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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Sea Breezes Carry Unhealthy Whiff of Ozone

Bracing seaside air may not be so healthy after all. The mix of sea salt, ship fumes and city smoke leads to a chemical reaction that encourages the formation of ozone smog.

A team led by James Roberts, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, has developed a new mass spectrometer capable of measuring nitryl chloride (ClNO2) – a chemical that encourages the formation of ozone.

This compound is created when nitrogen oxides – from ship exhausts and city smoke – mix with aerosol particles containing chloride, such as sea salt spray. Until recently there was no way of measuring nitryl chloride, so nobody knew how much was floating around.

Cruising along the south-east coast of the US, Roberts and his colleagues recorded unexpectedly high levels of nitryl chloride near the cities of Houston and Miami.

We saw nitryl chloride levels over one part per billion on several occasions, more than 20 times greater than previous estimates from numerical models," says Roberts.

Night-time nitryl

The highest levels of nitryl chloride occurred at night, when nitrogen oxides – from ship exhaust plumes and industrial pollution – mixed with chlorine from sea salt spray. During the day the action of sunlight on nitryl chloride breaks it down into chlorine atoms and nitrogen dioxide.

These reactive chlorine atoms play a key role in encouraging ozone to form. In the lower atmosphere ozone is a major pollutant, causing respiratory problems and increasing human mortality rates.

"Such chemistry could occur in any urban coastal regions, potentially leading to a globally significant effect," says Lucy Carpenter, an atmospheric chemist at the University of York, UK.

Roberts suggests that areas at risk are likely to include southern California and the eastern seaboard of the US, much of the Mediterranean region and large parts of southern Asia. But as yet it is hard to judge how widespread the pollution is.

"Extrapolating the results to the global scale is problematic. It is possible, if not likely, that the overall importance of nitryl chloride is limited to heavily polluted conditions relatively close to major nitrogen oxide sources, such as those investigated in this study," says Bill Keene, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Virginia.

But even if the problem is largely confined to industrial ports, that doesn't mean it should be ignored.

"These results reinforce the need to control nitrogen oxide emissions to the greatest reasonable extent," says Alex Pszenny, from the University of New Hampshire.

Original here

4 get cancer from teen’s donated organs

GARDEN CITY, N.Y. - Alex Koehne had a love for life, and always wanted to help people.

So when his parents were told that their 15-year-old son was dying of bacterial meningitis, the couple didn't hesitate in donating his organs to desperately ill transplant recipients.

"I immediately said, 'Let's do it'," Jim Koehne recalled. "We both thought it was a great idea. This is who Alex was."

A year later, their dream that Alex's spirit might somehow live on has become a nightmare.

Autopsy discovery
It turned out that Alex did not die of bacterial meningitis, but rather a rare form of lymphoma that wasn't found until his autopsy, and apparently spread to the organ recipients. The Long Island couple was told that two of the recipients have died, and two others had the donor kidneys removed and are getting cancer treatment.

The revelation has led two hospitals to revise transplant procedures, although the state Health Department found that no one was to blame. Experts say the possibility of getting cancer from an organ donor is extremely rare: Only 64 cases have been identified in a national study of 230,000 cases, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing.

"A 15-year-old boy's organs are a gift from the Almighty," said transplant surgeon Lewis Teperman, noting the majority of organ donors are much older than Alex. "Usually the organs from a 15-year-old are perfect. In this case, they weren't."

Teperman is the director of transplantation at New York University Medical Center, where two of the transplants were done and lead author of a report on the case.

Last March, Alex was taken to Stony Brook University Hospital on Long Island after treatment at another hospital for nausea, vomiting, severe back and neck pain, seizures and double vision. Doctors told his parents they suspected he had bacterial meningitis — an infection of the fluid surrounding the spinal cord and brain — although tests didn't reveal what bacteria caused it.

He was treated with antibiotics but died on March 30.

The Koehnes requested an autopsy. They were told a month later that Alex had actually died from a rare form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a blood cancer which affects fewer than 1,500 patients in the U.S. annually.

"Our jaws dropped," Jim Koehne recalled. "We walked out of there crying."

Jim and Lisa Koehne (pronounced KAY-na) later learned that a 52-year-old man died of the same rare lymphoma about four months after receiving Alex's liver. The couple said they were also told a 36-year-old woman who received Alex's pancreas also developed lymphoma and died.

