How Much Gender Inequality Is There In Online Porn?

Although internet pornography is frequently criticized for depicting gender inequality, surprisingly little research has examined the actual gendered content of online porn. Moreover, what little research does exist in this area has focused largely on still images and erotic stories, which means that we know even less about the gendered content of the most widely consumed form of online porn: videos. A new study just published in the Journal of Sex Research offers a rare look into how gender is represented in pornographic videos from the internet today.

In this study, researchers were guided by 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? 

In order to address these questions, researchers performed a content analysis on the 100 most-viewed videos in February 2013 from four of the world’s most popular porn sites: Pornhub, RedTube, YouPorn, and xHamster (I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again—I don’t quite get the appeal of a porn site named after a rodent). In total, there were 400 videos, but only the first sex scene that appeared in each video was analyzed. On average, each sex scene lasted 16.17 minutes, yielding almost 108 hours worth of porn to be analyzed! Four coders independently viewed the entire set of videos and coded the content for objectification, power, and violence for each gender.

Before describing the results, it is important to note that this set of videos did not include any gay or transgender pornography. Consequently, the results below only speak to heterosexual porn.

With regard to objectification, results revealed that women were more likely to be used as sex objects than men. That is, 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 porn generally dehumanized women—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.

In terms of power, about one-third of the videos depicted the male and female actors to be of equivalent social and professional status. When videos depicted one partner as having higher status (e.g., a boss) and the other as having lower status (e.g., an employee), there were no gender differences in likelihood of holding each position. With regard to sexual dominance and submission, about half of the videos featured no gender difference in this area; of the remaining half that depicted a gender difference, men were much more likely to be portrayed as dominant, while women were much more likely to be portrayed as submissive.

With regard to violence, it appeared relatively infrequently overall and primarily 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 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.

Finally, in terms of the differences between amateur and professional pornography, results revealed that amateur porn actually 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.

Keep in mind that the findings above are not necessarily representative of all internet porn, given that all videos featured heterosexual sex and were drawn from only four porn sites.  However, these results are important because they represent the largest gendered content analysis of online pornographic videos to date.

Overall, these findings confirm that gender inequality does indeed exist in the world of online porn, but not on all indicators. In addition, they challenge the popular view that amateur porn tends to be more progressive with respect to gender-role diversity than professional porn—indeed, this analysis suggests that the reverse may actually be true.

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To learn more about this research, see: Klaassen, M. J., & Peter, J. (in press). Gender (in) equality in internet pornography: a content analysis of popular pornographic internet videosThe Journal of Sex Research.

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