Posted at 14:04 on 28 Jul 2013 by Pandora / Blake
A couple of weeks ago I was invited to speak at Gender Sex London on the topic of the female gaze in kinky porn, alongside male performer Michael Darling. It was a great evening, with a really positive reception and lots of thoughtful contributions from those who attended. You can read a storify of live tweets from the evening here.
I'll post the text of my one-hour talk in two parts.
This isn't how I normally introduce myself, but before we start there's something you need to know about me. I like spanking. Like, a lot. I've been fascinated by spanking and corporal punishment for literally as long as I can remember, since I was maybe 4 years old. My spanking fetish is a huge part of my sexuality and identity; it's what I think about maybe 80% of the time when I'm having a wank; and in relationships it's kind of a deal breaker if the other person isn't into it.
I'm a switch, although I used to identify solely as submissive, and at this point in my life I enjoy both spanking and being spanked pretty much equally. I would say that spanking, as an activity, is fairly essential to my happiness and wellbeing.
But this talk isn't about spanking sadly, because I could quite easily go on about it for an hour at least. It will, however, come up again later, but first I want to talk to you about the idea of "gaze" in visual media, and what people mean when they refer to a "female gaze".
The Female Gaze
So that's gaze with a Z, we aren't talking about lesbians here. As it happens there are lots of female gays in kinky erotica, but the gaze with a Z isn't just a queer issue, it's something that relates to every woman on the planet - straight, gay, bi and every other sexuality you can name.
Female Gaze is about women looking at things, looking out at the world from inside a female body. It's about the perspective women have when they look, and what they want to look at. The term is most commonly used when talking about sex, bodies and visual media. I'm specifically going to look at how the issue of a gendered gaze relates to kinky pornography.
Gaze is a psychoanalytical term first brought into popular usage by Jacques Lacan, who distinguished the eye's look from the Gaze, which is a more loaded term that raises the question of whether the object of the Gaze is aware of being looked at. When we think about looking at an image of a person in a painting, television show or film, there is a difference between looking at someone who is not looking back at you, and who is the passive object of your gaze, perhaps an actor who is pretending to be unaware of the camera; and looking at a person who is looking back at you, addressing the camera and entering into an active relationship with both it, and you.
To gaze implies more than to look at - it signifies a psychological relationship of power, in which the gazer is superior to the object of the gaze. - Jonathan Schroeder 1998
This quote is actually from a 1998 article on marketing and consumer research - so you can see that the implication of an unequal power dynamic between gazer and object is pretty central to both the concept of gaze, and imagery used in advertising.
It's this power relationship that has given rise to our current usage of the word "objectification". At root, this refers to being the object of someone's gaze when your image is reproduced in visual media.
Laura Mulvey Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema 1975
- Films are made from the perspective of a heterosexual male, eg the way the cameras treat women's bodies
- Female characters are objectified by cinematic narrative events that happen to them are presented chiefly in terms of how they affect male characters (cf Bechdel test)
- Female characters experience the narrative secondarily, by identifying with the male gaze
Second-wave feminist Laura Mulvey wrote an essay in 1975 about the male gaze as a feature of gendered power dynamics in film. Her idea was that men being in control behind the camera results in the camera reflecting or creating a "male gaze" in which the camera puts the audience into the perspective of a heterosexual man. She argued that women in film are usually displayed as an object in two ways: both as an erotic object for the characters within the film, and for the spectator who is watching the film. So the whole idea of gaze is specifically connected to film and erotic desire, and is therefore pretty central to our reading of modern pornography.
Mulvey believed that women had internalised the male gaze to such an extent that women have learned to look at each other, and judge each other, with a male gaze. She believed that in patriarchy women are trained to look at themselves and the world through the perspective of a heterosexual man. The idea of a distinct female gaze has therefore been adopted by third wave feminists as an explicit reclamation of women's power to look at the world through the filter of their own experience, their own desires.
Throughout most of our history the implied gaze of all creative media, including written texts as well as paintings, sculptures and so on, has been male. That is, the perspective of the creator, and the presumed perspective of the audience, have both been those of a man.
"Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at." - John Berger, Ways of Seeing 1972
In Renaissance images nude women were painted almost exclusively for the male viewer. Women are often depicted with their bodies turned towards the viewer, while their heads are turned away and gazing in a mirror. Looking at herself for the benefit of her audience, the woman's gaze reflects the male. She is aware of being the object of the male gaze.
Do women have to be naked to get into the Metropolitan Museum?
Less than 4% of the artists in the Modern Art section are women, but 76% of the nudes are female.
This is a poster campaign by Guerrilla Girls, counting the number of women artists vs. the number of female nudes on exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The original campaign was run in 1989, and updated with new figures in 2005 and, most recently as you can see above, 2012.
TV Tropes, which is actually a pretty good wiki on Western cultural tropes in general, has this to say about gendered gaze:
Male Gaze is pervasive and the default for works aimed at mixed-gender audiences, whereas Female Gaze is mainly found in works that are either assumed to be exclusively for women, like soap operas, chick flicks, shoujo manga, or more idiosyncratic and personal works by female creators. TV Tropes
I guess the porn I make would fit into the final category.
So when it comes to porn and erotica, female gaze implies looking out of a woman's body with objectifying desire. The third wave feminist reclamation of an independently female gaze, as an explicit reaction against the heterosexual male gaze that predominantly objectifies women, wouldn't be complete without making men the object of female sexual desire.
The female gaze in film
- Female director: reclaiming female perspective
- Telling stories from a female point of view; narratives which make female characters the subject, not the object
- In erotica, the camera has woman's point of view, eg looking at men as objects of sexual desire
When we talk about an erotic female gaze, we're therefore referring to idea of women having sexual desires of their own, and looking at the world through the perspective of that desire. We're talking about people, including men, becoming aware of being the object of a woman's erotic gaze. And we're talking about a gaze that refers both to the perspective of a female artist or pornographer, and to that of a presumed female audience. So at the most straightforward level, "female gaze porn" can be described as porn made for women by women.
The word "objectification" is used somewhat differently these days, and is treated by many modern feminists as something that it is inherently bad. Is "gaze" inherently sexualising, is it inherently objectifying, and are those things necessarily bad? From the history of the term I've given above, sexual objectification is core to our understanding of Gaze, but I don't think that is an inherently damaging or degrading thing per se.
I personally think that sexual objectification - in the sense of looking at someone's body with erotic desire - can be perfectly valid and healthy. Problems arise when two imbalances occur simultaneously. Firstly, when all visual media, even those unrelated to adult themes, becomes saturated with sexually objectifying imagery; we can look at computer games and advertising for examples of this. Secondly, when there is a gender imbalance and lack of diversity in the type of body being objectified, and the type of gaze represented. In our culture, the type of body that is sexually objectified more than any other is that of a white, thin, able-bodied, cisgendered woman. It is this gender imbalance combined with the ubiquity and saturation of sexually objectifying imagery that reinforces damaging sexist tropes within society.
In theory, therefore, we could envisage a culture that produced a gender egalitarian and body-diverse range of sexually objectifying imagery, used mostly in contexts that were explicitly related to sexuality, sexual education and sexual arousal, which was neither sexist nor problematic. In creating female gaze erotic imagery, my work aims to help build that culture.
In her 2006 article Male Objectification and Female Empowerment, Candace Harper argues that the use of the female gaze and male objectification in advertising is rising alongside female economic empowerment. As women become the target audience, advertising is aimed at them, and male bodies become used to catch the heterosexual female eye.
Harper identifies the following features of figurative imagery as objectifying: fragmentation (i.e. only showing some body parts), nakedness, subservient postures such as kneeling or being knelt on, dehumanisation such as being associated with an object (e.g. vodka bottle) or animal (e.g. horse).
Harper has some lovely examples, but I have to admit that as I travel through London I don't see as much of this sort of thing as I would like. Sampling the adverts you see as you take any particular journey, at this point in time I'm afraid that you are still going to see disproportionately more women objectified by advertising than men.
