The male gaze on queer women

7 Mins read

The porn industry is estimated to be worth up to $100 billion (£82bn) a year, and creates more web traffic than Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter combined.

Around 70% of all Pornhub users are male. Pornhub is the biggest international internet-porn site, with more than 25 million viewers a month in the US alone. In 2021, Pornhub Insights revealed that ‘lesbian’ was its most requested search term in the UK, and the second most-viewed category worldwide.

The male gaze on queer women has been evident for centuries. The ‘male gaze’ refers to the ideology that the female body is sexualised for heterosexual men, or for the patriarchal society as a whole. It depicts women’s bodies and personalities as an object for men to eroticise.

A graph that depicts 'Lesbian' being the most viewed category worldwide - in 2021
Pornhub Insights – Worldwide 2021

The term ‘queer’ was once used as a derogatory slur, but has since “been reclaimed by the LGBTQIA+ community as an umbrella term,” which is further explored in the Cosmopolitan article ‘What Does Queer Mean?

The hyper-sexualisation of queer women is often used for TV/media stunts and magazine covers, so Artefact interviewed a group of queer women, to find out how the male gaze has affected, and still affects them, today.

A graph that depicts 'lesbian' being the most searched for term in the UK in 2021
Pornhub Insights – UK 2021

Alexandra Rain, 23, told me that she thinks that lesbian porn is, “Weird. Watching women having sex from certain angles, in a certain way, for the pleasure of straight men with lesbian fetishes; I just don’t find that attractive,” she said, and also revealed that: “PornHub actually has a ‘man watches lesbian porn’ category.”

Tina Ledger, 29, told me that she is also reluctant to watch porn that has clearly been created for men, “All porn is aimed at men. But if I’m feeling like a wank I’ll watch some PG sex scenes from a lesbian movie (likely a bloody period drama), much better than watching some painful looking porn attempt!”

In her recent BBC documentary series Planet Sex, Cara Delevingne travels the world to explore gender, and sexuality. In an episode titled ‘Can Porn Be Good?’, Cara, who identifies as pansexual, expressed her opinion on lesbian porn, stating, “It’s not really sex, it isn’t anything.”

When she was asked if she thinks that the porn stars appearing in these ‘Lesbian pornos’ are queer, she replied: “Not really.”

Queer women often feel sexualised by men, with more than half of LGBTQ+ women experiencing unwelcome jokes of a sexual nature in the workplace alone.

We asked the women if they ever been sexualised by men, Emily Cook, 20, told us: “Yes, oh my god! All the time. Throughout the years if I have mentioned that I am bi- or that I am attracted to females, almost without a doubt, the first thing they mention is a threesome for sure. They’re like ‘Brilliant, you’d be open to a threesome then’ and I’m like ‘No, I wouldn’t’.”

Edie Townsend-Kwan, 21, added, “Growing up half Chinese, there is always a crowd of fetishisation looming, but certainly more so when I began to tell people I was bisexual.” When we asked her where this has happened, she said: “At a bar, in a restaurant, in a lift. Any moment breathing/talking about my sexuality. I remember the first-time people I knew back home found out I was bisexual, and immediately it became something that would be brought up when there were a large group of men and just me.”

“They would say it, that they wanted to watch. I was 14.”

Emily Cook

Leanza May, 30, who is also Asian agreed: “Queer and Asian, that’s pretty much the cliche in a porn category.” She went on to talk about how she has been eroticised as a gay woman for years: “I’ve had people wolf whistle while kissing a partner, a guy saying that ‘the amount he would pay to see that’, referring to me and a partner. I get anxious when I see groups of men (even a singular man) watching me and my partner do simple things, like hold hands, in case there’ll be some sort of repercussion.”

Bethan Jones, 21, disclosed one of her experiences as a teen, when she was also sexualised for being queer: “In high school when I was kissing a girl, one of my friends’ boyfriends – he used to encourage it. When they were officially together, he was encouraging us to kiss. I think he liked the idea of watching a girl kissing a girl. I think he just wanted to watch and smile. “

Also sexualised as a teen, Emily Cook revealed: “The guys used to encourage me and other girls to kiss, so they could watch. They would say it, that they wanted to watch. I was 14.”

Alexandra emphasised that “the majority of occasions that I have felt sexualised by men, it’s when drinks have been involved! I think this shows that deep down, there is often a taboo around my sexuality and my sexual experiences, people seem to feel too uncomfortable to ask – a bit of Dutch courage sets them off though!”

In addition to queer women feeling victim to the constant offers of unwanted threesomes, Edie Townsend-Kwan suggested that ‘the male gaze’ only fuels the stereotype of queer woman having a higher sex drive than heterosexual women: “The half Chinese girl, with boobs, who wishes to fuck any person – a blanket statement, that assumes being bisexual means I want to fuck anything or anyone with a pulse.”

