Survey data indicates that 30 percent of Internet pornography users are women (1). This is a problem for evolutionary psychologists who claim that women choose relationship-based romance literature over visual erotica (2).
In fairness to evolutionary psychologists, we must admit that previous generations of women rarely used pornography. Or, if they did, they were not willing to admit it. So women did not buy pornographic magazines, for instance.
When enterprising publishers sought to provide erotic magazines for women in the 1970’s, they hit a dead end and found that their biggest customers were gay men (2). Evidently women were not ready for pornography, then but times changed and female point of view erotic films were created.
Nowadays, even mainstream media is suffused with frank eroticism so that it is no longer clear what pornography is because there is so much overlap between “adult” movies, magazines, and books and their mainstream counterparts.
Evolutionary psychologists often argue that female sexuality is typified by the romance novel – popular reading material for women – whereas male sexuality approximates pornography.
The key difference is that in a romance novel, sexual interactions proceed from an emotionally committed relationship. In “pornotopia” however, a man samples a menu of attractive young women who are eager for his amorous advances and is interested only in sexual gratification (2).
These stereotypes never did justice to the complexity of human sexuality. Yet, they were quite a useful description of real-world gender differences in sexual behavior, including the fact that women did not purchase pornography but sought gratification in romance novels instead. That distinction is breaking down as female sexuality converges with that of men.
Physiology and sexuality
Ever since the Masters and Johnson report (in 1966) researchers realized that the physiology of sexual arousal and sexual pleasure is quite similar in men and women. Contrary to the prevailing academic view of women being less sexual than men, many of the female participants expressed interest in sexual pleasure for its own sake.
The researchers documented diverse changes occurring throughout women’s bodies in the course of sexual arousal helping explain why women would be interested in sexual stimulation. Since then, neuroscientists reported dense innervation of the clitoris, mapped widespread representation of the genital region in women’s brains, and established that women’s breasts are sexual organs.
Based purely on physiology, one would imagine that women are more sexual than men, which raises intriguing questions about why gender differences in sexual behavior are in the opposite direction. It has also been known for several decades that women respond physiologically to visual pornography (3).
So women’s bodies are physiologically capable of experiencing a great deal of sexual pleasure. Women who engaged in group sex during the experimentation common in the 1970s experienced more orgasms despite being slower to climax than men who quickly became fatigued (2).
Clearly, women are not less sexual than men. If so, then one is forced to conclude that women hide and/or suppress their sexuality. In my own research (4), I found that women are more interested in casual sex in countries where there is less risk of unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, and in developed countries where they are less dependent on husbands.
So it is no great shock to discover that contrary to gender stereotypes, many women are interested in pornography. That interest emerges in a world where sexuality is less threatening than in the past. Even so, it is probably no accident that young women are drawn to cyber porn that can be enjoyed in privacy (1).
1. Duke, R. B. (2010, July 11). More women lured to pornography addiction. Washington Post
2. Symons, D. (1979). The evolution of human sexuality. New York: Oxford University Press.
3. Barber, N. (2002). The science of romance: Secrets of the sexual brain. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus.
4. Barber, N. (2008). Cross-national variation in the motivation for uncommitted sex: The impact of disease and social risks. Evolutionary Psychology, 6, 217-228.