I sometimes struggle remembering what I did yesterday but the details of the first porn film I ever watched have stayed with me. I knew my brother had somehow managed to procure a dirty video and I also knew that if I was careful I could watch it quietly in the living room when nobody was around. I must have been around the age of 11 or 12, a gangly soon to be teenager teetering on edge of the precipice of puberty. I sat in my front room nervously listening out for any sign of my parents, and giggled at the opening credits. A woman came jogging into sight wearing tight seventies shorts and the camera panned in to a close up of her jiggling breasts. The action quickly moved to a bedroom where the portrait behind the bed had holes for eyes and the female inhabitants all transformed into lesbians as soon as the men disappeared. Perhaps because the emphasis was on women enjoying themselves together, with the male voyeur always behind the painting, I found the film amusing and a little bit exciting. A bit of cheeky harmless 70s fun.
The naughty video that I watched as a pre-adolescent and the even naughtier ones I went on to watch in my twenties are so removed from the pornography that is available online today that it is hardly comparable. But still, the porn I watched shaped my sexuality. Who on earth talks to their parents about the intricacies of performing fellatio? Or ponders about the nature of lesbian sex over Sunday tea? When my friends first told me about cunnilingus I was 13 and I found the entire concept disgusting, but a few dirty movies later, and I was ready to try it myself. I don’t want to turn this blog into a series of sexual revelations but this wasn’t the only thing I saw and then went on to try myself. Porn undoubtedly informed my view of what was normal and normalised things I had never previously dreamt of. I can not separate out the sexual being I am today from these early experiences and I have no way of knowing whether things would have been different if I had never watched that first footage of the clandestine lesbians.
Fast forward to 2014 and two of my friends have recently had to deal with their 8 year old children accessing hardcore pornography accidentally on the internet. When I was young, porn films were passed around like contraband between groups of teenagers. Hard to come by and watched in giggling groups of naughty friends. Now a young girl curious about the imminent changes to her pre-adolescent body is confronted with images of impossibly young looking women having violent anal sex when she googles “naked teenage girls”.
This immersion in pornographic culture is a uniquely new phenomenon. Children and teenagers have never had such instant access to the kinds of images that we are now able to find at the click of a mouse. It is estimated that 88% of pornography shows physical aggression towards women, with the most popular acts depicted in porn being “vaginal, oral and anal penetration by three or more men at the same time; double anal; double vaginal; a female gagging from having a penis thrust into her throat; and ejaculation in a woman’s face, eyes and mouth”. I am grateful I wasn’t exposed to such footage when I was teenager or who knows what I might have accepted as normal. A survey back in 2006 found that 40% of teenagers know a girl that has been coerced into having sex with someone and that 42% knew a girl who had been hit by her boyfriend. The survey also found some worrying attitudes in terms of entitlement to sex with 27% of respondents thinking it was acceptable for a boy to expect to have sex with a girl if she had been very flirtatious. Rates of heterosexual anal sex are also on the increase, as are resultant reported injuries and coercion is an increasingly common factor.
There is undoubtedly a need for more research into the impact and effects of such widespread pornography consumption by young people but there are some things that seem obvious to me. If you hold a social constructivist view of reality, then it makes utter sense that these things make a difference. Anybody that doubts that what we watch influences what we do obviously didn’t spend half their childhood climbing in car windows in emulation of the Dukes of Hazard like I did. And they probably haven’t heard about the 12 year old boy who raped his sister after watching hardcore pornography online either. If teenagers and young people are exposed to porn that routinely degrades, abuses and disempowers women then this is bound to affect their emerging sense of their selves as sexual beings and influence how they then behave in their relationships. Exposure to porn that embodies negative attitudes towards women perpetuates and reproduces further negative attitudes towards women which in turn eventually produces porn producers with negative attitudes towards women who produce porn that exhibits those negative attitudes towards women and so on and so on…. A neverending cycle of patriarchy reproducing itself. We will continue to fail our young people unless we find a way to interrupt the cycle.
Parents and educators seem unwilling to talk about such sensitive issues because to do so is to acknowledge that our children are at the stage in their lives when they are losing their innocence. Perhaps there is still an outdated notion that the porn our children are accessing is the sort of thing that we watched secretly in our front rooms as teenagers ourselves, rather than the violent abusive reality it so often is now. I have lost count of the number of times that I have had arguments about this issue with those scared of state censorship and the loss of freedom they envisage as a result – the individual freedom to wank somehow trumping the freedom of our teenagers not to be exposed to this stuff. I’m not one for quoting philosophers generally but I think it’s worth referring to John Stuart Mill in this instance as he makes a vital point:
“The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good, in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it”
Too often those arguing against censorship privilege their own freedom above that of others. Misogynistic porn both degrades the women who have to act out abusive scenes whilst pretending to enjoy it, as well as having a serious impact on societal attitudes. It is gradually normalising coercive and violent sex and this has an impact on all the women in our society. This is not the kind of world that I want to live in, let alone my children. I believe that it is possible to be both positive about sex as well as anti-pornography as it currently stands. To believe that we can instigate reforms in such a male dominated and powerful industry is so politically naive it is almost laughable. The porn industry does not care about women, it cares about money and that will always be its main concern. Whilst the main consumers of porn continue to be men who are seemingly turned on by such misogynistic abuse, then nothing will change. It is about time feminists stop arguing that pornography is ‘empowering’ and ‘liberating’ and wake up to the reality. Our children and young people do not deserve to be the unknowing subjects of a social experiment of this nature and we need to start talking about why porn is problematic for all of us.
Women as Subject: consists of feministy musings about things I argue about. It is a mixture of feminist theory, personal experience and ranting.