Two patients who received the kidneys are undergoing cancer treatment and are faring well, according to the report in the January issue of the American Journal of Transplantation.

All four recipients were notified immediately of the autopsy results and got chemotherapy, the report said. None have been publicly identified.

The transplants were done at Stony Brook, NYU Medical Center and the University of Minnesota, according to Newsday, which first reported on the case.

The report's authors noted a diagnosis of bacterial meningitis does not preclude donating organs because the recipients can be given antibiotics to prevent infection, but they concluded "a more thorough evaluation of the donor" should be done when there is any doubt.

"Tumors, especially lymphoma, can masquerade as other causes of death, and may be missed in potential donors," they wrote.

Teperman, who was not involved in the case, said the review did not fault anyone who made the incorrect diagnosis.

Rare situation
"No one was able to say they could have figured out that this diagnosis was lymphoma," he said. "We are recommending that if the reported case is bacterial meningitis, maybe wait and get more cultures, possibly don't take the organs."

But, he added, this case is so rare that it would have been difficult for anyone to predict what might have happened, and that physicians acted in good faith in trying to harvest organs for desperately ill recipients.

NYU and Minnesota now follow the recommendation for additional tests for bacterial meningitis.

Stony Brook officials said they followed organ donor network guidelines, but cited federal privacy laws in declining to specifically discuss the Koehne case.

A review by the state Health Department "did not find flaws in policies, procedures and actions at Stony Brook" involving Alex's case, said agency spokeswoman Claudia Hutton.

The New York Organ Donor Network, which coordinated the transplants, issued a statement of sympathy for the family. The network pointed out that 22,000 patients received life-saving organ transplants in the U.S. in 2007, and another 6,411 patients died while awaiting organ donations.

The Koehnes have not sued, although their attorney, Edward Burke, said they are considering all legal options.

At 5-foot-11, Alex was already as tall as his father. He was in the church youth ministry and was a lineman for the East Hampton High Bonackers junior varsity team.

"He loved football," his dad recalled. "He would watch ESPN every morning and then come downstairs and tell me all about it."

The Koehnes have started a foundation to fund cancer research, which is receiving strong community support.

"Alex had more friends than we knew," his father said.

Despite the outcome, he and his wife believe organ donors save lives, and have no regrets about their decision.

"We would absolutely, positively do it again," Jim Koehne said. "I haven't done it yet, but I am definitely going to sign up myself."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Original here

Sex and Financial Risk Linked in Brain


WASHINGTON (AP) -- A new brain-scan study may help explain what's going on in the minds of financial titans when they take risky monetary gambles - sex. When young men were shown erotic pictures, they were more likely to make a larger financial gamble than if they were shown a picture of something scary, such a snake, or something neutral, such as a stapler, university researchers reported.

The arousing pictures lit up the same part of the brain that lights up when financial risks are taken.

"You have a need in an evolutionary sense for both money and women. They trigger the same brain area," said Camelia Kuhnen, a Northwestern University finance professor who conducted the study with a Stanford University psychologist.

Their research appears in the current edition of the peer-reviewed journal NeuroReport.

The study only involved 15 heterosexual young men at Stanford University. It focused on the sex and money hub, the V-shaped nucleus accumbens, which sits near the base of the brain and plays a central role in what you experience as pleasure.

When that hub was activated by the erotic images, the men were far more likely to bet high on a random chance game that would earn them either a dollar or a dime. Each man made more than 50 gambles under brain scans.

Stanford psychologist Brian Knutson, a lead author of the study, says it's all about the power of emotion and arousal and our financial decisions. The trigger doesn't have to be sex - it could be chocolate or a winning lottery ticket.

"It didn't matter if the sexy woman didn't tell you anything about the odds of winning a roulette game," Knutson said. "What really matters is that the sexy woman is having an emotional impact. That bleeds over into your financial decisions."

Kuhnen said the same link could hold true for women, but they didn't test it because it is more difficult to find an erotic image that would appeal to many different heterosexual women compared to heterosexual men.

The link between sex and greed goes back hundreds of thousands of years, to men's evolutionary role as provider or resource gatherer to attract women, said Kevin McCabe, professor of economics, law and neuroscience at George Mason University, who wasn't part of the study.

"Risk-taking is a natural way of increasing your relative success, but, of course, there's a downside to it, what we're seeing right now in the economy," McCabe said.

