When people hear the words “women’s erotica,” they often think of trashy novels and bodice-rippers. But in actuality, the term “women’s erotica” captures a wide range of erotically-inclined content catering to the female gaze. Women’s erotica isn’t merely a collection of steamy romances targeting various sexual proclivities, but rather any material catering to the female sexual gaze. This is especially true in the online age, where you can find women’s erotica in websites, blogs, photographic galleries, music, and so much more.
This article takes a broader look at women’s erotica in our culture, how it differs from male-centric porn, and the debates surrounding porn’s conflicted relationship with female empowerment.
Erotica vs. Porn
Before we proceed with this article, it’s necessary to establish the difference between erotica and porn. The words “erotica” and “porn” are often used synonymously, even though they may bear some differences. The exact difference between the two terms is clearly a grey area open to subjective interpretations. However, broadly speaking, we can refer to “erotica” as content that includes sexual content within a larger context, while “porn” is primarily driven by sexual content.
A work can be deemed an “erotica” even if it doesn’t actually have any explicit sexual material, as long as it induces the fantasy through insinuation and storytelling. Meanwhile, “porn” is driven purely through sexual material — all other storylines and materials are subservient to the explicit sexual content. Of course, everyone won’t agree with this distinction, but that’s how we’ll use the two terms in this article.
Women’s Porn vs. Men’s Porn
Now that we have a clear understanding of how erotica and porn differ from each other, let’s look at another crucial difference — women’s porn and men’s porn.
Women’s porn, or women-centric porn, is often referred to as “sex-positive” porn because it challenges the stereotypes prevalent in mainstream porn. Unfortunately, most mainstream pornographic representations fall under the “men’s porn” category because they’re shown clearly from the male gaze. Even if they feature male participants, the camera lens and gaze clarify that the women are the objects of sexual gratification.
Women’s porn subverts that gaze or expands the boundaries of existing sexual depictions. They either realign the sexual gaze to focus on men or create an equitable platform for mutual sexual gratification. Sex-positive porn or women’s porn conflate with erotica more strongly than mainstream porn, i.e., women’s porn often includes storylines that are just as vital as the sexual content, driving the desire and intrigue. The journey in women’s porn aims to provide an emotional AND physical climax.
Men’s porn, in comparison, primarily features visual stimulation with no grounding on an actual understanding of female sexuality. They often feature exceedingly attractive women with average men; the men must be average so that the male viewers can identify with them, fueling their sexual fantasies of claiming attractive women. Furthermore, the sexual experience is often stripped of all emotions and sensuality, with the woman’s primary goal being to cater to the man’s needs.
Traditional, mainstream, or men’s porn often fuel unhealthy notions of sexuality and feed into a toxic masculine culture that thrives on the objectification of women. They give adolescent boys and young men the impression that a woman’s only sexual goal is to be submissive to a man’s desires. They often feature rough and violent men abusing women. These depictions lead to harmful notions of sexuality, inhibiting men’s ability to engage with sexuality in a meaningful manner.
In light of all the damage that mainstream porn has done, there’s an ongoing debate about whether erotica or porn (in any form) is incompatible with female empowerment.
Erotica & Empowerment
There’s an ongoing debate about whether porn is incompatible with female sexuality. Some say that regardless of intent, pornography is inherently opposed to female empowerment because they feed the male gaze. However, that view promotes the idea that women don’t enjoy sex, that women must always be sexual objects subservient to a man’s desires, or that they can’t have sexual agency.
Yes, some kinds of mainstream porn are certainly opposed to female empowerment. In fact, most mainstream representations of sex project women in the submissive role. Even when they’re in a dominant role, it’s clear that their primary goal is to gratify men. It’s also true that the lack of regulation in the porn industry puts women at risk of violence.
However, sex-positive porn and women’s porn often exist outside these avenues, creating spaces where women can write, produce, and star in sexual material that puts their desires front and center. If anything, women’s porn should be encouraged to proper so it can finally take over the mainstream representation and show people that sexuality can be healthy, fun, and equitable.
According to Angela White, an actress, director, and producer of porn, “We’re adults who have made adult decisions. Nobody has been coerced. Having sex is really fun. We should make money off of it. This is a legitimate pursuit. Many of us have degrees, and we’ve chosen to do this.”
Mainstreaming Women’s Erotica
In recent years, various TV shows and movies have gone a long way in mainstreaming women’s erotica and sexual desire. A wide outcrop of women-centric TV shows, produced and directed by women, has changed the way we see female desire. Examples of this trend include HBO’s Girls, Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, Showtime’s The L Word, and many others.
These shows have consistently depicted explicit sexual content between individuals of various gender and sexual orientations without either glamorizing or shaming the characters for their sexual decisions. They’ve contributed to a culture wherein women feel more empowered to express their sexuality, so much so that we’re in a period wherein women’s sexual expression is finally given the importance it deserves. And that’s the power of women’s erotica.