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Adult film actresses Gina Valentina, Jillian Janson and Elsa Jean, at the 2018 Adult Video News Awards, Las Vegas (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

How it was for her – women’s desire in porn

By
Essay
Pro-porn feminists have argued that women should be free to explore their sexuality, while others condemn pornography as the 'perfect propaganda piece for patriarchy'. Whatever the intellectual arguments, how is the explosion of online pornography affecting women today?

The physical demands of the porn industry are impossible to understand by those not working in it. To know better, I consult a porn actress I met a couple of years earlier when I was working on a piece about alternative porn. She works freelance. I ask her about how she prepares her body for a shoot. A long shower, she says. She washes her hair and styles it, puts on her makeup. The sort that she would never wear otherwise. Then she shaves her body, either completely or leaving a slim inch wide track of hair on her pudenda depending on the role.

The actual shooting is gruelling, lasting most of the day as more innumerable scenes are shot and re-shot. I ask her if she is sore and she smiles back wearily and nods. Some of her scenes on this day are anal. I ask her if it hurts. She nods and explains that she often inserts a butt plug in her anus for a few days before a shoot, to dilate her anus enough, to avoid some of the pain.

But this is not the only hazard of her work. She tells me about the bruises and pulled muscles, vaginal and anal tears, as well as thrush and various other STDs. She regularly uses high grade pain killers to manage the discomfort of her scenes. It is no wonder that so many women working in the porn industry also use drink and drugs to cope with their profession.

Porn actresses, even the younger, fresher ones, are not paid huge amounts – anywhere from 300-1,500 USD a day. When you combine this with how short their lifespan as a performer will be, it is a truly precarious career. One that will often cause terrible rifts between family and friends. And when one realises how brutally women suffer working in porn, it seems incredibly strange that they are described as ‘porn stars’. As if their work in any way equates to the movie stars that guild the world of cinema. When in fact the status of porn actresses is the polar opposite of this; quite apart from the physical demands and the abuse, there are the psychological stresses. While male porn stars tend to be lauded by friends and acquaintances, female porn stars are still categorised as whores; women who sell themselves. It is no surprise that over the couple of weeks that I research and write this piece, a series of female porn stars have taken their own lives.


David Simon, the auteur of the television masterpiece, The Wire, has now bought us The Deuce, a series on the 1970’s sex industry in urban America. It is in homage to a particularly grimy and repellent section of Times Square on which pimps and whores did business, alongside the policeman and mobsters who also congregated there.

The Deuce beguiles the viewer, not only because television rarely explores the realities of porn but because it is a milieu which is largely unknown and often misunderstood. Alongside the ensemble of the many beautifully drawn characters are a series of street whores, some fresh off the bus, others already worn and tired. There is Thunder Thighs, whose epic body attracts its own particular fans, but more significantly there is Cathy, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who acts her part with sublime vulnerability. She is the one whore who bravely refuses to work for a pimp, a role that is partially influenced by the real-life porn pioneer, Candida Royale, who became something of an activist for women working in the industry.

Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Franco at the premiere of The Deuce, 2017, New York City (Photo by Jenny Anderson/WireImage)

These women and their stories are intertwined with that of the pimps, whose gaudy plumage signify not just their job but their own monetary success. These are men who seduce their girls between the bed sheets and terrorise them on the street. But despite their violence, the pimps too are victims; men whose race and lack of education make crime their only option, and who are pursued by the cops that are expected to police them, all the while negotiating the burgeoning mafia presence that is trying to snap up the real estate of the area.


My time spent with women involved in porn makes me think that the scenarios The Deuce exemplifies in its hounded whores pursued by razor yielding pimps are not scenes from the 1970s but that they still occur and exist, if to a lesser degree.

The world of paid sex has changed exponentially since I was young. Then, there wasn’t the same barrage of porn images, or such a great many people who now carry out their sex lives online. This may seem like an improvement. After all, women are no longer hanging around dangerous street corners to the same extent. But is it? For some, perhaps it is. But do we really want our children’s first sexual experiences to be the violent, abusive images that dominate the internet?

According to the American College of Paediatrics, regular contact with porn in the home generates increased depression and anxiety. These children are more likely to start their own sexual activity earlier. They are likely to consider rape as not serious and other acts of violence. As they grow older, they are more likely to be promiscuous and to act out with risky sexual behaviour. Their parents are more likely to separate and divorce which has a knock-on effect to the stability of the wider family.

What is interesting is how little those of us watching internet porn know about the people who are working in the industry. Most of us are more concerned about the provenance of the food we eat – issues like factory farming, free range eggs – than we are about the ethics in evolved in the welfare of the ‘porn stars’ that we so blithely consume online.

Is it that we simply don’t know, or don’t care, that significant number of those working in the porn industry are themselves trafficked and abused. Indeed, it is impossible to know if the porn you are watching online is performed by those who are forced, or free. In fact, it is estimated that in the porn industry 12 to 14 percent of the people (largely women) working in the industry are trafficked. While others are in effect coerced by their ‘boyfriends’ or ‘managers’.

Women’s rights groups have argued that online porn images are often replicated on the bodies of bullied and beaten women who work in prostitution, the porn consumer longing to re-live the violence they have seen in online porn.


