Pornography, modern women and the myth of free choice


Where should modern women stand on the issue of pornography? From Pompeii to Playboy, pornographic images have always been a part of society, but what about the women involved in making pornography, and the women who enjoy watching it? It is often claimed that as long as these women are freely choosing to partake or view, then there can be no objection. Free choice supposedly equals empowerment.

But when it comes to pornography, this “free choice”, according to radical feminist Dr Julia Long, is “totally mythical”. Long’s comments were part of a debate held at the Southbank’s Women of the World festival (WOW) last week, hosted by Helena Kennedy QC, with fellow panel members Chitra Nagarajan of Black Feminists UK and Martin Daubney, former editor of Loaded magazine.

According to Long, pornography has to be considered in a context where violence against women is prevalent. In this country alone, 3 million women every year are subjected to some form of male violence. Pornography, many would argue, must shoulder part of the blame for this.

Why? Because the content of pornography itself is becoming increasingly violent and misogynistic. In the click of a mouse, images that involve women being gagged, choked and penetrated with multiple objects and body parts are readily available. There is also a pay scale within the industry that incentivises women to do more extreme acts or have more extreme acts done to them.

There’s even the rise of ‘revenge porn’ sites, where men can upload x-rated images of women (usually former girlfriends) to humiliate them. It is this dissemination of explicit material that can lead to mimicking by young boys, such as those involved in the death of Chevonea Kendall-Bryan. Kendall-Bryan tragically fell to her death from her flat balcony while she pleaded with her tormentors below not to distribute recorded images of sexual abuse she had endured at their hands. She was just 13.

Pornography is also not a female-only issue. Although it was not entirely surprising that I could count the number of males in the audience on one hand, it was sad considering so much of the conversation focused on the detrimental effects of pornography on boys. One sexual health worker in the audience spoke of the alarming increase in the number of boys coming to her clinic with erectile dysfunction problems, which the boys themselves attributed to the effects of watching porn and subsequently feeling pressure and inadequacy. It has also been noted how pornography can effect adult sexual relationships, with intimacy no longer enough to sustain sexual relations. The author Martin Amis has frequently claimed that pornography is the repudiation of significance in sex.

This isn’t to say that women who enjoy watching or partaking in porn should feel guilty or ashamed, as long as the distinction between mutually respectful imagery and imagery that degrades and objectifies is made clear. Helena Kennedy, a proud civil libertarian, voiced her concern over an outright ban, stating: “I don’t want to be in a world where erotica is excised because of extreme pornography.” It was a sentiment widely shared by the audience.

The ubiquity and accessibility of pornography and its increasing extremity are serious issues. But there are also problems with all-out anti-pornography discourse, with those, like Long, who declare that pornography in itself is a form of violence. This not only blurs the distinction between consenting adults engaging in pornography and the actual real abuse that goes on in the industry, but also suggests that women who enjoy viewing pornographic material are an abnormal minority. They are not.

After the talk, I spoke to both Helena Kennedy and Julia Long about the debate. Kennedy spoke enthusiastically of the “fantastic audience, that wasn’t prudish, that doesn’t want everything banned, but that doesn’t want women to be objectified either.” Long, in stark comparison, told me she found the debate “profoundly frustrating and heartbreaking, because we are talking about an industry that is premised on the rape and abuse of women, and the discussion trivialised that.”

Two very different conclusions perhaps, but ones that demonstrate that the discussion on where modern women should stand on porn still has a long way to go.