Jane Juffer’s (1998) book At Home with Pornography: Women, Sex and Everyday Life considers the democratizing effects of the commodification of sexually explicit

materials, especially as it relates to women’s access to and engagement with erotic genres. Where she differs from McNair is in the way that she demonstrates the con­tinuing influence of ‘quality’ and ‘trash’ distinctions, which, despite their instability as cultural categories, still regulate the circulation of erotic texts. Her method uses textual analysis not to contribute to this process of discrimination but to reveal the conditions of possibility that legitimate a text’s circulation and consumption as a product of specific taste cultures, an approach that has influenced the form of this book. She is also concerned to move beyond the moralizing categories of the feminist ‘porn wars’ (see Segal and Macintosh 1992; Vance 1992 for an overview), and is critical of the tendency in feminist debates about pornography to set up various competing hierarchies of erotic texts in which only certain kinds of ‘transgressive’ pleasure are legitimated (Juffer 1998: 2).

The kinds of transgressive performance that are cited by feminist writers as exemplary, Juffer explains, are the avant-garde performances of sex positive radical Annie Sprinkle, whose ‘Post-Porn-Modernist’ pornographic display offers a feminist critique designed to liberate women into a boundary-less world of polymorphous sexuality (Straayer 1993; Williams 1993). This kind of pornography has appeared on late night, minority television in the UK, such as the Renegade TV series on Channel 4, which included a documentary on Suzie Bright (Sex Pest, Channel 4 1998) and included Annie Sprinkle in another (Sacred Sex, Channel 4 1999). Other feminist writers, such as Laura Kipnis in Bound and Gagged (1999), have celebrated the transgressive poten­tial of hard-core porn in such down-market forms as Hustler magazine. Hard core, Kipnis argues, ‘contains everything that is excluded from mainstream culture by taboos and prohibitions’ (cited by Juffer 1998: 17). In this respect, then, hard core can be seen as a political challenge to a prudish establishment and the stultifying rules that restrain sexual expression. Hard core emphasizes deviant practices and sex for sex’s sake in a series of decontextualized sexual encounters that get straight to the action, involving erections, penetration and ‘money shots’ showing ejaculation. It is the ‘real thing’ as judged against the ersatz ‘second best’ of soft core, with its endless fondling of breasts and simulated intercourse, which has been tamed for the ‘feminized’ mass market (Ross 1993). In its exploration of the open apertures, protuberances and fluids of the sexual body, hard core valorizes the ‘grotesque’ body of popular culture over the more respectable, closed body of soft core ‘glamour’. But the majority of women, argues Juffer, are unlikely to find these high and low forms of pornography pleasurable: not all women want to be transgressive, and to imply that this is the only legitimate form for women’s erotic pleasure sets up a hierarchy of desire legislating for correct and incorrect forms of sexual expression. For a popular medium such as television, there­fore, these evaluations have little relevance.

Juffer rejects what she sees as the universalizing tendency in which feminist com­mentators take their own politically or morally motivated values and raise them to the status of ‘truth’. She quotes this passage from John Frow’s book on Cultural Values in support of her position:

Cultural discrimination involves a constant negotiation of position with the aim of naturalising one’s own set of values, distinguishing them from the values of others, and attempting more or less forcefully, to impose ones values on others. It is thus not just a matter of self-definition but also a struggle for social legitimation. That is to say, elite tastes masquerading as universal criteria of value.

(Frow 1995: 85 cited in Juffer 1998: 25)

Juffer’s argument is part of the wider critique of second wave feminism for promoting the political concerns and cultural tastes of a narrow band of middle-class career women over women’s majority culture. This, it is argued, simply reinforces the low status of women’s culture in a bourgeois, patriarchal hegemony where middle-class men’s tastes provide the standard against which other forms are judged as ‘trash’. Popular forms of television have been central to this debate (see discussion in the Introduction).