“The half Chinese girl, with boobs, who wishes to fuck any person, a blanket statement, that assumes being bisexual means I want to fuck anything or anyone with a pulse.”

Edie Townsend-Kwan

In her podcast Saving Grace, Grace Barry discussed the misjudgement of queer women having an increased sex-drive with Emily Miller, who appeared on the Netflix reality show Too Hot To Handle. Miller told her: “Any time a girl says ‘Oh, I’m bisexual’ or ‘Oh, I’m a lesbian’, immediately people are like sex, sex, sex, sex! Like no, it’s not like that.”

To which Grace responded, “It’s really weird because no-one does that with men, no [heterosexual man] sits there and goes ‘let me watch gay men’ – it’s like really weird.”

On the topic of the perverted male gaze on queer women, Emily Miller noted that “people think girls are lesbians, for men.”

A woman at the DC Women's March, holding a white sign that reads: 'SMASH THE PATRIARCHY'
Woman protesting at the DC Women’s March [Unsplash: Chloe Simpson]

Emily Cook also noted the misconception of queer women being expected to be unfaithful in a relationship: “I definitely feel that there are partners where they have felt a threat from it [being bisexual] – like ‘right I’ve got to look in both directions’ kind of thing.”

We asked the girls if they tend to avoid mentioning their sexuality around heterosexual men, and if so – how they do it. Tina explained, “I don’t tend to speak about my sexuality around straight men, I invent a boyfriend, as being queer seems to invite intrigue and result in me being viewed as a challenge,” and that, “I’m not ashamed of my sexuality, which is why sometimes I’d rather pick my battles and keep it to myself. I don’t need external validation anymore and I don’t need to change anyone’s mind.”

We were curious to find out why many women choose to identify as ‘gay’ instead of ‘a lesbian’? “I think the term ‘lesbian’ has always felt objectifying for me – if you called a cis, homosexual man, ‘a gay’, it would be a derogatory slur, but a cis, homosexual woman is often referred to as ‘a lesbian’. That just feels wrong to me,” Alexandra told us.

Tina also emphasised the objectification she feels with the term ‘lesbian’: “For me, gay is less fetishised by straight men – similar to dyke. Straight men are programmed to be repelled by ‘gay’, which is fine with me.”

Along with the other 47% of queer women who have been victim to unwelcome questions and comments about their sex life in the workplace, Edie Townsend-Kwan also shared her views on the larger interest in sex within lesbian relationships – in comparison to straight relationships.

“I think that the way media presents lesbian relationships is a huge factor in this. In almost all TV and film with a lesbian couple in is depicted with a classically ‘sexy’ woman through the male gaze so I feel this sets the precedent for people’s thoughts, feelings and interest in lesbian sex and relationships.”

With the media having a huge impact on the eroticism of queer women, Tina added: “I feel like a lot of it is spurred on by men’s desires (much like a lot of things), growing up and watching TV shows where girls would feel like they had to make out with each other to impress the boys, the Britney and Madonna kiss, general queer-baiting in the early noughties media, it’s all been so sexualised for the male gaze that, two women being together equals sex.”

“Lesbian relationships have been a sexualised taboo for centuries. Historically, queer women haven’t faced the same homophobic barriers, laws and discrimination that queer men have experienced. Sure, there’s a lot of homophobia towards women, but I think it’s often masked as a fetish or through sexualising lesbians,” Alexandra added.

Tina has had “friends of friends have asked me inappropriate questions about how I have sex or invited me into threesomes, you name it. I guess heterosexual relationships are seen as the ‘norm’, and another word for normal is mundane or boring, so I think there probably is a big interest in lesbian and queer relationships. Though straight men would never actually admit they want to watch Brokeback Mountain.”

“Sure, there’s a lot of homophobia towards women, but I think it’s often masked as a fetish or through sexualising lesbians.”

Alexandra Rain

Pigeon-holing queer women into ‘femme’ (feminine) and ‘masc’ (masculine) categories was once limited to lesbian subculture, and used to acknowledge one’s identity. Emily Cook emphasised how, putting women into these categories has developed into society “trying to fit it into a box; there must be a man and woman in a relationship. People can’t get their head around the fact that lesbians can just be two women in a relationship.”

Alexandra believes this can be inherently damaging: “I think gay women often feel pressured to slot into either ‘masc’ or ‘femme’. I think this can be detrimental to a person’s confidence and self-esteem, especially early on if they’re struggling to understand their sexual identity as it is!”

Edie agreed: “When I was working through my own thoughts on personal sexuality, having someone put their thoughts and opinions into the ring to compartmentalise me as a person would have felt controlled and confusing.”

Leanza May acknowledged the dangers of compartmentalising queer women into ‘masc’ and ‘femme’ categories by simply saying: “I don’t really get it. It’s basically following the rules of heteronormativity and we already know the dangers of that.”

Featured image by Raquel García via Unsplash CC

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