Tech by VICE

The Problem With 'Porn for Women'

Sites like Bellesa, ForHerTube and categories like Pornhub's 'popular with women' feature a soft porn experience, but generalizing too much about what women want puts their sexuality in a box.

by Sofia Barrett-Ibarria
Jun 28 2019, 11:58am

Illustration credit: Cathryn Virginia

Pornhub launched a "porn for women" category last year, but the adult content monolith certainly isn’t the first or only corporate entity to identify a demand for "female-friendly" porn. Platforms like Bellesa, ForHerTube, and Sssh.com are now more accessible than ever, and that’s mostly a good thing. Women deserve affirming adult content that centers women’s agency and portrays them as active, consenting players enjoying realistic sexual experiences.

However, much of the rhetoric surrounding “porn for women” emerges from misguided assumptions and broad generalizations about the kind of porn women enjoy, and the kind of women who enjoy porn.

“The term ‘porn for women’ is problematic because a lot of porn does cater to an assumed cis male audience, and as part of the general porn consumer base women should feel free to select films from any genre,” artist and performer Courtney Trouble said. “In one way, creating a porn for women genre allows for a ‘men only’ genre to perpetuate itself. It just buys into an either/or dichotomy that doesn't even begin to disrupt the foundational issues that create the market gap.”

A short history of porn for women

The idea that women watch porn isn’t new. In the early 1980s, director and producer Candida Royalle rose as an industry icon for her work creating adult films from a woman’s perspective. Lesbian production company Fatale Media and On Our Backs, the first woman-run lesbian porn magazine, also emerged as porn innovators around this same time. These pioneering enterprises sought to create porn that centered women’s physical pleasure—a rejection of the frenetic thrusting, oily bodies, and theatrics that defined mainstream porn for years.

These early woman-centered enterprises were part of a largely political movement for porn that freed women’s sexual expression from the male gaze.

“If you look back at the emergence of porn for women, or lesbian porn, or feminist porn, it was a call to arms, so to speak,” Lynn Comella, author of Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure said. “It was a desire for cultural intervention into a marketplace of images and discourses related to sex and sexuality that catered primarily to men.”

This era also marked a truly revolutionary moment in porn history.

“This was incendiary in the 1980s,” Sociologist and author Chauntelle Tibbals said. “Because although women had always been involved in content production, this was not generally acknowledged or understood by the viewing public.”

The social and political discourse surrounding this first wave of porn created by and for women eventually reached mainstream consumers and creators, inspiring cultural conversations in support of ethical porn, the importance of paying for porn, and the need for racial and gender diversity both in front of and behind the camera. Thanks in part to extensive media coverage and corporate interest in recent years, public discussions about women and porn are far less taboo, but still lack the depth and complexity necessary for a truly evolved cultural understanding.

“In 2019, women have more opportunities to find sexual commodities, products, materials, that are designed with them in mind, but the way in which they're imagined as sexual consumers or porn consumers continues to be narrow, overall,” said Comella.

Generalizing the Female Gaze

Angie Rowntree, founder and director of Sssh.com, believes “porn for women” functions primarily as an SEO-friendly marketing term for mainstream tube sites. “It’s very misleading and dishonest,” Rowntree said. “The term puts women in a box, and it’s one I don’t particularly care for. ‘Women like these things, but not these other things.’ We’re pigeonholing people. It’s a huge injustice to the diversity of our desires.”

The same glowing media coverage that normalized women as porn consumers—as well as some of the language these sites sometimes use themselves—seems to assume that women as a whole are straight and cisgender. Porn site Bellesa claims on its website that it features “hot guys. Storylines. Natural bodies. Free erotic stories. Real orgasms.” On Sssh.com, Rowntree prefers terms like “female-focused” and “female-led” to distinguish Sssh.com’s content from male-oriented offerings, like a popular woman-on-woman category that includes a scene centered on same-sex marriage, though the images featured on the site’s homepage only depict heterosexual couples.

"It’s a huge injustice to the diversity of our desires.”

On most adult content sites, “porn for women” now occupies its own genre and aesthetic defined by soft lighting and vanilla sex, with a narrow view of what can—or should—turn women on.

Women in general have a widely varied and diverse set of sexual proclivities and expressions and enjoy consuming content in different ways,” Tibbals said. “In this way, current use of the phrase ‘porn for women’ is frustrating, as well as being generally dismissive and judgey in and of itself.”

Some of the most recent iterations of “porn for women” use marketing language that seems to uphold a sense of sexual respectability politics and moral policing. CEO Caroline Spiegel reportedly described her new video and image-free porn site Quinn as “a less gross, more fun Pornhub for women,” a description that suggests women who enjoy typical tube sites, or create content themselves, as deviant sexual outliers.

“This fits a larger historical framing of ideas, that women in particular need a certain amount of handholding. That, if we're going to entice them to be sex toy consumers or porn consumers, then we have to lead them to our product very gently,” Comella said. “It suggests that women are easily ‘grossed out’, or they don't have the fortitude of their male counterparts, they're more delicate creatures, or they're more easily offended.”

