Opening up conversations about porn #SHW17

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Sexual Health Week is back, and this year the theme is porn. It’s an important conversation that often gets ignored or met with hysteria so it's great to see porn getting so much attention from sex educators, clinicians, teachers and parents.

The most common reaction is to feel curious (41%), while 27% felt shocked, 24% confused and 23% disgusted.

Research by the University of Middlesex, commissioned by the NSPCC, revealed that half of 11 to 16-year-olds have been exposed to pornography, with the vast majority having viewed it by the age of 14.

This is hardly surprising, given the quantity of porn that exists on the internet, and its reach. We have to assume that all young people will be exposed to it at some point, and help them to think critically about what they are seeing.

Conversations about porn can be hard to start, but here are some discussion points that could help us all to think more constructively about the way porn influences our bodies and our sexuality.

Body hair

Body hair naturally grows darker and thicker during puberty, but in porn seeing any type of body hair is very rare, and total hairlessness has become a societal trend as well. Recent research showed that two thirds of American college students are regularly removing their pubes. This is another way that porn distorts our body expectations.

In fact people haven’t been shaving their pubes for long, the trend largely came about because, in porn, removing pubes means the camera can get a closer shot of the action. This has become so normalised that women with pubes are often banished to a special “fetish” category on porn sites.

A recent survey showed that around 25% of those who groom their bits have been injured in the process, with some of them even ending up in hospital. If you’re someone who genuinely loves a bit of pubic topiary then that’s an occupational hazard. If, however, you’ve felt pressured into removing your pubes when you don’t really want to, that’s borderline traumatic.

Let’s tell young people what pubes are for! They’re a cushion against friction, making sure your genitals are protected from rubbing against your underwear or someone else’s body. Removing them can actually create tiny cuts and increase your risk of infection. This doesn’t mean don’t do it, it just means be aware of the risks before you do.

If you want to read more about pube politics, check out this article by Verity Sullivan.

Body image

The Good Childhood Report 2017 found that since 2010 there has been a 52% rise in girls who report being unhappy. For boys, reports of low wellbeing rose by 3% across that period. Part of the reason that teenage girls struggle with their mental health is the unrealistic body expectations that are forced on them by TV, advertising, social media, fashion and porn. By the age of 10, around a third of all girls, and 22% of boys, say how their bodies look is their number one worry.

Mainstream porn shows a worryingly small range of women’s bodies and makes it look like the only desirable body type for a woman is slim with small, perky breasts. Anything that deviates from this - curvy women, women with body hair, women with disabilities - is hidden away in its own special category, reinforcing the idea that these things aren’t “normal”.

All bodies are beautiful, and everyone deserves to feel like theirs is desirable (say it with me - your *clap* body *clap* is *clap* desirable *clap*). There’s a lot of porn available that celebrates diverse bodies. Don’t feel like you have to watch something that doesn’t represent you just because that’s what a bunch of boring directors decided. The Feminist Porn Awards are a great place to find stuff that’s a bit different.

Women’s pleasure

Porn, like so many other industries, gives us a distorted idea of what makes women happy. Mainstream porn gives the impression all women love deepthroating and anal sex, which isn’t necessarily true, and often largely ignores acts that focus on women’s pleasure.

Did you know, for example, that it can take up to half an hour of stimulation before someone is ready for vaginal sex? Porn often makes it look like you can just slide something into a vagina without lube or preparation, which for many people isn’t the case.

Unhealthy messages from porn are mingled with other unhealthy messages from the government. In 2016, a bill was passed to ban certain acts in porn in the UK. This included fisting, facesitting and even female ejaculation. This kind of legislation supports the idea that women’s pleasure and bodies are vulgar and need to be repressed.

Violence and consent  

Another survey respondent said “I didn’t like it because (…) the man looked like he was hurting her. He was holding her down and she was screaming and swearing.”

Consent is not explicit in porn, and often seems to show situations where consent hasn’t been given. This further confuses young people about what constitutes consent and what a healthy relationship looks like. It also blurs the boundary between sex work and human trafficking.

“One of my friends has started treating women like he sees on the videos – not major – just a slap here or there.”

It can be very confusing for young people when they are taught about the importance of consent and then stumble upon videos where it’s not clear if there is any, and where if there isn’t it’s almost glorified. This is why it’s so important that we open up a dialogue. We need to teach them well, but we also need to create situations where they can ask questions and challenge what they’ve seen on the internet.  

Check out our social media channels this week for examples of sex- and body-positive people in the porn industry. The FPA website has more resources to help you to start informed conversations about porn.