Feminist Conversations is a regular feature at Feminists for Choice, in which we spotlight activists. After reading Meagan Tyler’s book Selling Sex Short: The Pornographic and Sexological Construction of Women’s Sexuality in the West, and not being able to put it down, I had to ask her a few questions.
You have written extensively about pornography, the sex industry, and the construction of women’s sexuality. How did this interest come about?
Looking back now, it seems rather an odd thing to have chosen to research! What really got me interested was teaching in high-schools in my home town of Melbourne. Most schools in Australia have uniforms and on the few “free dress” days a year, students often want to wear their most coveted pieces of clothing. All the way back in 2004, I noticed a growing number of 12 and 13 year old girls wearing Playboy branded t-shirts, which seemed like a new phenomenon. I wanted to know about the marketing operations that were going on with companies like Playboy and if they were consciously “mainstreaming” their brands. So I went back to uni to do a PhD.
What was your motivation for writing Selling Sex Short?
The book came out of my PhD research. When I started looking at the mainstreaming of pornography, or what some scholars refer to as “pornographication” or “pornification” of popular culture, it became clear that you can’t look at these pop culture trends without looking at the pornography industry itself. I hadn’t bargained on this when I started and didn’t really know what to expect when my research led me to actually having to look at how elements of the porn industry operate.
A lot of other academics have undertaken content analyses of pornography (i.e. to find out what is in mainstream porn, e.g. what kind of acts, violence, engagement with the camera / other actors etc.) so I needed to do something different. What interested me was what those within the industry actually say about how and why porn is produced, which is what led me to analyse Adult Video News, a porn industry based magazine aimed at producers, directors, distributors and vendors. In intra-industry forums people are often very open and forthright about the problems and harms that they believed are associated with the production of pornography. That, to me, was fascinating, and occasionally, quite disturbing. But it is important that we understand pornographic content in the context of its production. How the porn industry markets its products, for example, gives us important information about how the industry wants itself to be seen and what those within the industry believe consumers want to see and buy.
The other half of the book is really about sex therapy. I had done some previous research on the supposed “epidemic” of female sexual dysfunction (FSD), which was largely “discovered” after Viagra hit the market. In countries like Australia, the US and the UK, some medical experts were claiming that almost half of all women were suffering from some form of FSD. I wanted to find out how the sex therapy industry was marketing its treatments for this form of dysfunction and what larger cultural changes were occurring to create such popular interest in a medicalised understanding of sexuality.
In the end, I wanted to know what kind of sex these two industries were promoting. The trend towards pornographication and the trend towards the medicalisation of women’s sexuality post-Viagra were both noticeable cultural shifts occurring in roughly the same time period but I had no sense of if they were connected or if they related to each other at all. I was quite surprised to find that there were both theoretical and material connections between the two. I had no idea before starting my research, for example, that some therapists recommend pornography to patients as a template to follow for their own sex lives or that a number of porn stars have produced their own sex advice literature.
The book really came about because I didn’t want the debates about these issues to be limited to academia. We need to be having much more informed public discussions about sexuality and inequality.
The book is written from a feminist perspective (especially so radical feminism), what does feminism mean to you?
Yes, the book certainly draws on radical feminist writing and theorising, which is quite unusual these days. So much so, I am often required to dispel myths about radical feminism and feminism in general before even beginning to speak about my research. It is quite bizarre being accused of being a prude or being “anti-sex” when you spend your professional life researching, writing and talking about sex and sexual pleasure!
One of the most important elements of feminism is an understanding that sexuality is socially constructed. That is, sexuality is not purely an issue of biology. How we understand and experience sexuality is heavily contingent upon the cultural and historical circumstances in which we live. This perspective is not unique to feminism, but it is a very important element of all forms of feminism.
So when we talk about inequality between men and women, for example, a social constructionist approach forces us to recognise that this is not an innate or pre-determined situation. This is a situation that can, and should, be challenged.
But challenging inequality is, unfortunately, not enough. There are real material barriers relating to overcoming disadvantage associated with gender, class, race and ethnicity, disability and sexuality (to name but a few). And this is why claims that individuals can simply be “empowered” to overcome disadvantage rings a bit hollow. If we do not recognise that there are often structural and institutional barriers to equality then we tend to blame people for their own circumstances.
To bring about real change, we need social movements. And that is what, to me, feminism is at its heart: a social movement for equality and women’s civil rights.
What are the main points you would like readers to know about the book, but also about pornography and sexology?
The overarching theme of the book is really that sex is a social act. Our conceptions of what sex is, and what is should be, are framed by cultural expectations and norms. The porn industry and sex therapy are both important players in forming these expectations and norms in the West today. So it is important that we question the glamourised version of porn that is (carefully) presented to us in many pop culture representations and that we also question the over-simplified and medicalised version of sexuality presented to us by many so-called “sex experts”. The book shows that the concepts of what “good sex” is in both porn and sexology (the “science of sex”) actually have a lot in common, in particular, the idea that women’s sexuality is largely there to service men’s needs. Hardly a great vision for women’s sexual pleasure!
Ultimately, we need to start imagining versions of sexuality we would like to see and this is how I end the book. There aren’t any grand solutions presented, I just hope it opens up some new conversations.
You discuss the influence of the sex industry and sexology on women’s sexuality and the notion that these industries promote harm, objectification and the sexual servicing of men by women. For those who have not read the book, could you offer a short explanation?
I argue that the dominant model of sexuality promoted to women in both pornography and in sexology / sex therapy has a lot in common with systems of prostitution. That is, it is assumed that women should be constantly sexually available and that women’s role is primarily having to sexually service men. In this model it is not a woman’s sexual pleasure that defines whether or not sex is “good sex” but rather whether or not she has performed to the expectations of an (assumed) male lover.
That this model of sex, focused on men’s sexual pleasure, is a hallmark of how the porn industry constructs “good sex” is probably not surprising. What was surprising, to me at least, was that these same assumptions about what women are “really for” can be found in academic and popular sexology. There are concepts such as “receptivity”, for example, which suggest normal and healthy women should be “highly receptive” to sexual advances from a male partner and that women should have sex when they don’t want to in order to please angry or irritable partners. This vision of sex presented to women is quite bleak, and in many instances, tends to justify men’s sexual coercion.
A model of sex which promotes the idea that women should acquiesce to unwanted sexual advances because they are there simply to please men is seriously harmful, not only to individual women’s interests, but to women as a group. It also sounds like something from a century ago! Instead of telling women to “Lie back and think of England” we tell them to watch porn or take a variety of pills, patches and creams.
When you are not busy lecturing, writing and doing research, what do you do to unwind?
Nothing very glamorous – I’m not sure how I survived before the advent of DVDs and Wii. Curling up in front of the TV with a blanket and a cuppa helps keep me sane and I like to kid myself that being good at tennis on the Wii means I could have been a Wimbledon champion if only I hadn’t spent all my time reading books.
Dr Meagan Tyler is a lecturer in sociology at Victoria University, Australia. She tweets @DrMeaganTyler.