Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, online platforms like Pornhub have reported a significant increase in web traffic.1 A revival of a discourse that claims that online porn consumption leads to harmful effects on mental health2 and sexual health3 pokes its head. However, plenty of studies conducted over the years to prove these causal links between pornography and damaging behaviour haven’t achieved conclusive findings.4 Furthermore, there isn’t a clear definition of what is considered “pornography” or “harm” in these very disparate and methodologically limited studies.5
In contrast with this stigmatised view of porn on the internet, online recommendation lists of “enjoyable” porn sites, which is to say, free of violence and sexism, have begun to emerge.6 These alternatives are sometimes described as porn “for women”, “feminist porn” or even “ethical porn”.7 In these descriptions there tends to be an association between better film quality, ethical practices and a feminist aesthetic with high production standards and costs, which is presented as a justification for paid access.8 On the other hand, free-of-charge mainstream platforms like Pornhub, XVideos and others are perceived as responsible for promoting or disseminating "hard porn" that objectifies women and tends to be increasingly violent.9
One of these online feminist porn lists I stumbled upon presented a slightly different recommendation: the Reddit forum r/chickflixxx, a place for women to confer about and share porn/erotica. The name of this community, "chickflixxx" is a combination of the slang term "chick flick" (a romantic film genre supposedly "for women")10 and triple X (generally used to identify adult content).
In this community, people share porn videos available on mainstream platforms, as well as video extracts from porn sites “for women” like erikalust.com or bellesa.co. However, what makes this subreddit unique are the comments. Participants describe what they like about the scenes and why they are valuable and worth sharing; not only highlighting what they find hot, but why. A space for personal interpretation and conversation unfolds and that is not at all common in the realm of pornography.
A space for personal interpretation and conversation unfolds and that is not at all common in the realm of pornography.
The digital ethnographic analysis11 I conducted for some time in this community led me to ask myself how porn takes shape based on the audience's perspective, and the practice of sharing and commenting on available online content.
r/chickflixxx is a Reddit community (subreddit or just “sub”) of more than 200,000 members that appeared for the first time on 29 August 2011. On the front page (Illustration 1), we see an introduction: "A place for women to confer about and share porn/erotica." To the right, a more detailed description adds: "Men are asked to please refrain from commenting or posting. This is a community about online pornography that was created by and for women (and queer people) where men are not allowed to participate."
A more clear indication about male participation in this community appears on the “pinned post” (Illustration 2), a post published by the moderators that remains always visible on the top of the page: “This is a space for women. Don’t like it? Find another subreddit.”12
The front page pinned post is brief and doesn’t expand with further arguments: it only states “that’s it” and the fact that excluding cis men is not up for debate. The post was later edited (explicitly with the tag EDIT) to clarify that genderqueer people are also welcome, along with an apology for not having mentioned them in the original post.
The post also refers to shared rules13 in the forum that offer an initial orientation about what content and behaviour are expected within the community. The people that are in the moderation team are community participants and make sure the rules are respected, applying penalties in case of infringement. Along with the r/chickflixxx rules there are content guidelines14 that clarify removal criteria and what types of content are banned.
These rules and guidelines, and the way they are carefully written, seek to convey with precision the spirit of r/chickflixxx, which is not to censor users' tastes and preferences but to exclude what the community considers problematic in the porn industry. These elements are, essentially, footage where those involved perform under pressure, situations where there isn't actual consent, and objectification based on gender, age or race. There is no judgment regarding the nature of the content, which is to say, content is not rejected for being violent, indecent, offensive, or any other judgment of its meaning or connotation. However, specific topics are banned, like incest and “fetishization of youth”. Generally speaking, these rules seem to be designed with a lot of detail yet remain flexible enough to preserve a safe and kind space for participants without excluding the free and diverse expression of feminine sexuality.
These rules and guidelines, and the way they are carefully written, seek to convey with precision the spirit of r/chickflixxx, which is not to censor users' tastes and preferences but to exclude what the community considers problematic in the porn industry.
Another perspective on using and sharing porn
These rules aren’t just restrictive but also stipulate how content should be presented and organised to ensure usability. You can observe this in the rules regarding presenting information, like the requirement of descriptive titles, tag use (post flairs), and request digests (monthly megathreads).
