Inside Her Sex. Directed by Sheona McDonald. Vancouver: Dimestore Productions, 2014. 69 minutes.
Pornland: How the Porn Industry Has Hijacked Our Sexuality. Written by Gail Dines Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation. 35 minutes.
Sexual subjectivity is a crucial component of the feminist curriculum. Patriarchy has for centuries silenced, erased, and marginalized the sexual lives, sexual health, and sexual agency of women. Feminist scholars such as Deborah Tolman and Amy Schalet have shown us the importance of examining women’s and girls’ experiences with their own sexual subjectivity—that is, how they come to understand, experience, and enjoy their own erotic desires.1 As educators in a feminist classroom it is important that we continue to ask our students to critically think about the social construction of sexual subjectivity. Are we aware of our own desires? Do we have a language to talk about them? And most importantly, how is the way we act on or do not act on our desires shaped by hegemonic gendered discourses? Both the films Inside Her Sex and Pornland: How the Porn Industry Has Hijacked Our Sexuality grapple with these questions and are potentially good resources for instructors discussing sexual subjectivity.
Inside Her Sex is a documentary that explores sexual subjectivity from the perspectives of three white women: Candice, Elle, and Samantha. The emphasis in this film is how female sexuality comes to be seen as shameful. Although lengthy for the classroom, this film is a good springboard for discussion about the social construction of desire. Specifically, it examines how culture shapes our erotic habitus, particularly in ways that thwart women’s sexual pleasure, agency, and empowerment. In addition, the film focuses on the sharing of “shame stories” or occasions when women have been shamed for their sexual desire; this is compelling and has the potential to resonate with and empower students. Moreover, the narrators’ honesty highlights the importance of a pro-sex feminist perspective for achieving sexual satisfaction and pleasure.
However, this film is not ideal for those whose pedagogy is based in intersectional feminism. The film is narrated by three white women, and the entire cultural repository used to frame the film’s analysis consists almost entirely of visual imagery of white women. Therefore, if presented critically alongside a body of feminist literature from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, this film could be used to highlight the longstanding critiques of liberal feminism and raise important questions about sexual subjectivity. For example, an instructor could assign classic texts in Black feminism such as: Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism; All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave; Words of Fire: An Anthology of African American Feminist Thought, and Black Feminist Thought.2 Any of these books would provide a critical framework through which to analyze the film.
Pornland also focuses on sexual subjectivity, but does so from a much different perspective than Inside Her Sex. Instead of a pro-sex feminist stance, Pornland features an engaging lecture by Gail Dines, a self-proclaimed antiporn feminist. Dines discusses the porn industry and links its development with capitalism, monopoly capital, and corporatization, which produces what Dines calls “porn culture.” From her perspective, due in part to the growth of the internet and the interests of capitalists, porn is now more accessible, affordable, and anonymous than ever. According to Dines, this is a predatory industry that financially thrives from the debasement and dehumanization of women. In order to support her argument, she focuses on gonzo pornography, a genre that depicts aggressive sex acts such as a women performing oral sex and gagging until vomiting. Usually, in gonzo porn while receiving oral sex the male performer holds and pushes the women’s head, all while calling her names such as whore. Dines argues that gonzo porn is now mainstream and speculates about its effects on young men.
Dines’s analyses around capitalism, agglomeration of industry more broadly, and corporatization were thought-provoking and astute, and are important for feminist curriculums that attend to the overlapping systems of patriarchy and capitalism. However, there were several issues with this film that might be significant problems for some feminist instructors. First, while Dines does spend a few minutes around issues of race in interracial porn and the fetishization of Latina and Asian women, this analysis, although not as absent as it was in Inside Her Sex, will likely also fall short for teachers invested in intersectional feminism. Second, Dines’s lecture and the selections of imagery seemed designed for shock value, which could have a place in some classrooms, but educators looking for a documentary on pornography that is buttressed by empirically sound cultural analysis will be disappointed by this film. Third, her analysis focuses entirely on how the ostensible prevalence of gonzo pornography on the internet acts in the service of hegemonic masculinity—that is, it exists as a predatory force shaping a new era of toxic masculinity. This line of argumentation is useful for courses in masculinities, but her focus here also depicts women as passive victims of an industry obsessed with making profits. Painting all porn with a big brush and in broad strokes, Dines does not acknowledge that women may enjoy any of the sex acts she describes. While I have not hid my disagreement with Dines’s antipornography stance and calls for censorship, I do think that this documentary would set up great critical conversation if read alongside the feminist literature on the sex wars.3 Pornland, given its contemporary focus on internet porn, revives a classic debate and would be an intriguing way in which to revisit those debates.
Despite any criticisms offered here, both Inside Her Sex and Pornland are engaging films that, if strategically placed in the curriculum alongside critical feminist texts, would be valuable for a range of courses in women’s studies, LGBTQ studies, gender studies, sociology, cultural anthropology, and cultural studies.
1 Deborah L. Tolman, “Doing Desire: Adolescent Girls' Struggles for/with Sexuality,” Gender and Society 8, no. 3 (1994): 324-42; Amy Schalet, “Sexual Subjectivity Revisited: The Significance of Relationships in Dutch and American Girls' Experiences of Sexuality,” Gender and Society 24, no. 3 (2010): 304-29.
2 bell hooks, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (New York: Routledge,  2015); Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, eds., All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies (New York: The Feminist Press, 1982); Angela Y. Davis, Women, Race, and Class (New York: Vintage, 1983); Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990); Beverly Guy-Sheftall, ed., Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought (New York: New Press, 1995)
3 See, for example, Andrea Dworkin, Pornography: Men Possessing Women (New York: Perigree, 1981); Ellen Willis, “Toward a Feminist Sexual Revolution,” Social Text 6 (1982): 3-21; Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon, Pornography and Civil Rights: A New Day for Women’s Equality (Minneapolis: Organizing against Pornography, 1988); Carol Vance, ed. Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality (London: Pandora, 1992); and Gayle Rubin, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” in Pleasure and Danger, ed. Carol Vance, 267-319.