the female gaze

What do women really want from porn? These filmmakers are trying to find out

Elena Scotti/FUSION

Surf over to any popular porn site, and it’s clear that pornography is still made for men. PornHub’s list of porn stars almost exclusively features women; preview thumbnails display female bodies in various poses and states of undress, with men mostly visible in the form of their penises. At times the male gaze seems fundamental to the medium: The “POV” in POV porn is, with rare exception, that of a man. Even when porn eroticizes women’s agency–as in fetish porn celebrating female domination–the focus is much more about how hot powerful women are than on what, exactly, turns on those powerful women.

It’s not hard to figure out why male desire dominates the adult industry: The porn business is, at the end of the day, a business, and men make up the vast majority of porn consumers. In their 2015 year in review, Pornhub estimated that 76% of their users are men. While other data have put the percentage of female porn views a bit higher, at one out of three, it’s clear that men are the ones driving the economic engine of skin flicks. A burger joint won’t go out of its way to cater to vegetarians, and in the eyes of many pornographers, the cost-benefit analysis on aggressively shifting their strategy just doesn’t make much sense.

But there’s a bit of chicken-or-egg to this logic: Pornographers target and attract a predominantly male audience, and point to the results as proof that women just don’t like porn that much.

Over the years, many women have challenged the notion of porn as a men’s-only medium. Eighties-era pro-porn feminists like Annie Sprinkle and Candida Royalle mapped out their own visions of female-focused pleasure; more recently, feminist directors like Tristan Taormino, Shine Louise Houston, Dana Vespoli, and Petra Joy have offered their own takes on what “porn for women” looks like.

Most “porn for women” has remained relatively niche, catering to a fringe audience rather than taking center stage at the AVN Awards.

But—in part due to the funding concerns that plague female filmmakers of any genre—much of this work has remained relatively niche, catering to a fringe audience rather than taking center stage at the AVN Awards. And, as in Hollywood, when mainstream companies have attempted to cater to female viewers, they tend to resort to stereotypes, treating women as a specific, homogenous niche. “Couples’ porn” (i.e. porn women watch with male partners) tends to exemplify this erroneous idea of “what women want”: there’s soft lighting and soap opera style story lines and, of course, absolutely no facials.

In a world where men are offered a staggering variety of sexual fantasies, fetishes, and configurations, it’s strange to see women treated as a unified group with a limited number of interests. But as long as female filmmakers are held back by the costs of making their visions into a reality, it’s hard for them to challenge the status quo. The Barcelona-based Erika Lust has a plan to combat these forces: an open call to finance and produce the work of female erotic film directors.

“The idea that women need roses to get aroused or that female directors only shoot super soft sex is absurd.”

- Erika Lust

For Lust, the open call is partly a gender justice initiative–when I asked what female porn directors bring to the genre, she responded, “What do female politicians bring to the world, and female writers, and female CEOs? Everything!” The other part is a mission to transform and diversify porn. “The female gaze is necessary for an equal society, for the benefit of all genders and sexualities,” she says, adding that if pornography is going to shape our ideas of sexual pleasure and intimacy, it’d be useful to have more than one gender’s perspective.

Lust has four core values that must be represented in all her productions: a recognition that women’s pleasure matters; an emphasis on creating quality cinema; an attempt to increase the diversity of body types, ages, and races depicted in erotic film; and ethical treatment of everyone involved in the production process. But beyond that, she’s open to funding many different types of films. “Fantasies and sexuality are definitely not defined by gender,” she tells me. “The idea that women need roses to get aroused or that female directors only shoot super soft sex is absurd.”

Lust isn’t the only pornographer hoping to expand the notion of what, exactly, “porn for women” might entail. WankzVR, a virtual reality porn company specializing in immersive POV porn, recently expanded their catalogue to include a section called FemalePOV. The section offers viewers access to heterosexual porn scenes shot from (you guessed it) the female point of view.

The WankzVR production team bears a bit more resemblance to the standard porn set than Erika Lust’s–while 90% of Lust’s crew is female, WankzVR films are directed by men, with just two women acting as PAs. But they’re still invested in crafting a product that genuinely reflects the desires and needs of their female users. So far, the FemalePOV flicks are available for free; WankzVR doesn’t plan on charging for them until they’re confident they’ve created a product worth paying for).

WankzVR attempts to shoot these scenes in a way that makes viewers feel in control, even as they’re watching a predetermined sex scene play out before them.

While Lust’s project is driven by the visions of female directors, WankzVR’s female perspective has come from the women already in their userbase, who’ve shared their thoughts and feelings on what they find appealing in immersive, POV porn. What the WankzVR team has found isn’t all that different from something you might hear from Lust. What women want from Wankz isn’t a softer version of what’s provided through the male POV, or more kissing and less anal: They want flicks that give them a sense of control over the action, a feeling that they’re the ones deciding what happens, the ones calling the shots for a change.

It’s a challenging thing to pull off, given that interactivity doesn’t always work well in immersive media formats. But WankzVR attempts to shoot these scenes in a way that makes viewers feel in control, even as they’re watching a predetermined sex scene play out before them. In “Sunday Morning,” a celebration of kicking off a weekend morning with a bang, the female performer takes an active role in her pleasure, guiding co-star Chad Alva’s head with her hands as he eats her out. In “Sharing is Caring,” a threesome scene that’s the most popular of the three FemalePOV vids, the viewer’s stand-in energetically rubs her clitoris while she’s getting railed, a lovely nod both to female sexual agency and the importance of clitoral stimulation.

As Bradley Phillips, WankzVR’s Managing Director, tells me, in the FemalePOV videos “there’s a lot of emphasis on the female performer [controlling] the pace of the action, and interacting with male talent,” rather than merely lying back and letting the scene play out. In many ways, it’s a fitting analogy for what women have wanted out of porn all along: a chance to dictate the shape of our sexual fantasies, rather than just accepting what’s provided by men.

It remains to be seen whether Lust and WankzVR will inspire a new group of women to watch porn, or if their efforts will just create better products for the ones already into smut. Either way, treating women’s voices, perspectives, and sexual desires with the attention men’s have always gotten can only serve to improve the porn industry. After all, as Lust reminds me, even men “need a cinema where they aren’t constantly being told that being a man or masculine consists of what they are shown in mainstream porn.”

Story Tags