Juffer also criticizes this approach to cultural analysis for assuming that essentialized meanings are embodied in pornographic texts. Once these meanings have been established by the feminist critic certain effects are then assumed, whether those be a reinforcement or transgression of women’s devalued status in patriarchal culture. Juffer’s method is to study the material and discursive conditions in which different kinds of pornography are produced, distributed, obtained and consumed and how this shapes their meaning and uses. She asks what factors enable them to acquire this kind of cultural legitimacy and equally what forms of sexual pleasure and identity they make available and culturally ‘intelligible’. She draws attention to the importance of textual aesthetics in this process and the significance of genre as a means by which texts are made intelligible and legitimate for specific groups of consumers in particular historical and spatial locations. Central to this process, in Juffer’s view, is the means by which erotic texts differentiate themselves from the regulatory legacy in which pornography has been generically defined by legal prohibitions, secrecy and an exclusively male address. In order to legitimize sexually explicit materials for the main­stream, then, a variety of aesthetic strategies are necessary to make them ‘safe’ and pleasurable for a wider range of consumers. Soft-core ‘erotica’ for women counteracts discourses that position women as always the victims of sexually explicit materials. Instead, through a claim to aesthetic complexity in its greater attention to narrative form and characterization, soft core can be justified as expressive of women’s desires. As we shall see, she takes up this analysis in relation to erotic dramas on television and how they are made palatable for distribution into the home.

The domestic nature of television viewing is a significant factor. The transgressive consumption of erotic television by women in the home cannot therefore be reduced to a progressive historical process in which embedded textual conventions, such as passive roles for women, are broken. Transgressive identities also involve ‘going beyond’ the spatial boundaries that constrain women’s sexual agency (Juffer 1998: 112). Crucial to this is the Victorian legacy of the gendering of public and private space in which ‘respectable’ women were confined to the home, and ‘street walker’ was another term for prostitution. This was reinforced in the 1950s by liberal legislation in which the home was conceived as a haven free from ‘pollution by pornography’, which was ‘zoned’ into specially designated spaces in the city. It ensured women’s exclusion from access and defined them as asexual suburban ‘housewives’. Television has played a major role in reinforcing this construction throughout the 1950s, and beyond (Thumim 2001). New possibilities were opened up, however, from the 1980s by the development of new technologies – the video recorder, cable television and now the Internet – that have changed the material conditions of domestic space and its temporal rhythms, carving out new possibilities for women as consumers of pornography. It has enabled the provision of ‘adult’ videos and subscription channels addressed to heterosexual couples as well as to men, and late night erotic programming on more mainstream channels, albeit hedged around with warnings of their sexual content. These new material conditions have not eradicated previous assumptions but have allowed some renegotiation of the aesthetic and social practices regulating women’s access to erotica in the home, although in uneven and contradictory ways.

In her analysis of cable porn channels, for instance, Juffer (1998) asks what texts are available to enhance women’s mundane everyday sexual practices in the home. In her view, the fact that they offer pleasurable fantasy should not be subject to judgements from intellectuals about what counts as ‘good’ porn (ibid.: 14-21). Their textual features are politically contradictory. They are inclined to reinforce conventional heterosexual relationships and a narrow range of identities but they do offer a greater focus on women’s sexual pleasure. Rather than the placeless utopia that is charac­teristic of most pornography, their sexual fantasies are located in relation to everyday life, a feature that Juffer regards as enabling their integration into women’s lives. Their use of legitimizing narratives, which motivate the sexual encounters, might be ‘noise’, in Laura Kertz’s terms, designed to reduce the residual cultural anxiety that still attaches to watching arousing images. But it is these aesthetic features that make them available to ordinary women. She compares them to the new genres of erotic novels for women, such as the Black Lace series, which try to distance themselves from pornography by emphasizing their literary qualities. This provides the legitimacy that enables more widespread distribution in mainstream outlets such as respectable bookstores. The involvement of women as writers also helps in this respect, a factor that is illustrated in the Playboy cable example discussed below.

Television pornography is much less diversified than the market for erotic novels, in part because of the much stricter regulations governing the medium. Soft core for women on the premium channels such as Showtime is addressed to the affluent women who can pay the subscription charges. There are strict limits to the identities shown. For instance, women in soft porn are never shown as mothers, and rarely as lesbians or ethnic minorities. An exception is a series called Women: Stories of Passion, pro­duced by Playboy Enterprises and written and directed entirely by women. Although

the Playboy cable channel is almost exclusively addressed to men, Hugh Heffner’s daughter, who now runs the business, has a strategy to diversify into ‘couples’ pornography in order to regain legitimacy for a business whose profits were damaged by the feminist anti-pornography campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s. This example is an intimate confessional narrative format structured around a woman writer who is collecting women’s sexual fantasies. These include lesbian encounters, older women with younger men, guiltless promiscuity and a critique of racial stereotyping. More­over, it shows men’s bodies as much as women’s (Juffer 1998: 224; Backstein 2001: 312-13). This is very rare. Even where soft core narratives emphasize female pleasure the visual focus usually remains on the (conventionally attractive) female body, not on men’s bodies, and especially not their penises, which are still subject to censorship (Juffer 1998: 203). The long history of pornography’s exclusively male address means that there is an underdeveloped visual aesthetic for eroticizing the heterosexual male body.