Let’s see an example of how users put in practice the clear description requirement. In one thread, a user asks for video recommendations that include a small-sized woman and a very tall man based on her and her husband’s physical attributes. She would like to see content she can identify with. The request includes a clarification: “Not that crazy stuff where they are breaking her.” Here we can observe that the user tries to be very concise about what she wants to see (including approximate measurements of the performers), why she is interested (because she wants to relate her experience with the video), and what should be discarded from the recommendations (no references of abuse and violence).
In response to this request, some users suggest looking up certain tags in porn sites (like Exxxtrasmall) or finding the names of small-sized performers. Another user claims that it’s not easy to find film scenes with small-sized women that don’t represent them as girls or teens or recreate some type of situation of abuse.15
Commonly, in the requests, users share how hard it is to find certain types of content on mainstream porn platforms. These requests relate to a feminist perspective on porn, or to certain bodies that tend to be underrepresented and objectified in mainstream porn.
Another example is a user who asks for content in which the camera frames a "woman's point of view" (WPOV or FPOV) – as opposed to the mainstream porn sub-genre known as POV, where the camera is aimed from the perspective of a man as the main character. This user is interested in seeing attractive men’s features and gestures of pleasure instead of the typical objectification of women represented in most footage from a male perspective. However, her request doesn’t objectify men as passive objects and/or submissive. Her interest is to observe facial expressions that give her pleasure. In her request for recommendations, she mentions that it’s a shame that it’s so hard to find feminine points of view in mainstream porn site search engines.
The request and a consequent video shared in the community sparks debate (Illustration 3) resulting in a pretty detailed and critical analysis of the video. The community comments on scenes and evaluates how the video satisfies, or not, the request for a woman’s point of view in content. For some users, a woman’s point of view causes more arousal, while for others this is not the case because they find pleasure in a male perspective, a subjective framing that they can’t experience themselves when having sex. Some users that self-identify as men (and express it) are allowed to participate in this thread and some of them add that they find it stimulating to "see" from an heterosexual feminine perspective. People share their personal experience and compare it with the representations in the videos and other members’ experiences. In essence, a conversation about sexuality unravels and not just an exchange about what the videos represent and if it's a turn on or not.16 In r/chickflixxx, online porn is more than porn. It’s an excuse to talk about sexuality in general and multiple ways of experiencing it “in real life”.
In essence, a conversation about sexuality unravels and not just an exchange about what the videos represent and if it's a turn on or not.
Other types of recommendation requests are related to certain underrepresented and objectified bodies that r/chickflixxx users often seek to visibilise and deconstruct. An example of this is a request for videos characterised by black FF (female to female) couples. The author of this post makes a wide selection of videos from different sources, offering quite a detailed description. One of these videos is tagged as #big-ass on XVideos. However, the r/chickflixxx post doesn't mention this tag or classify the performers with this body category. The author highlights in this and other videos the importance of diverse female body representation, beyond white bodies, including bigger bodies and bald women, for example. But she doesn't classify these bodies with porn genre or body tags that lead to objectification.
However, the issue of objectification or racial fetish isn't exempt from controversy on r/chickflixxx. In another thread, we find the following request: “Looking for black and biracial women with White, Hispanic, or Asian men that doesn't involve any fetishisation or degradation.” One of the responses that includes a Pornhub video recommendation tagged “ebony” (a slang term17 that objectifies dark-skinned women) becomes controversial. Another person states that white women aren't designated in similar ways. Someone else adds that we shouldn't have to omit performers' cultural or racial identity when it's precisely about giving visibility to underrepresented groups, but we should pay attention to using non-objectifying language. Lastly, there seems to be a certain shared agreement that mainstream porn platforms normalise this commodifying terminology represented in the titles, descriptions and tags used in these spaces. People in the community relate to the difficulty of finding and identifying content in search engines and mainstream porn categories. The r/chickflixxx community makes an effort to build another perspective on using and sharing porn.
