How I Became a Feminist Porn Star

In 2004, I was working at a popular sex toy retailer in San Francisco. Twenty-three years old, I was a recent graduate from a state university where I had studied English Literature and flung myself head-first into the eclectic and radically open-minded culture of my adopted city. Working at Good Vibrations, I was surrounded by sexuality, from sex toys to fellow employees who were educated and articulate about sex. The shop had shelves of various kinds of porn films, available for rental and purchase. After six months, I had consumed a fair amount of porn and was used to talking about it with my colleagues and customers. Looking back on that time, I recall watching porn and thinking that I had something to offer to it. With very few exceptions, the porn I had seen felt empty, inauthentic, and not representative of my sexuality and the kind of sex I was having. I honestly thought that I could change the movies for the better.

Many women give up on porn after one or more times out of a sense of alienation, revulsion, lack of arousal, shame, or any mix of these emotions. In the large majority of porn films, "particular female aesthetics are promoted: female actors often have long hair, are thin, often Caucasian, between their teens and thirties, have breast implants and wear high heels and plenty of make-up." [1] This "ideal" of femaleness and femininity doesn't fit the broad spectrum of bodies and identities of "real" women, a disjuncture that reinforces women's alienation from pornographic images. It is not hard, given this, to see why many women, like myself, would not only not identify with women in porn but feel that they fall short by comparison. Adding body dysmorphia to all the other complicated intersections between women and pornography — including preexisting ideas about performer agency, choice, and social shame — the resulting experience could complicate a woman's interaction with porn so as to adversely affect her self-image. [2]

My engagement with porn was not one challenged by shame. I respected the women who I saw in the films and had little to no preconceived judgments about them, but I would find myself critiquing them as performers and considering what I would do differently and better. I had experienced sex in my personal life as a mostly positive, enjoyable, and liberating experience. I wanted to see that experience in the porn I was consuming. Like many female viewers, I had difficulty relating to the women in these films and their sexual presentations. Their bodies looked different from mine, and they seemed to embody a sexuality that was foreign to me, one of extreme femininity: vulnerable but hypersexual, passive but sexually desiring, ready for any sex act but without the impetus to make it happen. It seemed as if sex was happening "to" these women rather than with them or because of their choices or motivations. I didn't imagine that the actresses hated having sex, but rather that they were performing in a venue that discouraged their personal expression. I wanted to know what they looked like when they had sex in their real lives, and I wanted to see that onscreen.

In addition to mainstream porn, I was exposed to images of some of the scions of feminist pornography including Annie Sprinkle and Nina Hartley. I watched Nina Hartley's films and felt admiration for her clear and frank way of talking about sex. I loved that she was completely present and aware of herself and her presentation. The films Nina, Annie, and others made represented a sexuality that was open, honest, and without shame; they showcased sex that was fun and consensual. They had a sexual agency that I found arousing. It was the first time that I saw sex that resonated with me and that I wanted to emulate. Even with these films though, I still had issues with the bodies: the differences between theirs and mine. I couldn't relate to the curvaceous body type of Nina Hartley or Annie Sprinkle. At 5'10" and 145 pounds, I have been athletic and sinewy for most of my adult life. My breasts are small A cups, and my look is often more androgynous than girly. Like many women, I experienced the simultaneous intrigue and revulsion that can accompany pornographic film watching [3]: of being simultaneously captivated and repulsed by the performers as they embody stereotypical female "beauty" and "perfection."

While I was slowly constructing my own ideas about what porn should be, I discussed my thoughts with my sex-wise coworkers at Good Vibrations. One coworker in particular, Shine Louise Houston, was always available and interested in my thoughts on porn, as she had some pretty exciting thoughts of her own. When I talked about the kind of porn I wanted to see, she talked about the kind of porn she wanted to make. She talked with fervor about what she thought was hot and erotic and what her films would look like. Her dream was to direct sex scenes that were "authentic," a term that we discussed quite a bit. I was taken with her dream and with her enthusiasm but also the fluidity of her ideas: forward thinking, diverse, and edgy, like mine. On a work break one day, I offhandedly said that should her dream ever come to fruition, I would star in her first film. I meant it, though I doubted that I would ever have to make good on such a promise. She left her job at the sex shop soon after that conversation. Over the course of the next year, I only heard about her in passing from mutual friends. Then I got a phone call from Shine. As it turned out, during that year, she was working on manifesting the adult film empire that would ultimately change my life.

