The Problem with “Feminist Porn”

Feminism has had an interesting relationship with pornography. Second-wave feminists were unequivocally hostile towards it, with activists such as Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon attacking the industry for its impact on women. Calling it “the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures or words,” they claimed that pornography desensitized men to the humiliation and degradation of women, leading to an increase in cases of rape and violence against them.

For all their verve, the porn industry has only got bigger and bigger; pornography becoming more and more mainstream and accepted. Women who speak out against porn are labelled as frigid prudes, while women who talk about enjoying porn with their boyfriends are given the thumbs-up from society. Many feminists seem to have given up that fight, accepting that porn is here to stay, and have settled for working within that framework rather than calling for its abolition. One of the ways that they have done this is by coming up with porn that is more feminist-friendly, where women are more natural, come in all shapes and sizes, and the videos are woman-produced and woman-owned.

Are these sites more feminist-friendly than what we think of as ‘normal’ porn? Sure. In mainstream porn, we see a host of interchangeable girls with large breasts and small waists, with men tit-fucking them, slapping their breasts, shoving their cocks in their mouths, or shooting cum in their faces. In fact, the only scenes that seem to be about mutual satisfaction are the ones where women pleasure each other in the absence of men, although of course in these instances the male gaze is assumed. By contrast, sites such as Furry Girl, VegPorn, Femmerotic and Erotic Red unashamedly celebrate the natural and oft-uncelebrated, whether its female body hair, different female body types, or menstruation. All of which are good things.

Yet, clicking through the sites, I see pictures of women, pictures of women, and more pictures of women. I’m glad that we’re being more inclusive, but I, as a straight woman, would also like to be aroused by porn. Thank god for gay porn (which, in the male-dominated porn industry, obviously means gay male porn.)

This is a massive imbalance in the porn industry, and one which we seem to have normalized and accepted, so much so that it doesn’t even occur to us. The industry continues to spew out videos and images of women – women’s faces, women’s breasts, women’s vaginas, women’s moans – the only close-ups you get of the men are of their erect penises, and most of them hardly make any noise aside from some stoic grunting. And then, when only a fraction of women are aroused by such videos, compared to hoards of men, society has the audacity to conclude that women are not aroused by visual imagery, that women have lower libidos, that women prefer romance, and so on and so forth. And the fact that women are subtly encouraged to enjoy porn that has been created exclusively for men is ludicrous, and smells like the dreaded assumption that “men are people; women are women.” A woman who likes what your stereotypical man likes is cool, be it football, guns, beer-guzzling, even sexual encounters with other women, apparently. But god forbid a man be into anything a stereotypical woman likes. God forbid he be interested in dolls, ballet, or sexual encounters with men. That above all.

The examples we have of feminist porn sadden me. Have we become so used to seeing women as sex objects to be viewed by men, that a role reversal is inconceivable? Is making the porn industry more feminist just about creating a greater diversity of women? Are men only to be objectified when the consumers are other men? (as in gay porn?) Are women only allowed to be consumers when the objects of arousal are other women?

In theory, I see nothing wrong with sexual objectification. But, and this is a huge but, where the problem starts is when it goes on to be part of that person’s identity, an assumption that that is all they are. And this is what is happening to women, not just individual women (though certainly some experience it more than others) but women as a group. Thus I have no real problem with pornography in theory, but as it stands today, rife with misogyny, coercion, humiliation, shame and degradation, it sickens me.

Certainly, the porn industry needs to be revolutionised, and I suppose the sites I’ve listed above, and others like them, are a small step in the right direction. But we need to challenge the view that only men can be consumers, to show that women can enjoy men too, rather than merely expanding the net of women who qualify to be featured as sex objects. We need to remove the shame and stigma associated with pornography, to improve the lives of the actors within it. We need to harness a genuine and equal level of respect to all – all genders, all races, all orientations, all actors, and all viewers. Only then can I get behind it, and proclaim just how feminist pornography can be.

