How not to make a podcast episode about feminist porn

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The Guilty Feminist is an award-winning feminist comedy podcast hosted by Deborah Frances-White. It’s been downloaded over 70 million times, and it “explores our noble goals as 21st century feminists and the hypocrisies and insecurities that undermine them.” I listen most weeks and often enjoy the accessible feminism mixed with educational information on hard-hitting feminist causes. But after this week’s episode on feminist porn, I really wish that they would stop trying to talk about sex.

Sex is certainly a feminist ‘issue’, but it’s not one that everyone is equipped to tackle. I’m not saying that everyone has to be perfect, but when you have set yourself up as a resource for women it’s helpful if you don’t end up accidentally shaming your audience for their desires. Feminist porn is a complex topic that needs to be tackled with nuance and expertise – two things the Guilty Feminist episode were missing.

From their choice of Erika Lust as guest to the way they judged porn performers, I was disappointed in and frustrated with the episode.

If you’re reading this as part of the Guilty Feminist team, I’m absolutely available to hire as part of your production team to give advice on how to approach subjects about sex. If you want to avoid some of the mistakes they made, here’s now not to make a podcast episode about feminist porn:

Make sure neither of the hosts watch porn

The episode is hosted by Deborah Frances-White and guest co-host Alison Spittle. By inviting different guests to co-host episodes, The Guilty Feminist benefit from different – and often more diverse – points of views to Frances-White’s own. However, in this instance both hosts are self-described as “non-pornos”. Neither of them watch porn – Spittle admitted that she googled ‘porn’ for the first time in preparation for the episode.

Furthermore, neither of them enjoy porn.

It’s far from abnormal that two cis women might not watch porn – as they point out throughout the episode, the majority of porn is not created with women in mind! Yet France-White’s inability (or unwillingness) to say ‘anal’ hardly adds to her credibility to tackle the complex topic of feminist porn. Sex-positivity doesn’t mean being up for and into everything, of course. I’m definitely not saying that Frances-White’s feminist credentials hinge on her wanting to have anal sex, but it would have been far more interesting to dig into why she seems so uncomfortable talking about butt sex.

I don’t want to shame Frances-White or Spittle for being raised in a society that shames everyone who isn’t a straight, abled, cisgender man from even thinking about sex. But I put it to you like this: would you get two people who don’t enjoy or know anything about cinema to host a podcast about feminist film? I feel this is an episode where the podcast would have benefited greatly from at least one host who actually liked porn – or who might even be into anal!

Shame women rather than examining misogyny

The hosts start the episode by spending almost a full ten minutes reading through most popular categories on PornHub and discussing the images used to promote each category. During this time they seem surprised that there were graphic photos and words that made them uncomfortable. Not that I’m a fan of PornHub: free tube sites are very exploitative and rife with pirated porn and clips uploaded without consent. However, the hosts again avoid discussing a serious topic (i.e., how harmful and un-feminist free tube sites are) in favour of judging the women in the photos.

They say they’re not judging the women in the photos. Maybe they’re genuinely not judging the women who’s boob job they’re commenting on. However, while Frances-White and the Guilty Feminist does usually take a pro-sex work approach in general, in this episode they seem to forget that porn performers have to make what the market wants. I’m not going to defend PornHub’s categories or the content found therein, but the issue lies with white supremacist cisheteropatriarchy, not in what porn performers are wearing.

I do not think that porn performers are to blame for the misogynistic tropes of the porn industry. To judge them as through they are, rather than examining the misogyny that has created those tropes in the first place, seems an odd choice for a podcast episode about feminist porn. It’s a glaring missed opportunity to rant about the patriarchy!

Book a guest who is far from feminist

While Erika Lust is held up as figurehead of ethical porn, some of her behaviour is significantly less than feminist. I was appalled to learn about how Lust and her company treated Rooster, a non-binary, queer and Black performer after they spoke up about their sexual assault on the set of an Erika Lust shoot. Rooster has written about how their boundaries were violated.

Lust and her company blacklisted Rooster when they started speaking out about their assault, and called them an ‘online troll‘. The characterisation of Rooster speaking publicly about their assault and seeking accountability as aggression is particularly significant when you consider that Lust and Rooster’s rapist are both directors and white, cis women. Rooster has spoken about how Lust and her company have used Rooster’s race and gender to control the conversation.

Lust’s company XConfessions still hosts and profits off of many videos directed by Rooster’s rapist, Olympe de G. These include a video called ‘The Bitchhiker’ that performer Parker Marx called the most unethical shoot [he has] ever been on. Lust’s company also outed Rooster’s birth name. This is a breach of contract and especially dangerous for a Black and trans performer.

As of June 2021, the parties have reached a joint agreement. Of course, no one is perfect and we need to allow space for people to make mistakes… but I am not comfortable with holding Lust up as an ethical or feminist porn producer when she and her company has treated a performer like this.

The Guilty Feminist does get points for booking an actual porn producer for this episode, but that’s a really low bar.

Assume that all porn is mainstream porn

It is incredibly frustrating when people talk about their issues with mainstream porn as though they are describing the entire industry. People’s (often valid) critiques of free tube sites are extrapolated and applied to all porn. “Cosmetically enhanced bodies and people over-exaggerating their responses,” (as Frances-White explains she doesn’t understand why anyone finds sexy) might be a staple of free porn you can find with a quick internet search. It might be the majority of porn, but it’s not the entirety of the industry.

