Porn's audience is increasingly female — and their gaze is changing how the industry looks.

Updated by Daniela Castro, Johanna Chisholm, Rheaa Rao and Samantha Lee on May 26, 2016
Artwork by W. Scott Forbes and Icons by Noun Project

While writing her thesis in college, Jill Tje, 24, would log on to Joymii.com, a porn website, for some stress relief.

“The videos seemed clean, there was good lighting, no one looks like they’re being abused,” she says. “And you could actually see the men’s faces, which is not usually the case in mainstream erotica.”

However, for her, watching porn – and admitting to it – still carries a hint of cultural stigma. “The most erotic thing about watching it,” she says, “is how illicit it is.”

Tje is part of a significant population of women who watch porn, and who express a complicated relationship with it. And their viewing preferences are increasingly shaping the way the porn industry looks.

According to data released by PornHub, one of the world’s most popular mainstream adult sites, 24 percent of its viewers in 2015 were women. With 60 million daily visitors to the site, that’s almost 15 million female consumers of porn, every day.

“There’s definitely an increase in female consumption of porn, because the taboos on the issue are changing,” says Rachael Liberman, a gender and sexuality in media researcher at the University of Denver. “We’re starting to see more women being interested in, and speaking about, what was typically a male-dominated area.”

"In lesbian porn, both actors seem to be in a more equal situation. And this is something that’s difficult to find in a heterosexual coupling in traditional porn."K., 32, from Uruguay

Indeed, the adult film industry has traditionally catered to a default straight male audience. Videos usually show a disembodied penis, with the rest of the male actor cut out of the frame, while the camera captures sex from a male perspective, writes Ms Naughty, a prominent Australian erotic filmmaker and sex educator. She calls this the “male gaze.”

Women – or their body parts – are only looked at; they don’t do the looking, she said. Male orgasm and pleasure is the goal.

Which is why K., 32, a student from Uruguay, prefers watching lesbian to traditional porn. (K. preferred to remain anonymous.) On PornHub, the category most viewed by women is “lesbian,” followed by “gay.”

“In lesbian scenes, both actors seem to be in a more equal situation,” K., who is female and identifies as straight, says. “And this is something that’s difficult to find in a heterosexual coupling in traditional porn.”

The Shifting Gaze

Erika Lust, an award-winning Swedish erotic film director, has made over 60 short films. In a short from her XConfessions series, which is inspired by anonymous confessions from the public, a woman lovingly puts makeup on a well-built man.

As both actors look into the mirror, the camera focuses on their movements and expressions. The lighting is warm, muted. They start to engage in sexual foreplay – the man is made to wear a dress and a wig, but both of them are laughing. They’re having fun.

“My films are about pleasurable sex,” says Lust. The underrepresentation of women – both in the industry and its content – leads to less female viewers, who don’t want to deal with cheap and chauvinistic porn, she says. “I want to break through this vicious cycle.”

Lust is part of a growing wave of pornographers working to change the industry from the inside out. Loosely dubbed “feminist pornographers,” they produce content that presents women as equal, consenting participators in sex, and honestly represents the range of female sexuality without simply catering to a straight male audience.

“I want to overcome the normative, men-dominated sex industry to help people get a positive mindset about sexuality,” says Lust.

Though still considered a niche market, feminist porn has increased its presence in the industry in the past 20 years: 22 such movies were produced between 1994 and 1999, while 261 were produced between 2012 and 2015. Within the same time period, the number of feminist pornographers jumped from five to 18. The Feminist Porn Awards, launched in 2006 by the owner of a Toronto-based sex shop, has expanded to include an annual Feminist Porn Conference.

"I think society is shifting towards a more mature view on visualised, realistic and creative erotica - so for sure the audience for alternative, feminist porn is getting bigger.""

“Yes, there is a worldwide network of female directors, and it’s growing all the time,” says Petra Joy, another filmmaker whose erotic short films have previously been honored at the awards. “I feel part of a massive wave of female erotic creativity that is gaining in momentum and strength.”

Feminist pornography also distinguishes itself by what goes on behind the scenes. Directors like Lust and Joy say they make it a point to ensure fair pay of — and ethical treatment of — their actors.

“It’s about treating everyone involved like human beings,” says Lust. “Being attentive to their needs, requests and emotions, providing a good working environment with good working conditions.” For Lust, consent between actors is paramount – “I don’t want to show anything that involves coercion,” she says.

