Women and porn

WE WANT IT! WE LOVE IT!

Porn. We all have our preferences. But are we also open and honest about them? What do we really like? Ronete Cohen, psychologist and psychotherapist, investigates the ultimate female turn on.

A bisexual 44 year old mother of 2 writes, “I think it is fair to say most people would not expect me to watch the porn I watch. I watch a lot of lesbian and gay porn. Actually when I start to write about it I realise there is not much porn I don’t like! Anal, threesomes, orgies, pissing, masturbation.” This is just one reply of several that I received when I asked women to confide in me about the porn they like. Is it what you expected or are you surprised?

What do we like? I asked women who sell porn. Nan Kinney of Fatale Media is a lesbian porn pioneer. “When we first started with On Our Backs and Fatale Media,” she says, “there was literally nothing out there as far as erotica and porn that depicted lesbian sex, that showed what we looked like and what we were doing, that we could relate to. It was all pretty much girl on girl porn, all very feminine women, doing sexual things to each other, not really relating to each other, but kind of doing it for the male view.” Suburban Dykes, an early bestselling video, worked because there was real chemistry between the women: they showed feelings in a believable way. “Women don’t like faked orgasms,” Nan says. “They can tell.” Of course we can! “I’m bi and it’s really off-putting to see fake FF sex,” one woman writes. “I tend to steer away from the US ‘wearing lots of makeup’ stuff. I don’t fancy women like that, I don’t look like that, and it often has obviously faked sex.” Another woman writes, “Because I’m a sex worker, clients sometimes want to watch porn with me, but mostly that’s vanilla girl/girl and I have to stifle yawns.” For some, it’s even more difficult to find something that caters to their tastes. “Even though I’m bi, I don’t tend to watch lesbian porn alone – I’d rather rely on my memories/fantasies and a lot of lesbian porn seems either inauthentic (long fingernailed lesbians), or features butch women (I fancy femmes). When watching porn I tend to put myself in the female role. I do watch kinky lesbian porn, generally imagining myself in the role of the woman being ‘violated’.”

Nan Kinney remembers how, 25-30 years ago, women who dared to get a porn movie or magazine, could only find things that weren’t geared to them at all. As a result, many women believed that they didn’t like porn: after all, they had looked at it and didn’t like it. But things have changed, Nan says. “It’s taken many years for there to be at least a few women pornographers or producers of pornography who were making images and movies that women can relate to, that has their point of view in mind, that’s geared towards their pleasure. And there’s still just a little bit of it, but at least there is some. Women these days can go out and find a movie by Petra Joy or Candida Royale that’s centred around the woman’s pleasure and maybe they’ll be able to like it.”

When I first started researching this article (my third on the subject of women and porn), I kept coming across the term “female-friendly porn”. It didn’t fit what most other women told me about what they like to watch. Jennifer Pritchett, the owner of Smitten Kitten, a progressive retailer of sex toys that specialises in ethically produced porn, is happy that I’m pursuing this story from a more nuanced perspective. “I personally think it does everyone, not just women, a disservice to trivialise and distil our incredible diversity into an over-simplified ‘women like soft core or ‘couples’ porn only’,” she says. She thinks that this serves a greater cultural need to inhibit women’s true sexual power and choice. 

But not all of us allow ourselves to be inhibited. Fatale Media is an online lesbian DVD store. Would you be surprised if I told you that its current bestselling DVD is Bend Over Boyfriend, a very sexy how-to film that shows women anally penetrating men with strap-ons? It was produced by Jackie Strano and her partner Shar Rednour. Jackie is the Executive Vice President of Good Vibrations, the sex-positive San Francisco-based retailer. “Bestselling porn for us,” she says, “has been features with good production values and great chemistry with well-known performers, explicit sex education movies, and alternative independent features.”

Carlyle Jansen is the founder of Good For Her, the Toronto sex toy and adult DVD retailer that started the Feminist Porn Awards in 2006. She agrees that women’s sexuality doesn’t reflect the gender of the porn they watch. “Our fantasies aren’t politically correct,” she says. They aren’t necessarily what we want to do in real life. One of the world’s worst kept secret is that many women – straight, bisexual or lesbian – like gay (male) porn. Carlyle finds that there’s a raw authenticity to it and no one seems to be taken advantage of. “They seem to both be enjoying themselves, and that’s what we’re looking for. Whether someone’s giving you oral sex, or they’re flogging you, or they’re using a strap on or a vibrator, or they’re teasing you… whatever it is, as long as it looks like the person is having a good time.”

