Why is gender a social construct and not a biological term? Critically analyse theories on sex, gender and diversity and use these to discuss the media treatment of a particular group in society. Use specific examples. 

~As noted by the title, there are adult themes discussed in this essay~

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Pornography is often seen as a segmented part of the media, made by men for men. Even “made for women” and lesbian starring porn is produced by men for men to watch. But why is this? Is it just because masturbation is seen as only acceptable for men to do or is it because of the belief that women can’t have pleasure without a man? 

Having access to lesbian porn, that is made by women for women, is a very rare occurrence even though for the last several years ‘Lesbian’ has been the most viewed category through most of the world (PornHub Insights, 2019). On average, only 32% of all of PornHub’s viewers in 2019 were female worldwide but the most popular category, with no surprises, is lesbian with women 147% more like to search for lesbian porn than men however the category is still a favourite with men too.

With all this traction and it being a fan favourite, why is lesbian porn still viewed as derogatory and essentially homophobic as well as anti-feminist? This essay is going to tackle exactly that question and will try to understand the context of this broad subject. This essay will be covering a spectrum of important and related topics, discussing feminism, the difference between gender and sex and the LGBTQ+ pornographic content.

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Recently the debate of whether gender and sex are the same or if they are two completely separate things with the wider acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community bringing it more into the spotlight. David Gauntlet suggests ‘sex’ is seen as a binary biological given - you are born female or male - and then ‘gender’ is the cultural component which is socialised into that person on that basis (Gauntlet, 2008, P148). The sex you are born as is biology, the gender you chose to be perceived as is sociology. More notably, not conforming into the gender society assumes you should fit into based on your biology automatically shoves you into the LGBTQ+ bracket as either non-binary, gender fluid or transgender; essentially, queer and “wrong” and on the outskirts of society. 

This leads to homophobia which works to maintain gender roles and that is exactly what homophobia is about: ensuring that gay men, to the extent that they do not conform… Are brutally suppressed and ultimately rendered invisible (Kendall, 1998, P43). Even in openly gay relationships, there is always the question of “who wears the trousers” and “who pays the bills” which is a very roundabout way of asking who does what in the bedroom; giving or receiving? Top or bottom? Who penetrates and who gets penetrated? Essentially, who is the ‘man’, the more dominant one, and who is the woman, the subservient one? Even when gender roles have tried to be thrown away, external forces are still placing those assumptions onto the couple in question.

Feminism at its core is all about equality of the sexes; gay, straight, bisexual, gender-conforming or non-binary people are included. Feminism is for everyone, however, they identify. However, feminism in porn and the two together are rarely ever heard in a positive light. You can’t have both. Robin Morgan’s now-infamous equation, “pornography is the theory and rape the practice,” demonstrates the fundamental anti-porn belief in the direct causal link between representational fantasy and the reality of sexual violence (Bensinger, 1992, P74). Ingrid Ryberg also agrees that the anti-porn movement problematised pornography’s role in reproducing and implicating in its viewer’s gendered power relations and notions of men as subjects and aggressors, and women as submissive objects and receivers of male desire (Ryberg, 2012, P23). Essentially, pornography and the objectification of women are contradictory of feminism, but does this then mean that you can’t be a lesbian AND a feminist? Does a lesbian have ‘the male gaze’?

Laura Mulvey theorised in the 1970s about the male gaze in cinema and that theory is continued into adult cinema as well. The ‘male gaze’ is defined as a manner of treating women's bodies as objects to be surveyed, which is associated by feminists with hegemonic masculinity, both in everyday social interaction and in relation to their representation in visual media. In film theory, the point of view of a male spectator reproduced in both the cinematography and narrative conventions of cinema, in which men are both the subject of the gaze and the ones who shape the action and women are the objects of the gaze and the ones who are shaped by the action (Chandler, 2011, P248).  To summarize, men make content (in this case porn) for men to watch and enjoy while objectifying (and ignoring) women and their needs or desires. 

