maia and her wife – and sadly, their sexual intimacy gets splashed all over the Internet in retaliation for her father’s Ponzi scheme.  Maia’s mother has a long-term adulterous relationship with her brother-in-law.  Lucca the lawyer, (remember her from The Good Wife?) seems to be as cold blooded as The Good Wife’s Kalinda.  Diane Lockhart sleeps with her ex-husband, which she says the next morning, was nice, but then refuses to renew their relationship beyond friendship.

Perhaps the lack of relatable intimate relationships is a metaphor for the series’ theme of whom to trust.  After all, trust is the hallmark of a positive relationship.  And from vanilla to kink, consent needs to be the order of the day.

Enter Ricardo Scipio

Ricardo contacted me about his newest book, “The Sex Goddess Project”.  Huffington Post recently interviewed him about it and  included some of his photos.  I liked what I saw and willingly posted excerpts from his press release on my professional Facebook page.

Says Scipio,

“If sexual images were food, people would be inundated with cheap junk food. I wanted to create a body of work that offers something more nutritious and satisfying for the health conscious, more discerning palette.”

He sent me a preview of photos from his latest book.  Lucky me: I had the opportunity to peruse dozens of images of women having a lusty old time doing all kinds of sexual activities in a variety of positions with a variety of partners.  These images reminded me of those I had seen at the porn festival – except they are not porn.

Scipio is not producing porn, which he doesn’t watch and whose messages he abhors.

“I’m a lover of all things authentic, and porn isn’t authentic.”

“Women have for too long, and in too many cultures, had their sexuality suppressed – only to be pseudo-released within the stiflingly unkind world of porn. I’m extremely humbled and proud to provide a vehicle for women to unapologetically express themselves with love and authenticity; something porn cannot offer. Sex is way too important to leave in the hands of pornographers.”

His photos portray real people of all body types, skin tones, genders and orientations. One of his models said,

“This was important.  It was a chance to be an activist in the sensual world. To reclaim sex for the othered bodies. The fatties, the people of color. To call bullshit on the ones who say ‘we’ don’t do this simply because they had never seen it done.”

Many of the women in his photos are looking straight at the camera with a huge smile on their face.  It is not the come-on of porn: It’s “Look at me; I am having such a good time”.  Most of the focus is on their pleasure.

To be honest, I did not get a buzz from the photos; my pleasure as a viewer was aesthetic and political.

His models understand this:

“Let’s just say that the bloom is beginning to fade. I’m a 51-year old woman who is 150 lbs overweight…  After Ricardo asked if I would be photographed for his Sex Goddess book, I realized that showing the inner me – the one who loves sex and feels that it is her special, healing gift – should be shown in full daylight. Yes, I’m fat. Yes, I’m older. However, I don’t want to be shamed into feeling badly about my body because our culture deems it ‘ugly’ or ‘gross’ to be sexual if you’re of a certain age and size…”

I am looking forward to seeing the rest of the collection.  The book is not available to the general public – just to Scipio’s supporters and those who collect his work. However, in order to showcase the “ethos” of the project, he is planning an invitation-only online gallery screening for Canadians on May 20 and 21. Anyone can request an invitation.  I recommend that you do.

 

 

The sticky question of pornography – March 5, 2013

About 40 years ago, feminists were making a distinction between pornography and erotic films. Of course no one was able to quite put their finger on the difference, although it was easy to hate pornography after Deep Throat star Linda Lovelace revealed her abuse during the 1972 filming; or Bonnie Sherr Klein’s Not a Love Story showed us the shockingly exploitative side of adult entertainment. For some of us, all pornography is exploitative, demeaning and violent.

Enter women who began to make erotica for women, followed by women who started making porn for women. Today there are plenty of women who consider themselves feminist and who love their porn.

So what’s a girl to do?

As a sex educator, I believe that a big downside of pornography is the role it has played in the sex education of boys. I winced during a sexual health workshop with adolescents when a male student said, “it’s not like that in porn, miss.” I could just picture him playing out some of the common sexual acts in contemporary pornography without asking for consent. Pornography creates a script for adolescent sexuality as do music videos and reality shows. Not being a consumer, I had to do a lot of reading to familiarize myself with the current norms in pornography, such as “facials” and “double penetration.”

With the increase in availability, a kind of hunger for bigger and bigger shocks seems to drive the industry to a continual pushing of boundaries. The resulting outrage from feminists isn’t so much moral outrage as anger—and fear. A long-standing debate continues about whether or not pornography is directly linked with violence against women and children. According to some, research has never made a clear causal connection between pornography and sexual assault. Writer Debbie Nathan, in an interview by Dr. Joy Davidson says, “Research has shown that legalization and mass consumption of porn is correlated with declines in rape rates, not increases.” Yet, when we hear about someone convicted of sexual assault with a cache of violent pornography on their computer, it echoes other research that indicates a link between porn and attitudes that support violence against women.

I am reminded of another workshop, this time in a battered woman’s shelter, when a participant told the group about her husband who, after watching porn, would insist that she repeat the acts. When she refused, he would beat and rape her.

There are other issues. Some women who do not watch porn find it upsetting that their partners do and consider it a form of cheating. Sex columnist Dan Savage insists that all men watch pornography and the rest are lying. Some people are so used to getting off watching porn that they find it difficult to be intimate in flesh and blood.

Is there an upside?

There are couples who revel in watching porn together—and there is something for every gender, orientation and taste. People who may feel guilty about their sexual predilections may find comfort in the availability of their kinks online. They may find similar communities of people and even partners.

