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Does Porn Silence Women?

Respectful ≠ Boring

By Hester 

 

Not all feminists are anti-porn.

Back in the 70s, American radical Ellen Willis was railing against critics of porn for their “sexual puritanism” and “moral authoritarianism”. Freedom is inherently risky, she argued, it’s about embracing the refusal of security and accepting the messy consequences – “death, breakdowns, burnouts, addictions”, whatever.

Perhaps this – the inherent risk of sexual freedom – explains today’s obsession with internet porn: it enables us to experience risk through a safe lens. But has it, as journalist Emily Witt questions in Future Sex, allowed porn to “love the taboo”?

It seems that in plenty of pornography, the all-encompassing embrace of “taboo” has given racism and misogyny a free pass. Let’s talk misogyny.

BODY IMAGE

Porn, thanks to wifi, is regular recreation. But its irregular effects on real-life sex are uncomfortable. A common objection among women is that porn’s untenable beauty standards foster body anxiety. The idea that men and boys have been impregnated with the notion that waxed, plastic and pert Love Island-looking girls are a representation of the physical norm is certainly hard to stomach.

“…a comfort blanket in the gristlier underbelly of porn”

 

But as the online pornosphere has grown, so too has it diversified. Pin-ups no longer need be pruned professionals. Any of us could upload homemade porn; any of us could go viral. The idea that mainstream content only features societally ‘beautiful’ men and women is long obsolete. What’s more, there’s perhaps a comfort blanket in the gristlier underbelly of porn. When stretch-marks, sagging skin, cellulite, pubic hair or ‘abnormal’ breasts fill a laptop screen, it is a reminder that everyone can have sex.

Instagram/PlannedParenthood

CONSENT

That all kinds of bodies are often used in hetero porn to feed a skewed representation of consent is, however, a different story.

“53% of boys think that porn is a realistic portrayal of sex”

Young women’s sexual boundaries are being routinely misrepresented in online porn and this matters because the line between porn and real-life is disturbingly blurred: 53% of boys think that porn is a realistic portrayal of sex.

It’s not uncommon in porn for a woman to say no to sex several times. Often, upon her next refusal, a co-star pushes her to the bed, initiates sex anyway and suddenly, hey presto, she’s having the orgasm of her life in 30 seconds. This isn’t just a naive portrayal of female pleasure, but a dangerous framework in which young men can nurture a crude understanding of consent. It also robs the word no of its power.

 

shutterstock/ArtFamily

If someone repeatedly watches porn in which a character’s consent, or lack thereof, is not taken seriously, he (or she – but in 2017, 77% of PornHub’s content was consumed by men) begins to internalise the dismissal of consent.

On scanning the homepages of popular free porn sites you’ll find titles like “drunk virgins woken up and banged” or “schoolgirls f***ed in shower”. Yes, clickbait relies on curiosity and the thrill of disgust but is sex with an underage or very drunk person consensual in real-life?

If more than half of male consumers believe porn to be a realistic portrayal of sex, it seems real women might be being silenced by their pornographic sisters’ inability to perform the act of refusal.

Women become powerless pretty quickly if the intention of their refusal is only acted upon by certain audiences in certain situations. Someone’s ability to consent should never hinge on the willingness of their partner to listen: if your refusal does not work each and every time, then you are never refusing on your own terms.

DEVIL’S ADVOCATE

Many argue it’s ok to enjoy porn depicting drunk and/or underage girls being seduced by stepfathers/teachers/bosses/[insert male authority figure here].

I know they’re acting. I know it’s not real, they say, viewing porn as an ethical way to explore their sexual desires within the safety of a bedroom. Take the example of the girl ‘won over’ by her co-star’s repeated requests for sex: can’t such an exchange be healthy? A teasing role-play as a turn-on?

Yes, but that’s exactly the point, it’s a role-play. If the back-and-forth protest were not entered into by both parties as a game, then it would not be consensual.

It is not that porn should have to shun consumer tastes – that would just be bad business – but there is an intersection between ethics and entrepreneurialism and that intersection is consent. Chanel Preston – porn star and president of the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee (APAC) –  said this to Cosmopolitan in 2015:

“When it comes to sexuality, our framework for what is ethical can easily change and that’s OK as long as it’s consensual. Do you think it’s ethical to kidnap a person against their will? Probably not. But there are many who would find it arousing to pretend to get kidnapped during sex and I would not consider this unethical”.

A conspicuous example is BDSM: bondage, discipline, sadism, masochism.

BDSM is one of the most controversially violent niches in pornography, so it might surprise you that it can be among the most ethical porn out there.

BDSM is totally misunderstood. It’s the consensual exchange of power between two adults… People can’t help what they’re attracted to. It’s OK to be into bondage and to want to submit, as long as everybody is consenting and happy about it.”

Maitresse Madeline, a Kink.com fem dom.

But how can porn achieve this? How can it satisfy subversive consumer tastes while also pioneering consent?

ETHICAL PORN

Many believe ethical porn to be the answer. The general hallmarks are deference to performers’ preferences and bodily autonomy. Preston’s definition encompasses any pornography in which “all terms of the scene are consensual – sex acts, pay, conditions”.

But the sad reality is that attitudes towards women in non-ethical pornography often suggest that women working in sex industries ask for, or at least expect, their bodies and preferences to answer to higher powers.

