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‘They’re ordinary people, not Aliens from the Planet Sex!’: the mundane excitements of pornography for women

Abstract: Like art of the avant-garde, particular instances of pornography are claimed to do more than simply arouse: by offending bourgeois sensibilities they explode normative conceptions of sexuality. The focus on transgression tends to dismiss the thrills of ‘ordinary’ porn as inferior and in particular, for this paper, fails to address the experience of reading porn in the UK where legally available materials are characterized by their supposed uniformity and repetition. The attempt to distinguish between forms of pornography in terms of their ability to transgress social and sexual norms continues the obfuscation of actual use of sexually explicit materials. This paper deals with one woman’s relationship with the UK soft-core magazine For Women, illustrating the necessity to recognize the ways in which access to and use of this particular instance of ‘pornography for women’ is governed by the magazine’s construction of a form of ‘ordinary’ girlie-dom within its pages and by its appeal to women’s sexual experience as excitingly routine.
No Hard-Core Please! We’re British!

British porn magazines, produced within a climate of regulation ensuring self-censorship and circumspection, offer readers a mixture of coy sensuality and dirty jokes with few of the taboo busting potentials of the ‘filth’ supposedly available on foreign shores. Home-grown porn is characterized as so ordinary, so uniform that it is likened to that most ubiquitous of domestic aids, soap powder (Hardy, 1998: 52) and, like washing powder and other mass-produced commodities, suffers from a surfeit of contempt manifesting itself in characterizations of its users as equally homogenous and dull. But however much the products may appear alike on the shelves, this cannot be an indication of the ways they are used once removed from there.

I have researched the production and consumption of the UK’s only sexually explicit magazine for women (aptly enough entitled For Women), out of conviction that the motivations of porn readers are rarely examined and that often writings about pornography are more interested in the question ‘should pornography exist?’ than in the specifics of its textual formations and the relationships it offers to its readers. Although writers claim to be dealing with the concrete representational strategies of pornography, it is representation in the abstract, where theoretical assertion replaces investigation, description and analysis. American feminists and academics have been at the forefront of the pornography debates and have, quite properly (though with varying conclusions), taken the American experience as their focus.1 However appropriate these discussions might be in the American context, a significant problem arises when their definitions and understandings are imported wholesale to the UK case. As Thompson (1994) has indicated, the legally available products of the UK pornography market are no match for the materials on sale in the US. There, soft core encompasses depictions of actual sexual activity between two or more people and the term hard core is reserved for more minority pleasures or ‘perversions’ (1994:2). Discussions of ‘pornography’ tend to conflate the very real differences between types of material ­ this is not to suggest that the British case is less ‘awful’ than that abroad. Rather I wish to draw attention to the ways in which the construction of pornography as a ‘continuum’ fails to recognise how the content and forms of sexually explicit materials are shaped by specific cultural and legal constraints.

I cannot offer an overview here (definitive or otherwise), of the development of a legitimate pornography industry in the UK but where both the US and Europe have seen massive expansions into new technologies from film/video production through to internet sites, the UK market has remained largely reliant on top shelf magazines, video spin-offs and telephone chat-lines.2 Precisely because the laws governing the production and distribution of sexually explicit materials are so slippery and none of the agencies policing their provisions are willing or able to give precise guidelines to would-be producers, a culture of self-censorship has emerged in the UK. This has given rise to a peculiarly British kind of product most nearly approximating the cheesecake traditions of the 1950s rather than the extreme examples cited by Dworkin et al.

