Porn: perversion or empowerment?

The year before Katrina devastated New Orleans I was invited to an Internet Porn Convention in the Big Sleazy. These were halcyon days for the online porn industry. Money was being made hand over pumping fist and the industry’s big names swaggered through the convention centre and the strip clubs of the French Quarter like they were Guns and Roses.

New Orleans smelled like a kicked over trashcan and the scent of menace hung heavy. The limo journey from the W Hotel to the convention centre took five minutes. We didn’t dream of walking.

To be honest, I didn’t think about the morality of what I was doing for a second. This was back when porno still had the power to be chic and transgressive and I was a Hunter S in the making. But the thrill of being surrounded by every flavour of porn I could possibly gorge on soon wore off. I caught the scent of physical and moral violence behind the fake tan, pinks, purple, latex and leopard skin. Most of all, though, I got bored.

I was reminded of this experience when I read about Laura Bates and The Everyday Sexism Project and began to ponder the question of how porn affects young people.

The rise and rise of porn

When Loaded magazine launched in 1994 I was working on the launch of a new condom brand. An ad sales person from Loaded got in touch and tried to sell us space. The phrase "lad culture" hadn’t yet been coined and I simply didn’t believe a mag dedicated to "life, liberty and the pursuit of sex, drink, football and less serious matters", as editor James Brown put it, could possibly succeed.

I was completely wrong. Loaded tapped into the zeitgeist in so many ways, including the beginning of the repornification of popular culture (after the first wave, post Deep Throat) and the emergence of porno chic. So how and why did porn manage to make itself so fashionable back then?

Feminism fatigue

I studied film in the early 1980s and many of my lecturers were militantly feminist and brutally intelligent. At first, their ferocity was exhilarating but it soon became too much for me. The idea that I would be tolerated as long as I was a feminist man began to get right up my nose.

And, as a child of the 1960s and 70s, when porn was hard to come by – as it were – unless you had the balls to go into a newsagents and pick a magazine off the top shelf, porn still gave me and most of my male friends a thrill. Loaded enabled young men to consume very soft-core porn ironically (although consumption is never ironic) and irritate what we saw as complacent, humourless Millie Tant feminists at the same time. If you thought we were sexist pigs, that was what we were going to be.

Why porno chic?

As Brian McNair points out in his book Porno? Chic!: How pornography changed the world and made it a better place, porno chic came about as a result of a combination of circumstances.

Partly as a result of feminism, women began to assert their right to express their sexuality. This, it turned out, could be every bit as predatory, rapacious and silly as that of men. Along with gays, women began to use porn as a way of challenging convention and experimenting with transgression. It’s easy to see how this could be seen as liberating and McNair makes a plausible case. He argues that porn:

·        Is the "killer app" which inspires the digital innovation that benefits us all

·        Articulates and makes visible hitherto marginalised or suppressed sexual identities

·        Educates users about the mechanics of sex, especially safe sex

·        Provides an outlet for desires that it may not be possible to express in a relationship, helping couples stay together

·        Inspires art and culture.

For me, the big problems with McNair's conclusions are that he skates over the corrosive effects of the porn business and doesn’t address the question of whether its consumption is harmful to young people. We’ll get to the second point later but let’s address the first now.

The rise of both Loaded and porno chic coincided with and was enabled by the Internet making porn more widely available than ever before. Fortunes could now be made from porn by people like the grimly earnest Midwesterners I mixed with at the Internet Porn Convention who saw it as just another business.  Pornofication and porno chic was partly a response to the enormous sums of money washing around, and the paradoxical desire of newly minted pornographers to both be respectable and capitalise on their status as pioneers of sexual freedom.

This was before free porn hit the Internet and it seemed like the bottom had dropped out of the industry for good. But then along came Mindgeek.