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14 thoughts on “The Problem with “Feminist Porn”

  1. Another problem that stands in the way of porn including women is that a lot of men feel inadequate when they see their girlfriends and wives admiring the sexual performances of another man. As a straight woman who is only rarely aroused by viewing women in a pornographic sense, if there had been porn made available to me that was geared towards pleasing me, I know for a fact that my ex-boyfriend would have been made extremely uncomfortable and insecure if I had watched it. This would have doubled if I had watched it without him. But, if I had watched lesbian porn, he would have been fine with it. (In fact, he was obsessed with me experiencing and investigating lesbian sexual practices and encouraged me to even take a girlfriend if I could find one.) Not only would he have found it arousing because it satisfied his fantasies about lesbian sex, but he also wouldn’t have felt threatened by it because there was no “competition” for him to deal with it.

    Meanwhile, our sex life basically consisted of him trying to push me further and further into pornographic extremes, constantly badgering me to try crazy positions or to put his bits places I didn’t think bits should go. While I was happy to experiment at first, it quickly became frustrating and boring. It’s hard to know that your partner is only interested in sex to see what new extreme he can reach. It also took me awhile to realize what he was doing, because I’ve never really watched porn. But the more I began to research it, the more I realized he was following the porn template, either because he didn’t know any better, or because he honestly believed that was how sex should be.

    Honestly, my biggest problem with porn is that, even though it’s fake, it’s the first and foremost form of sex education that most young men in American culture explore. Which means that they go through their entire lives thinking that porn is real sex. It’s no wonder everything else comes up short. Not to mention that they’re taught they should be ashamed of their usage of porn by the women in their lives. It’s a horrible mess for both sides. I desperately want to see it fixed.

    • Hi! Thanks so much for sharing this. I completely agree with you. The lack of proper sex ed in schools, combined with the easy accessibility of porn leads to porn being the only kind of sex men know – male domination, female degradation. They are taught, through porn, that women who have sex are not deserving of respect, and that a woman’s sexual needs are less important than their own sexual fulfilment.

      You’re also spot on when talking about most men’s insecurity about his ability to satisfy his partner. It’s a part of the ‘manly’ myth that if his partner isn’t totally dependent on him for sexual pleasure, or indeed, doesn’t place him at the centre of her world, that’s a slight on his masculinity. With this in mind, it is strange that most of them don’t put more effort into focusing on her sexual needs. By the way, I read about a study a while back where a large group of (heterosexual) men and women were surveyed. The men were asked if they felt they were good in bed; the women were asked for the percentage of lovers they’d had who were good in bed. I can’t remember the exact stats, but around 90% of the men felt that they were great, whereas according to the women, only 20-30% of the men they’d slept with had satisfied them. So either the 10% of men who say they’re bad in bed slept with a disproportionately high number of women, or something’s wrong here…

      • Agreed. It also teaches them that there’s only one kind of “successful” sex, and that anything else is either a failure on their part, or not real sex. It also shifts the focus almost entirely onto penetrative sex, which numerous studies have shown only a fraction of women respond to. It furthers myths about male sexuality and what their bodies should look/function like, which means they constantly feel ashamed, inadequate, and confused. It furthers the impression that, in sex, women play the subservient role where as men must take on the dominant one. And almost none of this would be a problem if people understood that *porn is fake*. I have honestly had discussions with men where they IMMEDIATELY leap to the defense of porn whenever its nature is brought up, saying it’s real, saying it’s legitimate, saying it’s “not that big of a problem”, etc., etc. They refuse to accept any kind of criticism of it at all, to which I say…why?

        Also, that study is pretty interesting. I would agree that most men I know would say they were good in bed, either because they honestly believed it, or because they were afraid to admit anything different. I also think that this is a problem exacerbated by women who fake orgasms. I’ve done it. At the time, I felt like I had to, because my partner was so insecure about his sexual performance (again, because porn had taught him “Real men” have perma-erections) that if I *didn’t* fulfill the pattern he was looking for, he’d have a breakdown and feel emasculated. I realize now that I was part of the problem too, but when you’re in that moment and all you want to do is soothe and help your partner, it’s easy to make the wrong choice.