The ranks of British soft-core products were expanded in the early 1990s by a rash of magazines aimed at women. The reasons for the launch of five new titles in the space of three months are beyond the scope of this paper but clearly women were regarded as the next big thing for British porn.3 Accompanying their launch was a veritable ballyhoo in the press: ‘women don’t like porn, you can’t make a man look sexy, this is just men’s version of what women want, no matter how clever they try to be, these magazines will fail’ cried the pundits. The predictions were correct on one point: only one title survived the first year. Produced by Richard Desmond’s fantasy empire, Northern & Shell, For Women achieved a modicum of success ­ its first issues had to be reprinted to meet demand but sales fell month by month to the ignominious figure (in mainstream publishing terms) of 50,000 copies per issue.4 With its mixture of sexy stories, articles and nude male photosets, FW signalled its intentions to go beyond Cosmopolitan’s flirtations with explicitness by straddling two genres: the woman’s magazine and the sexually explicit. But with the drop in sales came cost-cutting ventures: fewer articles, cheaper paper, fewer pages and, inevitably, further reductions in circulation. One of its key difficulties was its designation by distributors and high street newsagents as ‘Pornography’, in other words, potentially offensive to casual browsers and children; this relegated the magazine to the top-shelf, an area traditionally off-limits to women consumers. Inadequate and ill-judged attempts were made to ‘tone down’ content5 so that the magazine could take its place among mainstream women’s publications; these failed and FW remained exiled. For Women continues today but this article is less concerned with its longevity than with the ways in which the magazine established a relationship with readers through its articulation of pleasurable sexual representations for ‘ordinary’ heterosexual women.

My analysis of FW examined its distribution and circulation as a ‘woman’s pornography’ and a ‘good read’. From the first issue, equality was a central theme ­ if men can look, so can women; if men can be aroused by sexually explicit materials, so can women. The utilisation of female emancipation in order to sell magazines may be characterised as little more than advertising-speak, nevertheless it one of the meanings circulating the magazine and, as such, formed part of its conditions of reception. In drawing on the notion of equality the magazine was attempting to carve out a space in which women could join in explicit sexual conversations: ‘We thought an intelligent, adventurous women’s magazine WITH, yes, pictures of naked men, was long overdue.’ (Spring Special, 1992: 2). The magazine intended to speak to, and for, women with a certain attitude to sex, this was a magazine for ‘intelligent, adventurous’ women who wanted ‘froth’ with their seriousness. Via articles, letters, fiction and general editorial, the magazine attempted a debunking of those who would seek to limit female sexuality to awareness of the dangers, problems and constraints of sexual intercourse. Such ‘protective’ elements were not, however, omitted from the magazine, they were a necessary element in the production of the boundaries demarcating the ‘female-ness’ of the magazine.

The right to be taken seriously as women’s porn was established through the acknowledgement of the ‘realities’ of women’s experiences of sex. Articles focused on ‘real’ women’s experiences of activities like anal sex, voyeurism, ‘tantric’ techniques and troilism. These were joined by a range of legitimising elements, for example, experts used to endorse the magazine’s claims to ‘know’ about sex both as problematic and as a territory for exploration. Early issues of the magazine featured extracts from already established erotic writers ­ Anais Nin, Alina Reyes etc, authors who belong to the ranks of (reclaimed) feminist writers. The use of celebrity women (and men) added an air of respectability and a sense of the magazine as up-to-date: FW was presented as at the heart of activity in popular culture, refusing to exist on the fringes as most porn has been condemned to do.

These textual elements speak to a female identity made possible by feminist activism and debates about the social and cultural construction of women and sexuality. Further, it is an identity which emerges from the political and theoretical challenges of the 1980s to the previous decade’s feminist politics. The ‘woman’ envisaged by FW could be described as ‘post-feminist’ in that she has moved beyond ‘the impulses and images’ (Brunsdon, 2000) of early feminism and is ‘permissive and even enthusiastic about consumption. Wearing lipstick is no longer wicked, and notions of identity have moved away from a rational/moral axis and are much more profoundly informed by ideas of performance, style and desire.’ (2000: 291) FW was not attempting a political definition of a particular collective identity, nor was it a backlash against the gains of feminist activism. The important point, as Brunsdon has noted, is that ‘the post-feminist woman has a different relation to femininity than either the pre-feminist or the feminist woman…she is neither trapped in femininity (pre-feminist), nor rejecting of it (feminist). She can use it.’ (2000: 292). That femininity is expressed in the magazine as a range of desires and expectations which cluster around ‘ordinariness’ and it is this element of the magazine I address here. Thus my analysis is somewhat unusual because I do not attempt to argue for the ‘extraordinary’ facets of porn and its use. It is my contention that the tendency to justify pornography by reference to its extremes, especially its transgressive potentials, prevents understanding the everyday nature of readers’ desires and expectations in their chosen sexually explicit materials. Before moving to my own discussion I need first to explain the difficulties inherent in assertions of pornography’s underlying radicalism.

