Does sexual equality change porn?

In more equitable countries, X-rated images show a broader range of body types -- but demean women just as much

Topics: Pornography,

Does sexual equality change porn?

In what may feel like a flashback to the porn wars of the ’60s, a new study investigates the link between a country’s relative gender equality and the degree of female “empowerment” in the X-rated entertainment it consumes.

Researchers at the University of Hawaii focused on three countries in particular: Norway, the United States and Japan, which are respectively ranked 1st, 15th and (yikes) 54th on the United Nations’ Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM). To simplify their analysis, their library of smut was limited to explicit photographs of women “from mainstream pornographic magazines and Internet websites, as well as from the portfolios of the most popular porn stars from each nation.” Then they set out to evaluate each image on both a disempowerment and an empowerment scale, using respective measures like whether the woman is “bound and dominated” by “leashes, collars, gags, or handcuffs” or “whether she has a natural looking body.”

Their hypothesis was that societies with greater gender equity will consume pornography that has more representations of “empowered women” and less of “disempowered women.” It turned out the former was true, but, contradictory as it may sound, the latter was not. “While Norwegian pornography offers a wider variety of body types — conforming less to a societal ideal that is disempowering to the average woman — there are still many images that do not promote a healthy respect for women,” the researchers explain. In other words, Norwegian porn showed more signs of female empowerment, but X-rated images in all three countries equally depicted women in demeaning positions and scenarios. This, the researchers surmise, “suggests that empowerment and disempowerment within pornography are potentially different constructs.”

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So, gender equality is accompanied by sexual interest in a broader range of beauty types but not a decrease in porn’s infantilization of females, use of dominating fetish gear on women or any of the other characteristics that the researchers regarded as disempowering. Of course, even in a highly gender equitable society there is bound to be some inequity in pornography — taboos are wildly titillating, after all — but it’s remarkable that they found no significant difference among these disparate countries in terms of disempowering pornographic images of women.

One explanation might be that along with specific cultural values, cross-cultural biological imperatives are reflected in pornography. Some of the study’s disempowerment markers could be more a reflection of the gender disparity in porn’s audience. The researchers note, “In a large portion of hardcore pornography (that includes penetration during sexual activity) the erect penis is the most important organ” and “women are often used as little more than receptacles for the penis.” Is that because of sexism or because porn viewers, who are largely men, identify with, or project themselves onto, the male member? (Then there’s the nature-nurture question of why men show a greater interest in porn — but I digress.)

More research has to be done to better understand the study’s results, but in the meantime it’s worth considering the difficulty of evaluating sexual images in this way. You can’t so easily equate dominance with empowerment and submission with disempowerment. Take, as one example, that the researchers designate a woman in an “authoritative” position as a sign of empowerment. That formula can be easily upended — clearly, submission feels empowering to plenty of people. It’s also awfully subjective: The popular line within the BDSM community is that it’s the submissive that has all the power, because they’re the ones calling the shots.

Porn is often make-believe for viewers — what might be disempowering in the real world can be experienced as empowering in fantasy. It’s not so unusual for women and men who are high-powered and “in control” in their real lives to seek powerlessness in their sex lives (or vice versa). Sometimes feminists have fantasies about rape and gay men eroticize the homophobic jocks that terrorized them in high school. Sometimes people get off on what they desire, sometimes on what scares them most. It’s also the case that sex isn’t always empowering or disempowering, equitable or inequitable — it’s much too complicated for that.

Tracy Clark-Flory

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

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