November 28, 2007

Q&A: Women And Pornography

Q&A about pornography from a heterosexual female reader who wonders if looking at lesbian pornography is "normal."

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Question: How common is it for women to look at pornography? Also, is it common that a heterosexual female looks at lesbian pornography?

Many people (women and men) look at sexual imagery, though what they call these images vary. The word “pornography” has traditionally been seen as reflecting a negative sense of such imagery, though in contemporary times more people also seem to use the word “porn” in a positive way, to describe something that they enjoy looking at. However, “sexually explicit” is a term that perhaps more accurately describes the range of images. Others prefer to use the term “erotica” which is a broader term and may more often be used to describe less explicit but still sexual imagery.

We don’t have reliable data on what percentage of the female population regularly looks at sexually explicit images. Many of the scientific studies related to the use of sexually explicit materials are not from nationally representative surveys; they are often surveys of select groups of adults (e.g., college students or relatively young readers of certain popular women’s magazines). These “convenience” samples of women tend to show that more than half of women have viewed explicit images or what some surveys describe as “porn”. Sometimes the figures are even as high as 70 or 80% of women (again, keeping in mind that these are select groups of women). We don’t necessarily know, however, what these women consider to be porn or a sexually explicit film, whether they enjoy what they see, whether they look at porn to fit in with their friends or to be liked or thought to be sexy by their partner, or whether they get very aroused by the images that they see.

Looked at another way, some reports suggest that women are significant consumers of sexually explicit films/DVDs – that as many as 30% or 40% of adult video consumers are said to be women, and women are also said to make up a similar chunk of visitors to adult web sites.

Again, we don’t necessarily know what it is that women or watching or why they are watching it (or how they feel about watching it), though we do know from both research reports and anecdotal reports (e.g., what we hear from clients, friends, students, colleagues) that women – like men – watch a range of materials and that their choice of film images doesn’t necessarily reflect the types of sex they like in real life.

Many people watch sexually explicit images of group sex, bondage, anal sex, or oral sex even though they may not partake in those types of sex. The same is true with sexual orientation – what you like on film doesn’t necessarily match up with what you like in waking life.

Women and men are often curious about sex in general – not necessarily sex with the gender of the person they are typically attracted to. As such, straight-identified folks sometimes look at gay or lesbian erotica and gay or lesbian identified individuals sometimes look at straight erotica. It does not mean that these people have sexual orientations that are any different than what they feel in their heart, or that they should change their choice in romantic or sexual partners based on what they like to watch on film or to feel aroused by on film; it may just be a reflection of the many ways in which we experience and express our sexuality.

If you’re interested in learning more about sexual images and porn, PBS Frontline put together a special a few years ago called American Porn and you can still find information about it online ( The Kinsey Institute alsos feature a range of erotic art in their collections that you can learn more about at their web site (The Kinsey Institute). Finally, you might also be interested in the annual collection of Best Women’s Erotica edited by Violet Blue which explores the different ways (including visual stimulation) that women and their partners enjoy sex – and sexual imagery.

Originally published November 28, 2007

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