Unless you count teenage sleepovers, or people sitting on opposite sides of an otherwise empty red-light cinema, watching porn isn’t normally a communal activity. So why, when Club Des Femmes screened Dirty Diaries (2009) – a collection of porn shorts – during the London Short Film Festival, were people queuing round the block of the Horse Hospital to get in on returns? All kinds of people too: men in trendy specs with their heads held high, bequiffed women holding hands, a Horse Hospital regular on his first date with a new girlfriend – and not one filthy mac in sight.
It could be down to the fact that Times columnist and neo-feminist Caitlin Moran had tweeted about it to her 185,000-odd followers on Twitter. She’s broached the topic of feminist-friendly porn in her best-selling book How to Be a Woman, in which she calls on feminists to make their own porn rather than attempt to ban it. ‘Something that shows sex as something that two people do together,’ suggests Moran, ‘rather than a thing that just happens to a woman when she has to make rent. Something in which – to put it simply – everyone comes.’
Dirty Diaries is inspired by the same school of thought. In fact, the short film that initiated the collection is called Come Together, and is made up of director Mia Emberg and several other women individually filming themselves as they masturbate. It was first shown during the Stockholm International Film Festival and, as Club Des Femmes co-founder Selina Robertson explained before the screening, it shocked certain – primarily male – viewers, who complained about the women not being attractive enough.
This gave Emberg an idea: why not allow more women to redefine porn? With funding from the Swedish Film Institute, she asked other filmmakers to write, star in and direct their own porn films. The best of these form Dirty Diaries, a thrilling bag of sexual diversity that tells us almost as much about the difference between mainstream and feminist views on sex as it does about the difference between government film funding in the UK and that in Sweden.
Opening short Skin is a poetic depiction of two bodies clad in skin-coloured bodysuits making love, filmed in close-up by an observer and set – as are many of the others – to the music of Fever Ray. As the petting gets heavier, scissors are taken to the clothes on the nearly neutered figures to reveal body parts bit by bit. The sex between the man and the woman is tender, reciprocal and, when the mouths are eventually revealed, they are smiling.
More smiles in Night Vision, in which a woman takes matters into her own hand by reaching her climax with a vibrator, while being watched by her male lover. The film ends just as she breaks out into a wide post-coital grin. It’s a cheeky in-your-face to standard porn, where the ‘money shot’ is the man’s domain.
Body Contact subverts even more fixtures of mainstream porn. A woman and a co-conspirator behind the camera seek a man on an internet hook-up site and, after sizing up his genitals on the webcam, invite him over for sex. When he arrives, he’s dismayed to find another woman there to film the encounter and nervously admires the view out of the window before being coaxed into submission. The sex is comical, as the man works himself into an over-enthusiastic frenzy while the woman looks bored and smiles conspiratorially at the camera. It’s feigned, of course, but it feels unnecessarily mean: do two wrongs make a right?
More imaginative is Flasher Girl on Tour, in which a cropped-haired girl treats the audience to an excerpt of her ‘travel diary’ as she visits Paris, indulging in her fetish of exposing herself in public. Bashing down what she declares to be ‘the exclusive right for men to be disgusting in public’, she masturbates in a taxi, flashes out of her hotel room window, and straddles the gushing waters of a public fountain. It’s not sexy. It’s hilarious.
But it seemed that not many people turned up at the screening to be titillated. ‘I’m not here to be aroused,’ says Lucy, an academic. ‘It’s more about being part of a community. I like being in a room with lots of lesbians, bi-women and queer women, and having a good time. In fact, I know lesbian and dyke women who watch male heterosexual porn because they prefer it to lesbian porn.’
‘The films were all really refreshing,’ added Caroline, who specialises in sexuality, spirituality and sex activism. ‘A lot of porn seems contrived. People are really aware they’re being porn stars. This is really fresh.’
So what can mainstream porn learn from the collection Emberg has put together? Robertson puts it well: ‘That diversity, humour and horny real women are as sexy as hell.’