The results of the study jibe with the real life on the trading floor, said Phil Flynn, a former Chicago commodities floor trader and current analyst at Alaron Trading Corp.

"I'm not shocked that it may be part of the deal," Flynn said Friday. "When you talk about all the euphemisms for trading (on the floor), they can be used for sex as well."

("Massaging the market" and "hardcore" were about the cleanest that he and his colleagues could come up with.)

The study conforms with recent research that indicates men shown a pornographic movie were more likely to make riskier sexual decisions. Another suggests straight men think less about their financial future after being shown pictures of pretty women.

One still-to-be-published study at Harvard University found a link between higher testosterone levels and financial risk-taking.

But the study conducted at Stanford, funded by the National Institutes of Health, went deeper, using functional magnetic resonance imaging machines. It's part of a new but growing field called neuroeconomics that attempts to take the hard-wired science of brain biology and mix it with the softer sciences of psychology and economics to figure out why we make the financial decisions we do.

An earlier study by the same team found that the brain's reward area lit up at about the same time as risky decision-making.

The erotic pictures experiment was designed to find which was the cause and which was the effect. The answer: Lighting up the reward area, in this case with soft-core pictures, caused the risk-taking, Kuhnen said.

"The more activation there you have, the more prone you are to taking more risk," Kuhnen said. "It could be a feedback loop."

The flip side was that the photos of snakes and spiders activated the portion of the brain often associated with pain, fear and anger. And those people were more likely to bet low.

This all makes sense to Harvard economist Terry Burnham, author of the book "Mean Genes." Burnham said it could be all summed up in a famous line from the movie "Scarface."

"In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women."

Original here

Fast food, German-style


Dining out at Germany's fully automated "robot" restaurant

By Steve Rosenberg
BBC News, Nuremberg

Germany likes to call itself the "Land of Ideas" - and over the centuries it has certainly had plenty of them. It was Germans who invented the aspirin, the airship, the printing press and the diesel engine.

But Germany has surely never produced anything quite as weird as the automated restaurant.

I say "restaurant" - but it actually looks more like a rollercoaster, with long metal tracks criss-crossing the dining area.

The tracks run all the way from the kitchen, high up in the roof, down to the tables, twisting and turning as they go. And down the tracks - in little pots with wheels fixed to the bottom - speeds food.

Supersonic sausages, high-pace pancakes and wine bottles whizzing down to the customers' tables with the help of good old gravity. One pot is spiralling down so fast, it looks like an Olympic bobsleigh (but it's only Bratwurst).

I wanted to come up with a complete new restaurant system
Michael Mack, restaurant owner

What's more, at the 's Baggers restaurant in Nuremberg, you don't need waiters to order food. Customers use touch-screen TVs to browse the menu and choose their meal.

You can even use the computers to send e-mails and text messages while you wait for the food to be cooked. But all this may not appeal to those who like traditional waiter service.

Meals on wheels

Up in the kitchen, it is man, not machine, that makes the food. They haven't found a way of automating the chef, just yet.

Everything is prepared from fresh. When it is ready, the meal is put in a pot and given a sticker and a colour to match the customer's seat.

Then it is put on the rails and despatched downhill to the correct table. Manna from heaven, German-style.

The restaurant is the brainchild of local businessman Michael Mack.

"I wanted to come up with a complete new restaurant system," Michael tells me, "one that would be more efficient and more comfortable".

Replacing waiters with helter-skelters and computers is fun for the customers. It also makes financial sense for the restaurant.

Food comes down from the kitchen
A plate of food whizzes down from the kitchen

"You can save labour costs," explains restaurant spokesperson Kyra Mueller-Siecheneder.

"You don't need the waiters to run to the customers, take the orders, run to the kitchen and back to the guests."

The restaurant has not completely done away with the human touch. There are still some staff on hand to explain to rather bemused customers how to use the technology.

But what do the punters here think? Do Germans really have the appetite for automated mealtimes?

"It's another art for eating. I like it!" one man raves.

"It's more for young people than old people," a woman tells me. "My mother was here yesterday and she needs my son's help to order."

Watching all this food raining down on the restaurant makes me ravenous. I decide that it is my turn to test the system. I order steak and salad on the computer and wait for it to appear. A few minutes later, a pot glides down to my table with my "fast food" - and it is delicious.

