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The palette of porn

A new anthology challenges the preconception of lesbian pornography

SELF-IDENTIFIED FEMMES: Amber Dawn (right) and Trish Kelly's new anthology of lesbian erotica, With a Rough Tongue: Femmes Write Porn, is transgressive and empowering.

The scene: a queer friend and I were at a dirty book launch a few years back. Woman after woman got on-stage to parlay their idea of porn. Analogies were everywhere and boredom was rising fast. A new reader hit the stage and spent the next five minutes equating her girlfriend’s orgasm to a waterfall. The waves crashed. Her accelerated breathing was the trees. Good god, it was awful.

The evening’s saving grace? The memory of us fighting a losing battle to keep our hilarity quelled. Ultimately, the only thing that went home wet that night were our cheeks, soaked with the tears of stifled laughter.

Present day: the 21st century is upon us, and queer sexual evolution is in full force. The binary gender scale is finally understood to be heavily flawed. Queer femmes are now seen as queer equals and sex-from vanilla to BDSM-no longer needs to be discussed in hushed tones, knee deep in cheesy allegory.

Enter Amber Dawn and Trish Kelly: two self-identified femmes who have spent the better part of the last decade using their minds, bodies and activist tendencies to challenge people to re-think the body politic.

It is only appropriate then that these two writers have gotten together to create a book that will threaten some and bring pleasure to many. With A Rough Tongue: Femmes Write Porn is described in their promotional material as an anthology of “no holds barred queer sex tales that reinvent lesbian erotica in ways that are transgressive and empowering,” and that is exactly what it is.

Both women come from a history of being both fascinated and repulsed by porn. Growing up with a sex-positive mother, performance artist/writer Amber Dawn admits that her schooling started at a young age. “My first experience came from a mother who was never into shaming me. She made me aware that adult people look at porn and there’s a whole plethora of options there. My second happened when I knew that I needed to do something sex-radical with my life.

Doing my training at a women’s collective, one of the workshops was on anti-pornography. I just felt like I didn’t agree with what was being said. There needed to be a way to be pro-woman and not anti-porn. My third experience was producing porn that I was 100 per cent in control of, from conception to production. That started with File This.”

The File This Cabaret, recalls Amber Dawn, “started in 1997 and it was a sex show, but it wasn’t necessarily designed to be 100 per cent titillating. Some performances were very challenging, like triumphing over pain or survivors talking about their sexual selves and healing. Also, other kinds of messy, dirty kink.”

Trish Kelly-former Riot Grrrl and creator of more than 20 chapbooks and ‘zines-has documented her evolution from disgust to porn positivity very publicly in her writing. “My mom was a survivor and didn’t talk about things that were sexual,” she says. “That was too taboo to even discuss in our house. My first positive experience with porn was Amber Dawn’s cabarets…people being really honest about their lives, continuing that tradition of testimony and brutal honesty…only realizing afterwards ‘this is porn?’ It was very organic.”

As enjoyable as the stories are in the book-and there are some great tales within-two of the most compelling and candid moments come even before chapter one.

Both authors have consistently been very public about speaking their tough truths, and their deeply personal introductions are brave insights into their own world and how they found empowerment through pornography.

In Trish’s introduction she writes profoundly, “I am a survivor, but I don’t want to be treated like a widow at her husband’s funeral.”

“When I started reading women’s erotica,” recalls Trish, “it was very apologetic about the idea of having desire; about desire being urgent and immediate. I’ve worked so hard to be honest with myself and my community that it needs to extend to the literature that I read and write. I don’t want to be treated with kid gloves. There’s been some pretty harsh stuff that has happened in my life, but that doesn’t mean I can’t access those primal feelings.”

Amber Dawn’s ‘aha’ moment came when the ex-sex trade worker found a picture of herself on the Internet. The explicit shot was not her concern as much as the caption below it. It read: “I’m a dumb slut. I want to be filled with your cum.”

“This,” she then admits in the book, “is the moment I realized the cause of all my uneasiness with the majority of pornography: it does not reflect who I am.”

When asked how she defines herself, the identity of ‘femme’ rates high in her self-description.

“Through my life I’ve totally been at odds with my gender being a woman because my experience has been really tough,” she says. ‘Sometimes being a woman has been an out-and-out curse. It feels more empowering to say ‘I’m femme’ because I chose it for myself. I consider myself a sort of femme aggressive, I don’t handle that lightly or delicately.”

Deciding to make their own porn by their own rules was extremely liberating for both women. As Amber Dawn explains it, “here you see strong female protagonists, you see drag queens, you see BDSM in a safe, consensual kind of way. That’s the great thing about our book.”

The collection of contributors is a stellar lineup of shit-disturbers, from Nalo Hopkinson (The Salt Roads) to Anna Camilleri (I Am a Red Dress), Cookie LaWhore, Ducky Doolittle, Suki Lee and more.

Tales run the gamut from topping and bottoming to sex work and beyond. What you won’t you read? The sound of allegoric waterfalls.

“When I’m honest with myself,” admits Trish, “I want to see graphic depictions of sex, because that’s what I like. It doesn’t mean that my fantasies aren’t about people being self-determined and in control of their lives. Those aren’t opposing ideas to me, I think that we can celebrate our choices and have graphic sexual depictions at the same time.”

Amber Dawn agrees. “I’m not ever going to be free of the years of sex work. It’s not just ‘done deal I don’t even remember it.’ I might as well turn it into something positive, something that is going to be dictated by me and not the men who paid me. It has made me an exhibitionist, unafraid to speak candidly about sex, and certainly opened my eyes to a number of different kinks. Now I can bring it to the people I want to bring it to, rather than the just people who could afford it.”