The Female Gaze Does Not Exist?

Ms Naughty watches porn
I’ve sat on this post for two days now, hesitating on publishing it. Even now, I’ve cut out a fair bit that was a bit too ranty and controversial or wrong-headed. In any case, here it is:

It started when I discovered that Fleshbot has decided to do weekly posts discussing porn that straight women might enjoy. I was surprised to discover this as that porn blog has never really acknowledged that this audience exists. Their categories are straight (naked women, girl-girl and standard hetero porn aimed at men) and gay (nude men and gay couples sex). They have occasionally featured news about female friendly porn but it’s often with a derisive comment about the very concept of “porn for women”. I’ve had a couple of brief discussions with editor Lux Alpatrum about it and she has said she doesn’t think the phrase is a good one. That’s fine. The only problem is, it’s meant that porn specifically created for straight women has either been ignored or lumped into either category. Until now.

I tweeted about this change and also put up some of the shots from our recent photo shoot. Then I had a brief exchange with @quietriot_girl about the idea of porn for women and the female gaze.

She said: “why is porn aimed at women so bloody soft-focussed and ‘sensual’ I like my men like I like my sex: ROUGH.”
I said: “‘Porn for women’ doesn’t have to always be sensual. Tristan Taormino’s Rough Sex series is female-friendly
She said: “Rough can be arty too! I don’t really know what ‘female friendly’ means. My favourite porn is gay porn.”
I said: “The pics we like at are varied but I’m a fan of sensuality and arty stuff, not really into rough.” and “The term “porn for women” is broad. I always take it to mean that it is catering to the female gaze, not 1 particular type of content.”
She said: “but what is the ‘female gaze’ my gaze enjoys things that many men do. I don’t think the ‘female gaze’ exists.”
I said: “It’s not the subject, its the assumption about the audience.”
She said: “But ‘the female gaze’ and ‘women’s porn’ also makes assumptions about the audience regarding gender/sexuality”

At this point I had to stop because you just can’t get into this topic in 140 characters. Nonetheless, I’ve spent quite a while now pondering the idea of not only not using the phrase “porn for women” but also abandoning the phrase “the female gaze.” And it’s bugging me because I find both phrases incredibly useful and still relevant.


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Quietriot_girl’s argument does have some merit. My recent interview with Jiz Lee has made me very aware that, for some people, gender is fluid and they are often left out of the binary language surrounding sex and gender. Discussing “the female gaze” may make assumptions about the sexuality of the audience, yes. So perhaps it is a flawed term.

Then again, those who are genderqueer aren’t necessarily interested as defining themselves as male or female. In terms of their “gaze” (their perspective taken into account when creating content), we would perhaps refer to it as the “genderqueer gaze” – in a similar way as you may also have the “gay gaze”, the “lesbian gaze”. The “female gaze” is perhaps a broader term and can encompass women of all sexualities – just as “porn for women” can.

Perhaps the problem is that I should be more specific with terms. So when it comes to the porn I myself enjoy and create, it is porn for straight women and thus I’m trying to cater to the “straight female gaze.” I’m happy to accept that in theory because it makes sense.

Still, I’ll probably keep using my preferred terms for three reasons: firstly, straight women are in the majority and they’re my target market. Secondly, the majority of people make their own assumptions about what those phrases mean and it’s overwhelmingly associated with straight women. Thirdly, I’m a creature of the web and I deal in search terms. So whittling down my language can easily result in a whittling down of search engine traffic and, as you can imagine, I’m not so keen on that. What can I say, I’m an evil, capitalist pornographer.

No doubt we could then go into the other argument – that not all women are the same, that the “straight female gaze” is too prescriptive because it makes assumptions about “what women want.” I don’t think so. The subject matter of the gaze is not the issue. It really comes down to acknowledging that the audience is made of straight women and giving priority to their experiences and fantasies, whatever they may be. A single example of catering to a straight female gaze – e.g. the photos we shot last week – does not mean that it should apply to every woman or that it’s a “standard” of some sort. It’s not all-or-nothing here. Rather, it’s a matter of thinking: right, I want to appeal to a certain type of woman, this is what I think she might like and I’m not going to make any apologies to any other members of the audience if they don’t like it.

Beyond all that, I still feel agitated about the dismissal of the “female gaze” idea. And I wasn’t quite sure why. So I wrote the draft blog post and had a great email chat with Flexibeast who is poly, trans, genderqueer, kinky and… well vanilla too.

What I’ve realised is that I feel a little beseiged by these kinds of discussions. Sometimes I get the feeling that trying to promote and speak about porn for straight women is frowned upon by those who are more pansexual in their outlook. As though it’s a lost cause or inferior or something because sexual and gender fluidity renders the whole idea of straightness and femaleness as moot. I don’t really agree with that stance; I accept the diversity of gender and sexuality but I also know that there are plenty of women out there who simply identify as female and straight and I want to cater to them.

