Valentine’s Day is upon us, and the ubiquitous centre for free erotic video, Porn Hub, has once again offered its premium service at no cost for the day. While teenage boys around the world rejoice, create memes and tag their friends on social media; others want to take the opportunity to spruik a message of impending doom and eternal damnation.
Pornography is blamed for many ills in our society, from addiction, to divorce and domestic violence, a rise in cosmetic labia surgery, even death. But is it really to blame? Has the introduction of the internet to the mainstream, and with it, unlimited porn in the palm of our hands (cough, cough), started the downfall of society? Or is it just another vice, in the same vein as alcohol, illicit drugs and gambling, that most can comfortably compartmentalise within their life and enjoy in moderation, without any short or long-term effects?
Porn has existed for as long as humans were able to record images, from cave paintings; to Roman artifacts; to that third century sexual bible, the Karma Sutra. The minute a technology is invented, the porn industry finds a way to use it for our gratification. In half a century, we’ve progressed from visiting a cinema, to mail-order VHS video, patiently waiting for images on dial-up internet, to high quality HD streaming on our mobile phones, and now to first person Virtual Reality ‘in the round’. While there’s no doubt the way we now consume porn has influenced the way it is made, blaming it for all of society’s problems is an overreach (around…sorry!).
Hand held devices allow for porn consumption at any opportune moment and this, combined with our lack of desire to pay for porn, has led to a drastic reduction in production value. The storylines and dialogue have mainly gone, but are we really upset about that? Do we really long for the days of wooden acting, bad lighting and worse dialogue? And who sat through those parts anyway, once we had remote controls? We live in a fast-paced world, where efficiency is king, and besides, if we want to watch terrible acting and mildly arousing sex scenes, there’s always 50 Shades of Grey.
The reach of porn is global and all encompassing. In 2009, Canadian researchers attempting to measure the impact of porn couldn’t find anyone in their 20’s who hadn’t seen porn to act as a control group. Porn Hub’s own (and fascinating) annual statistical insights suggest 81 million users visit the site daily and download around 118 gigabytes of video per second. If we are all watching it, then are we all addicted, changing our brains’ functioning, destroying our families and warping our view of sex, as conservatives would have us believe?
One group in regional New South Wales is on a mission to remove pornography from their town altogether, using some very (old and) dubious research to argue a long list of evils they directly correlate with porn use. Further investigation reveals the group’s leader as the sister of former Australian Christian Lobby chief Lyle Shelton, the dictionary definition of a person using discredited ‘evidence’ to make outrageous and simply false claims to suit a regressive narrative.
The group use the often-quoted research that claimed 88% of all pornography includes acts of violence against women, perpetrated by men. Obviously, this figure is not accurate, uses very liberal definitions of ‘violence’, uses a small sample size of videos (actual, physical videos, not downloads) and has been discredited as many times as it has been quoted. Violence in porn does exist, that is not disputed, nor is it acceptable (where there is no consent), but depictions of consensual BDSM scenes are not the same as actual violence against women.
Further to this, hardcore heterosexual sex is only one of hundreds of porn genres now available, and it is nowhere near the most popular. In its 10 years of existence, Porn Hub’s most popular category remains ‘Lesbian’ - porn without men by definition, and therefore, highly unlikely to show any male-to-female violence. The second most popular category is MILF, or 'Mother I’d Like to Fuck', a genre which typically shows an older* woman showing a younger man how a dominant, confident woman has sex. In 2017, Porn Hub claims the most searched-for term was ‘Porn for Women’, a genre known for softer, more romantic sex, with a greater focus on more realistic female pleasure.
(*The MILF category can depict any female who doesn’t look like a teenager!)
One of the internet’s first major porn sites 'The Hun', one of the biggest until tube sites like Porn Hub came along, daily updates its content of (mostly) still images and allows visitors to rate their favourite galleries. Routinely, the most popular are ‘solo’, or single females posing for the camera and/or masturbating.
If we are not even watching porn involving men, how can it be blamed for male-on-female violence in real world sex?
A rise in young women under 25 requesting cosmetic labia surgery is often blamed on porn consumption. Airbrushed images and pressure to look like porn stars is supposedly sending young women to the clinic for a nip here and a tuck there. Assessing the size and legitimacy of this ‘epidemic’ is one thing, but let’s assume for a moment that it is a problem.
Australian censors do, in error, require publishers of printed pornography to airbrush the labia of women portrayed to look like a Barbie doll, with no internal labia or the clitoris visible. This is of course, hugely problematic in itself, but the question remains – how many women under 25 in Australia are buying and reading printed pornography? Are there female uni students really grabbing a copy of People magazine with their drinks and petrol at the service station? Clearly internet-based video is how we are consuming porn.
Airbrushing is all but impossible in low budget video productions, and is not required of international producers (where most of the films that Australian’s watch are made). The aforementioned most popular galleries at The Hun, regularly feature natural or ‘hairy’* vulvas, and celebrate a wide variety of labia shapes and sizes. Inadequate sex education is more to blame here than porn.
(*'Hairy' can mean anything other than a full Brazilian, through to a full 70’s style bush.)
If one was to suggest it is the partners of these young women who are pressuring them to request surgery because of the porn they consume, then a) it is only readers of Australian printed pornography – a small and declining audience, b) the porn viewing statistics disagree with that statement and c) they are shitty partners.
Bad porn exists. Anything filmed and/or released without the consent of all parties to everything that happens within the film is wrong. Remember ‘revenge porn’ is not porn, it is sexual assault. Watching porn gives us a dopamine hit which CAN be addictive, in the same way some drugs, video games and poker machines do. Watching too much porn CAN affect erectile function, relationships and is obviously not suitable for young children. There is some evidence to suggest regular users feel the need for more intense stimulation to achieve the same effect. However, this can be reset. Take some time away from porn and the Big W catalogue looks sexy. The key here is ‘can’, not ‘does’. Many people drink alcohol, or place bets, without ever becoming addicted or needing more and more. It is perfectly plausible to watch porn by yourself and maintain a happy and healthy sex life. Heck, many couples watch porn together, exploring ideas and fantasies to recreate or enjoy from a distance.
Good porn also exists. More and more women are creating high quality and respectful porn, often with real couples showing genuine chemistry and connection. Women like Cindy Gallop, who quit her job to build Make Love Not Porn, a game-changer for the industry, where real world couples upload their own films for others to rent. Australian porn performer Madison Missina is campaigning for Australia’s censorship laws, which not only require labia to be airbrushed, but prohibit the depiction of female ejaculation (i.e. female pleasure) to be overturned. Porn is not the problem, but how it is viewed by conservatives is.
The reality is, porn is a fantasy. It is readily available, many people enjoy it, some as an aid to masturbation, some out of curiosity. Porn can help people find likeminded others, and feel less shame or guilt about their (legal) kinks. Others can live out fantasies without leaving the house or telling anyone, and of course, in terms of STIs, masturbation is the safest sex of all!
Like other vices, porn exists. Always has, always will. What is necessary for young people – for all people – is porn literacy. Total bans, age verification tools and censorship does not work. Teaching respect, critical viewing, full and comprehensive sex education and treating it as purely a fantasy, will.