She gives me fever

Porn is not for everyone: but it can be for feminists, Mia Engberg tells Sophie Mayer, as her programme of shorts screens in London

Sophie Mayer, 13 January 2012

In a feminist twist on conventional porn, 12 film makers have contributed to Dirty Diaries, a programme of short films shot on a mobile phone. The idea for the programme grew out of a film called Come Together, which Swedish filmmaker Mia Engberg shot for the Mobile Movies competition at the 2006 Stockholm International Film Festival.

10 selected filmmakers, including Engberg, were given a Nokia N93 cameraphone (Nokia's then top-of-the-line phone, equipped with 30 fps VGA-resolution MPEG-4 video recording capability) to make a short film. Engberg, who had previously made two films exploring the possibilities of lesbian alternative porn, Bitch & Butch, released in 2003, and Selma & Sofie, in 2001, as well as a number of documentaries about radical communities, took up the competition's theme of 'together' to imagine a radical community composed of orgasming women.

"Come Together was made mostly for fun," she told me. "It is me and my girlfriends masturbating one by one in our bathrooms. I think it took us two days to shoot it and I edited it in an hour." Inspired by the reaction to her film, Engberg then turned over the N93 to 12 filmmakers for Dirty Diaries.

Pro-sex queer feminism believes that beauty is diverse; that women can and should be horny on their own terms; that bringing bodies and sexuality to the fore makes feminism stronger

Not all reactions were positive, despite the film being very popular at film festivals internationally. There were also some negative responses, coming (primarily) from male viewers after the short was streamed online.

Commenters criticised the performers' physical appearance, lack of make-up and lack of conventional, heteronormative, straight male viewer-oriented erotic cues. This has led Engberg to put forward a manifesto that neatly, wittily and passionately encapsulates many of the ideals of pro-sex queer feminism: that beauty is diverse; that women can and should "be horny on [their] own terms"; that bringing bodies and sexuality to the fore makes feminism stronger.

Real bedrooms and real bodies are on show

The manifesto also encourages viewers and readers to get out there and make their own porn. Engberg says that, as opposed to US-based feminist 'sexperts' like Susie Bright and Annie Sprinkle, she is "more influenced by the punk-scene" and "strong women displaying sex like Nina Hagen, Lydia Lunch and Diamanda Galas".

She is also inspired by "the do-it-yourself tradition in punk rock". Both the cameraphone technology and the content of the films salute this, with a rough-and-ready handmade ethos, one that appreciates the sexiness of graffiti art and reading theory equally, complimenting great storytelling and rhythmic editing in each film.

Real bedrooms and real bodies are on show, although Engberg notes that, when it comes to physical diversity, "Sweden is a small country and feminist porn is new and still controversial. The Dirty Diaries collective is young, white and urban: I think that is a mirror of what it looks like in Swedish alternative porn-scene right now. I didn't find any other women who wanted to participate. But I am sure this will change. This is just a first step."

And it has been: Ingrid Ryberg, director of the wry and extremely sexy film Phonefuck, has gone on to write her PhD on lesbian porn, and Marit Östberg, whose film Authority is a hot mess mindfuck, has gone on to make several other porn shorts including, most recently, Share.dirtydiaries-flashergirl-metro.jpg

Both Ryberg's and Östberg's films have something that's rare, if not non-existent, in mainstream straight porn: a sense of humour. This is something many of the films in the collection share. Flasher Girl on Tour (Joanna Rytel, right), for example, is like an exhibitionist parody of Amélie and loves its own ridiculousness.

On Your Back Woman (Wolfe Madam), a joyous slow-mo lesbian bedroom-wrestling short, offers the most playful take on sex and the greatest diversity of bodies, as it showcases multiple couples throwing down and enjoying each others' strength as well as tenderness, while Fruitcake (Sara Kaaman and Ester Martin Bergsmark), Dildoman (Åsa Sandzén, below) and Red Like Cherry (Tora Màrtens) use abstraction and animation to blur boundaries and bodies. Skin (Ella Magnussson) suits its two participants in opaque nylon body-stockings, playing with ideas of safe sex and boundaries and queering heterosexual sex in the process, as skin, organs and orifices are multiplied deliciously.

dirtydiaries-dildoman.jpg

In Skin, as in all the films, women are definitely on top, as Engberg notes: "Everyone made more or less queer stories so I had to headhunt some straight women to make some hetero-porn. It is more difficult to make straight porn than lesbian porn. We discussed this a lot. In straight porn you have to avoid the stereotypes of mainstream porn (no silicone, no cum-shots, etc). Lesbian porn is more free to invent itself in whatever way it wants. I guess it is like real life sex! Heterosexuality can be a real burden if you are a feminist." She smiles. "But it turned out well in the end," as several of the films deliberately blur or confuse the performers' gender.