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As mentioned previously, gender and sex are not mutually exclusive. Gender is what you choose to ‘perform’ as, whereas sex is the biological set of genitalia and chromosomes you are born with. Sex is not to be confused with either intimate act between people or a person’s sexuality. Lesbian pornography, even with the ability to switch ‘positions’ in a same-gender relationship, unfortunately, are still conforming to these gender-typical roles of either femininity or masculinity has leaked its way into lesbian pornography. One must always be a top, one must therefore always be a bottom.

This bizarre coding is mentioned in an article called Lesbian Pornography: The Re/Making of (a) Community and even though it was written way back in 1992, Bensinger makes some excellent points. She discusses the magazine On Our Backs, the first-ever lesbian erotica magazine in publication. In this particular issue that Bensinger describes, there is a set of photos that shows two women, Heron and Lucille, engaged in sexual ‘submissive’ and ‘dominance’ positions. Heron is a stereotypical ‘butch’ lesbian, stood wearing a dildo presenting as the ‘man’ or ‘dominant’ partner in this dynamic. Lucile, however, is dressed as a stereotypical ‘femme’ lesbian and is knelt in front of Heron with her behind in the air, acting as the ‘women’ or  ‘submissive’ in this collection of photos.  

On the flip side of this, however, are the positive connotations that come with using these ‘butch’ and ‘femme’ categorised women. Rebecca Beirne perfectly describes this other point of view; the display of butch actresses, or those who otherwise do not fit within mainstream ideals of female beauty, within lesbian pornography can further be seen as bringing a specifically lesbian erotic economy to productions, as well as being indicative of a certain political intent that wishes to renegotiate accepted standards of which bodies are to be deemed attractive or erotic (Hines & Kerr, 2012, P234).

Making sexually explicit content that involves ‘butch’ lesbians takes away the possibility that a straight man could enjoy the video as voyeurism. Instead, using stereotypical coding, it makes the film purely for women loving women. Lesbian and [redacted]* pornography generally positions itself towards the lesbian spectator, particularly through its attempts to distinguish itself from straight-produced ‘all girl’ pornography that ... is directed toward a heterosexual male spectatorship (Hines & Kerr, 2012, P228). This encourages homophobic trends as ‘all girl’ or ‘girl on girl’ videos are often filmed with straight women for straight men but are still categorised as ‘lesbian’ content.

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Another contradiction briefly covered above is feminism vs lesbianism. Is it possible to be both? During the ‘sex wars’ which took part in the second wave of feminism, feminists were split and committed to either the anti-porn argument or the pro-porn (or anti-censorship) point of view. On one hand, women shouldn’t be objectified for monetary gain however women should also have the body autonomy to choose what they do and have sexual freedom.  It was the anti-porn movement however that caught the media’s attraction and is what started the negative connotations linked to pornography. 

The main and outstanding negative connection is the violence, sexism, misogyny, objectification and overall rape culture feel to the whole industry of sex work, not just porn stars. There’s even a contradiction to whether or not by using ‘porn’ or ‘pornography’ because you’re deciding which side the ‘sex wars’ you belong to. If ‘pornography’ is used, it’s on the anti-porn side of the debate as it is often used as a derogatory term towards the industry because the origins of the word ‘pornography’ stem from the Ancient Greek word porne, meaning women for sale or female prostitute, and graphos, which is understood as writing (Keene, 2019, P3). However, using the word ‘porn’ is a signifier that you don’t mind porn or sexually explicit content and are open to allowing the industry to continue as it is. Today, in 2020, porn is such a common part of life - especially teenage boys going through puberty, even before the age of 18. It’s just a part of growing up at this point no? Yes but only for men.

The violence that is often displayed in pornography, even outside of BDSM spheres, is astounding. Chocking, hair pulling, spanking and painful penetrative sex are to name a few common actions in what can be seen as the tamest and ‘vanilla’ scenes. Young men grow up thinking that this is the way that women want to be treated in and even outside the bedroom. In her thesis Pleasure, pain and pornography: A gendered analysis of the influence of contemporary pornography on the lives of New Zealand emerging adults, Samantha Keene brings to light that interviews with men have interrogated men’s interest in degrading practices that are commonplace in pornography. The way that men normalised gendered positionalities in pornography and presented a detached way of engaging with erotic material online. Men were clearly not expected to account for the appeal of pornography, with these questions eliciting an ‘it just is’ response (Keene, 2019, P38). 

