Thursday, 13 August 2009

What Women Want

The hit topic on Comment is Free today concerns an erotica/porn mag aimed at women called Filament. It has recently launched, or it will launch if it can find a printer. They started off with soft-focus shots of men in shorts - but it seems that in the course of their research they uncovered a desire for something a little more obvious, to wit, erections. The magazine's staff were more than happy to oblige - indeed, photographer guidelines have been issued which state, inter alia, that "if your model is keen, we encourage it", but encourages freelancers to "think creatively when photographing an erection". Some may find that easier than others.

Unfortunately, they hit a snag: "the pervasive nervousness about depictions of aroused men". Nervousness among printers and distributors, that is. There was some concern about the Obscene Publications Act, and printers, citing potential objections from "the women's/religious sectors", didn't want to go anywhere near it. Kristina Lloyd and Mathilde Madden, writing on CIF, think that this attitude ("cockblocking") reveals "a deeply entrenched sexism: men can look at women but women cannot look at men". In a magnificent display of Guardian logic, they then go on to argue that while pictures of naked women aimed at a male audience are inherently sexist, pictures of naked men aimed at women aren't:

But there's nothing inherently sexist about depicting nudity. It's sexist when only women are deemed to signify the erotic; it's sexist when eroticised images of women are so normalised and widespread that women stand to be viewed first and foremost as sex objects – their value inextricably linked to their sexual desirability. The sexism is in the inequality.

Filament, by contrast is "challenging a culture that positions women as sex-products for men" - by, erm, positioning men as sex-products for women. This is far more positive, since it "is asking for women to be acknowledged as human beings who can look and lust just as men can." Otherwise, the "deficit" in penis (compared to nipple/vagina) depiction "positions women as the providers of sex for perpetually horny dudes." This leads on to a rather convoluted piece of political positioning, which rather misses the point of any sort of porn, which is to turn people on:

Perhaps what's most insidious in this saga is that the market's refusal to admit that Filament reinforces an idea of female sexuality that justifies that very refusal.

Come again? No, that sentence doesn't work, grammatically or otherwise.

The absence of visual erotica for women on shelves crammed with magazines where women are products for male consumers, reduces female desire to the less-interested counterpart of male desire.


And so, runs the self-fulfilling logic, of course women don't want magazines targeting their desire. Women don't have desire, see? They merely receive it. How do we know? Just check out those magazine shelves.

Oh, I see. I think. As an experiment it's worth doing. There's no reason in principle why women shouldn't be able to buy magazines featuring naked men, with or without erections., provided the same concession is accorded to men wanting to look at naked women. But I fail to see why it should be seen as some sort of moral crusade. Many feminists object to pornography on the grounds that it degrades and "objectifies" women. It certainly reduces its participants, male as well as female, to their sexual attributes, using them instrumentally to provoke sensations of arousal. Porn is exploitative, by its very nature: not because it exploits the women who appear in it (some of whom, it seems to me, are more exploited than others) but because it exploits the consumer. It takes a fact of nature - that sexual arousal (in the male) is a necessary precondition of successful coitus, which in turn is biologically driven - and turns it into a source of profit.

Is the woman (or the man) who is "objectified" in the name of porn degraded thereby? Only in a society which regards sexual allure as inherently demeaning, surely. Such would seem to be the underlying assumption of those opposed to porn on political as opposed to religious grounds. It's one thing to say that sex is crassly commercialised in the modern western world, and that this puts undue pressure on young women to dress or act in overtly sexy ways. But it's quite another to maintain that women who do act in this way, to the extent that they become strippers, glamour models, pornstars and the like, are debased by it. In a society that worships sex, such women ought to be objects of worship; and, indeed, the most successful "adult" performers become brands, selling not merely videos but sex-toys and other paraphernalia, signing autographs for the thousands of fans who queue up for a brief glimpse - in the flesh, as it were - of their fantasy object.

Kristina Lloyd protests in a comment:

At the heart of all this seems to be a culture which says women don't want to be consumers of sex/porn/erotica because women don't lust, they are the objects of lust.

But are the women in porn seen merely as objects? On the contrary, they are usually depicted as active participants, getting a kick out of displaying their bodies, masturbating, actively enjoying the sexual acts taking place, reaching improbably explosive orgasms. They are not - except in some sub-genres - lying still and passively accepting what is being done to them. The main purpose of heterosexual porn marketed to men is to arouse men by the depiction of female pleasure. An unrealistic fantasy of female pleasure, no doubt, and one that flatters the male that he is a "stud" - and may mislead the viewer as to what women actually enjoy - but the payoff is nevertheless significant. The woman who is sexually uninhibited, unabashed, in control, demanding "more" - and getting it, and climaxing - is the star of the show. It is the male, with his obliging erection, who is the bit-part player. He isn't even strictly necessary, as the huge market in faux-lesbianism reveals. At most, he provides reassurance to the male viewer that women really enjoy heterosexual intercourse.

