Will Porn Ever Satisfy the Female Gaze?

by Kate Sennert

When I was studying feminist philosophy as a graduate student, our class did a segment on pornography. We read the canon of anti-pornography literature, chiefly the works of Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, who argued that porn was inherently harmful to women. “We define pornography,” stated MacKinnon, “as the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures and words.”

By objectifying and degrading women, she and Dworkin reasoned, porn reaffirmed women’s inferior position in society. They cited testimonies of pornographic actresses who were coerced, often with drugs and alcohol, into acts they performed. They alleged that porn normalized behavior that is painful  (‘deep throat’ fellatio) and uncommon (vaginal orgasm), thus promoting a false and potentially dangerous sex education.

While I found these arguments compelling, I wasn’t convinced that porn as a genre was the cause of the problems highlighted. That some of the industry’s workers were treated poorly, even abused, demonstrated that it was in desperate need of regulation. On screen, women could be depicted in more ‘respectful’ situations, enjoying orgasms as they commonly do in real life (through clitoral stimulation), and a man could just as easily be the focus of a porn film as a woman.

I also wasn’t convinced that objectification is always, necessarily bad. Do we not also objectify a model in a photograph or an actor in a Hollywood film? Do we not play out fantasies of sex and violence on screen in countless other ways, such as watching sports?

It also seemed misguided to blame porn for our collective ignorance about the human body. If the hero of an action movie fights off a gang with his extraordinary Kung Fu skills, we don’t blame the film industry for promoting falsehoods about the anatomy of real-life violence. The average teenage boy (or girl) who learns about sex watching porn has been let down by society at large.

Suffice to say, these counterarguments did not yield an A+ on my paper and I’ve been mulling over this topic ever since.

The real problem with porn, I think, is that virtually all of it is made for men. By ‘porn’ here I mean the mainstream American stuff that is targeted toward heterosexual men. I don’t mean ‘erotica,’ which refers to a softer form of pornography in which men and women are theoretically treated as equals. The internet is rife with alternative, ‘woman-friendly’ porn targeted to the LGBT community, but that too is something else.

If you search online porn tubes—free aggregates of professionally produced and amateur content—what you find is strictly androcentric. That is to say, imagery that privileges the masculine point of view.

The formulaic story arc goes as follows: plot lead-up, a lengthy blowjob scene, intercourse, possibly another blowjob scene, and finally the ‘money shot’ in which the male actor ejaculates. This scenario plays out over and over again, reflecting what men, presumably, favor most about sex.

The camera shots often mimic the literal POV of the male actor. We watch from above as the female performs oral sex. We fixate on her facial expressions during intercourse. Even when the female is receiving oral pleasure, the camera is often positioned from the man’s perspective looking up at her, or else we see a wide shot that offers little view of his face or tongue.

porn-popular.com

Source image: porn-popular.com

Generally speaking, the male actor in porn is insignificant. Rarely is the focus his full body or do we see his face. Never (except in gay porn) do we see his face close up. The real protagonist in these stories is the viewer. That’s why the female turns away from the male actor, looking toward the camera instead.

I have often wondered why there is no equivalent pornography for women, in which men are the object of the female gaze. We could watch from above as he performs oral sex. His face would be rapt in ecstasy. He could ejaculate without his penis even being touched—he’d only have to look at her (us).

I recently went on a quest to discover if such porn exists. Granted, I was only rifling through the free stuff, but there was literally nothing. Not a single video like I just described. There were a handful of female POV videos made by amateurs and a few featuring ‘lesbians,’ still targeted to the male audience, but nothing professionally produced for the heterosexual female. How is that possible?

Statistically speaking, women are watching more porn than ever.  A Pew Research Center report issued in 2010 cited that only 2% of women claim to watch porn. Three years later, the number was 8%. Assuming that many women still don’t admit to watching porn, the percentage is likely higher. This market is growing at an unprecedented rate and yet the industry mostly neglects it.

After exhausting the various tubes, convinced I’d reached a dead end, I found Dusk TV. “Female sexuality has been ignored for too long. It’s time to get heard!” declares its website. “A lot of porn is made specifically for male viewers. Most films are all about male pleasure and filmed entirely from a male perspective. In 2008, Dusk! decided to change all that.”

The Netherlands-based company, which recently expanded into the US market, not only provides on-demand pornographic content for women, but it does so in a revolutionary way: it asks them what they want to see. Members participate on a panel in which they vocalize their preferences. That data is analyzed by the Dusk staff and determines the plots, scripts, casting and scenery of the films they show.

“There is no equivalent in male porn,” points out Yvette Luhrs, a program manager and researcher at Dusk, who spoke to me recently over Skype. “We also don’t know if men don’t like it because we’ve never asked them.”

This brings up a really interesting point. Do men even like porn for men? What would mainstream pornography look like if its plots were crowdsourced?

Dusk calls its content ‘porna’ to differentiate it from erotica and the stigma of porn in general. “We really want to be mainstream, for every woman,” Luhrs remarked. The rapid growth of Dusk is a testament to their business model, but I still wondered: is the world ready for female porn? “Historically, women spend less on pleasure than men,” she acknowledged. “In the past you were a bad woman if you made your sexuality a priority.” I suspect that many women, including those who surf the tubes, still feel this way. It’s a big jump to go from ‘just looking’ to buying and calling the shots.

My suspicion is that the entrance of female POV porn into the mainstream is inevitable, but it’s going to happen at a snail’s pace. Porn has historically been the domain of men, so much so that feminist critics could not even fathom it being something else. If the industry was smart, it wouldn’t wait around for attitudes to change, but rather anticipate the desires of these would-be consumers by creating products that reflect their interests. Only when that porn can be easily found with a Google search will the idea that pornography subordinates women become obsolete.

Title image source: hotporn.org

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