So I’m going to stick my head above the parapet here and write about pornography and young women, in light of the report published yesterday that found young people need better protecting from the impact of porn – particularly the flavour that is violent and degrading.
This article is only going to focus on young women and the impact – not on other issues around porn such as worker’s rights, violence in the industry etc. Another day, perhaps!
I want to share then, in this post, what I have learnt about porn and its impact, as a feminist activist for many years, and why I think it is important we have a grown up, non-ideological conversation about it.
A few months ago, I went to a secondary school to talk to young women about feminism. The girls were about 15 years-old. There were 30 of them, and they each had prepared a question to ask me and my colleague. I was surprised at how many of the questions were about pornography.
Compared to when I was a teen, and the boys stuck a page 3/lad’s mag picture on his exercise books or art folders, porn was part of these girls’ lives. Some of them might have been ok with this. But the overwhelming sense was that porn was everywhere, and they didn’t have much of a say in whether they wanted to see it – it was just there. There was also a sense that the sex you see in porn was what girls should want, when in fact – and bearing in mind I was in a school and so had to be very careful about how we talked about sex – the girls weren’t sure about what they were seeing. Talking to them as politely as we could about consent, respect, pleasure and women’s desires was very revealing. Here were young women who were surrounded by a smorgasbord of sexual imagery whether they wanted to be or not, who hadn’t really had conversations before about what they wanted from sex and sexuality, or even how a conversation about what they wanted was important to have. All the imagery and film that made up their sexual landscape was filtered through male wanting, and male expectations.
I share this story because I have seen a lot on Twitter about how criticism of porn is to deny young women’s sexuality, sexual curiosity and desire. But from speaking to young women, I have very real concerns that instead, exposure to porn is having that very effect. Of course some teen girls will enjoy watching porn but for a lot of young women, a world where a man anally rapes a woman and then orally rapes her is pretty confusing. To me, sexuality and sexual curiosity should be about exploring your body, what you want and what you like. When everything you see and hear about sex is telling you that women’s consent, desire, pleasure and safety isn’t important, then it can be very confusing to know that as a woman, you have an absolute right to these things. And, of course, it’s very confusing to boys who are growing up, perhaps with feminist mothers, seeing imagery that tells them that women don’t have a right to these things. If no one is telling you otherwise, how are you going to know that women’s sexuality might differ to the ones on the video?
I know that a lot of women who have gone into schools have had very similar experiences to this and that confusion about porn and sexuality is a theme repeated in school visits by feminists.
There’s the argument for creating ethical, feminist friendly, female friendly porn. But I don’t think we can ignore that for a lot of young women, their first exposure to porn is the violent stuff. And let’s not kid ourselves that there is a hell of a lot of deeply hurtful, painful and violent porn out there. I would argue as well that in some of the more gonzo stuff you simply do not know if there’s consent. This isn’t about BDSM either – which is consensual and agreed. This is about filmed simulated rape or filmed real rape that teaches young women that their right to consent and pleasure is secondary to what the man wants.
To me, the porn argument isn’t ideological. I don’t think we can take a theoretical position which says Ms X denies young women’s sexuality or Ms Y is ignoring the harm porn does. I absolutely believe we have to listen to girls. If a girl tells us that porn is a-ok and she loves it and it’s really helped her explore her sexuality then that is her reality. And if a girl tells us that she finds it confusing, that her partner pressures her into doing things she doesn’t want to do, then we have to listen to her too. And we have to find a way to make it safe for girls to explore their very natural sexuality, free from coercion or violence or the expectation that she should do things she doesn’t want to do. It’s simply not fair on girls to use them as a theoretical example in a discussion that has raged since the 60s. We have to start by listening to young women and supporting them.
One of the problems I see is that young women are growing up surrounded by pornography but with no alternative narrative about sex. And this is why the second report out this week, by EVAW on sex education, is so important. If the porn narrative is accompanied by one that teaches girls and boys about consent and respect, about how violence and coercion is not ok and how women’s pleasure and desire is ok too, then at least girls would have more of a voice to say what they do and don’t like. If we were teaching our young people about consent and respect, then they would have an opportunity to learn that in mutual and respectful sexual relationships, they don’t have to agree to do something they don’t like, and no one should pressure you into doing something you don’t like.
I don’t think we can put our heads in the sand around young people and violent porn. There are cases where porn has been used to groom girls and where girls have been coerced into doing what they don’t want to do because their partner has seen it in porn and therefore believes the coercion is ok. Speak to any rape crisis centre and they will tell you that story again and again. Sexting, non-consensual sharing of explicit images, filming rapes and attacks on mobile phones, taking explicit images of unconscious women – these are all news stories from recent months and it’s not hard to see how they reflect the world of porn. Porn is telling young people that women’s voices and women’s sexuality are secondary to male desire. Not only is that simply not fair, it can quite clearly have serious consequences.
Again, I don’t think this is about ideology. I think this is about girls’ lived experience and listening to those experiences and respecting them. It’s about hearing what girls are telling us.
Another area where I am concerned about porn is the idea of sex and money. I read a tweet yesterday that said porn is a healthy aid to masturbation. Of course, that is what essentially porn is intended for – duh! But alarm bells ring for me when we link a natural, completely normal human activity that we almost all do with a massive capitalist money making venture. Again, this isn’t to deny that some women and men do find porn a useful aid, but isn’t there something odd in the message that you need to pay or at least contribute to big business in order to enjoy your body? Isn't there something strange in telling us that we need a money-making scheme to help us enjoy sex? And there is big money in porn, most of which doesn't go to the actors and a lot of which goes to men in suits.
The flagrant capitalism of porn is something that rarely gets mentioned and because I am a socialist at heart but not an expert in the theory I don’t feel well placed to comment on it. I just have a strong feeling that anything trying to make cash out of human sexuality and human desires is a fairly capitalist venture. It’s one of the issues around waxing too. Waxing – which is straight out of a pornified idea of women’s bodies – basically tells young women that in order to look sexy and therefore feel sexy, they need to spend money. The idea is sold to us that we can’t be truly sexual unless we buy a product, and that not buying into that product means you’re a prude or non-sexy. But people have been figuring out how to have enjoyable pleasurable sex or to masturbate since time began – why all of a sudden do we need to spend money to do so? It’s weird.
Anyway, that’s a tangent.
Fundamentally, I think we need to have an honest and grown up conversation about the impact of porn on young people. To me, the heart of the conversation has to be about hearing young women, really hearing them, and respecting their experiences of this new world we live in where porn is part of their reality. It’s about listening to why this might be pleasurable to them as well as listening as to why it might be harmful and confusing. It’s about complementing or – in some cases – replacing the porn narrative with proper, feminist sex education that respects women’s sexuality and centres consent and respect. It’s time to stop talking over young women, to stop using them as symbols, and start hearing what they’re trying to tell us.