Unfortunately, many of us straight women developed our ideas of “sexiness” based on images of female sexuality distorted to serve men.
The first time I got off to a sex scene that didn’t happen to be porn, it left me overcome by your standard feelings of female dirtiness and guilt and weirdness. I was 22, at home on a Friday night while my husband slept in the next room, and watching Y Tu Mamá También for the first time. There’s a late scene where Gaél García Bernal and Diego Luna finally get Maribel Verdú to have a threesome, and as she drops out of the shot and below the waists of both of them, they lean over and themselves start making out. (Yes, do click that link.)
That man-on-beautiful-Mexican-man kiss left me so electrified and open-mouthed that I had to jump off the sofa, tiptoe to the TV, rewind the film, and then soundlessly get myself off, terrified that my husband would walk out and discover me in my new levels of sexual degradation. When later, guiltily, I showed him the scene, he was totally bewildered as to the appeal.
Now, more than half a decade later, new research from neuroscientists Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam confirms that I am indeed a freak among straight women for getting aroused by watching bi men getting it on. More precisely, their study has found that a) most women don’t watch porn at all, and b) the ones who do “are not watching female-friendly porn but rather the same mainstream, male-targeted, hardcore sites that men view.”
No need for female takes on porn, then, as luckily the secret to mainstream-porn enjoyment is simply—surprise!—to be more like men ourselves: “Women who like hardcore porn…possess a constellation of personality traits that you would normally associate with men.”
So what’s holding most of us women back in our online enjoyment of sluts being slayed?
Well, the usual culprit: our pesky female brains, which insist on focusing on the moral paradoxes built into mainstream porn. Ogas’s thinking on the subject is worth quoting in full:
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. [Emphasis added].
The obvious question—why don’t men give a fuck about portrayals of gender and race while getting their rocks off?—seems not to have occurred to the researchers, bless their objective-scientist little hearts. And the answer to that question also seems obvious enough: Because men don’t feel responsible or conscious of the consequences of those porn portrayals.
That makes sense, given that the consequences of the misogynistic view of women in mainstream porn are overwhelmingly borne by women themselves. Men get to wank uncritically to whatever gets them excited and walk away scot-free, unscathed by the pornification of pop culture and the severe body issues, eating disorders, battered self-esteem, sexual dysfunction, and other emotional and psychological damage wrought on women who are constantly surrounded by images of sexuality that put men’s sense of virility first. The porn paradox in the brain is our intellectual burden to resolve as women. Obviously.
Firstly, let’s make one thing clear. Whether male or female, people’s physiologies do respond to images of genitalia rubbing up against each other, regardless of the aesthetic and moral sophistication of the content. This is not news. In fact, the punk pornographer Joanna Angel’s entire take on the genre is based on turning you on in spite of yourself. Her ridiculous, hilarious, or outright preposterous porn leaves you confused, laughing, cringing, and still somehow quite wet. (For an example, see this video of her as an 18th-century Wife of Frankenstein being shagged by the monster himself. Bonus: Includes James Deen as Victor Frankenstein!)
But this doesn’t mean that content doesn’t matter and that the impact of porn-viewing is purely physiological. Any form of visual representation—everything from Tracey Emin’s unmade bed to Lars von Trier’s mammoth arthouse epic exploring female sexuality—has embedded political and social messages, in many cases ones the creator himself might not even be aware of. Just because the aim of mainstream porn is to get men’s rocks off does not give it a get-out-of-jail-free card among other forms of media in this respect. No matter what your boyfriend tries to tell you.
I argued last week in my column in support of #AfterSexSelfies that women can either reject porn outright, or try to start crowding out the societal space occupied by the money shot with our own views of our own sexualities. Unfortunately, many of us straight women developed our ideas of “sexiness” based on images of female sexuality appropriated and distorted to serve the patriarchy (and consumerism). So answering the question What really turns me on? might feel strange and even transgressive for many of us, as in the case of that man-on-man kiss in Y Tu Mamá También.
And once you’ve figured out what you desire, it’s entirely possible that the forms of visual expression available for showcasing that desire prove inadequate. This is only logical given that the form of porn as we know it was developed to titillate the male ego. For example, the work of Swedish feminist pornographer Erika Lust is nothing if not well-intentioned, but her films often still show the marks of over-the-top sexual consumerism typical of mainstream male porn. This means that really innovative “women’s porn” might not look like porn at all. There was, for instance, no T&A displayed in my #AfterSexSelfie last week—so was it really porn?
I actually don’t care. I just want to know: What do you find arousing? Show me. Own it. I really want to see it.
And show it to your boyfriends, too—they need to see it. Ask them the questions Ogas and Gaddam didn’t think it worthwhile to ask. While your showcases of female desire might interrupt your boyfriend’s blissful, depoliticized wank sessions, they might also have ripple effects in “emasculating” our rape culture and spark some frank talk about what desire actually is for women, no matter how trangressive.
Samantha Eyler is a freelance writer and editor raised in Kentucky and London and now based in Medellín, Colombia. She has written about politics, immigration, Latin America, and social justice for publications such as NACLA and the New Statesman, and is one of the founders of the London Fields Feminist Book Group. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.