As I finish the meal and prepare to leave, one final thought crosses my mind. An automated meal doesn't only save the restaurant money, but the customer, too.

After all, in a restaurant without waiters, there is no need to leave a tip...

Original here

From Lab to Lunch: Chemicals They Call Food


The other day I was snacking on some bright orange “nacho” flavored tortilla chips when I decided to do something very stupid. I flipped the bag over and read the ingredient list. Given the color, I wasn’t expecting to find nature, distilled, but the double-digit list of ingredients, many of which I hadn’t seen since working in a lab, was still disconcerting. In fact, some of the chemicals were the same ones that drove me out of the lab. (You can only read “extreme neurotoxin” and “mutagenic” so many times before pondering a career change.). What were they doing in my chips?

A tortilla chip seems so simple (corn, oil, salt) but the intersection of synthetic chemistry and food manufacturing has taken us far away from simple and much closer to complex. Instead of nacho cheese, we eat synthesized substances meant to approximate the flavor or texture of cheese, no milk products involved. Preservation, emulsification, hydrogenation, distillation, and esterification has resulted in some good things (like reduced spoilage and food borne diseases), but has also resulted in some questionable food additives like the compounds below.

I Can’t Believe It’s Not—Diacetyl!
Diacetyl is the chemical that gives microwave popcorn that delicious buttery flavor without the use of any butter. Unfortunately, extensive exposure to diacetyl can lead to a serious, irreversible, and rare condition known as bronchiolitis obliterans. First seen in workers at a microwave popcorn packaging plant, the condition is commonly known as “popcorn lung.” One consumer (who, somewhat freakishly, ate around four bags of microwaved popcorn a day) has developed the disease, and researchers recently discovered that small amounts of diacetyl can cause lung and airway damage in mice.

The Alternative? OSHA didn’t do crap to protect workers, but lawsuits and negative publicity scared some manufacturers into removing the compound from their packaged kernels. However, diacetyl abounds in packaged foods with fake butter flavor, often under the guise of “natural and artificial flavoring.” As for popcorn, pop your own and use the real golden stuff. Butter=good; popcorn lung=bad.


Would You Like Diet or Regular Benzene?

Benzene is an industrial solvent and a known carcinogen, so food companies generally try to keep it out of their products. However, two chemicals found in soda, sodium benzoate (a preservative) and ascorbic acid (vitamin C), can react to form benzene, especially in the presence of heat or light. In 2007, Coca-Cola and Pepsi agreed to settle lawsuits brought against them after benzene was detected in their products. The suit alleged that Pepsi’s Diet Wild Cherry drink had benzene levels nearly four times the maximum level set by the Environmental Protection Agency for drinking water. Oopsy. Both companies agreed to reformulate; however, thousands of soft drinks containing benzoate and citric acids are still on the market.

The Alternative? Probably most Coke and Pepsi products are “safe” (who knows what’ll turn up next!), but it’s a good idea to check the label.


Gone Fishin’—For Silly Puddy

The sticky texture of Silly Puddy is due, in part, to a widely used silicone-based polymer called polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS). In addition to Silly Puddy, it is also found in caulks, adhesives, cosmetics, silicone grease, knuckle replacements, silicone breast implants, and … in McDonald’s Fish Filet Patties. They add it as an “antifoaming agent.” I had to look this one up (why is the fish foaming?) and as it turns out, foam, produced when vats of liquids are mixed or agitated, is a big problem for large scale food manufacturers. Lots of foam means frying vats can’t be filled to capacity, meaning fast food restaurants can’t fry as many fish (potatoes, apple crisps, whatever) as mechanically possible. Hence the need for silicone oils like PDMS.

The Alternative? The FDA allows up to ten parts per million of anti-foaming agents to be used in food products; they’re found in many processed foods. Though not harmful at these levels, their use does increase the amount of acrylamide (a naturally occurring but nasty chemical) that is formed during frying.

Ahhh, Olestra
Only in America would an indigestible molecule that inhibits the absorption of vitamins and minerals, causes abdominal cramping, loose stools, and gas take in over $400 million in its first year. Only in America would a chemical most closely associated with two words—anal leakage—still have a chance in the food market. (Saw it yesterday in a can of Pringles Light, giving new meaning to the “once you pop, you can’t stop” slogan.) Interestingly, Olestra was first filed with the FDA as a drug, not a food product. What a tangled web we weave…

The Alternative? Lick some raw chicken to get your anal leakage fix.


