What Do Women Really Think of Porn?

When it comes to porn, many of us tend to hold a bit of a gender bias.

That is, when we think performers in porn, our minds might be more likely to think about women. And when we talk about consumers of porn (whether that be casually or compulsively), our minds more often think about men.

While research typically supports the idea that men report watching more porn than women, it is still common for women to report watching porn (and the numbers are most likely skewed due to increasingly outdated social standards, which still leave some women feeling uncomfortable disclosing their porn use).

And due to a lack of social discourse and empirical research, we just don't know all that much about women's experiences when watching porn. Until now.

In a new study published in the Journal of Sex Research, researchers provided a comprehensive overview of all qualitative research conducted on women's experiences of watching porn between 1999 and 2016. After conducting a thematic analysis of 22 articles (based on 21 studies) spanning nine countries, the authors made a number of observations.

Here are some noteworthy highlights.

Women As Empathetic Porn Viewers

Across several studies, the authors concluded that women focused on more than just the physical sexual acts they were watching on screen. Rather, the authors noted that there were numerous examples of women experiencing empathy for the performers.

That is, women commented on the facial expressions and potential feelings of the actors during various sexual activities. For example, they might notice if a performer was experiencing genuine sexual pleasure versus whether a sexual activity looked to be less enjoyable or even unpleasant for the actors.

The women's perceptions of the performers' enjoyment had implications for their own arousal. When women perceived the sexual activity as "unrealistic" or not "genuine," they also reported feeling less pleasure and sexual enjoyment themselves.

The Internalization of Porn

Given that porn exposes viewers to naked bodies (which most of us don't tend to see in our day-to-day lives), it is perhaps no surprise that women in the studies reported evaluating the performers bodies and reflecting on how they felt about their own bodies. However, the ways in which women compared their bodies varied considerably.

Some women described feeling less secure about their own bodies after watching porn — feeling their own bodies did not measure up to some of the porn star physiques (i.e., breast size, pubic hair grooming, age). However, in contrast, other women said that seeing porn actors' naked bodies helped them feel more normal about their bodies — seeing some similarities between themselves and the actresses — and some even reported feeling better about their bodies after watching porn.

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Porn Use in Relationships

Across studies, women reported varying comfort levels and preferences for how porn use was incorporated into their relationship.

Some women indicated that porn was arousing to watch with their partners and helped to give inspiration and ideas for different types of sexual activities. However, other women described feeling threatened with their partner's porn use, indicating that they did not like that their partner was experiencing arousal for someone else.

Finally, some women reported that they felt that porn was something their partner had a "right" to watch and were okay with their partner's viewing behaviors, as long as it was done privately.

Cognitive Dissonance

Finally, the authors noted that a number of women experienced cognitive dissonance when it came to watching porn. That is, a number of women reported holding a certain perspective of porn that did not necessarily align with their behaviors.

With regards to arousal, some women reported that watching porn was sexually arousing, but also thought their enjoyment of porn was socially inappropriate (believing on some level that women should not watch porn). In that sense, some women felt conflicted with what they enjoyed and what they felt was socially acceptable for women to enjoy.

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Additionally, some women reported holding negative perceptions about porn or actors who perform in porn (particularly concerns about exploitation), yet still reported using and watching porn for their own sexual stimulation. In this sense, some women experienced difficulty in terms of reconciling how porn felt to watch (i.e., titillating, sexually arousing, etc) with certain cognitive and moral beliefs about porn (whether it's "ethical" or appropriate). 

Takeaway

While it would be easy to make the argument that the majority of mainstream porn continues to target heterosexual men, it is common and natural for women to watch and enjoy porn.

The limited research on women's experiences watching porn, particularity in comparison to the abundance of research on men's experiences, leaves us with more assumptions and guesses about how women feel about porn than empirical research.

However, these findings offer some initial insights into women's experiences and may be a useful step in normalizing women's experiences and promoting a healthier and more open discourse about pornography use among women.

Sarah Hunter Murray