One for the Girls!: The Pleasures and Practices of Reading Women's Porn

One for the Girls!: The Pleasures and Practices of Reading Women's Porn

by Clarissa Smith

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Against the claims of increasing sexualisation of culture, one truism is constantly rehearsed – that women have little taste for pornography. In One for the Girls!, a new basis for understanding women’s pleasures in sexually explicit materials is offered focusing on the production and consumption of For Women magazine. This thought-provoking book argues


Against the claims of increasing sexualisation of culture, one truism is constantly rehearsed – that women have little taste for pornography. In One for the Girls!, a new basis for understanding women’s pleasures in sexually explicit materials is offered focusing on the production and consumption of For Women magazine. This thought-provoking book argues that theories of harm, women’s subordination and accounts of effects or transgressive potentials have deflected attention away from the lived experiences and practices of pornography; drawing on rich empirical detail, One for the Girls!, brings them sharply into view. The book examines the ways in which pornography has become a favoured repository of social fears and debunks the myth of the ‘evil pornographer’ producing images of objectified women for troubled male viewers. By focusing on an individual publication, this book illuminates the ways in which pornography is a social product and subject to a range of institutional practices which influence its styles and presentations. Significantly this book moves beyond the usual rehearsal of claims about readers’ vulnerability to ideologies hidden in the text and uses readers’ designations of ‘sexy’ and ‘pleasureable’ to underpin an alternative theorisation of pornography. Exploring readers’ responses to nude male pinups, explicit stories and sexy articles, the book traces the patterns of response hidden behind the title ‘porn reader’.

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One for the Girls!

The Pleasures and Practices of Reading Women's Porn

By Clarissa Smith

Intellect Ltd

Copyright © 2007 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84150-977-8



The last thirty years have seen much debate within (but not limited to) feminism about pornography: its meanings, pleasures, pains and effects. Over this period the arguments have appeared increasingly polarized and seemingly unresolvable, and, yet, alongside this debate has been the increase in 'erotic' publishing for women. But there are significant problems in theorizing women's pleasure in sexually explicit representations: many cultural theorists have posited that pornography for women is different, locating a possible source in romantic fictions published by Harlequin/Mills & Boon (Radway 1986; Snitow 1984b). At the same time, some studies have located women's sexuality in touch rather than the gaze (Irigary 1985) and, drawing upon a notion of female sexuality as emotionally, psychically and physically different from the sexual experiences of men, that pornography is thus unable to fit with women's erotic potentialities (Faust 1980). In some accounts this non-fit is seen as actively produced with the intention to distort, even to destroy female sexual desire in the service of institutionalized heterosexuality (Griffin 1981; Dworkin 1981; Jeffreys 1990; Levy 2005; Paul 2005). Others, however, have suggested that pornography can and does hold particular pleasures for female subjects and that its use can be best understood as transgressive of heterosexist norms rather than supportive of them (Rubin 1984, 1992; Carol 1994; Vance 1992a; Lumby 1997; Albury 2005).

These accounts (identified as feminist despite their significant differences) join a vast array of discussions of pornography from writers within legal, philosophical, sociological, aesthetic and moral traditions. O'Toole has described the ways in which porn, its contents and regulation are intensely political matters. It is also a continuously expanding phenomenon, constantly able to 'reinvent' itself (although the extent to which its favourite representational tropes are reinvented is the subject of some dispute) utilizing new technologies such as CD-ROM, video and the Internet in order to reach more and more consumers. Its exploitation of new technology is matched by its ability to cater to ever more specialist markets witnessed, for example, in the rise of materials addressed to gay and lesbian consumers and the growth of S/M materials. These expansions have seen pornography move from a very narrow availability to, what at times, seems like a very mainstream acceptability. Perhaps most important to pornography's continued presence in academic and theoretical work, is its central place within discussions of representations and specifically how those contribute to understandings around gender and sexuality and their connections to inequalities in the wider social, political and economic spheres. The continuing debates – how might the real character of pornography be revealed, how does it work, what are its effects and how can they be examined? – making pornography a topic of concern for academics whatever their discipline.

The Study of Pornography

Often writings 'about' pornography are more interested in the question 'should pornography exist?' than the specifics of its textual formations. Some commentators are so incensed by their response to porn that they call for the total banning of the object of their investigation. Indeed, in the 1980s the opposing sides were sufficiently antagonistic to be described as 'at war'. Numerous accounts of these 'sex wars' have been published (O'Toole 1998; Carol 1994; Segal & McIntosh 1992; Strossen 2000; McElroy 1995; Tong 1998; Thompson 1994; Chancer 1998) making a further rehearsal here somewhat superfluous. With that acknowledgement of superfluity in mind, I offer a very brief overview of the histories and main arguments of the debates, focusing on studies which could be considered 'emblematic' of particular positions, sufficient only to put my own discussion into context.

