No porn is good porn?

Is it possible to reconcile an appreciation for porn with feminism? Searching for answers, Abby O'Reilly interviews Anna Span, the UK's first female porn director

Abby O'Reilly, 1 October 2007

My angelic sensibilities were offended forever the morning I first caught sight of a bollard-like cock while eating a handful of midget gems. To this day, I can't even look at a bag without imagining being bludgeoned around the head by a monstrous trouser-snake, before taking it hard from behind.

When the boys in school huddled around a porn magazine, boasting about tit-fucks, deep-throating and debating the artistic importance of the 'money shot', I couldn't help but visualise them carrying each others swollen, pubescent, melon balls around in wheelbarrows.

It was only when they decided to rub the weathered images of wet shaven pussies, tight asses and hard round breasts across my reddening face as a punishment for my involuntary giggling that I realised these spotty vessels of burgeoning testosterone were using these photos to achieve sexual gratification. For three weeks I felt like I'd bathed my eyes in salt water.

Looking at daguerreotypes of different-but-the-same women holding open her fleshy vaginal lips and sucking her own cherry nipples for the pleasure of no-one but the horny voyeur was a difficult concept to digest while waiting for the bus home. For some reason I felt predisposed to dislike it. It was only when the boys progressed to porn films during our mid to late teens that I began to appreciate the relative benefits of watching a TV repair man and a voluptuous housewife fuck on the floor of an Austrian bar. There was something intriguing about studying the fresh bodies of nubile women completely stretched, distended and contorted into a number of acrobatic positions, seemingly bouncing on the periphery of exquisite delight, at the same time as being utterly defiled in every way by a heaving bulk of muscle and stubble harbouring a throbbing erection and a cheeky smile.

Part of my enjoyment arose from the feeling that I was unlawfully intruding onto male territory, extracting pleasure from something that, as an empowered woman, I was not socially or traditionally allowed to enjoy. I found this difficult to reconcile with my feminist beliefs.

Men usually chime in with the dominant discourse when sharing erotic desires to such an extent that women feel that it is socially unacceptable to verbalise their own debauched fantasies. I never discussed this with my female friends, even though the way they blushed and glanced sideways at the screen when they thought nobody was looking suggested that they were also experiencing some stirrings in the knickers department.

Sex is interesting, it's carnal and in watching others shag we can hone our own techniques, or develop different ways of providing our partners greater pleasure (making us come all the harder). Historically, many 'celebrity' feminists have promoted censorship and the banning of pornographic material so vehemently, though, that saying this I feel like I've dug up Andrea Dworkin and shat on her face.

What if there was a market for fat porn? What if Anna wanted me to star? I had thought about little else during the train journey, mentally playing out my own fantasy as a scullery maid getting roasted by the master of the house and his ambitious young son

Dworkin, a radical US feminist, was one of the most acerbic critics of pornography throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The publication of her book Pornography: men possessing women in 1981 forced people to reassess the cultural implications of porn and linked it with sexual attacks and violence against women. In 2005, the US journalist Ariel Levy offered Female chauvinist pigs: women and the rise of raunch culture, arguing that the behaviour of young women is systematically unravelling the work of our feminist foremothers. With this latest assault, it's not surprising that pornography continues to be perceived as the last refuge of the male sexual pervert and ill-informed cock-slut who, in her pretensions to empowerment, is ironically consolidating archetypal male oppression at the same time as flashing her muff at anyone holding a camera.

Many women are strongly anti-porn. But what if a woman does not endorse this mode of thinking? Does she have to sacrifice her feminist label because the material she uses to get wet is incongruent with her idealistic beliefs? Young women in the 21st century are increasingly comfortable discussing their sexual fantasies and experiences, so it's not surprising that there has been a proliferation in so-called 'female-friendly' porn that offers women visual stimulation, without subjugation.

I realised that I needed to draw on the wisdom of a cock-connoisseur to discuss this, being little more than an amateur myself. Meeting 'Britain's hottest porn director' (as voted for by UK men's magazine Arena) would provide an opportunity to discuss gender roles within the industry and also the wider cultural implications of producing sex films for a female audience, especially since this director, a college graduate, is, perhaps even more surprisingly, a woman.

Photo of Anna Span with a cameraAnna Span became the UK's first female porn director in 1998. Since then, a number of women have entered the business, asserting a case for female sexual experience and fantasy through our own creativity. Professions in the sex industry have never been well respected, although it's unlikely there was a stall at the school careers' fair. Think porn director and it's likely to invoke images of a middle-aged man displaying a bushy moustache, an impressive paunch and a schlong packed full of so many herbal enhancements that the old chap requires his own chair.

