Sexual desire in the digital leisure sphere: women’s consumption of sexually explicit material
Introduction Sexual desire in the digital leisure sphere is complicated for women. Technology has opened up a new leisure culture for female consumers of sexually explicit material (SEM) – such as pornography and erotica. New technologies, such as e-readers, chat rooms, blogs and websites open up space for a broad intersection of women to access, consume, produce and discuss SEM both online and in face-to-face communities (Parry and Penny Light, 2014). The increased diversity of women accessing SEM may be viewed as liberatory because the sexual practices and experiences they seek ‘are important parts of many people’s selfrecognition as sexual subjects’ (Albury, 2009: 650). Yet, SEM can also constrain women’s liberation by depicting patriarchal sex acts (Attwood, 2007). Even the newer ‘by women, for women’ (BWFW) genre of SEM tends to reproduce traditional paradigms of sexuality that reinforce harmful, heteronormative stereotypes of femininity and masculinity. Despite these representations, many women see their engagement with SEM as positive, enabling them to acknowledge, embrace and explore their ‘dark [digital] desires’ (Kipnis, 2007; James, 2011). The complexity surrounding women’s use of digital technology to consume SEM in their leisure time begs a feminist analysis. Thus, the purpose of our chapter is to critically examine women’s use of digital technology to consume SEM as a case study in the changing nature of leisure culture. Our chapter is based on in-depth, conversational interviews with 29 women that lasted 90 minutes on average. The interviews explored SEM and digital engagement across participants’ sexual histories and sexual practices, as well as their feelings/attitudes about sexual culture and sexual well-being. We recruited participants through Good for Her, which is a sexual workshop centre that seeks to empower women by celebrating their sexuality. Employing experienced and knowledgeable sex educators since 1997, Good for Her attracts a large and diverse group of women. This diversity was reflected in our group of participants who ranged in age from 21 to 54. They represented a wide variety of sexual identities including heterosexual, lesbian, pansexual, kinky, queer, fluid and bisexual. Many of the women were in committed relationships (married or common law), but others were single, divorced and/or dating. Most were
employed full time in a variety of careers, including the fashion industry, accountancy, education (both teachers and students), art, retail and service industries. Five of the participants were mothers. Most of the participants identified as Caucasians, but others self-identified as mixed race, West Indian, Sri Lankan or European. The education levels of participants ranged from some college courses through to completion of a Master’s degree. The household incomes of participants ranged from $20,000 to over a $100,000. Through a feminist lens, our findings reveal the complexities of women’s consumption of SEM due to the shifting cultural and digital contexts in which sexually explicit materials are made available to them in their leisure time. Our analysis considers both the positive and negative impacts of digital technologies upon women’s sexual health and well-being. In so doing, we explore how women’s use of digital technology to consume SEM is closing the ‘digital gap’ by recovering a sphere traditionally associated with the masculine for women (Puente, 2008: 435). Similarly, we examine how digital leisure cultures, including online SEM, impacts upon the pleasure gap that many feminists argue exists between men’s and women’s sexuality (Orenstein, 2000). Finally, we analyse digital leisure culture (through SEM) as a context for the simultaneous reproduction and resistance of gendered ideologies. Our chapter is guided by a cyberfeminist theoretical orientation. Cyberfeminism ‘refers to a range of theories, debates, and practices about the relationship between gender and digital culture’ (Daniels, 2009: 102). Resisting a monolithic, totalising vision, cyberfeminist research often includes critiques about equality in cyberspace, challenges to gender stereotypes, and examinations of the relationships between women and technology (Flanagan and Booth, 2002). While much literature on gender and technology has usefully documented ways in which technology can contribute to women’s oppression (Eble and Breault, 2002), cyberfeminism often emphasises the possibilities of technology to enhance women’s lives. Cyberfeminist perspectives recognise that women’s experiences with technology can facilitate worldwide networking and the creation of women’s own spaces of dialogue and action on the internet (Orgad, 2005). We begin by contextualising the impact of technology upon SEM production and consumption in contemporary culture.