Porn: A Conversation Between Women

Six women discuss pornography, its place in our lives, and what a perfect porn future would look like.

Conversations about porn are too often conversations about men’s desires and women’s objections. In reality, real women have desires, opinions, and their own varied relationships with pornography. This is an online conversation between six women about what porn means to them, how it’s affected their lives, and what could make it better.

Who are you and what’s your relationship with porn?

Tracy Clayton: Hello! I’m Tracy, staff writer at BuzzFeed. I’m very interested in issues of race, sex, and class, and porn is an amazing arena to watch it all play out. My relationship to porn these days is primarily scholarly, watching to see how trends change and wondering at what those changes could mean on larger scales — and cosmetic because I really need to learn how to nail that porn smoky-eye look.

Alex Tauchman: Hi. I’m Alex, and I like to tweet a lot about porn, sex, and feminism. I have been interested in porn for about a couple years now and recently attended the Feminist Porn Conference in Toronto in my capacity as a big fan of porn and feminism.

Julie Gerstein: Hi! I’m Julie, the style editor at BuzzFeed. I was a women’s studies major in college, so I studied porn in a scholastic setting — mostly in the context of feminist porn and then vis-à-vis anti-porn feminists like Andrea Dworkin, who felt that porn was violence against women. But I don’t really watch it in my personal life.

Conz Preti: Hi! I’m Conz, the editor for BuzzFeed Espanol and Brasil. I watch porn regularly and have been able to understand more of what I’m into and not throughout the years.

Lara Parker: Hi! I’m Lara, staff writer at BuzzFeed. I have experienced vaginal pain/extreme pain with any sort of penetration and tampons since I was about 14 years old. Therefore, porn makes me incredibly uncomfortable and I feel like it sets a standard that I will NEVER live up to. (I don’t watch, mostly because it brings me to tears.)

Aurora Snow: Hello! I’m Aurora, retired adult actress and current freelancer for The Daily Beast. I worked in the adult industry for 11 years, saw it change dramatically, and now work to educate others about it.

Picking up on what Aurora just said about how the industry has changed dramatically — is porn more interesting to you now that the landscape is changing? Is the landscape changing that dramatically yet, or is it still a small movement?

CP: Yup, definitely see the change and have been more into the things I find. Before there was a lot of time spent looking at things and going, “Nope, nope, not liking it,” and now there’s more of a celebration of normalness in sex and sexiness in women. Maybe I JUST came across it, but I’ve been seeing it a lot more lately.

TC: My interest in porn has waned over the years; I don’t watch much now because I guess I’m kind of burned out and bored by much of what I see. I think that I somehow know or assume that things have changed, but I don’t readily see those changes, I think. Like, I know that there are more woman-centered options out there, but I still have to look for them explicitly. Big, popular sites, like YouPorn and Xtube, for example, are still largely (from what I see) full of the same old, same old. But I know that there was a time when searching specifically for something different was a chore, and it doesn’t seem to be as big a hassle now.

JG: From my perspective, I’m amazed that there is a movement at all, because I haven’t kept up with what’s happening in porn at all, since the earliest burgeoning feminist porn makers like Tristan Taormino and Susie Bright and such. To know that there is actually a feminist porn thing happening now, amidst all the other crap out there, is actually kind of heartening, though I wouldn’t know the first thing about finding it.

AS: I think the movement itself is rather small, but small as it may be, receives a disproportionate amount of media attention. It’s still a lot of the same, but with more women in powerful roles, it is changing. Even with porn aimed at women, made by women, the porn still has to appeal to men in order to find a distribution company unless the same producers are also the distributors. When you get to the top, it’s still some of the same people running it that have been doing so for the last decade.

AT: I want to pick up on what Aurora just said because it reminded me of a portion of the keynote speech that Courtney Trouble gave at the Feminist Porn Conference. Courtney said that their porn “Trans Grrrls” has been their best-selling so far, and they originally figured it would be more a labor of love than anything, because men, or “the casual cis guy,” as Courtney referred to them, wouldn’t watch it. I am delighted that porn that increases sexual representation is finding audiences in “the casual cis guy,” and I think that is perhaps a harbinger of the possibilities for more crossing over between “mainstream porn” (i.e., large-budget porn made by men for men, presumably) and feminist/queer porn.

JG: Does it matter, Alex, though, if cis men are watching that porn in a genuine way, or not, though? Does how it’s viewed matter, or just that it’s viewed?

AT: I think that any time the casual cis guy, or whoever, is able to see porn that is earnestly made by people who want to publicly show how they have sex and what they like, that’s a step in the right direction.

Do you think that as women who, I think I can safely say all identify as feminists, that there’s ever a conflict between your desires and what you want out of porn politically? For me, I definitely feel interested in and appreciative of women-made pornography, but my physical turn-ons don’t necessarily have a lot to do with my politics and are sometimes seemingly in direct conflict with them. Is that something you ever struggle with?