Defining Pornography and Creating Orthodoxy

The history of pornography is perhaps most easily recognized as a history of regulation and repression. Kendrick (1987), O'Toole (1998) and others have described the ways in which materials deemed pornographic because of their sexual explicitness have been hidden from wider attention: only those who would not be 'corrupted' being allowed to see it. Hunt has shown that pornography had no existence, as we understand it today, until the early nineteenth century when technological innovation made widespread dissemination of printed materials profitable. Prior to that time, sexually explicit pamphlets and illustrations had been the vehicle for attacks on political and religious authorities (1993b: 10). Thus Hunt argues that pornography was 'linked to free-thinking and heresy, to science and natural philosophy, and to attacks on absolutist political authority' (1993b: 11). Early attacks on pornography centred on the corruption of morals and the identification of obscenity both suggestive of the ability of sexually explicit materials to offend 'authority' and as Hunt argues 'pornography as regulatory category was invented in response to the perceived menace of the democratisation of culture' (1993b: 12–13).

Thus porn's early history is one of proliferation and suppression on political grounds, reaching its zenith in the works of the Marquis de Sade and the French Revolution. With the move to mass production and mass literacy in the nineteenth century, O'Toole and Kendrick both argue that pornography was less of a political problem than a moral one. Histories of pornography have been difficult but have indicated that there are 'major bursts' (Hunt 1993a) of sexual imagery coincidental with radical political and philosophical movements. Hunt has drawn attention to the ways in which the political and the moral were inseparable in the response to pornographic representations of women. 'As new biological and moral standards for sexual difference evolved, pornography seemed to become even more exotic and dangerous. It had to be stamped out. Much ... of our modern concern with pornography follows from that conviction.' (1993b: 45) In similar vein, Sigel has shown how the menace was more particularly thought in reference to the poor – if the lower orders had access to photographs of naked bodies then they were obscene images: 'the judgement passed on pornography changed based on where, when, and by whom it was viewed.' (2002: 4)

With the patchy move towards sexual liberation in the 1960s, 'corruption of morals' was a less easily accommodated category of reproach in an increasingly secular society. Once again, the behaviours of upright citizens were satirized in political magazines and the Left used sexual innuendo as a form of radical political critique (Segal 1994; Hunt 1998). Although the effectiveness of 'sex as subversive' (Segal 1994: 1) was, and is, debated, the designation of sexual representations as 'obscene' played into the subversive court. Alongside the diminishing of the power of the accusation 'obscene' went a rise in sexually explicit material whether printed, filmic or live shows (O'Toole 1998; Thompson 1994). The 1970s saw a boom in pornographic publishing and the development of a sex industry in the UK (Hunt 1998; O'Toole 1998; Skordarki 1991).

Right-wingers and moralists viewed these developments with some horror, exclaiming at the growth of the 'promiscuous society' and the concomitant social breakdown (Hunt 1998; Petley 2000). The floodgates appeared to be open for increasingly explicit material, but the voices against pornography were given a major fillip in the late 1970s by radical feminist analyses of sexualized representations that moved discussion from moral to political outrage. Against the backdrop of sexual liberation, this outrage arose from the feminist axiom that the 'personal is political' making the connections between sexual representations and male violence in the claim 'Pornography is the Theory, Rape is the Practice'. Central to these accounts are the American radical feminists Robin Morgan, Susan Griffin and Andrea Dworkin, whose works systematically attempted to critique and deconstruct the twin edifices of patriarchy and heterosexuality. In achieving those aims, these writers trace historical continuities that place sexuality, specifically heterosexuality, at the centre of women's oppression.

In three works Griffin (1978, 1979, 1981) emphasizes the links between women and nature to argue that the male institutions of Church and Science mobilized 'the pornographic imagination' in order to destroy women through rape and the use and production of pornography. Rape and imperialism are linked to the development of regimes of representation which seek to 'silence eros' and the authentic and natural sexuality of women. Griffin's emphasis that male fear drives violence against women differs somewhat from Dworkin's (1981) assertions that violence is endemic to male sexuality, however, both are able to discern links between the state and the pornographer which go back centuries if not millennia. Morgan (1980) also finds a similar and ancient lineage: Neanderthal man offers the origins of men's terrorization of women through the strategic deployment of sexual violence. For Brownmiller rape is 'nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear' (1976: 15). These analyses did not start with pornographic texts per se; rather they derive from theorizations that sought to account for the institutional role of heterosexuality in the cultural subordination of women.

A key claim of anti-pornography feminism is that pornography tells lies about women's sexuality, specifically that it shows female sexuality as taking voracious pleasure in subordination, degradation and a generalized and all-pervasive oppression of women through violence. The critique of pornography is arrived at through a focus on the power dynamics of rape: that dynamic ensures that each individual act of rape contributes to the climate of fear experienced by all women and causes them to submit to patriarchal control via marriage (Brownmiller 1976). Women have no freedom to choose heterosexuality or marriage because they have no right to refuse it: their freedoms are always only provisional. Moreover, because rape within marriage is rarely recognized as rape, women are understood to have no right to control their own bodies. Thus radical feminism theorizes sexual activity/relationships between men and women as inherently and always embodying an unequal power dynamic, as MacKinnon claims, sexuality is seen as 'the primary social sphere of male power' (1982: 516). Developed from that conceptualization is the assertion that pornography is a document of sexual activity and, as sexual activity is based upon the paradigm of rape, its representations are documents of the terrorization of women.