According to Trouble, creating a distinction between porn “for women” and “for men” also erases queer identity in consumers and performers alike.

“One big problem with this genre is that it exploits male bodies in a really corrupt way,” Trouble said. During the early 00s, Trouble launched nofauxxx.com to trade links and network with other adult content creators. There, Trouble met a producer on the who frequently bought pre-made gay porn content that was “straight enough” to resell on a separate porn site for women. “In this case, the producer was erasing queer identity to cater to a straight cis female audience. This isn't subversive. It's marketing. I do not see how it is any different than Bic making pink pens for women,” Trouble said.

Filmmaker Erika Lust doesn’t refer to her work as “porn for women” or market it as such, because she believes the term reduces women’s sexuality to a stereotype. She prefers the term “indie,” and creates adult films grounded in a feminist ethos instead of search engine optimization.

“I have always said I am a feminist, and naturally my values are injected in all what I do," Lust said. "My cinema has my feminist values behind it, and I put female sexuality and pleasure at the forefront.”

Even as a soft, gentle aesthetic generalizes what women want out of a sexual experience, the appeal of friendlier, less seedy, feminist-oriented adult content can serve as entrypoint for many women exploring their sexuality and interest in porn—particularly those looking to avoid depictions of gratuitous violence or anonymized, identity-less sex.

“In the past, when I’d visited other porn sites, I felt like an intruder—like I was somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be,” Michelle Shnaidman, CEO of female-focused porn content site Bellesa, said. “I wanted to see sexuality content that really related to my personal experience.” Bellesa features content that claims to center women’s pleasure and sexual agency, and curates videos based on user data indicating a wide range of sexual preferences as well as general trends.

According to Shnaidman, Bellesa users tend to prefer videos with strong storylines and narrative context, and the videos users consume tend to run longer in length than on other mainstream porn sites. “There is no excessive derogatory profanity, exorbitant moaning and screaming, fake orgasms, or objectifying narratives. There is no violence,” Shnaidman said.

Controversy around 'porn for women' and 'feminist porn'

The language of empowerment, feminism, and ethics make great selling points, but porn for women isn’t immune to the many industry-wide traps producers purportedly work to avoid. Originally, Bellesa’s video platform allowed users to find and share content from other sites, but accusations of stolen content soon followed after its launch in 2017.

“We were, unintentionally, disempowering the people who create the content in the first place quite at odds with our core mission,” Shnaidman said. Bellesa plans to launch their own production company in the near future, which Shnaidman said will follow ethical practices regarding talent safety and compensation.

Rowntree, a longtime veteran of the adult industry, is keenly aware of widespread issues with content piracy. “Everyone in this industry is at risk of having their content stolen, regardless of genre. It's just the sad truth,” Rowntree said. Sssh.com produces most of their own content, which is available for streaming only, digitally fingerprinted, copywritten, and blocked by a paywall. Rowntree also maintains a direct relationship with the producers and filmmakers whose curated content appears on the site. “We have had success with this method and have been able to significantly slow down the piracy process,” Rowntree said.

The cultural conversations sparked by the #MeToo movement also raise questions about sexual consent practices in the porn industry, including producers of feminist porn and porn geared toward women. In 2018, adult performer Rooster came forward with allegations of sexual abuse against Lust Films, including incidents of boundary violations and poor working practices on set. In a detailed account on their personal website, Rooster writes that director Olympe de G. allegedly dismissed his request for a break during a masturbation scene. Rooster proceeded with the scene, unsure if pushing the issue or refusing to shoot would damage their reputation.

Lust denied Rooster’s allegations of sexual abuse and assault on set, citing Lust Films’ zero-tolerance policy against sexual harassment, abuse, or violence. However, she acknowledged that de G. may not have handled the incident appropriately. “It can be argued that this incident was not a good example of best director practice in the production of a film set, but it is certainly not sexual abuse nor assault,” Lust said.

The 'basic facepalm' of porn for women

Catering to a heteronormative, mainstream view of feminity and female preference can leave some consumers with limited options that ignore the scope and diversity of women’s sexual expression and lean on gender stereotypes. Many women enjoy gay porn, or even ultra-violent porn, but this reality isn’t easily marketable.

“Therein lies the basic facepalm quality of ‘porn for women,’” said Tibbals. “All women? No. Nothing can meet the needs of all women, as all women have very diverse interests.” Porn that is truly created to break the stigma surrounding women and porn must first stop stigmatizing itself.

“What would be more successful is to create genres of porn that are transparent about which of their scenes depict masculine domination, or other factors that may present themselves to be undesirable to an audience that's seeking something ‘feminine focused,’” said Trouble. “These words really mean nothing, so to just be able to read an actual description of what's happening in the porn you're buying—one that's written by the producers or curators and accurately represents the performers and performances—that's powerful. Then people of all genders can make informed decisions based on what they want to see.”

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