Why don’t men read more romance novels?
Via Jezebel, I see that Violet Blue has written an essay about why women don’t watch more porn that shades into pressuring women who don’t to feel bad about it, as if not enjoying a genre made mostly by men mostly for men makes you a prude. I know that’s not her intention, and maybe it’s just my mood, but I wasn’t really persuaded by her piece, because she breezed over the hard questions, choosing instead to make women who are turned off by porn feel bad about it, like they’re brainwashed by messages about how women are asexual. Continuing to beat back the slim and vanishing minority of feminists who think that non-misogynist porn is impossible is a strategy that’s increasingly reading like a strawman to me, especially when I read stuff like this:
I’ve also heard, plenty of times, that porn degrades women. That argument always makes me wonder about gay male porn, which lots of women appreciate for all its hunky hotties in flagrante. If heterosexual porn degrades women, does gay porn degrade men? What about porn made by women — is that degrading, too?
Why does she think that straight women watch gay porn? Or that there’s a tiny but growing market for feminist porn, enough that there’s an awards show for it? The popularity of gay porn and the growing market for feminist porn aren’t evidence that porn isn’t misogynist, but evidence that women (and straight men who are the main audience for straight feminist porn) are so turned off by the sexism they see in mainstream porn that they seek alternatives. Or some women do, and others just flip off the computer and find other ways to fantasize. The proliferation of alternatives doesn’t do anything to counter the argument that porn degrades women, it seems. It just creates a space to say that it doesn’t necessarily degrade women, which is a statement of possibility, not an observation of what’s really out there.
But women are very capable of avoiding stuff that’s brutally misogynist and indulging stuff that’s sexist, but not so bad that they can’t compartmentalize and enjoy it. That’s true of Hollywood films, music, and I’d argue, in porn. Contrary to what Violet says about the cheesiness and costumes, my experience is that stuff tends to proliferate in porn that’s aimed more for the “couples” audience, and it often is there to signal that this is all in good fun, and viewers won’t be subjected to scenes with violent overtones or name-calling. But even with the availability of stuff that you can kind of guess won’t be overtly misogynist, women still don’t consume as much. Why?
On one hand, that’s like asking why men don’t read more romance novels. You can usually tell when you’re in the intended audience, you know. Women aren’t stupid. But actually, something Violet said got me thinking.
And yet in my research and experience, the biggest roadblock for women (and men) to enjoying explicit imagery is the fear that they don’t “stack up” to the bodies and abilities of the people onscreen. Erotic models and actresses bring up a whole range of adequacy issues, from breast size to weight, from what you look like “down there” to the adult acne we all periodically fight.
And then she chastises us to just get over it, which is distinctly unhelpful. This is sex; why should people force themselves to do things that they find unpleasant when it’s supposed to be fun? Excuse me. Not people. Obviously, we’re talking about women, and it’s easy to chastise women, because our culture constructs sex as something women do for men, and men do for fun. Which actually goes a long way to explaining why porn often leaves women cold.
I recently watched this short video with Mary Roach, and in it she pointed out something that’s so obvious that I think it’s actually easy for people to miss. She talks about how the most effective—but still, sadly ineffective—treatment for women who are having problems getting aroused or having orgasms is to work on helping them unlearn to “perform” sex for men, and start approaching sex like men do, which is something you do for fun. That’s a tall order, of course, since every time you turn around, you get the message that women perform sex and men are the audience. That’s why the blow job is way more a cultural icon than cunnilingus. Women are so worried about being good in bed and making sure to perform like porn stars that they don’t have the mental space left to enjoy their own sensations. So why on earth would porn be arousing to you, if you’re stuck in that mental space? All it does is remind you of your job to perform—my god, the fake orgasm is the centerpiece of it—and worse, it makes you feel bad because you’ll never be as great at playing porn star as real porn stars.
I hate to trot out the term “objectification”, because people really misunderstand what it means, including a lot of feminists who are really fond of it. It doesn’t mean being looked at with lust. It means that your subjective reality is dismissed in pursuit of upholding someone else’s, reducing you to an object. It’s straight from the grammatical terms subject/object. And you can argue until you’re blue in the face that porn reduces all actors to objects, but I’d point out that the fact that male orgasms in porn are real and female orgasms are merely performances would point straight up to whose subjective pleasure is being addressed, and whose internal feelings are less relevant than their performed behaviors.
Really, more people should just suck it up and read The Second Sex, where a lot of these ideas about the Other and objectification and subjectivity really came from. Simone de Beauvoir has an interesting passage where she talks about how not only are women objectified—reduced to sex, housework, and child care providers whose subjective experiences are culturally irrelevant—but how women really learn to objectify themselves. With varying levels of success, women learn to consider their functions to others as their true selves, and not their internal lives. And that kind of self-consciousness can make you able to charm and seduce and please men like nobody’s business, but it can also make it really hard to get in touch with your own self. And sexual pleasure relies strongly on being able to really feel yourself in your body. But for a lot of women, it’s so hard to feel good, because they’re too busy thinking about whether their thighs look fat. It’s hard to come when you’re worried that your O face is going to be ugly and somehow displease the man you’re in bed with. Porn can really exacerbate these issues for women. Sometimes for some women, you can get yourself into a place where you’re able to ignore the fact that those women are working hard, and imagine that this is pleasure and not work, but sometimes it’s just hard to get past the fact that porn is one of the strongest reinforcers out there for the idea that heterosexual sex is a time when men have a good time and women show them that good time, to be tipped later in flowers or something.
Really, that goes a long way to explaining why a lot of women feel there’s a gulf between porn videos and written erotica. Reading is a very subjective experience. Frankly, the more-than-a-grain-of-truth stereotype of the female bookworm exists in part because reading gives women a lot of relief from feeling constantly on display and at service. Reading is all about the internal life of the mind. Since giving your subjective experience some room to breath is an important component to be able to get aroused, then it makes sense that a lot of women would find reading about sex a lot more arousing than watching it on a screen.