I was wrong when I wrote that Lady Porn Day was “neither inspiring nor impressive.” It did inspire something. Specifically, aside from my own post on the subject, it inspired this comment from Kay:

if we can accept that the porn that naturally appeals to submissive men is images of men being submissive, couldn’t the porn that naturally appeals to sexual women be of women being sexual? An image doesn’t need to be from the perspective of its intended audience to be “hot,” it can also be from the perspective of that audience’s object of desire and that can make it “hot.”

This comment got me thinking. Even after I responded to Kay in the comment thread, I kept thinking about it. I thought about it so much that I did some Google searching and some blog surfing trying to see if anyone else had ever had the sorts of thoughts I was suddenly having, but I couldn’t find anything relevant.

So, in light of the absence of something to link to, I want to share some of what’s in my head.

On Porn’s “Right Stuff”

Let’s begin with a question: what determines one’s satisfaction with some specific pornographic content?

When I think about why I enjoy some porn and not some other porn, a few obvious things jump out at me. Everyone I’ve asked who’s willing to answer the question also seems able to identify particulars of porn they like that contributes to their enjoyment. They may be physically attracted to the models in visual works, they may enjoy the character development in an erotic story, or they may find the depicted circumstance an exciting prospect to one day explore themselves. Often, one’s distaste for or affinity with a single pornographic image, story, or other artifact is most adequately explained by a combination of these and other factors.

Although details vary between individuals, one observation seems universal: everyone likes some porn, and dislikes some other porn. No one seems to like all porn, though many people certainly have less discriminating tastes than others. At the same time, no one seems to dislike all porn, either.1

Some data on people’s enjoyment of porn is easy to find, although most of it is necessarily self-reported and anecdotal.2 Take the headline poster from the original set of 12 Lady Porn Day flyers, as an example. I described this image as “A skinny white woman wearing nothing but a white fur-lined coat with big blonde hair and big glasses baring it all in a public venue.”

Personally, I find the woman attractive, both aesthetically and sexually. I think she’s beautiful (even though I think she’s dangerously close to hitting the unattractively too-skinny point for my tastes) and I think she’s rockin’ obvious sex appeal. To put it crudely, yes, I’d do her. However, I’m not particularly drawn to the image in general and I’m especially disinterested as a pornography consumer; there is little beyond the aforementioned aesthetic and sexual attraction that holds my interest.

Some might argue that aesthetic and sexual attraction of this sort is what defines “good porn.” The traditional pornographer’s formula seems to be:

  1. find conventionally pretty people who fit contemporary standards of human physical aesthetics (e.g., “skinny white women”),
  2. place them in sexually suggestive or overtly sexual situations (e.g., “baring it all in a public venue”), and
  3. voila: good porn!

The assertion Rabbit, Lady Porn Day’s host, made that images like this one are “things I find hot” may at first suggest this formula is fool-proof. But if this were such an open-and-shut case, why did the same image get the following response from Beka?

You know, even as a lady who enjoys the other ladies, I… don’t really find those images all that arousing. I mean, obviously, it’s a matter of personal preference[…].

The image got an even more severe response from Remittance Girl:3

if I wanted lesbian porn, I’d go find it. The bottom line is, what makes people think women only get turned on by, primarily, other women’s bodies? I want porn that shows males […] I want pictures of hetero men, naked, aroused. Period.

Rabbit, Beka, Remittance Girl, and I each had differing responses to the image. If all it took for porn to be considered “good” were conventionally attractive models in sexual situations, all of us should have found this image “hot.” That (obviously incorrect) formulation divorces the viewer from judging the quality of the porn, yet we intuitively understand that pornography is theatrical; it is not only intended to be viewed, it is interpreted by the viewer, as all classes of art are. Therefore, we must consider the viewer’s perception in determining the quality of any given pornographic artifact. Nowhere is the phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” more applicable than in the study of art—or porn.

If we just factored in the sexual orientation of the viewer, then the only classes of people who we’d expect not to find that picture hot are (exclusively) gay men and (exclusively) straight women. However, plenty of (admittedly anecdotal) evidence suggests that there are many straight women who are aroused by sexualized imagery of women and would agree such images of other women are “hot.”4 Clearly, what makes good porn “good” and bad porn “bad” is a complex topic.

Perhaps an understanding of the issues at hand can not be achieved through expositions of a purely sexual nature, but rather through a semiotic study of the viewing of the material. Otherwise, it should have been easier to find porn that is universally liked (or disliked). In other words, for you to understand why a person likes some porn but not some other porn, you must first understand the significance they place on the porn itself.

Sexual gazing: Objectifying to Embodying

In sexuality theories, discourses on gaze mingle with cinematic theory (i.e., media studies, specifically feminist film theory), which is where the notion of the male gaze first appeared. Put simply, a gaze identifies a viewer, or a gazer. When a woman’s curves linger on-screen, as they so often do in cinema, or when a picture of, say, a “skinny white woman…baring it all” is shown, as it so often is in pornography, the viewer is commonly—and often rightly—assumed to be a heterosexual male.5

However, this conceptualization of gaze is limiting. Knowing who the gazer is tells us very little about how they are gazing. Part of understanding a person’s pornographic tastes relies on understanding whether their gaze is objectifying or embodying. An objectifying gaze is one in which the gazer—the consumer of the pornographic artifact—imagines themselves as observing the model in a pornographic image, while an embodying gaze is one in which they imagine themselves as being the model.