Questioning Transgression

The debates about the true meanings and intentions of porn are well worn and it is not my intention to offer an account of those here, especially given the acrimony that has accompanied these arguments.6 Some commentators are so incensed by their response to porn that they call for the total banning of the object of their investigation. Others so excited by its potentials for exploding the rigor mortis of bourgeois values that readers of sexually explicit materials are valorised as true sexual revolutionaries. Alongside these opposing claims is a history of pornography perhaps most easily characterised as one of regulation and repression. Scholars of porn (Hunt, 1993; O’Toole, 1998; Kendrick, 1987; Thompson, 1994) have drawn attention to the ways in which politics and morality have been inseparable in the response to sexually explicit representations of women. ‘As new biological and moral standards for sexual difference evolved, pornography seemed to become even more exotic and dangerous. It had to be stamped out. Much … of our modern concern with pornography follows from that conviction.’ (Hunt, 1993: 45) This linking of morals and politics within historical accounts has tended to reaffirm the focus on pornography’s transgressive status. For moralists and traditionalists pornography transgresses against sanctioned sexuality whose ideal is loving, procreative and monogamous. Radical feminists have argued that porn’s transgressions have been against women through its incitements to sexual violence. Ironically, the sex value systems of moralists, traditionalists and radical feminists appear remarkably similar, especially where women are concerned. Within much anti-porn analysis, whether radical or traditional, conceptions of ‘normal’, ‘healthy’ female sexuality as passive and receptive are deeply embedded. Rubin (1993), in particular, has highlighted the ways in which ‘sexual value systems’ underpin all arguments regarding pornography and, drawing on Foucauldian insights, she observes that discursive conceptions of ‘normality’ and ‘healthy’ are especially mobilised in discussions of sexuality, establishing hierarchies of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sex enabling the construction of ‘appropriate’ sexual activity for men and women. For anti-censorship feminists, pornography is therefore understood as offering repudiation of and resistance to ‘appropriate’ sexuality. For example, Kipnis claims that Hustler transgresses bourgeois norms through its focus on

an unromanticised body ­ no vaselined lenses or soft focus… it’s a body, not a surface or a suntan: insistently material, defiantly vulgar, corporeal. In fact, the Hustler body is often a gaseous, fluid-emitting, embarrassing body, one continually defying the strictures of bourgeois manners and mores… Hustler’s favourite joke is someone accidentally defecating in church. (1992: 375)
Kipnis argues powerfully for Hustler’s address to its readers’ ‘blue-collar urge’ (1992: 391) which responds to ‘the strategic uses of nudity … as an offensive against the rich and powerful’ (1992: 387). Focussing on the political elements of the magazine she stresses the shifting relationships between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture and suggests that pornography is ‘a repository for those threatening, problematic materials and imagery banished from the culture at large.’ (1996: 94) Pornography is the return of the repressed ­ a ‘social service’ (1996: 12), a Rabelaisian assertion of the lower bodily stratum and its functions. Reading Hustler has status as an act of political resistance. In stressing the contradictory relationships of class irritation and disenfranchisement which drive readers’ sexual thrills, the irredeemably vulgar content of Hustler is isolated from its other elements and celebrated as the quintessential textual feature. But this returns us to hierarchical discriminations: inverse perhaps ­ Hustler comes out tops in the transgression stakes ­ leaving Playboy readers wallowing in the pap of upwardly mobile bourgeois mores.

The tendency to separate the ‘transgressive’ from the ‘ordinary’ is also a feature of Sontag’s famous essay ‘On Pornography’ in which certain kinds of pornography bordering on Art, such as Histoire d’O and the works of Bataille, are celebrated. Carter’s suggestion of the ‘moral pornographer’, a figure based loosely on de Sade, also argues for a pornography which transgresses the bourgeois boundaries of culture and offers a critique of sexuality with only a supposed secondary purpose of arousal.