When travelling to Soho in London to meet Span at the headquarters of her production company, Easy On The Eye, I was unsure what to expect. Part of me anticipated a silicon-breasted peroxide blonde, with a head full of big, bleached teeth and a body covered in leather, accompanied by an entourage of camera-clad men willingly telling her she's in control while watching her flick the bean. But the office, located above swanky West London clothes boutique Bang Bang, looked surprisingly inconspicuous.

Inside, I had expected to be stifled by a montage of explicit photographs of the anus and ball sack, set against a back drop of dirt and grime, but again my perverse thoughts went unrequited and, apart from a notice on the intercom informing patrons that they did not sell sex services, there was nothing to distinguish this office from any other place of work.

The floor was laminated, the walls were spotless and there were boxes of Span's latest release, Hug a Hoodie sitting in the corner. There wasn't a dildo, lube or a red light bulb in sight. Yet I was nervous, not least of all because I was wearing mismatched underwear. What if there was a market for fat porn? What if Anna wanted me to star? I had thought about little else during the train journey, mentally playing out my own fantasy as a scullery maid getting roasted by the master of the house and his ambitious young son. I'd planned everything, right down to the pink t-shirt saying 'porn star' that I'd wear between shoots but, now I was sat in her office, I couldn't help but think my over-sensitive gag reflex may inhibit my career.

But there was no time to dwell, she was about to join me and, as far as I could see, her entourage consisted of little more than two PCs, a sofa and a friendly, 20-something Anglo-American named Mike, who, I later learned, was in charge of sales (and was not, I repeat, not, a gimp). "The best way to tackle derogatory sex and speech," began Span, "is to reply with positive sex and speech." She smiles and I am immediately aware that I am dealing with an intelligent, articulate woman: "A few performers have said that working for a woman makes it a very different experience. I think women relax more when they are working with me, but guys have also said that they don't feel the edge of competition that they do with male directors. We just have a laugh, that's the main thing on my set. It's important to be extremely organised when making the film, but at the same time it's having a good time. The day should be enjoyable."

Her enthusiasm for her profession is refreshing and, on the basis of that description, you could be forgiven for thinking she spends her days presenting kids TV. A pretty, slim 30-something brunette, the day we meet she's wearing black jeans, a short-sleeved blue top and lacks the heavily made-up 'porn face' that I had expected to see huffing back at me. If you happened to be stood next to her while she fondled the courgettes in the fruit and veg aisle, you would never guess that she spends the best part of the week waiting for furry-chested wannabes to get it up, or, more significantly, that she has become so well-respected in the adult entertainment industry.

Pornography has become synonymous with female degradation and we neglect the women who hold creative or managerial roles within the industry, instead perpetuating the myth that women in porn are nothing more than semen receptacles

But she has her critics. Pornography has become synonymous with female degradation to such an extent that we neglect the women who hold creative or managerial roles within the industry, instead perpetuating the myth that women in porn are nothing more than semen receptacles spending their time on set being pounded into dust. Surprisingly, though, her rise to the top has not been as difficult as you would expect. "Nearly all the responses I receive when I tell people what I do are positive," remarks Span, "most people are encouraging and tell me to just go for it." She laughs, and I get the impression that she is still unable to believe that she successfully makes porn for a living: "I started up about three years before hardcore porn became legal in this country in 2001, so I was one of the first female directors in England. Pornography is a cottage industry, with lots of people located in different parts of the country, so there wasn't really a ruling force to be reckoned with. The industry is becoming more amalgamated now, and with more women becoming involved, men and women are beginning to work together, so it hasn't been that difficult breaking into the business. I just ignored the people I didn't like."

Span's interest in porn began when she was an undergraduate reading for a BA in fine art (film & video) at Central St. Martin's School of Art, London. From the outset she knew that she wanted to make feminist films. Through her final year dissertation, 'Towards a new pornography', Span explored the possibilities of making porn from a female viewpoint. However, the response she received from her tutors was less than encouraging, and Span was not allowed to broadcast her graduation film to the public during the final year show. In 1998, shortly following her graduation, she began filming her first full-length feature porn film, although with little knowledge about how to shoot she lost money.

She got her big break in 1999, when Television X, an adult entertainment channel in the UK, aired Eat me/keep me, in which Span interviewed two models posing as students about their sexual experiences. This spawned a series of 75 films over three years, during which time Span took up the position of editor at Television X, watching a staggering 35 hours of porn a week. She now runs her own production company, has trained a number of female directors working in the industry and published Shoot your own adult movies, a guide book to help the amateur make erotic films at home. To date she has shot over 100 movies and 185 scenes. In June 2007 she won the 'Indie Porn Pioneer' award at the 2nd Annual Feminist Porn Awards in Toronto. She is also studying for a masters in philosophy.