AT: My short answer is no. I think that sex itself is necessarily apolitical, as it is a space for play and imagination and unmitigated self-expression, so the only sort of politics I concern myself with when I watch porn are that of consent. I can’t watch any porn where I don’t feel good about whether the actions I’m seeing are consensual. Beyond that, I feel like porn is a great free space to explore.

CP: I agree with Alex. I see it as a space to let my imagination play, and also discovery. However, if something seems too aggressive toward the woman, I tune off immediately. Like, the things that Khan Tusion does just make me want to cry, but because women don’t seem (and sometimes are for real not) enjoying them.

AS: Khan Tusion puts the women he hires through the paces, but he is very up front about what kind of scene it’s going to be — though sometimes women don’t realize what they are agreeing to and can get in over their head. I’ve been in a situation like that. To answer Summer’s question, I don’t think there is room for politics when exploring sexuality. As long as it’s between consenting adults, there should be no constraints (other than safe words perhaps).

TC: I agree with Alex as well; that was very well said. For a while I had to really fight to reconcile the things that I enjoyed seeing with what I felt were the requirements of being a capital-F Feminist, but I soon realized that it’s kind of like dreaming. If you dream about, like, killing a herd of buffalo, it doesn’t mean that you’re a secret buffalo racist and you really want to kill them all, you know? Like the other ladies, consent is paramount for me, and I notice that I also have trouble watching scenes with white men and black women, and I guess that comes from being a history buff too into the Civil War era. The historical subjugation of black women is always on my mind. Kind of a bummer when you’re watching porn, lol.

JG: I think, right, it’s all about sort of how you reconcile your fantasies with your reality. And yeah, I totally agree with what Alex and Tracy said. For me, the fantasies that porn presents are never really quite aligned with my fantasies. Maybe it’s because the dudes in porn just aren’t my thing. A lot of porn instead always seemed like a weird cartoon version of sexuality for that reason.

How does the fantasy of the women in porn affect our self-perception and insecurities? This is a common critique of porn I hear from friends: that it makes them feel inadequate. Does that ever interfere with the way you view porn?

AT: Porn has done nothing but improve my body image and sexual self-esteem, to be perfectly honest. Even within mainstream porn, there are so many different types of bodies, and watching a lot of porn underlines the fact that every single body is unique in its size, shape, and capabilities. Seeing women in porn makes me feel inspired because I want to channel their confidence and their drive to perform, sometimes to really intense limits of their bodies!

LP: For me, porn represents something that I have never been able to accomplish: having sex. I associate porn with my inability and therefore avoid it at all costs in an effort to deny my reality. I have watched porn within the last six months and I found myself angry. Angry because it’s unrealistic, and angry because I wanted to feel normal. A part of me appreciates women who are able to explore, and a part of me is filled with an insane amount of envy.

JG: I wonder, Lara, how much your experience with porn perpetrates some mythologies for you and for all women and for hell, ALL PEOPLE about sex and sexuality and what actually REALLY happens between two people (or more than two people). Some study just came out that the average man only has sex for two minutes. Again, as a non-porn watcher, I don’t know what’s exactly being put out there in porn land, but I think in media in general, we’re being sold a lot of stories about how sex and love and sexuality happen that are very different from the reality.

AS: Julie, you’re right — there is a gap between reality and what we’re being sold. Porn performers are professionals and as such go for insane lengths of time that most people would cringe at. Not all sex is enjoyable for 45 minutes! It can get boring — which segues into my answer for Summer: Having contributed somewhat to the porn fantasy, I often felt a certain responsibility to fans to explain the differences in what took place on set and what happens in the bedroom at home. When I was active in the industry and also trying to date men outside of it, I ran into a variety of issues, one of which was that I always felt like I had to live up to the porn-star persona, that I couldn’t relax and be who I am off set. There were certain bedroom expectations. And the fact was, things I did on set might take days to practice or warm up to, and it was nothing I cared to do when I was “off.”

JG: I think this just generally speaks to how people are terrible at communicating about sex, and in some cases porn becomes a dictionary. It becomes an unwitting lexicon, whether one or both partners actually wants what’s happening to happen. And in that way, I think that communication is actually at the root of so much of the fucked up sexual shit in our culture, more than porn is.

AT: Totally. Most porn isn’t supposed to be educational, but until and unless we have another form of public discourse surrounding sexuality in our culture, it will be.

AS: There are a few lines of educational porn out there, but they aren’t the most popular. It would be nice to see more open lines of communication. I think we are beginning to see that. I see so many articles about porn/sex these days, which means people are now open to the subject in a way our culture wasn’t 10 years ago.