Porn is not for everyone. It is only for grown-ups that want to see it and choose to see it. If you are not into it, it is not for you

The manifesto argues that, as feminists of all genders depict and celebrate sexuality outside the formal and economic practices of commercial pornography, porn itself is being changed. Engberg says: "I've been in the feminist movement since the late 1980s. At [the] start we were very anti-porn, smashing the windows of pornshops. When queer feminism entered the scene in the 1990s in Sweden, we became much more sex-positive and it was possible to make our own porn. Since I have seen both 'sides' I can say we are much stronger now when we can produce things we actually like, and say yes to what we like and not only no to what we don't like."

Part of that, for her, is recognising that "porn is not for everyone. It is only for grown-ups that want to see it and choose to see it. If you are not into it, it is not for you. Some people are shy. Others don't get turned on by looking at others having sex. That's OK."

If you do decide to go along to the screening on Friday 13 January or order the DVD online then, among the freshly-conceived images, you might hear something familiar. Over half of the films use the music of another Swedish feminist artist, Fever Ray, aka Karin Dreijer Andersson, as a soundtrack to their shenanigans.

Engberg says that she "asked Karin Dreijer at an early stage of the project if she wanted to contribute, and [she said] we could actually use all her music for free! Even now when we sold Dirty Diaries to many countries and made some profit, she doesn't want to get paid because she wants to support the cause."

So is Fever Ray the ultimate soundtrack for feminist sex? "There's not one kind of music for feminist sex," states Engberg with certainty (in keeping with the logic that there isn't only one way of doing it), "but the music of Fever Ray was perfect for Dirty Diaries." This is all part of the way the films capture a contemporary moment when sisters are doing it for (and with) themselves and aren't afraid to show it on film.

Listen online to a new/old song by Karin Dreijer Andersson, part of Kazu Makino's (Blonde Redhead) compilation We Are the Works in Progress, which will benefit survivors of the 2010 Japanese earthquake/tsunami/nuclear reactor crisis.

Comments From You

Laurel // Posted 14 January 2012 at 13:33

I'm picking hairs, but I wonder whether feminist visuals should just be referred to as erotica rather than pornography from the get-go because it gives it a wider standpoint, and keeps you out of inane discussions where people think you've implied that what's generally available as porn is feminist and that porn can be reclaimed just by diluting the acid with more material. i just think sometimes with the term porn a lot of people jump into it for the wrong reasons. porn for women =/= feminist porn for example. neither does subversive porn necessarily. there is already a fetish for everything from the male gaze. as well as that, the female gaze is really hard to pin down. i can see why someone might be successful in very queer circles, however, for example, feminist porn should not push beauty standards on the women involved, but i would probably not get off to something with people i dont find attractive in there myself. with people who are more pansexual there seems to be a lot more acceptance of the person for who they are and not their bodies, and that is great. but its like i also think that porn with the same gender roles in it also perpetates some big problems, but at the same time, saying that only pretty, submissive men can be found attractive and that only strong female dominated sex is feminist also causes problems. i feel that unless there is a real upheaval in pornography that its better to start off with the premise of erotica, because it saves you from either limiting it to "opposite" roles, or from adding to the surplus in your diversity.

its also worth considering the idea that expecting sexual gratification on tap, and people doing what you want however you want, when you want, can still cause problems with our expectations that we deserve to be pleasured on tap. like its owed to us, and obviously your drive can still go up more and more and you need more hardcore stuff as you go along, and thats one way that porn accelerated to the extremes its now at. and that can damage relationships too and make it harder to get off.

i think it also needs to be beside a movement whereby the de-sexualised women's body is more out there, but also the sexualised (not objectified) male body is out there more and that the objectified woman is largely taken out of the public channels. every film, shooting a woman walking from the buttocks down etc. i think the pornification of women in our everyday lives has a lot to do with expectations and acceleration of what we expect from women who are working to sexually gratify us. something that was once erotic is now basically a GAP advert level. i enjoyed reading Filament, for example, and found the guys very attractive, but there was no way i could get off on in in comparison with after having seen much more explicit stuff, and im not even into explicit stuff, though sadly i am into objectification, for which reason i choose to use my imagination rather than real people whos backgrounds i dont know.