"Even guys who are vehemently anti-porn can at least rest assured that their sexuality is respected enough that their needs are being catered for, and women should be able to feel the same way"

Span has good business acumen, a creative spark, and has produced work that has been praised internationally, but her achievements continue to be negated by the stigma attached to female involvement in the porn industry. She's told she is not a feminist. She's told she subjugates women. She's told that what she is doing is wrong. "Occasionally I will meet guys who tell me what it is to be a feminist, which is a little bit grating," says Span. "You are never going to have one point of view for women, as women are just like men. There are millions of us and we all have different opinions. Many women seem to view feminism as one political party, most of them promoting a left-wing socialist idea of feminism. But it is ridiculous to view feminism as only accessible to those with these ideals, instead of a mode of thought that can be interpreted through Conservative, Labour or Liberal politics. I'm more Liberal. My take on women's rights are those that advocate individual freedoms and aspirations. You have to move forward and supply positive role models for younger women, instead of promoting negative viewpoints, which I believe emanate largely from a Conservative idea of feminism. I make no apologies for coming from a different political point of view."

She believes that the existence of porn made for women represents a move towards equality: "Even guys who are vehemently anti-porn can at least rest assured that their sexuality is respected enough that their needs are being catered for, and women should be able to feel the same way." This attitude is more significant considering that Span began her adult life as a member of the anti-porn brigade: "If you go back to the '80s, you see the beginning of change in this country, with Feminists Against Censorship breaking away from the feminist movement. I was anti-porn when I was younger, as it was assumed that you had to be if you were a strong woman. There was a lot of press going down at this time, as Clare Short campaigned to 'ban the top shelf', which lead to the separation of women for and women against pornography. Personally, I think that porn is central to the 'third wave' of feminism, as it's an area where women are starting to take leaps and bounds, demanding more representation. I would still agree with some of the anti-porn traditionalists who say that women these days do not really appreciate the fundamental roots of feminism. They could do with reading Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer, and those books that teach you the basic elements of feminism. To a certain extent, a lot of people think it's a top-down revolution where it should be seen as a bottom-up. It's not enough to buy underwear and a dildo to make yourself feel liberated, that's just the cherry on the cake. You do actually have to educate yourself and make sure you've got rights within your relationship, and within all aspects of your life regardless of your gender or sexuality."

Span began to view the concept of censorship as counterproductive, believing that it does not eradicate the tendency to eroticise the female body, but simply forces these thoughts undergound. Avedon Carol, spokesperson for FAC, believes that people are too willing to negatively interpret pornography: "There is no reason to think that porn can't be 'woman-friendly', although it depends on your definition. There seems to be a difficulty in creating visual porn for women because women seem to have much more narrow, personal tastes where types of men are concerned - it is much easier to turn us off than turn us on. The thing about porn is that it's about what turns you on, not what your intellectual ideals are - sexual desire isn't really very intellectual. So the question of 'woman-friendliness' may be rather corruptive to the discourse, if what you are looking for is an intellectual ideal rather than just material women enjoy using to get hot."

The main selling point of Span's movies is that they claim to show a 'genuine female point of view'. "I started off saying that I made porn just for women," she says, "but when I began working for Television X, I started getting emails and responses from men saying that they enjoyed my work. I was making porn with characters that have personality - and that's not something that just women like - so now I say that I make porn from a 'female perspective'. This means that I shoot in a different way to directors of traditional porn. If you had a man and a woman talking together in a mainstream film, you would have three shots of them; one of them together, one of the woman looking at the man, and one of the man looking at the woman. But what porn does 99% of the time, and what women tend to do when they are shooting because they are so used to seeing it, is the objective shot looking at the woman. One of the things I was very keen to do was to include another shot so that we are looking at the man. Also, I wanted the man to be good-looking enough to be worth looking at and not like some of the awful amateur guys who are working in the industry."

Isn't it a cliché to assume that a woman has to be convinced the characters on screen love each other before they bump uglies?

Hug A Hoodie, Span's latest release, is set on a council estate in London. It's possibly the only council estate in the UK where everyone is young, good-looking and permanently up for it. Far from offering a social commentary on the rise of the 'chav', this movie consists of a number of firm things fucking each other around their estate while adorned with all the stereotypical paraphernalia and 'bling bling' of this working-class anti-hero. Scratch the surface, however, and there's nothing there - other than a tit-wank. But why is it assumed that Span's porn should have more significance than showing horny men and women indulging in coitus? Span is not the first woman to take a position behind the camera. Candida Royalle, a former US porn actress, set up Femme Films in 1980 with the intention of producing erotic material for women. Unlike Span's films, Royalle's work has been praised by psychologists for representing the thoughts and feelings associated with physical intimacy, but isn't it too much of a cliché to assume that a woman has to be convinced the characters on screen love each other before they bump uglies?

