What about feminist porn?

As I'm moving through the analysis of the survey and onto the interviews I wanted to share some of what is coming out. A distinct area, and common question, is about feminist pornography and/or "women-friendly" porn. There's quite a lot of data about this in the interviews, but what I can present now is some basic data drawn from the survey, with some analysis of what I think it says about where we should be directing our attention.

1,148 participants gave information about whether they had ever searched for feminist or women friendly pornography, with just over half (54%) saying that they had. As the analysis of the survey data continues I'll be able to update this as to how many of the other 46% didn't look for porn at all, or just hadn't ever searched for this style of pornography. However at the moment we can say that there's something interesting in the fact that roughly half of all women who responded to a project specifically on their experiences of pornography had never even searched for, let alone used, feminist pornography or women-friendly porn.

Women from Black and minoritised backgrounds were slightly more likely to have searched for feminist and/or women friendly porn than white women, though the likelihood of having searched for feminist or women friendly porn was much more connected to generation. There was a steady decrease in having sought out feminist or women-friendly pornography as respondents got older, from over half (54%, n=175) of 18-24 year olds, to 47% of 25-34 year olds, 30% of 35-44 year olds, 29% of 45-54 year olds, and just 20% of women 55 years and over.

Previous research has shown that what can be missed in focusing on alternative pornographies is how women who engage with these, commonly also engage in mainstream pornography. A study on feminist pornography consumption among women, for example, found that participants continued to consume mainstream pornography despite their critical orientations towards it. This is something that is also coming out of the interviews for this project, and it means that rather than an either/or the use of feminist or women-friendly pornography is better understood as existing in conjunction with the types of run-of-the-mill heterosexual "male-gaze" porn found on tube sites the internet over. 

Other researchers have asked questions about what is feminist in feminist pornography, finding the answer is mainly given by feminist pornographers in terms of the ethics of production rather than representational practices such as specific forms of content. In a strange reversal of the familiar "feminist methods or methods used for a feminist purpose?" debates in research, it seems that what is feminist in feminist pornography may be the methods, not necessarily the purpose or outcome.

But what about consumers? The reasons for searching or not searching for feminist and/or women friendly pornography were not asked in this study, my mistake, I didn't actually think it would generate much response other than a simple yes/no - fool! But luckily a free text box invited women to say more about their experience and 369 women entered free text, roughly three quarters of whom (n=282) had searched for feminist/women friendly porn. The free text responses were analysed for themes. Eighteen codes appeared in at least 1% (n=4) of all responses (n=327). 42 free text responses were categorised into codes with less than 1% of respondents and thus fell outside of the parameters of analysis. 

 Table 1: Free text codes: Feminist and/or "women friendly" pornography

Table 1: Free text codes: Feminist and/or "women friendly" pornography

Cross-referencing codes with whether respondents had or had not searched for feminist/women friendly pornography revealed some clear trends. The most common responses for women who had searched for feminist or ‘women-friendly’ pornography were that it was hard to find (n=57, with 1 woman who had not searched saying she hadn’t looked as wasn’t sure where to find it), that cost functioned as a barrier or issue in accessing (n=35), that they had sought it out because they wanted to find something reflecting women’s pleasure (n=34, with 1 woman who had not searched, saying that she might do this in the future as wanted something that centered on women), and that what they felt it was mostly boring or uninteresting (n=25, with 7 women saying this was the reason they’d never searched for it). Overwhelmingly the most common responses for women who had not searched for feminist or ‘women-friendly’ pornography were that they had not known it existed (n=42, with 3 women who had searched saying they had only done this after finding out that this existed as a category), followed by their being satisfied with mainstream porn (n=11), and feeling uninterested in feminist or “women-friendly” material (n=7).

What is interesting here is the largely negative ways in which women who had accessed feminist or women friendly porn framed it – focusing largely on problems with access and content, though the importance of offering an alternative to the misogyny in mainstream porn and a concern about ethical production also featured.

The women who had not searched for it did not explain this in relation to a negative projection of what feminist or women-friendly porn was. Instead they largely focused again on issues to do with access (not knowing it existed) and content (not needing different content).

A focus on the ethics of production was only minimally mentioned by both groups of respondents.

This suggests that the deciding factors in whether women search for or use feminist or “women-friendly” porn,  may be largely individual – based on knowledge, resources, and individual preference – rather than, as often believed,  driven by a desire for ethical consumption. And this sits in contrast to the claim that what is feminist about feminist porn is its methods. It seems, on the surface at least, that most women really aren't that bothered by methods, they're driven to use or not use feminist or women-friendly porn because of more individual reasons.

Now there is one major problem with what I've outlined here, something you may have picked up. The question construction conflated feminist and women-friendly pornography however the difference between the two could be made along similar lines to my argument here - that one focuses on method and the other on content. The interviews have much more qualitative detail on what this difference means in practice for women and so we'll have to wait until then to make these claims clearer. For now however, what the survey data suggests is that in order to represent women's lived experience, the porn debates need to do better than focusing on the possibilities of alternative forms of pornography without addressing what exists in the main. If only around half of the respondents had ever searched for feminist or women friendly porn, and those that have generally use more mainstream porn as well, then the distinction between the mainstream and alternative - so often made in the feminist porn debates - may in fact be diverting our attention from points of agreement: namely what one of my interviewees referred to as "the big boys of porn".

 

FVG