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Some respondents see these novels as a harmless way to “explore without ‘consequences,’ ” but others, like Toni Rapone, find deeper connections. Rapone, a retired commodities day trader in Montana, speaks of her love for the archetypal loners. Forced into isolation or desperate circumstances, these guys depend on each other to survive. “If they can find love,” Rapone says, “with someone who is their equal, so they can express themselves and be accepted for who they are, then it somehow feels like the chances of my doing it are increased.”
Regardless of their individual reasons, these women speak of the appeal as being wrapped up in an undeniable heat. Asked if reading about two men having sex is a turn-on for her, Ana Maria says, “Does the sun rise every morning?”
Why are straight women turned on by watching two men having sex?
“Why not?” counters UC Santa Barbara’s Professor Constance Penley. “That’s really the question. Would you ask men why are they so turned on by two women together? We take it for granted that guys love their girl-on-girl. Why shouldn’t women have an appreciation for guy-on-guy? It is as deep-seated a fantasy as the male fantasy of putting two women together.”
That may sound somewhat dubious — if it’s so deep-seated, why did it take 100,000 years of human history and the invention of the e-book to become evident? — but then Penley ought to know. A professor of film and media studies, she teaches a kind of Porn 101 at UCSB. There are other “porn professors” in the world, but Penley was the first to teach it as a necessary part of a comprehensive film-and-media-studies curriculum, and to treat it as a genre like westerns or science fiction. She was certainly the first to bring in industry experts. You’d show up for her class and find Nina Hartley or Jeannie Pepper — Hustler’s “Rosa Parks of porn”— as a guest speaker. A decade ago she was named one of Rolling Stone’s eight most dangerous minds in America.
Over the phone, Penley is pleasant, affable and irreverent, with the remnants of a Southern accent flitting in and out of her voice. The idea that men only identify with the man in a sex scene, she says, or that women only identify with the woman, is too simplistic. “Why couldn’t men be identifying with the woman and be, at the level of fantasy, in her body?”
Or vice versa. Why couldn’t women be putting themselves in the bodies of men? Has Penley ever heard of anyone doing that?
“Yes, I think people do it all the time!” she answers, laughing. “Freud said, at the level of the unconscious, we’re all bisexual. ... People are capable of a much greater range of fluidity of who they identify with, and whom they objectify, or take as a sexual object of desire.”
As for why a straight woman writes gay romance, Penley suggests, it has to do with body politics. Women’s bodies are a political and social battleground. Women are told how to behave, and whether or not they can abort fetuses. They are held to impossibly high standards of beauty. Maybe they write with men’s bodies, she theorizes, because those bodies aren’t as problematic as their own. Maybe men’s bodies are just easier.
Linda Williams, a Berkeley professor who wrote the first serious book about porn film, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible,” suggests a similar freedom — specifically, one from worry. When women watch straight pornography, there’s always the problem of who’s on top, or who’s on the bottom. “On the other hand,” Williams says, “if you’re watching two men having sex, you don’t have to worry about a woman being mishandled, or abused or overpowered.”
Or it could simply be a fantasy of abundance. “If you presume that these women are heterosexual,” Williams adds, “and their own desire is for men, then you’ve doubled the pleasure.”
Another prevailing belief is that the pleasure these women derive from reading erotic romances about two men has less to do with the sex than with the romance. The main pleasure comes from the romantic story, i.e., the plot. And the plots are essentially female. The sex is just the cherry on top.
For UCLA psychologist Paul Abramson, author of the forthcoming Sex Appeal: Six Ethical Principles for the 21st Century, pornography is to male psychology what romance fiction is to female psychology. These books are “the story of a heroine overcoming all these obstacles to unite with a hero,” he says. “That is what pushes these male-male romance stories. If you make it two males, they still embody female psychology. There’s still the quest for romance, love and intense emotional feelings.”