By Alice McGettigan
Western culture hypersexualises women, this is nothing new. What is relatively new is the concept that this sexualisation is empowering, feminist even. As a woman who regularly talks about the many ways misogyny is harmful, when it comes to pornography, a common response is the perception I’m being anti-sex, prudish or judgemental. This derails a conversation that is about an industry, the way it operates and the multiple harmful effects, not about individual choice.
Where individual choice does come in is the choice to continue to watch porn. I’m not judging anyone for watching it, it’s so normalised I’d be surprised if you haven’t. However, we live in a time where more people are engaging with dismantling systemic racism and misogyny. The pornography industry fuels and profits from both.
Multiple studies confirm the damage caused by pornography to individuals and society as a whole. Despite this, watching porn isn’t something most of us view as harmful to ourselves or others.
This is an attempt to briefly present some of the ways the pornography industry is harmful and something we should all be concerned about.
The realities of pornography
When discussing porn many people have something like playboy imagery in mind, the truth is that nowadays soft-core porn is almost non-existent.
This content analysis review demonstrated 88.2% of scenes contain physical aggression. Aggressors were predominantly male and targets almost exclusively female. 95% of targets responded to aggression with pleasure or a neutral response, this presents sex as a means for men to abuse and women wanting or tolerating abuse.
Actual Porn stars are rare and the market for young inexperienced girls is huge. Most content features girls aged 18-21 who last less than a year in the industry. They are often coerced into doing increasingly degrading content. Sexual abuse is rife and there’s a never-ending line of girls turning 18 to replace them when they leave. Read more about this here.
The world’s leading free porn site, Pornhub’s 2019 statistics show 115 million visits per day with 2.8 hours of content uploaded by users every minute.
Themes of incest, teen girls, rape and racism are common. Acts that are dangerous and painful for women are normalised. This is all accessible, free at the click of a button to anyone with an unrestricted internet connection.
So, what impact is this vast amount of violent porn we’re consuming having?
Addiction, desensitisation and sex
Viewing such graphic, varied, easily available content desensitises users and escalating levels of quantity and brutality are required to achieve the same stimulation. In some users this leads to addiction, in others erectile dysfunction (ED). Multiple studies confirm the link between pornography and ED, as well as reduced sexual satisfaction and response to sexual stimuli and other sexual dysfunction. It’s increasingly impacting younger and younger men, who have become so desensitised by porn that they struggle to sustain an erection with a human partner.
The normalization of graphically violent sex permeates into the minds of everyone who watches porn to some extent. For example, porn has been repeatedly linked to the rise in non-consensual choking during sex. One study found that 13% of sexually active teenage girls had already experienced choking during sex. And that quarter of adult women surveyed had felt afraid during sex. Read more about this here. If not porn then where else are we learning this?
This BBC study found 55% of men considered porn their main sex educator with 95% of straight men always achieving orgasm during sex, compared to 65% of straight women. This correlates to the way pornography orientates sex to focus on male pleasure; blowjob, pounding and cum on her face… For most women this is unlikely to be conducive to achieving orgasm. It normalises sex for violent, male gratification, painting women as passive vessels for ejaculation.
This teaches toxic messages about consent, boundaries, safe sex and women’s sexual subordination. Porn is shaping young people’s sexual practises raising serious concerns about people’s ability to develop a healthy, mutually respectful sexuality.
Porn and sexual violence
Brain scans by neurologists of men watching porn show they view women as objects. This dehumanisation process is the first step in increasing likelihood for sexual violence, which porn has been demonstrated to do significantly in many studies. Read more about this here. Porn has the capacity to affect perceptions and neural pathways; in long-term users it also reduces empathy and impacts views of women generally.
This study of sorority members, found women who watch porn are significantly more likely to believe rape myths and less likely to intervene in a sexual assault.
We know that Pornography is having a detrimental effect on sexual violence. This alone should make it clear that it needs to, at bare minimum, be heavily reformed and regulated as an industry. By not doing so, society is perpetrating rape culture; the message here being that women’s safety has less value than men’s pleasure.
Impact on society: Racism
Racism in pornography is rife. Marginalisation of Black women is the norm, and they are devalued as hyper accessible and super disposable. Read about this further here. Black women are paid less than other ethnicities and receive the most violent abuse in a hierarchy that operates a sliding scale related to skin tone.
Women in porn routinely get paid more to do degrading scenes. As discussed in the Guardian for white women, interracial porn is in this category, standardising the concept that sex with Black men is demeaning. The majority of scenes containing Black men portray them as sexual aggressors to white women, Reinforcing toxic ideas about Black men as a sexual threat.
Almost all porn featuring People of Colour (POC) contains explicit racism, fuelling stereotypes around many ethnicities. This level of dehumanisation affects the broader way POC are viewed in society, and provides a permissible outlet for racism. The very existence of sites designed to specifically sexually abuse one ethnicity of women (such as the horrific sites Latina Abuse and Ghetto Gaggers the equivalent for abuse of Black women), confirms the existence of a racially abusive sexuality.
Impact on society: misogyny
Why does so much violent, racist, misogynistic content even exist? Is this a reflection of our society?
