Hey folks, here is my Feminist Porn Conference talk, which I gave today in a session with Carol Queen and Princess Kali (holy crap). It went pretty darn well, though of course my paper was too long and (as often happens) once I got started I have a difficult time shutting my mouth. Ya know. I get enthusiastic. BTW, if anyone has any idea how to convincingly represent responsive desire in feminist porn, please let me know!

First, a preface regarding the words “male,” “female,” “man,” and “woman:” because a lot of my talk references psychophysiological research conducted almost exclusively on cisgender people, I will very often be using the words “men” and “women” to refer to the cisgendered study participants and the populations they represent, and “male” and “female” to refer to the things their bodies do in those studies. It makes the research problematic before I even start, but representing the science as it is means not representing people as they are. Sorry.

I am a novice at all things media. My academic background is in cognitive science and public health; I have no formal training in women’s studies, gender studies, queer studies, film studies, identity politics, comparative literature, or any of the many academic disciplines that would have been so helpful to me in preparing this talk. The only sentence in which I can use the word “intersectionality” is this one.

What I have, though, is deep knowledge of female sexual physiology, and a lot of experience helping emerging adults uproot the bullshit planted in their sexual psychologies by a culture that would have them believe they are broken. I speak to you today as a sex educator looking for help in teaching young women about how their bodies work.

Feminist porn has powerful potential as a tool for supporting women in developing a positive relationship with their own bodies; the link between sexually explicit media and health education is far from new – such an overlap reaches at least as far back as the seventeenth century and probably much farther – hence the imprecations by authors of many early sex manuals not to misconstrue the contents as salacious, when their intent is purely medical and spiritual. Feminist porn does not vary from the seventeenth century in this overlap between sex education and erotic content. Nor alas – and this is the crux of my message today – does it vary in three crucial aspects of its representation of the sexual behavior of female bodies.

There was then and there is now what Lisa Diamond calls (in a different context) a “master narrative” around human sexual functioning, borne of clinical models and patriarchy in science. The narrative goes something like this:

First, you want some sex. So you pursue sex. Second, when you get some sex, your body does some predictable things – male bodies get an erection and female bodies get wet, for a start.

And third, when you get to the penis-in-vagina part, you have an orgasm.

I’ll be calling this the want-get-fuck-come model, and it equally describes the tropes of porn and the tropes of romance novels, want-get-fuck-come. This is not just a narrative of deliberate behavior; it is a narrative of physiology. The narrative has evolved over centuries in the west, with gradual transformation of who does the wanting and pursuing, and feminist porn has taken a radical position on who can pursue sex, the kinds of activities people can engage in to generate arousal, and what goes into a vagina.

However.

Everything about this narrative is a pretty reasonable description of about 80% of men, and the narrative certainly emerged based on male sexual experience – indeed it was written by and for men. And it’s a pretty reasonable description of about 20% of women. It creates no space for the experiences of the overwhelming majority of people living in female bodies.

And yet the master narrative is so entrenched that my students, blog readers, and even fellow sex educators often believe that they are sexually broken when they fail to conform to the narrative.

But they are not broken; mostly, they are women.

So I watched a buncha feminist porn, looking for the other 80% of women’s narratives; I made a spreadsheet of more than 50 scenes. And what I found – well, I found a lot of things, not least of which is that queer porn stars are the opera singers of sex work, combining the physical power of dancers and athletes, with the emotional depth of the actors and the creative mastery of the greatest improvisational musicians.

But for the purposes of this paper, what I found was that feminist porn queers the master narrative.

It does not write a different narrative.

So I’m here, first, to tell you what the science has to say about the master narrative with respect to female sexual functioning, and, second, to ask that that the female narrative – or narratives – be represented.

So now I’ll put on my sex educator hat and talk to you about what I will loosely call “women’s sexuality,” specifically retelling the want-get-fuck-come narrative.

1. “First, you want some sex, so you go get some sex.”

Roughly 30-60% of women and 5-20% of men typically want sex only after the getting begins, and rarely want sex just out of the blue. These folks don’t have “low” desire. They don’t suffer from any ailment, they don’t long to initiate but feel like they’re not allowed to. Their bodies just need some more compelling reason than “That’s an attractive person right there,” to want sex.Researchers Ellen Laan and Stephanie Both call this “responsive” desire, in contrast to “spontaneous” desire. Sex therapist Susanne Iasenzza calls it “willingness” in contrast to “wanting.” And my students call it “openness,” in contrast to “eagerness.”

In the many studies of desire, there is no relationship between desire style and arousability or orgasm. These are sexually satisfied women, in healthy relationships. What this research tell us is that lack of spontaneous interest in sex is not, in itself, dysfunctional or problematic in any way.

What’s going on here has to do with where arousal and desire come from.

Your central nervous system, including your sexual response mechanism, is made up of a partnership of “brakes” and “gas.”

The Sexual Excitation System (SES) is the “gas pedal” of your sexual response. It receives information about “sexually relevant stimuli” in the environment – things you see, hear, smell, touch, taste, or imagine – and sends signals from the brain to the genitals to tell them, “Turn on!” SES is constantly scanning the environment (including your own thoughts and feelings) for things that are sexually relevant. It is constantly at work, far below the level of consciousness.

