Porn for Ladies: The Subtle Sexism of Assessing Female-Friendly Smut

By Molly Oswaks

Why at this late date are we still reinforcing the idea that women are modest and fragile and in need of gender-specific accommodations?

James Deen

Bret Easton Ellis is really into James Deen. Not James Dean, the actor perhaps best known for his role in East of Eden, but James Deen, the actor perhaps best known for his early roles in Art School Sluts and Ass Eaters Unanimous 6. The satirical novelist is hoping to cast the young star in The Canyons, a low-budget movie to be directed by Paul Schrader, according to The New York Observer.

Easton Ellis isn't the first one to be wowed by Deen. Amanda Hess profiled the 25-year-old porn prince at length in a recent issue of GOOD magazine, sparking an important conversation about sex and sexism in the porn industry. In a post for Slate's XXFactor called "Porn That Women Like," J. Bryan Lowder wrapped it all up. "Women can't get the kind of porn they want from the mainstream," Lowder wrote, because the largely male-controlled porn industry mistakenly imagines that they want to watch big muscly, mean-looking men, when, according to Lowder, what actually gets women off is something a little more along the lines of James Deen's non-threatening, preppy aesthetic.

Why at this late date are we still reinforcing the idea that women are modest and fragile and in need of gender-specific accommodations?

While Deen does do a lot of work for bondage and discipline sites like Kink.com, his talent for performing vanilla sex scenes -- for example: XXX parodies of TV shows like Seinfeld, 30 Rock, and Scrubs -- is what makes him a novelty in the porn world. Well-groomed and of average build, with a mop of curly brown hair and smiling blue eyes, Deen seems a shoe-in more for Dawson's Creek than for Deep Throat. And thanks to his boyish good looks and seeming ability to connect emotionally on-screen with his female co-stars, he has amassed a devoted fan-base of young woman in an industry that, again according to Lowder, "in most cases ignores them entirely."

I won't argue with Lowder on this point: Much of the porn being made today appeals to a conventionally male kind of erotic fantasy. But whether porn producers have women's interests in mind when they shoot a scene is beside the point if we stop pretending that "women's interests" is a category unto itself. Studies by Meredith Chivers (PDF), a university professor of psychology and a highly regarded researcher of sexual behavior, have determined that women and men respond to pornography with equal arousal. In fact, whereas men demonstrate a physiological response primarily when watching porn of their respective sexual orientation only, women are far less discriminating: they respond to just about all of it.

Of course, there's something nice about believing that vanilla porn is what women like, and Lowder is not alone in thinking so. Women themselves have been so conditioned to believe that porn is misogynistic, objectifying, degrading, disgusting, rude, and lewd. This anti-porn position first emerged in the 1970s, a product of second-wave feminist thinking championed by the likes of Gloria Steinem, Catherine MacKinnon, and Andrea Dworkin, whose radical belief was that pornography is harmful to women and girls and a violation of civil rights. Forty years later, this illogic is alive and well thanks in part to people like Gail Dines, a professor of sociology and women's studies and a self-described anti-pornography activist, whose platform is essentially: All porn is terrible for everyone, men and women alike. In an op-ed published last year in the Australian newspaper The Age, Dines wrote that pornography is at its core "a market transaction in which women's bodies and sexuality are offered to male consumers ... to deliver the maximum amount of degradation ... and to illustrate how much power [a man] has over [a women]." Following Dines's ideology, good girls don't watch porn -- and if they do, they certainly don't admit to liking it.

Why at this late date are we still reinforcing the idea that women are modest and fragile and in need of gender-specific accommodations? Lowder seems to suggest that the arrival of James Deen's mild-enough flavor of porn is some sort of victory for women. As I see it, the only thing necessarily lady-friendly about soft-core scenes is that they come with less stigma than the real stuff. Watching this vanilla variety of porn might feel, for some, like less of a betrayal of one's feminist values -- because the sex depicted is a little gentler, not quite as rapey as what you might expect of, say, a typical S&M scene -- but there is nothing at all feminist, or psychologically healthy, about limiting the expression of a woman's sexuality.

It is a mistake for Lowder to conflate James Deen's enamored female fans with female consumption of porn, because his is not the only porn that women choose to watch. Calling Deen's films "porn for ladies" seems to imply that all other mainstream porn, with its various kinks and categories, is somehow not for women. The problem with gender-specific products -- be it porn or pre-school toys -- is that they deal in stereotype and social conditioning. Though it's hard to imagine how any man could object to the possibility that a woman's sexual appetite might match his own, by acknowledging what he thinks to be a victory for sexually-charged women everywhere -- Finally, ladies, they've made something just for you! -- Lowder is in fact reinforcing a taboo.

Lowder's post amounts to little more than another failed male attempt at understanding female sexuality. Of course, the real problem is much greater than simply the branding and marketing of different types of porn. The subtle sexism implied by so-called porn for ladies comes from the same line of thinking that says a women who sleeps with many men is a slut, while a man who sleeps with many women is a real stud. Until that ideology changes -- and I don't know when it will -- I believe women should explore and enjoy all types of porn, regardless of its intended audience, because you'll never be pleased by anybody if you don't know how to please yourself.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/03/porn-for-ladies-the-subtle-sexism-of-assessing-female-friendly-smut/254147/