The gazing behavior a consumer of pornography exhibits can be conceived of as a gaze orientation, similar to a sexual orientation. In 1948, the Kinsey scale6 graded sexual behavior along an ordered series of points from exclusively heterosexual (0) to exclusively homosexual (6). The grades numbered 1 through 5 represented the various degrees of bisexual behavior:

Imagine a similar scale as Kinsey’s, except instead of sexual orientation, we’re charting gaze orientation. We can call it the gaze scale.

On one end of the scale, just like sexual orientation, we place hetero-gazing (or, using more cinematic and less sexological terminology, subject-identifying) behavior (0) and on the other we place homo-gazing (or, object-identifying) behavior (6), with bi-gazing behavior in between. As the etymological prefixes imply, hetero-gazing/subject-identifying behavior indicates a preference for the viewed object to be different from the gazer, while homo-gazing/object-identifying behavior indicates a preference for the viewed object to be the same (or at least similar in respect to sociosexual makeup) as the gazer.7

As a framework for discussing the subjective satisfaction someone may experience from consuming porn, adding this sociosexual concept to the way we think neatly explains differing reactions to pornographic artifacts that can’t be articulated any other way. Since a person’s gaze orientation is a distinct facet of their sociosexual makeup, any given homosexual, bisexual, heterosexual, or asexual person can be any given degree of homo-gazing, bi-gazing, hetero-gazing, or non-gazing (a-gazing?).

For example, some straight women may enjoy stereotypical mainstream porn because they “identify with”8 the woman “getting fucked.” Or, given an image with a traditional “male gaze” such as the one above, some (heterosexual) women may enjoy it because they have conformed to hegemonic cultural ideals in which the female form is inherently sexualized; they have become their own sexual object. In each case, these can be described as homo-gazing women.

In much the same way, this formulation explains my significant affinity for pornography focusing on male-submissive objects. Male Submission Art is an intentionally homo-gazing project because I’m featuring submissive masculinity and I identify as a submissive man myself—arguably a highly narcissistic behavior. In other words, the experience of strong homo-gazing/object-identifying behavior while consuming porn can be described as the experience of desiring to be desired—an experience no less “natural” for men than women, despite the insistence of simplistic, gender essentialist analyses.

Meanwhile, the traditional “male gaze” in straight porn presumes the (male) consumer is both heterosexual and hetero-gazing. What else explains the pernicious idea that men “identify with” the male actors when their most prominent identifying feature—their face—is so often cinematically decapitated? What else explains that even these (exclusively) heterosexual men rarely, if ever, take issue with the proliferation of purposefully visible giant cocks? Showing the cock owner’s face challenges the suspension of disbelief necessary for straight, hetero-gazing men to identify with the well endowed subject, reducing the efficacy of the porn’s theatrics.

Sexism’s Influence on Gaze

Using the framework provided by gaze orientation, I can also articulate the intense discomfort of feeling as though I need to “change the genders around in my head” when I look at most porn, same as many (heterosexual, hetero-gazing) women do. Such gaze dysphoria is more evident upon examinations of asymmetric power. For example, in her analysis of the 1980’s TV show Cagney & Lacey, Danae Clark succinctly describes sexism’s influence:

Dominant theories of spectatorship maintain that traditional (male-governed) texts are founded on a subject/object dichotomy that places a male subject in control of the ‘gaze’ and positions the woman as object of his look. Since the woman becomes the passive raw material for the active gaze and visual pleasure of the male, the female viewer’s possibilities for identification become extremely limited; she must choose between adopting the voyeuristic (sadistic) position of the male subject or the masochistic position of the female object.

Clark recognizes the quagmire that power differentials along gendered lines (i.e., sexism) places on “the female viewer’s possibilities of identification,” implying that neither the position of the male subject nor that of the female object is desirable for female viewers. However, she seems constrained by theoretically coupling active and sadistic behaviors with maleness; the “voyeuristic (sadistic) position” is desired by some women. To escape this constraint, we can be aided by Dr. Staci Newmahr’s insights on BDSM play9 in her recently published book, Playing on the Edge: Sadomasochism, Risk, and Intimacy.10

It is impossible to understand [archetypes of topping and bottoming] outside gender; they are themselves gender stereotypes. Beyond performances of powerful and powerless circumstances, they are active representations of being powerful and powerless, or of victimizing and being victimized. Topping and bottoming are both active processes undertaken to and as engagement in performances of victimization and power differentials. This is not to claim that these performances are therefore anti-feminist or otherwise philosophically objectionable[…]. There is, as SM researchers and practitioners have long insisted, an important distinction between victimization and consensual engagement in performances of victimization. Nonetheless, while the latter precludes the former, it is the existence and cultural coding of victimization that gives these performances meaning. In this sense, we can explore these performances within their gendered contexts, yet move away from the categories of “woman” and “man” as the salient hermeneutic constructs.