The conversations held in r/chickflixxx are spaces open to speculation, to imagination, to diverse contributions and opinions, even sidetracking and talking about sexuality in general and not just porn. In the requests and recommendations we can appreciate a lot of collaboration and solidarity. In this forum, it's perfectly okay to admit that you don't know something without fear of judgment. For example, in one thread, a user asks the name of a certain threesome sex position. Other users answer that they don't know either but they aren't shy about inventing new names. Eventually, another user finds the name and shares the link to the group.
These conversations allow us to envision a craft of shaping a new meaning of feminist porn. Participants exchange ideas and resources to build together genres, topics, aesthetics, practices regarding pornography and sexuality, and a desire that is not completely static and pre-established. Porn “for women” is much more than content produced and tagged by the industry: it is a community searching and evaluating together the porn they want to use and share.
Porn “for women” is much more than content produced and tagged by the industry: it is a community searching and evaluating together the porn they want to use and share.
This creation stems from, but is also posed in contrast to, mainstream porn. Most of r/chickflixxx’s sources come from mainstream platforms where you can find a huge array of content, including tags and categories like "women-friendly". But despite a huge availability, it’s a challenge to identify content that doesn’t follow the conventions of sexist, objectifying porn. However, the r/chickflixxx community doesn’t turn away. They criticise and give new meaning to these conventions, while they try to create other representations through exchange.
A brief parenthesis for some methodological and ethical internet research considerations
My observations in r/chickflixxx made me think about Christine Hine’s approach18 on how ethical it is to use publicly available content produced by an online community just because “it’s out there”, visible for anyone that claims to be over 18.
Markham and Buchanan, in a report about ethics for the Association of Internet Researchers,19 say that people tend to have high expectations on the internet regarding privacy, even in spaces considered public. The thin line that separates what is public and what is private on the internet is complex and we need to consider the context in which certain people are engaging and what expectations they have. Even when participants talk in open spaces, they address highly emotional issues that affect their privacy and involve conflicts, arguments, exposure to violence, and all sorts of vulnerabilities.
As a feminist, I can’t turn my back on the participants’ concerns just because they accepted the terms and conditions that declare Reddit as a public space. This would imply holding users entirely responsible for their well-being and safety as a result of talking openly and publicly about their sexuality online.
As a feminist, I can’t turn my back on the participants’ concerns just because they accepted the terms and conditions that declare Reddit as a public space.
However, following Hine's recommendation, there isn't a predefined answer regarding ethical aspects of research on the internet that fits all. Each study should be analysed in terms of ethics in a specific way, because each situation is ethically unique. In this case, although I analysed previously published content without asking for specific consent for this article, I took care in not exposing participants to online or offline re-identification. I avoided usernames, pseudonyms and literal quotes, except for some that were particularly relevant.
Another concern I have tried to take into account is the risk of overgeneralising based on certain observations of the online community in question. I hold the certainty that these observations don’t universally represent the spectrum of feminine and queer experience regarding porn and sexuality online. The r/chickflixxx community exists on Reddit, a platform in which more than half of the users are men, from the United States and, in consequence, mainly English speakers. This is the reality of many platforms and sites, so we must take special care in not falling into sustaining what is more hegemonic and visible as a representation of the actual diversity of experience online.
Final thoughts: The different meanings of porn
What inspired me to take on this work is the dissonance I feel with the debate on mainstream porn and its problematic aspects. On one hand, there are restrictive proposals that seek to "protect" women, children and youth.20 On the other, the porn industry is developing a market "for women" that spans from lukewarm "women-friendly" to initiatives focused on feminine pleasure. However, to the extent that they are commercial offers, defined by industry parameters, in many cases, access is limited by payment gateways.
But there are also feminist standpoints that, despite not being prohibitive as such, are very critical towards pornography. This position can be summed up by the following fragment written by Laura Milano in “Usina Posporno”: “When people protest against the iteration of porn, they refer to a certain framing that is repeated over and over again: the straight cis white man's perspective that controls the world and the porn business; that reduces our sexuality to mating, mocks our alternative sexuality and politically stands from inside a capitalist heterosexual system."21
The r/chickflixxx community is also an expression of a critical feminist perspective on pornography. Within this community, participants have been crafting for years an alternative way of using porn online; shaping themselves as an audience of women and queer people that transcends the objectified and passive role assigned to them by default in the mainstream porn industry. To observe or participate in conversations is an opportunity to understand the connection between women and porn from a place of agency and appropriation. Because we women are not just porn objects or consumers of a “porn for women” market. As an audience that shares, comments, debates and gives new meaning to porn, we have our own voice and agency.
