Hands off/on our porn?

Lucy Neville

It’s a warmer summer’s evening last July, and I’m at a rooftop BBQ in central London (I know, I know, it’s alright for some). I don’t know many people there, but I’m happy to enjoy the ambiance (and the wine…) One of the few people I do know spots me, and makes a beeline for me, taking me by the arm and pulling me over to his group of friends, men all a bit younger than me. He introduces me straightaway as his friend “who studies women who watch gay pornos” (not normally the introduction I go with!). The response is immediately gleeful and intrigued. It turns out this group of guys are all gay, and they’re also all fascinated by what I do. We talk about it for at least twenty minutes, the discussion culminating in a discussion of slashfiction and an impassioned and slightly drunken debate about who’s more toppy, Kirk or Spock. But how typical is this experience (fancy roof terrace setting aside)?

For the past four years, I have indeed been researching women who produce and consume m/m erotica. Some meet the existence of this phenomenon with surprise, but there is growing acceptance that it is perhaps not quite as uncommon as first thought. At the Edinburgh Literary Festival in August 2014, the author G. R. R. Martin stated that he had received numerous letters from fans asking for more explicit gay male sex scenes in his Game of Thrones novels (and the associated television series), and that ‘most of the[se] letters come from women’. The idea that women might be interested in watching men have sex with each other is certainly not new within popular discourses – there was much discussion of this issue after the success of Brokeback Mountain with female audiences, and there has been an increasing inclusion of gay male love scenes in TV shows with a large female viewership (e.g. The Carrie Diaries, The Following, Teen Wolf). Acknowledging that more women than men had bought his first erotic novel (which deals with m/m sex), gay fiction author James Lear observed ‘[women] fancy men, they’re turned on by men and so they’re even more turned on by men with men – it’s like ‘man squared’. Offering support for the widespread nature of this phenomenon, recent analysis of billions of hits to the PornHub site (one of the largest online porn sites in the world) showed that, for the past two years running, gay male porn has been the second most popular choice for women porn viewers out of 25+ possible genre choices (PornHub, 2014).

I’ve been carrying out research recently to find out why m/m porn and erotica might be so popular with female consumers. Some of the reasons are perhaps unsurprising (the reason James Lear gives – “boys are hot!” as one of my participants put it – was the most common response), others perhaps less so (some participants gave harrowing accounts of abuse they had suffered as children or young adults, experiences that had left them feeling so alienated from the female body and female sexuality that they couldn’t ‘get off’ on any sexual fantasy scenario featuring women). Many respondents, in the survey, interviews, and focus groups that I ran, mentioned how they felt m/m porn was more ‘authentic’, insomuch as there was visual proof of both arousal (in the form of erections) and what they saw as a satisfying sexual encounter (in the form of ejaculation). There was awareness that things are not always as they seem; one participant noted “a good [gay male] friend of mine…started to burst my bubble about gay porn. Because he’s saying, “You know that these guys are all given Viagra? And the bottoms…” [winces]. And he starts… And I thought: shut up, shut up, shut up!… I don’t want to know… I need some fantasies.” However, overall many participants felt male performers were more likely to enjoy the erotic labour they were performing, and, moreover, that unlike women performers they had the economic and social capital to be able to quit porn if they wanted.

The women I spoke with were often aware that their erotic preferences, through the exclusion of women, might be seen as misogynistic, or self-hating (they’d read their Mackinnon!), and they were also aware that their interest in m/m sex and sexuality could be seen as appropriating, as a fetishisation of gay male sexuality, with one reflecting “I’ve seen gay men… saying…. there is a part of us that feels that you’re using our sexuality to get off on and we’re uncomfortable with that, and, you know, you do sort of have to be: are we being intrusive…?” Several participants mentioned how their interest was no different from straight men liking ‘lesbian’ porn – yet they were also aware that this phenomenon isn’t entirely unproblematic either. Only 35% of the women I spoke to who produced m/m erotic content themselves had discussed what they did with gay male friends or acquaintances. Of those that had done so, most talked about receiving a positive response – from amusement, through to requests to have a look, through to tips on how to write m/m love scenes in a way that was more realistic to the lived gay male experience. Very few had experienced any hostility or negativity. And 77% of respondents felt that being involved in m/m erotica in some way had increased their awareness of issues around gender and sexuality, and, in many cases, made them much more passionately committed to LGBTQ rights.