CP: I recently had a super-interesting conversation with male friends, who said that their girlfriends were either mad or scared because they found out they had been watching porn. One of the most recurring questions the girlfriends had was, “What do porn stars do/have that I don’t?” but the men felt that it wasn’t about that at all. That sex on a screen vs. sex in real life were two different things, and they didn’t necessarily want their girlfriends to have bigger boobs or smaller feet or whatever. To me, porn has helped me be more confident with my body, because as someone mentioned before, you get to see different sizes of everything, and that is interesting.

I do wonder, though, if there isn’t a double standard. This is not universal, but I’ve had struggles with guys who watched porn themselves but were uncomfortable with the idea of women enjoying porn (and men with huge penises!) without them. Anyway, we’ve talked a lot about solo enjoyment (or not) of porn, and I’m curious what role it has played, positive or negative, in your romantic and sexual relationships?

CP: I’ve had an ex that would be appalled at the idea of us watching porn together. It was something HE did and I was not allowed to be part of it. I’ve also had an ex that sort of guided me into my beginnings with porn; we are still friends and share links and talk about it openly, and it’s fun to have that relationship.

AS: My fiancé and I don’t watch much porn together, as we find it more of a distraction than anything else, though our preferences may change in years to come. When we first began dating, he was intimidated and worried that he wouldn’t measure up to the porn stars I’d been with. That was a hurdle in our relationship. He was an avid porn consumer and felt sure he could never measure up. He thought he needed to go to the gym every day and have certain physical attributes. I think porn can create just as many insecurities in men as it does in women.

AT: I had never introduced porn into a romantic relationship until I got with my current partner. He’s liked porn for a long time, and it was his idea to do it together. Before then, I had always watched it furtively when I was 100% sure I was alone. It’s been a really great part of our relationship, though, because it has allowed us to become more intimate and to share our sexual interests in ways that maybe wouldn’t have been possible without our shared enjoyment of watching porn.

That’s positively heartwarming. We’ve talked a lot about fantasies vs. reality: What’s your fantasy for pornography? How would porn change in a perfect world designed by you, and what are your hopes for the future of porn?

AT: My hopes would be for the feminist and queer porn movement to be able to go mainstream, i.e., that people of all shapes, sizes, colors, and genders would be able to be in porn without fetishization or marginalization. Porn would also be a job where the workers are treated fairly and allowed a large degree of agency in their work, as well as fair compensation. It would also be a world where people didn’t debate whether or not porn should exist and one where non-porn people understood sex and porn better and didn’t have so many misconceptions about either.

LP: I think porn is great for certain things: exploring your sexuality, finding out what turns you on, etc. But ideally, I’d like it to be more realistic. Maybe more about two-plus people exploring and enjoying themselves. I would like sex and sexuality to be more openly discussed. I would like a more honest forum when it comes to all things sex — the likes, the dislikes, the inabilities, the expectations. I spent over four years hiding my inability, feeling unlovable, and ultimately falling into a deep depression all because I felt like my inability to have sex made me worthless. It shouldn’t be like this, just like people who enjoy porn and exploring their sexuality should’t have to feel ashamed.

JG: I think that in my ideal world we’d stop having so many taboos around sex and sexuality the way we do now. I think that our current culture of porn and pornography still envisions a certain type of sex and sexuality that’s largely void of an actual notion of PLEASURE. There’s very little pleasure in porn, and for that matter, very little pleasure within culturally dominant representations of sex, and I hope that changes. I hope we can, as a culture, open ourselves up to what pleasure can potentially mean — that it doesn’t necessarily just have to do with straight up intercourse, or penetration, or even orgasm, but can be a lot more simple and revelatory than that. To me, porn doesn’t yet touch on the truly messy and beautiful ways that people can express intimacy. And though I’m heartened that some of the women in our discussion have had positive experiences with porn, I think we still have a long way to go.

AS: I would add blooper reels at the end of every scene or movie. Something that would show viewers everything that happens before, after, or in between a scene. It would teach consumers the difference in fantasy vs. reality.

TC: I’d love to see some bloopers too, something that lends a bit of reality to what we’re seeing. Also maybe some interviews with the performers; I saw a couple of scenes with James Deen where he spent some time before and after talking with his co-stars very casually, and thought it was so interesting. In terms of changes I’d like to see, I’d definitely like a decrease in the pervasiveness of male-centered porn. I know it has to cater to them, but there are some tropes that are present in nearly every such scene. No more ending the scene once the guy has finished. No more scenes where the guy’s face is never in the scene. And for god’s sake, take off your socks! You look silly bounding about naked in Timberland boots and athletic socks!

CP: OMG, I would love for [the bloopers] to happen. I guess what I wish for besides what Alex mentioned about feminist/queer porn going mainstream is more related to how others perceive women who openly talk about watching porn. I don’t know if any of you have experienced it, but in Argentina, for example, watching porn = you’re down to do whatever with whomever. It’s sad.

AT: Asserting your sexuality on your own terms as a woman in a patriarchal society is hard, but I think it’s important work.

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