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Another week, another news story about women’s porn habits: this time, data released by Pornhub showing that last year searches of “porn for women” increased by 359%. Year on year, data shows that women constitute a greater proportion of web traffic to adult streaming platforms – and with each new revelation comes a flurry of opinion pieces anatomising the trend’s social significance.Hailed in some quarters as a sign of women’s empowerment and decried in others as women’s complicity in our own violent objectification, such discussions retrench political antagonisms between second-wave (or “radical”) feminists and their

third-wave (“sex positive”) counterparts. That’s before we even get to religious and conservative objections (undergirded by the delicious irony of Bible belt states driving America’s porn consumption).Female sex robots, feel free to replace us if you want to | Barbara Ellen Read moreI don’t much care for the agonised wrangling over the ethics of porn consumption. Oscillating between Mary Whitehouse and Messalina depending on my place in the hormonal carousel, I’d probably describe my own politics as “sex ambivalent”. In short, I don’t care what you do with your genitals as I’m barely invested in what’s going on with my own. What does interest me, however, is this consistent emphasis on the “unprecedented” nature of women accessing erotic material.Seemingly not a single contemporary piece on women’s porn access can refrain from framing it as an “inevitable” consequence of our “brave new post-Fifty Shades world”. Far be it from me to undersell the impact of mediocre prose on the world’s libido, but it’s worth pointing out that women were in possession of a sexuality before EL James deigned to bless us with one. Ladies’ Home Journal reported on the use of porn by suburban, respectable women back in 1996 (headlined “America Undercovers: What Even Nice Couples Are Doing in Bed”), and the history of erotic publishing, power and women’s sexuality goes back further still.The explosive popularity of “bodice rippers” (romance novels of the heaving-bosoms-and-fiery-loins sort) in the 1970s sat strangely alongside the militant feminist movements of the time: as observed by Jessica Luther, they reinforced restrictive and heteronormative gender roles, while simultaneously celebrating their heroine’s sexual desires and stimulating those of their readership. Yet even these works are part of a literary canon stretching back much further. The majority of women watch pornography alone, and two-thirds have never watched pornography with a partnerThe genre was able to flourish after obscenity laws preventing the circulation of older, explicit texts crumbled. The most famous example is of course DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (first published in 1928 privately, then openly and in paperback form after Penguin Books won a landmark trial in 1960), but of equal significance is the case of John Cleland’s Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure – considered the first pornographic novel in English, it was published in 1748 and circulated through underground networks before being published by Mayflower in 1963.It might seem odd to pivot to a discussion of 18th-century literature in an article about women’s consumption of hardcore pornography in the modern day, and I’m open to the interpretation 欲钱买马到成功猜一肖 that it’s just the result of my own deeply held prudishness. But returning to these texts shows us that women’s appetite for erotic material is nothing new, and what’s more, raises questions about how we categorise porn or erotica for women in the first place.It’s in the 18th century that we first find authors actively cultivating a female audience. Samuel Richardson, in correspondence t

o one of his most engaged readers, Lady Bradshaigh, was unapologetic: “My acquaintance lies chiefly among th

e ladies; I care not who knows it.” While Richardson’s works certainly lacked the explicit content (or gratuitous flagellation) found in Fanny Hill, both Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740) and the abominably long Clarissa; or, the History of a Young Lady (1748) concerned beautiful lower-cl

ass women in the service of aristocratic rakes, and always on the precipice of being dealt a ravishing. Both books were publishing sensations. Women could imagine themselves as the prone, desired heroine; or perhaps even more subversively, as the predatory and rapacious master of the house. Facebook Twitter Pinterest ‘We simply know the extent to which women are drawn to the material marketed to us’ Photograph: AlamyAt this point, it’s crucial to avoid making sweeping statements about the nature of women’s taste in erotic material. The much-vaunted Pornhub and xhamster studies can tell us about more women accessing their sites and an increase in searches of “porn for women”, but a key gap in the data is a breakdown of porn search terms by gender. We simply know the extent to which women are drawn t

o the material marketed to us, rather than say, gangbangs.However, a study conducted in 2015 by Marie Claire provides a crucial insight into women

’s viewing habits – the majority of women watch pornography alone, and two-thirds have never watched pornography with a partner. Photographer and film-maker Amanda de Cadenet argued that this finding demo

nstrates a use of porn to “cultivate one’s own sexual agency” – a game of experimentation and cross-identification that women have played since the 18th century.While “porn for women” tends to be set in a sun-drenched California condo rather than an English countryside manor, it’s notable how signifiers of social class play as key a role in erotic fantasy as actual sexual intercourse. From Clarissa, to Lady Chatterley, to Fifty Shades of Grey, we see sexual relationships across class divisions play out against backdrops of extravagant wealth. It comes as no surprise that in 2018 the mere thought of financial security is enough to compel one towards orgasm; but in the longer term it shows us the impossibility of looking at porn and sexual empowerment without also addressing the history of capitalism. Indeed, John Cleland wrote Fanny Hill while incarcerated in a debtor’s prison.David Simon: ‘If you’re not consuming porn, you’re still consuming its logic’ Read moreAs adult streaming platforms have dominated porn distribution, performers and production companies have seen a decreasing share of the revenue. An increasing number of would-be performers and a limited pool of available jobs disempowers workers negotiating a decent rate for their labour; furthermore, the high turnover of talent and irregular payment structures have led performers to call for greater transparency in the industry. Inequalities in the porn industry mirror those elsewhere in society: women of colour in porn are paid half to three-quarters of what their white counterparts make.It’s as misleading to separate discussions of sexual permissiveness from wider power structures as it is futile to blame porn for the continuation of said power structures. We might consume porn in private, in self-imposed digital silos, but it’s not produced in a vacuum. For these seemingly endless discussions of the emancipatory potential of porn to become much more than feminist navel-gazing, we need to lend our material support to those seeking to transform the industry itself.That means paying for porn, and seeking out production companies which pay their performers fairly. That means backing the International Entertainment Adult Union and other organising initiatives, which enable workers to collectively agitate for better conditions. That means believing and supporting women who blow the whistle on men’s abusive behaviour in the industry.Porn didn’t invent women’s desire or our exploitation, but a careful analysis of the history of erotic publishing shows us that it can play a powerful role in shaping both.? Ash Sarkar is a senior editor at Novara Media, and lectures in political theory at Anglia Ruskin University and the Sandberg Instituut

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