Smith, C (2002) '" They're ordinary people, not Aliens from the Planet Sex!'": the mundane excitements of pornography for women', in Journal of Mundane Behaviour, Vol 3, 1. [online http//www.mundanebehaviour.org/issues/v3n1/csmith.htm]
The debate about pornography has tended to range from examples of the extremely vulgar and exploitative to the avant-garde and transgressive. However, there is a mundane option, featuring ordinary sexuality, especially in the UK soft core magazine market.
British soft porn mags 'offer readers a mixture of coy sensuality and dirty jokes with few of the taboo busting potentials [of really transgressive pornography]' (no page numbers on this electronic copy). The UK has one particularly soft core but explicit magazine -- For Women, and this is a study of readers of that magazine. Much of the debate has not considered the reader, and much has been based on the American context where 'soft-core encompasses depictions of actual sexual activity between two or more people and the term hard core is reserved for more minority pleasures or "perversions"' (citing Thompson 1994). Further, 'the UK market has remained largely reliant on top-shelf magazines [the convention is to put them on the top shelf of the magazine rack in newsagents and stores, so that kids cannot browse them], video spinoffs and telephone chat lines'. In the absence of clear definitions, producers exercise self-censorship.
In the early 1990s, women were seen as the new market, but only For Women seems to have survived. This magazine attempted to combine 'two genres: the woman's magazine and the sexually explicit', but falling sales lead to further compromises. The magazine tended to be seen as pornography, stocked on the top shelf, and thus not really browsed by women. Content was toned down, but this failed to help the magazine enter the mainstream.
The magazine can be seen as 'woman's pornography', a dubious category, seemingly egalitarian, but obviously close to 'advertising-speak'. However, the magazine did attempt to address women in a new way, breaking with the conventions of depicting female sexuality as merely 'awareness of the dangers, problems and constraints of sexual intercourse'. The 'realities' of women's sex were to be addressed. However, the magazine also featured 'a range of legitimizing elements', such as expert commentary, women's erotic writers, celebrities. Women were conceivably addressed as 'post-feminist', defined by Brunsdon, (2000) as offering an identity "neither trapped in femininity (pre- feminist), nor rejecting of it (feminist). She can use it"'. In particular, the magazine attempted to address ordinary sex: there was no claim to offer avant-garde liberating pornography.
The debate about porn tends to be polarised between sensors and sexual revolutionaries. 'Regulation and repression' are clearly interwoven in the debates, together with changing definitions of sexual difference. 'Sanctioned sexuality... is loving, procreative and monogamous' for the would-be censors. Radical feminists have highlighted the possibility of sexual violence. Both seem to share 'conceptions of "normal", "healthy" female sexuality as passive and receptive'. This has led to whole 'hierarchies of "good" and "bad" sex were poor. Some feminists, such as Kipnis have been able to argue that pornography radically challenges these conceptions, especially in Hustler with its vulgarity -- 'a Rabelaisian assertion of the lower bodily stratum and its functions'. However, this still involves a hierarchy 'leaving Playboy readers wallowing in the pap of upwardly-mobile bourgeois mores'.
Other writers have celebrated the pornography of de Sade as transgressive [but see Horkheimer and Adorno]. This transgressive material is seen as better than 'ordinary' pornography, which is 'dull, repetitive and unable to move its readers beyond the immediate sexual satisfaction of masturbation'. What is needed is examination of 'the range of embodied practices... associated with viewing a pornographic magazine', invoking responses beyond the merely sexual. It must not be assumed that '"ordinary" porn users are never disappointed, embarrassed, put off, worried or appalled'.
For some writers, such as Juffer (1998), pornography has been domesticated to a certain extent, that is, brought into the domestic sphere and made more widely available than earlier forms exclusively for men. Juffer sees the category embracing a wide and dispersed range of texts, which themselves help define the rules [typical of criticisms of film genres as well]. For example, some texts are marketed as erotica, claiming some aesthetic status, and becoming more acceptable to women. This has helped establish women's interests as not so masturbatory and explicit as those of men, more focused on fantasy and female identity -- and thus as more authentically female.
However, actual readings are required at this point. 16 women readers of For Women were interviewed over a period of years. What they show is different reactions to reading. Some did not like the magazine at all, for example; none seemed to fit the binaries of transgressive or exploitative. The magazine apparently permits women 'to express their very ordinary sexual pleasures' [the usual extracts from interviews support these analyses].
For example, the people in the magazine seemed ordinary rather than alien. It seemed different from the material aimed at men, especially in the way it depicted women. This seemed to recognise women's intelligence. Writing that makes sex look silly or dirty did not appeal. This could be evidence of a conventional depiction of women as offering a more romantic kind of sexuality -- but explicit depictions of erect males were also accepted (they are banned under the current UK obscenity laws). [This reminds me of the points in Shaw's work that it was the depiction of women in conventional pornography that caused the most unease among women readers -- they were afraid that porn stars would be held up as some sort of ideal against which they would be compared].
One reader in particular took comfort in seeing people depicted in the magazine who had the same sexual tastes as she did and who appeared as normal healthy people, and this seems to have strengthened her resolve to end a repressive marriage. The magazine did not transgress to liberate, but it did empower. The reader seems to have found companions in the magazine, a sense of belonging, and identification with the people on the problems page. Before entering the marriage, she had seen the magazine as enjoyable in its depicting 'a fun and pleasurable female sexuality'. [Interestingly, she describes this as feeling 'one of the girlies'. 'Girlies' seem to exist somewhere between the silly girls of men's magazines and the later 'laddettes']. The magazine therefore seems to have offered material to enable this particular reader to play games, undertake 'imaginative projection of herself' both back to a time when she was happy sexually, and to a happier future. '[S]he requires that it should not "debase" her or sex: she should not feel guilty, embarrassed or ashamed of her sexual feelings'.
One reader is hardly decisive evidence, but it does illustrate the possibilities. The magazine did seem to enable some imaginative thoughts about sex without any of the risks -- 'male violence, coercion, physical, emotional and mental pressures'. It can be used to feel that one has a right to pleasure, a right to sexuality, 'the possibility of being politically motivated one minute and a sex kitten the next' [this is what academic post feminists want?].
Brunsdon, C. (2000) 'Post-feminism and shopping films' in Hollows, J., Hutchings, P. and Jancowich, M. (eds) The Film Studies Reader, London: Arnold.
Juffer, J. (1998) At Home with Pornography, New York: New York University Press.
Kipnis, L..(1992) '(Female) Desire and (Female) Disgust: Reading Hustler' in Grossberg, L.,Nelson, C. and Treichler, P. (eds) Cultural Studies, London: Routledge.
Thompson, B (1994) Soft Core: Campaigns against Pornography in Britain and America, London: Cassell
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