Our problem with porn is not straightforward

Nichi Hodgson

Nichi Hodgson on why treating pornography as a public health issue is not the answer

25 October 2018 16:51

‘Porn as a public health problem’: it’s a Dickensian-sounding headline, isn’t it? Only it also happens to have been deployed by the British red-tops this week, as the Commons Select Committee for Women and Equalities published its report on the Sexual Harassment of Women and Girls in Public Places and called for the Government to ‘address the harms of pornography’ as it has done smoking.

The report, intended to call to account a culture in which sexual harassment is normalised, took issue – and rightly so – with the viewing of porn on public transport. So far, so sensible. But the assumptions it then went on to make about the fundamentals of all pornographic content, and what happens when we view it, should worry anyone who prefers that the government takes an evidence-based, rather than moralistic, approach to public policy.

Yes, we have a porn problem. But it’s not as straightforward as an epidemic of Everyblokes watching content on their smartphones on the way home – and then viewing every woman they meet through the same prism. Nor does watching porn takes years off your life – and damage your relationships – as dependably smoking tobacco.

The fundamental issue that remains unresolved is whether viewing porn causes sexual violence. And while Dr Maddy Coyle of the University of Florida suggests it does – ‘there is a relationship between pornography consumption, attitudes that support sexual violence and likelihood of committing sexual violence’ – the Government itself remains unconvinced: ‘There is currently limited evidence to suggest a link between the consumption of pornography and sexual violence. The increased usage of the internet over the past 10-15 years has led to greater consumption of pornography […] However, the incidence of sexual violence, as captured by the independent Office for National Statistics, has been relatively flat for the last five years (Crime Survey England and Wales), and while estimates fluctuate from year to year, there has been a downward trend since the 2005/06 survey.’

It’s not as straightforward as an epidemic of Everyblokes watching content on their smartphones on the way home.

This is long-contested terrain and was a key theme of third-wave feminism. But until the question is definitively resolved (either way), the notion that porn should be restricted (or not) under the rubric of social health, can only be settled by a contest of ideologies. And it’s an ideological split that will drive society – and not just genders – apart.

Porn is in many ways what the internet was made for.  Pornhub and Xhamster regularly feature amongst the top ten most used sites worldwide. The industry generates an estimated $11.5 billion dollars a year globally, and Pornhub alone clocks up some 64 million daily visitors.

It goes without saying that children should be protected from viewing porn – and this is being addressed by the impending age verification of content in the UK. What we really lack is an agreed social code governing how we adults consume porn – or in fact whether we should feel liberated and entitled to consume it at all.

In recent centuries, when only the elites had access to erotic novels or paintings, their sense of intrinsic moral superiority spared them the challenge of pondering too deeply how much porn was too much. There has been a long-running debate on porn magazines, their availability and strength, that led to the clean-up operations in Soho and landmark First Amendment trials in the US.

But the digital era – and the advent of smartphones and broadband specifically – has transformed the terms of trade. For a start, let’s face facts: despite its ubiquity and ease of access, how many of us readily admitting to watching porn in the first place?

It’s still the case that too many wives only realise husbands are viewing this sort of material when they discover ‘adult access’ has been activated on home internet accounts. Teenagers slyly disable primitive child protection software that comes as standard on many devices – but can be overridden in a matter of minutes by anyone resourceful enough to Google the necessary procedure on their smartphone (which is to say, just about any teenager).

How many of us readily admitting to watching porn in the first place?

Meanwhile, women of all ages are taught that pornography dehumanises them, and that to watch it or to participate in its production or consumption in any way, is a form of collective self-harm. Generally speaking, the only people who openly admit to ‘using’ porn – in the critical language of substance abuse – are so-called addicts or recovered addicts; or those adult performers who would like to normalise their industry and seek social legitimacy for what they do.

If only the narrative were as simple as: young man watches porn, grows up to be a selfish lover at best, misogynist and sex abuser at worse. But it isn’t. What we do know, however, is that sexual attitudes at home are the most reliable predictor of sexual attitudes later in life (according to the comprehensive LSE EU Kids online study), and that if porn is the only sex education you receive, it’ll have an impact upon your perception of what constitutes healthy, consensual sex.

But it’s a mistake to extrapolate, as many do, a graver pattern of causation. The notion that a reasonably well-adjusted adult with good interpersonal relationships and a well-informed, respectful attitude to sexuality, is nonetheless axiomatically susceptible to porn ‘addiction’? It’s one of the biggest scare stories of our time.

