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Women and Sexuality in Media: a Liberal Feminist Perspective Within an Historical Framework on the Commodification of Orgasm and Pleasure Based on the Documentary “the Price of Pleasure”

By queenemily Nov 09, 2011 1862 Words
“The Price of Pleasure” is a strong critique of one of America’s largest revenue producing industries, grossing somewhere between ten to fourteen billion dollars annually; pornography. The documentary walks viewers through the industry’s overarching patriarchal themes, its profit motivations and its effects on women’s sexual identity and mental health. It demonstrates clearly, how the intersection of capitalism and patriarchy, in the form of pornography, require a commodification of women’s bodies and women’s experiences of their own sexuality. Even though there are niche pornography markets that cater toward minority groups within the patriarchal system such as women, the majority of pornography, as much as seventy percent according to the documentary, is produced for consumption by a white male audience. It communicates to women that they are obligated to have sex, that their bodies are male property and intended for male pleasure. Because patriarchal norms reinforce women as sex objects as opposed to fully realized humans with their own unique sexual needs, as a whole women’s experience of orgasm and pleasure in sex is diminished, and this leads to male-female orgasm disparity in intercourse. From a Liberal Feminist perspective, which emphasizes that “given equal environments and opportunities, males and females will behave similarly” (Crawford, 2012, p.9) porn should be marketed to both men and women equally. Currently, porn is marketed to heterosexual men seventy percent of the time. The remaining thirty percent is divided among non heterosexual men, women, and transgendered people. This is a power imbalance reflective of women’s sexual needs being prioritized below men’s needs. Some may argue that women are less visually stimulated than men, and thus have less desire to view porn. However, in a Master’s and Johnson study, 71 percent of men and 72 percent of women used fantasy to enhance sexual arousal (Masters, Johnson, & Kolodny, 1986, p.281). Sex fantasies are imagined visual stimuli. It logically follows then, that pornography can excite women just as equally as men, if the pornography depicts something they find exciting. The question then, is what defines women’s experiences of pleasure? Orgasm, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is an “intense or paroxysmal excitement; especially: an explosive discharge of neuromuscular tensions at the height of sexual arousal “(Orgasm, 2011). Pleasure in comparison, according to the American Heritage Dictionary (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1983), is defined as “enjoyment; satisfaction” and “one’s preference, wish or choice”. Women’s orgasm and pleasure are appropriated by patriarchy in our culture and have long been so. In fact, they are appropriated to such an extent, that the concept of “female orgasm” is relatively new. The word orgasm was not in widespread use until 1973 (Orgasm, 2011). In early industrial America, it was believed that women lacked sexual desires of any sort. Women were taught to obtain pleasure through gendered behaviors such as raising children, maintaining a peaceful, refuge-like home for their husbands, feeding their ephemeral, spiritual nature through religious study and worship, and remaining chaste. The Cult of True Womanhood, as these concepts came to be identified, emphasized Piety, Purity, Domesticity and Motherhood as the only socially valid, even the only ways women possibly could experience pleasure. (Dubois, 2008) These pleasures were entirely defined by the benefits they offered husbands, fathers and sons. It is important to note that even within these limited margins women did and always will resist the dominant culture, pushing for equality with men. As Foucault stated, “Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power” (1978). Foucault recognizes that in order to have awareness of the wrongs of a society and in order to critique or resist it, one must come into direct contact with the oppressor power structure, one must already have assimilated its edicts. In historical context, women resisted patriarchal dominance in order to claim their right to pleasures in very different ways in seventeenth and eighteenth century America than women do today. Because women were acknowledged to have higher spiritual sensitivities than men, and were considered more pious overall, a window of opportunity existed to claim a personal experience of satisfaction and intense excitement, within a religious framework that shares striking psychological and physiological similarities to experiences of orgasm and sexual pleasure described by modern women. The Shaker movement most vividly demonstrated this resistance, not only because of congregant’s ecstatic worship style, but also because the founder was a woman and because the religion encouraged a somewhat radical feminist perspective of separatism wherein men and women lived separately and adopted children rather than having sex. Through wild, often public communion with God, women could shake, cry out, faint and experience spiritual pleasures that raised the heart rate and produced a sweat (Dubois, 2008, p.148). These were typically unladylike behaviors, both being so visible in public and expressing an extreme of emotion, but because the Cult of Womanhood offered connection to a “higher” spiritual purpose, women could justify their experiences of pleasure with the argument that while disobedient to men, they were yet submissive to God. “Sex Positive” feminism offers to women today what religious ecstasy offered women of the past; a chance to claim ones right to self-expression in a realm where expression is valued primarily for what it meets of men’s needs. For women today who wish to resist patriarchal appropriations of their sexuality, little option is left but to accept a borderline hypersexual identity in hopes of asserting the idea that women want to dress or behave in overtly sexual ways for their own freedom of expression rather than as pleasure objects for men. “The Price of Pleasure” interviews one young female porn actress who expresses this idea. As she is swimming naked in a pool, with hair and makeup nicely done, she states that she chooses to make porn because she accepts her sexuality and is comfortable being on film. The implied message she communicates is that, if a woman is uncomfortable with her sexuality, then she will not make porn or will have a problem with porn. In order to prove her “comfort” with her sexuality she must make porn. The woman interviewed did not make porn for women. Her intention was to receive validation from a male audience for her sexuality. Thus, her “sexuality” as she refers to it, really refers to her belief that female sexuality functions to bring pleasure to men; it is still other-defined rather than self-defined.

