Monday, September 8, 2003

Michelle Quinn

Ladies who like it

Porn loses stigma for women as mores change and erotica caters to their tastes

Alone at home at the end of a hard day, a woman takes a moment from her endless responsibilities to savor a moment of peace and quiet.

And pops in a porn video.

Thanks to the Internet, mail-order video and DVD rental outlets, plus a general shift in sexual mores, a small but growing number of women are turning up the heat in their sex lives by turning to erotica and pornography.

Adult video and toy stores are catering to women with clean, well-lighted places to peruse sexual material and products geared for their enjoyment. Books such as "The Ultimate Guide to Adult Videos," to be released in October by Cleis Press, are aimed at pornography neophytes, especially women, says Chris Fox, publicity coordinator at Cleis. "People don't think of women as porn consumers."

And why should they? For many, women buying and watching pornography is still taboo and explodes myths about women's sexuality: that women aren't visually stimulated. That women prefer bodice-ripper romance novels to explicit videos and pornographic photos. That women feel it's immoral or anti-feminist to buy and watch pornography.

Psychologists, sex researchers and those who sell pornography say women's interest in pornography has been spurred by changes in contemporary culture, from the privacy afforded by the Internet to the trendiness of sex in TV's "Sex and the City" and other mainstream entertainment.

"Women are more comfortable about sexuality," says Lonnie Barbach, psychologist and author of many books, including the 1975 how-to-become- orgasmic classic "For Yourself." "Every year, the culture gets more open."

Harrison Voight, clinical psychologist and professor of human sexuality at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, agrees.

"Women historically have had the strongest restraints and constraints taught to them by the culture," Voight says. "Women had to be in love all the time, to disdain sex for the sake of sex. Now women are getting close to a male style of sexuality."

No one agrees about the definitions, but erotica is most often described as soft pornography and tends to include male and/or female nudity with simulated or soft-focus sex. Pornography is generally defined as depicting graphic sex with little attention to the back story. "Pornography is really hard core," Voight says. "Many critics argue that it more clearly objectifies women as sex objects. Erotica is designed to be a vivid portrayal of sexual activity, but the sex is not portrayed in a way that objectifies people."

However, others use the terms "erotica" and "porn" interchangeably. They say the differences between the two are non-existent. Erotica may just have nicer furniture than pornographic videos.

Hot Stuff, a sex supplies and video store in Santa Clara, tries to make women feel comfortable with open blinds, top-40 music and a women-only sales staff. Female customers stop in at lunch or after work to plan bachelorette parties, check out the accessories such as boas and buy videos. The most popular videos, says saleswoman Kristina Gomez, are ones that tell stories.

Two women shopping together recently at Hot Stuff for lingerie giggled at the store's toys and sexually explicit greeting cards.

One, a 42-year-old from San Jose, says she began to watch pornography to indulge her husband. At first, it made her feel squeamish, she said. "I could never do that in front of a camera," she adds. But now she will watch it alone.

Another customer at Hot Stuff shopping for high-heeled shoes says she too was drawn into watching pornography by her boyfriend.

The Santa Clara woman, 46 and currently laid off from her technology sales job, says she watches videos alone at her boyfriend's house. But not at home — where her grown kids live with her. "I don't want to get busted," she says. "They are probably OK with it, but not for Mom."

The couple watches a range of pornography including stories with bondage, she says, "but nothing too twisted."

"I like classic porn." she says. "I like a story."

"Context" is what women want, says Carol Queen, staff "sexologist" at Good Vibrations, a cooperative of stores in San Francisco that sells sex toys, books and videos. "They want to know why are these two people or five people or 15 people having sex right now?"

For years, lesbian customers have been a pornography niche market. Now, straight, suburban females may represent a new market to retailers like Good Vibrations, which last year launched a national advertising campaign in mainstream magazines such as Ladies' Home Journal, Cosmopolitan, Us and Marie Claire.

Since then, mail-order and online business has increased 10 percent, says marketing manager Thomas Roche.

"There is an untapped market of women who won't go to video stores," says Anh Tran, who runs, an online service for ordering adult DVDs. "Reaching out and getting that market is where the real money is to be made."

And what do women buy and watch? According to Roche, it's difficult to generalize, but women tend to like videos that focus on "natural-looking" women (those without breast implants). Women like to see women, not just men, enjoying sex. And female viewers like a positive attitude about women and sex.

Among female customers, top-selling videos are ones with strong female actors or with female directors. Some actresses have turned to directing, such as Veronica Hart, Candida Royalle and Chloe.

Of course, the debate over whether pornography is good or bad extends to women. Many therapists say they see no harm for either sex as long as it doesn't become a compulsion. Some raise questions with women about porno consumption as they would with men: Is it a way to escape? Is it about power? Or anger?

Others object to any pornography being available. "I would vigorously dispute that this stuff is beneficial to women," says Patrick McGrath, director of media relations at Morality in Media Inc., a New York-based organization that works to get federal and state obscenity statutes enforced. He said the pornography industry produces work that often portrays women in an offensive or degrading light. "I would question the efficacy of this material."

Violet Blue, author of the upcoming "The Ultimate Guide to Adult Videos," agrees that the pornography industry has a lengthy record of making movies that denigrate women. "A lot of women have seen something that has turned them off," she says.

It's possible to avoid the offensive, Blue says, by finding out which movies are directed by women or have actors who have refused to be in movies with sexist stereotypes.

In the past five years, the number of female directors of pornographic video and film has increased from a handful to 30, compared to about 200 male porn directors.

Jewel De'Nyle, 27, is one of the newest pornography directors, aiming for a wider market. A porn star too, she runs Platinum X Pictures, which makes some films targeted for women. Her No. 1 seller is "Dirty Girls." "Guys enjoy it, lesbians enjoy it and straight married people enjoy it."

Contact Michelle Quinn at or (408) 920-5749.

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Created: November 29, 2003
Last modified: January 14, 2004
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