Originally posted: June 1, 2019

I was recently contacted by a writer named Sofia Barrett-Ibarria, who was working on a piece exploring the limits of so-called “porn for women” for VICE. 

Barrett-Ibarria wrote:

I’m a writer with VICE working on a piece exploring the limits of so-called “porn for women.” 
In the piece, I’ll be taking a look back at the rise of “porn for women” as a sub genre that sometimes portrays women’s sexuality as a self-perpetuating stereotype, often policing the kind of adult content women enjoy. At the moment, I’m reaching out to content creators and industry experts to lend their perspectives on topic, and I’d love to interview you for the piece. 

After some correspondence, she expanded:

Basically, I’ll be exploring the rise of “porn for women” as a response to a growing demand for adult content that centers women’s pleasure and agency — which is definitely a good thing. However, I’ve noticed that “porn for women” as a subcategory of porn sometimes seems to rely on sexist stereotypes about what women enjoy. For example Quinn, a new visual-free porn site, calls itself “a less gross PornHub for women,” suggesting that women who enjoy mainstream/hardcore porn, or those who create it, are sexual outliers.

I’m curious about what the demand for women-centered porn reveals about cultural attitudes about women’s sexuality. Is it becoming more culturally/socially acceptable for women to talk about watching and enjoying porn? What does it mean for a tube site giant like PornHub to include a “popular with women” category?

I’m also wondering if you could speak to some of the limits of the term “porn for women.” Why is the term itself somewhat problematic?

It’s an interesting set of things to think about. I replied with the following tirade (haha). I am not sure I answered the questions directly, but this is what came up:

So, the overarching framework for this issue is key – a wider social, historical discomfort with sex. As a consequence of our long-standing and sustained discomfort with sex in general, we have a litany of issues and struggles with ideas related to women’s sexualities, commercial sex, and sex media – all resulting in absences of knowledge that can be as willful as they are socially constructed. Thinking about “porn for women” in this context is key.

Candida Royale was one of the first people to engage rhetoric that would eventually be uptaken into the “porn for women” space. I believe Royale phrased one descriptor of her work as “porn from a woman’s perspective.” This is fair to this day. Royale’s work was in fact coming from the standpoint of a– as in, one – woman’s viewpoint, and this was incendiary in the 1980s. Because though women had always been involved in content production, this was not generally acknowledged or understood by the viewing public.

Fast forward to about five-ish years ago, when the “porn for women” phrase really began to hit with mainstream media reporting on the industry. Here’s the thing: what “porn for women” may actually be is a genre descriptor. Sure, there is content out there that hangs together – that’s more narrative-based, with greater production care (this is different from budget, though budget may be a part of it), that has a different touch and a certain eye regarding sex depiction and sex tenor… The mise-en-scène, if you will. This content collection or genre, however, like all other content out there, can be liked or enjoyed by anyone – not just women, much less all women.

Calling this content “porn for women” relies on stereotypes about women and men and humans and porn viewers in general, as well as a lack of understanding of adult content overall. In other words, “porn for women” may refer to an actual genre of adult content, sure. Naming that genre of content “porn for women” though is a huge issue. This inaccurate, off-mark nomenclature says a lot about the way wider society “understands” porn (and, women).

In this way, current use of the phrase “porn for women” is frustrating, as well as being generally dismissive and judgey in of itself. Ideas like TryQuinn.com are great – women in general have a widely varied and diverse set of sexual proclivities and expressions and enjoy consuming content in different ways – but referring to other ways in which some women and some other humans consume or enjoy content as “gross” is not. If the folks at TryQuinn want their space to consume sex media as they (and certainly plenty of others) see fit, then they need to be mindful of the fact that others’ sexual proclivities — as long as consent is present — are great too.

Therein lies the basic facepalm quality of “porn for women” – all women? No. Nothing can meet the needs of all women, as all women have very diverse interests. 

Updated: June 29, 2019

You can read Barrett-Ibarria’s piece — “The Problem With ‘Porn for Women’” (June 28, 2019) — on VICE right here.

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2 thoughts on “‘Porn for Women’ — A Genre with an Off-mark Name (Commentary for VICE)

  • June 29, 2019 at 4:20 am
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    How did I not see this until just now?

    Excellent points both in your blog and in the original article.

    Speaking as someone who enjoys many of the elements of what “porn for women” (in general) exhibits (e.g., story structure, emotional content), I find the description problematic from the opposite angle (i.e., not that it implies narrow limits on women’s tastes, but rather that it implies an exclusion of male interests — something that you suggest when you write “Calling this content ‘porn for women’ relies on stereotypes about women and men and humans and porn viewers in general” and that Courtney Trouble addresses in the Vice article itself).

    And, as you note “porn for women” may well be a genre of porn. The problem is that “porn for women” is not actually porn… for… women.

    If the marketing category were to be truly accurate, “porn for women” would simply be that set of porn, whatever it was, for which it could be statistically demonstrated that women show a preference. But this would be pretty useless. In the age of internet programs that track our individual tastes and then use that information in complex algorithms to market to us, even that “more accurate” moniker would be too coarse for use.

    I wonder if the answer is in something Lynn Comella says in the Vice Article. Referring to the emergence of “porn for women”, she writes: “It was a desire for cultural intervention into a marketplace of images and discourses related to sex and sexuality that catered primarily to men.”

    Perhaps the issue isn’t so much the content of what is marketed as it is the marketing, and more — the distribution — of the content. Maybe “porn for women” has evolved not so much because women need to feel it’s okay to view porn but because women need to feel it’s okay to purchase it?

    I’m thinking of something like the following. There are very few brick and mortar adult stores anymore. But where they do exist, they tend to have an overwhelmingly male customer base. Whether or not they are truly threatening to women (and I doubt they are), women are certainly justified in not wanting to enter them simply because they don’t want excessive attention from male fellow-patrons or judgmental attention from people on the street.

    Likewise, women may feel that buying porn online will expose them to other forms of “exposure” (gee… why’d I think of that word?) to social and economic forces that they don’t want to be exposed to. E.g., something as basic as having their credit card information out there or concerns about their computers being hacked. Men have these concerns too, but I think it’s reasonable to say that women are more justified in having them (although it’s not reasonable to say that it’s FAIR that women are more justified in having them).

    Might it be that women (in general) are looking for something to indicate “yes, you may buy without fear of untoward consequences”? Might it be that “porn for women” reassures women (in general) that it’s okay to buy?

    If so, then the issue may be that “porn for women” is not the wrong label for the right genre, but rather than it is the right label for the wrong distribution issue.

    Of course, smacking the “porn for women” label on particular content doesn’t make any transaction “safer” than it would otherwise be. But it might have a reassuring effect. Maybe what’s needed is a “online porn store for women”, like the feminist sex-toy stores mentioned in the title of the Comella book. But that has its own problems.

    As you’ve undoubtedly thought already (as I have), “or maybe society should stop being so ridiculous in the first place?” Yeah, but we already know that’s not a reasonable expectation.

    Reply
  • June 29, 2019 at 8:34 am
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    Excellent! I’m 1 of those dudes who likes content that gets labeled “porn for women” but who is also put off by the label itself for all of the reasons you talk about.

    Eddie Izzard put it well on a similar topic when he was a guest on *Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me!* Peter Segal had described him as someone who enjoyed wearing women’s clothes, and Eddie said “I have to correct you on something: they’re not women’s clothes, *I* bought them.”

    Reply

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