Too Sweet to Be True

Artificial sweeteners are generally considered safe (save for saccharin, which has that pesky “has been shown to cause cancer in lab rats” warning). However, two studies indicate they may not exactly be as guilt-free as once imagined.

The first study showed that, compared with those who drank no soda, people who consumed one or more sodas a day—diet or regular—had a 50 percent higher risk of metabolic syndrome, a group of risk factors characterized by excessive abdominal fat, high blood pressure, and high glucose. Soda companies balked—how can diet beverages cause these things when they contain no calories? Logic would side with them, except for study number two, done in rats. It showed that rats fed with foods containing artificial sweeteners were more likely to overeat compared with those rats fed food containing real sugar. Reason? Sugar triggers our innate system to recognize sweet calories and restrict further food consumption; fake chemicals don’t trigger the “eat less” mechanism.

The Alternative? Calorie free sodas don’t add on weight, excess food does. However, if you’re drinking lots of diet soda and still loosening up the belt, you may want to rethink the diet approach. (Also, see benzene above.)


Hydrogenation Station

Oils are liquid at room temperature, while fats, like butter and lard, are solid. One way to make vegetable oil into a semi-solid compound, perfect for use in long-lifed packaged foods, is to hydrogenate it. Partial hydrogenation gets rid of some of the good unsaturated fats and also creates trans fats, the black sheep of the fat world, thought to be more deleterious to the old ticker than lard.

The Alternative? Bad press and labeling requirements have caused many food companies to remove trans fats from their products; check labels. (Kraft Fat Free Singles, for instance, contain no saturated fat, but do contain partially hydrogenated oils.) Regular, unsaturated vegetable oil is the perfect alternative for frying, yet restaurants can still use the partially hydrogenated stuff, unless the FDA, which still labels the oil as “generally recognized as safe,” steps up and bans it.


Butylated Hydroxyanisol (BHA)

BHA is an antioxidant that prevents fats and oils from spoiling. BHA is added to packaged foods, baked goods, some cereals, and meats as a preservative. It has been found to cause cancer in laboratory rodents; however, it causes cancer in an organ that humans don’t have, so it’s hard to translate the research into human populations. The National Toxicology Program states that BHA is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen based on sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals.” Funny, it’s still in our food chain.

The Alternative? Check labels and (if this hasn’t already become clear) avoid packaged foods that have a shelf life lasting longer than the average tenure of a Supreme Court Justice.


As with most chemicals, dose makes the poison; small amounts of the above chemicals ain’t going to kill you (at least according to the FDA). But neither would eating a piece of real cheese.

Original here

16 Secrets the Restaurant Industry Doesn't Want You to Know

We scrambled behind the counters, dug under the drive-thrus, and plunged into the deep fryers to find out what's really going into our meals
By David Zinczenko and Matt Goulding. Additional research by Lauren Murrow

Strange Bedfellows: Can Feminism and Porn Coexist?

Progressive directors are challenging the misogyny that pervades most mainstream porn. But is it possible to make pornography feminist?

When it comes to pornography, it's safe to assume one thing: Whatever you choose to say on the subject, nearly everyone will disagree with at least part it. Add feminism to the mix and you're pretty much guaranteed a brawl. Chanelle Gallant understands this as well as anyone. "You're probably the first interviewer who didn't start with the question, 'Aren't feminism and porn oxymorons?'" she jokes over the phone. Gallant is the creator of the Feminist Porn Awards, an event held annually in Toronto since 2006. She and the other folks at Good For Her (a feminist-owned and -operated sex shop in Toronto) launched the awards as a response to the racism in mainstream pornography. "We were complaining about how we had to send back all these DVDs because they had the most egregious racial stereotyping in them," she explains. "I said something like, 'It's really too bad that nobody recognizes the filmmakers who are making an effort to do something better.'

The awards recognize sexually explicit films that fulfill at least two of three criteria: first, a woman is substantially involved with the making of the film; second, the film depicts genuine female pleasure; and third, it expands the range of sexual expression for women by telling us something new about female sexuality. Categories range from Hottest Group Sex Scene to Hottest Diverse Cast to Hottest Trans Sex Scene; winning filmmakers and performers travel to Toronto from across North America to accept butt plug-shaped trophies.