Pornography has an ideological functionable to encompass very different forms. For instance, the inequalities of the power dynamic are not always best represented through depictions of violent 'doing', by employing discourses of liberation and sexual pleasure, pornography is able to mask its relationship to violence against women. By presenting women with the appearance of their enjoyment and embrace of sexual activity, pornography convinces men that this is actually what women want and persuades women of the naturalness and positive benefits of the system. Looking back on the 1960s, a period when women supposedly experienced sexual freedom, Sheila Jeffreys claims

Behind the baloney of liberation, the naked power politics of male supremacy were being acted out. The high priests of sexologic, helped by the pornographers, progressive novelists and sex radicals continued to orchestrate woman's joyful embrace of her oppression through the creation of her sexual response. Sexologists have for a hundred years dedicated their lives to eliciting orgasms from women in order to prevent our liberation. The 1960s was a period when greater opportunities were open to women and the 'sexual revolution', rather than being liberating, helped to defuse the potential threat to male power. (1990: 2)

The power dynamic is not, therefore, simply forced onto women but is actively constructed as a state of being to be embraced by women: the ideological development of 'femininity' which embraces the power dynamic as natural, healthy, sexy and, crucially, liberating for women (Dworkin & MacKinnon 1988; MacKinnon 1982). The answer, for US radical feminism, lay in recourse to legal restriction of pornography under those statutes which would remove First Amendment rights from pornography and would enable individual women to sue the producers for harms suffered as a result of their products' availability. A central premise of this legislative turn was that no woman freely chooses to appear in, or to read/watch/enjoy pornography.

The focus of this book is women readers and their relationships with a sexual explicit magazine; thus, I contend that anti-pornography critique is of little practical use to my discussion. Quite apart from the array of conceptual and other problems that other critics have drawn attention to in this approach (Carol 1994; Kipnis 1996; Rubin 1993; Segal 1990, 1993, 1994; Vance 1992a), without exception anti-porn accounts offer no means of understanding the motivations of women readers of sexually explicit materials except in terms of their victimization. Furthermore, their supposed analyses of pornography actively prevent understanding of the materials themselves, as I argue in subsequent chapters.

Being an Enlightened Woman is Method Enough

Any examination of pornography must acknowledge the influence of Andrea Dworkin and Catherine A. MacKinnon: Dworkin's Pornography: Men Possessing Women was published in 1981 and is the most prominent text of the radical feminist position. Her claims about pornography have been enduring and, despite the many criticisms of her work, the central themes of her analysis resurface time and again in discussions of sexually explicit material whether identified as a product of the so- called pornographic industry or of more mainstream and 'respectable' media. During the past twenty years, Dworkin's analysis has provided a blueprint for neatly packaging pornography as a transhistorical and instantly knowable category of cultural production and consumption (see, for example, articles in Itzin 1992). Linking photographs in Hustler to the literary works of Miller and Lawrence via the developments of medical science, Dworkin has set the tone for the kinds of analysis that will count. The framing of pornography as a representational regime which harms women through its documentation of 'actual' harms, its pernicious lying about women's sexuality and its active creation of more 'whores', has led to a retreat from individual texts.

Dworkin claims to have uncovered the true meaning of pornography: 'it is a book about the meaning of what is being shown.' (Preface) Her analysis finds that pornography and its representations are timeless and recognizable but only if we know how to look.

I had to study the photographs to write about them. I stared at them to analyse them. It took me a long time to see what was in them because I never expected to see what was there and expectation is essential to accurate perception. I had to learn. (1981: 303)

This process of learning is directly related to gender. As a woman, Dworkin has to learn to see as a man, she has to learn to recognize that the image is of torture and that torture is sexually exciting:

I developed a new visual vocabulary, one that few women have at all, one that male consumers of pornography carry with them all the time: any mundane object can be turned into an eroticised object – an object that can be used to hurt women in a sexual context with a sexual purpose and a sexual meaning. (1981: 303)

Thompson (1994) calls this the Hezikial factor, the need to point out to everyone else what one can see. It is an evangelical desire to educate others; a blowing of the trumpet of doom and in paraphrasing her work it is difficult to convey the powerful sense of unmasking which permeates her writing. But this style has another function: it effectively masks the ways in which Dworkin's examples are a mishmash assembled only in order to prove her claims about male sexuality and the symbiotic relationship between the 'pornographer' and the consumer. Employing long descriptive lists of the materials under 'analysis' and insisting on the links between various kinds of sexual representations elides the distinctions in the materials offered for discussion.


Excerpted from One for the Girls! by Clarissa Smith. Copyright © 2007 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Clarissa Smith is a senior lecturer in media and cultural studies at the University of Sunderland, United Kingdom.





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