Jackie Strano finds that women like all kinds of porn: gay porn, gonzo porn, amateur porn, and soft core porn. It’s different for each woman. Carlyle Jansen agrees. Storyline or no storyline, soft or edgy, who’s in it, the kind of sex that goes on – different women are looking for different things at different times. “Sometimes I want to see something romantic,” she says, “and sometimes I want to see something edgy, just like sometimes I want to have romantic sex and sometimes I want to have edgy sex. We want different kinds of things depending on our mood and what’s going on.”

And this is what women are telling me. One says, “The type of porn I watch varies quite a lot and it tends to link to what I crave at the time!” Another likes it edgy: “Well, I enjoy porn that involves women being dominated and controlled (by men or women). What turns me on is usually situations where women are ‘used’ sexually, but actually experience pleasure while this is happening, even if it’s pleasure they don’t want to experience. Forced orgasms, sensual but controlling BDSM, ‘sex slave’ scenarios and spanking (of women) all feature in the porn I seek out.” Another says, “I’d say the porn I seek tends to reflect what I like in sex itself. I’m very submissive, and my actual sex tends to revolve around (consensual/pre-agreed) ‘being forced’. In all my porn the women are submissive, and usually there’s multiple men (I do have a very small selection of multiple women on one woman, but that’s harder to find decent stuff). My favourite stuff inevitably involves DP/the woman being ‘used’ as a sex toy.”

Emily Dubberley of the UK written erotica site Cliterati, who writes about sex and is currently writing a book about women’s sexual fantasies, says that common themes in stories submitted to the site are submission and domination. “However,” she says, “there’s also trans sex, lesbian sex, voyeurism (including watching gay sex), exhibitionism (the pole-dancer/lap-dancer fantasy), bukkake, fisting, anal (giving and receiving), dressing up (corsets, latex and lingerie, more than fantasy outfits), toys, group sex and myriad other themes and acts: women are truly diverse and no less ‘dirty’ than men.”

We most definitely are. “I much prefer kinky to vanilla porn,” says a woman, “as the latter is often formulaic and tends to feature camera angles I find dull (and lousy cunnilingus/unlubed anal – ouch!).  Sometimes it’s facials/bukkake, sometimes it’s group (MMF generally), sometimes it’s more extreme gang bangs and sometimes it’s BDSM (gagging blow jobs, fisting, spanking, humiliation – generally female, though watching male sub stuff with my male partner is hot). Strap on sex (woman to man) is hot too.” It’s not just BDSM that women like. There’s also spanking porn, “men or women spanking women, specifically. This is as distinct from BDSM porn, by being more like real-life type scenarios. I don’t need any sex to happen, and given the choice between sex-porn and spanking-porn I’d choose the spanking. However if sex does happen in the spanking porn that’s definitely a plus although it doesn’t seem to happen very often! My ideal porn is someone being spanked and then fingered to orgasm.”

Courtney Trouble makes queer porn and other kinds of porn from an indie, feminist perspective. She’s glad to see that more people are doing field research and talking to all kinds of women on their porn preferences. She agrees that “women watch as much of a variety of porn as men do, and we are not inherently drawn to softer, sweeter, story-lined erotica. “50 Shades” ain’t even half of what we want.”

In Courtney’s opinion, when mainstream companies make different porn to cater to women, it shows that they think the other porn they make is “too rough for our soft, overly-sensitive” nature, and that only porn actresses would put up with the acts done on screen. “Through this misogynist lens they paint a bland, saccharine, watered-down version of porn – thinking that like everything else handed to women, we want it pink, petite, and covered in Disney Princesses.” She thinks that they are probably also ashamed of how they treat women in the films, and assume that women would be turned off by the things they do. “I think that the porn that women find intolerable or over-the-top, is probably the same porn that most men find distasteful as well”, she says.

Carlyle Jansen wonders whether ‘female friendly’ was coined by men. “We use the term, because that’s what people understand,” although their definition of female friendly may be a bit different. She sees mainstream porn as giving a very limited perspective on what woman are like, what we want and how we orgasm. She thinks we want to see our own desires reflected and our bodies represented. She thinks we’re looking for authenticity, even in a fantasy. We need to be able to imagine ourselves in what we see, or to believe that it would turn a woman on and make her orgasm. “We’re looking to see our own desires reflected,” she says, “not just what men think our desires are.”

Shine Louise Houston, the founder and director of Pink & White Productions and sites like CrashPadSeries.com and PinkLabel.tv, makes porn that reflects this diversity. “It creates empowerment by saying yes we are beautiful,” she says, “we’re an art form, we’re not all gym bunnies, and that’s OK. We’re not all super high femme and all this kind of stuff. It’s like, hey, let’s normalise this. These are queer bodies. And hey, we can be just as hot as the models in Penthouse. It’s empowering when you can see yourself reflected in an image. If it’s powerful and sexy you might think, wow, I really always wanted to identify with that but I can’t because my body doesn’t look like X. But maybe that person is brown, they’re heavy, they’re butch, and thought that was totally hot and know that they can be totally hot. We shouldn’t be ashamed of our bodies and we shouldn’t be ashamed of our sexualities. Put it out there—it’s hot!”

