What kind of porn turns women on?

Most women don’t watch it. But those who do aren't watching the kind of female-friendly porn you might expect

Published April 14, 2014 12:00AM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNet The never-ending debate about women and pornography has led to many assumptions about female sexual desire. A common perception depicted by the media is that women are turned off by porn that is made for men, by men. Advocates for so-called female-friendly pornography—that is, porn founded on mutual respect where the female subject demonstrates true agency in her sexuality—believe that if there were more emotive-driven, personality-based storylines in porn, more women would watch it. However, surprising research on porn patterns suggests otherwise.

Neuroscientists Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam, co-authors of the book, A Billion Wicked Thoughts, conducted research on visual pornography in relation to female sexual desire in an attempt to unlock the secret of our sexual habits. The results of their study found that while most women don’t watch porn, those who do are not watching female-friendly porn but rather the same mainstream, male-targeted, hardcore sites that men view.

“There is a real interesting phenomenon in women’s sexuality—not seen in men’s—and that is this divide between what eroticashouldbe and what actually turns women on,” Ogas told AlterNet. “Studies show that what turns women on is different to what they wish turned them on or how they politically feel about it. There is a paradox in the brain that women have to wrestle with. Men like what they like sexually. But with women, we see political manifestos embedded in their sexuality, with just as much emphasis on whether or not we’re discriminating on any particular gender or race. Whereas, for a man that just doesn’t occur.”

An interesting correlation is found between women who like hardcore porn and certain personality traits, Ogar explains.

“Women who like hardcore porn tend to be more aggressive, more socially assertive and more comfortable taking risks. They are comfortable playing both roles sexually, they like being dominated and being submissive. They possess a constellation of personality traits that you would normally associate with men. It is reasonable to imagine then that for a minority of women, their sexual brain develops in a masculine way,” he said.

Angie Rowntree, the founder of Sssh.com, offers a different explanation for the trafficking trends.

“If the vast majority of porn on the market is made by and for men—and it is—is it any wonder that a relatively small portion of women wants to watch it? To me, that number just speaks to the opportunity on the market for porn made with a female viewership in mind. It’s just a function of the numbers and what has been available on the market, historically speaking,” she told AlterNet.

Indeed, while the rise of "female-friendly" porn has shown that women’s individual preferences are as varied and diverse as men, some common trends have emerged with regard to female sexual tastes. A 2008 study found that women showed signs of arousal watching pretty much anything: masturbation, straight sex, girl-on-girl, guy-on-guy, bonobo chimps, everythingexcept pictures of naked men, which did not float a woman’s boat.

So is there a place online for female-friendly porn sites? Ogas weighs in on the big picture.

“There is definitely an audience for feminist-friendly porn, just a small audience and a small fraction of women overall. What is fascinating is that women commonly promote the idea of feminist porn and socially want to believe in it. Activists argue that there needs to be more of it, women support it in public and I see women start erotic websites all the time. But when it comes down to it, that is just not what they are interested in looking at,” he said.

In contrast, Rowntree says female-friendly porn is important in contemporary society regardless of one's views on pornography because it is an extension of the way that women have explored and expressed their sexuality throughout history.

“To me, it’s important that there’s porn made by and for women, to ensure that at least some of the porn on the market emphasizes a woman’s pleasure and the feminine perspective. It’s important that there are depictions available that show people having real sex, experiencing real, mutual pleasure, and not just something that satisfies male-dominant fantasies….Whenever women have been open about their sexuality, or god forbid, assertive with our sexuality, you can count on a certain number of people freaking out about it, and looking for ways to shame and silence us,” she said.

While social constructs, stereotypes and pressures have certainly played a role in keeping women from being comfortable with porn in the past, Rowntree says the impact of those factors are diminishing over time. This is consistent with a recent poll of 300 women, which showed millennials watched the most porn: 57 percent of respondents who enjoyed porn solo were aged 18-24.

Rowntree says, "Among younger women, there’s less and less concern for such constructs, and more openness to erotic material and more comfort with their own sexuality. To me, 'female-friendly porn' just means porn that doesn’t make a second-class citizen out of the women performing in it, or the women watching it. It depicts two people truly enjoying themselves.”

By Jodie Gummow

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