Monday, 20 December 2010

Responsibly Sourced Nudity

I use porn. I’m not proud of it, but then, I’m not ashamed of it either. I can’t remember how it came up in conversation but my metrosexual friend (he's from Brighton) says he avoids it (the online stuff anyway) because he’s worried about the sick things that go on in the Sex Industry.

No doubt he has reason to worry. We all thought slavery had been abolished but it turns out that was only the kind that ended in the American civil war. Apparently the number of slaves in the world today is higher than it’s ever been (probably partly because the population’s higher than it’s ever been, but anyway) and a large part of that is as a result of the trafficking of women and children for the Sex Industry, but even without that it's pretty much assumed that there’s a lot of god-awful stuff going on. 
For example, most days I listen to Woman’s Hour on Radio 4 (and I look at porn too – sometimes at the same time. How pervy is that?) and they discuss porn from time to time, and seem to consider it synonymous with all that is violent, degrading and exploitative – a crime against women and threat to childhood.
But, going on the internet, spending an hour or so, maybe once a week (I suspect it would be more if I was younger) looking at online porn, I just don’t recognise the description. I’m not saying there isn’t ugly stuff there. Perhaps it’s even the majority, or a sizable minority but it doesn’t seem like that. Most of it seems to be just people taking their clothes off and having sex. I don’t know. I haven’t carried out any statistically rigorous surveys but it just doesn’t seem like the nasty stuff’s very common – not unless you go looking for it. If you do go looking for it I dare say it’s easy to find, but you do have to go looking for it. You have to make a conscious decision. Kids are unlikely to find it just by putting a perfectly innocent search term in Google for example, whatever they may have told their parents.

But I’m not saying it’s a thing of great beauty and refinement either. As in any area of commerce, most of it is just crass, commercial, unimaginative junk. Mostly it’s pretty boring. As in most businesses the purveyors (perviers?) have a fairly clear idea of what sells and what sells is very predictable. If you’ve visited one of the many free porn sites (I will never be sending them my card details) you will know that there are usually a number of categories there for you to click on. They’re an interesting window into the soul of humanity, or at least, masculinity. Women are categorised by hair colour – blondes, redheads, brunettes, which is interesting in itself. It wouldn’t be the first thing on my list but there you go. Race is another popular criterion - Asian or Black most obviously but also Latino (Latina surely?) or Indian. Then there’s age – ‘nubiles’ or ‘teens’ (usually pretty obviously in their twenties or older – rarely genuinely young girls unless you specifically go looking for them), then there’s MILFs (‘Moms I’d like to F**k’. Seriously...) which is women in their late twenties to forties I’d guess, and then ‘mature’ which can mean anything beyond that. Then there are various body shapes you can have a look at. Big Boobs are an obvious one, much being made of whether they’re ‘natural’ or fake. (Women might be interested to know which of these is the more popular. In fact a survey of the stats of porn site activity would probably give a very honest insight into what men actually prefer. I suspect the former) but there are sections for small breasted girls too, also skinny girls (from the merely slim to the anorexic) and fat girls (BBW? I don’t know what it stands for) varying from the curvy to the morbidly obese.
It’s pretty much all full-frontal but you can go for shaved or hairy (sometimes frighteningly so.) I dare say there are similar categories if you want to look at men but I’ve not felt sufficiently motivated to do the research. Beyond that you can look for Shemales, pregnant women, dwarfs and other miscellanea often gathered together under the heading ‘Bizarre’ – another area I’ve not really looked at in any detail. My tastes, it turns out, are fairly vanilla.