Some women prefer written erotica. But even that has evolved from the early days when it was considered controversial by some. When Emily Dubberley launched Cliterati, men accused them of being sluts, and women of being men because ‘no women would talk like that’, “but that’s been far outweighed by the letters of thanks from women who’ve experienced their first orgasm through reading or sharing fantasies on the site; or who’ve learned how to enjoy a new sex act safely from one of our articles.” One woman tells me, “My likes have changed over the years, but I still prefer text rather than photos or film. DVDs are just too graphic.” Written erotica helped expand her horizons and also reassure her. “I remember reading Nancy Friday’s “Secret Garden” many years ago and feeling relieved that other women had fantasies, not just me. I loved the idea of the zipless fuck in Erica Jong, that was just dreamy and with no messy complications afterwards. My favourite read is Pauline Reage “The Story of O”, but some of the more brutal, de-humanising scenes I find a bit scary. Probably more into light spanking, a feeling of being in someone else’s power than real sadism. I like Anaïs Nin too, and she gave me the realisation that sex was not just about heterosexuality.” Another woman likes both film and written erotica in different ways. “Generally I’ll read (hardcore) erotica rather than watch porn,” she writes. “However, I get wet more quickly when watching porn even if I don’t feel aroused.”

There’s still quite a bit of guilt and shame about porn among women. Several of the written testimonies I received were embarrassed and almost apologetic. You’d never hear a man apologising for that. “No, of course not,” Nan Kinney says. “Women have worked their way out from under the culture that’s trying to keep them down. It has pretty deep roots. If they are anyway out of the norm then there is something wrong with them.” And who decides the norm? If you read what women write to me, ‘outside the norm’ doesn’t really exist. Nan agrees that women sometimes police their own brains and imaginations. “They just have problems with things that are in their heads, you know, fantasies. Whatever you do in your head is okay. Sometimes in sexuality it’s the forbidden that gets us more excited, the taboos. It doesn’t mean that we’re actually going to do them in real life.”

No matter how hard and kinky the porn they like is, all women who wrote to me specifically mention consent as vital. One likes BDSM and extreme gang bangs, “though only from porn providers I know are ethical/where it is clear there is informed consent”. Another who likes extreme kink says, “I used to enjoy straight amateur porn but stopped when I realised that a lot of it probably ended up on the internet without the consent of everyone involved – so I enjoy porn in which the female characters are not seen to be consenting to the activities, but only if this is ‘pretend’ non-consent.” Carlyle Jansen says many women are strong feminists and they’re confused by the fact that they’re turned on by rape fantasies. For the Feminist Porn Awards, the issue of consent is really important. They try to determine at what point a kink film is okay, and at what point it isn’t. This is something Tristan Taormino addresses in her movies, especially around kink. You hear it loud and clear, Carlyle says, “this is what gets me hot, this is what I want you to do to me, this is what gets me excited. Don’t do the other thing, but I want you to do this. You can see that there’s explicit consent which you often don’t get a chance to notice and I think that helps people to feel, okay, I can feel okay about watching this because this person has stated it gets them hot.”

Feminist porn offers a broader and more diverse representation of different sexualities, and not just the same stereotypes. This doesn’t mean that women can’t be dominated. “What that means,” Carlyle says, “is that if it seems evident that that’s what’s turning on the person and that there is consent then and that there’s respect for the person being dominated, then that can be feminist. So we’re looking for diversity of representation. We’re hoping that there’s an expansion out there for what our sexuality can look like.”

So what do we want? Everything, but not anything. What we like comes in all shapes and sizes. It’s soft and hard and everything in between. Our desires and turn ons are not restricted by the limits of what others (and we!) imagine us to be. But we like it real. We need to be able to believe it, to feel it, to identify with it and be able to imagine ourselves in what we see, however impossible it is. It needs to respect us, even when it’s taking us to extremes. We need to be in control, even when we’re being sexually submissive. And then we like it. Like it? We love it! We really do!

© Ronete Cohen

Links:

Courtney Trouble: http://courtneytrouble.com

Good For Her: http://www.goodforher.com

The Smitten Kitten: smittenkittenonline.com

Crashpad Series: crashpadseries.com

Pink Label TV: pinklabel.tv

Good Vibrations: http://www.goodvibes.com

Fatale Media: http://www.fatalemedia.com

Cliterati: http://www.cliterati.co.uk

Emily Dubberley: http://www.dubberley.com

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