Sex Science: Women Like Porn Too (Part Three)

Image courtesy of Karin Steenvall. See http://karinstenvall.tumblr.com/ for more of her work

If you believe what you read in mainstream media, you’d think E.L. James invented one-handed paperback reading, that women never heard of porn before last year, and that thanks to the internet we’re all on a handcart to sexy, sexy hell.

Obviously that’s nonsense. But it does touch on an interesting question which is this: who are the women looking at erotica, and has the internet really changed everything?

Sexy images have been part of human culture even before written history. The squat, cartoonish Willendorf Venus with her pendulous breasts and detailed vulva is still naughty some 25,000 years after it was carved. Same for some Greek pottery, Japanese Edo-era prints, and too many more to name.

The advent of cheap printing following the Renaissance popularised so-called ‘whore dialogues’, tales of naïve young girls being ‘instructed’ on sex by older women. They included snippets of philosophy, herbal folklore, satire, anti-clericalism, and oh yes – hot girl/girl action.

In many societies, explicit imagery was not considered offensive in and of itself. In others, it has been highly compartmentalised. Redefining this imagery as potentially corrupting, however, coincided with one of the richest archaeological finds of the Victorian era: uncovering the city of Pompeii.

Penis-shaped oil lamps and figures of Priapus with his huge permanent erection featured in many Pompeiian houses. Nineteenth-century society was unaccustomed to such frank depictions of genitalia. It was, some felt, a potential scandal. So the artefacts deemed most off ensive were hidden away in the Gabinetto Segreto,
or Secret Museum, in Naples so as to not corrupt women, children, and the working class. Admission was restricted solely to ‘people of mature age and respected morals’.

And thus was erotica consigned to dusty rooms, considered fit only for scholars and the educated rich. They, it was felt, had the mental robustness needed to avoid being corrupted by such things. The Victorian era’s oversize concern with the harm it might cause was also reflected in the Obscene Publications Act of 1857. Also known as Lord Campbell’s Act, it was Britain’s first law making the sale of obscene material a statutory offence.

An anonymous book written in 1855, The Confessions and Experience of a Novel Reader, claimed to lay bare exactly what depraved reading would do to people and society. “If, I say, anyone has any doubts as to the fearfully raid increase of this public poison- a demoralising literature, the real ‘pandora’s box of evil passions’- the floodgate, from beneath whose slimy jaws runs a stream of pollution, sending forth its pestilental branches…” yadda yadda lorem ipsum.

These meant that until recently it was a lot harder to get your hands on erotic images without going into licensed adult shops to buy it. These shops were perceived as unwelcoming and unfriendly to women, and had a (mostly deserved) reputation for being unsavoury places.

Things began to change coinciding with the expansion of Ann Summers, which had originally been a chain of more traditional sex shops. The company started the trend in the 1980s for home parties, where women could buy sex toys and other adult materials surrounded by their close friends and in familiar spaces. It was the
Tupperware party with a twist.

The Ann Summers strategy of making the experience a familiar and comfortable one worked for them on the high street as well, as their chain expanded into 139 brightly lit, female-friendly stores in the UK. Other ‘adult superstores’ and similar businesses soon followed. Suddenly, buying porn, sexy toys, and racy lingerie was seen as something women could do without undue embarrassment or being perved on by creeps.

Why is this important to examine? In the last column, I discussed studies that mainly related to reactive desire: responses to stimuli text subjects are presented with. That’s fine as far as the lab goes. But if we want to know more about spontaneous desire, the buying and browsing habits of women can actually tell us rather a lot.

Women are not only muses, they’re consumers. Who loves vintage kinkster Bettie Page more than women do? But negotiating the fine line between satisfying your desires and avoiding public embarrassment seems to hit women harder than men on the porn front. Whether this is a genetic difference, a cultural one, or a bit of
both can be argued until the cows come home. It can’t be denied the phenomenon of shaming wommen for their sex lives is alive and well.

The 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon, love it or hate it, appears to confirm that we can lose our inhibitions but like the option to keep it on the down low. Women are flocking in their millions to the classic turn-ons of novel reading. But it’s not romance they’re snapping up on Kindle and in paperback – it’s hardcore action with
a BDSM twist. No matter how saucy a book is, you can always hide the naughty bits behind a discreet cover.

Thanks to stats from search engines like Google, we now know the discretion aspect is very important indeed. Search engines record the patterns of what their users look for, with very good cross-referenced information about the age and sex of the people using their services. With Google making their results available to
search, some surprising patterns in what men and women are looking at start to emerge.

Google search statistics show that terms such as ‘porn’, ‘free porn’, and ‘playboy’ are more likely to be entered by men than by women (96%, 97%, and 86% male users, respectively). You probably expected that. Men outnumber women, but only slightly, for searches of ‘adult DVD’, ‘XXX videos’, and ‘sex toys’. You probably expected that, too.

But the search terms ‘sex’, ‘sex chat’, and ‘sexy’? Interestingly, those ones are equally as likely to be entered by women as they are by men. Then the surprise – women are actually more likely to type the search terms ‘adult sex’, ‘free sex’, and ‘cyber sex’ into the search engine than men are. [source http://internet-filter-
review.toptenreviews.com/internet-pornography-statistics.html]

With all the concern in mainstream media about the supposed negative effects of porn, what effects might this have on women? Evidence to date is spare, but cautiously optimistic: a recent NHS preliminary study showed no difference in levels of relationship closeness between women who said they watched porn and those who didn’t.

In the privacy of one’s home, at the computer even what little stigma might arise from wandering into a friendly mainstream shop like Ann Summers is non-existent. Throw a phone browser or your Kindle into the mix, and that’s the popularity of 50 Shades et al. explained: it takes shame out of the equation and about time too.
Which is probably what the real sexual revolution looks like after all.

Brooke Magnanti is author of The Sex Myth which explores these, and many more fascinating myths about sex

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