Folks working within the adult industry to radically challenge porn's mainstream image is nothing new -- the likes of Annie Sprinkle and Carol Queen have been at it for years. And yet, one pesky problem remains unresolved: the question of what it takes, practically speaking, for feminism and porn films to coexist. If there's no sticker on the front of a DVD identifying it as Fair Trade porn, how can I know if it was produced in a way that I can support? What if I do know it was produced ethically, but I don't find the content compelling or hot? And if I identify material as non-feminist and still find it hot, does that damn me forever to the realm of the Guilty Bad Feminists? Finally, even if by some miracle I manage to reconcile all these contradictions for myself, is the adult industry as a whole showing any indication of evolving past the most token and self-serving co-option of feminism?

I tracked down five of the filmmakers whose work was honored at the 2007 Feminist Porn Awards to find out what they think sets their work apart -- and whether they'd classify it as pornography to begin with. From hetero white men making documentaries to queer black women making mockumentaries, gonzo reality to story-driven hip hop rom-coms, the only obvious commonality is explicit, unsimulated sex -- and for many, that's enough to call them porn. For some, it may also be enough to call them nonfeminist. But in speaking to the filmmakers, it became clear that in the world of onscreen sex, labels are carefully applied.

Venus Hottentot defines pornography as sexually explicit material designed to titillate, and because the intention of her film Afrodite Superstar is to tell a story that happens to involve sex, she prefers the term "sex film." She explains, "I wanted people to engage in an intellectual manner, in an entertaining manner, and then if it was going to titillate that was going to be, quite honestly, the third thing on my list." Tony Comstock, too, finds the term "pornography" troubling. Comstock works with his wife, Peggy, to produce explicit documentary-style features about real-life lovers, and he laments that, "pornography is, in large measure, about what sex looks like, without exploring everything else that sex is. If you want to try to reach beyond that both physically and metaphysically, the word "porn" becomes very limiting."

According to Audacia Ray, director of the The Bi Apple as well as a sex educator and sex workers-rights activist, "Feminist porn is, for me, much more about the production end of things than it is about what is actually onscreen. It's about the ability of the people performing the porn to negotiate what they're doing." For Ray, producing feminist porn involves paying performers above the industry standard, using condoms and covering the costs of HIV testing (neither of which are industry standards), getting input from her cast about what they want to do before they arrive on set, and avoiding surprising actors with last-minute requests.

A discussion of whether the content of a sexually explicit film can make or break its feminism tends to inspire more debate. "Everyone assumes that feminist porn has a specific genre," says Chanelle Gallant. "That [it has] to be soft, that it has to be storyline-based, and that it has to be lesbian. None of that is true."

"For me what makes it feminist is the story," explains Hottentot. "[With Afrodite Superstar,] I wanted to create something about sexuality and self-esteem, and for me those were my first objectives in making this film. When I looked at what is going on with HIV/AIDS in the African-American and Latin communities, I felt like there needed to be a sexual conversation." And it's in that context that Hottentot tells the story of a young woman of color struggling to discover an authentic identity and sexuality in the mainstream hip hop industry.

For filmmakers who are trying to distinguish their work from mainstream porn, expanding how beauty and sexuality are represented onscreen is often as or more important than telling a particular story. Afrodite Superstar directly challenges stereotypical portrayals of African-American beauty by casting women with natural bodies (i.e., no plastic surgery) who are different shades of brown and who have natural hair. Shine Louise Houston, who comes at her work from the perspective of a queer woman of color, says that "The sex is the compelling story," but nevertheless adds "Showing different gender identities, sexual proclivities, different body types, skin colors -- that's all on the agenda." Houston's In Search of the Wild Kingdom creates what she deems "the ultimate PoMo-homo porno" with femmes, bois, and trans models frolicking together in a simple, hilarious story about a straight documentary filmmaker obsessed with tracking the wilds of lesbian sex.

In other cases, filmmakers focus on creating context as a way to expand their representations of sex. In her reality series Chemistry, Tristan Taormino places her cast of professional adult performers in charge of how, when, why, with whom, and how often they have sex, and then interviews them about everything from the racism in porn to what they like to perform. For Taormino, the collaborative aspect is a crucial part of what makes her work feminist. "I want viewers to get to know the performers and get a more three-dimensional character, as opposed to [a] one-dimensional sex robot." Creating context is also how Taormino responds to the dominant imagery in mainstream porn. "When something comes up that could possibly reinforce a dominant image -- like, for example, in Chemistry 3 there was a bunch of rough sex -- [it's] really important to, in my interviews with people, have them specifically talk about why they like rough sex, how they obtain consent, what their boundaries are, and how it relates to their sexual expression."

