(Wo)men on top? The perils of the ‘pornification’ of popular culture

By 2024 the global sexual wellness market is projected to grow to 39 billion dollars. Alexkoral/Shutterstock

Are women more sexually liberated than ever before? So suggests the burgeoning sexual marketplace. From vibrators and erotica to bondage and beyond, the marketplace has transformed transgressive sexual practices into everyday household affairs. But is this sexual freedom truly liberating, or does it transform women from sexual objects of male desire to sexual subjects in their own right?

These were the questions we sought to explore in our study investigating young women’s sexual and intimate lives through a series of in-depth interviews. In the course of these interviews, which took place in a southern state in the United States, we were struck by how the women’s sexual and intimate relationships reflect current trends in pornography, particularly in relation to themes of dominance and submission.

The “pornification” of culture

Recent decades have witnessed the emergence of the female-oriented erotic industry, including boutiques and designer sex toys, a rise in sex practices once generally considered taboo, and sex manuals, blogs, and podcasts.

By 2024 the global sexual wellness market (including sex toys and related products, lingerie, etc.) is projected to grow to 39 billion dollars. The online pornography industry alone is currently worth an estimated 15 billion dollars.

Together, these trends reflect a “pornification” of culture, by which porn tropes and narratives become embedded in popular texts, highlighting and normalizing particular kinds of sexuality.

At the forefront of this trend was the 1972 pornographic film Deep Throat that earned both mainstream attention and backlash. Banned in 23 states, the film still managed to break box-office records and launched the “porno-chic” trend. During the same period, works written by and for women – Anne Desclos’ Story of O (published in English in 1965), Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden (1973), and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (1973) – helped define modern conceptions of female sexuality premised on paradoxical notions of dominance and submission.

Contemporary examples of pornification can be traced to the premiere of HBO’s series Sex and the City (1998-2004) which normalized casual sex and popularized sex toys such as vibrators for an entire generation of women. This marked one of the first instances of sex being re-imagined on-screen as liberating – something women do to please themselves rather than their male counterparts.

Subsequent marketization, from erotic-dancing classes to online dating platforms, has since recast sexuality in ways that ostensibly celebrate women’s autonomy, femininity, and sexual power. In 2011, the first of the Fifty Shades of Grey erotic trilogy, which popularized BDSM practices (an abbreviation for bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism), became the best-selling book of the decade.

Fifty Shades of Grey, the best-selling book of the decade. Radu Bercan/Shutterstock

The successive films generated a total of 1.25 billion dollars in revenue. The Fifty Shades phenomenon took porno-chic to new heights, reimagining violent sex as a form of erotic sex play. Subsequent media has capitalized on this trend, evidenced most recently in the popular Netflix drama 365 Days.

365 Days movie trailer (Ensworld, 2020).

Subsequently, the fantasies that first emerged in pornography have begun to filter into the mainstream media and marketplace, giving birth to a new mode of femininity organized around sexual entrepreneurialism.

Sexual entrepreneurship

Sexual entrepreneurship encapsulates how, in recent decades, sex and intimate relationships have become subject to market logics of consumerism, investment, and enterprise.

For example, it has become common to outsource matters of love to dating platforms, couples’ therapists, and wedding planners. Those engaging in sexual relations, are increasingly expected to embody self-assured, savvy sexualities and be skilled in a variety of sexual behaviors and practices.

For women, this means that virginity, innocence, and virtue, once the dominant currency of female desirability, have taken a back seat to sexual empowerment. To achieve this sexually empowered state, women are called to perpetually work on, invest in, and manage their sexual lives often by way of consumption.

Outsourcing matters of love at the couples’ therapist. Mangostock/Shutterstock

Underpinning this notion of sexual entrepreneurship is a variant of (post)feminism, a catch-all term that imagines misogynistic ideals as empowering, by leveraging feminist goals and language, like empowerment, confidence, and sexual liberation. Postfeminism has come to dictate the ways women manage their physical, psychic and sexual lives. For example, media messages urging women to “lean in,” “love their bodies,” and “be confident” have cultivated a culture that calls on women to continuously strive toward perfection across all spheres of life.

But how might this play out in women’s intimate relationships and lived sexual experiences?

Dominant in the streets…

Through the course of our research, it became clear that the women interviewed yield considerable power within their intimate relationships. This dominance often manifests within domestic or relational domains. This is opposed to broader financial and economic domains, where women remain disproportionality disadvantaged.

For example, women in relationships might dictate the couple’s social calendar or his-and-her fashion choices, but defer to their partners when faced with major financial decisions, such as purchasing a home or moving from one city to another.

This professed authority allows women to attain a sense of equity within their intimate relationships that does not always have the intended effect. For example, some women may use oral sex as a way to control their relationships and bodies, avoiding cunnilingus yet perfunctorily engaging in fellatio. In return, these women may feel entitled to reciprocal demands often in the form of gifts, nights out, or the assurance of an exclusive relationship.

Most troubling is that women can enact this power retroactively to disempowering situations. In the case of sexual assault, some women can reimagine, deny, or even take responsibility for unwanted sexual experiences. These experiences are reimagined because women interpret them as either “not that bad”, or worse, feel that they were somehow complicit.

… submissive between the sheets

This sense of empowerment takes on a different meaning behind closed doors, where women are more likely to embrace a submissive sexual role in ways that re-eroticize traditional power relations.

Based on the interviews we conducted, women tend to frame their sexual experiences in a “please yourself” discourse, through which they internalize men’s desires to understand them authentically as their own. Women, for example, may engage in sex practices such as BDSM or anal sex to provide their partners a position of superiority.

This relinquishment of control – coupled with an exaggerated sexual response (think: Meg Ryan’s fake orgasm in When Harry Met Sally) that accompanies their (real or simulated) orgasms – may allow women to enhance their desirability to men. For some women then, sexual satisfaction is derived not through an embodied sexual experience but through their own narcissistic objectification.

Meg Ryan’s fake orgasm from When Harry Met Sally (1989).

In the interviews, many women indicated that they hold their partners’ orgasms in high regard. According to one respondent, “sex only works if he orgasms.” Their own orgasms are of less concern, and some indicated that women who cannot orgasm relatively quickly and efficiently are “difficult” or even “ruined”. Of course, today there exist countless technical innovations promising easier orgasms, and these are marketed to women as “feminist,” “indulgent,” and even “therapeutic”.

These findings point to how the pornification of culture can influence sexual desire. Driven by “sexpertise” offered by columnists and ostensibly feminist erotica promising sexual liberation, women ascribe to cultural scripts embedded in popular culture and heterosexual pornography targeted at men. In this fantasy world, women are expected to be dominant in the streets but submissive between the sheets. The reality is that while some women may feel empowered, the “pornification” of culture serves the anachronistic patriarchal ideals that keep the men on top.

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