one of the issues that all feminists have with porn is of course knowing that there was full consent and that actresses/actors were not motivated into consenting by money alone. Whilst I respect that sex-workers may freely choose this trade, when the power is in the directors hands, I don't trust paid enterprises not to be pressuring their actresses, even if they had no intention of doing so. i think this has to be done on a voluntary basis. Also, with that in mind, i feel like there should always be proof. and thats hard. how do you know someone on camera hasnt been put up to saying that they consent? i cant just say "oh its a feminist publication so i know" because consent isnt as simple as yes and no. theres even saying yes because your friend is the director and you dont want to let them down or because you want to be asked to do more in the future. but this cold also be a choice, if a clearly not-free one. so it seems like as well as proof of consent, some background on the people involved is needed, a behind the scenes of the show, talking to each other in comfortable settings etc. i think its also important for the reason of building up the viewer's respect for the actresses whom they will be watching as people, rather than as hired toys to get off on. so basically i think that a separate video should always be available with the erotica, and possibly that with aspects of BDSM which involve pain, rape fantasy, or extreme submission and/or degradation that the viewer should HAVE to see the person in casual and see them consent before watching.

because i think BDSM is extremely feminist and i think play-acting out fantasies can be very beneficial for people with issues as well. however i think watching pornography tends to indulge people in their issues. in role play you know and respect the person youre doing it with and youve chatted and consented and you care about their well-being, but when youre watching a video of this happening, you dont know and dont have to respect the people involved. you dont have to know or care if they consented, theyre just there to make you happy.

basically, i appreciate whhat youve said but i think its a lot more complicated than choice and getting a female/feminist angle.

Jess McCabe // Posted 15 January 2012 at 12:03

@Laurel I'm sympathetic to that, up to a point, and I've read some good definitions of porn by various (anti porn) feminists that do draw this distinction.

But then again I just think, it's not making our arguments very accessible if we use terms in a different way to the rest of humanity? Also, it's putting the emphasis on the word we use not the content, and however much I do agree that language is super important, it's not that important. If the reason for objecting to something/approving of it is simply it's called porn not erotica or erotica not porn? That doesn't seem right.

anywavewilldo // Posted 15 January 2012 at 14:45

why not call sex films that manage to not be porn - umm... 'sex films'?

porn is a multi-billion pound industry in which the sexualisation of power inequality is a pre-requisite and in which large numbers of people, mostly women, are exploited.

you can try and make feminist porn but 'it's just playing shop' - it might not be for profit but it doesn't do anything to influence the porn industry itself.

I think it's theoretically possible to make films of sex - for art, for feminism, for education, for sex - but I also think it's difficult - why? because they so easily become porn

calling it feminist porn is just an oxymoron and strikes me as 'naughty-feminism'/ contraryism - [yawn]

Ania Ostrowska // Posted 15 January 2012 at 20:36

@Laurel: the difference between "erotica" and "pornography" on a technical level (even though strictly legal boundaries are blurry and country-specific) seem to be the explicitness of the images shown. So one can have an *erotic* scene in a mainstream film where actors are naked but their genitals (and sometimes woman's breasts) are covered OR a feature length *erotic* film where there are many sex scenes but not explicitly showing genitals.
In *porn* (mainstream or alternative) one will have full scenes with close-ups of genitals, also during intercourse, ejaculating penises and squirting vaginas.

So if "feminist visuals" contain the above, referring to them as "erotica" is misleading I think.
We need to remember that as Mia Engberg said above, such understood "porn" is not for everyone, even if ultra-ethically produced.
In the collection of shorts reviewed in the article (Dirty Diaries), some of the films can be described as "feminist erotica", some as "feminist porn", some probably as "feminist/art sex film". I wouldn't remove "feminist porn" from this list as some of them filmed genital activity very closely.

@anywavewilldo: I don't think "feminist porn" is an oxymoron, just as "feminist art" doesn't have to be, or "feminist filmmaking" for that matter. Not all female porn directors describe themselves as "feminist" (and precisely because of that "porn for women" is not the same as "feminist porn"). I think that if a woman creative in any field sends the products of her creativity into the world, labelling them "feminist", or not rejecting the label if given by the audience, the name holds.
Is "Marxist feminism" an oxymoron? I know many who'd say "YES" to that.

SUNNI // Posted 17 January 2012 at 22:24

I agree with ANYWAQVEWILLDO

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About the author

Sophie Mayer

Sophie Mayer is the author of Her Various Scalpels and The Private Parts of Girls, as well as The Cinema of Sally Potter. She recently curated a retrospective of feminist documentary for Punto de Vista, and writes about feminist, queer and independent cinema and literature for Sight & Sound, Horizon Review, Hand + Star, Sound and Music, The F-Word and her own blog, deliriumslibrary

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