Joy agrees. “I invite input from the performers, as it’s very much up to them what happens sexually,” she says. “It’s a very intimate way to work and can be quite daunting, so it’s important to make sure they’re comfortable.

And this ethical responsibility, in a sort of feedback loop, attracts more women to watch feminist porn.

In a study on feminist erotic content conducted by Liberman, the gender and sexuality researcher, she found that women in her focus group “displayed more confidence in feminist directors due to their ethical production practices.” The focus group members were also more willing to explore different types of sexual performance – such as BDSM, fetish or queer porn – when watching a feminist, rather than mainstream, film.

“Consumers detect and trust feminist production practices and content,” Liberman writes, “and are ultimately inspired to explore their sexuality through the pornographic medium.”

Rachael Grant, 26, a financial associate from New Brunswick, Canada, watches mainstream adult films casually, but reflects a desire similar to Liberman’s findings. “I’ve heard stories of atrocities and sexual assault,” she says. “If I could watch porn where I know actresses were treated with respect and dignity, I would watch that.”

A Fluid Exchange

The words “feminist” and “porn” are highly charged, laden with decades of historical and cultural baggage. Put the two together, and the final result is no less simple.

While the overarching philosophy behind feminist porn – ethical treatment of performers and a focus on authentic female pleasure – is agreed upon, the idea of what constitutes a “feminist” or a “female” is much more fluid.

Since the late Candida Royalle, considered by many to be the pioneer of feminist erotica, made the first movie that focused on heterosexual female pleasure in 1984, the industry has ballooned.

“Now we’re seeing a queer response, different body types, different practices. It’s no longer just the heterosexual woman’s point of view,” observes Liberman. “Feminist porn includes more included identities, more representations of race. It challenges more ideas.”

Today, the genre encompasses cis-women, transgender people, gays and lesbians, queer people, people of color, plus-sized people, engaging in BDSM, fetish, hardcore acts and more.

And that’s the point, say industry experts. Feminist erotic content exists to accommodate – and celebrate – the full, complex spectrum of female sexuality.

“There’s so many different kinds of feminists, and if all those feminists make their own porn they’re all going to look different,” says Annie Sprinkles, another pioneering sex educator and feminist pornographer who experimented with queer and transgender representations in her work in the 1990s.

Bren Ryder, creator of queer porn website Good Dyke Porn, says that her content is “a reflection of authentic sexuality.” Featuring all variations of the female gender, the website aims to show that sex is “diverse and natural.”

Not everyone is convinced that feminist porn is a positive addition to the industry. Vocal anti-pornography activists maintain that the new wave is merely a smokescreen for the real issue – that the industry and its productions are inimical to women in general.

“It’s a clever PR trick, is what it is,” says Gail Dines, professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College in Boston. “The industry overall is changing the way we perceive sex, femininity, masculinity and identity. It is entirely corrupt from the bottom up.”

But the feminist porn directors are aware that their content, at the end of the day, is entertainment. And, to put it delicately, they are not trying to shove a message down anyone’s throat.

“I don’t think porn is education – that’s like saying Hollywood films show us how to live,” says Sprinkles. “The fantasy of porn is entertainment.”

"There’s so many different kinds of feminists, and if all those feminists make their own porn they’re all going to look different."Annie Sprinkles, pioneering feminist pornographer

Courtney Trouble, an icon in the queer porn genre, creates work that celebrates queer female sexuality — including transgender women — to prove that women are as much deserving of satisfaction as men. Like Sprinkles, she’s not aiming to provide a concrete answer to female sexuality.

“I hope that when women watch my porn, they feel inspired to be sex positive and vocal, and excited,” she said in an interview with Liberman in 2012. “As for men, I hope that they take away personal notes on how to please women.”

Unfortunately, no data exists to indicate how many porn-watching women actually watch feminist content. According to Liberman, most feminist porn-watchers fall into the demographic of educated, liberal women living in urban areas.

“I want to underscore that feminist porn is not a perfect replacement for mainstream porn, or anything like that,” she says. But, she notes, feminist pornography creates a space where conversations can happen – about female sexuality, about ethical practices, about women’s pleasure.

“It invites a critical gaze.”

Women On Top was produced by Daniela Castro, Johanna Chisholm, Samantha Lee and Rheaa Rao for the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism's NYCity News Service, under the guidance of Miguel Paz.

You can see the code and data used here in the story´s Github repository.