We Sent A Feminist To The UK's First Porn Film Festival

Photo: Lula Hyers
It’s Saturday afternoon and I’ve headed into central London to watch some porn. Most people (myself included) would rather do this from the comfort of their beds, plugging headphones in so as not to disturb housemates, and getting up for a cup of tea and a shower afterwards. But this weekend, I’m coming out: not to Soho, but to a cold and dark converted stable behind Russell Square tube station, for the inaugural London Porn Film Festival.
The festival has been a year or more in the making, but went for a quiet under-the-radar launch on purpose. Aimed at people interested in what organisers called 'queer, radical, forward-thinking ideas’, when I first got in touch they specifically asked not to be covered until afterwards. I felt a bit guilty for crashing the party.
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When I reach the Horse Hospital the temperature in central London has hit 21 degrees and I pass several already-sunburned bald heads at the pub on the corner. Inside the venue the atmosphere’s relaxed and chatty. I recognise one of the filmmakers in the row ahead, thanks to her distinctive green hair. There are only about two dozen people in the audience and my guilt subsides – apparently porn can’t compete with the lure of British summertime.
I'm attending two programmes this afternoon. First up, ‘Porn in Art in Porn’: seven shorts, two of which are British. The films go in hard, almost literally: the actor Bishop Black leads the series with Immersed, a film about dance. Footloose it ain’t. Up on the screen you can see a one-man show, in impeccable detail: the dancer’s rippling muscles, chest hair, tats. Within minutes the dance has turned into a more explosive kind of solo.
The next film, TransAction, has got sexy moments, but the ending - its protagonist angrily spraying a couple of sex workers in the face with breastmilk when she comes - makes me wonder whether I haven’t got myself in a bit deep, attending this festival.
But what follows, Blath Blossom’s Pressed Flowers, gets me back in the zone. It’s a pastel-coloured porno of two girls rolling in cut flowers to a sweet Four Tet-like electronic soundtrack. Then there’s a breathtakingly bold concept: Crystal Clear, a poem about taking someone home after a date, read over a red-lit film of a lubed-up ass and tits sliding across perspex.
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Three more after that: Insight, a gorgeous besuited man, moving not a muscle, watching a woman get herself off, and Skin, an all-girl orgy shot as if through a kaleidoscope.
The final film, Slow Dance, wins everyone over: two men, dressed in dinner jackets, are tied up cheek-to-cheek before someone pops Glenn Miller’s "Moonlight Serenade" on the record player. Who knew shibari could be so romantic? The audience makes up for its size with enthusiastic applause when the credits roll.
After the show Rude Juud, one of the organisers, explained how the Digital Economy Bill was part of the inspiration behind the event. In a matter of days, the Digital Economy Bill will go to the House of Commons for consideration. It’s the latest in a trio of new laws that threaten to shut down small pornographers in the UK and create a culture of surveillance and shame around porn use. Although it wasn’t intended to be explicitly political, LPFF was still an act of resistance.
Pandora Blake, who runs the website Dreams Of Spanking, had her website forced offline for ten months after it was targeted under the Audiovisual Media Services Regulations of 2014. (In case you didn’t catch that piece of legislation, it banned people from making porn that includes facesitting and female ejaculation. Cheers, democracy).
Before the festival Blake told me by email that the festival was vital in the current legal climate: “With laws such as the AudioVisual Media Services Regulations and the Digital Economy Bill increasing the oppression and stigma faced by porn workers, we badly need to come together and celebrate inclusivity and acceptance of gender and sexuality in the face of worsening state censorship.
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“Legislators are completely ignorant of how diverse porn can be. I hope people who attend the festival witness how joyful, celebratory, positive and political porn can be - and why we need to fight for our freedom to enjoy it if we want to.”
As the organisers explain in a comment piece they published at the weekend: “Do we think a really hot sex scene will change the world? No. But it’s not about a really hot sex scene. It’s about protecting the margins, and showing resistance.”
Photo: Via Girls Fight Club by Erika Lust
After a snatched hour in the sun, it is time for the second programme, ‘All Sex Is Political’. Highlights include a genderqueer performer having a stonking orgasm under a bath tap, Having My Cake, a Paris-set porno punctuated with smooshed macaroons, and one of Erika Lust’s fantasy films, Pansexuals, a poker game-turned-orgy.
There’s also an anarcho-punk short about fucking monuments and memorials that makes the Rhodes Must Fall campaign look like gentle bickering, counterposed by a sugary remix of clips from Disney princess films that rewrite fairytales into something a little less heteronormative (and, for Ariel, a little more orgasmic).
I have to admit that, as much as I enjoyed the two-and-a-half hours of porn I watched last Saturday, the stand-out film of the festival for me was a documentary, The 36-Year-Old Virgin.
Skyler Braeden Fox, the filmmaker, is a trans man who was brought up to believe that, within marriage, sex was a woman's obligation. Skyler identifies as a lesbian now but still fantasises about being fucked by a husband. He interviews people of all genders and sexualities about what virginity means to them, then sets up and documents his ‘first time’. I wasn't the only one in the audience moved to tears by the self-imposed pressure on Skyler to 'lose it'.
Before I went to LPFF the biggest link between porn and politics, for me, were my worries about women's rights in the porn industry. While I haven't abandoned those concerns, LPFF made me realise what a narrow (and, frankly, paternalistic) attitude I had. Porn can make feminist politics stronger and deeper. By the end of the festival I couldn’t fathom why I usually watched so much crap.
This festival made me laugh, made me cry, made me think and made me feel. And it will shock no-one if I admit, it made me knock one out on Sunday morning.
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