Showtime’s long-running Red Shoe Diaries (shown on late night Channel 5 in the UK) is a series that has attracted substantial critical attention because of its explicit address to women and its relatively high production values (Juffer 1998; Backstein 2001). It employs a number of contradictory textual strategies which indicate, in Backstein’s (2001: 308) view, an attempt ‘to net a mixed gender audience while remain­ing for the most part, unable to disengage fully from the male viewing position’. A male narrator frames each week’s episode. The pretext is that these stories arose out of his discovery of his dead fiancee’s journal, in which he found out for the first time about her sexual betrayal. This provokes him to advertise for other women’s sexual confessions (ibid. 2001: 309). (In a parallel move, the Showtime website invites viewers to write their own diary entries.) Although bracketed by a man’s judgemental perspective on her revelations, it also reverses the gendering of romance conventions in that it ‘emphasizes the male quest for romance and the female quest for independence within romance’. Here it is the man who ‘needs the reassurance of a secure relation­ship’ (Juffer 1998: 220). The ‘confessions’ allow for a series of erotic short stories told from a woman’s perspective, which give women the sexual agency to make their fantasies come true. The ‘private’ confessional as narrative form, originating in Richardson’s novel Clarissa, has many parallels in other women’s genres, such as Nancy Friday’s collections of women’s sexual fantasies (1976, 1991) or the letters on Oprah Winfrey’s talk shows, which supplement the participants’ performances (Wilson 2003).

In ‘You have the right to remain silent’, for example, a woman’s fantasy about one of the men in the gym where she is exercising is pursued in ‘real life’. She uses her position as a traffic cop to pull his car over, handcuff him and put him behind bars while she seduces him. Juffer (1998: 221-4) comments on the mobility of the female protagonist who moves across the boundary between public and private spaces, which, she argues, is essential to sexual agency. She is also in control of the desiring gaze, when, for example, watching him exercising in the gym. This scene uses the convention of showing the active male body as a way to avoid the potential feminization of objec­tification, whereas the handcuffing and cage scenes draw on the iconography of sadomasochism, with the woman as uniformed dominatrix. However, as soon as the narrative nears its sexual climax, the woman’s body is moved centre frame in order to obscure the man’s penis and we return to the conventional language of soft porn in a sequence of arched backs and undulating torsos to suggest pelvic thrusts (Backstein 2001: 313-14). The narrative resolution also emphasizes the return to convention, with the man declaring ‘we are going to be like normal people’ (Juffer 1998: 223).

We can see, therefore, that although still extremely marginal, soft-core television for women has ‘progressive’ elements, in, for instance, its inclusion of women as central protagonists whose actions drive the narrative, the visual structuring of a desiring female gaze, the assertion of women’s sexual power and autonomy. On the other hand these innovations are grafted on to more traditional romance and soft-core conventions in which a focus on the display of women’s bodies and a ‘respectable’ – that is, heterosexual, white, middle-class, suburban – lifestyle provides the narrative frame. Juffer’s argument is that, rather than denigrating these texts (and by implication the women who consume them) for reinforcing women’s objectification, it is possible, instead, to recognize the way their aesthetic strategies legitimate pleasurable con­sumption of pornography for women within the home. As with soaps, the importance of soft-core television pornography is that it can be integrated into the spatial and temporal rhythms of women’s everyday lives. This approach avoids the problem of colluding with paternalistic censorship regimes, as the anti-porn feminists are accused of doing. It also avoids universalizing the tastes of an elite minority of urban sophisticates, a problem that has bedevilled feminist cultural politics from the start, while recognizing the ways in which cultural tastes are socially produced and regulated. It also recognizes the feminist case for equal sexual citizenship in the cultural sphere; women’s access to a diversity of sexual representations is assumed as a right.