The Sexual Inhibition System (SIS) is your sexual brake. “Inhibition” here doesn’t mean “shyness,” but rather neurological “off” signals. Just as SES scans the environment for turn-ons, SIS scans from turn-offs – things you see, hear, smell, touch, taste, or imagine, which your brain interprets as a good reason not to be aroused right now. And all day long it sends a steady stream of “Turn off!” messages to your genitals. SIS is the system that slams on the brakes if, in the middle of some nookie, your grandmother walks in the room.

Each of us has both mechanisms and each of us has different sensitivities of SIS and SES, which leads to different “arousability” – that is, your potential to be aroused by sexually relevant stimuli. As I tell my students over and over, we’re all made of the same parts, just organized in different ways. The variation is distributed on a nice bell curve; most of us are heaped up in the middle, average joes and janes and jesses, and a few people are at the extreme ends.

Folks with more sensitive gas pedals and less sensitive brakes end up with a “spontaneous” desire style under most circumstances, because their readily-stimulated SES activates sexual attention in response to lower levels of stimulation. Folks with less sensitive gas pedals and more sensitive brakes are more likely to have a responsive desire style most of the time, because it takes a greater amount of more direct stimulation of the excitation system to generate interest and desire. There’s a lot more to this than I’ve described – for example the importance of situational and emotional context – but my paper is already 1,000 words too long.

Responsive desire is totally normal – it’s a desire style made of the same parts as spontaneous desire, just organized in a slightly different way.But when people don’t know that responsive desire is normal, they begin to feel that they are broken, dysfunctional, because the master narrative privileges “spontaneous” desire; indeed I’m certain that some of you are thinking that responsive desire must be a product of cultural inhibition and if people were more free they’d want sex more spontaneously. That’s partly right for some people, but largely wrong for many people. I don’t have time to explain why, so come have a drink with me after and I will.

There are complications of consent that may be involved in representing responsive desire in feminist porn; it makes “enthusiastic consent” less obvious. But I admit I kinda sorta expected feminist porn to be interested in that kind of challenge, so I was amazed to find that responsive desire narratives are a miniscule minority of the stories I found in feminist porn.

2. “Second, when you get some sex, your body does predictable things.”

What a person’s body (and in particular a woman’s body) is doing is not necessarily an indication of their mental state. This is generally known among researchers and not controversial – it appears there is roughly a 60-85% correlation between what a penis is doing and how aroused the person feels, and about a 15-30% correlation between what a vagina is doing and how aroused the person feels. It’s called non-concordant arousal, and it’s normal.

I will illustrate with two examples, both true:

When I was in college, my friend – I’ll call her Amanda – told me this story about a guy she had been seeing for several months, with whom she was experimenting for the first time with power and domination. She said:

“I let him tie my wrists above my head while I was standing up, and he positioned me so that I was straddling this bar that pressed against my vulva. And then he went away! He just left for a while and it was totally boring, and when he came back I was like, ‘I’m not into this.’ He looked at the bar and he looked at me and he said, ‘Then why are you wet?’ And I was so confused because I definitely wasn’t into it, but my body was definitely not responding.”

I didn’t know what to say. Because, like everyone who has ever read a sexy romance novel, I knew that wet = aroused. Desirous. Wanting it. Being “ready” for sex. So what could it mean that my friend’s body was saying one thing and her brain was saying something else?

This wasn’t sexy yes-but-no like in romance novels, where the heroine really does want the hero but insists that she “shouldn’t;” Amanda really just didn’t feel turned on or desirous at all. What was going on?

The question haunted me, and I didn’t learn the answer for years.It came in time for me to help my sister. She called me one day and said, “I don’t always get wet when I’m turned on, and so my husband thinks I’m just humoring him, but I’m not. Am I broken? Should I see a doctor? Is it hormonal? What’s wrong?”

“Oh I see. This is actually really common. Sometimes bodies don’t respond with genital arousal in a way that matches mental experience. Tell him to listen to your words, not your fluids, and also buy some lube.”

The vagina is not an “unambiguous agent of sincerity,” as Alain de Botton called it. It’s a reproductive canal. It can’t be sincere any more than your elbows can be sincere. The greater (but not perfect) correlation between male genital response and experience makes people think that’s what’s “normal,” but it’s really not even half the story.

And yet, in the scenes on my spreadsheet, there were many instances of people saying, “I’m so wet” or “You’re so wet” as an indication of pleasure and arousal. There was plenty of use of lube used, but no indication that the lube was a counterbalance a lack of lubrication on the part of the vagina involved. There were even instances of the dreaded, “You’re a liar, I can tell how much you want it because of how wet you are.” Feminist porn appears not to have even TRIED to queer this one.

Genital response is not consent. Genital response isn’t even desire or pleasure. Hell, it isn’t even arousal, in the way most people think about it. Genital response is genital response, and it deserves vastly less of a place than it’s given in representations of sexual functioning.

3. “Third, when you get to the penis-in-vagina part, you have an orgasm.”

