Scrolling through the top videos on Passionflix, the streaming service for women's erotica, I am overwhelmed with a feeling of embarrassment on behalf of womankind, as well as a lot of questions.
Firstly, why are the women who watch these videos apparently so horny for Christmas? It is June and the sun is shining, and yet the videos in the "Magic and Mistletoe" category are still attracting viewers. Sexy Scrooge is in the week's most-watched list, as is The Naughty List and The Trouble with Mistletoe ("it's time to make a Christmas wish – and let the mistletoe do its work!")
Secondly, why are the men so oddly unattractive? Tall, muscly, strong-jawed, and so on – yes. But some of them are so strong-jawed that they look like angry Ken-dolls come to life. The hero of the Gabriel series (Gabriel's Inferno, Gabriel's Rapture, etc) is an academic who delivers his lectures while sporting designer stubble, slicked-back hair, and a bowtie. Personally, the combination made my nethers shrivel.
But that's clearly not how all viewers feel. The Gabriel films are original productions by Passionflix, which is headed by Elon Musk's younger sister, Tosca. For NZ$6 a month, subscribers have access to videos that are as short as four minutes or as long as two hours. Many are adapted from novels, including the Gabriel series, which was written by an anonymous Canadian man and has attracted such a cult following that die-hard fans offer themed tours of Toronto, the city in which the story is set.
Musk believes that she has spotted a gap in the market, and Passionflix could prove to be a lucrative venture, even if her product is not considered to be of high status. "Most of the time people look down at romance," she told the New York Times recently. "There is apparently something radical in having female desire as a main theme – and they don't think that romance is intellectual enough."
The mistake that the snobs make, of course, is to compare these four-minute romance films with mainstream films. Obviously they're not going to be "intellectual" – that's not what they're for. The genre of film that they should rightly be compared with is porn, since Passionflix is really just Pornhub for women. It has proper dialogue and a story arc because that's what these consumers demand, but the ultimate purpose of both genres is exactly the same, which means that the differences between them give us a revealing insight into the average differences between men and women when it comes to sexual desire.
A friend who used to work in women's commercial fiction (the formal term for "chick-lit") once spilled the beans on how the industry actually works. Publishers keep a close eye on the themes that are selling (e.g. vampires, World War II) and then commission a novel with that theme from an author who has a good track record in selling books. The author slots the themes into the romantic-fiction formula, adds some sparkle, and the book is produced and put on the market with remarkable speed.
Passionflix is attempting to do exactly the same thing – the only difference is that their product is on-screen. Erotic fiction marketed at women is nothing new, and it isn't necessarily as tame as you might think. Next time you're in your local library, have a look at the covers and blurbs of some Mills & Boon novels, written for an older and more traditionalist audience than Fifty Shades of Grey, the most famous example of the romantic fiction genre, and the bestselling book of the 2010s.
Invariably, the heroes in Mills & Boon are portrayed as big and muscled, and are either high-status professionals (surgeons) or adventurous vagabonds (pirates, highwaymen). Fifty Shades adds a whips-and-chains aesthetic, but many older romance novels are centred on much the same dynamic: the strong handsome man who falls head-over-heels in love with the heroine and will do anything to have her.
Writers in this genre are experts in female sexuality. Which is not to say that all women are turned on by Mills & Boon style romance, nor that women never watch normal porn – a significant minority of porn users are women, including the viewers of some of the most violent and distressing content. But there are some important differences between male and female sexuality on average, and these differences become obvious on a platform such as Passionflix, as well as in the Mills & Boon books.
The research data shows that, on average, women tend to be much more interested in monogamy than men are, and much more focused on serious and ongoing signals of commitment from their partners. Across all of the different books and films that make up the romance genre, one theme remains consistent: these consumers have never been turned on by a man who plays hard to get, wavers in his interest, or is distracted by the attentions of other women. What they want is a man who is really into them – often obsessively so.
This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Sex is hugely consequential for women because it means risking pregnancy, which lasts more than nine months, and is followed by a dangerous labour, which is followed by many more years of breast-feeding and infant care. As the evolutionary biologist Anne Campbell has written: "Biologically speaking, men's investment is completed at conception and they are free to move on to pastures new. But women, unlike men, are quality, not quantity, specialists … So great is the commitment demanded by every child that women's bodies and minds are exquisitely crafted to invest only in the highest-quality child that they can produce."
The silly plots of the Passionflix films make sense when understood in these terms, since the cheesy lines and lingering glances all fit together to form a product that hits all of the right emotional buttons for its audience. The same is true of the product offered by platforms such as Pornhub, which should best be understood as what biologists call a "superstimulus": an exaggerated version of a naturally-occurring stimulus that tap into an evolved longing for nourishment, excitement, and pleasure, but is far more exciting and hyper-real than anything found "in the wild".
There are serious ethical problems with the porn industry – not only because the product they sell requires performers to have real sex on camera, with all of the physical harm that entails, but also because of the compulsive and mind-warping effects of porn use on the consumer. But while Passionflix films do feature sex scenes, they are nothing like the real stuff, and their production is therefore far less ethically dubious.
Nevertheless, I wonder whether there might not be some mind-warping at play here too. There was a fantastic documentary made in 2012 titled Guilty Pleasures, which focused on the lives of Mills & Boon writers, cover models, and the series' most committed readers. A particular scene stuck in my mind: a fan lying full-clothed in bed, reading a romance novel and ignoring her partner next to her. The risk with fantasy – particularly when it's cleverly designed – is that it ends up deadening you to the real thing.