Many consider the adult entertainment industry risqué, sleazy, and taboo. No more….the sexual marketplace now has a niche where women can feel sexually empowered and pampered rather than objectified and commoditized when pursuing sexual pleasure. Although the male consumer still drives much of the $14 billion “adult” industry, there are also female consumers who are willing to spend over $100 on a luxury vibrator (remember the Sex and the City episodes about The Rabbit and the Sharper Image luxury vibrators?). And women-owned and –operated sex stores are on the rise.1 These “sex-positive” stores are not the shady, dark stores that guys in trenchcoats sneak into. They are brighter, staffed by females (and males), and maintain a softer image with the hopes of projecting an image of “class” rather than “crass”. These shops stock well-designed, often eco-friendly “acsexsories” so women can feel good, rather than ashamed, about wanting sexual pleasure.
One such store, Sugar, located in downtown Baltimore, is part of the Progressive Pleasure Club, a group of sex-positive shops that has formed a coalition to move forward an agenda of being inclusive and accepting of the vast variety of sexual expressions, orientations, and genders, including the choice to be celibate. Sugar is also what the owner, Jacquelyn Jones, calls a “body-safe store”, one that only stocks sex toys made with nontoxic materials. In an interview with Science of Relationships, she said, “Teaching [about sex] from a pleasure-based model rather than a disease-based model really touched my soul.” She feels it is important for everyone to feel good about being sexual rather than an image that sexual expression is for disease-ridden perverts. Jones and other pro-porn, sex-positive feminists are trying to change the adult industry from one that objectifies women and portrays non-consensual sex to one where the actors have true agency, regardless of what turns them on.
Research on men’s pornography consumption has shown mixed results on how it affects mens’ attitudes towards women.2,3,4 The research that exists on women’s reaction to pornography, however, shows a mostly negative interpretation.5 For instance, many women are uncomfortable with the available pornographic content and that their partners find pleasure in its portrayals because it does not represent their true sexuality. Perhaps this is because women are not portrayed as they are, but rather as the sexual beings some men (or the porn industry) want them to be. Indeed, one study looking at pornography in the US, Norway, and Japan found that Norway, which has the highest level of gender equality, had more images of equality in its pornography, in other words, women having just as much agency and pleasure in the sexual acts.6 Perhaps pornography that depicts women with natural bodies and shows them having real orgasms (which is what feminist porn aims to do) can give women a way to enjoy porn without having to feel like they need to perform or look a certain way.
What effect does this new sexual marketplace niche have on relationships, and, perhaps most importantly, attitudes towards women? It is too early to tell, as the industry is still in development. But we are hopeful that in the coming years researchers will examine how the use of acsexories and feminist pornography impacts women’s sexual self-esteem and satisfaction. Fun toys such as Durex’s Play Vibrations vibrating ring and the body safe lubricant Astroglide Natural (which does not cause yeast infections like the glycerin in KY can) are already on the shelves of CVS and Target, so this mainstreaming of “sex-positive” products is well under way. With a majority of women (60-80%) not reaching orgasm reliably and about 10% never having experienced one at all,7,8,9 this could be a step towards much more sexual satisfaction for women.
Forget medicalizing female sexual dysfunction10 and focusing on the creation of a female Viagra, how about a shiny new luxury vibe and some sparkly lube to get things heated up this weekend?
1Comella, L. (2009). Remaking the sex industry: The adult expo as a microcosm. In R. Weitzer, Ed. Sex for Safe: Prostitution, Pornography, and the Sex Industry 2nd Edition (285-306). New York: Routledge.
2Allen, M., Emmers, T., Gebhardt, L., & Giery, M. (1995). Exposure to pornography and acceptance of rape myths. Journal of Communication, 45, 5-26.
3Davis, C. M., & Bauserman, R. (1994). Exposure to sexually explicit materials: An attitude change perspective. In Annual Review of Sex Research, Vol. IV. Lake Mills, IA: Society for the Scientific Study of Sex.
4Malamuth, N. M., & Donnerstein, E. (Eds.) (1984). Pornography and sexual aggression. Orlando, FL: Academic Press.
5Shaw, S. M. (1999). Men’s leisure and women’s lives: The impact of pornography on women. Leisure Studies, 18(3): 197-212. doi:10.1080/026143699374925
6Arakwa, D. R., Flanders, C., & Hatfield, E. (2012). Are variations in gender quality evident in pornography? A cross-cultural study. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 36(2), 279-285.
7Graham, C. A. (2010). The DSM diagnostic criteria for female orgasmic disorder. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39, 256-270.
8Dawood, K., Kirk, K. M., Bailey, J. M., Andrews, P. W., Martin N. G. (2005). Genetic and environmental influences on the frequency of orgasm in women. Twin Res Hum Genet, 8, 27-33.
9Burr, A. V., Cherkas, L. M., Spector, T. D. (2009). The genetics and epidemiology of female sexual dysfunction: A review. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 6, 656-657.
10Orlowski, J. B. (2012). Beyond Gratification: The Benefits of Pornography and the Demedicalization of Female Sexuality. ExpressO. Available at: http://works.bepress.com/jeneanne_orlowski/1
Dr. Michelle Kaufman - Science of Relationships articles
Michelle conducts research on sexual health and how power in heterosexual relationships influences sexual risk and family planning. She has conducted research in South Africa, Nepal, Tanzania, and Indonesia, and teaches a course on Qualitative Research Methods at Jimma University in Ethiopia.