And there’s nothing wrong with that! Indeed, while sexual conservatives try to claim otherwise, the reality is that men and women are really very similar in their appetites for sex, porn and all the rest...
It’s February, and the most anticipated cultural event of the month is the much discussed film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey. By the time you read this, we will know whether or not the film is the clusterfuck the press around it suggests it is going to be. Reports have told of knock-down drag-out onset fights between the director Sam Taylor-Johnson and writer EL James, and that co-stars Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson can barely stand one another.
Be that as it may, film adaptations of the sequels have already been confirmed, probably because a
book that sold over 100 million copies is bound (no pun intended) to find a cinema audience — and if that audience buys tickets out of curiosity, to see what all the fuss is about, or even just to hate-watch the film, well, that doesn’t matter as nobody is expecting Fifty Shades to be a subtly drawn exploration of BDSM erotica.
Whether or not the novel is badly written (it is) or features a relationship that is more abusive than kinky (it does), there is no denying that Fifty Shades of Grey was a cultural watershed moment, and one that introduced us to the term “mommy porn”. The fact that the qualifier “mommy” was applied is in itself telling — the typical Fifty Shades reader was believed to be a married woman over the age of 30, and therefore not the usual audience for adult material.
We have a blindspot when it comes to women and porn consumption, believing that curiosity or interest in other people fucking is the preserve of men. The truth is women have always had socially acceptable outlets for their sexual desires, and erotic fiction has long been one of them.
While the mainstream popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey was surprising, the fact that millions of women enjoy erotic fiction wouldn’t be news to anyone in publishing. It’s been an open secret for years. Over a hundred different Mills & Boon novels are released each month under different imprints, such as “Blaze” which features lots of sex; “Desire” which has plenty of sex and some drama; and “Spice” which is home to novels featuring both casual sex and BDSM play. Sure these novels are nominally romances — as is Fifty Shades — but the numerous explicit sex scenes would not be a feature if readers didn’t see them as an integral part of the attraction.
The popularity of erotic fiction for women dovetails with the idea that women are less interested in porn because we are supposedly less visually driven than men. Before online porn, men had spank mags; women had books. But since nobody made porn mags for women — other than soft core and frankly boring Playgirl type stuff — there is no way of knowing if there would have been a market for something more interesting and exciting than naked men coyly hiding their cocks.
If one thing suggests that women’s sexual desires are at least partly visually driven, it’s pop music. From the bobby soxers in the 1940s, Beatlemania in the 1960s, Take That obsessives threatening suicide when the band split in 1996, or today’s Beliebers and Directioners, the music industry has long known that there was plenty of money to be made from teenage girl fans. In her book, Unrequited: Women and Romantic Obsession, journalist Lisa A. Phillips notes that celebrity crushes give young girls a safe space to explore their sexuality, because however compelling the fantasy there is no pressure involved, nor any obligation to the object of desire. Boyband members are revered because they are sexual fantasy objects as much as singers or musicians, sometimes more so.
As a general rule, our culture believes that women are less interested in sex than men, and are more motivated by romance than physical desire, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
The popularity of erotic fiction, boybands, matinée idols and sexy male stars from Rudolph Valentino to Chris Hemsworth makes it obvious that women and their desires have always been a significant driver of popular culture. Because books, films and bands are popular mainstream cultural products they have always been seen as acceptable, even if some of them are regarded as “lowbrow”, in a way that porn has not been. “Good girls” could sigh over James Dean in 1955 more openly than we can over James Dean today.
What percentage of women watch porn? Unfortunately it is impossible to get accurate figures, because even on anonymous surveys people lie about their sexual behaviour and fudge details so that their answers align with perceived masculine or feminine ideals – but all indications are that plenty of women do.
A survey conducted for the RTÉ documentary We Need to Talk about Porn, found that 56 percent of Irish women have watched porn; Ann Summers asked their female customers about their porn viewing habits and found that 57 percent of women aged 18 to 24 reported enjoying porn when alone; and viewer statistics from PornHub found that women users of the site were significantly more likely than men to search for lesbian sex, solo male sex, and threesome or group sex.
However it may also be true that fewer women than men watch porn regularly — or at least are willing to say so. A 2013 study by the Pew Research Center into American online habits found that only eight percent of women admit to watching porn, but those figures need to be read with a large dollop of scepticism — the same survey found that only twelve percent of American adults overall, including a quarter of men, watch online porn. Yeah, right! The study, while anonymous, was conducted over the phone and as Pew themselves admit, the low figures “may reflect a reluctance to report the behavior among some adults.”
Whether or not women are less likely to watch porn, or less likely to tell a stranger over the phone that they do, is impossible to say. It is probably a bit of both, since the vast majority of mainstream porn is made by men for male viewers. In the last few years however, “female- friendly” porn has been on the rise, but interestingly enough, those are not necessarily the films that women enjoy.
Of course there are filmmakers who do make interesting and compelling porn for women — Erika Lust comes to mind — but a great deal of “porn for women” reflects what porn makers think women want: soft focus, narrative driven erotica featuring attractive white women getting it on with strapping muscle- bound men in exotic locations. Other supposedly female-friendly titles take their cues from porn made for men, and don’t pay enough attention to female pleasure. The truth is a lot of so-called female-friendly porn is a bit “meh” – so it is unsurprising that many women aren’t that keen on it.
There is a bit of a chicken and egg conundrum here — is there less porn for women because there is less of an audience for it; or is there less of an audience because there are fewer options? I imagine it is the latter. The PornHub figures suggest that women are getting around this lack of good options by seeking out mainstream porn that appeals to them. Lesbian porn, whether made for heterosexual men or gay women, is far more likely to include sex acts women find pleasurable. The PornHub figures show that the top three sex acts female viewers search for are “eating pussy”; “pussy licking”; and “tribbing”.
Why is there a reluctance to admit that women, even married women over the age of thirty, sometimes want to watch people fuck? I suspect that because to do so we would have to give up some of our cherished notions about men, women and sexuality — particularly the idea that men and women are completely different kinds of being and that our sexual drives and motivations are completely different too. Accepting that women like sex, and porn, often in the same ways that men do, means acknowledging that we’re not that different — and few things terrify conservatives of all stripes more than the idea that men and women are basically the same.
Fifty Shades of Grey may not be a feminist fantasy, but the hot, rich, domineering alpha male is obviously a popular female one; and while I may not have enjoyed the book and I doubt I’d enjoy the film, despite the gorgeous Jamie Dornan, I am glad that the film has opened up a space to talk about women’s sexual fantasies and our relationship with porn. It shouldn’t be a dirty secret... unless dirty secrets are what turn you on!
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