The gaze of the model is also significant in Harper's analysis. She identifies a gaze into the camera as empowering, and a aloof or distant gaze as objectifying, marking the model as submissive and decorative.
This is relevant to how power dynamics are expressed through porn, in which it is a bit more complicated than that; I'll come back to this later on.
So now we get to the fun bit, looking at some examples of female gaze erotica.
I was introduced to the idea of a female gaze and how it related to porn in 2009, thanks to Suraya Sidhu Singh and Filament Magazine.
Filament aimed to counter the mainstream womens' mags by offering intelligent, interesting articles on everything from music to fanfiction to physics, alongside erotic short stories written by women for women, and erotic photographs of beautiful men. It was the first ever UK magazine to publish a photo of a male erection, and it was hugely influential for me and many others. Filament sadly ended after a run of nine issues in December 2011 - as it happens, the same month I launched my female gaze porn site Dreams of Spanking.
The central idea behind Filament was that women are visual, and that most bisexual and heterosexual women (i.e. the majority of women) enjoy looking at naked men. This counters many popular tropes, including Kinsey's idea that women aren't visual, claimed in his 1953 book Sexual behaviour in the human female which has since been resoundingly discredited, but is still widely believed. It also countered the idea that men, and particularly naked men, are "just inherently less attractive" than women.
This received opinion is a product of the ubiquitous heterosexual male gaze in our society. All ideas of beauty and sexiness are culturally subjective, and there is nothing innate or inevitable about the preferences we are taught growing up. A clear example of this is the Ancient Greeks, whose art was produced for what we would now call a bisexual male gaze, and which therefore included many idealised representations of sexually desirable young men as well as women.
Just as in art most paintings have historically been created by men for men, so most porn has been created by men for men. When erotic images of men have been made, as with the Greeks, they have still been created for a male audience, designed to appeal to men who like men. In modern porn, gay images still show the sort of muscle men, bears and twinks that are typified in the gay community. By contrast, Filament's market research suggested that women liked to see a much more diverse range of male bodies including body types from skinny to padded, boys in makeup, long hair, beards and more.
Ten years of feminist porn
Inspired by Suraya I started looking into porn by women and discovered that there's a long history, over a decade, of women making erotica and porn for women.
Anna Span was the first English woman to launch her own successful porn brand 14 years ago, following in the footsteps of Candida Royalle and Annie Sprinkle in the US. In Europe Petra Joy, Jennifer Lyon Bell and Erika Lust were leading the way around the same time, alongside Louise Lush AKA Ms Naughty in Australia. Very few of these feminist pornographers make kinky or fetish porn you won't see many themes of domination, submission, pain play, helplessness and control, or fetish clothing in films by these directors. Instead the focus is on enthusiastic consent, genuine sexual chemistry, and acts which won't be perceived as degrading towards women.
Some feminist pornographers however have branched out into BDSM and fetishism, such as French director Maria Beatty, whose titles include "The Elegant Spanking". More recently, there have been an increasing number of female directors in the US making overtly kinky feminist porn, including Courtney Trouble (who runs QueerPorn.tv, and Indie Porn Revolution, Shine Louise Houston with her innovative Crash Pad Series, Madison Young who has her own network of queer feminist porn sites, Kelly Shibari and Tristan Taormino.
In the UK the situation is a little different. Several spanking sites are run by male/female partnerships in which the woman taking a leading creative role, such a Lucy McLean Northern Spanking, who writes, directs and edits many of their films. Likewise Sarah Bright co-owns Spanking Sarah with her partner, and writes most of her own scenarios. I learned that Fetish Eyes is run by a couple when I met them recently. But there still aren't many female porn directors in the UK working solo, particularly not the in fetish industry.
However, technology has facilitated adult performers becoming producers in their own right, and many models now work for themselves alongside other work, creating and selling their own content on DIY sites like Adultwork or Clips4sale. Myself and Nimue Allen have both followed this performer-to-producer route, and increasing numbers of female erotic performers are empowering themselves by doing the same.
In Part 2 I'll look more closely at fetish pornography, and to what extent kinky porn is geared towards a female gaze.