Skip to main content
European Commission logo print header

Degradation or Empowerment? Challenging Stereotypes About Women in Porn

Final Report Summary - WOMEN IN PORN (Degradation or Empowerment? Challenging Stereotypes About Women in Porn)

Since the “liberalization” of pornography during the 1970s, discourses on pornography have been characterized by uncompromising assumptions concerning the issue of gender roles in explicit sexual representations: more specifically, the female body and sexuality have been caught between two opposite discursive registers focused on assessments of degradation and exploitation, on one side, and the possibilities of (sexual) liberation and empowerment on the other.

In the contemporary mediasphere, while a “post-feminist masquerade” emphasizes women’s agency and power in relation to commercial (capitalistic) values, the notion of (pornographic) objectification and that of empowerment are often confused by women themselves, as they tend to identify with “glamourized” sexual objects in their public (mostly online) self-representation. Pornographic representations have in fact come to signify empowerment in contemporary culture (thanks to the use of pornographic tropes in music and fashion): therefore, it is no surprise that it is often difficult to distinguish between a porn-aesthetic and actual porn.

For these reasons, my research project aimed at testing the taken-for-granted concepts of degradation and empowerment when related to hard-core representations, and at investigating their place in discourses about women in contemporary (audio-visual) pornography. In order to do so, this project has taken into consideration three main axes:

1) Pornography as representation. I have investigated the discursive strategies through which pornographic texts are organized and produce meaning. More specifically, I have examined how the academic literature and the public debate define the notions of degradation and empowerment in the context of discourses on pornography, and I have analysed the enunciative, narrative, stylistic, and aesthetic strategies through which women are represented in pornographic materials. I have especially examined women authored or produced materials, as well as products explicitly targeted to women, in order to establish continuity or difference between such materials and what is defined as more “male targeted” pornography.

2) Pornographic audiences. After a survey of the existing literature on audiences of pornographic media, I accessed data from a previous online questionnaire aimed at audiences of sexually explicit media (the Porn Research project), and have begun analyses concerning female viewers. In order to contextualise these results, I have examined the ways in which porn consumption is shaped by discourses around sex, sexuality and media technologies. I have mapped the different forms and functions that media discourses on pornography have acquired in the contemporary digital environment, tracing their address to (female) audiences, their influence on consumption practices, and their role as means of orientation of taste. I have especially focused on traditional forms of criticism (DVDs and websites reviews) and on pornographic festivals and awards, trying to understand how these cultural intermediaries might influence the perception of specific pornographic texts as good/empowering or bad/degrading pornography.

3) The work of female performers and directors. I analyse the ways in which women have made their careers within commercial pornography as performers and directors, taking into account their role in the mainstream porn industry, as well as the work of female pro-am entrepreneurs in independent pornographies. I interviewed several porn professionals, with the aim of examining the work in porn a form of (creative) labour. Questions were asked about: education; career development; working conditions; typologies of contracts; relation with agents, directors, other colleagues; everyday experience on sets and in other work related activities; responses to the general perception of pornography in the public space and in their private relationships; how has pornography opened up spaces for their self expression or artistic/creative communication. In order to create a context for this data, I have also analysed the self-representation of performers and directors through social media, blogs, in online interviews and autobiographies.

The analysis of pornographic materials suggests that different productions tend to depict women, their bodies, desires and pleasures, as well as their sexual performances in different ways. Materials produced by women, in general, seem to be more focused on authenticity, natural bodies, and narrative context. Products labelled as “mainstream” (though a definition of mainstream appears to be quite problematic) tend instead to focus attention on the performance, in terms of resistance, sexual creativity, and on the general tendency to test the sexual limits and possibilities of the female body.

The analysis of online discourses on pornography suggests an increasing interest in feminist/women-oriented porn in several digital media outlets, and in the circuit of international festivals. Characterized by an “oppositional” stance, these discussions measure the materials they review (or consider for their awards) for their contrasts to “mainstream” porn. These discourses generally frame the work of specific producers, directors, and performers as “better” porn, with artistic/aesthetic values, authorial aims, political and social relevance, as well as characterized by an enhanced sense of authenticity. Audiences interested in these kinds of products are then encouraged to consider them as empowering, ethical, and politically valuable.

From a first examination of the Porn Research project’s results, it seems clear that the understandings and engagements individual female viewers make with pornography are extremely various, and often exceed the simple use of pornography as a device for masturbation. They access pornography in a variety of ways and through different channels, demonstrating particular preferences and a clear sense of their relationship with pornography in general and with distinct pornographic products.

The research with performers and directors shows that they are in general characterized by a very strong work ethics, being also extremely focused and ambitious. Overall, interviewees did not perceive pornography as degrading, for them as performers, nor for women in general: while they clearly acknowledge the ambiguities and politics of “representation” and pornography’s “fantasy” elements, they are also adamant that pornography is a form of work, their job, and subsequently the opposition between degradation and empowerment is hardly adequate to define it.

My research demonstrates that the current discursive constructions of pornography as either degrading or empowering for women are not adequate to understanding the ways in which women relate to its textual formations, either as consumers or as producers and performers.