    • Hmm, I’d say there have been three kinds of responses to porn. One says that porn is acceptable, one says that watching others have sex for one’s own sexual pleasure is immoral and should be completely stopped, and another group (us) says that porn as it is now is terrible, but it is possible to revolutionise it, making it safer, healthier and more satisfying for everyone. Perhaps when people in the first group hear criticisms of porn, they assume that the speaker belongs to the second school of thought and so they try to shut the debate down immediately.

      Yes, I’ve faked orgasms with an ex-partner too. I think as women we are so encouraged to handle our men with kid gloves, to protect their fragile egos by pretending to be weaker, more dependent on them than we are, or in this case, that they are capable of giving us more sexual pleasure than they actually do. How many times have we been advised in a women’s magazine not to argue with our partners’ ideas in public or show our intelligence too much, lest we ‘emasculate’ them? When really, we should be asking ourselves why men are so insecure about their masculinity and what that says about their opinion of women, what ‘emasculation’ actually means (it means nothing) and why it matters (it doesn’t).

  2. Stimulating writing (pun intended) about a challenging subject.
    For so long the focus of our society has been by men for men and pornography has been an exemplar of this imbalance. The root (no pun this time) of the word is Greek for prostitute and I think pornography was originally materials designed to arouse clients.
    Human sexuality has been controlled and regulated by religions and states for millenia and female sexuality especially so. Even now some patriarchal authorities deny women can gain pleasure through sex and try to own female bodies to manage reproduction and their offspring.
    As you point out above, most men are scared of female sexuality; look at the problems it posed to Sigmund Freud and many people of faith. Sex and desire are highly commodified in modern life leaving many alienated from their bodies. This is needed to sell sex.
    Women must keep talking and challenging the old ways – our future depends on it.

  3. I’m a woman with a relatively high sex drive, and I enjoy men’s bodies a lot – looking at them, touching them, having sex with them. (I also enjoy men’s minds and hearts, but that’s not the subject here.)

    I really enjoy some kinds of gay male porn (GMP). Why? Well, for one thing, the men in GMP are generally fit, well-groomed, and well-dressed. Men in the average straight population don’t seem to take care of themselves the way that a lot of gay men do, and men in straight porn are often downright shabby. Watching not one, but two attractive men having sex is a huge turn-on! Second, some GMP involves men being tender with each other. How often do you see two men kiss with actual affection/tenderness between them? (How often do you see two men kiss at all?) How often do you see two men giving to each other, caring for each other? Not often. GMP is one of the only places you find that, and I find it incredibly sweet, hot, and generally wonderful. I wish I could see more men acting that way toward each other, whether in sexual or non-sexual situations. Upon mentioning this to some of my straight male friends, they looked at me with total shock. (But women aren’t turned on by visual things, certainly by gay sex!) I said that I suspected that many straight/bi women felt this way. They didn’t believe me. So I did a (non-scientific) survey of all the women I knew, including my 70-year-old mother.

    About 65% of the women I know (granted, a mostly feminist group) said that they either loved watching GMP, or would love to watch it, but hadn’t had an opportunity / thought of it before I asked. To me, this indicates that porn for women that showed attractive men, whether gay, straight, or bi, would be a huge hit! Of course a lot of women would love to watch hot men in sexual situations (with women or men!) which don’t include abusive, controlling, or porn-tastic elements (jizzing on womens’ faces or boobs, pushing women’s bodies into ridiculous postures, treating women like objects, etc.) So why doesn’t this porn get made? I have my ideas on that one, but this post is long enough.

  4. My biggest problem with porn is the gendered hate speech – every woman and female child is classified as a whore or slut or someother contemptuous name that signifies their sub human status. To me, porn currently acts as male eroticised propoganda making sexism sexy. No wonder the police in Rotherham have such contempt for the real life victims of child rape and call them sluts, its what their media calls them too.

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