That's the question that Violet Blue attempts to answer (with good humor) in, of all publications, O Magazine... and she's not buying the common explanation that it's because women's fantasies are romantic instead of raunchy.
First off, Blue admits that a lot of porn is just really bad, as in: too lame, too campy or too cheesy. She says:
For me, the real problem with most porn is its hokeyness — the ridiculous costumes, the awful cinematography, the ludicrous story lines, the terrible acting (not to mention how scary the close-ups sometimes look, how fake the boobs are, how some starlets really sound like injured animals...).
Though, for some people, those things aren't a turn-off, for plenty of people, they probably are.
Blue also says that some people compare themselves unfavorably to the porn stars on-screen.
And yet in my research and experience, the biggest roadblock for women (and men) to enjoying explicit imagery is the fear that they don't "stack up" to the bodies and abilities of the people onscreen. Erotic models and actresses bring up a whole range of adequacy issues, from breast size to weight, from what you look like "down there" to the adult acne we all periodically fight.
Many of us recognize that seeing images of thin models and actresses can make us more insecure about our own bodies. But with pornography, which involves explicit, sexual nudity of women often surgically enhanced to fulfill some unattainable ideal of female attractiveness - and participating in the portrayal of an act that many women have issues with already - personal discomfort can be taken to a whole other level. Pornography plays into the false idea that to be sexually attractive to men, or good in bed, there are certain things women have to do, be, look like, act like or enjoy, whether or not we actually can, are, look like, act like or enjoy those things.
Blue also takes note (although not by name) of Canadian scientist Meredith Chivers' research showing that women exhibit physical arousal by sexual imagery even when they consciously report not feeling it. From this research, Blue draws a relatively logical conclusion.
But that's the hitch: Even when our bodies respond to what we're seeing, not every woman feels empowered to enjoy the show. For years we've been told that we won't — or shouldn't — be turned on by porn, end of story, sleep tight.
The message has come from all sides — from conservative Christian organizations ("Traditionally, women are far more likely to engage in wistful, romantic fantasies than crude scenes of people engaging in sexual acts," Kathy Gallagher, cofounder of Pure Life Ministries, has written) to the radical feminist Catharine MacKinnon (who says porn exploits and discriminates against women, and encourages rape).
When everyone tells you that what you might be curious about, or even secretly like, is wrong, bad, sleazy, and shameful, you don't have to cast a line very far to land a set of inhibitions.
While not exactly the conclusion Chivers draws from her research (though reporting bias undoubtedly plays a role), there's little doubt that the social messages one gets about porn would influence our desire to watch it, or inhibit our ability to enjoy it.
Blue also acknowledges those feminists among us who worry about issues of objectification, sexualization and exploitation.
I've also heard, plenty of times, that porn degrades women. That argument always makes me wonder about gay male porn, which lots of women appreciate for all its hunky hotties in flagrante. If heterosexual porn degrades women, does gay porn degrade men? What about porn made by women — is that degrading, too?
I think here, actually, many anti-porn feminists would say yes, in fact, porn in general is degrading to women because the actresses allow themselves to be objectified. Speaking for myself, I have difficulty with these arguments because, as Blue implies, it denies agency to the (female) performers and judges their actions based on how other people view them. If porn performers are exhibitionists and enjoying performing sex acts for the benefit of others because they enjoy being seen, then I'm hard pressed to say they're degrading themselves. If the problem is with the way our society views women's bodies, then eliminating porn and sex work won't change that (and, frankly, with exhibitionists and voyeurs in the world, changing the kyriarchy won't eliminate the existence of pornography as much as change its structure).
Blue says that women should view porn as just another sex toy in their arsenal — a visual vibrator, so to speak.
Explicit sexual imagery is an aphrodisiac; it sends a direct current buzzing from our brains to our groins. Like a reliable vibrator, it can be a great tool. With porn, women like me get to experiment with making adult choices and trying on new fantasy ideas, just as we might try a different brand of condom for a change.
She recommends utilizing porn made specifically by or for women, in settings that respect performers' boundaries and make use of people of varying (and non-surgically-designed) body types — which certainly requires more research than surfing porn sites when you're horny normally entails.
Are More Women OK With Watching Porn? [O Magazine]
Related: Word of the Day: Kyriarchy [Feminist Philosophers]