Ape Girl

Sex, evolution, and birth order.

What is porn for women?

What is porn for women?

I was directed toward an article in Salon the other day and the friend who sent it along was right, I did find it interesting. The article's title was "Why do we care so much about porn for women?" and the answer was mainly focused on how women have such different desires there can be no porn for women. Which is rather odd, there are lots of different types of porn for men to satisfy their individual tastes (young, milf, big butts, big breasts, anal, etc.). So why wouldn't there be porn for women which would vary with their particular preferences? Many women do check out porn on dvd (with and without their partners) as well as on-line, even if they may not spend as much time on it as the guys...but they do often complain that they can't find what they want. The article suggested this was because what one woman wants is so different from another, one woman's porn was an x-rated Twilight while another's was gay porn.

One genre, produced and consumed mainly by women, is an interesting combination of some features of both. And it also illustrates why mainstream porn for a mostly straight male audience is not that appealing to most women. I'm referring to "slash" a written (as opposed to the mostly visual porn) genre that depicts romantic and sexual relationships between expropriated heterosexual (almost always within the context of the canon of the original source, hence the debate over referring to stories focused on characters from show such as Queer as Folk as slash stories) male television and movie characters. Examples (which can be found all over the web these days) would include Kirk and Spock from Star Trek, Clark Kent and Lex Luthor from Smallville, House and Wilson from House MD, or Holmes and Watson (based on the books or various tv or movie versions). What makes this genre, which some have referred to as porn for women, informative is how much it has in common with romance novels and how little it really has in common with traditional pornography.

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To illustrate this, imagine pornotopia. In pornotopia sex is all about lust and physical gratification, totally lacking in courtship, commitment, durable relationships, or mating effort. It is a world in which women are eager to have sex with strangers, easily sexually aroused, and always orgasmic. Porn videos contain minimal plot development, focusing instead on the sex acts themselves and emphasizing the display of female bodies, especially close-ups of faces (which display sexual arousal), breasts, and genitals. The majority focus almost entirely on sex, routinely representing and non-sexual interpersonal behavior is almost completely excluded. Even recent "big budget" porn films with high production values, such as Pirates, follow the same pattern. The fact that film and the internet so thoroughly dominate male oriented erotica testifies to the deeply visual nature of male sexuality.

The world of romantopia is quite different. Although the romance novel has sometimes been called pornography for women, it is really the opposite of male oriented porn. The goal of a romance novel's heroine is never sex for its own sake, much less impersonal sex with strangers. The core of a romance novel's plot is a love story in which the heroine overcomes all obstacles to find and win the heart of the one man, her true love. Romances vary dramatically in the extent to which sexual activity is depicted, from not at all to highly explicit. When sex is described, it serves the plot rather than replacing it. The hero discovers in the heroine a focus for his passion, which ties him to her, ensuring his fidelity. Sex scenes depict the heroine's control of the hero, and sexual activity is described subjectively, primarily through the heroine's emotions and responses rather than through visual imagery. For an interesting look at romance novels and the romance hero check out Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women as well as this article by Maryanne Fisher.

Slash fiction reads much more like romance in that it focuses on sex in the context of relationships (not sex with strangers), and between characters the audience knows and presumably finds attractive. Sex serves the plot, not the other way around as in porn (though there are short PWP or plot what plot, stories to be found in slash. However, most readers would carry a lot of background knowledge about the characters and relationships into reading such pieces. The prevalence and popularity in slash of so-called "first time" stories echoes the core theme of the romance novel: the search for the one right partner and the resolution of that search in sexual union. It is a written genre; though lovely erotic art and entertaining videos are made, they are usually not as explicit as the stories themselves. Slash is, in a sense, just another type of romance, albeit one that can be highly explicit and involves two men (there are also female-female slash stories but that goes way beyond this blog entry!).

So perhaps we should ask why people think it's so important that there be porn for women and that it be somehow different than that for men. Is there really a market for it? If they want a little visual stimulation, the high production values films do have attractive male and female stars for them to check out. An old complaint was that the guys in porn weren't as hot as the girls...which doesn't matter so much when only the straight guys are watching...hence all the hot guys in gay porn. It seems like (cliché as it sounds) that the journey is as important as the destination in women's sexuality, and that women have created their own genres that work just fine.

Catherine Salmon, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the psychology department at the University of Redlands.

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