The episode is about feminist porn: the hosts are aware that ethical, feminist porn exists. Yet even when talking to Lust, they continue to make sweeping statements about porn when they’re mainly describing the content available on tube sites. Close up of genitals might seem surgical to Frances-White – they might even feel dehumanising to others. Yet digging into ethical porn you will find porn with slow kissing, playful fucking, and as much giggling as there are facials.

When talking about their porn names and companies (and throughout the episode) Frances-White describes her ideal porn. She doesn’t seem to realise that the porn she’s describing exists – just not on a free tube site.

Set up porn as a problem for the guest to defend

Due to the hosts’ lack of porn literacy, the episode quickly becomes Frances-White and Spittle asking questions that force Lust to ‘defend’ the porn industry. While Lust does discuss the importance of sex education and stress that porn isn’t for everyone*, the format means that she ends up framing her company as the sole ethical alternative MindGeek. There’s no discussion of other sources of ethical porn, no mention of erotica or audio porn, and little conversation about what actually does make porn feminist in the first place.

At the start of the episode, Francis-White says: “I do wonder what so much porn is doing to people’s brains. I worry about porn addiction. I worry about how young people approach sex now they’ve watched so many hours of porn and they think sex is acting out those scenarios. I worry about so much of porn.” This view isn’t challenged during the podcast, but the implication that porn is the driving factor behind sexual violence is false. White supremacy, transphobia, biphobia, homophobia and misogyny are driving forces behind sexual violence, and while porn perpetuates these, it is not solely to blame.

We need better literacy around porn. We need better sex education. Free, tube site porn is part of the problem, for sure, but with Lust as the sole pro-porn voice, the episode barely scratches the surface.

*Throughout the episode, I get the sense that Frances-White feels like she “should” like porn. The pressure to perform sex-positivity is pervasive, with people feeling that if they’re not always up for and into everything then it somehow makes them less feminist. I wish I could reassure her that even if she does check out feminist porn and isn’t into it, there’s nothing wrong with her. She doesn’t have to be into porn – she’s just needs to bring on more diverse voices if she wants to tackle the topic appropriately on the podcast.

Get distracted by in-jokes rather than listening to the guest expert

I’ve listened religiously to every single episode of The Guilty Feminist, marathoning the whole back catalogue (no pun intended) when I found the show. From Lust’s silence when Jon Hamm – who Frances-White has a fondness for – was brought up, it’s clear that she is not familiar with the podcast’s in-jokes. The hosts continue to make jokes as they ask about how to make porn at home – including saying that you should “make sure your partner is out” before you make porn.

While I realise that the show is supposed to be a comedy podcast, I’m far more interested in listening an expert talk about her industry than the awkward jokes that seem designed to cover the hosts’ discomfort. Porn can be fun – my favourite porn is playful, and I don’t think the conversation around sex or porn needs to be super serious. But joking about making porn behind your partner’s back and disregarding your guest’s comfort to make in-jokes is not how to do this.

Assume that making porn is easy

Additionally, I was irritated by Frances-White’s joke – or possibly semi-serious suggestion – that she and Spittle had hit on a goldmine with their ‘Bezos fucks the world’ porn idea. They also joke that Spittle is going to be hired by Lust to add a few more jokes to their films. It felt like it was playing into the idea that sex work is easy money – which it isn’t.

Allow the hosts’ discomfort to alienate listeners

We live in a society that teaches us to be ashamed of our bodies: it’s no surprise that both Frances-White and Spittle are uncomfortable talking about porn. Spittle’s fears that she doesn’t meet unrealistic beauty standards – and that people will only be attractive to her as part of their fetish – are valid. However, these fears are rooted in an oppressive, patriarchal system that the episode skirts around rather than diving into.

A podcast episode on feminist porn had so much potential to explore sex, pleasure, and the male gaze, yet The Guilty Feminist falls short. Lust talks about the importance of more women, LGBTQAI+ folks and BIPOC to be included behind the camera when it comes to making porn, but it’s the porn-novice questions from hosts that form the bulk of the episode, and with them the sense that we too are suppose to be as unfamiliar and uncomfortable with what is being discussed.

I don’t think Frances-White realises how much her comments about the not liking porn come across as shaming her listeners who do enjoy porn. The Guilty Feminist has a huge audience. It’s made feminism accessible for so many people and, I have no doubt, genuinely changed people’s lives. But with that kind of platform comes a responsibility: a responsibility to not put out content that might make your listeners feel broken. The hosts’ anti-porn stance shines through no matter how many times they say that they’re not judging their listeners, and the episode comes across as alienating.

Although the intentions were good, The Guilty Feminist‘s episode on feminist porn may have done more harm than good. I’m left wanting to reassure listeners that they are not weird if they watch and enjoy porn.

If you’re interested in a VERY good book that digs into the nuances of sexual violence without blaming porn, I thoroughly recommend Rough: How violence has found its way into the bedroom and what we can do about it by Rachel Thompson. If you’re looking for some hot, ethical, queer and feminist porn, I recommend Crash Pad Series. (Disclaimer – both of these are affiliate links!)

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