Two different people in the last couple of weeks have asked me if I look at porn. Both seemed surprised when I said I didn’t – apparently I strike people as the kind of woman who would.
So I started to think about why I don’t, and how I feel about porn generally. I asked some liberal-minded friends too, male and female.
When I was a teenager, we didn’t have the Internet (can you even imagine it?), and there’s no doubt the proliferation of porn has been massively aided by the spread of cyberspace. It is so much more accessible, and this in turn has led to it becoming more normalised, more an accepted thing for people to do, to look at.
Now I’m no prude, and I’m not adverse to a bit of erotic fiction, but as a visual thing, porn just doesn’t do it for me. Maybe, like my attitude to car maintenance, this is a girl thing – the visual element of sex doesn’t tend to be as important for women as it is for men – but at its most basic level, being presented with the image of strangers shagging isn’t a turn on for me. I need more than that. I’m the same generally – I very rarely find myself attracted to a man based purely on looks, it is about much more than that, and sexual attraction definitely increases in the context of other things, like how well I know a person, how much they make me laugh, how they make me feel about myself.
Let’s be honest though, the vast majority of porn isn’t just about two people happily shagging is it? The porn industry is set up with one thing in mind – men’s pleasure – much of which is at the expense of women. Porn is prostitution, women as objects, being degraded, humiliated and abused for money, and yet we are apparently supposed to just go along with it as ‘something men do’, just a bit of harmless fun. At what point did the objectification of women become so socially acceptable? (If you’re interested, do check out OBJECT, the organisation that campaigns against our sex object culture. And it’s not all men of course – have a look at the AntiPornMen Project)
One of my friends summed it up pretty nicely. “Personally, I like a bit of porn,” she said, “but can’t help but feel that the element of exploitation is too strong to find it pleasurable. It slightly feels like getting off watching people starve. If porn paid the minimum wage then I might be convinced of the arguments FOR, but it doesn’t. It’s quick bucks for women with little options. As a woman, I can’t see past that. You can work your way through the literature and still you find yourself wondering: “Is this fellow woman happy? Is she really enjoying full and free choice?” And that question is what pervades the watching of porn, and no matter how much I enjoy it, I cannot enjoy it while I harbour the doubt that another woman isn’t making a totally free and independent economic choice. And I don’t get off on that. I can’t divorce it from the economic and power disadvantage that women have. I’ve always liked porn but can’t divorce it from the women involved.”
As well as the obvious emotional and physical harm it does to many of the women involved, one thing that concerns me about porn is the impact it has on people’s expectations about real life sex. If you are an adult, with a healthy sex life, then porn might seem like a fun sideline, but at least you have a context for it, and you appreciate that it isn’t an accurate representation of real life. But what about if you are a teenage boy, with no more experience than an awkward grope of a boob at a school disco, or perhaps, if you’re lucky, a cheeky finger in a girl’s bedroom? If your frame of reference is based on extreme or violent sexual images, how is this going to shape your future relationships with women?
And what about girls? We have produced a generation of young women and girls, who are starving themselves, shaving themselves, surgically changing their body shapes, believing they need to look like the highly sexualised images of women we see everyday in magazines, in advertising, in music… basically everywhere. Just look at the facts (see the OBJECT website for sources):
- Over half of all women around the world say they first became aware of the need to be physically attractive between 6 and 17 years of age.
- 66% of teenage girls would consider plastic surgery and 20% would do it right now.
- Polls suggest that 63% of young women aspire to be glamour models or lap dancers.
- One in three people believe a woman is responsible for violence committed against her if she is wearing ‘revealing clothing’.
It feels at times like it has become expected of girls and women that they will want to enjoy being humiliated, that having uncomfortable things done to them is fun, that watching porn is what all the cool girls are doing. And for all the men reading this right now and thinking ‘she’s just being naive, all those women are quite happy to be involved, it’s normal, it’s natural’ – just imagine for a minute your mother/sister/girlfriend/daughter coming to you to tell you she’s a porn star… you’re fine with that are you?
