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Do Women Have a Sexuality?

Very interesting article in the latest New York magazine--The Science of Gaydar. A particular passage caught my interest. I'm pasting the entire thing below because it's really worth reading:

In many other studies, though, lesbians have appeared less unique than gay men, leading some people to wonder if their sexual orientation is innate. Michael Bailey—who, as a heterosexual researcher, is a minority in this field—even doubts the existence of female sexual orientation, if by orientation we mean a fundamental drive that defies our conscious choices. He bases this provocative gambit on a sexual-arousal study he and his students conducted. When shown pornographic videos, men have an undeniable response either to gay or straight images but not both, according to sensitive gauges attached to their genitals—it’s that binary. Female sexual response is more democratic, opaque, and unpredictable: Arousal itself is harder to track, and there is evidence that it defies easy categorization. “I don’t yet understand female partner choices very well, and neither does anyone else,” Bailey wrote me in an e-mail. “What I do think it’s time to do is admit that female sexuality looks in some ways very different from male sexuality, and that there is no clear analog in women of men’s directed sexual-arousal pattern, which I think is their sexual orientation. I am not sure that women don’t have a sexual orientation, but it is certainly unclear that they do.”

He contends that what they have instead is sexual preference—they might prefer sex with women, but something in their brains can still sizzle at the thought of men. Many feminist scholars agree with this assessment, and consider sexuality more of a fluid than an either-or proposition, but some don’t. “I think women do have orientations, but they don’t circumscribe the range of desires that women can experience to the same degree as men,” says Lisa Diamond, a psychology professor at the University of Utah, who is writing a book on the subject. “For women, there’s more wiggle room. You can think of orientation as defining a range of possible responses, and for women, it’s much broader.”

Bailey stops short of saying that lesbianism is a myth (although he has notoriously declared that true male bisexuality doesn’t exist and dismissed many transgender people as peculiar sexual fetishists, drawing lasting enmity from gay and trans groups). But it may be less hard-wired. And it appears to have separate triggers and correlates that haven’t been identified yet. In studies of twins, there is a lower correlation of sexual orientation between female siblings than male siblings, for instance. “We’re at a place,” agrees Diamond, “where everyone agrees that whatever is going on is quite distinct between the sexes.”

Fascinating, right? Most would agree that women's and men's sexuality is different (I'm including gay/lesbian sexuality, and recognize this discussion is confined to a binary for ease of analysis). Whether this difference is biological or social is difficult to determine--the fact that Bailey is basing his conclusions on a study which tested arousal (which can be both socially and biologically determined) doesn't do much to settle the matter.

The social influences are a given. I would argue that biology definitely influences sexuality as well. Since that which makes biological men different from biological women, by definition is sex (both organs and role in sexual behavior and reproduction), it makes sense that the two sexes would have some deeply-rooted difference built into their sexuality. The determination of the form or extent of that difference, however, is nearly impossible.

The Lisa Diamond comment in the second paragraph above comes closest to capturing the distinction between male and female sexuality--women do have orientations, but their orientation does not necessarily confine their desires (at least not to the same degree it does men).

This discussion falls in line with the reason pornography has historically not appealed to women. It has traditionally been created around a very rigid and direct concept of sexuality. The way it's shot, the action captured, the appearance of actors, and so on, all were built upon a very male definition of sexuality. "Women's Porn" has not tended to be very good either, because all it is (generally) is a slight variation on male-oriented porn. Different looking actors, different angles, etc. The foundation is still fundamentally generally incongruent with female sexuality. (Yes, I know I'm essentializing here--there are obviously exceptions on both the people and porn front--but I'm ok with making general statements to make my point clear.)

So what's the answer? Innovation! Creativity! Injecting FUN into portrayals of sex! A few directors are getting it, but there is a dire need for creative people to experiment outside the bounds of what's been getting created for the past 40 years.

Visual aid: Tinto Brass with model

Finding the perfect actress

<posted by Leah Gold>

Hello! This is my first post--thanks to Rebecca for inviting me to contribute. I look forward to sharing my experiences as a fledgling director of (hopefully) kick-ass porn!

To provide a little background, this is my first film, and the plan is to make a dynamite short flick to get my feet wet, then if all goes well, to continue from there. I'm working with a male friend of mine who is an experienced filmmaker. (While I may have strong ideas about what I think porn should look like, I have absolutely no technical know-how.) 

We've got a concept and location, so the latest order of business has been finding an actress. The thinking is that once we find our muse, she can bring along a male friend. If not, then at least we will want her input in choosing a male lead--chemistry is key in a good porn movie. Our market is straight men and women, and in either case I think finding a compelling actress will make or break the movie. We posted on the ever-faithful Craigslist and received a few responses.

