1. Every couple of years, one media outlet or another will run a ruminative piece on porn. This allows them to combine two big sellers: sex and moral panic. There would be absolutely no benefit in them concluding that porn was a good thing. Therefore, when the mainstream media talk about porn, they often divert directly to the most degrading examples possible. It makes a better story.
2. The term ‘porn’ is pretty useless without context. We use it to cover such a wide range of material, from words on a page to live, interactive internet performance; from topless glamour shots to footage of child abuse. Many discussions of porn fail to differentiate between different types of material. We simply take a pro- or anti-porn stance. This is as stupid as taking a pro- or anti- stance on ingestion, rather than recognising the shades of meaning that fall within the term. It’s hard to make a case for swallowing glass, but easy to love the health benefits of a salad. We are even capable of reasoning that cake is bad for us in quantity, but perfectly fine on occasion. We need to take a similarly nuanced view of porn.
3. I used to think I was anti-porn, but I hadn’t really watched any. I was worried about: plastic tits, women being degraded, abuse/coercion of performers, sex being ‘performed’ rather than experienced, the effect porn had on the viewer, and whether porn does enough to challenge outdated gender roles. I’m still worried out those things, actually, it’s just that I’m now able to make more informed choices about the porn I watch. I didn’t have the information to understand that different producers are making porn in different ways.
4. When talking about porn, we rarely ask the basic question: Do we think it’s wrong to portray people having consensual sex in a manner of their choosing, for an adult audience? My answer to this question is: No, I don’t think that’s wrong on principle. We must always bear that question in mind when we talk about porn. We are often critical of the means of delivering porn, rather than porn itself, yet we too often fail to make the distinction.
5. Women actively enjoy sex. The vast majority of sexual encounters are consensual and hopefully pleasurable. Just because a woman has sex, it does not make her a victim. We all understand that these days. Don’t we? Then why is it so hard to understand that women can happily consent to be part of the porn industry?
6. No performer, be they male or female, should be abused or assaulted in the name of entertainment. Actually, can I shorten that statement, please? No person should be abused or assaulted, full stop. If we choose to watch porn that contains criminal acts, we are supporting and perhaps funding that act. It is the responsibility of the viewer to satisfy themselves that they are watching a consensual act. However, none of the preceding statements mean that porn in inherently abusive. Nor does it mean that all porn actors are victims. It would be helpful to have the equivalent of a Fair Trade badge for porn.
7. Is porn sexist? Well, it’s a tricky one. It’s fair to say that a great deal of porn is made for the heterosexual male gaze. It’s also worth pointing out that mainstream porn, particularly the stuff made in the US, seems fixated on a certain type of female body, which looks remarkably like a Barbie doll to me. If we studied the sweep of porn films currently available, I doubt we would conclude that they offered the most aspirational view of womanhood possible. However, I’m not aware of the same levels of concern being expressed about the men who perform in gay porn, who must conform to equally idealised body images, and who are also sometimes portrayed as being available for the sexual gratification of another. Porn is just a window through which we can watch our own fantasies played back to us. What’s more, we are able to choose the porn we watch. I’m uncomfortable with watching Barbie doll women who appear to have no concern for their own pleasure, so I don’t watch it.
8. It’s an undeniable fact that young people have more access to porn than ever before, and the material they can get hold of is probably more explicit. We must ask ourselves what part of this makes us feel uncomfortable. Clearly, we need to ensure that young children don’t stumble across material that would shock and frighten them. But I’d argue that it’s a good thing that older teenagers are able to access the information about sex that they need. Even people as young as me (*cough*) can remember the bizarre rumours that were shared about sex, in the absence of all other information. However, we must ensure that teenagers have the opportunity to put porn into context. They need to understand that some porn is nothing more than a modern-day freakshow; they also need to know that they have choices around many of the acts that are standard in porn, for example anal sex. This means that they need sensible, sensitive and open sex education more than ever, I’m afraid. It’s unlikely that they’ll lose the ability to access porn now, and even more unlikely that they’ll lose their natural curiosity about sex.
9. Sex is playtime for adults. Just as we accept that children’s games sometimes take them to dark places, we must accept this of adults too. Being a human being is an exercise in light and shade, and this is sometimes expressed in the realm of sex. There is a worrying trend in contemporary anti-porn feminism to argue that certain desires and fantasies are just wrong, perhaps a case of false-consciousness or a result of the malign influence of patriarchy. I don’t think that one group of people should tell another group of people what to think.
10. Porn is widely used by both men and women. It is entirely natural to become aroused at the sight of other people doing sexual things. The vast majority of people who access porn do not become addicted, and do not commit sexual crimes as a result. That is not to downplay the terrible nature of any addiction or crime; it is simply to say that porn is just one of many means through which people might enact social, emotional or psychological problems. We must stop imagining people to be passive, malleable viewers, and instead remember that audiences bring their own aims, world views and critical understandings to anything they watch. The more we acknowledge this, the more we empower people to make thoughtful, ethical choices about the porn they consume, rather than forcing them to behave furtively.
Oh, and one more:
11. Jacqui Smith, there was a public outcry about your ‘interesting’ interpretation of parliamentary expenses rules. Don’t confuse this with your husband’s use of porn. I suspect that most people aren’t particularly shocked that your husband watches the odd blue movie. They are shocked that you’d be willing to claim your sister’s house is your first home, rather than, say, the house your children live in. I’d hate you to be in a muddle about the real moral issue behind this.
Some source material from the recent porn debate:
Can Sex Films Empower Women, a debate between Anna Arrowsmith and Gail Dines in The Guardian.