At last weekend's Ladyfest I attended a fascinating talk led by Suraya Sidhu Singh, the editor of Filament, the latest magazine to attempt to fill the gap in the market for quality erotica aimed at women. During the talk Singh dealt with the various objections that have been raised every time an erotic magazine aimed at women has been launched, and provided some very interesting food for thought. She started with the obvious, but deeply troubling status quo that women find themselves in - constantly considering ourselves as sexual objects, never subjects, always the gazed-at, never the gazer, and hence internalising the notion that our pleasure comes from being seen as sexy and desired by men. Not only does society teach us to always act as if under the male gaze, it dictates to us what this gaze supposedly wants, prescribing 'THIS is sexy', ergo if you don't act/look/think like this, you are not sexy. Not adhering to social definitions of what's sexy is a grave transgression, and the underlying threat is that you will be punished for it (presumably by never getting laid. A high price to pay, indeed.)
Having wearily accepted her sexual partners' porn use (as so many women seem to, apparently believing that there really is no point even trying to object), Singh said she began to consider why men were able to access any image of any type of women involved in any act, whereas women were just expected to, well, what? Not want porn in the first place, went most of the arguments.
"It just doesn't sell" was one she came back to regularly, followed by
"Women just don't respond to visual images"
and possibly the laziest one in the book - "Women are turned on by other women's bodies just like men are".
Singh pointed out that saying something 'doesn't sell' isn't quantifiable until you've actually given something a proper chance to be a success - and women's erotica really is still in its infancy. Regardless, the 'big', well-known women's erotica magazines such as For Women and Playgirl had circulations of over 300,000 each in their heyday - pretty impressive numbers when today, 70,000 copies per issue is considered incredibly good going. Why they didn't survive seems to be a much less clear-cut issue than just 'women aren't interested in sexual images'. The founder of For Women magazine who was also present, spoke of the constant obstacles thrown in her way by the male magazine publishing industry, who attempted to thwart the successful publication of her magazine in any way possible, from editors to photographers to vendors. Male publishers claimed they knew what 'women wanted' and what the magazine was proposing apparently wasn't it, photographers were largely gay men wanting to photograph the male models in poses women were likely to be turned off by (a man on all fours with a certain part of his anatomy wide open, anyone?), and vendors often stonewalled women's erotica by labelling it too explicit. Even though the most explicit images it contained were of naked men with non-erect penises, something you can see by flipping open the Encyclopaedia Britannica any time. Contrast this to the way you can see women portrayed in - not just top shelf, but men's magazines too - any porn mag you pull off a shelf in WH Smiths, and you can see why the question of the success of women's erotica is a little more complex than just 'women aren't interested'. It's also very interesting to note that Filament isn't currently sold in UK shops due to vendor objections, even though again I really can't see anything in it that even competes with the way men's porn is shot, packaged and sold in terms of explicit, and often debasing, images of women.
The notion that 'women just aren't interested', then. Christ, if someone gives me the 'women aren't visual creatures' line one more time, I'm going to ask them to visualise me smacking them in the mouth. This specious reasoning originates with studies where men and women were asked to 'self report' on their experience of watching erotic films and images. Guess what - the men admitted to being aroused, the women did not. Wow - so from that we glean the 'scientific fact' that women just aren't aroused by visuals?! We don't at any point stop to consider that the massive social taboos still surrounding female sexuality and shrouding any enthusiastic female sexual desire/response in shame, may have influenced the way women reported their experiences? Well, if that didn't convince you, perhaps Andrey Anokhin's method of surveying men and women's responses may at least make you consider that the previous research was flawed. In his survey, Anokhin used encephalographs (electrodes measuring blood flow and pulse response) to measure male and female response to erotic images, and guess what? They both showed arousal. Shocker. What was even more interesting was that whilst men showed arousal in accordance with their sexual preference (e.g. gay men were only aroused by gay porn), women showed arousal from watching all types of erotica - gay, straight, lesbian, mixed. (So yes, we may happen be turned on by what men like to look at too, but that's no excuse for the total lack of stuff aimed solely at US as women) However, the crucial footnote here is that when asked about their levels of arousal, women in the study reported much less than what their bodies were saying. Again, I think an examination of the criminal neglect of female sexuality is long overdue before we start prescribing what women are and aren't into. God knows I find myself turned on by stuff - both the looking at, and the doing in real life - that I find it very hard to admit to, and I consider myself very liberated and broad-minded, so I dread to think how women who are more repressed manage to admit to any sexual desires beyond the tiny prescriptive bones society throws to them.
However, there's still so little available to us with which to truly explore our sexual desires, it's not surprising if women's response to women-orientated porn is still lukewarm. We don't have this cornucopia of images to choose from, therefore if we don't feel turned on by Hunk No.1 draped over a log, we may think 'Shit, I'm not that sexual'. I loved the issue of Filament I bought, but I found maybe only one of the male models attractive, and it had very little to do with his body (it was the eyes. Oh, I'm a sucker for a pair of pretty eyes). Does this mean women are more cerebral, less able to objectify men, or have higher standards? I don't know. I don't think we'll get anywhere close to knowing until female sexuality has been given a true chance to breathe. That, to me, is the real reason why women's erotica is trailing behind so badly - male sexuality has had the floor for the last few millennia, and a couple of decades of the right to shout out a few demands of our own, is not going to have caught us up. We still know so little about what turns women on, and what we really want - and I do mean that we ourselves can often be unsure about what we want, so conditioned and dictated to are we by a society that fears the consequences of us unleashing the 'sleeping dragon' of our sexuality. And by 'our' sexuality, I mean one that has nothing to do with Ann Summers, Belle De Jour, sex manuals, Cosmo or the way pornography depicts women.
As the founder of For Women pointed out 'Women's sexual autonomy is a scary thought' - perhaps that's why all the above named culprits and countless others have done so much to repress it, all the while handing us a prepackaged, vacuous version of female sexuality and telling us 'you're liberated!'. Whilst Filament may not have got me off, I'm not sure that's even the point - its very existence points to a need for a new discussion on female sexuality, and a questioning of all the standards that are constantly dictated to us.
Just because the men in the magazine didn't make me randy, doesn't mean I didn't like looking at them. We're ALL visual creatures, male and female alike - but that doesn't stop us from being thinking creatures too.