The existence of BDSM players who identify as dominant women or submissive men has long problematized socially conservative feminist discourse precisely because it challenges the hermeneutic constructs on which conservative social ideology depends. Similarly, the existence of homo-gazing/object-identifying women challenges the “male gaze’s” corollary. Flipping Clark’s statement on its head, if the “female gaze” can be understood as a subject/object dichotomy that places a female subject in control of the ‘gaze’ and positions the man as object of her look, then this female viewer is implicitly cast as hetero-gazing/subject-identifying. A (masochistic) woman whose satisfaction is derived from empathizing with other female objects suffers the reciprocal quagmire as the one Clark described.

This suggests that the efforts of various counter-culture pornographers, notably many creating “porn for women,” employ the same flawed dialectic as mainstream pornographers producing “male gaze” iconography. Rejecting this false dichotomy—adopting a both/and mindset—offers both emotional comfort (in validating common gaze-dysphoric experiences) and a sexologically and psychoanalytically sound explanation for, as an example, why some women find Filament Magazine sexy while others don’t. Notions of erotic satisfaction derived from consuming pornography are obviously best explored as a composite of the pornographic artifact itself and the experience of its consumption, but the atomic sociosexual parts engaged in such an experience have not yet been fully enumerated.

Just as Newmahr suggests we “explore [BDSM] performances within their gendered contexts, yet move away from the categories of ‘woman’ and ‘man’ as the salient hermeneutic constructs,” I suggest moving away from the categories of “male” and “female” when exploring the experience of porn consumption. Put another way, if you’ve ever longed for terminology that explains the difference between looking at porn and thinking “I want to fuck that girl” or thinking “I want to be that girl,” perhaps expressing the latter in terms of a gaze attraction, rather than a sexual attraction or a gender identity, will be useful.

When it comes to the consumption and creation of pornographic artifacts (viewing imagery, writing erotica, etc.), but notably not when it comes to patronizing and providing erotic labor (soliciting a prostitute, doing escort work, etc.), I posit that gaze orientation is the most significant, or at least unconsidered, hermeneutic characteristic relating to one’s satisfaction with pornography.

  1. The only people who do seem to “dislike all porn” are, of course, absexuals—folks who find pornography abhorrent. These people are typically polemicistic anti-porn crusaders for whom any and all “porn” is ideologically incompatible with “erotica,” a category containing depictions many of them do claim to “like.” For the purposes of this discussion, I treat “porn” and “erotica” as synonymous since my intent is to explore any (sexualized) satisfaction acquired through any media, regardless of how the consumer categorizes said media or maintains any philosophical objections to it. []
  2. Also, as I am most assuredly a foreigner in academic lands, I don’t have as much insight into formal research results as others might. I am, after all, a middle school drop-out, albeit one interested in reading academically rigorous studies on porn. Links in comments welcomed! []
  3. Remittance girl elaborated in a follow-up post, which also has an interesting comment thread. []
  4. These anecdotes seem further supported by numerous studies in which women view porn and are observed for physiological and psychological responses. See, for instance, Sexual arousal in women: A comparison of cognitive and physiological responses by continuous measurement and Sexual arousal in women: The development of a measurement device for vaginal blood volume. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to gauge these studies’ precise relevance to this discussion in part because the particular pornography used is not publicly available (and as a starving activist, I haven’t the resources to purchase the studies’ full text or other materials). What is notable, however, is the prevalent cognitive dissonance among women studied. []
  5. I don’t have any numbers, but private correspondence with publishers of material explicitly designed around a “female gaze” informs me that there are literally near-zero female photographers who exclusively photograph male models. Don’t believe me? Read Where Are The Women Who Photograph Men? []
  6. True to his reportedly narcissistic form, the Kinsey scale is named after Alfred Kinsey. []
  7. I use “sociosexual” here and elsewhere in this post to refer to the sum of a person’s social and sexual constitution, not in the formal psychological sense as a behavioral orientation measuring a desire to engage in sexual acts independent from feelings of love. []
  8. It is noteworthy that psychoanalytic discourses on gaze describe the concept as observing the observation of the self, as in by literally watching oneself in a mirror. Psychoanalytic theory formalizes notions of imagination by passage through a “mirror stage” of psychological development, that is, when a child is able to recognize that their own image in a mirror is their own image. Such an understanding of the self is necessary to form a distinction between “I” and “you” and is therefore a prerequisite for developing at least a homo-gazing orientation, as the viewer of a pornographic image actively seeks to empathize with or project their identity onto the (objectified) model. (A hetero-gazing orientation may not rely on a prior “mirror stage” since in this case the viewer conceptualizes the sexual image as a mere extension of their own eyesight.) This also means that a gaze orientation is not necessarily inborn, as other usages of the “orientation model” may imply. []
  9. Since BDSM play explicitly references both relationships of asymmetric power and theatrical ritual, it is an outstandingly useful lens for this analysis. []
  10. See Playing on the Edge, p. 114, paragraph 2. []