What we talk about when we talk about porn

When I launched this project in October last year I never anticipated it to be as big, and as thoroughly fascinating, as it is shaping up to be. The survey closed in December with over 2,000 respondents from across a range of ages, ethnic backgrounds, and opinions on pornography, and the interviews will be closing at the end of June with 100 women participating. This makes it the largest ever study in the UK specifically looking at the range of women's experiences and views of online pornography. The analysis will be completed in full by the end of this year, but so far what is becoming clear from the data is that the traditional ‘knowledge’ about women and pornography is out of step with women’s experiences in the UK today.

Despite Catharine MacKinnon’s claim that as pornography is about women, the focus of the inquiry into its meaning must be what it means for women, surprisingly little work has been done talking to women about their experiences and views. There are a range of unanswered, and mostly unasked, questions about if and how women use pornography, as well as what pornographies they use, how their views of pornography have developed over time, and where pornography sits in relation to their experience of sexual freedom and agency. Agency, in this context, is to be understood as expressed both in desiring and in refusing. A want to do and a want to not do, bringing forward the experiences and views of those who do not use pornography as an important, but absent, voice.

What do we know?

It appears, at least on initial review of the data, that a lot of women are watching online porn, but that this is not (or is not only) a simple story of pleasure and empowerment. There is a distinct ambivalence running through women’s consumption of pornography that cannot be easily explained away by appeal to the ‘taboo’ of female sexuality or female masturbation more broadly. It is to explore this ambivalence further that I am now in the middle of conducting in-depth interviews with women about the stories of their engagements with pornography. These are taking place over the phone until the end of June, so there is still time to take part if you are interested. See here for more details.

Approximately ¾ of the respondents to the survey have watched online pornography by themselves to masturbate, with ¼ never having watched online pornography at all. There are important differences based on race and age that are rarely explored in pornography research, and really interesting information given by the women who do not watch pornography about their reasons and experiences. The majority of the porn being accessed is visual, not written as is often suggested, and the sites being used seem to be mostly the same mainstream ‘tube’ sites that are popular for men, not feminist or alternative pornographies. This last point is particularly important as it speaks to some of the discussions across research and in public about how to define the term ‘pornography’. I won’t be getting into that too much here but there is one point that is important and is already coming out from the data that speaks to the long-standing debate about ‘pornography’ vs. ‘pornographies.’

What we talk about when we talk about porn

Arguments about what pornography is, are a feature of a lot of research on porn. It has become, for example, a routine critique of the anti-pornography position that it collapses different genres into one undifferentiated whole, losing the complexities of desire, and the interpretative and transformative abilities of individuals in understanding texts. The argument here is that approaching pornography or the pornography industry as a monolith, fails to recognise pornography as diffuse and diverse, hiding queer pornographies, feminist pornographies and both independent and amateur productions.

While this critique is important, its function in the debates is problematic. Instead of opening up the debate to consider a range of pornographies, the function of highlighting pornographies as multiple is often to suggest that nothing can be said of pornography itself – rendered so multifaceted as to become unspeakable. It also hides in a division between mainstream, independent, and queer pornographies, the ways in which the mainstream has expanded to include both categories and content previously only seen in ‘alternative’ pornographies, making the division into clearly demarcated groups more messy than such separation implies. Perhaps most importantly, it buries an exploration of how consumer practices may reveal that such divisions are not as important as this discussion may make them appear.

Much theoretical work on women and pornography for example, focuses on feminist or queer pornographies, often made for women and queer communities by women and queer communities and keen to represent both the processes of consent and negotiation in sex acts, as well as the diverse range of bodies that engage in them. What is hidden in a sole focus on these pornographies however, is how women who engage with them, commonly also engage in mainstream pornography, calling into question the usefulness of such a clear division. This suggests that the division into mainstream and alternative pornographies doesn’t accurately describe the ways in which these different forms are commonly sought out together – their relationship one of both/and not either/or.

Finding space between

This categorisation of either mainstream or alternative is an example of just one of the dichotomies that have traditionally structured the pornography debates. I’ve previously written about how binaries such as pro/anti-pornography, empowered/exploited, and kink/vanilla, inform and structure the debates, allowing little exploration of overlaps and ambiguity. This may form part of the reason why women as a group have been so neglected in pornography research, as the limited literature available suggests their experiences do not easily fit into the categories provided. The limited studies that do exist show women’s experiences to be contradictory, conflicted, and ambivalent, qualities that struggle for expression within legal or psychological frames. This is definitely mirrored in the data collected so far with women telling a much more complicated story than the traditional ‘love it or hate it’ narrative of porn.

Adopting an intersectional perspective to the study of pornography helps to move outside of these binaries. It is a perspective that highlights the ways in which various factors relating to women's different social positions are differences that make a difference. These differences, such as in racialisation, ethnicity, caste, class, age, religion, sexual orientation, marital status, geographic location, or disability, can create inequalities that are unique to particular groups of women or that disproportionately affect some women relative to others. They then act to situate women in relation to each other, as well as in relation to men. An intersectional perspective helps alert us to the trap of collapsing women into a single category to study as if women have some kind of shared sexuality, different from men’s, at the same time as highlighting the importance of grounding theory in the realities of lived difference between and amongst women.

There is a small but significant body of literature, mostly conceptual, on representations of race in pornography that manages to work outside of the polemical positions that have limited the debates. What work from women of colour on pornography reveals is how, when one is struggling to gain access to their own representation, there is no easy narrative of ‘agency’, ‘choice’, ‘limitation’, or ‘freedom.’ Instead we need to look to what Celine Parreñas Shimizu, calls “between the spaces of structure and agency”, to see how pornography might in some ways expand women’s ‘space for action’ at the same time as constraining it. Given the ways in which women of colour theorists have managed to find a space for ambiguity in the notoriously divisive ‘sex wars’, the lack of attention paid to lived differences between women in empirical work may have contributed to the stalling of the debates.

Get your voice heard

Women on Porn begins from this place, seeking to address the absence of knowledge on women’s relationships to pornography without imposing a singular ‘story’ or ‘universal woman’s experience.’ As such there is no right or wrong experience or position, and there are a range of contradictions and conflicts both between and within the women who have participated. These differences are important to hold, to put in conversation with each other rather than attempt to level them out. Our attention is turned away from the binaries that have so tightly structured both the debates and research methodologies so far, towards exploring the more ambiguous ways in which pornographies are situated, and in turn situate, women’s experiences of our sexuality, agency, and freedom.

As a woman I interviewed last month asked: “What are the conversations about porn we need to be having that we don’t want to have?” Wherever those conversations take us, women’s voices need to be forefront.

Just one more week to get your voice heard. Find out more here