MindGeek

We’re fortunate enough to live in times when there’s enough porn online for us to watch for the next few years of our lives. Every kind of porn you can possibly think of is waiting. And it’s all free. So why isn’t the porn industry dead on its feet? Instead, as Fusion.net says, “if only by sheer volume, it’s flourishing: more new porn is being made, every day, at volumes never seen before. One report has a new porn video being made in the U.S. every 39 minutes.”

According to Fusion, this is because porn stars are using free videos as a way of enticing fans to pay for more “intimate sexual services”. But it’s also down to the astonishing success of MindGeek. If you ignore the actual way it makes money, MindGeek is a fascinating phenomenon and a shining example to online content providers everywhere.

MindGeek is the “copyright-busting monopolist” that owns what are called “tube sites” (after YouTube) like PornHub, YouPorn and Red Tube. It consumes more bandwidth than Twitter, Amazon or Facebook, reaches over 100 million people every day and is regarded as the porn provider. MindGeek makes its money almost entirely from advertising revenue and the ads it runs blur the lines between porn and prostitution.

(As Fusion points out “MindGeek has brought porn back to its roots. After all, the word ‘pornography’ comes from the Greek pornē, meaning prostitute, and graphein, meaning to write, or record. It literally means ‘a recording of prostitution’.”)

Porn vids, then, are often actually commercials for other services offered by porn stars – appearances in strip clubs, one-on-one Skype sessions or “In real life” sex. It works in the same way Spotify does: “most people will be perfectly happy with the free product, but a small minority will pay for more exclusive services”.

Chances are that the porn consumed by young boys comes from a MindGeek site. Which brings us to The Everyday Sexism Project, porn and sex.

The Everyday Sexism Project and Fight The New Drug

Laura Bates launched The Everyday Sexism Project blog after “A two week-period of constant sexual harassment which included a man groping between her legs on the bus and being followed on her walk home, combined with her work as a nanny where she witnessed eight-year-old girls refusing to eat pasta because they heard it ‘made you fat’.” The Project now has around a quarter of a million followers on Twitter and Laura has just published a book called Girl Up.

An issue that particularly concerns Laura is porn and how it's used by young people to learn about sex. She says: “We got an entry from a girl who was 13 and she said ‘I’m so scared to have sex, I’m crying almost every night because I saw a video of sex on a boy’s phone at school and I didn’t realise that when you have sex a woman has to be hurting and crying’.”

Part of the problem, as Laura points out, is that actual sex education in schools is failing children. She was stunned when she visited a school, looked at a biology textbook and realised that the clitoris was not included in a diagram of the vagina. Porn is sexualising children and making them feel – wrongly for the most part – that they’re being educated but there seems to be no counter to all the misinformation. (It has to be said that porn will leave a kid in no doubt as to the location of the clitoris.)

An article on the website of American non-profit Fight the New Drug (“Porn Kills Love”) is even more disturbing. Commenting on an Australian project called Don’t send me that pic, which surveyed girls between 15 and 19 and reported “that online sexual abuse and harassment were becoming a normal part of their everyday interactions”, the article highlights how “Pornography is molding [sic] and conditioning the sexual behaviors [sic] and attitudes of boys, and girls are being left without the resources to deal with these porn-saturated boys.”

According to the article, one girl answered the question “How do you know a boy likes you?” by saying “He still wants to talk to you after you [give him oral sex].”

So far so shocking. But I have to say my perspective on Fight the New Drug changed when I discovered it’s actually backed by the Mormons, an organisation whose attitude to sex of any kind is hardly enlightened. Still, they have a point.

Porn, boys, and the spectacle of violence

The Demise of Guys: why boys are struggling and what we can do about it, a TED publication by Philip G. Zimbardo and Nikita Duncan seems to pretty much nail it. The book deals with the use of porn by young men while trying to establish why “guys are flaming out academically, wiping out socially with girls and failing sexually with women”. As you’d imagine, freely available Internet porn has a lot to do with it.

