Making Sense of Pornography: the Gendered Interpretations of Sexual Imagery

Luedtke, Karlin, College of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Hays, Sharon, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia

This study investigates how individuals interact with pornography and addresses the question of whether or not there exist gender differences in how it is interpreted and experienced. Through content examination of popular adult magazines and movies, the analysis of survey data, and in-depth interviews, this research follows the tradition of audience reception studies. While firmly grounded in cultural sociology, the questions are posed, and subsequently analyzed, through conflicting feminist perspectives on pornography. Relying most heavily on interviews with twenty men and twenty women, gender differences in people's engagement with adult media are identified. I argue that social constructions of gender and sexuality are largely imperceptible to heterosexual men in their encounters with popular contemporary adult magazines and videos. This invisibility is possible because men are comfortably situated in their role as male viewers of imagery that is predominantly produced by and for men. In contrast, women critique the presentation of female bodies and gender relationships in adult media, but remain uncritical of its construction of sexuality. Indeed, both men and women tend to essentialize pornographic sexuality, as they consider it a 'natural' depiction of 'real' sex. Within this taken-for-granted stance toward sexuality distinctions are made along gender lines as men and women highlight the duality between 'male' and 'female' sexuality. The qualities associated with each type of sex neatly conform to societal gender stereotypes in that male sexuality is viewed as aggressive, promiscuous, and unemotional and female sexuality as the opposite. By and large, individuals do not appear to experience adult sexual media as a socially constructed form of expression but rather as a graphic portrayal of human sexuality as they understand it.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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