The Feminist Pornographer
Vivid Entertainment director in Albuquerque to talk pleasure positivity at the Pornotopia film festival
Tristan Taormino is trying to take a deep breath. When we speak, she's about to embark on a four-week tour and is using the day to read books. The titles are telling: When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön, an ordained Buddhist nun, and Wide Open: On Living With Purpose and Passion by Dawna Markova, described on Amazon.com as teaching "how to live with heart and mind wide open to all life's possibilities."
Taormino didn't know she was going to become a pornographer. She went to Wesleyan University where she majored in American Studies. She had good grades and great recommendations. Aside from her just-average LSAT scores, her application to law school looked great—or so everyone said. "In the spring of my senior year, I got rejected from every single law school I applied to, except for two, where I was wait-listed." Her plan had jumped the rails, and that was the only plan she really had.
"A lot of critical thinking and writing was done on it, so I didn't feel like, Oh my god, if I'm a pornographer, I'm going to be objectifying women.”
Her adviser bent her ear and blew her mind with this observation: "Tristan, I don't think you want to go to law school, and I don't think you want to be a lawyer. I think you want to write about sex." She said this because Taormino's senior thesis focused on lesbian sexual identity. It was 1993, she was 22, and she didn't think writing about sex could actually be a career. "There were certainly people doing amazing work in sex, but most of them had other jobs. And there was no such thing as a sex expert. Besides Dr. Ruth."
That was then. Taormino just completed her sixth book, The Big Book of Sex Toys. She’s finished editing an erotic anthology for Cleis Press called Sometimes She Lets Me. And she's working on three new movies for Vivid, the largest adult video producer on the planet, according to Forbes. "It's hard for me to sort of stop working," Taormino says from her home in New York state's Hudson Valley. "I'm working on stopping working."
She's got no problem reconciling feminism and adult films and says that ease may be generational. "Some of the very first porn that I saw was feminist porn," she says. "I grew up when the sex wars of the '80s were already over, and there were already these voices within feminism that said not all porn is bad, and porn can actually be a good thing.” If Taormino was born 10 or 15 years earlier, she estimates, the idea of feminist porn would be a lot harder to grapple with. "A lot of critical thinking and writing was done on it, so I didn't feel like, Oh my god, if I'm a pornographer, I'm going to be objectifying women.”
Her first book was The Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Women, published by Cleis Press. When it came out, she started teaching a workshop based on the guide at stores and conferences. Participants often asked when the video was coming out. Most of the sex-ed videos Taormino remembers seeing at that point, "they were certainly educational." She knew she could do it better. "I wanted my video to be instructional but also to have hardcore sex in it and be really hot." She produced it herself, got friends to work for free and borrowed equipment. But she wanted to hit the mainstream and so shopped the project to the big adult studios. And just like with law school, all of them turned her down. Except John Stagliano of Evil Angel production company. "I felt like although a lot of good stuff had been produced, there still weren't enough female voices behind the camera, and there certainly weren't enough feminists," Taormino says.
"They've had this amazing life experience being porn performers that is unmatched by anyone else. I think they have a lot to teach us."
She says she likes working for Vivid because the company gives her complete creative control, even when push comes to shove. She hasn't been censored by Steven Hirsch, who heads the company. "He believes in me enough to see my ideas all the way through," she says. "I have this tremendous freedom there, although sometimes they sort of cock their heads like, Huh? What?" For instance, when she decided to make the Expert Guide to Oral Sex: Cunnilingus, she wanted her film to be focused entirely on that—without dissolving, as other films do, into average, heterosexual porno-intercourse.
Identifying as a feminist pornographer, she’s tinkered with the process of making a film. Her goal is to create working environments that are safe, fair, respectful and positive. She collaborates with performers on what they're going to do. "I want them to be part of the images and share a part of their sexuality—whatever part they want—with the viewer." Her sets are atypical because she wants the sex to be as organic as possible. "If I feel like the energy's there and the connection between the performers is good and they're really getting into it—but, oh my god, there's a cable in the middle of the floor—I'm just going to quietly have someone grab that out of the shot rather than stop them or try to reposition them."
The best part of her job, she says, is getting to know porn stars. A diverse crowd, porn stars have each had a different path to this profession. "They've had this amazing life experience being porn performers that is unmatched by anyone else," she says. "I think they have a lot to teach us." That's why she includes interviews in her films. "We don't, as a culture, let porn performers speak for themselves enough."
When she casts people, she asks them who they want to work with. "The focus really is on the connection and also on them doing stuff they want to do." That translates to the screen, she says, because viewers can see people are genuinely having a good time. "The pleasure is mutual, and there's a lot of female orgasms in my movies." That's different than what she calls "bad porn," which caters only to men. Still, there's no pat way to make porn appeal to women, Taormino adds. "The first thing you have to do is abandon all hope that you'll be able to speak to all women," she says. "I've spoken to thousands of women about what they want to see, what kinds of porn they like, what kinds of porn they don't like, and there is no single female viewer."
Taormino wrote a sex column in the Village Voice for nine years. She has also written a Q&A advice column for Taboo Magazine for a decade. The kinds of questions she's received have made her pretty intimate with American sexuality. "People are getting more sexually savvy and sophisticated," she says. "Just the kinds of discussions that we're having and the ways in which we're having them have definitely shifted."