When pornography abandons its quality of existential solitude and moves out of the kitsch area of timeless, placeless fantasy and into the real world, then it loses its function of safety valve. It begins to comment on real relations in the real world. Therefore, the more pornographic writing acquires the techniques of real literature, of real art, the more deeply subversive it is likely to be in that the more likely it is to affect the reader’s perceptions of the world. The text that had heretofore opened up creamily to him, in a dream, will gather itself together and harshly expel him into the anguish of actuality. (Carter, 1976: 17-19)
Uniting each of these is the assumption that ‘ordinary’ pornography is dull, repetitive and unable to move its readers beyond the immediate sexual satisfaction of masturbation. ‘Good’ pornography will make us think by unsettling us and it will use the techniques of the avant-garde in order to transgress the ‘tasteful’. As Wicke (1993) has shown, buried within the distinction transgressive/ordinary is the assumption that the mass media have a ‘stranglehold’ on real sexual desire and feeling: if only we could let it out. The delineation of transgressive pornography, the kind with value as a critique of social mores, against ordinary porn with little or no cultural value enables the elision of questions of content and refuses to deal with readers and their pleasures. Because these magazines are understood only in terms of their capacity for sexual arousal (in the vernacular as ‘one-hand mags’ – a description which references one particular mode of use), theorists have avoided thinking about the range of embodied practices also associated with viewing a pornographic magazine. The response envisaged wipes out the processes of acquiring the textual material, of the spatial and temporal enjoyment of it, the anticipatory pleasures of opening the magazine. It assumes that the intention in opening a porn magazine is to be aroused sexually and, that once aroused, the reader will want and attempt sexual release. Only academic, radical feminist or moralist viewers seem able to experience responses other than the ‘purely’ sexual: they can talk of their boredom! ‘Ordinary’ porn users are never disappointed, embarrassed, put off, worried or appalled.

A more productive analysis is provided by Jane Juffer’s study of sexually explicit materials for women in the US in which she argues that rather than stress women’s problems with, or subversive pleasures in, pornography, we should examine the conditions of their access to such material. Juffer suggests that the increased spending power enjoyed by women in the latter half of the twentieth century has had some influence on the production of pornography in that a ‘domesticated pornography’ has emerged which is clearly differentiated from demonised male porn through various marketing and distribution strategies. Her examination begins from two key observations. First, that arguments for and against pornography and its potentials for women, good or bad, fail to consider the mundane aspects of its use: the ways in which pornography is brought into the domestic sphere and becomes a part of everyday routines. And second, that an examination of the processes by which pornography has been ‘tamed’ or domesticated highlights its utilisation of a range of legitimising aesthetic judgements and criteria in order to facilitate women’s access to sexually explicit materials. Juffer’s position rejects the idea that pornography is a ‘coherent category of texts’ (1998: 28) in favour of analysis of pornography as a ‘field of regulated dispersion’ (1998: 28) acknowledging that ‘texts themselves are participants in setting the rules for access’ (1998: 24). The classification and marketing of certain texts as ‘erotica’ rather than ‘pornography’ has allowed those texts to enter the mainstream and become acceptable to a female audience: ‘it is precisely the erotica’s claims to aesthetic status in relation to subjectivity that legitimates it in a manner that guarantees accessibility in a very material way.’ (1998: 29) This status is claimed as an important marketing tool, delineating certain forms of sexually explicit materials as worthy of their place on the shelves of high street booksellers and, crucially, as palatable and justifiable texts for women’s consumption. This ‘women’s writing’ is established as different from the masturbatory impulses of men’s ‘pornography’, not in terms of explicitness, but in the balance between fantasy and everyday ‘realities’ which sufficiently confirms a sense of female ‘identity’ in sexual explorations for its female consumers. In other words, women’s erotica is constructed as authentically female and expressive of women’s true sexual selves in and through its claims to quality and its acknowledgement of the ‘ordinary’.

