Women might prefer hardcore porn to so-called ‘porn for women’

One of the most fascinating things about the study of human sexuality is the enormous chasm between what we claim to want versus what we actually enjoy in bed. It’s difficult for people to understand why a powerful CEO could enjoy being degraded during sex, for instance, or why a staunch feminist could get off to extreme blow job and female humiliation videos. But the truth is that our sexual desires are rarely, if ever, compatible with how we see ourselves and the rest of the world.

One of the best examples of this discrepancy between what we think we want and what we actually want in bed is a finding from researchers Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam, the authors of A Billion Wicked Thoughts, a 2011 study on the Internet and the neuroscience of sexual desire. In their research, they sought to find out what women—a relatively small but growing proportion of the porn-viewing population—really wanted to watch in terms of visual pornography.

What they found flew in the face of most of what we assume about women and porn. Contrary to popular belief, women who watch porn don’t necessarily enjoy “female-friendly” content, or porn that emphasizes narrative and mutually respectful interactions between the female star and her partner. Instead, they prefer the hardcore, “mainstream” pornography that can be found on sites like Pornhub and Redtube.

Most women, says Ogas, are “not interested at all” in visual pornography, preferring erotic texts like stories and novels. But of the 10 to 30 percent of women in Ogas’ study who did prefer visual porn, most of them “tend to like the same kind of material men are interested in, which is more graphic and hardcore. There’s a clear contrast between what activists and women in the erotic industry talk about as women’s preferences, and what women are actually looking at,” he says.

So what are women actually watching? Ogas says it varies, but one of the most popular genres among women was domination and submission-themed: “It doesn’t necessarily have to be ropes and spanking and that sort of thing, but anything with a clear sense of a dominant male” was popular, he says. Women who are interested in hardcore porn also “tend to have qualities that are stereotypically associated with men—they’re more likely to be socially aggressive and aggressive in the bedroom,” says Ogas.

From the perspective of feminist porn advocates, the implications of Ogas and Gaddam’s work are a bit vexing, to say the least. Setting aside the problematic implications of the idea that men and women are inherently different when it comes to sex, the argument that women are simply less interested in visual porn than men are seems to suggest that there’s no reason to make porn for a female audience.

Angie Rowntree, the creator of female-friendly adult site Sssh.com, believes the gap between male and female porn viewing patterns has less to do with innate differences between the two sexes, and more to do with the fact that most porn has been made “by and for men.” “Is it any wonder that a relatively small portion of women wants to watch it?” she recently told Alternet. “To me, that number just speaks to the opportunity on the market for porn made with a female viewership in mind. It’s just a function of the numbers and what has been available on the market, historically speaking,”

But it is true that “porn for women” is not a particularly new concept. For years, female adult filmmakers have attempted to market narrative-driven, soft-lit, more emotion-heavy adult content to female audiences, in part to combat many feminists’ perception of mainstream, male-created porn as misogynistic and degrading to women. Yet for whatever reason, “porn for women” has failed to take off in a big way. Some of this probably has to do with the misguided assumption that all women are more interested in out-of-focus, narrative-driven content than hardcore sex, as well as the social stigma surrounding women watching pornography.

Yet thanks in part to the success of 50 Shades of Grey and the rise of female-friendly performers like James Deen, this stigma is gradually fading away: A recent survey suggests that nearly 57 percent of women aged 18 to 24 masturbated to pornography. Women are starting to be considered a substantial portion of the porn-buying market, but they’re still not represented to same degree as men. Ogas thinks that has less to do with the societal implications of women watching porn, and more to do with the difference between how men and women process general sexual desire.

“In the female brain, mental arousal is separate from physical arousal,” he says. “In male sexual brains, they’re one and the same. So if a man is physically aroused, you can be pretty sure he’s mentally aroused as well, and vice versa. Women can get physically aroused by just about anything, but mentally they only get aroused by a narrow subset of all that. There’s a basic difference between the male sexual brain design and the female sexual brain design.”

So does this mean there’s simply no place for “porn for women” in the market? Far from it, says Ogas: There are still plenty of women who are interested in such material, it’s just a more narrow “subset of a subset.” But even if the online pornography market is flooded with female-oriented content over the next few years, he doesn’t think women will log on in droves to watch it.

“I just don’t think visual porn will ever be something that a majority of women embrace,” he says. “There’s plenty of female-friendly material out there, and there has been for a while. It’s not a question of changing people’s attitudes toward [women watching porn]. It’s something more fundamental than that.” Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe Ogas and Gaddam’s research proves that when it comes right down to it, despite the gap between how we see ourselves and the world and our incredibly complex sexual desires, maybe at the most basic level, we all want the same things. Maybe we need to start making porn not just “for men,” or “for women,” but for people.

H/T Alternet | Photo by Mislav Marohnic/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)

EJ Dickson

EJ Dickson

EJ Dickson is a writer and editor who primarily covers sex, dating, and relationships, with a special focus on the intersection of intimacy and technology. She served as the Daily Dot’s IRL editor from January 2014 to July 2015. Her work has since appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Mic, Bustle, Romper, and Men’s Health.