A study among pornography viewers suggests that more women than men are aroused by scenes that feature aggression toward women. Notably, both men and women emphasized a preference for aggressive porn that was consensual and pleasurable for both performers. The study was published in Archives of Sexual Behavior.
Past research has suggested that watching aggressive sexual content can lead to harmful outcomes, such as increased support for sexual coercion and violence against women. Feminist activists have expressed concern that aggression in porn — which is often directed toward women — contributes to gender inequalities and the dehumanization of women.
But researcher Eran Shor, a professor of sociology at McGill University, noted that little is known about pornography viewers’ feelings about aggression in porn.
“I became interested in this topic while I was teaching a Sociology of Deviance class, which included a section on the pornography industry,” he told PsyPost. “I noticed that much of the literature talked about aggression in mainstream pornography as a growing phenomenon (my findings show that this is not the case), claiming that this is driven by men’s desires for domination over women. Very little attention has been given in this literature to female viewers, their preferences, and their desires.”
To explore this, Shor set up in-depth interviews with porn users, asking them about their perceptions and preferences toward aggression in porn. The study author recruited a sample of 122 adults who had viewed porn at least once a month for the past year. The sample was roughly gender-balanced (61 women, 60 men, 1 gender-diverse) and had an average age of 25. The participants were from 28 different countries, although nearly half of them were Canadian.
Participants were interviewed via Skype by one of two research assistants for a duration between 30 and 120 minutes. To enhance confidentiality, only audio was used and participants were encouraged not to reveal their real names. The participants were asked specific questions regarding their thoughts about aggression in porn but were also given space to share their general views and experiences with porn.
A little over half the participants (53%) said they enjoyed at least some aggression in porn. While, overall, most women and men did not wish to see more aggression in porn, there were significant gender differences. While around 66% of women said they enjoyed at least some aggression in porn, only 40% of men did. Women were also significantly more likely than men to report enjoying “harder” aggression in porn, wanting to see more aggression in mainstream porn, and actively searching for porn videos that include aggression.
However, it is important to note that 95% of women and 97% of men said that they did not enjoy nonconsensual aggression. This suggests that most participants only enjoyed aggression in porn when performers were willing participants who seemed to have some control over the situation. Indeed, many of the interviewees emphasized that watching aggressive acts was only enjoyable when the female performers were consenting and seemed to enjoy the experience.
“The majority of viewers, both men and women, preferred not to watch aggression in pornographic videos, especially non-consensual aggression,” Shor explained. “Still, among those who did say that they enjoyed displays of aggression, including rougher aggression, somewhat surprisingly women were a majority. Women were more likely to report being aroused by aggression, actively seeking aggression, and wanting to see more aggression in mainstream pornography.”
Many female participants mentioned that they enjoyed bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, and sadomasochism (BDSM), although a number of them described feelings of shame and guilt surrounding their enjoyment of such content. Crucially, many women shared that they only enjoyed aggression within the context of porn videos, but did not wish to experience aggression within their own sex lives. This suggests that for most women, the enjoyment of aggression in porn reflects a fantasy centered around being dominated and relinquishing control.
“One important thing is to be careful not to mix fantasy and real-life desires,” Shor said. “Many women (and men) who found aggression arousing clearly stressed that they would not want to experience or try the acts they enjoyed on the screen in their own sex life. They emphasized that it was the visual representation of a fantasy that allowed them to feel aroused, while at the same time maintaining a sense of comfort and safety.”
“That said, I think that the common tendency to ignore, belittle, sanction, or stigmatize women’s sexual preferences when these do not conform to some feminist expectations is problematic. This tendency promotes moral judgment and stigma, resulting in feelings of guilt and shame among women who hold a preference for viewing aggression or acts of dominance in pornography.”
While some of the male interviewees also discussed their enjoyment of BDSM, many of them expressed feeling uncomfortable with aggression in porn to the point that they entirely avoided or skipped over this type of content. Such responses contradict the commonly-held belief that men tend to seek and enjoy aggression in porn.
The author noted that, like any self-report study, participants may have been reluctant to share their true opinions, which may have compromised the findings. On the heels of the #MeToo movement, some men may have been hesitant to share their preferences for aggressive porn to avoid being perceived as condoning sexual assault. It is also possible that some women held back due to similar fears.
The study, “Who Seeks Aggression in Pornography? Findings from Interviews with Viewers”, was published online on November 8, 2021.