“Mirrors can be dangerous, and pornography is a mirror. Pornography as a mirror shows us how men see women. […] It is unsettling to look into that mirror” (Jensen, 2007, p. 14)
It can be argued that Pornography is a physical demonstration of sexism. Pornography is so abusive, that using it requires moral disengagement. Users are conditioned to dehumanise the victims. The medium creates a feeling of moral distance from the harm it is causing, and the sense of anonymity and physical distance create feelings of diminished responsibility. Essentially, Men are groomed to accept and desire women’ abuse.
Pornography depicts the sexual subordination of women and presents women as objects to be abused. Of course, this has an impact on how women are viewed, and indeed how we view ourselves and our worth.
I would argue that it is impossible for women to be truly liberated in a society that commodifies us into products whose purpose is to tolerate sexual abuse. Pornography encourages the concept that women’s bodies have no worth other than in what pleasure men can take from them. It reinforces the deeply held social belief of women as objects, the rampant entitlement many men feel towards women. And the expectation women will contort themselves to fit into an acceptable (consumable) type of woman, meaning sexually available to males, attractive, sexualised and only opening her mouth to agree with or pleasure men.
Blatant misogyny and racism are not generally accepted, in name if not in practise in modern society. I can think of no other industry where both are so widely demonstrated and normalised.
Impact on children
Pornography has the capacity to deeply affect fully developed adults, so the impacts on children cannot be underestimated. This UK government report found that 1.4 million unique users under the age of 18 accessed porn in the month of May 2015. This study shows the average first exposure is 11 years old.
Read here further about how the earlier a child is exposed to sexual content increases their likelihood for engaging in unsafe sex, losing virginity at younger ages, high numbers of sexual partners and use of drugs and alcohol. Perhaps most concerning, it increases a child’s likelihood of becoming a victim or a perpetrator of sexual abuse.
From a risk management perspective porn is not a safe product. Overconsumption leads to addiction and problematic behaviours, posing a substantial risk to young people. Reducing risk by reducing accessibility is relatively cheap and easily accomplished, and raises concerning questions about society placing adults’ access to content for sexual gratification above the safety of children.
Pornhub: trafficking and rape
Since it’s inception in 2007 up until December last year, Pornhub’s users have been able to upload content with no effective age or consent verification needed. At the point that changed users were uploading 2.8 hours of content every minute. Of course this policy has been monumentally abused. Multiple women and girls have fought to get Pornhub to remove videos of their abuse, including this 14-year old girl who begged them to take down the videos of her rape with no reply for months. And a kidnapped 15-year old girl who’s multiple rapes were given the blue tick and verified and monetised. These are not isolated cases, videos of abuse on the platform have always been commonplace.
This Sunday times investigation into Pornhub found over multiple examples of child pornography, featuring children as young as three. Some of the content had been online and accessible for up to three years.
Pornhub’s response to this kind of criticism was “less than 1% of content uploaded is child abuse,” implying that this is acceptable collateral damage in their capacity to upload vast amounts of masturbation material.
Anti-trafficking organisations have been campaigning for this policy to change for years and have been largely ignored. So what changed? A New York Times article highlighted these issues and directly called on big companies, specifically naming Mastercard on why they support this abuse. Mastercard, followed by Visa soon announced a ban on use of their cards on Pornhub, who in response to this financial threat have taken down all content that is not verified, over ten million videos; the majority of their content. Meaning that the majority of their content had the potential to contain abuse. They have ignored the voices of women and girls who’s abuse they have platformed, but threaten the wallet and the action is immediate!
Though this change is to be celebrated it is not a solution to the problem, it is just the absolute bare minimum level of safeguarding required to protect vulnerable people. This study found almost 50% of rescued trafficking victims had been forced to participate in the production of pornography. The feeling you might have masturbated whilst watching another human’s abuse for most of us is harrowing; yet most people do not view porn as inherently damaging.
The problems with pornography are complex, and the issues discussed here are merely the tip of the iceberg. Pornography’s addictive capacity alone means it needs regulation, even before you factor in the impact on sexual assault and the way it enables trafficking and child abuse.
Growing numbers of people are engaging with dismantling systemic racism and misogyny. As individuals, we need to consider the industries we support and the actions we personally take that support systemic oppression and human rights abuses, for many of us porn is a part of that.
Although some individuals may find porn performance empowering, that is not what this argument is about. It’s also not about judging individual consenting adults for their choices, and it’s certainly not about being anti-sex. It is about the way a multi-billion-pound industry routinely monetises the abuse of some of the most vulnerable people in society, and the far-reaching ramifications of treating women as sexual objects.
We need to reevaluate the importance between adults’ access to violent pornography and protecting women and children. At bare minimum this industry is in dire need of regulation and a complete overhaul to prioritise human rights and safety.
A company like Pornhub that has made millions platforming abuse and has personally victimised abused children, is worthy of critical examination in my opinion. Consider signing and sharing this petition to get Pornhub shut down and its executives held accountable for aiding trafficking.
If you’d like to read more around these issues I recommend following these organisations on social media:
These links provide a lot of articles and information around these issues, who you can also follow on social media.
Learn more about porn addiction or get help quitting here.
Jensen, R. (2007). Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.