You really should read this book for yourself, especially if you have children, so I won’t do more than summarise the argument. According to Canadian researcher Sonya Thompson, the average boy watches nearly two hours of porn every week. And if you think of the fundamental purpose of porn for solitary boys, that’s not two hours at a single stretch. Because boys watch so much porn “they don’t know the difference between making love and doing porn”.

And, running counter to the standard liberal belief that watching bad stuff doesn’t make us do bad stuff unless we’re already wired weird, it does appear possible to become addicted to porn. Especially if you’re a boy:

Addictive arousal traps users into an expanded present hedonistic time zone. Past and future are distant and remote, as the present moment expands to dominate everything.  And that present is totally dynamic, with images changing constantly. Boys’ brains are being digitally rewired in a totally new way to demand change, novelty, excitement and constant stimulation. And their brains are being catered to by porn on demand…That means they are becoming totally out of sync in traditional school classes, which are analog, static and interactively passive.

When it comes to interacting with girls, a “twisted sort of shyness” has evolved. Boys who consume vast amounts of porn (and play hours of video games) don’t develop the social skills to even talk to girls they fancy. But if a boy can’t find a girl vulnerable and confused enough to act out his porn fantasy, pornotopia is always only just a click away.

Maybe coincidentally, perhaps not, I’ve recently been reading Disposable Futures: the seduction of violence in the age of spectacle by Brad Evans and Henry A. Giroux. It’s a pretty uncompromising book but I agree completely with the authors’ central argument that neoliberalism is encouraging us to believe we live in a world “which has lost all faith in its ability to envisage – let alone create – better futures”. This is because neoliberalism is determined to invade and control every single aspect of our lives, while attempting to persuade us that individual responsibility is “the only politics that matters”. But the project to convince us that we alone count isn’t about empowerment. It’s to prevent us from joining forces with other individuals to fight the corporations behind neoliberalism.

Instead, we become personal brands clamouring to be heard on social media. We smooth off the rough ages of our messy real lives, posting endless photos of the food we eat when we escape to the sun. Are we having fun yet? It looks like it, and that's enough.

Evans and Giroux argue that one of the ways neoliberalism keeps us apart from and afraid of each other is by, to quote Situationist Guy Debord, presenting the whole of life as “an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that was once directly lived has become mere representation”. The authors are talking about violence and the controlling influence of fear but it’s not difficult to see porn delivered via screens, those “perpetual emotion machines”, as another agent of passivity-inducing alienation via control.

It’s also easy to see how the ubiquity of porn could function as a way of keeping adult males passive, and perhaps function as a way of reducing the birth rate. At a far simpler level, neoliberalism is driven by greed, the desire to make more money from every single aspect of our waking lives than has ever been possible. If corporations could profit from our dreams no doubt they would. But I find it hard to believe that the forces that seek to control us are happy with the pornification of youth.

Unless boys are being trained to become adult consumers of porn, I prefer to see the damaging effects of the stuff pumped out by MindGeek as unintended by pornographers. It’s as if MindGeek was a damaged nuclear reactor, leaking pink and purple poison that turns anyone who comes into contact with it into sexual zombies.

Pro or anti porn?

Brian McNair believes it’s impossible to take a simple pro or anti porn stance. For him, “What the public sphere is to democracy, the pornosphere is to the libido – the source of knowledge, information and imagery which will facilitate arousal and sexual expression: the means of self-empowerment.” He points to the presence of porn in more liberal countries as a force for tolerance, for freedom from all kinds of control. Supposed agencies of morality, from ISIS to the Catholic church, are also deeply suspect when it comes to sex. Of course, he’s right.

He’s also right, in my opinion, to suggest that porn can be part of a healthy sexual relationship between consenting adults. That is, if we enjoy porn that doesn’t indirectly fund the viler aspects of the sex industry. (You’ll be pleased to know that there’s a website called veganporn.com for “titillating tofu eaters”.)

But I can’t find any way to believe that saturating young people with porn is ever a good thing. Can you?