 

However, research highlighted by Keene again just on the next page, suggests that some women often report feeling that their use of pornography conflicts with their own feminist ideals and values, contributing to a sense of uncertainty about pornography, yet it continues to induce feelings of sexual arousal and enjoyment (Keene, 2019, P38). This uneasiness about women having sexual tendencies, even being intimate with themselves, is linked right back to the male gaze again. Women are not allowed to sexualise themselves.

 

However, the fourth wave (current wave) of feminism can allow women, of all body types and sexualities, to partake in the adult film industry and other sex work and feel as if they have body autonomy. The steps that were made during the ‘sex wars’ is what is allowing feminists now to stand up against rape culture, male privilege and the male gaze. The research mentioned above in Keene’s thesis reveals that there is an obvious difference in the separate gendered experience with online pornography which would provoke some interesting future research. 

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Overall, being a lesbian and a feminist is hard but not impossible however it is a fine line to walk. It is certainly easier now than when On Our Backs was at the peak of its popularity due to society becoming more open-minded and accepting of the fact that the LGBTQ+ community exists. To proceed further, however, societal norms need to start changing to allow a more accepting space for women to explore their sexuality. 

Pornography as an industry has a long way to go before there is equality in gender, sexual orientation and diversity in body types. All too often it relies on stereotyping and conforming to the male gaze a bit too much. Lesbian porn, however, is proven to be popular with straight and gay women alike and is most likely more of a help than a hindrance to the feminist movement as long as it is made by women for women. In conclusion, yes, lesbian porn is feminism but of course only if it is done correctly and ethically.

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Notes

*The redacted word is ‘dyke’ however a personal choice was made to not use the word due to the homophobic connotations it carries as it can be seen as a slur and did not want it in the body of the essay.

 

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Bibliography

 

Bensinger, T. (1992). Lesbian Pornography: The Re/Making of (a) Community. Discourse. 15 (1), 69-93. Available from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41389249 .

Burston, P. and Richardson, C. (1995). A queer romance : lesbians, gay men and popular culture London: Routledge.

Chandler, D. and Munday, R., 2011. A Dictionary Of Media And Communication. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gauntlett, D., 2008. Media, Gender And Identity. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.

Hines, C, & Kerr, D (eds) 2012, Hard to Swallow : Hard-Core Pornography on Screen, Columbia University Press, New York. Available from: ProQuest Ebook Central. [16 December 2020].

Keene, S., 2019. Pleasure, Pain And Pornography: A Gendered Analysis Of The Influence Of Contemporary Pornography On The Lives Of New Zealand Emerging Adults. [online] Hdl.handle.net. Available at: <http://hdl.handle.net/10063/8354> [Accessed 17 December 2020].

Kendall, C., 1998. Sexism, Homophobia And The Meaning Of Community: A Gay Male Perspective On Why Sex Equality Matters - Murdoch University Research Repository. [online] Research Repository.murdoch.edu.au. Available at: <http://researchrepository.murdoch.edu.au/id/eprint/21779> [Accessed 16 December 2020].

Oxford Reference, Male Gaze Definition. https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100128610#:~:text=1.,visual%20 media%3A%20see%20also%20objectification [Accessed 20/11/2020]

Pornhub.com. 2019. The 2019 Year In Review – Pornhub Insights. [online] Available at: <https://www.pornhub.com/insights/2019-year-in-review> [Accessed 15 December 2020].

Russo, A., 2002. Taking Back Our Lives. Taylor & Francis.

Ryberg, I., 2012. Imagining Safe Space : The Politics Of Queer, Feminist And Lesbian Pornography. [online] DIVA. Available at: <http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?pid=diva2:477159> [Accessed 16 December 2020].

Is Lesbian Pornography Homophobic Or Feminist Empowerment?