I have a distinct memory as a teenager of being in my local library, waiting in line to check out books. A lady was in front of me, and she had several large bags filled to the brim with Harlequin romance novels. It took the librarian a good 10 minutes to check them all out and then the lady staggered out the door, weighed down with the load of her haul. It struck me at the time, even though I was probably too young to understand the depth of what I was witnessing. Now, years later, I still think of that moment, and given the recent controversy over books like 50 Shades of Gray, I have come to some conclusions. So, here we go.
Women like porn, we just don’t realize that we do. We may accuse men of objectifying women through their porn habits, but when it comes down to it, we aren’t much better. Here’s the thing: our version of pornography looks a bit different from your run-of-the-mill pornography; it is specialized for women and women’s tastes, preferences, and emotional needs. As women, we like pornographic content dressed up all cutesie and pretty in "chick flick," "screen boyfriend," and "romance" sequins. We love to lust, just as men do, it is just packaged differently. The characters in our stories aren’t just random strangers who cross paths and have sex, they are two people who are in a relationship that has depth and meaning. It’s not porn because it’s a love story. We feel perfectly okay--not embarrassed in the least--going crazy over pornographic media that masquerades as romance, because the thought doesn’t even cross our minds that it’s porn. Society generally goes along with this--Harlequin novels are available at public libraries right out in the open, not in some seedy curtained room in the back like the adult section at old-school video rental places. There aren’t stores on main street filled with just female-oriented romance novels and movies, windows papered over in black, a triple X warning on the storefront. No, these books are in every store; the movies are mainstream and in regular theaters; and as such, glamorized pornography has become the norm in female media consumption. Even more than the norm, it’s become an obsession, a cultural fad, a group party. Unlike how we imagine more traditional pornography being consumed--huddled in a dark corner of our basement nervously viewing a computer screen--the nicely packaged porn women consume is so socially accepted and so deceptively “not porn” that women celebrate with dinner and a night with our lady friends, experiencing the scintillating experience en masse.
Before you decry my conclusions here, let me explain why I feel this type of media--romance wrapped around sex--is porn. In this type of book or movie, there are pages upon pages--scene upon scene--of detailed descriptions of foreplay and sexual tension. The entire storyline is built up and used to support the main act of the storyline, which is the sex between the two characters. In fact, the author doesn’t matter, and the content doesn’t matter, as long as it follows a formula that is specially programmed to appeal to women: using characters who are falling in love, that relationship briefly interspersed between descriptions of foreplay, lusting, and a slow build-up of sexual tension before the final climax. The male, of course, is beautiful--perfect body, good looks, and in the end, an excellently sensitive, caring, and amazing companion. With all of these stories, in the end, it is just the same story, over and over, with nuanced changes in detail that don’t really matter. This is female porn. Males audiences don’t need the foreplay, the build-up, the sense of emotional connection with the partner. This is why the “typical” porn industry is filled with what we tend to associate with “typical” porn--chance encounters that get straight to the sex; the storyline is just a pretense. Women just require the storyline to at least try to be the main point, in order to satisfy our emotional craving for love and a sense of specialness and romance. We like porn that is slow to warm up, filled with enough time and emotional connection to become adequately intrigued; we are romantic; we want emotional connection manifested hand-in-hand with the sex, we want the sex to at least try to mean something.
Porn marketers apply this formula so cleverly and in such great disguises that we don’t even realize what we’re consuming. And at the root of any porn, no matter how lovely or atrociously flavored it may be, is lust. And lust isn't always born by viewing bare skin, as is masterfully exemplified by a shrieking, googly-eyed, drool-dripping theaters full of women watching a movie that doesn't even contain a full sex scene. Somewhere along the way, we've decided it's okay to view material that creates intense feelings of lust, especially if it is cloaked in an emotionally-strung love story. And we've also decided that objectifying men is acceptable, though objectifying women is touted as a perverted practice.
Where were we as Hollywood planted the seed of lust that began it all? We certainly weren't crying out then. We have been right there, watering and nurturing this seed into a large and healthy tree by swooning over sensual boy bands, stripping Channing Tatums, and provocative, blood-sucking vampires. And now, as society hangs a swing on the resultant strong and healthy branch of potential rape or sexual abuse and wants to play, we feign either innocence (“it’s just a love story; they are consenting adults!”) or abhorrence (“They are glamorizing rape!”). Either reaction is irrelevant to the more important fact that we are reaping the fruit of seeds planted, seeds we ourselves have nurtured. This newest twist in the female romance drama is no surprise--indeed, this is where the seeds of lust always end, with increasing levels of deviancy and extravagance, until we live in a world where anything goes.
So, women go out en masse to sit in mainstream theaters and become aroused at a pornographic movie that is scantily clad as a love story. Men, on the other hand, consume pornography that is called what it is, no pretense--they know it’s porn, their spouses know it’s porn...it isn’t masquerading as something else, luring people into consuming it unknowingly. This is a dangerous double-standard we have in our society, one that makes it okay for women at the library to check out dozens of Harlequin novels with no thought of its appropriateness, and as they are reading them to become just as addicted, aroused, and damaged as any person who is addicted to typical porn, without even realizing it. Insidious, clever, brilliant, and sad. Porn is porn, no matter how it’s wrapped, and yes--contrary to the commonly expressed opinion on this matter--porn is evil, unhealthy, degrading, and destructive to relationships. Let’s stop glamorizing pornography, in any form. And women, stop falling for it. Just stop. If you are reading it and getting turned on, drooling over the sex scenes, coming back to them time and time again….you’re as into porn as much as the male next door who is downloading images on his computer. Let’s take the sequined costume off of the truth here and at least be honest--women, we are porn addicts.