Then there’s the act itself. ‘Hardcore’ is a bit of a misnomer. It seems to be pretty much assumed among those who don’t know what they’re talking about that this is the nastier (and hence harder), more violent stuff, when what it actually means (and from what I can gather, what it has always meant) is people having full penetrative sex (and what could be more natural and normal?) Then there’s anal and oral sex of course, Threes and Foursomes, Swingers, group sex and ‘Partying’ but since I don’t like looking at men (for whatever reason) I’m generally not that interested. ‘Lesbians’ is another matter. Here I can look at women having sex without a man in sight which I think has got to be a good thing. Much of it seems to be simulated and designed for men to look at but unless I’m very easily deceived, by no means all.
‘Masturbation’ and ‘toys’, as you’d expect, is women playing with themselves (or the male equivalent presumably) mostly with various sorts of dildos, vibrators, or sometimes with the fruit and veg or a bottle. It can get fairly ‘Bizarre’ here too though, with ‘F**king Machines’ and ‘Fisting’ (I’ve not stumbled across any bestiality but then I’ve not looked) but it’s mostly fairly uncontroversial.
Beyond that there’s various sorts of public nudity and sex, much of which is fairly tame exhibitionism or just plain old fashioned streaking or naturism. There seems to be a premium on images of women 'caught unawares' by hidden cameras in the bathroom, or when they’re drunk or asleep or simply forgetting to keep their legs together when they sit down but I suspect a lot of candid ‘Upskirts’ and ‘Drunk Girlfriends’ are posed.
This brings in the whole genre of ‘Amateur’, ‘Natural’ or ‘Reality’ porn. Again, Women’s Hour does seem to assume that your typical male (ie me) would prefer the airbrushed, pneumatic, peroxide blonde porn star in the fluffy crotchless knickers to looking at the girl next door when I suspect it’s quite the opposite. I suspect that for most men, that classic porn star look belongs with the Shemales and the swingers in some seventies time warp. Which reminds me – there’s always the ‘Vintage’ section you can go to for a spot of nostalgia. The most controversial aspect of ‘Amateur’ porn nowadays of course is the ease with which, not having to send their films to Boots to be developed any more, young girls can take and upload images of themselves; and how easily these can find their way from their boyfriend’s (or ex boyfriend’s) mobile onto those of everybody else at school and beyond onto a ‘Revenge’ site. Concerns about consent are obvious, especially when the girls in question are teenagers. Most ‘Amateur’ porn though appears to be at least as consensual as the regular stuff. I’ll come back to this.
Then there’s BDSM (Bondage, Domination, Sadism and Masochism) and beyond. This varies enormously from harmless and titillating games with ropes and spanking, to some fairly rough and public sex, to some seriously unpleasant stuff which I can’t look at even if it is consensual. Some sites seem to go out of their way to show the participants smiling and happy afterwards to demonstrate the point but this is obviously the area (along with underage sex) that causes most concern for those who consider themselves ‘anti-pornography’, and quite rightly.
There’s other perhaps more peripheral categories – underwear, goths, celebrities, various sorts of non photographic art work, but I think I’ve covered most of the important stuff.

So now I’m going to take the genuinely abusive and non-consensual stuff out of the equation. This maybe seems an unorthodox move – for isn’t this at the heart of the matter? Well no, I don’t think it is. As far as I’m concerned, forcing people to do violent and/or sexual things without their free and informed consent is immoral and illegal - End of, as they say. No one underage should be involved (and in my opinion the age of consent should be raised) and those made vulnerable by reason of poverty or mental illness, dependence or addiction or isolation should have the full protection of the law, and those exploiting them convicted. I consider myself lucky that I’m not interested in looking at images of anyone that is not doing what they’re doing from choice, but even if I did like that stuff I hope I’d have the moral integrity to be against it anyway. For those who do need such stuff, life must be extremely difficult but that’s no excuse. They simply can’t be allowed to act on their tastes and if they do they should be locked up until it can be proved that they no longer pose a threat, and I don’t know how you prove that.
But my point is that this sort of thing does not appear to characterise the bulk or even a significant proportion of the porn industry’s output. Looking at the images, reading interviews and talking to women in unguarded moments, I simply do not recognise that description. Certainly, much of what I see is unimaginative, crude and commercial. I’ve said that. I feel the same way though of much of what turns up in the music charts or in high street stores. Fast food, holiday resorts, Reality TV and instant coffee – it’s all pretty much a travesty of the way life could be but people apparently like things to be cheap and cheerful. They like things to be quick and convenient and not too challenging. They like things to be predictable. And of course the workers in all of these industries are to some extent exploited. It’s in the nature of capitalism. There’s no such thing as a fully free and informed decision.
What that does for the extraordinary thing that is human sexuality is possibly lamentable, but it’s done the same thing for food, travel and entertainment. Unless you think there’s something sacred about sex, it’s really not very remarkable.