"Different film-makers make different films," continues Span, "I'm not that emotional. I'm more preoccupied with representing the enjoyment aspect of sex rather than anything else. I see feelings as being something that can be discussed afterwards. Candida Royalle puts her politics forward at the start of her films and I said I wouldn't do that. She places a female protagonist at the front of the screen, a woman who is going through some sort of right of passage. She is sexually inhibited and through the course of the film she meets a guy and begins to explore her own body. I think we needed to see that progression on screen during the 1980s, as this was a very new concept and, arguably, Royalle doesn't do it so much now, but at present I think the female audience has already experienced some form of transformation and needs to be treated as equals. Even if the storylines are not realistic, women are provided with images and role models, allowing them to fantasise and dream."

Google%20Mail%20-%20hoodie%20soft.jpg.jpg'Female-friendly' pornography appreciates that women may just enjoy sex for sex's sake, without providing a loaded representation of a woman offering her cherry or undelved sphincter to some man because she loves him, or her pussy to some woman because they have a 'connection'. Such films suggest by default that it's wrong for a woman to fuck someone based on a superficial attraction. The assumption that men require visual stimulation, whereas women do not, has meant that despite the existence of a prolific industry providing horny ladies with erotic fiction, transferring these wanton thoughts to celluloid has been a staggered process. "Women only just read books because that was the market given to them," says Span, "I remember reading Nancy Friday's Woman on Top, which is a collection of female fantasies, visualising what these women had written and thinking: where are the films? That was part of the reason why I first got into porn. Women didn't ask for much more than books because there was nothing else available to them, but now there is visual stuff available they will begin to ask for more. As human beings, sight is our first sense and so women are going to feel stimulated watching attractive men on screen. Watch the way women react when a good-looking guy walks into a room, they collectively swoon; it's an exaggerated response, but the same can be said about guys on screen because we have been starved of the visual for such a long time."

But what fuelled this assumption that women can only get off on the written word? Denying that women like watching one another get laid by attractive men allowed the industry to justify the reasons why they did not cater for a female audience, at the same time allowing the maintenance of the stifling beliefs that women are fundamentally passive in the bedroom, having sex forced upon them rather than it being something they take a proactive role in. Perhaps during heterosexual intercourse a man likes to feel that he has corrupted his partner, being the only object of her fantasies and the sole provider of her sexual gratification. Men have been conditioned to uphold this as part of the status quo. For a woman to watch porn, and additionally if she makes herself climax solo, represents an independence that unnervingly disempowers men, which is why there is a reluctance to accept it.

For a woman to watch porn, and additionally if she makes herself climax solo, represents an independence that unnervingly disempowers men, which is why there is a reluctance to accept it

What Span determined when researching how men and women react to sex on screen was that she needed to change the emphasis when filming for women: "When I was doing interviews with men I found that they could provide great detail about what sort of woman they fancied physically, but when I asked them what she was wearing, or where they were, they tended to lack imagination. I found that women can describe a whole environment, paying attention to clothes and décor. I have a friend who had a fantasy about being the first course of a meal - in a sexual sense - at a banquet. She imagined herself dressed in old English clothing, and could tell me all the details of her fantasy right down to the colour of the curtains in the room," Span laughs: "It's just a fundamentally different way of looking at porn, and therefore it's much more difficult to make films for women. It's a lot more expensive, and it's not enough to just have a good-looking guy, he must also have personality, because if he opens his mouth and he's a fool then no-one's interested."

Span believes that, for many women, porn is a liberating profession. She also claims that men are equally positioned as the objects of sexual desire, although we are disinclined to identify this as part of our social interactions: "The women in these porn films are going out there and doing what they want to do, what they dream to do, and nine times out of 10 they feel great about it. I would be lying if I said that every woman I have seen is 100% positive, but I think a lot of the problems they experience is not owing to what they have felt on set, but rather because of what people outside of the industry have said to them because of what they do. It's going to take time before people realise that somebody isn't a bad person because they choose to take their clothes off and perform sex. I think eventually porn will come to be respected more, as some of these actors and actresses are very talented. It's only because people have not yet developed a language to understand it that they are so critical. Many people haven't seen enough porn to be able to compare a good performance with a bad performance, and once people get an understanding of this things will begin to change."

If you wish to find out more information about Anna Span, her work, and Easy on the Eye productions, she will have a stall at The Adults Only Show in Birmingham NIA on the 5th - 7th October 2007, and will be appearing at Erotica in The Olympia Grand Hall in London on the 23rd - 25th November 2007.

About the author

Abby O'Reilly

Abby O'Reilly is a 23 year-old graduate of the University of Cambridge. She hopes one day she'll decide what she wants to do with her life, but until then she'll watch porn

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