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Porn: Giving people ideas?

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Friday, 20 May 2011, 12:49

Porn: Giving people ideas?

Also posted on Society Matters

This month I attended the Sex, Health, Media event in London where a bunch of academics, health-workers, educators and activists met to discuss ways of improving education about sexual health, particularly in relation to media portrayals of sex.

There were many excellent presentations during the day, but here I will focus on one which particularly caught my imagination: Alan McKee's talk about the potentials of pornography.

Analysing the concerns that are frequently raised about the dangers of pornography, Alan reported that academics, politicians, parents and professionals frequently voice the anxiety that porn will 'give people ideas', particularly young people. His provocative question was whether this is necessarily such a bad thing.

For a start, when you look at the kinds of ideas that these groups are most worried about porn giving to young people, they are often the ideas which are outside of the 'norm' of heterosexual sex: sexual practices which are most commonly linked to lesbian, gay and bisexual people (such as oral and anal sex) and those associated with kink or SM, or having more than one partner. When thinking about porn it is important to make sure that we are really considering what is best for young people and not just repeating normative notions about what makes normal or abnormal sex, and assuming that normal equals good and abnormal equals bad. We know that such notions serve to marginalise groups as well as leading to sexual anxieties and problems as people become obsessed with being normal over having enjoyable sex.

Also, Alan pointed out that 'giving people ideas' is a pretty good definition of education. Could it be that porn might actually be valuable as a form of sex education? Certainly, when we study people who consume pornography, something they all say is that they use it to educate themselves about sex (in addition to sexual entertainment).

In a very innovative project, Alan and his colleagues got together a big group of experts on sexual health to come up with an agreed definition of 'healthy sexual development'. This resulted in a list of fifteen attitudes about sex which would be good to develop over the course of a lifetime. The full list can be found here.

When examining the list it is clear that pornography promotes around half of these attitudes. For example, porn consumers report that porn helps them to learn about what they might enjoy, to communicate openly with partners ('I saw this and thought I'd like to try it...'), and to feel that sex can be pleasurable and should be joyful rather than aggressive and coercive (depictions of joyless sex are not popular amongst most porn consumers). Porn can also help with self-acceptance, given that there are niche markets for every sexual taste.

Of course, as critics have pointed out, pornography is also bad at many of the attitudes on the list of healthy sexual development. There is no negotiation of sex in porn, so it doesn't foster ethical conduct or consent. There are very poor depictions of safer sex, and very little representation of public/private boundaries or the relationship skills necessary for ethical sex.

However, there is no argument that pornography should be the only form of sex education, merely that it be recognised as one possible form, and a form which often provides the very things which are extremely hard for conventional forms of sex education, from parents and teachers, to do, such as depicting specific acts or emphasising joy and pleasure.

People are often concerned that the activities depicted in porn will result in young men pressuring young women to do these things. Clearly this is where other forms of education are needed to help people with how to go about negotiating sexual practices together (whoever is doing the suggesting). Over the rest of the sex, health, media day we heard about several great projects providing such forms of sex education focused on consent, enjoyment and diversity, including Sex & Ethics, Scarleteen, Petra Boynton's blog, Charles Moser's book on Sex Disasters, and the upcoming CoDeX project, which many of the onscenity network are involved with.

If readers want to contribute to knowledge about consumers of pornography, there is currently a big study on this very topic looking for participants. Follow the link and get involved.

 

Find out more:

There is an interview with Alan McKee about his work here

And one with Feona Attwood, who organised the Sex, Health, Media day, here

There is an upcoming conference on porn and sexuality which I am co-organising, and you can read another blog entry on this topic here.

 

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Making sense of the sexualisation debates

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Wednesday, 17 Aug 2011, 16:52

This blog entry is one of many collected together over on The Onscenity Network.