Which takes us back to the question: just how much porn is too much? Therapists define it as whatever quantum interferes with work responsibilities, relationships and day-to-day functioning.  Those that are most likely to struggle with their viewing tend to already have problems with impulse control, and often suffer from other addiction or mental health issues which they are self-medicating with porn.

True, the World Health Organisation is expected to approve the inclusion of ‘compulsive sexual behaviour disorder’ in its updated International Classification of Diseases list in May 2019. But some well-regarded therapists, such as sexologist Dr Marty Klein, worry about what the generic (and sometimes lazily-applied) ‘porn addict’ or ‘sex addict’ label does for personal agency. As he puts it, this hasty diagnostic process risks ‘[preventing] the assessment and treatment of sexual or personality problems, because identifying and dealing with the “addiction” is the goal.’

If the Select Committee is absolutely sure about one thing, it’s that men’s use of porn contributes to women’s harassment and inequality. But in their report, there is no mention of female-made or directed porn, LGBTQ+ porn, or ethical porn – nor the more nuanced question of the women and men who watch the notionally sexist stuff and find they nonetheless enjoy it, whether it corresponds to their day-to-day ethical values or not (desire is, after all, amoral).

Sexual attitudes at home are the most reliable predictor of sexual attitudes later in life.

The modern orthodoxy that mainstream porn is something that is ‘done’ to women by unthinking men, is patronising, reductive and ignores the creativity of those seeking an alternative, transgressive and egalitarian form of content. Admittedly, the pornography made either by women for women, or with a more vivid sense of equality in its narrative, constitutes a tiny proportion of what’s routinely consumed worldwide. But it is undoubtedly a growing market, and one that provides an opportunity to shift the balance of ‘the Gaze’ – to borrow the phrase popularised by the feminist Laura Mulvey – without compromising adult sexual liberty.

As Daniel Bergner’s 2013 book ‘What Do Women Want?’ revealed, one of the biggest reasons that women have trailed behind men in their consumption of adult content is that the myth of the inherently-coy female remains so powerful. Yet research by Meredith Chivers of Queen’s University in Canada found that – far from being coy – women tend to be stimulated by a wider range of pornographic scenes, not fewer.

The twist is this: when it came to reporting their arousal, there was a mismatch between what their bodies registered and what their brains did. We have had centuries of men dominating the ‘pornscape’, and centuries of being told that women are not stimulated by visual sexual content. It’s rubbish. And you only have to look at the quality and ingenuity the content being made by women or with women in mind – such as the work of Erika Lust or Joy Bear – to see that this is so.

After many years studying pornography, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen a genuine female orgasm on screen. I once challenged Pornhub to explain why it did not feature a ‘Cunnilingus’ category. Its response was to install one the next day. It consisted of just four videos, all of women pleasuring one another. If Pornhub replied to me, one little person on the internet, and made a change accordingly to its global offering, imagine what a petition of pleasure-focused consumers could achieve?

There is plenty to celebrate about porn – as is attested by the 70 per cent of men and 40 per cent of women who admitted to regularly viewing it in The Sun this week. Far from believing that porn is responsible for every aspect of decline in society or personal relationships, I’ve always celebrated its capacity to enliven our stress-rich, time-poor, care-worn lives. Whatever the fantasy you’d like to explore, there’s a porn clip out there for you – although if you’re female, you might just need to spend a little more time riffling through the racks, so to speak.

Porn has never meant to be a substitute for skin-on-skin experience. It’s an enhancement, an aperitif, a useful tool for exploring your multiple desires when you’re happily monogamous. It’s also a great and safe substitute for sex when you are getting over a break-up. The temptation to have sex on the rebound ebbs when you know porn can help you get the dopamine rush with none of the emotional fall-out. Put simply, a healthy relationship with porn is entirely possible. But it depends on three things: the sex education you receive growing up, the quality of porn you consume on a regular basis, and the amount of porn you consume instead of doing other things – and your reasons for consuming it.

Yes, porn, like everything else, needs social management – as more thoughtful civilisations than our own have appreciated – and is still, self-evidently, too dominated by men. What’s needed is not the blunt stick of puritan censorship, but an open-minded conversation about quality, erotic content, and the centrality of women, relishing their role at the threshold of empowerment and pleasure. Even more pressing is the question of how we improve the quality of mass-market content, most of which is currently dross (something I attempted a few years back when I tried to get my Ethical Porn Partnership off the ground).

So: by all means highlight the problems with our current porn industry, Select Committee. But not at the expense of a creative path to a freerer, fuller erotic future for all. It’s not the feminism our foremothers fought for. If there’s no wanking at the revolution – to paraphase Emma Goldman – I, and thousands like me, won’t be coming.