Why do we care so much about “porn for women”?

The media keeps asking what makes for female-friendly smut. Too bad there isn't an answer

Topics: Pornography, Sex, Love and Sex,

Why do we care so much about "porn for women"?The cover of the "Porn for Women" calendar

The Guardian is breaking news today about how — get this — women are making porn for other women. I kid, I kid — there is nothing new about this phenomenon. I was writing about feminist, female-directed porn back in college for my school newspaper. In the seven or so years since then, far more female directors and feminist production companies have premiered on the scene, but we’re still asking the same fundamental question: What is “porn for women,” exactly? I’m interested in a different question, though: Why is this a perennial subject of debate?

More often than not, “porn for women” is the punch line of a joke. You know, as the cheeky picture book “Porn for Women” imagines it, it’s a handsome man doing the dishes or vacuuming. While there’s certainly something there — a male partner doing his fair share of domestic duties is attractive, yes — it also perpetuates a bigger cultural fantasy of women as erotically passive and non-threatening. The joke of “porn for women” is that porn for women isn’t actually porn — yet the quest for the Holy Grail of female-friendly porn continues, and with great public interest.

Part of why it persists, despite the stereotypes, is because there is a market for it: One out of every three online porn watchers is female, according to Nielsen/NetRatings. Note, though, that figure doesn’t consider the frequency of use. Still, there is an audience there, and money to be made. There’s much more money to be made off of women who are not yet watching porn, and those who tune in only occasionally because they don’t find what’s out there all that satisfying. The feverish search for “female Viagra” goes on despite vanishingly small successes, because it’s estimated to be a $2 billion market. There is a lot of money to be made off of female desire and, it’s important to note, men’s desire to better understand it.

There’s definitely an element of the latter in the debate over female-friendly porn, which is fundamentally a conversation about what turns women on. It’s an attempt to find a concrete and lucid answer to the classic Freudian question, “What do women want?” It’s been nearly a century and we still haven’t figured that one out — because, erotically speaking and otherwise, women want so very many different things. Some women don’t like porn, period, and among those that do, there is no consensus on what makes it good. Women want an answer to that Freudian query just as much as men do. Who doesn’t want to see how their desires measure up? It taps into the most common of sexual concerns for both men and women: Am I normal? Am I a freak?

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It just so happens that I recently put out a call for women to share the last thing that turned them on — my thinking being, OK, assuming for a moment that porn for women isn’t porn then what is it? The answers ranged from X-rated Twilight fanfic to the flex of a bicep to the kiss of a longtime lover to hardcore gay male porn. Reading through the responses, I alternated between a knowing “I hear you, girl” smirk and busting out laughing at turn-ons that sounded about as erotic to me as getting a loofah rubdown from Bill O’Reilly. It only underscored what I already knew from actual scientific research on the matter: Female desire is a very funny thing.

So much of what we understand about women’s erotic psyches is abstract and, quite frankly, bizarre. A couple years back, Daniel Bergner comprehensively detailed in the New York Times Magazine how there is a disconnect between what physically arouses women and what we consciously register as arousing — or, as I put it at the time, researchers found women’s “brains were doing one thing while their lady parts were doing another.” Physiologically, we respond strongly to videos of gay sex, lesbian sex, straight sex and even monkey sex, but our subjective arousal is a separate, though sometimes intersecting, issue. Good luck trying to sort out the whys and hows of that — you’ll be in the company of the world’s leading sex researchers.

Every woman has a different definition of “porn for women” based on her own finicky desires. There might be some common requests — like more kissing, more narrative — but those things are highly subjective. Inevitably some women will complain that there’s too much kissing and too much narrative — which is how I’ve felt about most of the “porn for women” that I’ve seen. The debate continues because there isn’t a single answer to the question — but we so badly want there to be. It sure makes for a nice fantasy.

Tracy Clark-Flory
Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

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