Making sense of the sexualisation debates

I've been getting involved with events and projects about sexualisation for some time now. I thought it was important for someone, like me, who writes about sexuality and who works with clients who are struggling with issues around sex, to be informed about what seems to be the big story about sex at the moment.

I've read lots of book chapters and papers, and watched many presentations, on the topic, and what is most striking to me are the complexities of the debate, and the feelings which run so high whenever we are talking about it. This is my attempt to give a simple overview of how I understand it, and to say where I've got to with it at this point.

The Simple Form of the Debate

The simple form of the debate, as it is played out on TV programmes, in policy documents, and in the huge number of popular books on the subject of sexualisation, goes something like this:

One side says that our society has become hyper-sexualised: wherever we go we are blasted with messages about sex. Boys are watching hardcore online porn from an early age and this is warping their sexualities and turning them into sexual predators. Girls are sexualised before they are out of toddlerhood with high-heeled baby shoes, playboy style mini T-shirts, and Bratz dolls. By the time they are teenagers they have bought the message that being sexy is all-important, putting them at risk of everything from eating disorders to STIs to sexual violence.

The other side of the popular debate emphasises choice and fun and power. We live in a time of equality, it says. People get to choose who they want to be. And if women want to go pole-dancing for leisure and feel empowered by dressing up sexy that is great. Lads magazines and sexy dancing on the X-Factor aren't bad for women – they celebrate women – and anyone who disagrees needs to lighten up and get the joke.

The More Complex Form of the Debate

When the topic is debated in more academic circles, a somewhat more sophisticated version of these two sides tends to be put forward, which it would definitely be useful to get out there more widely:

The side that is concerned about sexualisation says that all this emphasis on choice, fun and power makes it really difficult for people to resist messages about sexiness. To be a lad means always being up for it, and to be an empowered woman means choosing to pamper yourself so you look gorgeous and have all eyes on you. There's no room for all the many, many men who feel anxious about sex, or all the women who don't fit the very rigid standards of youth and beauty. And those that do fit live in fear of losing that.

The side that is more sceptical about sexualisation points out that the whole thing seems like a moral panic: the kind of thing people get worked about every decade or so. Weren't people panicking about mini-skirts and rock & roll in the same ways back in the 1950s and 60s? Talking with young people directly suggests that their sexual behaviour hasn't changed that radically. They're not all constantly sexting, watching porn, or trying every sexual practice that they see online. And lots of people find easier access to porn and other sexual information to be helpful in figuring out their own sexualities. People on this side of the debate ask questions like: Why are we so worried about sex instead of all the violent imagery that is out there unchallenged? Or whether all the concern that girls and women are in danger and need protecting from men reinforces divisions of gender, leading to more problems than it solves.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Holding the tension: My main thought is that we need to move away from these either/or debates, not towards some resolution that is probably impossible, but more towards recognising the inevitable tensions and contradictions in the complex world we live in. We are massively shaped by the world around us, so current bombardment of sexual imagery is unlikely to leave any of us untouched, but we also all filter this through our own experiences and histories in unique ways so the same messages won't have the same impact on everybody. We should be mindful of how these debates have played out in the past, and of who is included and excluded in them.

Recognising what we bring to it: Emotions run high whenever these debates occur, and yet we all pretend that we don't have a personal stake in it in order to make our points sound reasonable. It would be useful if we could acknowledge that being someone who watches porn, or a parent, or a person who does – or doesn't – fit the current ideals of sexiness, influences how we come to these debates. And that the person we are arguing with will have similar, deeply personal, investments in it.

Talking to people: A lot gets said on both sides of this debate based on assumptions, like looking at a music video and assuming it will make young people want to copy it, or assuming that because you feel able to resist some of these messages it will be just as easy for other people. We need to talk to people a lot more to find out how they are really being affected, and to help us remember that it is not the same for everyone.


For more information see The Onscenity Network and The Pornified Seminar Series.

Permalink 1 comment (latest comment by Meg-John Barker, Sunday, 15 May 2011, 13:04)
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