The Deuce is set specifically in the year, 1972, when the infamous movie, Deep Throat ushered in what many dubbed as the golden era of porn. Written and directed by Gerard Damiano, the film starred Linda Lovelace as a frustrated woman who is unable to orgasm, until a doctor realises that that her clitoris is located not in her vagina but in her throat.

Deep Throat was the first porno movie which featured anything like a plot, character development, and relatively high production values, and thus was screened in selected mainstream cinemas. The reviews described it as a new sexual dawn, and much of the Big Apple’s cognoscenti of the time went proudly to see it including, Jack Nicholson Frank Sinatra, and the writer Truman Capote. The film was so iconic in that era that during the Watergate scandal, the code word for the informer became “Deep Throat.”

But almost immediately after Deep Throat made its triumphant debut, the movie was overshadowed by the darkness of the real porn industry. Not least because Lovelace swiftly published her own biography entitled Ordeal, a behind the scenes expose in which she explained that she had been beaten, raped and pimped out by her husband, Chuck Traynor. Once again, the porn world was shown to be not a milieu of sexual liberation but of the terrible sexual exploitation of women.

In the same era that The Deuce was set, the feminist movement found itself divided over the porn industry.  Pro- porn feminists like Nancy Friday and Susie Bright argued that women should be able to explore and express their sexuality freely and without shame. On the other side, anti-porn feminists like Catherine McKinnon and Andrea Dworkin said that porn was inherently exploitative of women, reducing them to sex objects. Pro-porn feminists argued that women should be able to explore and express their sexuality, while anti porn feminists like Gail Dines wrote: said that ‘pornography is the perfect propaganda piece for patriarchy, in that nothing else expresses the hatred of women quite as clearly.’

Mark Wahlberg and Julianne Moore on set of the film, Boogie Nights (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

As a young feminist at the time, I initially resisted the anti-porn narrative and was somewhat beguiled by the idea that sex was not necessarily a danger for a woman but could instead be a potential medium for self-expression. But as time went on, I began to doubt my pro-porn position. Others in the feminist academy too were vacillating from one side to the other; a tug of war between porn and anti-porn combatants that continues to this day.

It was such a contentious debate that in 2008, a new journal called Porn Studies was published.  It was necessary, according to the academic, John Dugdale, because of the unwillingness of cultural studies experts to investigate the whole arena of pornography.

The journal caused a huge rift between academics and carried such titles as  ‘Revising Dirty Looks’ and ‘Porn and Participation’; and it explored whether porn was merely erotica or something altogether more pernicious. Soon, every stakeholder was involved in the porn debate, including the government and the tabloid newspapers. The issue was so contentions that even the then Prime Minister David Cameron felt that he needed to make an intervention about internet censorship.

In many ways, this should have been a significant moment for women and porn, but the complexities of the issue made it impossible. Feminists who felt that it was part of a woman’s right to watch and otherwise consume pornographic images were put off by the kind of images that were out there.

Other feminists argued that even if these were offensive, the significant issue of censorship, and the freedoms it curtailed, meant that accepting porn was the better of two evils. While the porn debate still rumbles on, it is no longer at the forefront of debates about feminism. But it has become a case of technology outpacing our ability to process our attitudes to it. It has become a global experience, the cost of which we will not really understand until our children are grown.


Humans have been enticed by erotic images from the dawn of time, whether carved in stone, drawn on paper, or imprinted on celluloid. Our parents’ generation’s titillation was found in magazines like Playboy, which created a new sexual chapter, with its nude pin-ups and its swinging’ sexual ethos. As well as much less palatable magazine’s like Hustler that were sold surreptitiously under the counter, by seedy little men, masturbating in the dark.

Who could have imagined that a mere generation or so later, the internet would change the game so explosively. That it would enable a whole world to consume sexual images, so vivid, so prurient, and so shocking that many of us could not have even imagined existed. And that today any boy or girl with a computer and a key board can access these images with a few strokes on a keyboard. All before many of them have had their first kiss.

So much of the debates about porn’s influence is contradictory. On the one hand it purports to provide greater sexual freedom and more pleasure for both men and women. On the other hand, many women feel as if they are competing with the women performing sex online and loose all sexual confidence. Some men, meanwhile, find that excessive online masturbation can foster sexual dysfunctions including premature ejaculation, or make their real sexual relationships dwindle. And for others, porn addiction completely destroys the desire for sex with their partners.

Some research has claimed that the porn industry brings in more money than Microsoft, Google, Apple and Yahoo combined. And yet there is very little research looking at the economic realities of porn. One of the major problems with porn is that it is hard to track how the money is made and with whom it ultimately settles, not least because its workers are so stigmatised and because many people and institutions really don’t want to admit that they are involved it what they feel is a dirty business.

Coming of age in the era that produced The Deuce, I am old enough to remember that we began our sex lives as a relative tabula rasa, in which our first images of sex were not from the internet. This sequence – of the physical act first, before the pornographic images – allowed us to create our own unique sexual imagery.

Now we have such a library of sexual images in our heads that we may as well be masturbating even when we are making love. Indeed, for more and more people, the vernacular of pornography is now embedded in our culture, our beds and heads. Pornography has profoundly affected the way men, women and children look at each other. And it has has a coarsening affect on us all.

Andrea Stuart’s latest book is ‘Sugar in the Blood’ (Portobello).