Is there any point in making porn for women?

Perhaps if the choice weren't so limited, women would be a bit more interested.

Are men more visually aroused than women? There's a widespread assumption that menfolk are hard-wired to view women as sexual objects, and that, as more visual creatures, all it takes is a close-up picture of an arse to get their priapic blood pumping. Women, meanwhile, the theory goes, need intimacy, empathy, and romantic scenarios involving candles in order to get off. Studies show that women are less turned on by erotic images than men, which must be why so many of us are so indifferent to porn, right? RIGHT?

Well, maybe. Certainly scientific studies seem to confirm this. When men and women are presented with erotic images, the men's brains reportedly show higher levels of activity, leading scientists to conclude that they respond more to visual sexual stimulae. Yet when reading about these studies in the Mail or wherever, we're rarely told what exactly is in the pictures. It'll usually say something like "the participants viewed several types of sexual imagery for X amount of time", but what exactly they are watching is left up to our imaginations, and it could be anything. Except it probably isn't. It's probably something that is made for men.

It's fair to say, after all, that most of the pornography made is targeted at men, and that there is a massive reliance on the "money shot" - usually a close up of a massive, throbbing penis entering a bald and perfectly symmetrical vagina. Perhaps it's because of porn that some men imagine we'll be sent into raptures of ecstatic delight simply by receiving a picture message of their erect penis while we're sitting on the bus. Close-ups of genitalia don't tend to really do it for us - a poll of our Twitter followers found that the majority of women don't find the penis aesthetically pleasing in and of itself, and the same can probably be said for the vagina. If this is the kind of image that is shown to women participants in such studies then perhaps it's no surprise they're not getting all squirmy knickers in the lab. Or maybe the scientists devise their own amateur "woman porn", in which a variety of romantic narratives are acted out. According to something we were reading on the Psychology Today website, women are turned on by romance novels and something which is nauseatingly termed "the awakening of love" (and no, they don't mean a boner).

So leave the smutty stuff to the lads, ladies, because what really gets us going is a committed relationship with an Alpha male set against a narrative which facilitates emotionally imbued character development. Sexy.

If the assumption is that we get off on love, then this idea that women don't "get" porn isn't that surprising - it's rarely lauded for its ability to make searing insights into the depths of the human psyche. Other sciency-type people claim that women like to be able to project themselves into the situation, while men will simply objectify the actors. If this is indeed the case then it's no surprise that some women are left cold when trying to imagine themselves spontaneously orgasming because they love being ejaculated on that much. At least with books you can imagine that the characters are having a good time, rather than watching actors who are not.

Even if you're lucky enough to be watching a clip that features a face, the hollow look behind the eyes will often reveal that the orgasm is indeed fake. And yes, we can tell.

The argument that men get off on sexual imagery and that women get off on feelings is a convenient one because it essentially means that there's no point making porn with us as its target audience, and that the porn industry can thus continue trotting out the same bland scenarios in which pneumatic women are pounded mercilessly by alarming colossal phalluses or, failing that, a variety of household objects.

Maybe what we really need to do is make some porn in which the female participant is not subjugated and looks as though she really fancies the person she's shagging and is having a smashing time. We're not asking for plot and character complexity to rival Wuthering Heights, just something that's not quite as cock-centric as most porn. Once we do that perhaps the small but ever-increasing demand for better porn will grow.

Of course, there are some directors out there making "feminist porn" (a man and a woman meet at Planet Organic after a gender studies lecture, discuss intersectionality over vegetarian food, and then go back to her flat to bone on last Sunday's Observer), but the films they are making are but tiny fishing boats beating against a swelling tide of bumming on sofas from Argos. Maybe once there are more films showing shagging that is so mind-blowingly incredible that the woman actually comes, maybe even more than once, and in an actual living room that looks as though people live in it, maybe once that happens we can hand the footage over to some scientists and let them loose on some focus groups. The results may be surprising.
 

Perhaps if the choice wasn't so limited, women would be a bit more interested? Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.