Why should there be such emphasis on female pleasure if porn is inherently misogynistic and degrading? Why, if men hated women, would they want to fantasise about women having fun?

But back to Filament. On their website, the editors set out what they see as the main imbalance in the erotic marketplace.

Representations of women’s bodies far outnumber representations of men’s bodies everywhere: from advertising to art. In erotic image in particular, representations of the male body specifically designed for women are almost non-existent.

The common explanation for why women have sometimes seemed disinterested in images supposedly intended for them – the idea that "women are less visual" – has now been largely disproven by research. Research also shows that women prefer images of men designed quite differently to those usually marketed toward women.

Filament's big idea is "the female gaze" - cod-academic jargon for what women find attractive. To discover precisely what women did want in their naked men, the editors looked at both psychological research into female sexual tastes and the input of a panel of women who contributed their thoughts via LiveJournal (I notice that this year's most exciting young feminist, Laurie Penny, was one of those who took part). They determined that women tend to prefer men who were "not muscle-bound", had "more feminine faces" and adopted poses that showed "the subject's character and the environment he is in". Boy bands rather than hunks, then. However, the guidelines suggest that "if you’ve got a guy who is very muscular and you think, very hot, we’ll certainly consider your images".

The advice for photographers is extremely detailed - and thus informative as to what they think women want to look at. It counsels photographers against using body-oil, instead suggesting a “flushed and sweaty” look that might be achieved by "having your model run up and down the stairs a few times before you photograph them." It urges them to shoot in interesting, beautiful and/or recognisable environments where it would be reasonably believable that a sexual encounter might take place - which apparently does not include "places like kitchens, the outdoors, plain studio backgrounds or hotel rooms". Facial expression should "convey eroticism" without being "angry or arrogant", and could include "vulnerability", but not "pictures of men looking hurt or abused". They don't want pictures of men cross-dressing, holding babies ("just inappropriate") or doing housework.

What is most striking about Filament's website is its overwhelming, almost oppressive, air of moral seriousness. This is porn with a purpose. It might be thought that satisfying a demand among women to see naked men was enough on its own, but no. Under "What inspired the concept of Filament?" we learn that:

Women are 10 times more likely than men to undergo cosmetic surgery and 43 times more likely than men to suffer an eating disorder. Is this because women are ‘naturally’ life-threateningly obsessed with their appearance, or is this in some way influenced by women’s media? Many men’s magazines don’t discuss men’s appearance, but nearly all women’s magazines discuss women’s appearance.

Difficult to see how a few tastefully photographed stiffies will put an end to all that.

UPDATE: Ms Penny explains her involvement with Filament in more detail here. Similarity of title might or might not be a coincidence.


Skimmer said...

When it comes to reproduction men and women have evolved in two different games – men can impregnate many different partners at little cost to themselves. Strictly speaking to serve our genes we only have to assess our prospective partners for fertility. So that’s what we do, we look at their physical attributes and on that basis alone are happy to build desire.

Women can only bare a much more limited number of young. Therefore it behoves them to be much more selective in picking sexual partners. As well as physical attributes, physiological, social and intellectual are at least as important in picking a prospective mate. A picture of a guy with a hard body, winning smile, and hard slong is a very incomplete assessment of desire.

My advice (for what little it’s worth) would be to try to encapsulate some of these other desirable attributes in the pictures for filament. For example a staged picture of a rugby team showering with a trophy in the background would not only be a picture of naked men, but it would also serve as a depiction of a successful social camaraderie and stature. These guys are winners, not just hunks of meat. I strongly suspect that would evoke much stronger desire in their readership.

Anonymous said...

Laurie Penny on the team of selectors?
Since she's gay (her term is "queer"), it is hardly surprising that women apparently want men with "more feminine faces".

I wonder if the publishers have entirely thought this through for a heterosexual female audience?

Anonymous said...

Laurie Penny doesn't excite me. I find her to be one of those people who's been told how clever she is she's started to believe it. Your usual cloistered Oxbridge type- anything she & her pals want to inflict on me is bound to be bad news.

I find that the orthodoxy on blogs of this sort is so stifling, it makes social conservatives look like an unending feast of laughs by comparison.

asquith said...

I agree with the above- "hilarity" ensues in this particular comment thread, for example.

Word verification- broon

The Heresiarch said...

Laurie Penny gay? Then what about her boyfriend?

Anonymous said...

hi, nice blog

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