Which led to my first dilemma. One of the best responses was from a beautiful 19 year-old girl. It didn't really hit me until we were discussing where to meet and I realized that we couldn't meet in a bar. My first reaction was, what the hell am I doing recruiting a young thing like her to star in a porn movie? Then of course my feminist training kicked in--why am I being paternalistic? If she wants to be in a porn movie, who am I to "protect" her? When I was her age, I probably had the wherewithal to be in a porno without doing lasting psychological damage, were I so inclined. And I know that I certainly would have bristled at the idea of anyone telling me I wasn't old enough to make my own decisions.

Ultimately, the resolution was to meet the girl, ensure she was mature and cognizant enough to make this sort of decision, then respect her choice. Yes, still a little paternalistic, but I just couldn't see myself moving forward with someone who I wasn't confident understood the ramifications of her actions.

I somehow doubt that most male directors deal with this conflict. Perhaps it's that damn empathy so many women can't help but feel for other women in sexual situations.

Ultimately, the 19 year-old flaked out, so I didn't have to confront my inner conflict...at least not yet. We'll see who I end up finding!

Introducing Leah

My friend Leah has been working on directing her first porn movie, and I've been watching the process with rapt attention. As regular readers know, I'm a huge fan of sane, progressive women making movies that honor the participants (and the viewer). Ever since meeting at school, Leah and I have traded ideas about women and sex work, culminating in, for me, a research project, and for Leah a movie.

I managed to convince her to document the process in this space, so stay tuned for Leah's periodic updates on the creation of a feminist pornography film. Please welcome her to the space, and thanks to Leah for contributing! I'm looking forward to seeing the project progress!

At Least It's Pink!

Everyone needs to know about Bridget Everett. I've been dying for a chance to promote her in this space, but her fabulous show, At Least It's Pink, already closed and Bridget's been lying low since. I first experienced Bridgett last year at Tristan Taormino's release party for House of Ass and I can't wait to see her next project.

In the meanwhile, here is your chance to catch Bridget in action! She's performing this Saturday at NYC's Joe's Pub (425 Lafayette St). There's a burlesque event happening, hosted by Murray Hill (who I also adore). I can't make it, but I hope you all can! Believe me, it's worth it!


Does Jesus Drive us to Porn?

Jesus According to the Christian Post, an alarming number of God-fearing churchgoers in America are becoming addicted to porn. And the Internet is driving this addiction (just like the drug dealers on the corner caused my crack addiction).

It's one thing to document a pattern of addictive compulsive behavior, but another to conflate "addicted to" with "likes". The Christian Post article does the latter. What a ridiculous and lazy argument. Instead of demonstrating an understanding of the complex cultural forces which result in mixed and conflicting messages, this argument instead shoves the blame off to an uncontrollable psychological condition. And also its apparent root--availability of the addictive substance.

Sad and hilarious:

"We are seeing an escalation to the problem in both men and women who regularly attend church," said ChistiaNet.com president Bill Cooper.

So if there's some sort of connection between church and porn, perhaps the link is more than correlative? I don't know...does going to church give you dirty thoughts? It's so naughty it's almost irresistible. It doesn't help that Jesus is a total fox...

Back to Quality

Great article in the NY Times over the weekend about the dynamic market forces in the porn industry. The article correctly details the democratizing effects of the Internet--now any idiot with a camera and a bottle of wine can make a porno for the world to see.

Now that it's been a few years and a lot of idiots with cameras have made a lot of really bad porn, many within the industry are seeking out quality porn. While it may do the trick, poor quality porn eventually gets old (though not for all--there will always sadly be a market for crappy porn). The article predicts a moderate surge in high production values and attractive actors.

Great news. Really. I'd take things one step further, though, and look at the material from a consumer viewpoint. It's great that certain producers are recognizing that the market is flooded with bad porn and so are taking the time and effort to make a product that stands out. But they're going to have to do more than this--they need to help the consumer find their product, floating somewhere in the sea of bad dye jobs, long fingernails, and strangely brightly lit VHS shoots (seriously, what's the deal with all the outdoor pornos shot in direct sunlight?).

This is where branding is key. Vivid, as I've mentioned many times, has done it well. A consumer knows what they're getting when they purchase a Vivid movie. Even the imprints like Vivid-Alt maintain a certain quality that does not usually betray the viewer. Women also can become brands unto themselves, giving them a unique path to power in the industry...if only more of them would step up (sigh).

In any event, this is good news--I'm looking forward to seeing some higher quality movies roll out of the Valley.

SF Conference in July

Heads up to West Coast readers--over the weekend of July 20, I'll be speaking at the Desiree Alliance Conference. The conference is being held in San Francisco in conjunction with the 2007 West Coast Convergence and The Sex Work Film and Arts Festival.

I'll be discussing the economic and competitive dynamics of the pornography industry, how women figure into the evolving economics of the industry, and (time permitting) what this all means from a feminist perspective.

The conference operates with strict security, so they won't even release the exact location unless you've been given clearance. Registration is now open, so if you think you can make it, be sure to apply for a registration form! Hope to see you there!