Recent statistics released by the most popular adult website in the world reveal that female viewers are growing each year, with women being responsible for over 4 billion of the site’s total views in 2014.
Porn Hub, which had over 18 billion visitors last year, used analytics software to determine how much of their traffic was female; noting an annual increase from 23% to 24% – that’s 1 billion more female views in 2014 than 2013.
No longer a form of entertainment limited to men, what impact is this shift having on the sex lives of men and women in long-term relationships – are they watching it together; to enhance their sex life, or is it driving them apart?
To find out, I spoke to sex and relationships therapist Joe Kort, Men’s Health sex columnist Nichi Hodgson, and the author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity Robert Jensen.
Dr Joe Kort offers therapy to couples and notes that many women remain wary of porn, especially if they have caught their male partner watching it in secret. They will often equate this discovery with real-life infidelity.
However, “porn can absolutely be a tool to reignite a couple’s sex life,” says Kort, “as long as they talk together about what kind of porn they like, are respectful of each other’s tastes and interests and work together.”
But is it more appealing to men than women? “On the one hand,” he says, “men have permission in our culture to watch porn where women do not. But women are starting to watch it more. In fact, romance novels are being called ‘cliterature’, attributing that to being porn for women.”
Rather than indicating a newfound love of live intercourse, this reinforces the long-held view that women are still more aroused by reading about sex, like in E. L. James’ chart-busting 2011 novel Fifty Shades of Grey, while men prefer visual stimulation.
“Most visual porn isn’t relational,” says Dr Kort, “women are more turned on when the actors have a connection whereas men are often turned on by objectifying everyone involved and keeping it non-relational.”
This is a major factor in society’s antipathy towards pornographic imagery and videos: the feminist question about whether it is ok to sexualise and objectify women in this way.
Robert Jensen: feminist, professor and author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity is hugely critical of the industry.
“Pornography is often described as just sex on film,” he says, “and sex is natural, so pornography is natural, right? But the majority of sexually explicit material in a patriarchal society is presented in the context of male domination and female subordination. Pornography eroticises inequality, primarily the gender inequality in patriarchy.”
He is stunned that pornography has found a place in the mainstream over the past few decades, believing that it has simultaneously become more available – with the rise of the internet – and more overtly cruel, degrading to women and racist.
He decided to write a book on the subject as he felt there were very few men writing about pornography from a critical feminist perspective. “I wanted to produce a book that spoke directly to men, presenting an argument not only against pornography but for a radical feminism more generally.”
“Pornography is shaped by patriarchy, white supremacy, and the amoral profit motive in capitalism. The expansion of pornography has been part of a devolution, imposing a very narrow conception of sexuality on the culture.”
Jensen has heard women, and some men, tell two basic stories about the corrosive effects of pornography. One is that a man who starts using pornography habitually withdraws from intimacy, becoming so obsessed with the images that he cannot make an intimate connection with a partner.
Another is that men bring pornographic fantasies into the sexual interaction, often asking women to engage in sexual acts that are painful or uncomfortable for them, leaving the women to either capitulate or risk ending the relationship.
“There is considerable variation in human sexual behaviour, and I’m not in the business of telling others what to do. All I can say is that I cannot imagine how pornography could enhance the love and intimacy in my relationship.”
He offers this analogy to determine whether pornography has a place in any relationship: “if you had a choice of dating two guys who were equivalent on all the criteria that are important to you (smart, funny, sexy – whatever it may be), and one was a porn user and one wasn’t, which would you choose?”
There is also the issue of porn production: are all performers of age, being paid fairly, are they offered proper breaks on set, is their health a concern, do they have autonomy about acts and some control in the editing suite, is their identity protected and is it all safe?
Author, broadcaster, and Men’s Health sex columnist Nichi Hodgson is director of The Ethical Porn Partnership; promoting a safer environment and better working rights for actors in pornography.
She says that the actors are like stunt performers – they take risks – but as long as the conditions outlined above are met, believes porn can be a useful tool in relationships to explore our own, and our partner’s, desires better.
“As a society, we’re afraid of porn,” she says. “Men tend to raise the issue, or are caught watching it, and there’s a horrible discussion: why are you desiring other women? Women feel anxious about not being attractive to them so instead of asking how it can improve sex, it becomes an impasse.”
Hodgson finds strategies to make porn seem less frightening to women. “The cultural narrative is that men look – and women look away. So I encourage women to surf on their own, recommending sophisticated sites like Joy Bear, Bright Desire, Dreams of Spanking, which is mostly period costume, and anything made by Anna Span.”
With the majority of mainstream porn being made by men; for men, women are easily put off. However, it’s not as simple as creating a new kind of erotica, says Hodgson. “The objectification of women is everywhere – magazines, billboards – we’re used to seeing it that way. So as a woman, you don’t have the same desire for men cultivated for you.”
She believes that being bombarded with sexualised images of women is creating a more bi-curious generation of women: “lusting after male bodies doesn’t happen in the same way. We’ve been shown these images of sexy women so many times; it becomes desirable for us too. That’s how it is for me.”
Backing up this idea, a body of research published in 2004 by Dr Meredith Chivers, which measured women’s physiological responses to sexual stimuli and found a disconnect between their bodies and minds, showed that women responded as strongly to images of women as they did to images of men.
Similarly, Porn Hub’s analysis of viewing trends showed that the most popular search term for women accessing porn on their site is ‘lesbian’.
Hodgson wonders if this is because we’re conditioned to resist sexuality and therefore have lost the capacity to know our own desires. She believes there is money to be made by tapping into what women actually find stimulating.
If a couple decides to try using porn together, Hodgson’s advice is: “let the woman do the searching. Let her initiate the conversation about what she likes – maybe after a glass of wine, when you’re both relaxed, but not necessarily in the bedroom just before having sex.”
“Follow her lead, and if she’s not feeling it, don’t push it,” says Hodgson. “Porn shouldn’t be a threat to a relationship – it can keep it going longer. And remember, she says, “if your partner uses pornography on his own, it’s safe: he won’t ever encounter these women.”
She adds that some women feel offended and affronted on discovering their partner’s porn habit – perhaps they’ve been together 20 years and she has just found out – so it needs to be dealt with sensitively. “Men may have been looking at porn since they were 10 years old; women haven’t and so take longer to engage”.
She believes that porn isn’t the problem – it’s how we use it; the circumstances we’re using it in. “We don’t have any guidelines on how to consume porn, what’s a good way, how much is too much. Few people talk between themselves about watching porn and whether it’s ok so the conversations are often really hard.”