"the immediate problem ... of how to represent women's desire visually" [more questions about porn]

So I'm working my way through some of the classics of scholarly treatments of film pornography, most recently Linda Williams' Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the 'Frenzy of the Visible' (University of California Press, 1989). It's a book that in many respects has aged well, despite its heavy reliance on both Marxist and Freudian frameworks for discussing "fetishism," commodification, sexual pleasure, and power dynamics. Williams pushes back fairly forcefully against anti-porn feminism, and -- while at times too quick to concede that such-and-such plot or scene is misogynist -- insists on complicating the assumption that mainstream, heterosexual "hard core" porn is de facto male-centric and anti-female pleasure.


(You knew there was one.)

However, she keeps circling around this notion that one of the traps of cinematic pornography is that they have to depict pleasure on the screen (no argument there), and that male pleasure is easy to depict -- via penetration ("the meat shot") and/or ejaculation ("the money shot") -- while female pleasure is difficult (impossible even?) to successfully show on film. At one point toward the end of the book she writes that feminist pornographers, however much they may desire to revise the genre, are still confronted with "the immediate problem ... of how to represent women's desire visually."

I guess I just don't get the problem here.

Like ... turn on the camera. Train said camera on a masturbating woman who, let's imagine, gets off on the idea of the camera's "gaze" as she's climbing toward orgasm. Maybe, if you wanna get fancy you could use multiple cameras so as to ensure you get some close-ups of her face, or the curve of her spine as she arches, or the cant of her hips as she pushes her fingers into herself...

It's just ... not. That. Difficult.

I read my wife's desire and pleasure visually on a fairly regular basis and -- while, granted, we augment the visual with verbal cues and shared history -- my visual processing in this regard has a pretty damn high success rate in that my visual perceptions of her enjoyment has a high degree of correlation with her own reports of what gets her off, when.

You read a body in ecstasy just like you read a body in anger or pain: through minute facial expressions, gestures, the set of the shoulders, the angle of limbs. You read a person's willingness for partnered sex through all of the ways they physically express connectedness (or lack thereof) to the other person(s) en scene.

We don't panic (film people, correct me if I'm wrong here!) over OMG how are we ever going to represent anger visually in this film!?

Why oh why is sex supposedly so freakin' different -- women's sexuality specifically in this instance -- that it's a "problem" to capture on film?

(via, very nsfw)
(I'd argue male sexuality, also, is far from "simple" to represent through the visual tropes of erection, penetration, and ejaculation, but that's maybe a post in its own right.)

What I suspect is that this assumption that women's desire and sexual pleasure is a problem, cinematically speaking, comes from the pervasive belief in contemporary culture that women's sexuality is mysterious and difficult to understand (while men's is basically self-evident; again, an assumption that deserves unpacking). If women's sexuality is this crazy mysterious thing that we don't understand and that men find epically confusing, how are we ever supposed to imagine it visually on screen? A mystery is, by definition, something which can never be fully revealed unless it is solved.

Which is why, as Williams suggests, women's sexuality in modern hard core porn, is often "solved" through gimmicks that render it somehow more visible, or displace it by letting male pleasure cues stand in for everyone's sexual satisfaction in the scene.

I'm not as convinced as Williams is that all mainstream pornography is stymied by visualizing women's pleasure. I think, at times, that Williams is too quick to assume -- at least in this early work -- that proof of desire requires, for example, genitals which can demonstrate arousal and climax on-screen.

And I'm pretty sure there are a lot of pornographers, feminist, female, and otherwise, who'd be surprised to learn that women were such difficult creatures to capture on screen. I wonder: would that make us some sort of weird supernatural being of sex? Try to capture visual evidence of our pleasure and we'd vanish from the silver nitrate on the film (or the binary of the pixels on the image card)?


  1. One of the things I like about my TV show of the moment, Lost Girl, is the way it doesn't treat female sexuality and arousal as inherently mysterious and difficult-to-potray.

    For those who don't know, the show centers around a female succubus, Bo, who can read, and is aroused by, people's sexual energy/auras/arousal. I wouldn't call the show pornographic, but we do know that the character is aroused mostly by the way the actors behaves in interactions with people she's attracted to- via such cues as fidgeting, increased respiration, prolonged eye contact with her "targets."

    I'd guestimate that Bo spends about 50% of her on-screen time being sexually aroused. It seems to kind of be her nature, even if she's not always acting on it.

    Although.... this character is technically a supernatural being, the human women she hooks up with also seem to be rather enjoying themselves as well.

    1. The more you talk about Lost Girl, the more I realize it definitely belongs on our "to watch" list :)! Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. Riffing on your observations, I think it's particularly interesting that the assumption is that women's desire/pleasure is difficult to portray IN PORN while in other contexts, we're full of opinions about how women use their bodies to communicate sexual interest and sexual pleasure. Why would those supposed skills evaporate in the genre of porn?