And I feel that in the rush to embrace the diversity of queer and genderqueer porn, the straight women are being sidelined. That we’re dismissed as hedgemonic from the queer side but then also ignored by the mainstream which is still dominated by porn aimed at straight men.

It may just be paranoia but it’s something that I’ve been feeling for a while. And perhaps I’ll attract some abuse for saying that, though it’s not meant to be anything other than an exploration of a vague frustration I have.

I think my frustration also occurs because decrying terms like “porn for women”, “female friendly” and “the female gaze” (however flawed they are) can have the effect of denying straight women their own space in the pornosphere. As I said in this post two and a half years ago, these phrases are about creating a space in an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry. They’re about putting up a flag so that it’s easier for straight women to wade through the crap and find something different. I’ve been making porn for ten years and I’m still one of only a handful of people who are legitimately trying to offer erotic content to straight women. Sure, the big porn companies have lately started to make an effort but they’re not very good at it.

So in the teeming city of the porn industry, there’s still only a small shack on the outskirts that consciously labels itself as meant specifically for straight women. And the sign on the front door, right or wrong, says “porn for women.” Because that’s the most obvious and easiest thing to write.

Women can, of course, visit any other building in the city if they want. Sure, those skyscrapers are all run and populated by men who often like to use the term “stupid bitch” and they don’t have any ladies toilets, but if that’s what they like, there’s nothing stopping them.

In the meantime, someone decides that you can’t have that sign on the door of the shack because it can’t possibly describe everything inside (and, there is an awful lot inside). There’s no other pithy suggestions as to what the sign should say so the shack stays unidentified. Meanwhile, lots of straight women start complaining that there’s nothing in the city that they like. Sure, there’s a new building called “queer” that looks nice and all but they don’t really feel at home there. And the one labelled “couples” looks pretty much like the rest of the skyscrapers but with nicer plastic plants.

OK, I’ll stop labouring this metaphor.

I guess the ultimate conclusion is that labels are problematic but, for me, useful. And that maybe it’s personal: I’m a straight woman, I want to offer porn to straight women like me who like the things I do. But sometimes I feel that arguments over labels suggest that what I’m doing isn’t legitimate or politically correct or wrong somehow. And I know that what I do IS worthwhile. Because boring old married vanilla-type straight chicks like me do like porn and I think we deserve our space at the table as much as anyone else.

16 Replies to “The Female Gaze Does Not Exist?”

  1. Ms. Naughty, I feel your pain. I took an enormous beating when I first posted about the female gaze, in large part because I didn’t explain what I meant by the phrase, and accidentally gave the impression that I thought women’s sexual desire resolved entirely around chaste kisses and cuddling. This is not the case, of course; I was trying to talk about the subtler aesthetic differences one sees in the erotic images of men that women construct for other women, but I screwed it up and gave a lot of people the wrong impression.

    What I was trying to say is similar to what I think you’re trying to say, not that all women necessarily like the same things aesthetically, but that for a great many women, there are certain aesthetic effects that they find erotic, broad commonalities that are shared across a significant number of women, but by no means all. Then, too, your friend’s tastes aren’t necessarily incompatible with the female gaze. One can have a movie of a big burly fellow giving his beloved a serious pounding, and still avoid the impulse to go in for a close-up on his scrotum bouncing around beneath the crack of his ass. (That shot is in every mainstream porno, and I am still trying to find out who likes it.)

    1. Heh. I’ll admit I’m not so keen on the scrotum shot. Although I suspect it’s always gonna be there as long as people want close-ups of intercourse.

  2. The female gaze is just a main category. In porn, it’s a valuable counterpoint to the vastly predominant male gaze and inside it there are lots of sub categories, some of which Quietriot_girl likes and some she doesn’t. If a sub category doesn’t really fit inside it then it branches off and is something else. can even be a new main category.

    You could call it the androsexual female gaze, because it is distinctive from the androsexual male gaze (gay porn). I tend to use andosexual and gynosexual because they’re totally inclusive. I think like most men I’m predominantly gynosexual with a tiny bit of androsexuality.

    So yeah at the moment the main point of what your doing is to counter the predominant male gaze in porn with the much needed female gaze and your sub category with in the female gaze is androsexuality.
    Just like filament that sells predominantly to women.You have to make assumptions about your market and if your wrong your market will correct you with their dollars 🙂

  3. Well, I am writing a lot about sex for one women’s portal and this matter troubles me for long time – why are we done into “porn for women” which is for most of the part totally not exciting, meaning useless 🙂 if you take porn’s purpose. Most of those movies are soft, insipid, as though made by a guy who thinks he knows what we like. My experience is we like it often rough, very versatile and in many cases even more “spohisticated” (hard-core???) than our male counterparts that are usually okay with a couple fucking brains out of themselves. I think women deserve real porn and we should stop this gender absurd.