She asked me if I was ready to star in her film. She had gotten money together to finance her first movie and was I still interested? Yes, I was. And I was terribly curious. I spent the next two months preparing myself as best I could for what I imagined I would experience. To say I was nervous would be a huge understatement: when I walked in the door to the San Francisco apartment that was serving as the set, I was shaking all over. I had tweezed, primped, self-tanned and done just about everything I could to feel good naked. Though I knew I was there to be myself and give good, hot sex, I still feared that I wasn't "porn" enough and couldn't quite shake the images of toned, big-breasted bodies moaning and fucking in some impossible position on a pleather couch. I wanted people to think I was hot. I wanted to feel hot.

Luckily, Shine was great at making her performers feel comfortable. I snacked and chatted and before we began the actual scene, she and I, along with my two fellow scene-mates, blocked out what we would do and where we would do it. The two people I would be having sex with were also first timers and our collective nervousness broke the ice. By the time the actual sex began, I was chagrined to find out that it was all far less sexy than I had imagined. We started and stopped a lot. My makeup and hair wilted under the hot lights and warm, misty air — the result of so many people crammed into a little room. But, thankfully, no one expected me to give extreme fake moans. I understood that I could be as into it as I felt like being. If something didn't feel good, I could speak up and we would all move things around; no one was judging me, and everyone was as enthusiastic about what we were creating. Filming the sex was a challenge. Most "real life" sex doesn't have a camera person recording all the juicy bits, so one need not worry about the angles the camera is able to capture; there is no concern about "opening up" and making sure that a camera can fit into the tight spots. It's hard to feel like you're truly just having a sexual experience with a stranger when there are seven other people in the room and everyone is laughing about your having just kicked the main cameraman in the head. It was an "aha" moment as I realized why porn was full of so many contorted positions: the camera needed to see everything, so the rest of the bodies had to get out of the way. I have since watched the outtakes and behind the scenes from that first shoot many times. Each time, I am struck by how much hilarity there was. We, the performers, were naked, brand new to porn, and trying our very best to be sexy, yet we were angling arms and legs behind heads and up on apple boxes, feet being held off camera by a production assistant who was trying not to laugh. But that day, I felt like I was jumping headfirst into something unknown. For all my trepidation, I was, as I had hoped, authentic to my sexuality. I came away from that first experience with a positive feeling about the possibilities of pornographic performance in my life. A door had been opened, and I saw future opportunities that I found intriguing and exciting.

I don't imagine that choosing to perform in porn is right for everyone, but it turned out to be great for me. That first shoot engaged my exhibitionist streak. I liked the performance and how I felt sexually embodied and in control of my representation. It was not a manipulation and I was not duped; I chose how to be, what to show, what to do. It was as if I was sharing with the world my sexual best — those specific moments of sex when I felt good about my body and my most sexy. I had shown a woman at her most strong and confident. It felt good. My greatest hope was that some woman, somewhere, would see it and think, "She looks like she is having so much fun, I bet I could too."

Critical praise for Shine's film The Crash Pad solidified my feeling that I had done something different in the world of pornography. Though I didn't know it at the time, The Crash Pad would be lauded as the hallmark of a new kind of pornography called "feminist."

Returning to the subject of authenticity, I will begin by saying that it is a thorny but necessary topic when talking about porn. Webster's dictionary defines authentic as: "not false or copied, genuine. Entitled to acceptance or belief because of agreement with known facts or experience." When Shine and I first talked, we both believed that the majority of mainstream porn was inauthentic and not in agreement with what we knew to be true of our sexualities and the sexualities of those around us. "Authenticity" took on a somewhat mythological quality and became the Holy Grail in our vision for pornographic filmmaking: if we could achieve it, we truly would have transcended the existing constraints of the known porn world. We considered authentic porn our goal. Even now, this far into my porn career, I still reference the concept of authenticity as a sizeable part of my rationale for the porn that I make. It is a term that I use frequently to explain my position and identity as a porn performer. By situating myself inside my understanding of authenticity and explaining that to interviewers and interrogators, I also protect myself from some of the criticism that dogs other porn performers. Of course, what is "authentic" varies among individuals. When I say I'm making authentic porn, it means I prioritize my sexuality, which has allowed me a much less-criticized position than a female performer who may not have thought as much about authenticity in sexual representation.