To the extent that Juffer recognises the constraints and conditions under which women gain access to sexually explicit materials her account is particularly suggestive; her conclusions about the nature of the pleasures and affirmations women obtain once they have access to such material are not, unfortunately, as insightful returning, as they do, to notions of ‘identification’ and ‘structuring’ of responses rather than an examination of the interactions and pleasures made available to women. Rather than seek to speculate and theorise from textual features I have interviewed women about their reading of For Women magazine. The difficulties of obtaining willing and communicative readers of porn may be imagined but I did succeed in speaking with sixteen readers over a four-year period (in fact, two women wrote to me regularly for that entire time!).7 These interviews and correspondence did not give me access to the definitive account of reading FW instead they emphasised that response to pornography is not undifferentiated. In fact, a proportion of my sixteen interviewees did not like For Women at all: this dislike does not alter my perspective on the magazine, for I have studied how, in the lives of a number of individuals, a magazine operates in and through sets of requirements, expectations and possibilities. Liking or disliking the magazine is then equally interesting. This focus has meant that I have avoided the delineation of responses to FW into good/transgressive and bad/bourgeois because such division fails to account for the ways in which women liked and/or disliked FW, favouring instead the celebration of the ‘transgressive’ reader against less ‘adventurous’ readers. That FW could be seen as transgressive is surely true ­ by speaking out about the practicalities and pleasures of ‘perverse’ sexual activities like anal, non-monogamous and multiple partnered sex, the magazine certainly undermines traditional sexual values. Indeed, some of its production team saw themselves as precisely attempting to debunk and demystify certain ‘repressed’ sexual attitudes. And yet, it is also intensely ‘ordinary’, the magazine does not offer the ‘specific and sharpest inflection of the themes of lust, “the obscene”’ (Sontag, 1983: 224 ). What it does do is allow some women the opportunity to express their very ordinary sexual pleasures, it is a conduit to feeling which enabled this woman, for example, to plan and prepare for an orgasm after a dull day at work:

‘thanks to magazines like FW you can decide during the day at work that tonight you will be guaranteed an orgasm, and actually do it. (Julie, letter 2)
Being Where the Girlies Are

There is no space here to do justice to the candid discussions I had with women so I can only begin to indicate the ways in which the magazine met their criteria of ordinariness, particularly the ways in which the magazine ensured that readers encountered ‘ordinary people, not aliens from the Planet Sex’ (Mia, interview 3) within its pages. I will try to do that through the exploration of aspects of one woman’s account of her reading. Jane had begun reading the magazine shortly after the birth of her child. She had continued to read the magazine for about a year up to the point at which her marriage began breaking down. In coming to the magazine Jane had looked for evidence of a particularly new and female slant on sex and found FW spoke directly and very well to women.8 Her relationship to FW had two phases: a very positive connection with the magazine in its early incarnation and a highly critical appraisal of it post May 1995:

Whenever I speak positively it’s about the magazine as it was up until… um, well the last one I bought that made any sense to me whatsoever was May 1995. So for about a year, I don’t know what happened after that um… I think … I can’t remember why I didn’t buy it anymore but for that year it was absolutely excellent. However, yes it is different from material aimed at men because … it speaks to us as intelligent human beings and it doesn’t …um portray men … um… you know like in er em… men’s magazines, women are all legs akimbo, they all look like slags to be honest with you, pouting lips, oh yeah both types as well. But y’know. The way they portray men photographically in FW is just brilliant, they look beautiful, um, it’s just not smutty or slutty. So I think they treat us as intelligent people.
Thus for her what signifies a direct appeal to her position as a woman is FW’s capacity to do something different to that which appears in men’s pornography. Jane’s conception of female-ness is defined by what it is not and was most clearly stated in her critical assessment of the magazine post-May 1995.