Like Taormino, Comstock's films combine interviews and sex as a way to capture aspects of sexuality that go beyond the physical. But he aims to capture the erotic and emotional intimacy of couples that would be having sex with each other regardless of whether or not he was filming them. "I don't think there's anything wrong with jerking off to visual material, per se," says Comstock. "But that's a very narrow frame inside of which to address sexuality for me. I want to see sex dealt with in a way that [captures] what I really like about it, which is how connective and nourishing and compelling it can be."

But even with all the context and consent in the world, some sex acts are just more contentious than others. Perhaps the best example is the "facial," the ubiquitous mainstream porn moment in which a man ejaculating onto a woman's face or into her wide-open mouth. Some argue that if you're going to peddle facials in your film, you might as well forget about calling it feminist. Others argue that facials reflect the authentic sexuality of some women, and that in fact it's impossible to call any sex act inherently nonfeminist. Says Ray, "It makes me angry when people makes lists like, 'Oh, a woman receiving cunnilingus is feminist, but a woman receiving a facial is not feminist.'" Taormino felt strongly enough about the image to leave facials out of her Expert Guide to Oral Sex instructional sex videos, but subsequently decided that her performers' ability to make their own choices and contextualize them onscreen was more important than axing any one image, and thus facials make an appearance in her reality series. Whether specific sex acts can be considered feminist or nonfeminist is, simply, murky territory. As Gallant puts it, "[For] every single piece of porn ever made, there's a woman who will like it."

Whatever it looks like and however it's produced, the adult industry seems more than willing to embrace the feminist-friendly part of its image, likely because the market for it is undeniable. "I think our porn sales more than tripled," says Gallant about Good For Her's business in the wake of the Feminist Porn Awards. "It was this crazy increase because people want to find porn that they can enjoy." And there is evidence that the mainstream adult industry is paying attention. Not only did Taormino's Chemistry 1 win 2007 Feminist Porn Awards for Hottest Gonzo Sex Scene and Hottest Diverse Cast, it also won an AVN award (the Oscar of the hardcore industry, conferred annually by Adult Video News) for Best Gonzo Release, the first female director ever to do so.

This win was, to put it mildly, unprecedented. "Gonzo" technically refers to a style of porn that places the camera directly into the scene, but in recent years the term has become shorthand for films that depict women being choked, insulted, spit on, and worse. "It's essentially become an antiporn feminist's worst nightmare come true" says Taormino. "I've always made the joke that if you're going to go to all the trouble of sticking my head in a toilet -- a dominant image in some gonzo porn -- at least I better get a really good orgasm out of it. But we're seeing this pent-up aggression and hostility towards women; [there's] rough sex, but it's not clear that they're consenting to it, and it's clear that they're not getting off on it, because we never get to see their pleasure."

And with titles such as Attention Whores 6 ("We are just sex toys sent here for your amusement") and Teens for Cash 7 ("Nothing can stop these dirty old men from finding dumb and desperate teens who will do anything for a little bit of dough") competing in the same category, it's pretty easy to imagine Taormino's film sticking out. "It was truly, truly shocking," she laughs. "It was a surprise to everyone in the industry."

So what does any of this mean for smut-inclined viewers? The way each of us perceives sexually explicit work is ultimately wholly subjective, which is perhaps what makes feminist porn so fascinating and simultaneously confounding. "Don't try to make it objective," Gallant chastises me when I try to tie up this undertaking in a neat little package. "I mean, why try to create the final word on what's feminist? I think it's okay for us to have varying ideas about what constitutes feminist porn."

Still, being able to agree on at least part of what can make porn feminist is a useful thing, whether you're a porn producer, performer, consumer, or critic. By suggesting some basic criteria and resources, the Feminist Porn Awards seem to strike a good balance, challenging us to move beyond assumptions and into real dialogue. But for her part, Gallant isn't content to have us stop at being ethical consumers. If she had her way, feminists everywhere would be taking it one step further and tackling the power imbalances that continue to lie at the very heart of mainstream pornography. In other words? "Go make your own," she dares."

Original here