Pornography: Friend or Foe?

Watching porn is like eating KFC: good at the time, but afterwards you just feel… yuck. There are wider societal and cultural impacts that come with regular viewing of pornography, and not all of them are good. This piece will examine what some of the latest research on pornography viewing habits have to say, and speak to actresses within the industry. It will explore what regular pornography consumption is doing to our culture, and whether using your sexuality to make money can truly be empowering.

A study from researchers at Western University in Ontario found that people who watch porn actually have more egalitarian views and look more positively on women’s issues such as abortion than those who do not. However, other studies show that consumption of pornography is associated with an increased likelihood of committing acts of sexual aggression. Recent crime statistics show that the number of sexual assaults in New South Wales has doubled between 2008 and 2013, and assistant police commissioner Mark Murdoch believes that pornography is to blame for this increase. “There’s a growing tendency for young men not to have any idea of what a respectful relationship is with young women. The whole idea of consensual sex has gone out the window.” Blaming sexual assaults solely on porn is a tad sensationalist, but it is difficult to deny the fact that porn can negatively impact attitudes toward women and desensitise people to concepts like sexual violence and consent. In such a hyper-sexualised culture, porn is one of the many influences that send the message that women’s bodies are objects to be scrutinised, conquered and controlled.

There is a blurred line between fantasy and reality when it comes to sexual encounters between young people. Australian porn star Luci Bee explains that “people don't always realise porn is fantasy”, and cautions that we should treat porn “as entertainment … a potential aid, but not necessarily as a script for every sexual situation you may find yourself in”. It is difficult to ascribe to the argument that porn is ‘fantasy’, because for the people in the videos it is a reality, and recent increases in genres such as amateur porn are making it even more difficult to distinguish. This can be seen in the marked increase of young girls visiting their GPs due to injuries such as anal tearing, inflicted on them by acting out what their boyfriends see in porn. Activist Melinda Tankard Reist says “boys are learning to cue computers rather than real human beings … Sexual conquest and domination becomes all important, untempered by the bounds of respect, intimacy and authentic human connection.”

But is there a place in relationships for porn, or even masturbation? Some couples claim it stops them from wanting to cheat, helps them explore their sexual desires and speeds up foreplay. However, there is always a grey area between self-exploration and blatant disregard for your partner’s needs. It is important not to mistake masturbation for intimacy, and to ensure that sex in relationships is a shared experience that improves emotional connectedness and fosters respect.

When it comes to pornography, the line between sexual empowerment and sexual exploitation is hard to draw. For years women have had to suppress the fact that they are sexual beings, and having an outlet from which they can be seen as embracing their sexuality could be classed as empowering. Luci Bee finds her work empowering for a number of reasons, but explains that “sex work is work” and that not everyone falls into the “happy hooker or victim” stereotypes. Former sex worker Genevieve Gilbert-Quach, founder of The Pink Cross Foundation Australia, said women in the industry were often “groomed” to believe that their work was empowering and that it is “not easy” to leave the industry. Other accounts from actresses discuss not being allowed to leave the set, physical abuse, rape, and coercion. Sex workers face an increased susceptibility to dangers such as drug abuse, suicide and disease, and studies have estimated between 70-90% of female sex workers have suffered childhood sexual abuse. The sex industry is undoubtedly a gendered industry, and the abuse and domination that goes on within it can only be viewed as a wider desire for female oppression and subservience. When discussing the realities behind pornography, it is important to give a voice to those who do not have one, while at the same time not suppress others in the industry who do.

While for some porn can help their relationships and make them feel empowered, the wider societal implications seem to overshadow most of the positives. Underscoring this narrative is the need for schools and government bodies to realise the impact and magnitude of regular pornography consumption on our society. The average age for boys in Australia to first be exposed to pornography is 11, yet sex education is not openly taught in most schools until grade 10. Sex education needs to focus on pleasure for all, and teach young people how to respect themselves and others before this material hijacks their sexuality and robs them of the ability to freely and safely explore their own wants, needs and desires. If pornography is so empowering, why is it that most of us scramble to close the tab straight after and rush to delete our viewing history? There is a reason that every internet browser now has the incognito option: to hide the fact that we buy into this choreographed idea of sexuality at the expense of what we really want. Being truly sexually empowered is having the ability not to resort to any external resource in order to feel connected to another person, and knowing that by expressing yourself you are not harming others in the process.

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