Can you be sex positive and hate porn?

Image credit: Stephencdickson

cn: mentions of r*pe, various kinds of sexual abuse, sexual violence, racism

The New Yorker article ‘Making Sense of Modern Pornography’ revealed that Porn Hub, one of the easiest to access free pornography sites, had 78-billion page views in 2014 alone. That’s a lot of page views, and there’s good reason to believe the number has gone up since. The site’s more popular videos have up to 70 million views each, and PornHub is only one of many similar sites.

On top of this, the internet is home to a wide array of paid/subscription pornographic and erotica websites, not to mention the unrecorded and ambiguous mass of porn that is watched and downloaded daily on the dark net. Undoubtedly, pornography is one of the world’s biggest industries- some claim it even surpasses social network sites in its online presence. And yet, there is shockingly little research done on it. In trying to find statistics for this article, I was frequently disappointed with information that came from as far back as the 1990s, or estimated numbers that were based on nothing at all. For numerical data that one would imagine would be fairly easy to analyse, information on porn is surprisingly hard to get hold of.

Many of the studies done on the effects of porn have historically taken a moralising, frenzied tone: condemning the use of pornography and lamenting the end of healthy sexualities as a result of the internet. Academics have frequently allowed themselves to get swamped down in respectability politics, shouldering the sex industry with a a disproportionate amount of blame for the misogyny of society as a whole.

As a reaction, much of the modern feminist discourse around porn has been focused on discrediting the Victorian style moralising of the past: 4th wave feminism prides itself on being sex-positive. Impressive women have shown the compatibility of sex work and feminism- from Amber Rose’s Slut Walk to Kathleen Hanna’s openness about her history of sex work- and SWERF (Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminist) style activism is now generally understood to be wildly outdated.

This is no bad thing. Embracing sex work, sex workers and sex positivity as part of the feminist movement is absolutely core to maintaining an intersectional approach to activism. It is nevertheless important to remember that sex positivity should be a movement that increases open discussions about sex and sexuality. Arguably the dogmatic nature of much of the sex positivity that is sold to us by way of consumer/pop feminism (Dazed and Confused magazine, though I love it, is a notable example) has done exactly the opposite. A dichotomy has formed between conservative, anti porn militants and sexually empowered, liberal young people. This dichotomy is unhelpful in part because it is dishonest, but more significantly because it has helped to fuel a silence around genuinely feminist, sex worker friendly criticism of the sex industry.

Porn is well overdue an analysis from such a perspective: we have good reason to be alarmed about the state and nature of the world of cybersex. On scrolling through the most watched videos on PornHub in the last year, one can quickly get a sense of the disturbing nature of the world’s popular sexual psyche. After Kim Kardashian’s sex tapes, almost all of the site’s most popular titles feature parent/child or sibling pairings. Rape scenes, often involving blackmail or the rape of young women who are unconscious or asleep, are also some of the most popular titles. The phrase ‘tiny teen’ appears repeatedly. Sex as punishment, terms like ‘whore’, ‘bitch’, ‘slut’ or ‘gagging’, ‘choked’ and ‘pounded’ also come up time and time again. The racist and fetishizing nature of a lot of the videos is also notable, with the website actually categorizing its material by the race of the women featured.

None of this is surprising- but it is disturbing. I can’t help but notice, as I look through the titles and the screencaps of the world’s most watched pornos, how much the behaviour on screen reminds me of the abuse many of my peers have experienced enacted in real life by their boyfriends and partners. I don’t know exactly what this says about porn, and I must emphasise that there seems to be little conclusive evidence about the relationship between violent porn and sexual violence.

Nevertheless, I find it hard to believe that the consumption of misogynistic and violent porn doesn’t affect the way that men treat their partners in the bedroom. Porn Hub, no doubt, is tamer than most: the real nasty stuff takes place on tor browsers where the activity is hard to detect and even harder to trace. And yet Porn Hub is still ultimately pretty gross. Think of it like this: if I went out looking for footage of people having sex, it would be easier for me to find videos of girls being raped in their sleep by members of their family than it would be for me to find footage of non-violent, intimate sex between people in a consensual setting. Of course, such stuff exists- but it is infinitely harder to find, and lots of it costs money. I do not believe that these videos have no impact on the young people (and children) that watch them, and it frustrates me that so little research has been done as to what that impact is, and whether or not it is possible to counter it.

The guardian reports that the number of reported rapes doubled across England and Wales between 2012-2016- an enormous increase in such a short space of time. The assumption is that this is primarily because of an increased willingness to report, rather than an increase in the actual number of rapes. Whilst I’m sure this is partly true, I read this assumption as being grounded on a baseless acceptance of that fact that we live in a world of ongoing cultural progress. In reality, we have every reason to consider that the hypersexual, hyper-masculine world of online porn has actually made sexual violence more prevalent. To dismiss this possibility out of hand is to potentially fail generations of young people who might be negatively impacted by the effects of cyber sex culture. Sex positive feminism, whilst celebrating the emergence of feminist porn sites and continuing to fight against slut-shaming and whorephobia, must strive to be increasingly critical of the sex industry as it stands today. This is a topic that deserves far more attention from activists and academics alike.

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