Source: feministninja.tumblr.com

This post was borne out of a recent discussion with a good friend of mine, Harriet, who is a self-identified lesbian. (I include the phrase self-identified here deliberately: I realise her propensity to prefer the company and sex of woman does not categorise her as a lesbian, but it is a term she very comfortably uses herself). She was talking about going to a sex party, and I, in what I perceived to be ignorance, asked her what her interest could be in going. “Would it not be far too full of men?” I asked naively.

I had expected her to laugh at me, which she did. My question displayed an assumption that I hadn’t realised I held, that lesbian women must only be interested in seeing women have sex with other women. Being the tolerant and long-suffering woman she is, she challenged my assumption. Sex parties often include lesbian sex, she pointed out, and just because she is a lesbian doesn’t mean she is repulsed by men or their sex, any more than a straight person should be repulsed by lesbians. Heterophobia is no more acceptable than homophobia. However, she went on to explain that actually lesbians quite often found men sexually attractive, and, slightly more unusually, they are often interested in watching men have sex with men, in the form of gay male pornography.

This surprised me. Even without thinking about it in detail, I could understand that gay women may be interested in ‘straight’ pornography, that focuses primarily on heterosexual sex, not least of all because it so often includes women having sex with each other. It also has an assumed amount of female nudity, something else I could appreciate lesbians might enjoy. However, my assumption that it must be based on these factors, and the surprise I felt finding out she enjoyed seeing men have sex with men, revealed a deeper assumption that I hadn’t realised I had, in that I was categorising lesbians with heterosexual men. The simple idea being that they all like having sex with women, therefore they must be turned on by similar things. I couldn’t understand why gay women might be interested in watching sex that did not involve women. Just as a man’s heterosexual self-identification might be troubled by watching gay pornography, it could be seen as ‘straight’ for a woman to like watching men.

When studying the sociology of sexuality as an undergraduate, one of the most important things we were taught to understand was the fluidity of sexuality. Alfred Kinsey, one of the first sex researchers, was revolutionary in a lot of ways, but one of his most important contributions to our understanding of sexuality was the creation of the Kinsey scale. He argued that everyone falls on a scale between 0-6, 0 being entirely heterosexual and 6 being entirely homosexual. Most people fall between 1-5, and often our position (no pun intended) changes throughout our lives. Taking this into account, the reason lesbians may want to watch men having sex with other men is simply an awareness of the fluidity of sexuality. Put simply (as Harriet did), sex is sex, no matter who the person. She did not find being turned on by men to be at odds with her self-identification as lesbian.

The consumption of pornography is often assumed to be the domain of heterosexual men. Radical feminists and anti-pornography feminists (there is often overlap, but it is important they remain distinct) would argue that the pornography is inherently anti-feminist and anti-women. The ‘Porn Wars’ of second wave feminism have long debated the extent to which this is true, and it is one of the longest and most polarising debate within feminism. The extent to which pornography is exploitative of women, or its’ support of a culture that causes the objectification of women is still rife, taken up most recently by feminists in the UK in the ‘no more page 3’ campaign. Whilst there is not space here to do this debate justice, it is clear from my reaction to my friend’s revelation that this assumption is heavily imbedded. Even having studied both gender and sexuality from a sociological perspective, I still held ingrained assumptions about the behaviours of lesbians that are entrenched in a privileging of heterosexuality. Still, lesbian preferences were coupled with male desire, rather than female desire.

What is most interesting is that this debate is also clearly ingrained in the ways in which men and women consume pornography. The hangover and hang-ups created by the problematic nature of pornography for feminists was contributing to my friend’s (and other lesbian feminists) decision to watch male-on-male pornography. Tristan Taormino was quoted in a recent article that also looked at this phenomenon, stating that “When there’s no women around, it… gives queer women the ability to get swept up in the action of the film without thinking, ‘Who is this woman? Is she having a good time? Is she coerced?’ With gay porn, for a second, we can go there and not think about politics and sexism”.

What this revealed to me more than anything else is that for feminists, lesbian or not, sexuality is a tricky field to navigate. Feminism and sex can be both happy and unhappy bedfellows, especially when concerned with such a polarised subject such as pornography. Maybe then, the consumption of certain kinds of pornography could be liberating, by offering something I never thought I would advocate: a sexual space away from feminism.

Additional Reading

Hawkes, Gail (2004) Sex and Pleasure in Western Culture Cambridge: Polity Press.

Hawkes, Gail (1996) A Sociology of Sex and Sexuality Buckinghamshire: London: Open University Press.

 

For more about Alfred Kinsey, I can highly recommend the film ‘Kinsey’ , although I cannot attest to its total factual accuracy. He also started The Kinsey Institute, which is far more rigorous in its factual accuracy.

 

[Yes, Harriet is a pseudonym. But she is also a real person]