This of course is at the heart of the matter. The anti-porn lobby as with most sex controversies (sex before marriage, homosexuality, sexual abuse and prostitution) depends to some extent on seeing sex as, if not sacred, then ‘special’ in some way.
I suppose for most people sex has a special place in life, but it’s interesting that they don’t often feel the same way about, for example, food. It’s worth remembering that such mores are very culture specific. People’s who go around practically naked all the time in, for example, New Guinea, are not perpetually trying to hump one another, whilst the sight of a woman’s ankle in Victorian England or apparently some parts of modern Arabia can induce apoplexy and riots. But I’m talking about modern Britain here (I’m not qualified to talk about anywhere else). Sexual mores have changed a great deal in the last fifty years but there is still this strong urge to treat sex as if it is something very special. Sexual morality has gone from something very prescribed - only to be practised under the strictest legal framework (ie a marriage between a man and a woman) with transgressors under threat of public opprobrium and legal sanction to, in the sixties, something that could be enjoyed, Joy of Sex style, among any consenting adults, in any number of positions and with all sorts of props. Even so it was supposed to be an expression of deep feelings, a coming together of two souls, a deeply private moment, a rite of passage. Women took part willingly in pornography, group sex and sadomasochistic games even then but it was considered a highly questionable thing to do. Feminism in particular but probably the majority of women generally, disapproved, and suspected that there was something deeply wrong with them. It was simply unthinkable that such women could possibly have made anything like a free and informed decision. Some branches of feminism would have ascribed ‘False Consciousness’ to any woman in the sex industry who claimed to enjoy (or even just be ok with) what she did. She simply had to be deluded.
Such attitudes persist in present day Woman’s Hour and in my friend’s fears, but the world has changed.
Feminists believed, back in the seventies, that if women had a more equal place in the workplace, in government and in education, that the world would be a more nurturing, sensitive, spiritual place, for those were the qualities traditionally associated with women. The old macho, aggressive, materialistic, competitive ways would be tempered by the woman’s touch. And so they have been, to some extent. Back then, before the sixties, a man would not be seen in the street pushing a pram, let alone claiming paternity leave. A man could not tolerate the mention of the word ‘menstruation’, far less go out and buy his girlfriend some tampons. But when women moved into traditionally held mens’ roles, they did not feminise them and make them more sensitive and fair. They themselves became more ruthless careerists and aggressive consumers. And the same thing has happened in sex. Women have not civilised the male sexuality but have moved in on it and look like becoming as obsessed with superficial attraction and immediate personal gratification as men ever were. Of course there are differences – men always did stupid things to get girls’ attention – getting into fights, participating in extreme sports, taking too many mind-altering substances. Girls take too many mind-altering substances, take their clothes off and dance on tables. Sometimes they allow their friends to take pictures of them doing it.
Perhaps we’re getting to a stage where sex is stripped of all sense of the forbidden (and hence in my opinion, much of the fun) to become a mere bodily function, to be carried out only more or less riskily. No doubt it will always be pleasurable but a large part of the excitement has always been in the edginess of it – the fact that, frankly, it was all a bit naughty. Sex will presumably always be, at a basic level, pleasurable and satisfying, as it is for other animals, but it is one of the triumphs of human culture that it can also be incredibly rude and powerfully erotic. Presumably it’s necessary to have some strictures in order to enjoy the transgression. I don’t know how to balance that one.
To use a food analogy, I dislike McDonald’s because it makes eating into a bland functional commodity, like going to the toilet. I fear that there are children out there, raised on oven chips and turkey twizzlers who will have no idea what else is possible and will not have the mental equipment to find out. Ultimately it’s their choice of course but I still think it’s depressing.