Currently I don’t like the way the journalists write, they write like children. um… Not really comfortable with sex, they just debase it, talk about it like it was silly, dirty, childish act not… um… not … um…not an enjoyable, um not an enjoyable, mature… sexy thing… y’know it’s debased. I don’t like the way they do that now. I don’t enjoy reading things like here you go… Fantasy Bank: no problem with the actual article itself, it’s very interesting to read about um women with women, group sex, two men together, professional sex, anonymous sex, yeah that’s fine but… when they’ve got under the heading group sex, ‘when one cop just isn’t enough’ it makes it sound debased again. Y’know, it’s just um… the way they’re putting it… I don’t know, I just don’t like the way they write anymore. I used to think they wrote in a really interesting way, that was informative, intelligent, sexy but not crude.
Jane has no problem with explicitness, as such, so long as it is not ‘silly, dirty and childish’. Certainly this could be taken as evidence that she invests heavily in the notion of women’s sexuality being ‘cleaner’ and more ‘sensitive’ than men’s, of women’s sexuality embodied in a romantic ideal. However, Jane wants more than that:

I think what shouldn’t be banned is male erections, why can’t we see hard ons? I don’t think there’s any reason why we shouldn’t see hard ons – what are we all gonna do? Faint? Oh my god, there’s a big dick and it’s hard! That’s ridiculous, I think that should not be banned.
Jane rejects the normative notion of women as frail sexual creatures unable to deal with the overt representation of men’s sexual arousal; thus her conception of ‘debased’ sex is not the same as that enshrined in the current Obscenity Laws, nor is it so inchoate that there is no explanation of it. The coy and ‘furtive’ relation with sex which refuses to admit what sexual activity entails, is exactly part of what would make the magazine ‘dirty’ for her. Her comments on just what FW did do for her during the unhappy period of her marriage suggests that she is very personally aware of the use of double standards and the spectre of an ideal ‘womanhood’ to repress women’s sexual feelings:

You asked how it [FW] affected me and my relationship… well it’s… at the time I was going through a very bad relationship um and the sexual aspect of it was a great big problem and… so it affected me but it gave me strength… I didn’t feel like um… I didn’t feel like my husband was the norm thank god… Y’know he wasn’t the norm… there were blokes out there that did enjoy making love and did think it was okay to make love to their wives and things like that so it affected me by giving me strength. Um it also affected me to realise that I didn’t really have to put up with this and we are now separated and I can’t say that’s all FW that’s separated me and finished my marriage – that’s a bit ridiculous actually! But it did help me realise that I that I wasn’t abnormal wanting to have sexual relationships with my husband, all the things that I wanted to do, they weren’t abnormal. So it helped me realise that I was normal and er that I was just in a very difficult relationship…. So it was important to me at the time, it really was important because it helped me escape and it just helped me realise that it’s okay to be a strong independent person, a woman rather, urm and that it’s okay to have sexual wants and needs y’know that’s basic human need really… I think magazines like FW help you realise that … that you can break away and you can make a good life for yourself. You don’t have to put up with the … or conform to what’s supposed to be socially accepted as long as you can accept it yourself.
Her involvement with the magazine helped Jane see that she needed to break away from a damaging relationship, a marriage that served to repress her sexual desires and her sense of herself as a strong, independent person. Her use of the word ‘escape’ is not based on a notion of fantasy through which she can forget for a while her real-life, escape here means literally release from an oppressive domestic situation. She needed to feel that she was not abnormal and this is connected to her category ‘debase’. In order for the magazine to offer her the resources to acquire the confidence to handle a bad situation, she needs to feel that the magazine confirms and affirms her sexual desires as normal, healthy, fun and valued. Her use of FW does not then contribute to a ‘false consciousness’ for her; it has made no contribution to a ‘schooling’ in oppression (Jeffreys, 1990). Nor does it offer the possibilities of ‘transgression’, Jane was not looking to irritate her husband ­ her reading was secret. Implicit within the above extract is a notion of ‘media effects’ but these are less about ideological than transformative effects. It did affect her; it helped her question her relationship with her husband through its affirmation of her sexual needs. These ‘effects’ were realisable because of the complex nature of her engagement with FW:

What I used to get out of it was um… a sharing of comradeship with other women, that kind of thing… it was a good laugh it y’know broke up, y’know it was something different to do during the day um when y’know you’ve finished work, just wanted to relax or something like that y’know, take your mind off work that type of thing. Um… sometimes I found it arousing some of the stories, some of the pictures. So it depends really what sort of mood I was in at the time what I wanted to get out of it but in short… companionship, um excitement sometimes, arousal, escapism um… a sense of belonging with other women. Um like the problem page as was used to be really good and used to kind of make you think um I’m not the only one who’s got these type of problems or this has happened to or whatever. Also it was informative er… it used to give me a feeling of um… how can I put it er… information is power that type of thing.
Evidently the nature of her encounters with FW was subject to variation: the magazine’s ‘power’ lies in it being able to speak to Jane in a number of ways. Before marriage she had had a very fulfilling sexual relationship where her sexual needs were met and received with pleasure and equal passion. She can allow herself to enjoy the magazine because it is prepared to acknowledge women’s problems in sexual relationships but at the same time it is expressive of a fun and pleasurable female sexuality. It confirms that she is normal and therefore she gives herself permission to imagine herself as deserving of exciting and mutually rewarding sex: the magazine enables Jane to forget her problems through its acknowledgement of the social prohibitions, sexual taboos and difficulties which attend women’s explorations of sex.

Um… my first impressions of FW were ABSOLUTELY EXCELLENT, I thought my god I’ve found a magazine at long last… I’ve found a magazine at long last that speaks about the real things that happen in life. Not a lot of old nonsense, oh er, so many things about FW made sense and it made me feel like I was with one of the girlies so I thought it was excellent. (Jane)
For Women offers that companionship, that sense of being where the ‘girlies’ are which women’s magazines are conventionally thought to offer. Significantly, Jane’s search for ‘girlie-dom’ had been frustrated in other magazines and it is through its talk of ‘real life’ and sexual possibilities that FW avoids ‘a lot of old nonsense’ and can claim to speak to and for a community of women.

Yes, I think it is written especially for women in the way that it talks to us about all the men’s little idiosyncrasies and only as a woman you’d know what its about. Um also about the silly little things that only women worry about. Um and it’s not about childcare or cooking or knitting its about… how good is your sex life, is one boob bigger than the other, do you get it often enough, what attracts men, oh just so many things that are just really good to read about and they don’t just dilly dally about they get to the point and they really discuss things. Um… it’s different from material aimed at men because it treats us as intelligent human beings…. (Jane)
FW must speak directly to her experience as a woman about those things ‘only women worry about’. Again this draws on the notion of women as significantly different from men, not only that, but men are incapable of understanding the ‘silly little things’. That acknowledgement of the silliness of some of women’s concerns self-consciously draws attention to the ‘constructions’ and performance of women’s experiences. For Jane it is perfectly feasible to talk of women’s sexuality as real and representable in gratifying and involving ways. There is an association of two things in her account, a sense that she could be different from men and not have to worry if that made her inferior/superior, it is just a ‘girlie’ domain. Following from that, is her willingness to get excited over FW.

I believe we can only understand FW (and other magazines, sexually explicit or mainstream) if we pay attention to the ways in which it fits with aspects of its readers’ lives. For Jane, the magazine allows her to play games with it and with herself: the imaginative projection of herself into her past where she knows she was desirable and desired and forwards to her future where she can be again. That this was only a temporary relationship ­ at least only good for a while ­ does not negate my conclusions, indeed, I think it confirms them. Jane makes demands of the magazine: she invested in it (month after month) and it must pay her back with a vision of her possibilities. She requires that it should not ‘debase’ her or sex: she should not feel guilty, embarrassed or ashamed of her sexual feelings and so, when the magazine moved to a more ‘laddette’ style using euphemisms like ‘when one cop is not enough’, Jane was angered by its failure to deliver its promises.

One woman does not a pattern make. But Jane begins to illustrate the ways in which the magazine speaks to women via its creation of a specifically female space for sex. That space made a difference to some women’s lives. In the magazine simply being available to readers lies one of its transformative possibilities: FW enabled readers’ imaginative contemplations of sex without the risks and problems of male violence, coercion, physical, emotional and mental pressures. It enabled moving outside of those injunctions that ‘women don’t do this or that’, models of good behaviour and fears of disease and pregnancy. Readers used the magazine (and still do) to assert their rights to pleasure, not only as a political statement of liberties but as a very personal reiteration of being deserving of pleasure. Of being entitled to think of themselves as beautiful, sexy, assertive, romantic, loving, worthy of being loved, of the possibility of being politically motivated one minute and a sex kitten the next. Through its focus on the ordinary, on women sharing experiences, curiosity, information and enjoyment, For Women opens up the possibilities of taking risks imaginatively and therein lies its transformative potentials.