To observe or participate in conversations is an opportunity to understand the connection between women and porn from a place of agency and appropriation.
- 1. See https://www.pornhub.com/insights/corona-virus
- 2. See for example https://www.inverse.com/science/is-watching-porn-bad-for-your-health-we-...
- 3. See for example https://radiolatinamerika.no/noticias/noruega/3240-la-pornografia-en-tie...
- 4. Brown, J. (2017, 26 September). Is porn harmful? The evidence, the myths, and the unknowns. _BBC_. \https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20170926-is-porn-harmful-the-evidence...
- 5. Wijesiriwardena, S. (2019, 24 June). Private parts: Obscenity and censorship in the digital age. https://genderit.org/feminist-talk/private-parts-obscenity-and-censorshi...
- 6. See for example \https://www.glamour.com/story/5-porn-sites-for-women-that-youll-really-r... and https://mashable.com/article/pornhub-alternatives-free-porn-paid-porn.amp
- 7. Zilli, B., & de Laai, T. (2019, 24 August). Female porn on the rise? _GenderIT.org_. https://genderit.org/articles/female-porn-rise
- 8. See for example https://mashable.com/article/pay-for-your-porn-erika-lust/
- 9. See for example \https://www.thedailybeast.com/why-porn-has-gotten-so-rough and [https://www.thedailybeast.com/why-porn-has-gotten-so-rough](https://www.thedailybeast.com/why-porn-has-gotten-so-rough
- 10. ee the Wikipedia definition: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chick_flick
- 11. This article is based on a project undertaken in the context of the workshop “Redes sociodigitales e investigación con métodos cualitativos. Bases para la etnografía digital”, facilitated by Paulina Gutiérrez (Colmex), offered by the Social Sciences department of the Universidad de la República (Uruguay) during August and September of 2020.
- 12. In fact, moderators redirect the cis men who write in the forum to other spaces. Cis men's messages are deleted and the following notification appears instead (which demonstrates that the rule is being applied): "To keep chickflixxx comfortable for female users we ask that male posters please refrain from posting. If you'd like to have a meta-discussion please go to \https://www.reddit.com/r/chickflixxxformen/ and if you'd like to post something please try https://www.reddit.com/r/passionx/ or \https://www.reddit.com/r/chickflixxxformen/."
- 13. See the wiki: \https://www.reddit.com/r/chickflixxx/wiki/index/
- 14. Content guidelines: https://www.reddit.com/r/chickflixxx/wiki/index/contentguidelines#wiki
- 15. As we have seen, fetishising minors is explicitly forbidden in the r/chickflixxx rules. According to the wiki: "This includes sexualisation of minors, role play in which the performer presents themselves as a minor regardless of their age, and content for which the primary theme is the imbalance of power based on either a portrayed or actual difference in age."
- 16. This led me to explore more "conventional" porn forums on Reddit and observe what type of comments appear. I found short comments, mainly expressing arousal (like "she's so hot", "hot scene", "omg", "lucky man", etc.). Surely this requires more observation, but tentatively it reaffirms the idea that r/chickflixxx is a different kind of place, where comments are longer; there's more conversation, exchange, and diverse points of view.
- 17. Definition in Urban Dictionary: \https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=ebony
- 18. See the video of a presentation by Professor Christine Hine, “Do we still need to talk about online methods now that everything is online?”, post on 11 August 2020: \https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eDTn5MOAUOU&t=2477s\
- 19. Markham, A., & Buchanan, E. (2012). _Recommendations from the AoIR Ethics Working Committee (Version 2.0)_. Association of Internet Researchers. \https://aoir.org/reports/ethics2.pdf
- 20. Wijesiriwardena, S. (2019, 24 June). Op. cit.
- 21. Milano, L. (2014). Usina Posporno. Disidencia sexual, arte y autogestión en la pospornografía.