Look, this is a room full of feminists. I don’t have to tell you about the clitoris. It is the hokey pokey: it’s what it’s all about. It’s two turn tables and a microphone: it’s where it’s at. It’s Visa: everywhere you want to be.

Two sets of facts:

First: about 25% of women are reliably orgasmic from “unassisted penetration.” The rest are sometimes, almost never, or never orgasmic from penetration. This number has been replicated multiple times in studies spanning about a hundred years, with amazingly little variation, in multiple research methodologies. For a review, see Elisabeth Lloyd’s relentlessly precise, Case of the Female Orgasm.

Second: more than 90% of women who masturbate do so with little or no vaginal penetration. This number too has been replicated multiple times through multiple methodologies in multiple studies, including both Kinsey’s female volume and the Hite report.

The clitoris really is the hokey pokey, and I mean like woah.And yet, in all that porn I watched, fewer than 10% of the orgasms among people with vaginas were penetration-free? Most of them were combined penetration and clitoral stimulation and some of them were penetration alone, but out of 50 scenes, only a handful featured orgasms without penetration at all, and only five did not involve any penetration. Jackie Strano, in an interview about feminist porn earlier this week, actually began with this definition: Feminist Porn is when the partner getting penetrated has a fully embodied orgasm.”

Essentially, what I see in feminist porn is that the traditional role of penetrator and penetratee has been queered in terms of gender, but penetration itself has not been queered. Feminist porn has abstracted penetration, allowing fingers and fists and dildos to take the place of penises. This seems to me analogous to religious ceremonies that used to involve actual animal sacrifice, and now involve only the symbolic sacrifice of a model or image of the animal. Animal or model, it’s still a superstition, you see what I’m saying? Sorry about that analogy.

To Conclude:

The want-get-fuck-come narrative is a patriarchal narrative that the last twenty years of psychophysiological research has shown to be an inadequate description of the overwhelming majority female sexual functioning.

A female narrative can put those four verbs in just about any order (get fuck want come, want get come fuck), it can eliminate some altogether (want get come, get want fuck), it can repeat some almost indefinitely (want get come come fuck come come). The stories are more complex, more interwoven with the non-sexual domains of life, and less directly related to peripheral factors (i.e., genital response).

I know that porn is a fantasy. But feminist porn surely is feminist fantasy, a woman- and queer-friendly response to the monoculture fantasy of mainstream porn. A feminist fantasy could and maybe should be a celebration of the biodiversity of women – our various shapes, sizes, colors, abilities, gender expressions. So it surprised me how many of the female orgasms in feminist porn are penetration-centric, how rarely a responsive character might begin desire after stimulation, and how much credence is given to the “I’m so wet” school of arousal.

A particularly weird thing I noticed is that porn that accepts the label “feminist” mostly seems to make a choice between mainstream bodies and mainstream physiology. Either you get culturally sanctioned beauty and cisgender heterosexuality with contexty stories with penetration-free pussy eating (Candida Royalle, Erika Lust), or genderqueer every body obeying the want-get-fuck-come narrative (Crash Pad Series, Indie Porn Revolution). I don’t know what to make of that. Maybe you do. Drinks after.

Again, I’m a novice at all things media. For all I know, the feminist porn audience is clamoring for stories about people of all bodies and genders who just want sex, ravenously, instantly, and incessantly. For all I know you have abundant consumer data, quantitative and qualitative, that tells you that penetration is the only thing that sells and when you reduce penetration, you reduce revenue. For all I know, the people who watch feminist and queer porn are all among the vaginally orgasmic minority, with a spontaneous desire style and unfailingly wet vaginas. And it might be that the challenge of telling a story about responsive desire is too complex, that what feminist porn wants to be is linear and easy and comfortable and familiar. As I said at the start, I’m not the person who knows anything about the media or sociocultural anything.

But think about yourself. Think about your friends. Think about your partners. Can you find a feminist porn story that represents your actual sexual functioning, that celebrates your responsive desire style, your non-concordant arousal, your clit-centric orgasms and masturbation habits?

If feminist porn is about complicating representations of identities and desires, then I am here to raise my hand and say, “Can it also complicate representations of desire, arousal, and orgasm?”

Can we make space in the stories told in feminist porn, not just for all the variety of how our bodies look and what we choose to do with them, but also for all the variety of how our bodies work? Can feminist porn tell stories of a responsive desire partner who wants to want sex and works to figure out what context will create that? Can I see a cisgender woman told, “But you’re wet! You must be ready!” and then she tells that person to listen to her words? Can I see lots and lots and lots of clit-centric orgasms? I’m not even talking about representations of dysfunction and unsatisfying sex – just a variety of kinds of functional, healthy, dare I say it, “normal” sexual functioning. Normal is a vast and hilly landscape, and I think all of it belongs in feminist porn.

I don’t want to minimize the revolutionary inclusivity of much of feminist porn. The bodies, identities, sex acts, and consent represented are incomparably superior to those represented in mainstream porn and in the “master narrative.” I just want to add the variety of healthy human – and especially female – sexual desire, arousal, and orgasm – to the growing list of diversitiies that receive respectful representation in feminist porn.

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