“When I met my boyfriend he had a massive porn collection,” one friend told me. “Absolutely all of it had more than one woman in it, and as a result he definitely thinks this is a much more common scenario than it actually is. One film actually had about ten women in it on one man. Ten women?? That’s not exactly likely is it?!” We asked her boyfriend what he thought, and he agreed that it is really easy to lose track of reality and a real sex life if you are exposed to too much porn.
Boys and young men brought up on a diet of regular porn are surely going to have an unrealistic idea of what sex is really about, and exactly what’s normal in a loving relationship. “Boys can’t watch porn and think that sex is always like that,” said one friend, “that any guy can have a perfect size 8 slut who loves nothing more than three cocks in her at once while another girl is touching her boobs.” Well quite. “Porn should be an occasional thing and should not be confused or distract from real love and love-making and the interaction you get from that.”
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that porn can have a negative impact on both the user, their partner and society at large, and this fascinating article – an account from therapist Wendy Maltz of how attitudes to and issues arising from porn have changed over the last 40 years – goes as far as to describe pornography addiction as America’s ‘newest and most challenging mental health problem’.
Of course everyone’s idea of what constitutes ‘a problem’ will be different, and will depend on a whole range of other factors. Compulsively looking at porn and banging one out every time you switch on your computer might be expected from a single 16 year old boy, but at what point does habitual porn use become a problem? How much is too much?
“Looking at porn two or three times a week would be normal for me,” one of my male friends told me, “but that is not necessarily hardcore stuff. I’m not sure how much I would class as too much – everyday I guess would be too much for me. I do think it can do some serious damage to someone’s sex life. Porn is basically other people living out your fantasies and that is not always going to transfer to your own bedroom… I think it’s very important to try and remember the difference.”
Another male friend told me he only looks at porn about once a month, and that he actually finds it quite boring. “It’s not like real life,” he said, “women don’t really like it if you spunk all over their face, and they don’t make that much noise.” He told me that he often finds himself more engrossed in the plot that the actual porn element – a classic line I know, but he is a writer, so probably does take a genuine interest in things like dialogue, and based on some of the other things he tells me I have no reason to think he’d hold back on this one. “I was watching something once where I found myself genuinely interested in the characters,” he told me “Hmmm… is she going to like the taste of cum? Oh yes, she did! Good for her!”
Another friend I spoke to told me she struggled with porn. “I feel that there are a lot of issues surrounding porn and how ‘normalised’ it has become,” she told me. “I believe that it does exploit women and despite the fact that I am not a prude, it does make me feel very uncomfortable and objectified and sexualised in contexts that I don’t want to be, and I also think that it would have a huge impact on ‘real life’ sexual expectations. Whatever happened to nice long lazy lovemaking sessions – why must we feel that we are performing and that said performance is being judged against pornographic depictions of sex?”
This idea of being judged is a concern shared by a lot of women, and many women feel genuinely betrayed by a partner’s use of porn. No one wants to feel they are being compared to other women – previous lovers is one thing, but porn takes the competition to a whole new level.
Wendy Maltz sees plenty of women who are very profoundly affected by their partner’s relationship with porn. “The reactions of intimate partners were almost identical to those of clients I’d counselled whose partners had been having affairs,” she writes. “Women came to me shocked and traumatised…I remember one who sobbed, ‘His betrayal feels like a knife has been thrust in my heart.’ It didn’t matter that her husband’s ‘mistress’ was on…a screen; he’d still betrayed her by channelling his sexual attention and energy away from her, onto someone else. She felt angry, hurt, alone, powerless, and unable to compete with the perfect, airbrushed young bodies of the women featured in the videos she’d found her husband masturbating to. Her trust in and respect for him were gone, and she told me she felt as sexually abandoned, insulted, and betrayed as if he’d been with another woman.”
I am not some kind of bitter, prudish, uptight woman who ‘just needs a good seeing to’ and this isn’t a knee-jerk, feminist, anti-porn reflex. I am just a normal person, with a sense of humour, and a normal, open-minded attitude to sex. But pornography and sex just aren’t the same thing. Pornography is the objectification and dehumanising of women for men’s benefit. Sex is an intimate, safe, personal relationship between consenting adults. Exactly when did the lines between the two become so blurred?