I should drop in a note here about the two arguments for prohibition around non-marital sex usually trotted out. The first is unwanted pregnancy. Bringing unwanted children into the world (or indeed having an abortion, pro-choice though I am) are among the deadliest of sins in my estimation (the latter a necessary evil justifiable only to avoid the former) but it is worth pointing out that the kinds of sexual behaviour most demonised are those that couldn’t possibly lead to pregnancy – notably homosexuality and masturbation. Internet porn has got to be the ultimate in risk-free intercourse. Secondly there’s sexually transmitted infection, which is a very real threat but compares well with other risky recreational pursuits, such as going out drinking, driving a motor bike or travelling in Africa. The possible risks may be serious but there is no moral outrage involved when your friend tells you she is going back-packing in Botswana – only fears for her safety and the suggestion of sensible precautions. Women being photographed naked or filmed having sex, is simply not all that life threatening.

Feminists who feel the need to make a political stand (the aim of which would be to change the law presumably), are I think underestimating women. They may not approve of what girls do but sex simply does not have the same power to destroy that it used to have. Once, being discovered in some sexual indiscretion could destroy a girl’s reputation for ever and see her disowned and on the street and this is still true in some parts of the world, but here and now, appearing on a porn site may be embarrassing for a girl, especially for her relatives but it is not necessarily or even likely to be her ruin. She may see it as an extension of what she does anyway – snogging her girlfriends at a party, getting off with strangers on Saturday night or running up the street naked in Ibiza. Why not do it properly? Why not get paid for it. It’s just a bit of fun. It’s a laugh, or so I gather. I've never felt this way about my own sex life.

I don’t know how good I am at detecting what’s really going on under the surface, just from looking at people’s faces. I know when I trawl the porn sites I sometimes come across the faces of women and girls who quite obviously don’t want what’s happening to them. I guess some men like that sort of thing. For me it’s a miserable and disturbing sight, but I don’t see it very often. Mostly the gazes and postures seem stereotyped, unimaginative, asexual in even the most explicit poses. They smile at us men, or feign orgasm, hold their vulvas open or try to lick their own nipples. It’s contrived, commercial, boring, but it’s a job. One thing they don’t look is traumatised. I like to think I’d notice. It’s as sincere as the smile of a receptionist, or the greeting of a call centre. They get paid to do this stuff but it doesn’t say anything about them.
A small minority though, the ones I look out for, actually seem to be getting a bit of a kick out of it. They think it’s sexy, naughty, fun. I like to think I can tell. If not then they’re bloody good actors.

This is what Woman’s Hour, for all its excellent qualities (it’s one of my favourite Radio 4 shows) and it’s contributors cannot overtly admit (despite the occasional featuring of burlesque dancers, swingers and page three girls) – that some women at least (and possibly quite a lot of women) like taking their clothes off in public and having sex with strangers, and not just to please their men. They find it a turn on. It’s part of their sexuality, and they’re not much worried about the consequences, because for the most part, there really aren’t any.

But (they insist, the detractors) pornography really just simply isn't like that. The majority of pornography simply is violent, degrading and exploitative.
All I can say is it doesn't look that way to me, but even if this were the case, my point would be that we should support the minority that aren't rather than condemn them all. That there weren't many suppliers was not an argument for not buying for example free range eggs, or fair trade coffee. Perhaps we should start some sort of certification scheme - Responsibly Sourced Nudity, or Safely Harvested Sex but I suspect the main participants might be a little too safe - even for my tastes (we don't want it too wholesome after all do we).
In practice though we are going to have to trust our instincts to spot when the participants are not happy with what's going on or are too young to know better, and to go elsewhere.
And if you're still not happy with that I suspect you are one of those who simply believe that pornography is wrong. In which case I can't help you.
So anyway, where was I? Yay!