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Why Do Some Women Like Violent Porn?

The tension between personal reality and social norms.

Key points

  • “Porn for women” portrays loving couples in romantic situations, but new research shows this isn’t always what women want.
  • Some women are attracted to violent porn even though they don’t want to act out these behaviors with their partner.
  • Porn isn’t a substitute for partnered sex but rather offers a safe place for people to explore their sexuality.

The received wisdom is that pornography is a product made by men for men that promotes attitudes of women as nothing more than sex objects. According to this point of view, porn portrays sexual acts that are degrading to women, and often violent toward them as well. It also sees porn as a danger to society, in that it provides models of aggression toward women, desensitizing male viewers toward such objectionable behavior and even encouraging them to treat women badly.

There’s some truth to this point of view, in that a fair amount of porn does focus on the sexual pleasure of the male, often dominating his partner and sometimes even aggressing against her. However, there’s little evidence to support the claim that watching violent porn leads to acts of sexual violence in real life.

Furthermore, there are many categories of porn, each of which attracts different audiences with their own particular sexual tastes. This includes “female-friendly" porn, which typically portrays loving couples in romantic situations that culminate in sex, with the man of course being very attentive to his partner’s sexual needs. Presumably, if a woman wants to watch porn, this is what she should want.

Likewise, women have recently entered the porn industry, not as performers but as producers. In fact, the company Bellesa promotes itself as “a porn company run by women.” Its website offers several categories of porn, including “rough,” by which they mean scenarios in which the man dominates the woman, not the other way around. But what kind of woman would want to watch such porn?

What Kind of Porn Turns Women On?

According to Finnish media researcher Susanna Paasonen, there’s good reason to think that women are attracted to the same range of pornographic depictions that men are. In a recent article, Paasonen analyzes the responses of more than 2000 Finnish women to questions regarding their porn-viewing behaviors. The key question: “Is there a thing that turns you on, even if it feels confusing, gross, or weird? Tell more!”

The survey was conducted by the Finnish public service broadcasting company Yle for a popular lifestyle program called Jenny+. The majority of the respondents were between 20 and 40 years of age, reflecting the demographic of the program’s viewership.

After the program had aired, the producers provided Paasonen with the transcripts. In it, she found many comments about viewing violent porn, ranging from domination and submission to slapping and hair pulling, and even rape. The format of the transcripts didn’t indicate where one response ended and the next began, so Paasonen wasn’t able to calculate the percentage of respondents who’d indicated such an interest. Nevertheless, the comments do provide important insights into women’s motivations for watching porn.

Porn as Fantasy and Not as a Reflection of Reality

Paasonen’s analysis of the transcripts revealed several interesting themes. First, respondents who indicated that they themselves felt aroused by violent porn often stated the belief that most women wouldn’t like it. Here we see the tension between a personal reality in which an individual woman is attracted to portrayals of sexual violence against women and the social norm that women should be repulsed by it.

This tension between personal reality and social norms often led to feelings of guilt and even questioning why they found violent porn arousing. As one respondent put it: “Sometimes I fear playing into the hands of patriarchy with my porn use, and that my arousal isn’t ‘real’ but that I’m conditioned by misogynistic crap.” In other words, some women were torn between how they felt and how they believed they should feel.

Second, many respondents who said they were aroused by violent porn emphasized that they didn’t want to engage in that kind of sexual behavior with their partner. One respondent stated: “I really don’t like this kind of sex in real life but for some reason, it turns me on the most in porn.” Such statements suggest that at least some people prefer different things when viewing porn versus having partnered sex.

In fact, many of the women expressed a clear understanding of porn as fantasy rather than a reflection of reality. While some women were turned on by violent porn and found romantic porn uninteresting, these same women also emphasized that what they wanted from their partners was romance and not rough play. This suggests that for these women porn isn’t a reflection of or substitution for their partnered sex life but rather a different aspect of their sexuality.

Porn as a Safe Place for Exploring One’s Sexuality

Finally, a number of the respondents said they were turned on by gay or lesbian porn even though they themselves were straight. Although previous research has shown people watch porn for the kind of sex they want to have with their partner, Paasonen notes that people can also look for other categories, often out of curiosity. In this way, porn provides people with a venue for exploring their own sexuality, learning in a safe environment what they like and dislike.

Furthermore, Paasonen points out that people can enjoy porn because they identify with one of the performers. But they can also experience it in a voyeuristic sense in which they watch the performers without self-identifying with any of them. In this way, watching porn is much like viewing any other visual medium, in that we may find the story interesting without ever wanting to have such experiences in real life.

Research like this shows that both men and women are attracted to a wide variety of porn genres. No doubt, preferences vary widely from person to person, and even within the same person from time to time. In other words, notions such as men liking violent porn and women preferring romantic porn are too simplistic. Rather, the spectrum of sexuality for both men and women is very broad, and porn provides a safe place for exploring those fantasies, especially ones that viewers wouldn’t want to act out in real life.

References

Paasonen, S. (2022). ‘We watch porn for the fucking, not for romantic tiptoeing’: Extremity, fantasy, and women’s porn use. Porn Studies. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1080/23268743.2021.1956366

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