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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