The Patriarchal appropriation of women’s experiences of pleasure that we still see today in the porn industry is further reflected in current sex research. Looking only at research related to married, heterosexual couples the disparity in experiences of pleasure are transparent. Masters and Johnson report that “7 percent of twenty-four- to forty-four-year-old married men did not have orgasm in at least one-quarter of their coital experiences” (1986, p.327), while as many as fifty five percent of married women experienced coital orgasm with less frequency than the men or not at all. Compare this statistic to Kinsey’s research that reports women who masturbate experience orgasm 96 percent of the time and women with same sex partners experience orgasm at higher rates than women with male partners (Fisher, 1973, p.424-425). Why does a male sex partner have an anti-orgasmic influence on a woman’s sex life?

Physiological, psychological and societal factors are involved in this “heterosexual anti-orgasmic effect”. Heterosexual sex often involves penile-vaginal penetration. Not all, but many women find clitoral stimulation more arousing than vaginal stimulation. In a synopsis of research, Fisher found that almost thirty percent of women thought clitoral stimulation was much more arousing than vaginal stimulation (1973, p.297). Psychologically, many women find that simply allowing themselves to experience their own pleasure capacity brings them into conflict with hurtful gender stereotypes they may have assimilated into their own self identity. If a woman believes that sexual desires in a woman are wrong or shameful but acceptable for men, then she may inhibit herself from her full expression with a partner she fears judgment from. During private masturbation, a woman can hide her shame. No one is there to judge her. Finally, society’s portrayal of women in porn may have a huge impact on men’s expectations of their women partners. If a man is trained to believe that what women experience pleasure from is aggressive penetration of multiple orifices with very little to no foreplay accompanied by degrading language and behaviors, then he may have a much steeper learning curve when it comes time to discover what his partner really wants, and he may be socialized to find her desires boring.

In order to rewrite these sexual disparities and provide true images of women’s sexual needs and desires, a liberal feminist perspective calls for more open dialogue about what women experience as pleasurable. It is impossible to quantify or qualify what counts as pleasure and what “women want”. Each person is different, and even in the midst of orgasm a woman may or may not identify the experience as pleasurable. Dialog between partners and within our society is the best way to create greater space for women’s desires to be seen and heard. Shame and stigma must be removed in order to free intellectual and emotional space for these conversations to occur, and women must claim their right to enjoy sexual expression for the pleasure it brings them. As more porn for women audiences is created, women need to encourage their male partners to watch it with them so that men can see women being treated with respect and experiencing pleasure in ways they find fulfilling. Furthermore, regulations are needed to create greater balance within the porn industry itself. Similar to equal opportunity laws requiring minority representation in academic and employment situations, the porn industry should be required to create porn that meets women’s desires in equal quantity and quality to the porn they create for a heterosexual male audience. Porn is not going away, so the best option is to demand equal opportunity for expression and equal right to pleasure.

Crawford, M. (2012). Transformations: Women, gender & psychology. (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

DuBois, E. C., & Dumenil, L. (2009). Through women's eyes: An American history with documents. (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin's.

Fisher, S. (1973). The female orgasm: Psychology, physiology, fantasy. New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers.

Foucault, (1978). The history of sexuality: an introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. (Vol. 1, pp. 125-6). New York: Random House.

Masters, W. H., Johnson, V. E., & Kolodny, R. C. (1986). Masters and Johnson on sex and human loving. (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company.

Orgasm. In (2011). Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Incorporated. Retrieved from HYPERLINK ""

Pleasure. In (1983). Houghton Mifflin Company (Ed.), American Heritage Dictionary (second college ed. p. 526). New York, NY: Dell Publishing.

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