    1. Hi Kiddo
      I think you are making the original mistake that inspires this, that all “porn for women” is softcore. That’s not the case. Certainly with my own sites I like hardcore and explicit depictions of sex as much as anyone but my tastes don’t run toward cruelty or verbal abuse. I want to see people who are enjoying and *respecting* each other – and that can include kinky sex and bdsm done properly. I’m not into rough sex but, as Tristan Taormino has shown, it can be done well if there’s respect and context involved.

      At the same time, I like softcore and artistic stuff too. My tastes aren’t for everyone but I’m trying to put something out there that women like me will enjoy.

  4. Great post, Ms. Naughty. I especially like this part: “And I feel that in the rush to embrace the diversity of queer and genderqueer porn, the straight women are being sidelined. That we’re dismissed as hedgemonic from the queer side but then also ignored by the mainstream which is still dominated by porn aimed at straight men.”
    I have been somewhat critical of the ‘sex positive’ movement for exactly this reason. They seem to be embracing the viewpoint that gender doesn’t matter, but in doing so ignore or sideline women who enjoy looking at men.

  5. Hi Ms Naughty
    thanks for writing this post! I do see where you are coming from to an extent- though I am very aware that, as you say at the end, you are running a business and your definitions and target audience are linked to your understanding of a ‘market’ within an industry. I don’t run a porn business so my ideas are not related so much to market forces.

    I think we differ in that I genuinely believe that no matter how straight women are, when they start to disrupt the traditional male hetero gaze that dominates pornography, their gaze becomes ‘queer’ in some way. The passive male object is a homo-erotic object, and is also nothing to do with the traditions of straight ‘hetero’ power dynamics/looking.

    Of course there are dominant women who are used to objectifying men in real life, but I’d argue that is kind of queer too.

    The thing the ‘female gaze’ porn-makers don’t acknowledge is that our culture is saturated with images of men as sex objects. It is not a marginal ‘market’. It’s just one that demands we accept a certain level of homo-eroticism in the way men now demand to be looked at.

    I am not making a statement about my ‘sexuality’ in terms of who I am attracted to and who I fuck, here. I am making a statement about what happens when I look at men as sex objects, when anyone does.

    I reject ‘porn for women’ because my gender identity is not the point when I look. The point is how I relate with the subject/object of my desire.

    1. So… the term “homo-eroticism”… What you are saying here is *precisely* why I want to use the term “female gaze.” You seem to be implying that the only way to look at naked men is to take on the viewpoint of a man, be it a hetero or homosexual man. You leave no room for an autonomous, hetero female to be able to look at something on her own terms. This is pretty much the same as the default societal position where women “aren’t visual” or terribly sexual at all.

      You say “the passive male object is a homo erotic object, and is also nothing to do with the traditions of straight ‘hetero’ power dynamics/looking.” In that statement you yourself are laying on assumptions about sexual roles. You are also talking about the “traditions” of looking; I am all about trying to change those traditions, trying to make a space.

      It has always been assumed that only gay men would want to look at men. When a straight woman does that, she’s breaking the mould, she’s not being traditional. But it doesn’t work to say she’s engaging in “homo eroticism” because you are saying she’s essentially a gay man, looking at it with a gay man’s experience, perspective, desires. She may be enjoying depictions of gay sex but homo-erotic is the wrong description for that. I would argue that it’s still a straight female gaze, bringing a different perspective to the experience. She may imagine herself in the picture, fantasise about being a gay man, admire the male bodies… all that. But in the end, she’s got a clit, not a penis. Essentialism, I guess.

      But I think we’ll never agree on this. I would say that your definition of queer is overly broad; it essentially has everyone as queer except the straight boofy men who tend to become “the enemy” in these discussions (and perhaps that’s a whole other blog post). It’s interesting in theory but in practice I think it casts too wide a net. Everyone has vastly different tastes and classifying all women who enjoy something different as queer doesn’t seem fair, perhaps because it implies that those women should enjoy *everything* labelled as queer. And again, it makes me feel as though identifying as a straight woman is illegitimate or displaying false consciouness.

