When I tell people I’m studying women who like gay male porn I get some pretty mixed responses. Men tend to tilt their heads quizzically to one side. “Really?” they ask, “is that a thing?”. Sometimes they’ll add “Oh, like when guys like lesbian porn”. Other times they’ll look at me askance and say, “that’s … just weird”.
Women tend to respond a little differently. Either with happy affirmations of their own interest in male-on-male (m/m) erotica, or with intrigue and a desire to know more. Often they’ll launch into an enthusiastic recount of how hot it was when Jason and Eric made out in True Blood, or how much they enjoyed Anthony Kedis and Dave Navarro snogging in The Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ Warped video.
Media producers are starting to catch on: Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin revealed that he receives numerous letters from fans asking for more explicit m/m sex scenes to be included in the show, and that “most of the letters come from women”.
An analysis of billions of hits to PornHub (one of the largest online porn sites in the world) shows that m/m is consistently the second most popular category for women visitors, and that women make up 37% of m/m porn viewers – suggesting that women represent viable secondary consumers of this type of porn. It’s really not that “weird”.
What’s the attraction?
In order to find out what it is that m/m offers women that heterosexual or lesbian porn might not, I spoke with and surveyed over 500 women for my new book Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys. Some of the reasons are pretty self-evident: it probably shouldn’t be surprising that a good number of women like looking at naked men.
But we still live in a society where we are very much conditioned to see the naked male – and particularly the naked penis – as either gross, funny or scary. Full frontal male nudity is often presented to us in films as comedic, as an “ewwww” moment, or during a scene of sexual violence. We don’t get to see men as sensual or vulnerable – we are not invited to look at them.
A lot of the women I spoke to were keen to find a way to look at men and appreciate male grace and beauty: “Men are so pretty!” exclaimed one of my interviewees, “we deserve more eye candy of that kind”. There was also a desire to flip the “male gaze” so prevalent in both porn and cinema - where everything is shot from a straight male perspective, ignoring the desires and agency of viewers who might appreciate the male form.
What’s more, m/m porn means women don’t have to feel guilty or worried about women performers, wondering if they’re enjoying it, if they’re being exploited, if it hurts, if they really did just have an orgasm. There is a widespread feeling among many of the women I interviewed that men participate in porn because they like sex – helped by visual cues of pleasure such as erections and ejaculation.
Women also enjoy the versatility of m/m sex: no one is inevitably going to be the penetrator or the penetratee in any given scene. For women who like hardcore kink and BDSM, two or more participants of the same gender removes some of the potentially off-putting power dynamics from a scene, and means they can just enjoy the eroticism of the act. For a subset of women who are rape and abuse survivors, m/m is one of the few types of sexually explicit media they can enjoy without feeling triggered or re-traumatised.
More than half the women I spoke to (55%) imagine themselves as a man when masturbating, indicating that some women are able to easily cross-identify between genders during sexual situations. Many spoke about how this ability really opens up sexuality as something fluid and playful.
There is a line of thinking in feminist discourse, memorably advanced by Simone de Beauvoir, that women are forced from childhood to identify as men, because so many cultural products are designed for men, and women are made to objectify themselves for the male gaze. But for a lot of women I interviewed, this process of switching viewpoints and identities is empowering and exciting. In fact, they expressed sympathy for men, who feel less free to experiment with female identification.
Some have called out women liking and producing m/m porn as exploitative, fetishising and creepy (what I have termed “gaypropriation”). But I also surveyed almost 200 men who sleep with men, and the vast majority saw no problem with women engaging with m/m porn: “If it’s helping people explore romance and sexuality, and possibly breaking down over-representation of heterosexuality in the media, then it’s probably a good thing,” explained one gay interviewee.
There has been justifiable concern about porn playing negatively into our body image issues and giving us unrealistic and dangerous expectations about sex. But we shouldn’t forget porn’s potential to forge alliances, change attitudes and overcome some of the divisions presented by identity politics.