Nathan paints a positive picture:

“… to keep porn in the mix, we’d have to demystify it, to stop condemning it as immoral. If we could do that, we might not have pornography anymore. Instead, we’d have a gorgeous carnival of sexual imagery and sexual aids which would speak to everyone’s fantasies, desires and yearnings. … I think the solution [to stereotyping] is not making less of it but more. More, that is, if it’s produced by all kinds of people, and not just by big businesses catering to the mass market and trying to make mega-profits.”

Perhaps informed consumers of pornography can treat it like chocolate. They can seek out the equivalent of organic, fair trade porn (made by companies that pay their actors well, give them options about scenes and insist on their using protection) and get that good dopamine high—not as a guilty pleasure—but as a treat. If people patronized the ethical porn companies, it might start the process of shifting mainstream pornography to something more palatable … for more of us.

Sex work – March 3, 2014

On December 20, 2013, the morning the Supreme Court of Canada struck down three aspects of the prostitution law, my phone started ringing off the hook. Three Radio Canada programs were asking for interviews. Luckily, I had recently given a talk to a francophone agency arguing (unsuccessfully) in favour of decriminalization and had a file full of information in French. Some interviews were wide ranging discussions—from the specifics of the decision (solicitation, “living off the avails” and keeping a bawdy house) to my opinion on what the new and improved law should look like.

These 2013 interviews had nothing in common with what I would have said 40 years earlier.

In 1968, I had clear (and rigid) views about both prostitution and pornography. I have written in this space about my evolution regarding the latter. Like pornography, for me prostitution was rooted in sexism and therefore exploitative. End of story.

As prostitutes’ rights groups began to form in the mid-70s, they changed the language of the discussion. The term “sex work” required us to consider prostitution as work. I eventually came to accept the term and all that it implied, but was still unable to accept the notion that some people chose to do this kind of work.

Part of my assignment for a while at a local public health agency was teaming up with a community centre to do the rounds of places where local street-level workers hung out. We discreetly distributed condoms and information, while on the lookout for the police. These tours did little to disabuse me of the notion that there was “choice” involved in the trade. Most of the women we encountered had personal stories of abuse and subsequent addiction to crack cocaine. We got to know some of the women, like Debbie.

Debbie was in her 40s but looked 60. One day, she came into our public health office to have our friendly clerk dye her long, gray hair. Because she had lost her “coke bottle” glasses after being beaten by a john, one of the nurses took her to get another pair. Her history of sexual abuse was no surprise to me. Over the years, Debbie had given up more than one child to Children’s Aid.

Every now and again, the women would all disappear from the neighbourhood after the police had done a sweep. They would always drift back and the merry-go-round of doing tricks, getting arrested and getting spit back out into the street would resume. It was not just a frustrating way to earn a living, it was a dangerous one.

The Canadian Medical Association lists premature death as the primary risk of prostitution; and street-level prostitution is the most dangerous way to work. Before the Supreme Court decision, solicitation was considered illegal. If you are always looking out for the police, there is no time to check out the john or have a friend take down the licence plate before stepping inside his car. Although we now know that not all the missing Aboriginal women in British Columbia did sex work, according to the RCMP, more than 400 Aboriginal women either disappeared or were killed.

Other risks associated with street-level work are physical and sexual assault and STI infection. Moreover, there is little access to non-judgmental health, police or judiciary services.

The notion of harm reduction, which first emerged in 1990, was another stepping stone in my understanding of why the law and our attitudes to sex work had to change. Harm reduction regarding substance use (or risk reduction in the case of sexual activity) works by reducing the negative consequences of what is usually a dangerous activity.

One day I was preparing a young woman for an HIV test at the sexual health clinic where I worked. When I asked about the number of partners she had, she had to break it down by the month. She disclosed that she was exchanging sex for crack. When I asked whether she used condoms, she told me that johns would pay her double not to.

Similarly, teenagers fleeing abuse and exchanging sexual services for shelter; young, gay men who sell sex to survive after being forced to leave home; or trans women who need to buy their hormone treatments are all at risk.

My attitude towards the relationship between sex work, choice and the law changed dramatically a few years ago.

I came across a link in a sex columnist’s article on prostitution which clearly outlined the three possible options for a country’s legislation on prostitution: abolition, legalization or decriminalization. At that point I turned a philosophical corner and entered the decriminalization camp.

Abolition was what I had naively and fervently believed in before actually meeting and talking with sex workers. But in order to abolish prostitution, we would have to eliminate sexism leading to economic inequities, sexual abuse and addiction.

Legalization means using criminal laws to regulate and control the conditions under which sex work would function. This is the Reno, Nevada and “red light district” solution.

Decriminalization acts like the decriminalization of abortion. It creates a private arrangement between consenting adults. People could exchange sexual services for money under conditions that they freely negotiated. People would be able to work collectively, hire security, have access to health care and pay taxes, no matter where they worked or with whom.

Counter arguments have centered around trafficking and the potential for organized crime to take over sex work. They also cite fears about exploiting children and those under 18 years old. Papers have been written; laws have been passed. Yet, implementing those laws is the issue.

What have other countries decided? The Nordic model is rejected by many sex workers’ organizations and their allies like the HIV/AIDS Legal Network primarily because sex workers were not at the table when the model was developed. Australia, New Zealand and Germany have opted for decriminalization. It remains to be seen what the long-term effects will be on their societies. On another note, Spain has now established the first sex workers’ union in Ibiza.

Terry Bedford, one of the interveners in the Supreme Court case publicly asked the Prime Minister six questions including “what is a sex act?” She makes the familiar point that the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation.

Not all sex workers are on board with decriminalization and certainly not all feminists. Where does that leave me? Firmly on the side of decriminalization. At the same time, the day may come when people no longer want to do sex work. To be honest, a big part of me looks forward to that possibility.

For more on this subject, check out the Rabble.ca podcast debate on the recent legal ruling.