It would be relatively easy for me to create an "us vs. them" view of porn, placing myself squarely on the intellectualized and thusly superior side, while putting other actresses and porn makers on the opposite side. Given my criticisms of mainstream porn, I could do that readily and in many instances make a case for myself, but I don't. Almost as soon as I touted myself as new and different, feminist film watchers leveled one of my very own critiques at me: they said I embodied a traditionally beautiful body type like those in mainstream porn. I am thin and Caucasian and even if inadvertently, I was perpetuating the very entrenched porn stereotype of the ideal white female form. As a woman who has always felt like the antithesis of the ultimate female beauty, that accusation made me uncomfortable but was unfortunately undeniable. When I began in the porn business, I wanted to shatter physical stereotypes, but, over time, I have realized that though I may feel non-normative, I am not that far left of the norm. Personal experience has shown me that while my "look" is not appealing to every filmmaker, it is much more accepted than women who are not white, not thin, or not conventionally attractive. It is a privilege that I have been forced to acknowledge and one that is not always easy to accept. How can I claim an alternative and marginalized position while my own body, gender presentation, and beauty aesthetic reinforce stereotypes for some viewers?

I struggle to blaze a trail for women while accepting my own whiteness and privilege. I "get" to be in porn, to raise my conceptual fist to the mainstream because I am close enough to the mainstream to even be let inside in the first place. This has been a bitter pill to swallow, but it reminds me that the deeper work of change to the representation of women in porn has to occur beyond me. It will come when we have greater inclusion of women of all body types, ages, and ethnicities in porn to counter the dominant imagery. I have attempted to demonstrate that belief and that need for change whenever possible. Part of how I create authentic images that reflect my queer sexuality is to work with people I'm attracted to — people who identify along a broad spectrum of genders, sexualities, and backgrounds. In showing what my sex looks like, I have been lucky enough to be a part of showing the sex of these individuals, who defy societal norms. Whether the porn we make together is consciously subversive or if it's solely sexy, fun, and performative, I hope it accomplishes my goals: to bring more authentic sexualities to porn, to change the images that dominate porn, and to transform what people think porn is. A large part of my body of work (more than two hundred scenes to date) reflects the spirit of that first film: queer and defiant on several fronts.

Recasting the dominant images of porn is one of the main goals defined and championed by the adult-film trailblazers who have come before me, such as the self-described feminist pornographer Tristan Taormino. She defines feminist pornography as porn that includes a fair and ethical process, safe working conditions, collaboration with performers, positive representations, three-dimensional human beings, pleasure and orgasms for everyone, not just men, responses to dominant images, and the creation of new ones. Taormino's definition includes the major themes of what constitutes a pornographic movie and to hers I would add, as my work has championed, the inclusion of different bodies and people of varying genders.

After The Crash Pad came out, Shine's work garnered a reputation for being inclusive (showing gender fluidity, people of color, BDSM) and community oriented. I was performing regularly for Shine at this point and somewhat unknowingly became a part of the growing wave of new queer and feminist porn. In late 2007, an interviewer asked me to share my thoughts on whether I thought the emerging genre was feminist. I maintained that it wasn't about feminism so much as it was about women:

I think that depends on what your definition of "feminist" is. I think a broad definition for people can be "woman focused," and is this porn that? For sure. For others though, "feminist" can have an entirely different definition and for some feminists, pornography is exploitative no matter how or for whom it's made. So it depends.

I recall feeling like I wanted to distance myself from feminism; though I was excited that the feminist porn genre, and queer porn especially, was getting press for being positive, I did not want to identify myself that way. I came from a generation of young women who learned about the feminism of the past, one that primarily did not support pornography, pornographic performance, and women being pornographers. I had taken women's studies classes where we read Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, and about the male gaze and the notion that women were powerless in the patriarchal dynamics that defined their world. I realize now that I believed that the perspectives of antiporn feminists represented the pervasive view among all feminists. I internalized their negative rhetoric, and it affected how I thought about the work I was doing. My starting assumption was that the majority of people — especially women — would look down on me for the work I did. When asked if I thought I was a feminist or if the work that I was doing was feminist, I immediately responded "no" because my paradigm was that it couldn't really be. It took a few years and getting to know many different people, both feminists and not, to change that perspective for me.