What was missing from all this, though, was the opinions of men who have sex with men. I read many theoretical academic pieces that discuss female appropriation of gay male space, and whether or not this is OK. Mark McLelland (1999:197) writes, “on the whole, gay men do not view the invasion of gay space by heterosexual tourists, male or female, particularly favourably, nor do they seem to feel the empathy for straight women that some straight women feel for them”, adding that nobody likes to “feel like a spectacle all the time”. This was also a theme I also came across in popular writing, such as Miz Cracker’s piece in Slate last year. She is concentrating on the bad behaviour of hen parties in gay bars, and stresses #notallwomen, but nevertheless asks the question “whether [straight people] should be [in queer spaces] at all?” The comments section underneath this article was pretty illuminating, but as with all comments sections, it seemed to bring out the polarities. Such polarities also emerge within the world of gay porn itself. On the one hand there’s gay male stars like the founder and director of The Cocky Boys, Jake Jaxson, who refers to their female fans as “porn mums”, adding “they post comments, come to our events, and connect with us on Twitter. It’s great”. On the other hand, there’s porn stars like Spencer Reed, who has lashed out at his female fans on Twitter, ridiculing their interest in m/m porn and calling them “cunts” (the tweets have since been deleted, but you can read a response to them here). However, while certainly interesting, none of this is a systematic attempt to survey the opinions of MSM on how they feel about women engaging with, and often producing, m/m erotic and pornographic content. Cante & Restivo (2004:143) argue that “all-male pornography at some point also becomes the field for the (utopian) reinvention of the world eternally promised by identity politics” – an idea I picked up and ran with in my article on women who watch m/m porn. But a true Utopia needs to create an ideal society for all involved – and I wonder if that is always the case? Anecdata (like my rooftop chat) aside, how do gay men feel about women using porn designed for them? This is something I hope to find out with the survey I am currently running.

Please feel free to share the survey as widely as you like – I am keen to get as large a sample as possible: http://goo.gl/forms/Z8TUc6RhZN

References

Cante, R. & Restivo, A. (2004). The cultural-aesthetic specificities of all-male moving-image pornography. In L. Williams (ed.), Porn Studies (pp.142-166). London: Duke University Press.

McLelland, M. (1999). Gay men as women’s ideal partners in Japanese popular culture: Are gay men really a girl’s best friends? Japan Women’s Journal (English Supplement), 17, 77-110.

5 thoughts on “Hands off/on our porn?

  1. Sorry to just pounce in with an opinion but I personally favour m/m when watching porn, and find it exciting that it’s an entirely passive experience for me, like I *can’t* insert myself into the situation so I can simply be an observer? Also, I adore hearing guys be vocal in their enjoyment of sex and find men in f/m porn to be eerily silent!

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    1. You’re certainly not alone with either of those sentiments, with regards to the analysis I’ve carried out thus far on my survey with women who engage with m/m erotic content.

      I’ve actually opened the survey up again, as I think I’m pretty much addicted to getting as much data as possible (😂 – I need to know when to stop!), so if you have the time and inclination, it would be fab if you filled it in: https://goo.gl/NJY1cP

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  2. I am wondering what does this say about the gendered power relations surrounding viewer/viewed. Historically men have been agents of vision and women objects of it. Does women watching m/m porn subvert this? Also, it would be interesting to disaggregate your sample along age and class. Do women who enjoy m/m porn belong to a certain class and age? It’s a very fascinating study!

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