      In the end, I am just a businesswoman and I’m using marketing terms and that’s why I’m happy to keep using my chosen phrases. I’m also very aware of statistics: while it’s fun to talk about queerness and labels, I’m ultimately trying to cater to a very large population of women who identify as straight and female. They are still overwhelmingly presented with porn that only offers that traditional straight male viewpoint. I tell them that it’s OK to look at porn (because even this is a big leap for some) and then I offer them content that I think they’ll like. That may well include images created for gay men, or kinky movies or stories about pissing or orgies or bisexuality. My language is aimed at them, my intent is to appeal to them. If it takes them on a larger sexual journey then great. If it just gets them off, that’s good too. In doing this, I’m appealing to their experiences, their fantasies, their needs as straight women. I am acknowledging their femaleness. So I say I’m catering to the female gaze (the straight female gaze). I’m identifying my audience, helping them to find me. And if they don’t like what I offer or feel that I’m not talking to them… well, you can’t please everyone.

  6. p.s. Jake I tend to prefer ‘gay porn’ as do many women. Is that part of the ‘female gaze’ even tho it is made for men by men on the whole? If it is can’t you see how that is a bit ‘queer’? And if it is not how come I and many women love gay porn so much?

    You could argue that straight hetero porn for ‘women’ is more ‘queer’ than a woman watching gay porn, because it involves watching another woman having sex. That involves at least some level of bisexual desire don’t you think?

    1. It may be a bisexual experience for some women to watch hetero porn (especially because most mainstream porn focuses exclusively on the woman) but then again, if you think about the way women are brought up, how we’re presented in media… we’re used to seeing sexualised female bodies, depicted as an alluring sex object from a male perspective. So that tends to become internalised. Does it follow that that creates a kind of intrinsic bisexuality? I’m not sure.

      One could also consider that there are two ways of viewing something; you can be an external admirer or you can identify with who you see, put yourself into their place. I think one of the reasons straight women get turned off by standard hetero porn is that they can’t identify with the plastic female porn stars, the long nails, the fake tits. Part of what I want to see in porn is more focus on the guy (or both partners) and more female orgasms. So you could say I want to both admire and identify. But I want to admire the man and identify with the woman. Maybe that intent could be called the straight female gaze, at least one aspect of it. Certainly it’s the opposite of what mainstream hetero porn does – it assumes the viewer want to see as much of the woman as possible (usually cutting the guy out of the frame) while identifying with the male (although usually only with his orgasm at the end, otherwise he may “catch the gay” if he looks at the male too much).

      Re a woman watching gay porn… it might be all admiration or it might be some identification. But it’s still a female gaze.

  7. I have to put my hand up and say I’m occasionally guilty of saying ‘the female gaze does not exist’, usually in response to people drastically misunderstanding what Filament does or claims to do. My point is that you can’t YET look at photography or film created for women by women and say it represents what women want to see, because there’s not enough of it and most of it is being created under strong constraints that the men-orientated market doesn’t have.

    I also wholeheartedly agree with (the point I think you’re making) about how a lot of women as audiences are frequently making assumptions and generalisations that women-orientated porn will always be ‘softer’. I think that’s because it’s just one of the many bullshit generalisations about women’s sexuality that we’re fighting to overcome

    There’s something terribly anti-women, terribly ‘same bitch different face’ about the idea that a few films, websites or magazines made by women for women can be used to write off all of women’s erotic creations. Especially when the assessment of them (eg, they’re all softcore) is actually an utter fiction.

  8. Hi
    I just came back to this.
    My definition of ‘queer’ here is to do with ‘looking’ not to do with who people do or do not sleep with/fancy or even our genitalia.

    I think it is ‘queer’ to look at and objectify men, whoever does the looking. This is of course culturally produced due to how women have traditionally been objectified in our culture, and men have traditionally been the ‘lookers’. To look at he who normally looks I think is queer.

  9. I find it totally bizarre that anyone would want to categorise my enjoyment of looking at men, when I am a straight woman, as “queer”. No. Just, no. Using the word queer in this way is really idiosyncratic and not in line with what the word means to other people. On top of that it’s also denying any authenticity to my desires and behaviours (without evidence, I might add) – something I would never, ever *dream* of doing to a queer person. I enjoy male beauty and it is no more culturally produced than any other human behaviour.
    And actually, as a hypersexual straight woman, I’m bloody jealous of the queer community and I wish I *could* belong to it. Highly sexual straight women don’t fit in to mainstream sexual culture or the queer subculture, we don’t have our own community. So it is really upsetting to see people trying to tear down the few women out there who are making a community (and porn!) for us, even if it’s an online one.
    Ms Naughty’s porn is not *really* to my personal taste but I am completely with her on this post. I don’t expect every piece of porn deliberately made for women to cater to me, but I’m immensely grateful that people are making it and that I can look through it to find the subset that I like.

    1. Thanks Imogen. I too feel quite jealous of the queer community in that sense. I’m going to write a blog post on this and on the term “queer”, it’s been fermenting in my mind for a few days now.

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