When I look at past critiques of me and of the porn I made, I realize that the memory I have of any direct criticism is, in fact, incorrect. In my mind, I was certain that out in the ether feminists were pointing fingers at me and adding my face to the canon of warped women who had been conceptually and physically enslaved by porn. Though I could not find any specific evidence of that, I still imagined that anyone who identified as feminist would be disapproving and hypercritical.

The idea of choice, in addition to authenticity, was a common theme I discussed with interviewers when they hinted at or asked directly about the stigma of my profession. "Do I feel like a lot of pornography is made with the male gaze, made to objectify women, to pervert feminine sexu ality into something that is only for men and for their consumption? Totally. . . . I am very lucky that I don't feel like I have made films or been involved in things that have only had that objective. I don't feel like I have ever been treated that way."

In this interview, I respond directly to the common critiques of porn by acknowledging that porn can oppress and objectify women, even if it does not always have that objective or result in that experience for the performer. These internalized critiques, and my anticipation of them, has influenced how I understand myself as a sex worker in the world. While I know that I feel good about what I am doing and do not experience coercion in my sex work, it can be difficult to communicate that to others. It can also be difficult to express my personal belief that a woman has the right to engage in consensual objectifying activities without shame. Looking back on interviews I gave in the past, I see how my responses have evolved. I became more aware of what kind of career I was crafting for myself in the porn industry, and I became more comfortable with articulating that to people. My initial ideals about my role in porn slowly transformed into what I actually did in porn. Porn has been a positive choice for me. It is no longer something I think will be good for me, it is something I can say has been empowering and strengthening rather than oppressive and denigrating.

I did not fully identify as a feminist until the spring of 2009. As I sat in my seat at the Feminist Porn Awards in Toronto, I felt ecstatic. I was surrounded by friends and loved ones, people in the industry whom I had worked with, people I respected deeply. I watched as my favorite producers, directors, and performers were honored with awards. I was so proud of each of them, especially Shine Louise Houston, the person who gave me my start in the industry. While I saw each of them as feminist pornographers, I had yet to place myself in the same category. I saw that what we had in common was our desire to make pornography that broke boundaries of tradition and showed authentic, empowered sex. I thought we had many things in common but I didn't think that all our commonalities existed under the heading of feminist. And then my name was called from the stage. In a highly surreal moment, I staggered on stage to receive my award for Heartthrob of the Year. It was at some point in those next few moments, on stage in front of hundreds that I came to see myself as so many others had already: I performed in feminist porn, I was a feminist porn performer. I was a feminist. In all those years of crafting my work to represent empowerment, awareness, positive female sexuality, women's choice, I was representing feminist ideals about sex. After years of believing that all or most feminists disapproved of what I was doing with my life, it took a moment on a stage beneath a bright spotlight to realize that many feminists not only approved of, but appreciated, what I was doing. It was also the moment I realized I had been setting myself up, through all my choices, to be seen that way — as a feminist porn performer.

1. Marilyn Corsianos, "Mainstream Pornography and ‘Women': Questioning Sexual Agency," Critical Sociology 33 (September 2007): 865.
2. Dawn H. Currie, "Decoding Femininity: Advertisements and Their Teenage Readers," Gender and Society 11, no. 4 (1997): 453–77; Petra M. Boynton, "‘Is That Supposed to be Sexy?' Women Discuss Women in Top Shelf Magazines," Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology 9 (1999): 91–105.
3. Virginie Despentes, King Kong Theory (New York: Feminist Press, 2010).


Dylan Ryan is a porn star, writer, social worker, performance artist, and self-professed gender and sexuality geek living in San Francisco, California. Dylan holds a double bachelors degree and recently completed a masters in social work from a Canadian university where she studied the rise of feminist pornography and the intersections between sex work and social work. A yoga instructor and amateur filmmaker in her spare time, Dylan hopes to continue her academic career and to become Dylan Ryan, PhD.

This piece is excerpted from The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure edited by Tristian Taormino, Celine Parrenas Shimizuo, Constance Penley, and Mireille Miller-Young and reprinted with permission from Feminist Press.