Why Good Porn Matters: Tristan Taormino, Oregon State University, and Sexual Empowerment
By guest blogger Keiko Lane, MFT
UPDATE (Monday, Feb. 7): In the three weeks since Oregon State University officials cancelled Tristan Taormino’s keynote speech at OSU’s “Modern Sex” Conference, the university received hundreds of calls and emails criticizing its decision. OSU students have raised funds to bring Tristan to their campus to give her original talk “Claiming Your Sexual Power” the night before the conference. Additionally, she will be appearing at the University of Oregon to give a talk entitled “My Life As a Feminist Pornographer.” Read the entire press release here.
By now, many people have heard the story and read the spin circulating through the blogosphere: In October 2010, Tristan Taormino, a sex educator, lecturer, author, editor, and pornographer, was invited by student organizers at Oregon State University to give the keynote speech at their “Modern Sex: Privilege, Culture, and Communication” conference. In January 2011, a month before the conference, Tristan was uninvited.
Administrators at OSU who cancelled Tristan’s appearance said they were concerned about controversy and jeopardizing future public funding if they used general campus funds to bring Tristan, a known pornographer, to the conference. Students who organized the conference assert that they never misrepresented the scope of Tristan’s work to the university and question her cancellation so close to the conference date.
It’s disconcerting that that several other conference speakers, including the speaker whose talk has been rescheduled as the keynote speech, have ties to porn.
While the details of this unfolding story are being written and reported about elsewhere, I want to talk about a line that pops up over and over again in the accounts that I am reading:
“Regardless of how you feel about pornography…”
This phrase is then followed by very thoughtful analysis of free speech, academic freedom, feminist sexual empowerment, and why Tristan’s other credentials more than qualify her as a keynote speaker. But I think the crucial questions embedded in Tristan’s dis-invitation are exactly about pornography, about why porn matters, and about why people are so afraid of it. Specifically, why the kind of pornography that Tristan produces matters.
I teach a class called “Queer Bodies in Psychotherapy” to graduate students studying to become psychotherapists. Often, my students tell me that their education thus far has been filled with traditional psychotherapy texts—including minimal and often outdated clinical information about sexualities and gender identities, and virtually no breadth of information about sex practices. The degree for which they are studying is the academic preparation to become Marriage and Family Therapists in the state of California. My class is an elective.
The first time I taught the class, I endeavored to create a reader and resource list that I thought would give my students the best survey of information I could find on the ranges of sex practices, sexual identities, and embodied responses to cultural oppressions of gender and sexuality; and their intersections with race, class, and other identities that have been discounted by mainstream academia and psychology.
Finally assembled, I took a look at my reader, the product of months spent culling thousands of pages of articles into an almost reasonable length for a one-semester class. It was relentlessly sexual and explicit. Out of good faith, I went to speak with my academic dean who supported me in my assertion that we cannot teach students to become therapists who are able to speak explicitly about sex and sexuality with their clients, without modeling for them in the classroom how to do just that.
Most of the text I teach to my students isn’t writing that’s coming out of the field of clinical psychology, but from queer theorists, sex educators, self-identified sex radicals, AIDS activists, and sex workers who are interrogating issues of cultural (mis)appropriations and shame. Tristan’s essays, which I have included in my course readers, often provoke some of the most honest and fruitful discussions in my classes.
And it isn’t just my students. I refer my clients to Tristan’s pornography and sex-education videos as well. Many of the clients who come to see me in my psychotherapy practice come to talk about issues of gender, sexuality, and sex practices. Many of them are survivors of sexual abuse and sexualized violence. They are searching for language and images to help them articulate their experiences, fears, and fantasies. Even most good writing about sex, consent, and sexual experience depends on theory, not the breath, skin, and bones experiences of our actual bodies.
When I suggest that they might want to watch pornography as a part of their process, and that we can talk about it in our sessions, I’m extremely cautious and selective about which filmmakers I suggest. Tristan is one of them.
I have worked with and known sex-industry performers who have worked with Tristan or have wanted to precisely because of her model of performer-driven work. Tristan is part of a small but growing group of pornography producers and directors—mostly women and trans folks—who set the gold standard for self-authorization and sexual empowerment of their actors who are often enacting for the cameras scenes that come from their own fantasy lives with partners of their own choosing.
That’s what makes Tristan’s kind of pornography, with its insistence on self-authorization and empowerment, a therapeutic tool. Because students, clients, and I can trust that the role of consent was central to the projects. Clients—especially survivors of sexual trauma—can make use of the films as tools to help them recognize their own desires and their own aversions.
Good pornography, like good sex education, is useful as a therapeutic tool not because it sets out to convince my clients that they want to do everything—or anything—they see, but because it helps to build somatic and visual vocabularies from which to make empowered choices.
Tristan’s now-cancelled talk, “Claiming Your Sexual Power,” is exactly why, for me as an academic interested in the use of theory to empower and create spaces not otherwise granted by dominant culture for students and clients, her work matters. Not theoretically, but actually. Viscerally. In a world that valorizes the domination over and discrediting of members of queer communities, women, and people of color, images and stories of empowerment are necessary.
So often my students and clients grieve because they believe their lives would have been different if they had these images and this sense of possibility and self-possession when they were younger. This is why the dis-invitation of Tristan is such a loss for the students of Oregon State University.
I must disclose that this is also personal. Tristan and I met 20 years ago as young activists in Queer Nation Los Angeles. It would still be years before drug therapies offered any hope to our HIV+ friends who were dying.
Dykes were taking over a gay men’s sex club once a month, and Queer Nation used the same sex club for a multigendered benefit. There was an ongoing fight with the LA Unified School District to make condoms available to students. Our community spent countless hours venting our frustrations about sex-education and AIDS-education campaigns that employed rhetorics of shame, that blamed queers and queer desire for our death and dying.
We wanted images and campaigns that were more complex, more cognizant of desire, and more compelling than just telling people what they couldn’t do:
Don’t fuck without a condom.
Don’t fist without gloves.
We all wondered how we could produce education based not in shame but in empowerment and endless possibility. Then we realized that we would have to make it ourselves. Tristan has spent her career doing just that.
The images we needed 20 years ago we still need. Sex and sexuality are more visible now in media and cultural production than they have been in the past. But actual conversation and instruction about sexual empowerment and sexual agency are rare. My young clients and students tell me what they have been missing.
The administrators of Oregon State University may not have known who Tristan was when they first approved her invitation, but I suspect that the students of OSU knew exactly who they were inviting and exactly what they are missing.