Notes

1 There are literally hundreds of writings on pornography but perhaps the most frequently referenced are the works of Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon. Despite attempts to present their views as the feminist account of pornography there are other much more interesting and nuanced accounts of sexually explicit materials, for example, the essays in Carole S.Vance’s (1989) edited collection, Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, London: Pandora and Linda Williams (1989), Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and the Frenzy of the Visible, California: University of California Press.

2 Arguably, given the stringencies of our import laws, it is not so much the legal limits placed upon pornography in the UK but the lack of competition that has allowed the industry to stagnate (O’Toole, 1998). The laws which govern the publication and distribution of sexually explicit materials in the UK are ably discussed by Julian Petley (2000).

3 By the end of the 1980s there had been a real upsurge in media attention to women and questions of sexuality ­ these ranged from sexual health pamphlets through Nancy Friday’s collections of women’s fantasies to ‘shopping and fucking’ novels like Shirley Conran’s Lace and Julie Burchill’s Ambition; at the same time there were exhibitions of women’s photographs of male nudes, television dealt with sex as an object of fun and as an appropriate subject for dispassionate documentaries. Changes in the structure of the mainstream women’s magazine market had also lead to an increase in sexual content in titles like Company, Cosmopolitan and more! (Driver & Gillespie, 1988). These trends were viewed by the team at Northern & Shell as evidence that women were ready for their own pornography.

4 It is important to note that sales figures of this order are respectable for specialist porn in the UK.

5 Including, against the advice of then editor Ruth Corbett, ‘covering up’ the male models ­ effectively removing the one Unique Selling Proposition the magazine had over other women’s magazines. Readers were angered by the move and the experiment lasted only six months but by that time, its credibility with regular readers was seriously damaged.

6 Indeed, in the 1980s the opposing sides were sufficiently antagonistic to be described as ‘at war’. Pornography was not the only area of dispute in the ‘sex wars’ but it was a key issue that threatened to split the feminist movement (Snitow et al (eds.), 1984). Numerous accounts of these ‘sex wars’ have been published (O’Toole, 1998; Carol, 1994; Segal & McIntosh, 1992; Strossen, 1996; McElroy, 1995; Tong, 1998; Thompson, 1994; Chancer, 1998).

7 Respondents came to me via friends, colleagues and the letters page of FW. Their similarity begins and ends with their willingness to talk to me. They fall within an age range of 20-40 but how far this is indicative of the reader profile of the magazine is impossible to know, as I too fit that category it is not surprising that those people who came to me via friends should fall into that age range. All were employed or at university: six respondents came from working-class backgrounds but had subsequently ‘shifted up’ via education or employment. In addition to the narrow class focus of my study, the responses of women from different ethnic groupings are missing, only one respondent was black and, as she was interviewed with another white respondent, may have felt that race could not be raised as an issue. Even if race had surfaced there as a topic it would be impossible to offer any generalisations from the reactions of one individual. Although the smallness of my group might be conceived as a problem, it has its positive aspects. Because the number of women is small they cannot be regarded as a ‘sample’, that is I cannot claim to have achieved an appropriate socio-cultural mix in order to begin to ascribe generalised patterns of use representative of women’s use of sexually explicit materials. ‘Representativeness’ is a concept belonging to quantitative research where knowledge is sought from a wide enough sample that out of a mass of data ‘average’ respondents will emerge. Although there may be a number of averages the intention is to describe and catalogue results as standardised responses. Because there were not enough women of particular social groupings I could not be tempted into counting responses according to similarities in class, race or age.

Works Cited

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Author: Clarissa Smith teaches on BA(Hons) Journalism at Falmouth College of Arts. She has recently completed her PhD, ‘One for the Girls!: The production, textual formation and consumption of the sexually explicit magazine For Women’, at the University of Sussex.

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