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Matthew Parris

Another Voice

Notes towards an explanation of why straight men like watching lesbians

27 August 2008

12:00 AM

27 August 2008

12:00 AM

For five years I served on the Broadcasting Standards Council, and there I encountered a riddle whose resolution has eluded me. The BSC has passed into history. Its function was really just to exist, and by existing to provide politicians and broadcasters with a plausible answer to complaints of the kind made by the late Mary Whitehouse — a responsibility now assumed by other regulators. Our job was to censure rather than censor. We took it seriously. The required monitoring was hard work.

But not always dull work. Ministers were at that time bothered by newspaper indignation about TV porn channels beamed from Europe — Red Hot Dutch was lately famous — and so for summer viewing members of the Council were asked by our staff to take home with us hundreds of hours of video-recordings of the output of such stations. We divided these among ourselves. At home, pencils in hand, we ticked boxes on pro-forma sheets listing questions like ‘NUDITY: [] partial; [] total; [] frontal; [] rear’; or ‘PENETRATION: [] simulated; [] actual; [] vaginal; [] anal’. I was frequently unsure.

Some of this was fun, some offensive. But some was less interesting than might appear — at least for me, the statutory homosexual on the Council. Over those five years I must have played, paused, fast-forwarded, rewound, freeze-framed and reviewed hundreds of hours of lesbians (or pretend-lesbians) rolling around on mattresses.

And not just mattresses. Sometimes it was tiger-skin rugs before blazing fires in baron-ial castles; sometimes it was grassy knolls in woodland glades; sometimes it was on yachts, sometimes sand-dunes. The background was more diverting than the foreground where, whatever the context, the action was always the same: rolling around endlessly and pointlessly, kissing, writhing, licking, caressing — on and on for hours and hours without serious incident… can you imagine the ennui?

Some of you can. I suspect that many, perhaps most, female readers can; and no doubt some male readers too. But not other male readers. For surprisingly (to me, anyway) the market for this kind of thing is not lesbian women, but heterosexual men. Apparently you straight male readers, many of you, find this thrilling. Many such men have confirmed this to me.


In heaven’s name why? I ask in a spirit not of censure — I can imagine little more harmless than two nude ladies wrestling, with their tongues out — but of bewilderment. What is it in lesbian sex (or their idea of what lesbian sex might be) that straight men get off on? I really want to know.

For reverse the polarities and consider the mirror-image: think of heterosexual women watching male gay sex. They don’t. I’ve asked. It does nothing for them; it just isn’t the kind of thing they want to look at. The expected symmetries are not there. In the absence of male gay pornography, many gay men will watch heterosexual pornography — to observe the men, not the women — though a minority of gay men I’ve questioned will not watch such material, being put off by the presence of any women at all.

And no gay man I’ve ever questioned has the slightest interest in female homosex- ual sex. When it comes to lesbianism, we gay men have — naturally — all the right attitudes on the political questions; and the obvious fellow-sympathies too. We wouldn’t persecute and we don’t disapprove; it’s none of our business. But (secretly) lesbianism bores us, for the truth is — though not a truth we would dare acknowledge on any of the various rainbow coalition committees with acronyms formed from permutations of L (lesbian) G (gay) and T (trans-gender, transsexual) — that gay men find it hard to see why anything that did not involve a man should be called sex at all. Only lesbians and heteros would call a blonde and a brunette writhing on a tiger-skin rug ‘sex’. Gay men would call it novelty wrestling.

For some years now I’ve been asking straight male friends to delve into their own feelings and discern what it is about lesbian sex that titillates and intrigues them. They furrow their brow for a while, then (sometimes) say they just don’t know. Others, after such pondering, reply that the viewer enjoys imagining that one of the couple might be him, rather than the woman. Others have said that anything involving naked women is interesting. Commonest, though, has been the answer that the respondent would like to imagine himself part of the action – turning the twosome into a threesome. When I reply that in that case, surely, he’d prefer to watch such a threesome, his response is that this would be less thrilling, because the man would not be him.

This makes some sense, but would make more sense if so many men who call themselves straight did not enjoy pornography that does involve both sexes. But they do; and some of the stuff I watched for the BSC was of just this kind, and aimed, equally, at a male audience. In fact almost all the pornography I’ve reviewed has been aimed at men, straight or gay. Many, perhaps most, women seem to dislike the whole idea of pornography quite intensely; they don’t just pretend to be disgusted (as men often do), but are genuinely disgusted; they are not a big market for it.

All this leads me to propose — tentatively — what could be a few elements in the answer to the riddle of the peddling of lesbian sex not to gay women but to straight men. First: women, of whatever sexuality, are simply less interested in watching other people than are men. There are few peeping Thomasinas.

Second: a 100 per cent heterosexual male (a minority, in my view) does not want to see or be reminded of other men at all, potential rivals, in the sexual context; is irritated by their presence; and finds unalloyed pleasure only in seeing women alone besporting themselves. And a 100 per cent homosexual male (likewise, not the majority) is irritated by seeing any women at all.

Third: the majority of men, who are predominantly but not entirely heterosexual, can get a kick from viewing either women-only sex, or men-women sex.

In short, a completely straight man wants to watch only women. A completely gay man wants to watch only men. All other males are somewhere in the middle. Females, meanwhile, don’t especially want to watch at all, and do not regard sex as a spectator sport.

Such, anyway, are the idle thoughts spurred by the hundreds of hours I once spent watching pornography for a living. How different, Mr Editor, from the home lives of our own dear readers.


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