Performers access relatively few protections within their industry. As journalist Claire Lampen put it, “Even in the middle of a #MeToo moment, the sexual misconduct reports that come out of the porn industry haven’t achieved the same kind of purchase as those coming out of Hollywood, likely because people wrongfully assume that a woman working in sex asks for—even deserves—whatever she’s given, by virtue of showing up to set that day.”

Yes, the spontaneous and pleasurable aspect to porn doesn’t lend itself naturally to scouring the small print of content before you click. But explicit evidence of consent is of paramount importance.


BishTraining

 

However, on free mainstream porn websites, where content is often illegally-downloaded, the evidence isn’t normally available. The ‘additional material’ that can accompany porn (e.g. behind-the-scenes interviews with performers out of character) just won’t be found.

To combat this we are normally advised to pay for ethical pornography or ‘get to know your porn stars’. If you can see an actor is publicly vocal on their social media about what exactly they consent to professionally, you should theoretically be able to enjoy their work more, safe in the knowledge that they’re happy to be there.

“Women’s bodies are a form of sexual currency, something that looks tradable and disposable”

But not all porn consumers are sexually mature enough to realise this importance. When consent is not evidenced, it’s harder to explain to a young person (and remember, with porn’s current accessibility this can mean very, very young boys and girls) that the woman they’re watching being tied up and spanked might genuinely want to be punished in such a way, and was involved in initiating the sex.

Young consumers are growing up thinking women’s bodies are a form of sexual currency – something tradable and disposable. Something to use for achieving a personal end. It’s hard to undo this premature education at a later date (when the young consumer becomes sexually active themselves) if they don’t understand the mature discussions that should take place in sexual relationships where submission, domination and/or role-plays occur.

ACTION

Ethical porn says: engage with discussions on consent, spread awareness, pay for the content you enjoy. But people acting upon this advice, and women advocating it, are still enshrined in a society that sexually shames women to a higher degree than men.

Male friends tell me they don’t openly discuss their use of porn with friends, but arguably there’s at least a more concrete understanding that they use it than exists for their female counterparts.

We see it in the over-egged jokes about grubby tissues in teenage boys’ bedrooms, routinely explored in comedies like The Inbetweeners. Male masturbation has a more established seat in coming-of-age narratives than the unprodded flower of female sexuality.

 

Elle/KareeshaNaidoo

 

Yes, this is changing. And no, “Sorry Janet, can’t get those accounts over yet, got distracted by 60+ Dilfs in my area” likely won’t enter watercooler conversation soon. But a general shift towards the de-stigmatisation of women discussing porn would help conversations on sexism within the industry progress.

Porn is a recreational, often impromptu activity. Lumping the burden onto the consumer to perform ethical tick-box checks is therefore awkward. But it’s more awkward for women (the ones appearing to suffer the most from non-ethical porn) when an interest in discussing pornography is often met with surprise and judgment.

Let’s change this with awareness. The time is now: porn has never been so prevalent or accessible and the industry’s showing no sign of slowing down. After Pornhub‘s 10th birthday in 2017, the website revealed that young adults account for the majority of porn consumers. Millennials comprise 60% of Pornhub’s users: “that’s approximately 45m people – accounting for an estimated 55bn videos viewed last year.”

It’s an overwhelming picture of pornography’s place in modern sex culture, and a worrying thought for corresponding representations of consent. Sex is a two person tango, and dissecting the portrayal of consent in porn is crucial for everyone.

As sex-positive filmmaker Erika Lust put it, “A lot of people think the whole ethical perspective and feminist perspective is for women, and that is completely bullshit. It’s for people who have standards and ideas and value and want the same things from the things they are consuming, even if it’s eggs, clothes, or porn.”

 

 

WHAT CAN I DO?

Good question.

READ:

 

And if you’re convinced, CONSUME:

 

  • The Cosmo article recommends Kink.com, Wood RocketPink & White/Crashpad Series, Burning Angel, KJD Media, Wicked, Adam & Eve, Trouble Films, Brazzers as companies named ethical by performers.

Main featured artwork courtesy of Adam Harvey, from the ‘Save As’ series, 2004-2006.

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Comments 2

  • Thanks for sharing

  • Re: your suggestion that 53% of boys think porn is an accurate representation of sexual activity.

    A quick look at the study (which surveys just 1001 11-16 year olds) shows that of the 48% (a mere 476) of children who reported having come across online pornography, 264 were male, and from this sample, 53% reported thinking that porn portrayed an accurate depiction of sex.

    That’s 140 boys. Out of 522 (so more like 27%). From a survey of 1001 children. So that claim is a bit of a fudge. How can you or anyone else (i.e. The Guardian) confidently extrapolate these results seemingly to the general population without mentioning their source/provenance whatsoever? It’s almost as if you deem it FACTUAL and not worth arguing about. Very easy to use certain facts to fit your narrative – much harder to challenge and refine your arguments based on all the facts available.

    For example, you ignore the fact that the same study found that, when asked to rate their overall attitudes towards pornography, 49% of respondents concluded it was unrealistic in its portrayal of sexual activity (the top rated answer out of all the options). How does this fit in with the narrative? Maybe, given that the study focused on 11-16 year olds, younger kids are more likely to conceptualise sex in the way it is portrayed in porn, and their perception evolves as they grow older. I know previous studies on porn have focused on usually young adults’ memories of watching porn – perhaps they have different findings in this regard (something to find out, maybe?)

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