So, there’s Katie Roiphe’s Newsweek cover story, in which she posits that today’s women are turning to SM lite en masse as a counter to modern-day independence and that the feminists who fret over such fantasies can suck it. And there’s the clamorous rebuttal coming from every quarter and arriving at more or less a consensus: click-mongering misogynist Katie Rophie misrepresents feminism, BDSM, and psychology, and is totally on crack.

There is a Medieval story in which King Arthur is given one of his stickiest challenges.  He will die unless, in just one year, he can discover what women most desire.  And you know what he finds?  Women want sovereignty over themselves.

Oh, eureka.

Yet look at how long it’s taken for society to accept that gazillions of women freely enjoy porn.  Thank heaven the myth that women aren’t aroused by visual images has now been exploded many times, notably by Sex and Tech expert Violet Blue whose Our Porn Ourselves campaign has taken the internet by storm. Blue incited many women – myself included – to declare that we were turned on by porn and that any generalizations to the contrary were attempts to control our sexuality. Many men also champion Our Porn Ourselves, relieved that we are shattering erroneous notions of porn as “so warped that only guys will watch it” – a belief that contains so much prejudice it’s hard to know where to start. But the sexist lies still run deep. I myself was devastated when a beloved sexpert hero of mine declared porn as “basically male entertainment.” In fact, my very first reaction to her statement was, “What if I love lesbian porn? Where’s the ‘male’ in that?”

But perhaps part of the problem with the term “pornography” is that its meaning shifts with time and usage. What is porn, exactly? Explicit visuals? Well, yeah, if you video-record sex with your lover, hoping to turn yourselves on with the images, that’s surely porn…but what if you record the sex aurally rather than visually, and listen to the noises at another time? Or what if you don’t record the sex, but just carry the memories around in your head, reliving the moment when he licked your breast or pulled your hair just right? That’s a visual used to arouse, right? So doesn’t that count? While we’re at it, can a oil-painted nude in the Musee D’Orsay be porn if it turns you on? And what of BDSM porn, in which, for legal and/or aesthetic reasons, genital contact doesn’t tend to take place?  Is such a dom/sub spanking vid only porn when it actually arouses the viewer? Is porn defined by the creator’s intention or the way the consumer uses it?

Whatever the answers, our attitudes are still shifting. This year, Oprah interviewed Violet Blue about women in porn (woohoo! A win for sex-positivity in the media!), plus mags such as the Atlantic Monthly have featured the topic. Porn itself is changing too, especially in terms of its availability. In fact, consumers of free internet porn are also becoming its performers and directors, especially now that sites like YouPorn are popular. Indeed, as internet porn becomes increasingly “real life” we may well see a rise in self-confidence among its viewers – what a great way of proving that you don’t have to be a big-boobed, California blonde to get your partners and viewers off.

As society changes so do its art forms and stereotypes. Take what women want from porn, for instance. Coyote Days, Purchasing Manager at Good Vibrations says “Women often want to see very raw sexuality and more hardcore content than would be assumed by some.” That said, her female customers also buy porn for educational reasons, seeking answers to questions such as “How would I go down on another woman?” or “Would I really be aroused by a threesome?” But however we choose to use it, we need to keep defining porn for ourselves rather than letting the haters do the job. Lady Porn Day (the creation of Rachel Rabbit White) opened up this discussion by asking women “What’s porn for you?” Answers included erotic movies, pieces of classical art, feature films, and photos. For my part, I think of porn as a sensual trigger that I choose in order to turn myself on. And I want that route to pleasure, be it solo or partnered.

There you are, King Arthur.  Suck on that.

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For experimental research into women being aroused by explicit sexual visuals, take a look at Professor Ellen Laan’s study, which is discussed here.