Source: 123RF/Mateusz Żogała
Internet porn is frequently criticized for depicting gender inequality; however, surprisingly little research has examined what the gendered content of online porn actually looks like. What little research exists has focused largely on still photos and erotic stories, which means that we really don’t know that much from a scientific standpoint about the gendered content of videos, the most widely consumed type of online porn. Or, rather, we haven’t known that much until now. A recent study published in The Journal of Sex Research offers valuable insight into how gender is represented in the world of internet porn.
In this study, researchers from the University of Amsterdam sought to answer the following four research questions:
1.) To what extent are men and women objectified in Internet pornography?
2.) How is power distributed between men and women in Internet pornography?
3.) To what extent does Internet pornography depict violence against men and women?
4.) How does amateur Internet pornography differ from professional Internet pornography in its depiction of gender (in)equality?
A content analysis was performed on the 100 most-viewed videos in February 2013 from four of the world’s most popular porn tube sites: Pornhub, RedTube, YouPorn, and xHamster. In total, 400 videos were analyzed, but only the first sex scene that appeared in each video was coded. On average, each sex scene lasted 16.17 minutes, which means that almost 108 hours worth of porn were coded in total! Four coders independently viewed the entire set of videos, taking note every time they observed indicators of objectification, power, and violence for each gender.
Before describing the results, it is worth clarifying that this set of videos did not include any gay or transgender pornography, which means that the results can only speak to heterosexual porn.
First, with regard to objectification, women were more likely to be used as sex objects than men. Specifically, there were more close-ups of female body parts and more scenes in which the sex act focused on male pleasure. However, it was not the case that porn necessarily dehumanized women across the board. In fact, women were equally likely to be depicted as the initiators of sexual activity, and it was much more common for there to be close-ups of the female face than of the male face.
With respect to power, about one-third of the videos depicted the male and female actors as holding equal social and professional status. When videos depicted one partner as having higher status (such as a boss) and the other as having lower status (such as an employee), there were no gender differences in likelihood of holding each position. In terms of sexual dominance and submission, approximately half of the videos had no gender difference in this area; of the remaining half that depicted a gender difference, men were far more likely to be portrayed as dominant, while women were far more likely to be portrayed as submissive.
As for violence, this appeared relatively infrequently overall and most often took the form of spanking and gagging. Women were more likely to be the recipients of these acts than men, but it was rare for female recipients to express negative reactions–the vast majority of women responded either neutrally or positively. Severe violence was extremely uncommon, as was non-consensual sex and sexual manipulation. When non-consensual sex occurred, men and women were equally likely to be depicted as the victim. When sexual manipulation occurred, women were more likely to be manipulated than men.
Lastly, in terms of the differences between amateur and professional pornography, it turned out that–surprisingly–amateur porn contained more gender inequality than professionally-produced porn. For instance, in amateur porn, women initiated sex less often than men, women were less likely than men to have sex for their own pleasure, men tended to have higher social and professional status, men were more sexually dominant, women were more sexually submissive, and women were more likely to be manipulated into having sex.
Again, keep in mind that the findings above are not necessarily representative of all internet porn, especially in light of the fact that all videos featured male-female sex and were drawn from just four porn sites (there are obviously far more than that!). However, these results are important in that they represent the largest gendered content analysis of online porn videos to date.
Overall, these findings confirm that gender inequality does indeed exist in the world of online porn; however, such inequality does not necessarily appear on all indicators. In addition, these results challenge the common perception that amateur porn is inherently more progressive than professional porn in terms of gender role diversity. Though these findings need to be replicated before drawing firm conclusions about this, the results of this analysis suggest that the reverse may actually be true.